Worldcon 75: Looking Back

We’re back! From Wednesday, August 9th to Sunday, August 13th we were in Helsinki attending the 75th Worldcon, the first Worldcon ever held in Finland and the northernmost Worldcon to date. Now we’re home again and starting to look back at our experiences.

We have a lot to talk about. As we post, we’ll gather those links on this page. In the meantime, here’s some appreciation from Eppu to some of the people who helped make our con a good one.

Sun, Moon, and Stars

Today, as many of us eagerly await the coming solar eclipse, is a good time to think about how peoples of the past experienced the sky. While eclipses were rare and sometimes frightening events for ancient cultures, living day to day with the rhythms of the sun, moon, and stars shaped how different peoples measured and thought about time.

Peoples whose way of life depended on mobility, such as hunter-gatherers and pastoralists, had good reason to care about the cycles of the moon. A bright full moon could provide enough light to travel long into the night while at the same time bringing out both prey animals that hunters depended on and

nocturnal predators that could be a danger to pastoralists and their flocks. Timing movement, hunting, and watchful nights around the cycles of the full moon was advantageous to peoples whose lives and livelihoods were shaped by forces like these. The lunar cycle—the period of just over 29.5 days between one full moon and the next—formed the basis for dating systems organized around months alternating between 29 and 30 days.

Agriculturalists, on the other hand, depended more on the sun, whose light and warmth they needed for their crops. Timing planting and harvest to the cycle of the seasons was crucial—plant too early and the crops could die from cold or drought; plant too late and the harvest would not mature before the growing season ended. Since the lunar cycle does not match up with conveniently with the solar year of just under 365.25 days, early farmers had to either adjust their calendars by fudging with the number of months in each year (a process called “intercalation”) or else track the time by counting the days in the year.

But the solar year doesn’t come out to an even number of days, so solar calendars require adjusting as well. We do this today by adding an extra day to February in leap years, but ancient peoples often depended on the observation of astronomical phenomena, such as the solstices and equinoxes or the yearly cycle of observable stars in the night sky. Different cultures approached this problem in different ways. In some places, people built megalithic monuments, like Stonehenge or the aboriginal Australian stone arrangement at Wurdi Youang, to mark critical astronomical alignments. Other peoples, such as the Maya, Babylonians, and ancient Chinese, developed sophisticated mathematical methods of observing and predicting astronomical events. Hindu sages in the fourth through tenth centuries CE calculated the length of the year to an accuracy within a few minutes of modern observations. Pre-modern people pictured familiar images in the constellations of the stars not just out of an impulse to explain the visible world around them but as a memory aid for tracking the movements of important markers of the cycle of the year.

The various lunar, solar, and astronomical ways of calculating time have all left their mark on the cultures who used them. Some important modern holidays, like Christmas and the midsummer holidays celebrated in many parts of the world, fall on or near important days in the solar calendar. Others, like Ramadan, are determined by a lunar calendar and move through the seasons year by year. Still others, like Passover and Diwali, represent a compromise between lunar and solar systems—tied to a season, but falling each year on a day determined by lunar cycles. The tracking of the year through the movement of constellations across the sky, once vital to the survival of agrarian societies, remains with us in the popular pseudoscience of astrology.

Thoughts for writers

In worldbuilding, calendars are useful not just for coordinating the events of your plot but as a reflection of the societies your stories take place in. If the celestial mechanics of your world is anything like ours, people will look to the sky to help them keep track of the conditions that matter in their way of life, but different societies will care about different things. Cultures that place a premium on mobility or who care about the movements of animals—whether predators or prey—will particularly pay attention to the cycles of the moon (or whatever else lights up the night). Sedentary, agricultural societies will need to mark the turning of the seasons by the movements of the sun and stars. A lot of societies will have reasons to combine solar and lunar calendars: herders and hunters need to manage the migration of animals from one season to the next, and lunar cycles are useful for farmers to coordinate market days, social events, and political gatherings. Cultures that have incorporated both pastoral and agricultural traditions are likely to reflect the history of that negotiation in how they mark the passage of the year. The sun, moon, and stars are not just beautiful parts of the natural world; they were vital tools in the lives of people all around the world in history, as they continue to be for many people today.

