Con Report: WorldCon 75 in Helsinki

I recently contributed the following convention report to the Milford Writers’ Conference blog

welcome-to-worldcon1WorldCon 75 was my second time attending the World Science Fiction Convention (the first was in London three years ago) and it was both a terrific con and a wonderful opportunity to explore a fantastic city. Helsinki is a beautiful, hugely walkable place. It’s all trees and parks (make sure to check out Eila Hiltunen’s stunning Sibelius Monument!) and everyone seems to speak perfect English. During the convention itself, I was delighted to be involved in several popular events. I took part in the ‘Science Fiction in University Courses’ panel, which was a fun opportunity to talk about what I do for a living at Aberystwyth University (and a chance to have some great discussions with fellow panelist Helen Marshall from Anglia Ruskin University). I was also part of the ‘Stargate at 20 Years’ panel, during which I had the rare treat of testing out ideas from an academic article in progress on an enthusiastic audience of genuine fans. Finally, I delivered a paper on the convention’s academic track titled ‘The Cause of the Incident was Human Error: Irish Nuclear Anxiety in Eilís Ní Dhuibhne’s The Bray House’ (feedback on this was very positive and I intend expanding it into a full length article in the near future).

Other panels and talks I attended which have really stuck with me included the ‘Resistance’ panel featuring Tiffani Angus, Liz Hand, Kameron Hurley, and others talking about, well, the things that we need to be talking about these days (‘We have a problem with empathy,’ Angus says. ‘One on one we’re good; with family we’re iffy; and then we have the internet…’). I enjoyed the talk by Jenny Knots of NASA’s Public Affair Office (‘Bagpipes were once taken to the space station but… those weren’t very popular’) as well as the contributions of E.G. Cosh to the ‘Visual Language of Comics’ panel (‘The language of comics comprises symbols within the art and what happens on page/how it’s read,’ she says. ‘Accept that you’re going to need to read the page a few times’). Meanwhile, on the ‘Engineering in Science Fiction and Fantasy’ panel, Fran Wilde was the standout participant (‘Engineering is a way for science to interact with the world,’ as she put it. Also, ‘where do all the objects come from in Harry Potter? Where is the Hogwarts School of Engineering?’). There were also interesting, informed panels discussing ‘Hard Science Fiction’ (a ‘state of mind which manifests in various sub-genres,’ says Andrew Barton) and ‘Mighty Space Fleets of War’ (‘In space, shrapnel is forever’). Another highlight in terms of quality and diversity of material was the academic track (really great to see these integrated into conventions more and more these days) which I found to be one of the most successful elements of the whole convention.

There was honestly so much going on that it’s difficult to sum up! We ate reindeer, experienced an exceptional Helsinki thunderstorm (‘Everybody is advised to stay inside between 20:00 and 22:00’), were awed by the ceaseless dance of construction cranes near the convention center (#CraneCon), got to meet Daveed Diggs and Clipping (though unfortunately I could not make their concert as it clashed with my ‘Science Fiction in Universities’ panel), and enjoyed wine and nibbles at a City Hall reception welcoming WorldCon to Finland for the very first time. We attended the Hugo Awards ceremony (shout-out to Ada Palmer’s acceptance speech: ‘There are more kind people in this world than cruel people so never give up on working to what you want in the world’) and, at one point I found myself in a room with an actual astronaut and the director of the Vatican Observatory (‘People must follow the robots!’).

Beyond the convention, a personal Helsinki highlight was the visit I took to the spectacular sea fortress of Suomenlinna, a UNESCO World Heritage Site on a series of islands just a short boat trip from the city’s famous Market Square. I spent a good five or six hours exploring the nooks and crannies of the fortifications, Suomenlinna’s museums (and submarine!), as well the site’s complicated history, but that was hardly long enough time! It was a terrific trip-within-the-trip and a real boon in terms of the ideas it sparked off (I definitely plan on using a version of these islands in future fiction projects). Indeed, getting the chance to see and be inspired by places like Suomenlinna is one of the big advantages of a WorldCon which truly travels the world.

See you all in Dublin in 2019!

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Other posts you may find of interest:

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Thirty More Thoughts about Aberystwyth (After a Year-and-a-Half!)

december-3rd-2016

I’ve been in Aberystwyth for almost a year and a half now (!) and it continues to be a fantastic place to live and work. Also continues to be an endlessly fascinating experience so I have, as with last year, been collecting observations and reflections on my time here…

