BristolCon11: science

There were two panels at BristolCon based around “real” science: “When did science become the bad guy?” and “Sci-fi now”. Both were interesting discussions and shared a few panel members so I thought I’d write them up together.

(Apologies by the way, for the scatty and delayed nature of this post. I wrote it weeks ago and then NaNoWriMo started and I didn’t get round to tidying it up. And now I must get back to writing that novel…)

Tim Maughan kicked us off with the declaration that science is not considered uncool itself, but understanding it is. All these shiny new TV shows about science are pretty but have little or no depth, and certainly don’t teach anything new (though, as a counterpoint, he still rates Sky at Night). Eugene Byrne suggested that this dumbing down was part of a general increased shallowness of the media. In fact, he was quite positive, comparing the 1980s general fear of science to the current feeling that science is an important tool and the great enthusiasm for technology and gadgets. He also controversially put forward the idea that raised tuition fees will be good for science, because potential students will likely lean towards more practical subjects with firmer career prospects.

Simon Breeze made the suggestion that the Internet generation couldn’t build the Internet, which I have to say I disagree with. But I could see how someone might think that – as Jonathan Wright pointed out, technology has advanced so much so quickly that you can’t just learn how things work by taking them apart. Tim Maughan added the interesting point that state schools in the UK teach computing, including HTML and basic coding, but public schools don’t go near it, staying as always behind the times but also creating an odd reverse snobbery.

But what about the cool future science we all thought we’d have by now and don’t? This discussion kept coming back to the idea that technologies are developed when we need them. And of course some things turn out different from exactly what was envisaged. Paul McAuley thought teleportation might be useful, but suggested that the long queues for the booths might make it only fractionally quicker than flying. And drones barely feature in old science fiction yet are becoming scarily real (in military use). Tim Maughan pointed out that the car that drives itself is imminent and Eugene Byrne suggested that increased age and disability in western populations will accelerate technologies like robot cars. Dev Agarwal suggested that the same might be true of investment in cybernetics – e.g. for making people walk again.

The panel all agreed, in response to an audience question, that the future science fiction of 1984 is scarily close to coming true – and we’re all willingly helping it along. From Internet security measures that save our every search term and movement on the Web, to store cards that track our purchases, to CCTV, to social media where we announce our every action, we are creating the surveillance culture that Orwell envisaged, only we’ve forgotten to be horrified by the idea.

Thought-provoking stuff.

BristolCon11: reviews

The discussions and readings at BristolCon were all excellent but I did particularly enjoy “Reviews: threat or menace?”. As the panel pointed out, the title suggests that reviews can only be bad or more bad, yet most of them were both reviewers and authors and had some interesting thoughts on the process.

Juliet McKenna‘s view was that both reading and writing reviews can give you a snapshot of what’s new out there. She is reluctant to trash a book in a review, as she knows how much hard work has gone into writing it. Jonathan Wright agreed that it can be too easy to slag off a book, that that style of writing can come far too easily. Paul McAuley continued that as a bright young thing, the easiest way to get noticed is to be funny and slag off the books you review, but he is now ashamed of having written damaging reviews, and that’s a large part of the reason he stopped reviewing regularly.

Juliet McKenna raised the point I have heard elsewhere about the responsibility of the reviewer to present a fair cross-section of what’s out there. Stats collected by Vida and Strange Horizons show that in the UK and US approximately 44% of books are written by women, yet less than 30% of books reviewed are by women. Although this bias is unconscious, once known about it should be acknowledged.

A quick check of my reviews index shows that to date I have reviewed 46 books by women and 76 by men (i.e. not quite 38% women). And apparently male reviewers have a much stronger bias towards reading male writers. (Incidentally, my current TBR is much worse, standing at 26 books by women versus 77 by men. If ever I needed an excuse to buy more books!)

But in general the views about reviews and reviewing were positive, despite the event’s title.

BristolCon11: the books

I’m finally getting round to writing down some thoughts about Saturday’s adventures at BristolCon. There’s so much to tell that I will come back to this topic again. But let’s start with the spoils. These are the books that Tim and I came home with:

The spoils

That’s a combination of free, secondhand and new books. There were also badges and fridge magnets and goodness knows what else in our goody bags. The USB stick in the picture is yet another book, in digital form, by local author Tim Maughan. My TBR is most definitely up in three figures again!

I should probably mention that it will likely take me some time to get round to reading any of those books because this year I am taking part in NaNoWriMo, so all my November free time is going towards that. (Which also means that theoretically I will be blogging less.)

In general I loved the day and I’m torn between wanting it to be much better known and bigger next year, and liking it small and friendly as it was. The day ended with a quiz that Tim and I came last in, so despite thinking we’re pretty geeky, turns out we have a lot to learn!