Image: Two diagrams with the sun and the moon via Wikimedia (currently Getty Center; late 13th c.; ink, paint, and gold leaf on parchment)

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

You Belong Here

Co-Geeking is about the things we love: history, art, science fiction, fantasy, language, and so on. It is not about contemporary politics. We would rather just tend our geeky garden than get involved in the affairs of the big world outside.

But sometimes contemporary politics comes blundering through your garden gate and plomps itself down right on top of your petunia bed. And sometimes it proceeds to crap all over your tomatoes and puke on your antique roses. Then you gotta say something, so we’re saying it.

If you’re feeling threatened, worried, angry, or sad about the upsurge of hatred we’re seeing in current events, we’re with you. If you’re someone who loves the things we love but your history classes, SFF conventions, or geeky blogs made you feel like you didn’t belong, you belong here. If you’ve ever felt left out because of your race, religion, gender, orientation, or any other part of your identity, or if you’ve seen that kind of exclusion happen to someone you care about, we’re with you. If you don’t see yourself in the books, movies, tv shows you love, know that we want to see you there, too. If anyone has ever told you are wrong, bad, or dangerous just because of who you are, where you come from, or how you live your life, we stand with you.

Screw the fascists, racists, xenophobes, anti-Semites, Islamophobes, homophobes, sexists, transphobes, and all other flavors of bigot. Screw the people who believe that they are better than other people because of arbitrary details like race, religion, ancestry, sexuality, or gender. Screw the people are afraid of others just because of who they are. And double screw the ones who think that history supports their brand of hatred, or that they can drag it into the kind of stories we love, with a side of get stuffed.

We are in this together. Those who want to divide us will fail. Hatred and fear will fail. As we co-geeks carry on with our usual business of posting about interesting facets of history and squeeing over the latest movie trailers, know that we are here for you.

Babylon 5 s1 ep5 The Parliament of Dreams Selected Screencaps.
Selected screencaps from the Babylon 5 season 1 episode 5, “The Parliament of Dreams”, showcasing Earth’s dominant belief system: pluralism. (Delenn: What sort of demonstration does he have planned? Ivanova: He just said it’d showcase Earth’s dominant belief system. Sinclair: This is Mr. Harris. He’s an atheist. Mr Rosenthal, an Orthodox Jew. Sawa of the Jivaro tribe. Ms. Yamamoto, a Shinto. Ms. Naljo, a Maori…)

If want to get away from the problems of the big world for a little while, our garden is open. If you want to talk about what’s going on these days and how that relates to the art, stories, and history we love, we’re here for that, too. You belong here.

Image: Selected screencaps from the Babylon 5 season 1 episode 5, “The Parliament of Dreams”.

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Rating: Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, Season 1

Our rewatching-and-rating project has moved on to Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, a delightful Australian series about a flamboyant flapper detective from the roaring 1920s, based on the novels by Kerry Greenwood. We don’t get a lot of Australian tv on this side of the world, but Miss Fisher is a treat from beginning to end. The first season is the best-rating season of anything we’ve watched so far. (For an explanation of our rating system, see here.)

Here’s our ratings for the first season’s episodes:

  1. “Cocaine Blues” – 9
  2. “Murder on the Ballarat Train” – 8
  3. “The Green Mill Murder” – 8
  4. “Death at Victoria Dock” – 8
  5. “Raisins and Almonds” – 8.5
  6. “Ruddy Gor” – 7.5
  7. “Murder in Montparnasse” – 6
  8. “Away with the Fairies” – 7.5
  9. “Queen of the Flowers” – 7
  10. “Death by Miss Adventure” – 9
  11. “Blood and Circuses” – 5.5
  12. “Murder in the Dark” – 7
  13. “King Memses’ Curse” – 5

There are so many things to love about this series, from the wonderful characters to complicated mysteries. It explores both the Jazz-Age high life of the post-WWI bright young things and the workaday world of early-twentieth-century Melbournites. The main character, sparklingly played by Essie Davis, is always entertaining and she’s surrounded by an excellent supporting cast.