  • Bumble Bees Love Aber!
  • The overlook in Penglais Park offers arguably the best view of Aberystwyth. Even better than Consti.
  • On that note, I’m ashamed to admit how long it took me to realise everyone called Constitution Hill “Consti”. But now I can’t stop!
  • Come spring, the bluebells transform the forest in Penglais Park into a kind of magical fantasy landscape. This is reinforced by the fact that you occasionally run into people wearing medieval garb there…
  • The Old College on the seafront is stunning. That this was true of the outside was apparent to me from my first few days in Aber, but by now I’ve had a chance to poke around the interior a bit and have found it to be one part romantic Victorian hotel, one part labyrinthine castle (think Doctor Who’s ‘Heaven Sent’), and one part Hogwarts. Indeed, as my colleague Beth Rodgers discovered, it used to be the haunt of one Professor Snape who taught Po… erm… Chemistry.
  • If there is one business to be in here in Aberystwyth it is doubtlessly scaffolding (looking at you, storms!).
  • That wasn’t a tornado or a hurricane that hit Aberystwyth back in November, I’m told it was a “straight line wind event”.
  • Abergustwyth
  • Abergeddon
  • Aberpreneurs
  • Abercadabra
  • Aber Daber Do
  • Walk the Prom early enough on an autumn morning and you’ll be treated to the starlings departing from their roosts beneath the pier. They look like spacecraft leaving a mothership and it’s spectacular.
  • This is my current favourite graffiti in Aberystwyth: 20160918_145728.jpg
  • Speaking of graffiti, who or what is “Pigfart”? Sometimes I ask people that and they look at me funny. But the word is scrawled on walls and footpaths (mostly but not exclusively on the south side of town). Is it a name? Is it a phrase? I’ll tell you what it is: it’s a mystery! Someone please stop me going full red-threads-across-a-board-covered-in-maps-and-photos about this (Update: I’ve been told that this is a reference to A Very Potter Musical).
  • Aberystwyth has an unexpected historical relationship with a Japanese town called Yosano. A local man named Frank Evans was a Japanese P.O.W. there during World War II (I recommend reading his 1985 volume Roll Call at Oeyama: A POW Remembers). In coming to terms with his experience, and in the hopes of promoting friendship between West and East, he eventually forged links between Wales and Japan. Young people from Yosano have been visiting Aberystwyth for many years but January 2016 was the first time Aberystwyth University sent student ambassadors to Japan. I had the opportunity to lead this group as the staff representative and it was an exceptional experience for all involved. Yosano is a beautiful place fully of friendly, generous people (and wow but the food is amazing!). The enthusiasm of our hosts for the relationship between the towns was undeniable and I am delighted that I will be leading a second group of students back there in a few weeks’ time (though this year I have sources my own indoor slippers to bring with me as, to the amusement of our hosts, none of the local slippers came anywhere close to fitting me!)
  • It took me a long time to get around to visiting the Ceredigion Museum in Aberystwyth but that was an oversight I recently corrected. Housed in a restored Edwardian Theatre, and full of (among other things) stunning paintings of old nautical scenes and landscapes, it ought to be an essential stop for anyone passing through the area.
  • When I lived in Galway I used to see big ships all the time. Less so in Aber (I hear the shallowness of Cardigan Bay is to blame). In the year and a half I’ve been here I’ve only seen two sizable craft on the horizon: the vehicle carrier California Highway back in September 2015 and the Royal Navy destroyer HMS Richmond in early December of this year. In the latter case I had just given a ‘Writing and Place’ class about the sea, including a segment on this-is-why-we-rarely-see-big-ships-near-Aberystwyth, and then I walked straight across the hall to my office to see the Richmond staring back at me.
  • Last summer my colleague Malte Urban took me out onto Cardigan Bay on his boat (a trip from Aberystwyth to Pwllheli). Felt like a proper adventure! I was struck by just how busy the Bay is with fishing boats and pleasure craft (it is one thing seeing the little arrows on the Marine Traffic app; quite another to see the variety of boats plying the waves in real life). A highlight was definitely seeing the ‘Patches’ buoy, a navigational marker the size of a bus turned on end, as well as gaining a whole new perspective on the coast and mountains of mid-Wales.
  • I have an amazing view over the Irish Sea from my office… but I’ve also got the campus’s Llandinam tower right in the middle of it! It’s sometimes fun to (digitally) imagine what it might look if the tower was a few floors lower: Skyline.jpg
  • Every winter the beach in Aberystwyth migrates onto the Promenade. And, because it’s such a Sisyphean task to clear it during storm season, the sand is… just left there, and paths are cleared through it for pedestrians. It lends a surreal atmosphere to walking the Prom. Almost as though one is strolling through the trenches.
  • Speaking of, Aberystwyth used to have a tank! The site is now a playground.
  • I never cease to be amused by the incredulity of the recorded voice on the Arriva train en route to Aber: “We will shortly be arriving at… Shrewsbury?”
  • A student writing a comicbook recently asked to base the character of a wizard on me. No word on if it’s a good wizard or a bad one…
  • Meanwhile, numerous final year Writing Project supervisions over the last term have gone as follows: Student voices concern that their dystopian Britain story will be clichéd; Tutor voices concern that it will actually be a non-fiction project (then notes that they’re at least paying attention to the world around them).
  • This:
    flowcharts
  • The Promenade is lined with flags from countries and regions all around the world. It’s a nice nod to the spirit of Internationalisation that exists in this small Welsh town (Aberystwyth voted Remain in the Brexit referendum). Plus it really simplifies making arrangements to meet people: “See you by Norway at noon?”
  • You think you’re at the top of the hill but you’re not. Stop fooling yourself. There is always more uphill in Wales.
  • A sign that you live in a very small town: wandering around the new Tesco with a silly grin thinking, “Ooh, they have… stuff!”
  • Finally, I have been continuing the “Walk to Mordor” which I began last year (that is charting my distances walked – though only those walked in Wales – against the distances Fordo and Sam travel in The Lord of the Rings). In my first term in 2015 I had reached Rivendell (737 km). By the end of the first week of May 2016 I had travelled through Moria, to Lothlorien (an additional 743.5km) and by the start of October I was at Rauros Falls (another 626km). I am now well on my way to Mt. Doom having walked 489km of the remaining 756km. A little under 270km to go! That seems… manageable, right? (All distances via Nerd Fitness).

