Worldcon 2019

I got to visit Worldcon in Dublin last week, which was awesome. Since there’s a lot of coverage about things like the Hugos already, through Twitter, and on Facebook, I’ll do it differently. I’ll cover some of the less known panels that took place. Also, this is more interesting to non-scifi geeks.

Some background on Worldcon

Not everybody reading this will know what Worldcon is, so a quick introduction. Worldcon is the World Science Fiction Convention. It’s five days of writers, artists, and fans of science fiction and fantasy hanging out together. It’s held in a different country each year, and it features the Hugo awards, the most prestigious award in Science Fiction and Fantasy.

This year, Worldcon came to Dublin. You can find a lot of details here. Of course, congratulations to all the Hugo winners, who you can find here. And a shout-out to one of my favorites: Artificial Condition by Martha Wells.

There’s a lot of panels being held, aside from the autograph sessions, awards, and parties. I’ll run through some of the more off-beat ones — and I think less well-known given the rooms were not full — that I visited. Let me just say: I’m not quoting things literally, I wasn’t taking notes. I’m just writing down what I noticed. You want more: come to a Worldcon or look up the panelists.

The bare bones of world building: archaeology in SFF

This panel featured three real-life archaeologists, Katrin Kania, Alyc Helms, and Marie Brennan. It was moderated by Ehud Maimon. Marie and Alyc are also writers, and they’ve most recently written a collaborative work, the Rook and the Rose trilogy.

Of course, the elephant in the room for each archeological panel in relation to SFF is Indiana Jones. We all know real archaeology is nothing like that. Instead it’s meticulous work. What I personally didn’t know, is that a lot of archaeology is not about the artifacts that are dug up, but about the context of those finds. Finding small animal bones in a grave is very different from finding them in a kitchen. In hindsight, this should have been kind of obvious.

Another thing that wove through the panel, is that archaeology isn’t as exact as you might like. A lot of generalization occurs when interpreting finds, and biassed results are a big risk. This has led to all kinds of wrong conclusions entering the world, for example as to how large the populations of Mayan cities was – modern research results in roughly ten times what we used to think.

And the biggest pet peeve of the panelists was the way language is often dealt with. The hero in a story can’t look at some hieroglyphs on a wall and translate them off the cuff. Languages and their written form vary enormously from place to place and from century to century, and much of the context of the writing is lost. And that leaves out subtext. This means it will take a lot of effort to decode a hieroglyphs.

All in all, this panel was a very interesting view into archaeology, and very relevant for writing stories.

AI and the female image

Monday morning — yep, the morning after the highlight of Worldcon, the Hugo awards — there was a panel on AI and the female image. Three of the five panelist turned out not be there — probably on account of the Hugo parties. Dr. Sara L. Uckelman and V Anne Smith did show up, cheers for them, and they decided to do a more interactive panel, which was really interesting.

In this panel the discussion went into the question of how gender and AI go together. There’s a lot of AI out there these days, ranging from Siri and Alexa, to Facebook algorithms, and unmanned attack drones. Some of those AIs are clearly gendered, some not.

In the discussion it quickly became clear that we humans gender everything, but most especially the AIs we communicate with. It’s hard not to. This does mean there can be a positive use of making AIs a certain gender, for example AI voices are more likely to be obeyed if they are female.

The flip side is that these gender affiliations rely on stereotypes. This means that gender bias will carry over to AI images, and could actually strengthen those biases. For example, if we make all subservient AIs (Siri, Alexa, car navigation, …) female, then that helps anchor the idea of women in subservient roles. And given that we make subservient AIs female because of gender bias… well, you get the idea.

The ideal solution would be to make the AIs genderless, but as stated earlier, most people will still tend to choose a gender, and so you’re back to square one.

No solution came to mind, but the discussion was illuminating, and perhaps this should be discussed more broadly.

112 in free fall

The final talk I wanted to highlight was by Bruce Davis, who had a talk about the problems of medical emergencies in free fall. He’s a trauma surgeon and has done extensive research on the matter.

He first summed up the effects of weightlessness, roughly what you can find on Wikipedia. He concluded that most of these problems can be solved. The fun stuff starts when you start to consider what would happen in the case of serious injuries.

Something I didn’t know is that blood doesn’t behave as you might expect in free fall. Because of its high surface tension, it tends to pool into large globules. Those globules will form around a wound, and will actually prevent the wound from closing properly.

Getting an astronaut back planetside with a comfortable amount of Gs can take days, while a quick descent will result in eight Gs or more. So, if an astronaut breaks their neck they’re either dead before they’re down, or they die from the trip.

Finally, there’s surgery. This is basically impossible in free fall, since a surgeon relies heavily on gravity keeping the organs in place when they cut somebody open and suction to get blood out of the way, both of which are a problem in space.

If you look at a mission to Mars, these things can become an issue, because a multi-year mission to another planet is vastly more dangerous than a few months in orbit.

In conclusion

Worldcon is a hoot, not just the fantasy and scifi parts, but also panels on vastly different topics such as I described above. I hope to be able to go again for one of the next ones.

Author: Martin Stellinga

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands

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