The average rating for this season is 7.4, which is a fantastic way to start. Most of this season’s episodes are good to excellent, with only a couple that come in a little underwhelming. The lowest of the season is the final episode, “King Memses’ Curse,” which is just a rather uninspired serial killer story. The entertainment industry loves its serial killers—especially, like this one, those that have an irrational obsession with the hero—but we’re just tired of the trope.

Fortunately, we have a couple of 9s tied for best episode to balance out the lackluster ones. The first episode, “Cocaine Blues,” starts things off with a bang, sending Miss Fisher into a murder investigation that leads to cocaine smuggling and a back-alley abortionist. Many of our favorite characters get introduced here: Miss Fisher’s timid but trusty companion Dot, the acerbic Doctor Mac, the sweet-natured Constable Collins, and Inspector Jack Robinson, who, though often aggravated by Miss Fisher’s insistence on thrusting herself into his investigations, also learns to value her input. The other 9 is “Death by Miss Adventure,” about a mysterious death in a factory which reveals many layers of intrigue and skullduggery. This episode gives Dot a chance to go undercover and also delves in Doctor Mac’s life in more detail.

You could hardly ask for a better first season!

Any Miss Fisher fans out there want to weigh in? Got a different pick for the best or worst episodes of the season? Let us know in the comments!

Image: Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Artifacts and Transmogrification: Retribution Paladin and Arms Warrior

In my last post about transmogrifying with artifact weapons, I mentioned how, with my elemental shaman and arcane mage, I got lucky and the base artifact appearance fit very well with the looks I had already created for the characters. In other cases, the base appearance doesn’t suit my existing look, but one of the unlockable color variants does.

Here, for instance, is my retribution paladin. I had her in a blue and gold set that the red base weapon didn’t match, but the blue alternative suits perfectly.

My arms warrior, on the other hand, wanted the red alternative color to match his red and purple set.

Of Dice and Dragons is an occasional feature about games and gaming.

How to Helsinki: Last Call

Worldcon is in Helsinki this year. As a Finnish-American couple, we are very excited about this! In the coming months, we’d like to offer some practical advice about visiting Finland to our fellow fans who are considering going to the event but haven’t had experience with Finland and Finns before.

Worldcon 75 is just a week away now. In case you missed any of our previous posts, you might want to check them out, too:

 

Here are a few last-minute tidbits, odds and ends, and random pieces of advice that might be worth knowing if you’re getting ready to head to Helsinki:

Low-alcohol beverages, like beer and cider, are available at most grocery stores. For harder liquor (22+ % alcohol), you’ll need to go to one of the state-run Alko stores; you also must be 20 years old and have valid government I.D. Anyone who looks under 30 years of age may be carded when buying alcohol.

Apteekki = pharmacy

Apua! = Help!

Ateneum Art Museum is one of the three museums forming the Finnish National Gallery and located conveniently on the south side of Rautatientori square close to Helsinki central railway station.

Flickr Alessandro Grussu Ateneum Art Museum

DO NOT FEED THE BIRDS. That creates problems for residents, outdoor sellers, and other visitors. The seagulls at Kaupptori, for example, are already quite adept at snatching food from people. (That means they will dive AT YOU and steal your food FROM YOUR HAND. I don’t know about you, but I find that intimidating and I don’t want it to happen to me! –Eppu)

Public drinking water fountains are rare in Finland, but tap water is clean and safe. Carrying a water bottle is a good idea.

Dual flush toilets are becoming very common, and they’re easy to operate: small button for small flush, big for large. Please do take part in our environmental efforts.

Electric sockets and plugs are Europlug type C or the grounded Schuko type F.

Elevator behavior humorously put: Keep your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times, and for the sake of everything you hold dear, do not engage in small talk.