So here we go with 2017! I’ll let you know when it’s time to send the Eagles…

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Other posts you may find of interest:

Deleted Notes from a Coma

 

Earlier this month I was notes-from-a-comadelighted to contribute an article to the Irish Times about Mike McCormack’s 2005 novel Notes from a Coma (the story of JJ O’Malley, a troubled young man who volunteers for an experiment in the use of deep coma within the EU penal system).

As with any piece of writing, I am left with a handful of notes and observations that didn’t make the final cut (mostly because they didn’t fit with the direction the piece went in or they exceeded the word count; in one or two cases because they’re nothing more than asides). But I thought it might be fun to share the excised bits and some of the thinking behind them here as a kind of addendum to the article itself …

  • I made an effort to structure the piece as a reflection of the novel, with JJ O’Malley at the literal centre of things. Though that didn’t quite work out! Thus my discussion of how JJ lies at the centre of the book’s singularity is a little more than halfway through the article.
  • The sense of JJ O’Malley as a Jesus figure is compounded by his adopted father and virgin mother… of sorts (the latter being the Romanian nun who runs the orphanage where he lives as an infant).
  • The five narrating characters essentially offer five gospels of JJ O’Malley.
  • On the “contingent riffs” (what people have mistaken for footnotes) which form the broken boundary of McCormack’s effort to inscribe JJ’s story as widely as possible: It is surely no accident that “riffs” (the author’s term) contains a phonetic echo of “rifts”, and so suggests tears in narrative integrity.
  • One striking comment about three-quarters of the way through the novel describes how “fiction and history are put through narrative loops beyond all unravelling”. It serves as a nod to the Irish experimental fiction tradition – which Notes from a Coma is consciously situated in relation to – and, just maybe, specifically to a work like Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.
  • The participants in the novel’s coma remind me of another group of sleepers wired up to machinery aboard a ship (and in their case receiving literal messages from the future): the subjects of Galania’s Exordium experiment in the Revelation Space series by Alastair Reynolds.
  • McCormack’s Louisburgh is an important and increasingly storied part of his fictionalised Mayo topography (look no further than the recent Solar Bones). Given time it could yet become an Irish analogue to something like Stephen King’s Castle Rock.
  • One of the key themes of the novel is the struggle to resolve the spiritual with the scientific: the question of self-definition against “the technological phenomena of image and information dispersal”. Hence the novel’s obsession with ghosts as much as with digitality.
  • Note the book’s original cover (pictured above): A child – “the type of face new Ireland doesn’t wonder at anymore” – considering their own reflection. Or, just maybe, his own ghost…

Notes from a Coma will be republished by Canongate next year as part of their Canongate Classics series.

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Other posts you may find of interest:

Con Report: Mancunicon 2016

Manchnicon BeeI’m just back from Mancunicon, the 2016 British national science fiction convention (or EasterCon) in Manchester. It was a busy EasterCon for me. I participated in three panels over the first three days (though I know some people were on up to five!) and got to spend time with many good friends from across these islands and beyond whom I only see once or twice a year. That is the best part of any convention. It always is. Of course, the second best part is listening to and meeting writers and critics and fans who make you want to raise your game in everything that you do, and Mancunicon also provided its fair share of that.

On the first afternoon of the Con I joined my Clarion classmate Tiffani Angus, along with novelists Matthew De Abaitua and Tom Toner, for ‘Transcending the Genre and Other Polite Insults’ moderated by Kate Wood. This panel explored (as several of the weekend’s panels did) the boundaries between literary and speculative writing. It did so by asking questions about setting, character, reader expectations, and marketing. I’m disappointed we didn’t get to discuss the role of prose style a bit more (or get to the ‘insults’, which I figured was the reason I was on the panel!) but, overall, it was an enjoyable hour poking at a subject which could (and occasionally does, though in more academic contexts) have many days dedicated to it.

