Erik’s Worldcon 75 Highlights

A random assortment of memorable moments, thoughts, and quotes from our time at Worldcon 75 in Helsinki.

From the presentation: Crackpot Archaeology in Scandinavia by Martin Rundkvist

  • One of the distinguishing traits of the crackpot is the insistence on finding meaning in every discernible pattern. To the crackpot, randomness is never acceptable.

(This is a particularly useful observation for me as a historian who works on areas and periods where we have extremely limited evidence. When evidence is so scarce, it is tempting to squeeze as much meaning as we can out of every text or artifact. Sometimes we just have to accept the randomness.)

From the workshop: Beyond the Great Wall of Europe: Worldbuilding for Non-European Settings by Jenn Lyons

  • In this workshop, we were divided up into small groups and assigned to come up with various aspects of worldbuilding for a hypothetical fantasy world. The group assigned to government (which I was not part of) described a society of small scattered bands without permanent leadership who pull together in times of crisis and select a temporary leader. Their ideas were based on certain Native American societies of the northeastern woodlands and gave a fairly accurate description of how societies at that scale historically tended to operate. Some other folks in the room—including the workshop leaders—critiqued them based on a European colonial misunderstanding of native North American cultures.

(It was a good reminder of how difficult it can be, even with the best of intentions, to think ourselves out of Eurocentric traditions—and why it might have been a good idea to spend a little more time working through what we mean by “European.”)

From the panel: Non-Binary Representation with Nick Hubble, D Franklin, and Nino Cipri

  • Non-binary characters in fiction written by binary authors have a tendency to feel like thought experiments rather than people.

From the panel: Editor’s Dream with Thoraiya Dyer, Masumi Washington, Katrina Archer, and Robert S. Malan

  • Always follow the submission guidelines!

(As someone who has coordinated academic conferences, I cannot agree with this strongly enough!)

From the panel: Asexuality in SF with Todd Allis, Kat Kourbeti, and Jo Walton

  • The portrayal of asexuality in fiction tends to be gendered. Female asexual characters are often portrayed as inexperienced, with the assumption that she will blossom into sexuality once she finds the right person, while male asexual characters are often portrayed as quirky, damaged, or focused on obsessions that leave no room for romantic love.

From the presentation: Logic of Empire: Economics of Colonialism in Fantastic Fiction by Jesper Stage

  • North America in the age of European colonialism was a real post-apocalyptic setting, once European diseases had wiped out over 90% of the native population.

(I’ve never thought of it in those terms, but it’s one of the most apt descriptions I’ve ever heard.)

From a panel presenter whose name I didn’t catch, when the audience let him know they couldn’t hear him:

  • “You’re different to English audiences; they just sit quietly and complain at the end.”

From the panel Loses Something in the Translation: Conveying Humor, Idioms, and Cultural Concepts across Languages with Gili Bar-Hilel, Shaoyan Hu, Elena Pavlova, Dirk van den Boom, and Mirka Sillanpää

A few choice quotes:

  • “Writing something funny is actually very serious and hard work.”
  • “Toilet jokes work in most languages”
  • “As you know, Germans are not funny.”

From the panel: Fantasy Worldbuilding without Ableism with Fran Wilde, Marieke Nijkamp, Likhain, Nalo Hopkinson, and Leon Adams

  • Disability can be a too-easy go-to for authors who want to make a hero “unlikely” without engaging with the reality of living with disability.
  • What counts as a disability depends on context. Issues that are trivial to us, such as eyesight problems that are easily corrected with glasses, could be serious disabilities in a world without that technology. On the other hand, dyslexia, which is a challenge in the highly literate modern world, would be trivial in a world without writing.

How It Happens is an occasional feature looking at the inner workings of various creative efforts.


6 thoughts on “Erik’s Worldcon 75 Highlights

  1. joatsimeon September 7, 2017 / 18:50

    Disease exchanges (and exchanges of species between previously fairly separate biomes) are a constant of history on a geological scale.

