Conventional Wisdom

1999 World Convention for Science Fiction

by Liz Martin

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There was a young lady named Bright
Whose speed was much faster than light
She went out one day in a relative way
And returned on the previous night!
Of course, if Arthur Buller's creaky limerick is to be taken seriously three-quarters of a century after it first made Punch readers scratch their heads, somebody's got to pen a second verse about tachyons and the light speed barrier. Oh, and don't forget those pesky special relativity issues precluding ftl travel. I know it doesn't scan well, but at least give our heroine a Bussard Fusion Drive or a wormhole to make it more likely, Mr Buller, please.

"Likely?" you say, gentle reader? "Fiction!" you remind me. Quite the opposite. Rather, it's the stuff that puts the "science" into "science fiction" and some of the best names in that genre spent five days proving it down here in Australia, at the 57th World Science Fiction Convention, held this year in Melbourne from September 2 to September 6.

Greg Benford, J. Michael Straczynski and Bruce Gillespie shared convention guest of honour status. Benford has written (among a dozen others) the Nebula Award winning hard science fiction novel Timescape; Straczynski created the wildly popular Babylon 5 television series and Gillespie spoke on the subject of George Turner, a doyen of Australian speculative fiction who died in 1997 and after whom the new George Turner Award for first novels in speculative fiction is named.

Benford seemed most to complete both halves of the "science" + "fiction" = "success" equation. A physicist and professor at the University of California at Irvine, he informed his subject matters with creativity, good humour and a clarity...ummm...unusual in theoretical astrophysics. In one of his many lectures, Benford-the-scientist spoke of the accidental discovery of a new class of star only a few magnitudes greater in mass and brightness than a Jovian planet, far too dim to make out without advanced spectroscopy techniques--not to mention a fair whack of luck. I'm sure we can expect a novel from Benford-the-fiction-writer soon on how luck focussed a telescope from Sol's third planet onto one very small arc of space where observers expected remnants of a gas cloud and big, bright and massive O to K class newborn stars. Instead, they found not gaseous leftovers but a few dim points of light that could have swept up the last of the nebula to become small stellar bodies, and might litter the universe in great, unseen numbers. Now called L-class stars, they inspire radical revisionist speculation among scientists. Alpha Centauri Proxima, it seems, may not be our nearest neighbour after all. Potential targets for interstellar space flights by the aforementioned Bussard fusion drive or the more likely solar sail design may be much closer than 4.2 light years, and much nearer in time to thee without threatening the c-speed barrier. We just have to find the least distant of the damn things. They're working on it at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

In addition to the guests of honour, those present included Robert Silverberg, George R.R. Martin, Joe Haldeman, Ben Bova, Jack Dann, Damien Broderick and Terry Pratchett, to name a few. Readers, writers, researchers and fans gathered daily in the Melbourne Convention Centre to attend or take part in panels and lectures. Topics covered the technological and sociological, spanning from the humourous to the deathly serious. On that note, the immortality symposium called after Broderick's speculative science book Last Mortal Generation: How Science Will Alter Our Lives in the 21st Century packed 'em in, the audience there to hear about proposed and impending means to human immortality, whether by uploading consciousness or by genetic tinkering to halt cellular degradation. Also on offer was a discussion of the potential problems attendant on successfully achieving mass immortality--overcrowding, class separation or plain and simple boredom with eternal life. Outside the science of not dying, other popular seminars included those on nanotechnology, "posthuman" themes in fiction and eighteen flavours of space exploration.

The Hugo Awards found their owners for 1999 in a ceremony Saturday night. Connie Willis's To Say Nothing of the Dog won Best Novel. Local boy Greg Egan made good, taking out the first ever Australian Hugo, Best Novella, for "Oceanic." The ensuing party in the convention centre's hotel bar boasted many of the rocket-blasting-off-Ayers-Rock-shaped prizes scattered like overgrown swizzle sticks across the tables, sticking casually out of handbags or rolling underfoot. Oh, yes, lest the impression taken away from this con report be solely one of pocket protectors and brows forever knit over cryogenics and the absolute zero of space, let me assure you that after hours the only discussion about frozen states was the choice between mai tai or margarita.

Perhaps one too many of the latter inspired graffiti doodled on a cocktail napkin, found crumpled in a chair after a lecture on interstellar probes:

There was a young man name of Sneed
Who once reached an infinite speed.
He went into a spin at committing the sin
Of breaking Einsteinian creed.

Hey, you try it. It's harder than it looks.

Next year's World Science Fiction Convention, Chicon 2000, will be held in Chicago from August 31 to September 4. Checkout or for more information.

© 1999 Liz Martin

Liz Martin is a Sydney, Australia based writer of science fiction and fantasy.

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