On Saturday I participated in ‘Adapting as a Creator from One Medium to Another’ with Chaz Brenchley, Guest of Honour Sarah Pinborough, and Gavin Smith (ably chaired by Emmeline Pui Ling Dobson). We bounced off a lot of topics here (video game tie-ins, television, and films, to mention a few). This panel might be the only time I ever get to talk about both Ted Hughes and comic books during a single event (though, honestly, I should probably have spoken more about my work on Neil Jordan; and it would have been nice to have delved into unconventional narrative forms such as Twitter fiction and so on, but hey!). That said, I think the main value for the audience was the insight – especially from Pinborough – into the world(s) of screenwriting.

Finally then, on the Sunday, I moderated the ‘Supporting the Short Stuff’ discussion with Ruth EJ Booth, EG Cosh, Matthew Hughes, and Juliet Kemp. These panellists brought a wide range of experience and insights (including writing for fiction magazines, websites, journalism, and anthologies) to the challenges presented by the contemporary short story landscape. The panel covered a lot of ground, everything from diversity to market realities to the intersection of both. Or, as Cosh put it, ‘crowdfunding isn’t about selling stories, it’s about selling a relationship, a community’. And if there was a theme of sorts that snaked in and out of various Mancunicon events, it was exactly that: Community.

Case in point was a performance of the post-apocalyptic play North Country by Taj Hayer. If you know Taj then you know that, in person, he loves puns, but North Country is a serious, provocative look at the notion of community after the end of the world. It refutes the whitewashed nature of so much post-apocalyptic writing and instead embraces the complexities (dramatic and otherwise) offered by a multi-ethnic cast of characters. It is a beautifully imagined and carefully constructed piece of work. The conclusion genuinely moved me.

Also top notch was Ian McDonald’s Guest of Honour interview (which saw his recent novel Luna: New Moon described as ‘Game of Domes’ or ‘Dallas on the Moon’). The self-deprecating and quietly knowledgeable Peadar Ó Guilín was the perfect interviewer for McDonald, and their hour on stage together passed all too quickly. In a similar vein, the great Kari ‘I can’t not be political’ Sperring was the ideal host for Aliette de Bodard’s GOH interview, which offered an engaging and personal look at blended cultures and the manner in which gender roles vary from society to society. As de Bodard said, ‘not having equal rights is not the same as having no agency whatsoever. It does not mean you have no story, or no power to affect your story.’ She also told the audience how she did her engineering degree at a military school and she still remembers how to strip down and reassemble an assault rifle. (She further appeared genuinely surprised by her well-deserved  – and unprecedented? – twin BSFA Award wins.)

Meanwhile, on the panel side of things, I was particularly impressed by ‘Menstruation, Contraception, and Reproduction in the Apocalypse’ and ‘Place, Identity, Story’ which both delved into their subject matter with intelligence and verve (the ‘Menstruation, Contraception, and Reproduction’ panel was particularly strong in this regard with all five participants holding PhDs).

Indeed the only real negative at Mancunicon was that this was the first (and hopefully the last) time I had to raise someone’s behaviour to a convention’s organisers. My friends and I repeatedly encountered an individual both predatory and systematic in their application of that behaviour. It was unpleasant for all concerned however I am pleased that the convention organisers dealt with the issue promptly and we had no interaction with said individual after the intervention of Ops.

But, as I say, Mancunicon on the whole was a success story. Some quotes from the weekend:

  • ‘It’s Twitter. No one is listening. Everyone is shouting’ – Sarah Pinborough
  • ‘To an early Irish king, space is a social web; to a Viking it is an economic opportunity; to a Norman it is power” – Kari Sperring
  • ‘I’m Dickens at heart really… but with better sex’ – Ian McDonald
  • ‘A twist must be plausible as well as being something the reader didn’t see coming’ – Charlie Stross
  • ‘For me Feminism is equality. It’s diversity. It’s being able to choose the life you wish to have’ – @hiddeninabook
  • ‘If the apocalypse kicks off, run into Harrods… They have underground bunkers the War Rooms would be proud of’ – Russell Smith
  • ‘The best writing about sex and food is about what’s happening in the character’s head’ – Doug S
  • ‘Writing about Ireland almost cost me my career…!’ – Ian McDonald
  • What to cut from writing ‘depends on what you want to accomplish in that scene’ – Russell Smith
  • ‘Exploration of the outsider is at the core of both crime fiction and science fiction’ – Guy Haley

Lastly, some stray observations:

  • EG Cosh has assembled a list of some the great fiction which was recommended during her panels at Mancunicon. You can find it here.
  • Participants who particularly impressed me included Matthew De Abaitua, Kari Sperring, Ruth EJ Booth, Russell Smith, Sarah Pinborough, Niall Harrison, and Nina Allen. Some of those always impress me; some of those were people I heard speak for the first time.
  • The BSFA awards, in their unpretentiousness, were an appropriate and charming celebration of fan culture.
  • After a few days of queuing for the elevators one begins to feel a touch of High Rise setting in…
  • As is the way of cons, there were a lot of panels which clashed with the ones was on. I would have liked to have attended the Book Reviewing panel and the Guest of Honour interview with fourth GOH Dave Clements (who launched his short story collection Disturbed Universes, along with a selection of other volumes from NewCon Press, at the Con. I’m looking forward to diving into that). So thank you to the people who Tweeted from those events.
  • Dimitri’s Tapas and Mezes restaurant in Manchester is wonderful! And great value! Highly recommended.
  • #PeopleBeforePanels

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Other posts which may be of interest:

Looking Back to Back to the Future Day…

BttF Clock

October 21st, 2015. The day Emmett “Doc” Brown and Marty McFly arrive in the future from 1985. Except now that is a month ago and the future they encounter(ed) – already an alternate timeline to us – has itself become history. Or at least historical fiction. It has got me thinking over the last few weeks about the franchise and about the life which stories like Back to the Future enjoy once their imagined future becomes out past. Because they endure in a way which I’m sure their creators could never have expected. Fans continue to cosplay as the characters. The original script – as structurally perfect a piece of screenwriting as you are every likely to find – is taught in film schools. Meanwhile the movies themselves return to the cinema again and again, delighting new audiences and new generations in ways which could never have been imagined thirty years ago.

As my friend Tiffani Angus said on Facebook last month, “How amazingly cool is it that Back to the Future, a movie franchise that didn’t win a best movie Oscar or a Golden Globe or anything huge like that, is so much a part of our lives – among the geeks and non-geeks – that we celebrate it for a whole day? And that we use this platform to do so, with people we likely didn’t even watch the movie with in the first place?”

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I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet. But your kids are gonna love it.

My first memory of the Back to the Future franchise was sometime in the very early 1990s. It was a Sunday and my father had brought me with him on a visit to a friend of his in the village where he had grown up (which is how I know it was a Sunday; that was always the day we paid a visit to that side of the county). I recall how the family we were visiting were watching Back to the Future II and we arrived during the dystopian, alternate-1985 part of the film. I wasn’t even ten years old at that point and I had no idea what was going on, no context for either the film itself or the franchise. A tank? What? Who is this guy with the bad hair?

I didn’t get it. I didn’t even like it (I wasn’t there long enough to see anything other than the stretch between the lawless Hill Valley sequences and the scenes in Biff’s Casino). But now, of course, Back to the Future II is easily my favourite film of the trilogy; one of my favourite films full stop, if I’m to be honest about it, and my own personal benchmark for entertaining time travel shenanigans.

It’s amazing the difference which a flying DeLorean will make.

***

Last night, Darth Vader came down from Planet Vulcan and told me that if I didn’t take Lorraine out, that he’d melt my brain.”

Maybe it’s appropriate that my first exposure to a real time travel story was out of narrative order. It wasn’t until years later that I saw the original Back to the Future which – as mentioned – is one of the finest screenplays of all time (indeed, for me, the only film of the last thirty years which rivals it is 2007’s Hot Fuzz). I’ve seen it many, many times by now. I love it; not as much as I love Part II, mind (!), but it is definitive, isn’t it? For a whole generation, the original Back to the Future is how time travel works: you can drive your car down the street from one decade to another (which is to say the films don’t really address the spatial element of time travel); if you alter the past you risk slowly dissipating from reality; and, of course, pop culture is an inescapable aspect of life no matter the time period.

That said, I was on a time travel panel at Octocon in Dublin about six weeks ago and somehow – in retrospect this seems unforgivable! – I don’t think we ever mentioned Back to the Future. I corrected that yesterday when a Creative Writing class about narrative time became a group discussion about time travel (“technically relevant”, as one of the students put it!), about the challenges of telling such stories, and about the head-wrecking loops and possibilities which they present to a writer. We ended up talking about the effect of thinking too much about time travel might have on a person and I invoked the physicist David Deutsch, a “cloistered genius” whose home, according to one New Yorker profile, is:

“..Cluttered with old phone books, cardboard boxes, and piles of papers […] Taped onto the walls of Deutsch’s living room were a map of the world, a periodic table, a hand-drawn cartoon of Karl Popper, a poster of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, a taxonomy of animals, a taxonomy of the characters in The Simpsons, colour printouts of pictures of McCain and Obama, with handwritten labels reading ‘this one’ and ‘that one,’ […] There were also old VHS tapes, an unused fireplace, [and] a stationary exercise bike…”

Certainly the similarities between Deutsch’s home and that of Doc Brown were not lost on the students.