    Nearly every large species in South America went extinct when North and South America were united by a land-bridge.

    It’s notable that the Pleistocene megafauna(s) did best in the postglacial period where they’d co-evolved with human and pre-sapiens hominin predators; which is to say, Africa. The further you get from Africa, the worse the wave of mass extinctions — worst of all in isolated island environments where full-grown h. sapiens sapiens cultures of specialist big-game hunters were suddenly introduced in environments like the Americas, where they were completely invasive newcomers.

    Environmental stress from the end of the glacial probably weakened many species, but the presence of humans was a new factor. Previous interglacials hadn’t had humans with spear-throwers going through whole continents in a blitzkrieg of BBQ.


    • Eppu September 7, 2017 / 21:52

      I wonder what sources Jesper used for his presentation? I don’t have my notes handy right now. Have you contacted him to ask, Stephen, by any chance?


  2. joatsimeon September 7, 2017 / 19:01

    The unification of the Eurasian disease environment (that culminated in the 14th century) sent lethal mega-plagues bouncing back all the way from Ireland to Japan and back, repeatedly, for a period of at least centuries and probably millennia.

    Death rates for these often exceeded 50% overall (the current consensus for the European losses in the Black Death outbreaks of the 1340’s) and locally were much higher. Apocalyptic disease events were commonplace, in other words — and the longer and more complete the isolation of a human population, the worse they were going to get it in the neck when the isolation finally broke down.

    The higher genetic uniformity of isolated populations made them even more vulnerable, because human migration out of Africa and to new environments resulted in repeated “bottlenecks” via small founder populations.

    The higher disease load of settled agricultural populations with continent-wide connections and living in close coexistence with domestic animals and birds (the main reservoir of the really deadly species-jumping plagues) has given them an advantage for a long time. It’s probably one reason why runty, undernourished, disease-ridden agriculturalists were able to push big healthy hunter-gatherers out of favorable environments.

    Conversely, by migrating out of Africa, the migrants left the African disease environment behind; and it’s the most deadly, because that’s where we evolved and our parasites and diseases did too. This made the African tropics as deadly to Eurasians trying to live there as the Eurasian disease bundle was to, say, Amerindians and Polynesians.

    This in turn had considerable political/cultural impact. Eg., the only part of Africa where Europeans succeeded in planting a settlement colony was the south-western Cape, which was so isolated from the rest of Africa that the inhabitants were vulnerable to virgin-field epidemics of diseases like smallpox, and where the temperate climate didn’t support falciparium malaria or yellow fever or sleeping-sickness.

    During the Age of Exploration, isolated populations also got a double-whammy because explorers and settlers didn’t just come from countries, they came through -cities-, from Cadiz or Lisbon or London or Amsterdam, and before the industrial era cities were disease farms that always killed more people than were born in them. Burials outnumbered baptisms by 4 to 1 in 17th-century London, for instance — and that was among a population which had been exposed to all the endemic diseases for a very long time.


    • Erik September 7, 2017 / 21:52

      You have a lot of interesting historical observations here. Sounds like this would make a good post for your own blog.


      • joatsimeon September 8, 2017 / 01:13

        They’re relevant to your comments from WorldCon. In history, context is all — a fact can be true, but taken in isolation and without context, profoundly misleading.

        Eg., that the populations of the New World suffered catastrophic epidemics after 1492; this is true, but in the context of world history, it’s just not all that unusual, except perhaps in speed and scale and not necessarily even then.


      • Erik September 8, 2017 / 07:57

        Neither Jesper nor I said anything about the mass mortality in the Americas post European contact being unique. I found his analogy to the tropes of post-apocalyptic fiction an interesting way of thinking about that history. Analogies are always imperfect in historiography because no two historical events or contexts are identical, but good analogies can stimulate us to return to the historical record with new questions and different perspectives. The fact that other peoples in other moments of history have also experienced mass mortality from disease does not make his analogy any less interesting to me. You are, of course, perfectly free to not find it interesting yourself, but you seem to be answering an argument that no one here was making.


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