9gag Finland Elevator

More seriously: Elevator behavior shouldn’t be a problem; just be mindful that customs may be different than you’re used to and you’ll be fine.

The number for emergency services is 112. Also note that pay phones are almost non-existent in Finland because cell phones are so ubiquitous.

You may not be able to establish eye contact with strangers on the streets. This is perfectly normal in Finland; we love our personal space and want lots of it.

Gasoline is very expensive due to taxation—keep it in mind if planning to rent a car.

If you meet a Finn with whom you share a mutual acquaintance, you may be asked to take greetings to that person. It is vital that you follow through. Carrying greetings (the Finnish word is terveisiä, which covers the whole social scale from “Say hi to your buddies for me” to “Do give my sincerest regards to your honored great-grandmother”) is serious business in Finland.

Indoor spaces tend to be warm due to effective insulation. Dress in layers for the win!

With regard to the language issue, one of the most succinct answers is by author Elizabeth Bear: “[I’ve] heard some concern about the language issue. There is no language issue. If one of your languages is English […] you will have no issues at all navigating. (It’s sort of a running joke with my agent and I that while my books sell very well in the Nordic countries as imports, we can’t get a translation deal there. Because everyone speaks English […]”

Luggage storage is available e.g. at Helsinki central railway station and at the Kamppi long distance bus station.

Mosquitoes are the bane of the Finnish summer. (We actually joke about them being our air force. –Eppu) Current reports are that this has not been a bad mosquito year, but it’s still important to take precautions if you’re sensitive to bites and will be out and about in the late evening or early morning, which are the prime biting times.

The National Museum of Finland concentrates on Finnish history from the Stone Age to 19th century and has an extensive collection of objects. The building itself, of National Romantic style, may also be of interest. Free entry every Friday 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.; at other times, entry fees apply.

National Museum of Finland

Petrol is very expensive due to taxation—keep it in mind if planning to rent a car.

Pharmacy = apteekki

The word please (or the like) doesn’t exist in Finnish. Instead, the same function is embedded in the verb form of the sentence. This doesn’t mean that Finns are inherently rude; we may sound rude to native speakers of languages that use an explicit please word if we forget to use it in other languages, and we well might slip up since it’s not ingrained.

Finnish does not have gendered pronouns. The word hän means both ‘he’ and ‘she.’ It’s not unusual for Finns, even Finns who speak English very fluently and are highly aware of gender identity issues, to slip and use the wrong gendered pronoun when speaking English. (It’s a little like English speakers learning Spanish and having to remember that forks are masculine but spoons are feminine.)

Recycling is becoming very common. Your hotel room and Messukeskus might have containers for different types of trash. Please do take part in our environmental efforts.

If you bump into someone by accident, just saying “Sori” (comes from and sounds pretty much the same as English sorry) is usually sufficient. Finns don’t really do apologies for small accidents.

Towel hooks in bathrooms are only for storing the dry towels. Spread towels to dry elsewhere (rack, over the shower stall door / shower curtain bar) and hang to store.

 

Some additional reading & browsing

Images: Ateneum Art Museum by Alessandro Grussu on Flickr. Finland elevator behavior via 9gag. National Museum of Finland by Eppu Jensen

In Live and Active Cultures we talk about cultures and cultural differences.

The Secret of Roman Concrete

Trajan’s Market, Rome, with a vaulted concrete ceiling over brick walls, photo by Szilas via Wikimedia

Roman concrete is an architectural marvel. It made it possible for the Romans to build structures unlike any built with the techniques of stone masonry. It turns out Roman concrete is also a chemical marvel. The combination of volcanic ash and rock, lime, and seawater gradually becomes stronger over time as the interaction of the volcanic components and the seawater forms new minerals that fill up cracks and reinforce the structure.

An article from the Guardian explains the process:

Over time, seawater that seeped through the concrete dissolved the volcanic crystals and glasses, with aluminous tobermorite and phillipsite crystallising in their place. These minerals […] helped to reinforce the concrete, preventing cracks from growing, with structures becoming stronger over time as the minerals grew.