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I cautioned you about disrupting the continuum for your own personal benefit.

Nowadays the only thing I don’t like about BTTF II it is the trailer for Part III tagged on rather inelegantly to the final moments of it. Any time I am rewatching it, I make a point of stopping the film before that rolls because, for me at least, the trailer ruins one of my favourite film endings of all time.

That’s my way of admitting that I’ve never enjoyed Back to the Future III as much as the other two (I don’t even think I enjoy the western version of the BTTF theme music!). I suspect that it is because it never feels as urgent or as connected to the character of Marty as parts I and II. Structurally (and, again, this was something we spoke about in class yesterday) it fails to interlock with what came before in as satisfying a fashion as Part II does. Because while it has some fun moments for sure (the photograph with the clock, in particular), and no doubt many people rank it highly, for me it feels thematically disconnected from the universe of the first two films.

Maybe it is heresy to say (!), but I think this is because Doc is the protagonist here rather than Marty. Think of the diagram on the chalkboard in Part II and the symmetry of the 30 year-long jumps back and forwards from the 1980s in the first two films, jumps which allow Marty to explore the lives of his parents and his children in turn. Parts I and II feel like a complete unit which mirrors and interrogates its own best elements in interesting fashion throughout. There were reasons for those stories which informed and developed the characters (especially the character of Marty for, as much as Doc makes the storylines possible, Back to the Future is Marty’s story). By contrast, Part III’s visit to the Old West often feels like it exists because, hey, westerns are a thing, right? To me it has always felt forced; it feels like a generic time travel story and not a Back to the Future story.

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The way I see it, if you’re gonna build a time machine into a car, why not do it with some style?

In the week leading up to Back to the Future Day I had (speaking of twenty-first century platforms unimagined by BTTF II) a twitter discussion with @NIBunker. It grew out of a joke I made about the disposal at sea of material from the DeLorean factory outside Belfast (“What if all those DeLorean chassis rusting at the bottom of the Irish Sea are really failed time travel attempts…?”). @NIBunker clarified for me that “they are actually the moulds used to stamp the doors and body panels”. As they explained: “I was part of a group of DeLorean owners who tried to buy them back in 2003. We had a full survey done by a dive team. Sadly they had become too eroded to ever be used again which was our original intention. They are still down there”.

@NIBunker was also kind enough to share some photos related to this. The first shows a scene from the original dumping of the gullwing mould dies, the second – haunting and beautiful – shows what the same die looks like today.

While it is sad to see what is left of the DeLorean dream reduced to just “expensive lobster pot weights”, at least the car lives on in our imaginations, and this in no small part on account of Back to the Future. For outside of the DeLorean owners’ community, the first things most people think of when one mentions the car are Marty, Doc, and their adventures. And this despite the fact that the DeLorean Motor Company was itself history before the first film was even made. Testament, maybe, to the fact that, while one can always try to predict the future, one never knows what is going to be important to it?

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Other posts you may find of interest:

Post-Interstellar Science Fiction Reading

Interstellar's Bookshelf

The Bookshelf which plays such an important role in Interstellar

Electric Literature recently ran an article titled ‘Science Fiction novels to help with your Interstellar hangover’. It’s a fine list, you should read it, and I definitely agree with the majority of their choices. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle? Yes, absolutely. Carl Sagan’s Contact? Uh-hu! Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey? Of course! The wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimeyness of Joe Haldeman and Kurt Vonnegut? Yep, yep, yep!

But that being as it may, I felt that the list could have benefited from some slightly deeper cuts…

To that end here are some further texts for when you have exhausted Electric Literature’s selection. Note: This post contains what some may deem SPOILERS for Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, as well as some minor spoilers for the books in question, but I have tried to keep both to a minimum.

Absolution Gap by Alastair Reynolds 

Let’s get the big one out of the way first. There were times during Interstellar when I felt like I was watching a very loose adaptation of Absolution Gap. I’d be remiss, of course, if I didn’t point out that this 2003 novel is the third part of a trilogy of sorts (one which began with 2000’s Revelation Space and continued with 2002’s Redemption Ark) and is best enjoyed as part of that sequence. All three present ideas with which you will be familiar if you’ve just seen Interstellar (for instance, the effects of time dilation and the rules of relativity play a huge part in how Reynolds constructs his narratives) but in Absolution Gap the author goes further, exploring the concept of gravitational signalling which is so important in Interstellar (and, arguably, does so in a more satisfying fashion than the film’s final act).

Reynolds, who used to work for the European Space Agency, certainly knows his science, yet the similarities between Interstellar and Absolution Gap go beyond an interest in the accurate depiction of physics. Destructive tsunamis? Check. Frozen planets? Check. Children who grow up to be genius saviours? Check. Mysterious beings which may or may not be key to the survival of a human race on the verge of extinction? Yes, you guessed it: Check. And, as in the film, the identity of those beings is one of the novel’s great mysteries; are they advanced aliens or are they perhaps humanity’s own future selves? The clincher, however, is the degree to which love is shown here to be something capable of transcending time and space. In Absolution Gap, love propels characters from star system to star system as much as their desperation to save humanity does, an appreciation of it keeps fingers off of triggers at key moments, and it forges bonds which surpass mere human lifetimes.

