Sunday, September 12, 2010

WorldCon 2010 : Far future: Where fantasy meets SF

I must stress, these notes were typing up in real-time, while the panel was happening, so if I've misquoted someone, I'm terribly sorry.  I'll come back at the end of next week and fix up all the typos and whatnot, but, in the meantime, please enjoy these carefully-recorded hour-shortened summaries.  I've tried to maintain some of the personality of each of the panellists so, again, please forgive any idiosyncrasies, and if I've recorded any references to books, films, short stories, people or games incorrectly, that is entirely my fault, not the fault of the panellist I'm quoting.

Here's the blurb for "Where Fantasy Meets SF" : 
"Clarke’s Law famously states that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. When writing about the distant future, where do we draw this distinction? Can we? And, perhaps most importantly, should we?
Rani Graff, Bob Kuhn, Alastair Reynolds"

Also attending were Gerald D. Nordley and Matthew Hughes.

[The panel began with a debate about how any sufficiently advanced technology can be mistaken for magic]

G: In terms of writing about what advanced technology can do, there are physical limits.  I think we know a number of these already, and they’re still going to be there a billion years from now, so I don’t look for advanced technology to do things like violate the conservation laws or go faster than light, but I think pretty much anything people want to do badly enough, they’ll find some technological way of doing it as long as it’s within the physical limits.

B: What I wanted to get onto now are the technologies we have posited, I mean you writers have posited, that are really unusual.

G: In a story of mine that was called The Touch, I posited a couple who have transformed themselves into clouds of nano cells.  These nano cells could form themselves into super loops and be shot into space, they can look indistinguishable from us, fit in on any alien world, and I don’t want to give away too much, but I end up doing some very remarkable things.  The point of it, though, is what I just said, if you want to do something badly enough and it’s within physical limits, there’s probably a way.  The story itself was about contacting a civilization in danger that was about as advanced as the medieval stage ,but that was about as far as I would go.

R: I like to think about the Chariot books by Stephen Proost, and these are hailed as fantasy, but every magical things that happens is fundamentally crucial to the building of the world, and since that world is based on magic, just as ours is based on magic, and they treat magic as we treat technology, so for me this is one of the best examples of civilization over culture that may prove Clare’s law.

B: So the distinction between science and magic, in the past, I mean Isaac Newton was an alchemist, back when alchemy was a science, even if we don’t think so now.

M: I’m going to cheat.  Based on the fact that up until the 16th century alchemy worked just fine, and then it didn’t, and I have a series of novels, along the lines of Sherlock Holmes written by Angus Hamps and P.G. Wodehouse, and he’s the only rational character in this civilization, and he discovers that occasionally the rules o the universe change from logic to something more sympathetic, the poles of the Earth reverse, and people start to believe in things like magic.  In the future, all of the questions will be answered, so what do you do with your time?  People make up philosophies, cults, strange ways of dealing with each other to make sure we want to keep getting up in the morning.

B: Alistair, you constrain your characters to the speed of light.

A: Well, sometimes, mostly it’s what was said before that the rules of physics will never be broken, and if it is, then it’s extremely advanced technology that we can’t even imagine.  In one of my books, the laws of thermodynamics are broken, this machine goes haywire and starts cooling the entire planet, but it’s crackers, it would never work.  There was another book I wrote that was 6 million years I the future, and so I decided to throw in every bit of sci-fi furniture, such as stasis fields and flying cars, and I explained none of it, because these characters no more care about how these things work than we care about  how a plane gets us from Sydney to Melbourne.

G: Well, explaining technology away will not get you a lot of letters.  I have to tell you about this one.  I collaborated on a story with someone about making a black hole, where they were speeding these iron rods up to 86% of the speed of light, and had all the science in it, and I ended up getting this one letter about the Scottish character in my book who has a cup of Earl Grey tea, and puts cream in it, which apparently no self-respecting Englishman would do. (Laughter)

A: I’ll go back to my hotel and do just that, then you can refute him. (Laughter)

M: A lot of the characters I do are interested in their social aspects relevant to others, which I find a lot of people are interested in, and it’s more about where do I stand and who are we gossiping about?  I think that’s one of the things that used to happen when we sat around the campfire with only a few words, and all the way to the burning out of the sun, one thing I think people will still be doing is gossiping.  I wrote a book a long time ago, like a Jack Vance an age before the world ends, and I don’t care about the science, I mean, it just works.

R: As a publisher of a small press, I love my science fiction and fantasy, and it doesn’t matter what’s happening, but it’s the characters that are interesting.  It’s like I get in my car, I turn the ignition and it drives, it’s like I don’t know how my phone works or my computer, they just work, and that’s all I need, I can’t even change the tire on my car, I’m like “What do I do?”

M: I bet you read manuals.

R: I do real manuals! All the time, I love manuals!  How did you know?

G: I’m a little different, I’m interested in the future, I’m interested in the technology, and sometimes you don’t need to explain things, but sometimes those things are a little different to what people’s expectations of the science are, or what’s plausible, and you need a couple of words there to explain it a little.  You don’t need to explain the flying car, and you don’t say “you turn the gravs on”, there are a lot of problems of messing with gravity like that, so just get in the flying car and drive.

R: Can I just say I don’t want flying cars?  Because if there’s a crash in the air, I’m not going to be here anymore.

G: The reason we don’t have flying cars is because we can’t drive them ourselves in our current system.

M: I have flying cars.  Some of them are called Volance, which is a word I like, and you can use the controls, but you’re more likely to get in and say “Take me to such-and-such” and it’s more like an Edwardian hackey cab, only it drives itself.  On every door of every house there’s something called a “Who’s there” which might let you in, it might let the master of the house know you’re there, or it might look you over and refuse you entry, but I’ve never described a who’s there, it just works.

A: In my books, the science sometimes may as well be magic.  Cevarian, the protagonist, has more on his mind than worrying about how these things work.  You’re into book 4 before you find out the flying cars have this anti-gravity matter welded into them, and I think it’s fine for it to be revealed so late.

G: What I want to know is if we get to the point where after a night at the pub we get in a car and tell it to take us home, and there’s no danger of driving under the influence, how’s that going to affect the society?  What about if we get to the stage where we can grow mobile phones in our heads?  There are no buttons, how is that going to affect the way we interact.

Q: My complaint is that the laws of science make science-fiction art, while fantasy is just wish fulfillment.

R: The world still needs to have rules.  If there are no rules, it’s a mess.  Fantasy has as many rules as science-fiction, sometimes more, like any genre, so I don’t agree with your assumption, sorry.

Q: What about magic which as a set of specific instructions that must be followed to achieve a set outcome, isn’t that just technology?

B: This is my university medal in philosophy, so I’m going to use this to say we’re not getting into the definition of what magic is.

M: Do you normally carry that on your person? (Laughter)

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