Given the limitations of Roman science, it’s doubtful that an ancient Roman concrete expert could have explained the chemical processes that happened in concrete, but that doesn’t mean that Romans just stumbled onto this formula by accident. Even with a limited theoretical understanding, smart people can acquire a lot of practical knowledge through experimentation and careful observation.

Thoughts for writers

Something to keep in mind when worldbuilding: practical knowledge doesn’t have to come from theoretical knowledge. In fact, it is often the opposite: theoretical knowledge develops from an attempt to explain what we already know practically to be true. If you want your fictional cultures to be able to make sturdy concrete, or airships, or vaccines, that doesn’t require them to have a modern understanding of chemistry, physics, or biology. Pre-modern peoples discovered lots of useful things by trial and error and paying close attention to the world around them, even if their attempts to explain why those things worked were sometimes wide of the mark, or they never attempted to explain them at all.

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Quotes: My dear admiral, that post!

Admiral and Mrs. Croft, out driving in their one-horse chaise have come across a group of their acquaintances walking and offered to give a ride to one of them. Anne Elliot joins them.

“Very good-humoured, unaffected girls, indeed,” said Mrs. Croft… “and a very respectable family. One could not be connected with better people.—My dear admiral, that post!—we shall certainly take that post!”

But by coolly giving the reins a better direction herself, they happily passed the danger; and by once after judiciously putting out her hand, they neither fell into a rut nor ran foul of a dung-cart; and Anne, with some amusement at their style of driving, which she imagined not a bad representation of the general guidance of their affairs, found herself safely deposited by them at the cottage.

– Jane Austen, Persuasion

 

One of the loveliest descriptions of marriage I have ever read: we make up for one another’s eccentricities and, however strange we may look to anyone else, we get where we’re going in the end.

Austen may be famous for her romantic pairings like Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, or Marianne Dashwood and Colonel Brandon, but I think Admiral and Mrs. Croft are one of her best images of real marital happiness.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Greek Myth, Etruscan Tomb

We like to think of the modern world as one in which different cultures intertwine and overlap with one another, but there were complicated cross-cultural interactions in the ancient world as well. For example, look at this wall painting from an Etruscan tomb.

Sacrifice of Trojan captives, photograph by Battlelight via Wikimedia (François Tomb, Vulci; late 4th c.; fresco)

This scene depicts an incident from the Trojan War. After his friend Patroclus was killed in battle, the great Greek warrior Achilles went mad with grief. He piled up an enormous funeral pyre for Patroclus, on top of which he also killed twelve Trojan prisoners. At the center of this painting, Achilles slits the throat of a naked Trojan prisoner while a Greek soldier leads another prisoner to the slaughter from the right. To the left, the ghost of Patroclus, in a blue cloak with a bandage over the fatal wound in his chest, looks on in dismay.

This incident comes from the Greek legends of the Trojan War and is mentioned in the Iliad, but it is a rather obscure scene. It was rarely, if ever, referred to in later Greek literature or depicted in Greek art. The fact that an Etruscan artist could use this event as the basis for a tomb painting demonstrates a more than passing knowledge of Greek myth.

The Etruscans were a people of northern Italy who had extensive trade contacts with the Greeks and imported large quantities of fine pottery and other Greek luxury goods. They also imported Greek legends and stories, which they frequently depicted in their own artworks. Like the painting in the François Tomb, Etruscan art often picks up on obscure or unusual incidents that were not widely depicted in Greek art. This selectiveness tells us that Etruscans were not just copying the Greek art that they acquired but were making conscious artistic choices based on extensive knowledge of the Greek material.

This painting also adds some uniquely Etruscan elements to the scene. The winged woman directly behind Achilles is Vanth, an Etruscan goddess whose role seems to have been to decide the fate of the souls of the dead. The blue-skinned man to Achilles’ right is Charu, another Etruscan god who led the souls of the dead to wherever Vanth decided to send them. Vanth and Charu are purely Etruscan characters with no basis in the Iliad. Greek myth had figures who performed similar functions, but they looked nothing like Vanth and Charu.