‘Schwarzschild Radius’ by Connie Willis

I first read this story in James Patrick Kelly and John Kessel’s quite brilliant anthology The Secret History of Science Fiction (2009), but it was originally published in 1987. Like the Alan Lightman book below, Willis here fictionalises a real life scientist, in this case Karl Schwarzschild who calculated the first accurate solutions to the equations of general relativity. The events of the story are told by a soldier who has intercepted a letter from Einstein to Schwarzschild during World War I, at which time the astronomer was serving with the German Army (and using his knowledge to solve ballistics problems). Willis deliberately muddles time periods and tenses in the story, playing with some beautiful and striking metaphors derived from the mathematical ideas Schwarzschild himself was working on at the time. Though perhaps nothing connects it thematically to Interstellar more than the Willis quote (sourced from an Infinity Plus interview, I believe) with which Kelly and Kessel preface the story in their anthology: ‘The real appeal of the past is that it’s the true forbidden country. Even when you write stories about the Outer Magellanic Cloud or the star pillars in Orion, there’s a chance that we can go there, we know we’ll get to the future eventually, one way or another, but the past you can never go to, not even to correct your mistakes. It’s the place you can’t ever go home to, even to take one last longing look, and yet it’s always with us, every moment.’

‘Schwarzschild Radius’ shows society to be as capable of catastrophic collapse as any star; war to be as all-consuming as any black hole. It’s a magnificent story (devastating in its own way, though that term is thrown around far too freely these days) and, whether or not you pick it up in The Secret History of Science Fiction or in Willis’s own collection Impossible Things (containing further Interstellar appropriate tales of environmental collapse), I highly recommend you give it a read.

Ark by Stephen Baxter

This 2009 novel depicts the journey of a group of survivors (in this case a generational crew) dispatched from an environmentally ruined Earth by NASA remnants working in secret on a last chance mission to set up a colony on a new world. Sound familiar? Yes, there’s a lot here which Interstellar riffs on, which I suppose isn’t surprising given our treatment of the planet. The novel is a sequel to Baxter’s Flood from the year before, a book with an unrelentingly realistic depiction of environmental collapse and rising sea levels. However unlike the Reynolds book above, Ark can definitely be read as a stand-alone novel.

Where Flood was a genuinely frightening tale of environmental collapse, Ark excels as one of the most depressing depictions of spaceflight which I’ve ever read, with the characters spending decades trapped in what is essentially a tin can. Perhaps not the most ringing endorsement, but Baxter accomplishes this bleakness with great skill (it’s really a terrific novel!), and it does speak to the hopelessness frequently apparent in Interstellar. The characters in Ark know they are humanity’s last hope and yet they are too often unable to overcome their own petty desires and disputes. They keep secrets. They lie. They come to blows (and often much more violent exchanges). Like Interstellar too, the novel splits its narrative between the space mission and humanity’s ongoing, losing battle for survival on Earth. It’s a grim book, yes, often quite sad but also often thrilling.

Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman

Is it a novel or is it a carefully structured collection of short stories? Like Interstellar, this book never quite decides what it wants to be (though it is typically understood to be, and marketed as, a novel), but let that not be an impediment to your enjoyment. Similar to Reynolds in his former career, Lightman is a scientist as well as a writer. His research has focused on areas very relevant to the plot of Interstellar such as relativistic gravitation theory and the development of accretion disks around black holes. Yet this short volume takes an altogether more imaginative approach to such professional interests.

The book presents the reader with a fictionalized Albert Einstein, a young scientist working on his theory of relativity in 1905. Each chapter details a dream which Einstein has during this period and each involves a different conception of time: time as a circle (hello, True Detective fans), time as a flow of water, time passing more slowly the farther one is from the centre of the Earth, people living just one day but that day being an eternity, time as a line which terminates at the present, and so on. It’s a rather wonderful conceit and, through it, Lightman (what a brilliant name for a physicist!) explores exaggerations of real science related to relativity as well as phenomena which are entirely fantastical in nature. Much like Interstellar, Einstein’s Dreams concerns itself with the relationship of human beings to time and to the physical laws underpinning the universe. It’s a wonderful read and, for all its physics, probably the most mainstream of the texts on this list.

