AussieCon 4 - Day Two

I was tempted to title this "From Stiletto to Steel Cap - the fashions of AussieCon", although at least one other blogger has already touched on this subject, so perhaps not.

For me today's running sheet started with "To Eternity and Beyond" - about fandom into the future. It touched on a number of themes, like the rising role of female fans in projects such as the Archive of Our Own, how social media can (and does) play a role in fandom and what the potential effects of the National Broadband Network in Australia could bring. Interestingly a panel member was from an ISP, although was quite conservative in his thinking. With my closer links with social media (through work) I could see far more potential for collaboration and increasing the fan to fan and writer to fan dialogue.

The increasing numbers of female fans was also mentioned in the second session I attended - "In conversation: Kim Stanley Robinson and Robert Silverberg". Bob mentioned that the start of the rise in female fans was due primarily to Star Trek. This discussion was truly wide ranging covering Bob and Stan's shared fascination with hoax history, their diametrically opposed political views, and Stan's environmental outlook. Peppered with reminiscences and anecdotes it was a joy for this fan to see two of the greats of the genre talking about what they loved. I noticed Cory Doctorow in the front row, and unfortunately for Cory so did Bob, so there was a bit of banter about word counts and new technology which was quite amusing. On the more serious side, and this ties in with something Cory mentioned in his talk last night, Bob pointed out that the writers in the "Golden Age" were extremely well compensated compared with the present day on a per-word basis.

One thing you learn very quickly when reading Science Fiction is that many of the authors are scientists, mathematicians and engineers. Greg Benford reminded me of this as his talk on "Designer planet: averting climate change with geoengineering" was essentially a rework of talks he has given to people such as DARPA (Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency). Full of technical details of the current state of play of climate science, as well as the expected future outcomes of inaction and the possible actions available it was both intriguing and concerning. He outlined a proposed short term method of carbon sequestration that was far more efficient than other proposals being touted, and far cheaper and more realistic to implement. Basically taking the agricultural waste from the corn industry in the USA and sinking it in the ocean (yes, an over simplification, but it covers the salient points). Unlike its competitors, the technique uses only existing technology that is not beyond the means of even smaller countries, and can be demonstrated to work. Most other methods are either prohibitively expensive or inefficient or they rely on technology yet to be demonstrated as workable.

Greg pointed out that this alone would not save the world, merely take the edge off the problem. His contention is that we also need to come up with ways of stopping the arctic ice from melting and this is where his geoengineering comes into play. By mimicking volcanoes and putting aerosol particles into the stratosphere, it would be possible with a relatively modest budget, and existing technology, to reduce the insolation (amount of solar radiation hitting the surface) to reduce the temperature in the region enough to prevent further ice melts, or indeed to revert back to ice levels of the pre-industrial age. Why is this important? Because under the permafrost there are billions of tons of methane, which is 25 times more effective as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. If this were to release then we wouldn't have a major problem, we would have an immediate catastrophe. The release of this much CH4 would result in the world being virtually uninhabitable by humans in as little as 10 or 20 years. So we have a window of opportunity. Here's hoping that Greg and his colleagues can convince those in power to take notice.

Next on the list was "The future of privacy", a panel with academic and author Jeanette Auer, academic Andrew A. Adams, author Charles Stross, and fan and blogger PRK - who also works in the Internet industry. The main theme of this panel was that data is being collected and collated about you all the time, and with the cost of data capture and storage dropping by the minute, the amount of data being collected can only ever rise. So what of the concept of privacy in an age where your every mouse click leaves behind a data trail? Charlie pointed out that the concept of privacy varies over time with the change in social mores, for example it was virtually nonexistent in the Victorian era where chances were you were either a servant or hired servants. The only way a degree of privacy ensured was by a kind of social contract between the watched and the watchers. Andrew went on to suggest that the problem we have at the moment is that the technology we currently have has grown before the social mores have developed to deal with the implications. The legal system is starting to catch up, though, with Germany enacting laws to outlaw the searching of social media in the hiring process. Jeanette likened this to a band-aid solution, however I see it as part of Andrew's idea of the growth of social mores. Laws, after all, tend to follow societal norms rather than lead them.

One of the concerns brought up about this vast data collection was about the rate of errors and how errors compound over time and with increased data collection. Coupled with this idea was that of using data inappropriately or data that is acquired over time from various sources. An example in the modern era is where companies may be acquired by other companies, and with that comes all the data of the acquired company. A more horrendous example provided was with the use of census data by the Nazis in the 1930s.

After lunch I sat in on "Very short stories: writing and reading flash fiction". Flash fiction is defined as being ultra short fiction typically of less than 1,000 words but quite often even far less. Panelists were Martin Livings, Sarah Parker, Jeff Harris and Amanda Pillar. The main thrust of the panel discussion was that different story lengths require different disciplines and that flash fiction needs to be approached in that light. Examples of 6 word stories were given, with the classic from Hemingway : "For sale: baby shoes, never worn", which led to a discussion on the reader's prior experience and how that may influence how a flash fiction story is read or indeed written.

"From print to pixels: paper comics to web comics" brought together the husband and wife team that brings Girl Genius to the web, Kaja and Phil Foglio, and Schlock Mercenary creator Howard Tayler with fan Faz Meadows for this very interesting discussion on the move from print to web for the graphic story. Howard in truth never wrote print format before embarking on the web, while for Kaja and Phil it was a difficult decision to make the move from print but one they were glad they made. What was interesting for me was some of the resonances with the open source industry. Phil related the story of when a traditional print comic house inquired about their revenue model and Phil told them that for every 100 readers they have on the web, they sell perhaps 3 books. While this was almost unintelligible for the comic house, it made perfect sense to Phil and Kaja, and more sense to me. After all, for MySQL only one in every thousand downloads resulted in a sale. It is this sort of concept that traditional publishing is finding hard to get their heads around. They see it as giving away what you could get money for, rather than what it really is, which is building a readership that will translate into related sales. You are not going to get everyone passing by your website to pay to read online - and you would be mad to try as nobody would bother looking. What you can do though is build a fan base that wants to get closer to you and build a relationship with them that they can get what they want and you can get a living from. The mind shift seems to be impossible for traditional publishing houses, and their attempts at DRM on electronic media is testament to their lack of understanding of this relationship, but really it isn't rocket science.

The last session of the day (at least for me) was "What can mystery teach science fiction", with panelists Don A. Timm, Alastair Reynolds, Peter M. Ball, Jack Bell and a last minute stand in for Sean Williams, whose name embarrassingly escapes me. What came out of this discussion was more what science fiction and mystery have in common, as well as what separates them more than what one can teach the other. Many science fiction authors have also written crime fiction and the reverse is also true. Similarly there are many science fiction stories that have crime story forms. The shared history even goes to the fact that Bouchercon - the world crime fiction/mystery convention was started by science fiction fans in the Los Angeles area. Even so it was an interesting discussion of the implicit contract between the author and the reader and how this is different between the two genres. An example given was that in science fiction strange tech may be introduced early in the story, but the reader is aware that this will be explained in due course in the story. In a detective novel, as given by counter example, there will be a cast of players that may be introduced very early on and only gradually will their role be made clear. One of the main problems explored in bringing crimes into science fiction is to ensure the contract is made clear, and that you don't pull out some technological trickery to solve the crime. Any tech that is relied on for the solution to the crime must be clearly established early on so it doesn't come as a surprise. An example of this came from the floor from the Larry Niven story where teleport was a feature, and the use of it changed the world view enough that the perpetrator was caught because they had forgotten that walking away from the scene of the crime was possible.

Tomorrow looks to be just as jam packed, so stay tuned!

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