These two figures are not simply added to the scene. The way that they frame the sacrificial act and share a knowing look over Achilles’ head changes the scene’s meaning. Rather than just seeing Achilles’ awful act, we see that his act happens in a context that transcends the mortal world. The Greek afterlife was pretty much universally bleak, except for a few select troublemakers who got ironically tortured. The Etruscan afterlife is poorly understood, but they seem to have believed that the deeds of the living affected the fate of the dead, which could be pleasant or terrifying. In this painting, Vanth and Charu seem to be saying to one another: “We see what’s happening here, and it won’t be forgotten. We’re here for the Trojans this time, but Achilles’ day is coming.”

This painting is one that a Greek artist would never have painted and that a Greek viewer wouldn’t have understood. It only made sense to an Etruscan, but to an Etruscan who knew their Iliad well enough to recognize the figures of Achilles and Patroclus and identify the moment in the story that was being depicted. Here in this image we have a moment of cross-cultural interaction on display.

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Rating: Leverage, Season 5

We’ve been rewatching and rating Leverage and we’ve gotten up through season 4. (For more on how our rating system works, see here, which also covers season 1 of Leverage.) Here’s what we thought.

  1. “The (Very) Big Bird Job” – 6
  2. “The Blue Line Job” – 4
  3. “The First Contact Job” – 10
  4. “The French Connection Job” – 8
  5. “The Gimme a K Street Job” – 4
  6. “The D. B. Cooper Job” – 1.5
  7. “The Real Fake Job” – 6
  8. “The Broken Wing Job” – 10
  9. “The Rundown Job” – 10
  10. “The Frame-Up Job” – 9
  11. “The Low Low Price Job” – 8
  12. “The White Rabbit Job” – 3
  13. “The Corkscrew Job” – 6
  14. “The Toy Job” – 5
  15. “The Long Good-bye Job” – 9

Leverage goes out on a high note with an average rating of 6.6 for its final season, a small step up from 6.4 for season 4 and the best of any season. There are a mix of better and worse episodes this season, including a couple of real duds, but there’s a slew of 9s and 10s that just sparkle. This season has a mix of traditional con procedurals and more ambitious episodes that break out of the formula. The best episodes include both perfectly executed traditional grift stories and some of the more unusual attempts. The effort to do something different doesn’t always pay off, though, and this season’s failures are some of the episodes that stray farthest from the formula.

The absolute worst of the season—and in the running for worst of the entire series—is “The D. B. Cooper Job,” at 1.5, which, like season 4’s “The Van Gogh Job” is mostly about other characters played by the main cast, this time reinventing the story of skyjacker D. B. Cooper. While “The Van Gogh Job” had the advantage of a charming, if sad, love story, “The D. B. Cooper Job” is just a whole lotta brooding white guys being emotionally unavailable and stuff, which is pretty much the last thing we need more of on tv. Dishonorable mention also goes to “The White Rabbit Job,” at 3, which tries to do an Inception and seriously fails to pull it off.

Happily, we have three standouts tied for best of the season at a full 10 points. “The First Contact Job” is a kooky X-Files riff with a faked alien contact and tons of tongue-in-cheek sci-fi geek humor. “The Broken Wing Job” is a solo adventure for Parker (our favorite character!) which challenges her to figure out how to do the work of the whole team while recovering from a broken leg. Watching Beth Riesgraf play the whole range of Parker’s emotions from climbing-the-walls stir-crazy to oh-no-you-don’t-hurt-my-friend badass is a sheer delight. Finally, “The Rundown Job” trades in the series’ usual quirky humor for an action-packed bioterror thriller in Washington D. C. with just Parker, Hardison and Eliot (our three favorite characters!).

And that’s Leverage! A lot of good episodes and great characters. Well worth a rewatch!

Any Leverage fans out there want to weigh in? Got a different pick for the best or worst episodes of the season? Let us know in the comments!

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.