The Algebraist by Iain M Banks

In contrast to Lightman’s volume, The Algebraist is the closest book here to the traditional conception of Space Opera. Banks may not have been as scientifically rigorous as, say, Reynolds, but he could write hugely entertaining widescreen Science Fiction like few others. This 2004 novel is about the search for the coordinates of a series of hidden wormholes which can provide instantaneous travel across the galaxy. Its hero Fassin Taak spends the novel searching not just for this list but also for the mathematics needed to unlock the precise location of the wormhole portals. Until he does so, his solar system is cut off from the rest of the Galaxy.

As a stand-alone novel, The Algebraist is a good taster for those who haven’t read Banks’s SF work or who might be wary of committing to his Culture series (though, with one or two exceptions, those books can be read in any order). The novel displays a time-sensitive thirst for knowledge which will strike a chord with anyone who has seen Interstellar but, in the same way the film undercuts the dourness of its characters with the comedy stylings of robots TARS and CASE, the serious nature of Taak’s mission in The Algebraist (aggressive marauders are bearing down on his home system) is frequently derailed by the absurdities of the Dwellers, the long-lived alien race which resides inside the novel’s gas giant. They are ridiculous but incredibly knowledgeable creatures, and a lot of fun to read about. Indeed, the “sailing race” enjoyed by these aliens in the middle of the story is an absolute highlight and worth the cost of the book alone.

Honourable mentions

It’s not a Science Fiction novel, but I want to at least nod towards John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939) considering that the first act of Interstellar is basically a dustbowl story.

The real honourable mention, however, relates to the space habitat at the very end of the film, a station which clearly draws on so-called O’Neill Cylinders. If you want to learn more about this idea then you could do worse than go direct to the source and read The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space by Gerard K. O’Neill.

Yes, it’s a bit dated (it was published in 1976 after all) but it remains an engaging overview of how such massive space colonies could actually be constructed and how they might function. Moreover, much of it is written in a voice which could easily be that of Matthew McConaughey’s character in Interstellar. Just opening it to a random page, I find: “Our Earth is rich in plants and animals, but as industry and human population crowd environments it is not as rich as once it was…” More than a touch of McConaughey’s ‘This planet is a treasure but it’s been telling us to leave for a while now’ in that.

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Nine Takeaways from Nine Worlds 2014

Nine WorldsI’m a little late to the party with this, but the month since the Nine Worlds convention has been very busy for me (the Science Fiction Criticism Masterclass in Greenwich, the 2014 WorldCon – that being LonCon3 – as well as Shamrockon – this year’s European Science Fiction Convention – in Dublin… and that’s all before the start of the new term here at university).

That being said, the month has allowed me the time to digest the incredibly fun and inclusive Nine Worlds experience, and here are the things which I have found myself returning to again and again:

1.) If you ever get the chance to attend a talk by Nick Harkaway (The Blind Giant: Being Human in a Digital World) then do! “The side-lining of science fiction in literary fields is the cultural establishment trying to make a claim about what is meaningful. It is collapsing now. Our world is waterfalling into theirs.” Later he added: “‘It sounds like science fiction but…’ is media code for ‘This is actually happening but you can ignore it’.”

2.) The area around Heathrow is like something out of a JG Ballard novel. A seemingly endless wasteland of concrete and tarmacadam filled with hotels and car parks. The distant, eerie pillar of light from the Spectra World War One memorial in the centre of London only added to this sense of unreality. On the other hand, regular busses within the Heathrow zone are free. So seek them out and don’t fall into the trap of the ridiculously expensive Hotel Hoppa service #ProTip.

3.) Non-hierarchical competition is fun for everyone! The Awesome Cosplay tokens were a delight. They promoted interaction, they rewarded effort, and they were sorely missed the next weekend at LonCon3.

4.) Lauren Beukes (Zoo City, The Shining Girl) has some things to say about the here and now: “There is a class divide over who is allowed to have privacy. Transparency is only for the masses.” We should all listen to her.

5.) A Deadpool cosplayer asking questions about torture and murder during the Likable Bad Guys panel. This is all.

6.) The integration of “academic” material into Nine Worlds was accomplished in a very satisfying manner. Not via traditional conference panels (though this worked very well at Loncon3) but through lectures, many of them as part of the Scepticism track. The one which stands out to me the most was the talk on the Psychology of Alien Contact (as in the psychology of those claiming such experiences) by Prof. Chris French. Informative, entertaining, and attended by one of the best Xenomorph cosplayers I’ve ever seen.

7.) You know you’ve come to the right place when you see a sign in a hallway pointing one way and saying “This way to All of the Books” and, pointing the other way, “This way to Creative Writing”.

8.) There were some minor venue issues (ranging from the con hotel clearly not having enough staff on to moments of “Here I am, happily walking down a ramp WHERETHEHELLDIDTHATSTEPCOMEFROM?!”) but, of course, none of these were a reflection on the con organizers or the spirit of Nine Worlds. In fact, complaining about the occasional issues with the hotel really brought us all closer together.

9.) Passes for next year’s Nine Worlds (August 2015) are available now. I recommend you investigate.

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