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AussieCon4 Day Four: September 5th, 2010

10am - Reading: Cory Doctorow

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While waiting for people to file into the room for his reading, Doctorow asked for questions from the audience. The discussion soon turned - as I suspect it often does around him - to issues of copyright, copying, DRM, and the like. At one stage he said that copying is the defining aspect of the 21st Century. When asked what effect he felt his decision to release all his commercial novels under Creative Commons licenses (making them freely copyable) had on his dead-tree book sales, he said that there were too many variables, and you'd have to get a time machine and rerun history to get a definitive answer.

When he got to the reading itself, he chose to read from his upcoming novel Pirate Cinema. He prefixed the reading by saying that the book was inspired by the possibility being discussed in various jurisdictions of "three strikes" Internet laws, wherein somebody's Internet connection can be cut off after three accusations of piracy. Doctorow objects strongly to such laws because 1) "accusations" would be sufficient to get cut off (the media industries want the standard to be "accusation" rather than "proof" because proving copyright violation is too hard); and 2) because people don't have Internet connections - houses do, and therefore cutting off Internet will affect people other than the person accused of doing the downloading. Pirate Cinema is set in a near-future society where such a law is in effect, and the Internet has become the sole way of doing many things. It concerns a family that gets cut off from the Internet. They have to move because of the shame of having a downloader in the family.

Doctorow did a good job of the reading. He was very animated, and a good performer. It sounds like an interesting and topical book.

10:30am - Reading: Peter V. Brett

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Brett read from his short story collection, The Great Bazaar. It was a terrific tale of a lone treasure-hunter daring a desert crossing to an isolated town long since over run by the night demons of his world, and the rather unwise decisions he makes there in search of loot. It was an engaging and interesting story, and I was certainly left with the desire to read more of his work.

11am - Talk: Climate Change and Utopia

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Speaker: Kim Stanley Robinson.

The basic message of Robinson's talk was that creating a utopia on Earth has now become a simple survival necessity. We have to do this to assure a long-term future for humanity.

Corporations talk about "sustainable development" - but this translates into "keeping on doing what we've always done and getting away with it."

Some degree of climate change is now inevitable.

Utopia used to be viewed as an impractical wish - now it's a plan.

Are we in the Wiley Coyote moment? I.e., have we run off the cliff with our legs still spinning, and we're waiting for the realization that we're about to fall before falling?

It is still possible, even at this late stage, to switch to a carbon-neutral society. So we are talking Science Fiction, not Fantasy when we talk about establishing a utopia on Earth.

There is immense political resistance from industry to reducing carbon dependence. The carbon industry is using the tobacco industry's obfuscation techniques to confuse people about the state of the world. Robinson claimed that the carbon industry conducted a series of scientific tests to figure out how best to confuse people over the issue - and it's worked. We need an active political campaign to steamroll the resistance. When we realize that carbon kills in the same way that tobacco kills, things will change.

Rapid cultural change is possible, and has happened in the past.

Two groups of humans are causing the worst environmental damage: the richest third, who are destroying the world with their hyperconsumption, and the poorest third, who are destroying the world just trying to feed their families. Both groups have to go away.

With hyperconsumption comes the crazies. Groups who consume thirty times the resources of another group per capita are not thirty times happier - it's more like twice as happy.

A Swiss study has shown that it is possible to live a comfortable and pleasant low-carbon life.

Robinson issued a plea for a return to the pleasures of the paleolithic lifestyle: gardening, walking, face-to-face socializing. We still live a paleolithic life (we still eat, travel, communicate), but everything has either been augmented or virtualized by technology. The paleolithic norm has now been reduced to paid-for holidays. Every sport is just a variation on the paleolithic pleasure of throwing rocks at things. You can do what makes you happy and healthy as an animal in a paleolithic way with a very small carbon burn.

The world only has about six months of food at any given time. It would only take a minor disaster in the food supply chain to scare the whole world. We are all on a tightrope. We all have to agree to balance together, which is hard as some people are deliberately jumping up and down trying to disrupt things.

When asked by a member of the audience how he reconciles his call to reduce carbon burn with flying half way around the world to attend WorldCon, he said that he would have travelled to Jupiter to be Guest of Honour at a WorldCon. He keeps track of his carbon burn and tries to keep it low, but the trip to Australia certainly blew his carbon budget.

1pm - Panel: The Race to the Red Planet

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Panelists: Kim Stanley Robinson, David D. Levine, Jim Benford.

This was a discussion about whether we should send people to Mars, and how we might do it if we consider it worth it. They started off by saying that while the Mars rovers have been very successful, there are not very efficient in terms of science return. People are much better at working around problems and working with ambiguous situations than machines are. The science return will be much greater if we can send people instead of or as well as rovers.

However, sending people to Mars is hard. It's a long way there and a long way back. Mars is very cold and gets little solar energy. The dust is a constant problem and gets into all devices. Colonizing Mars would be a massive, long-term investment.

Robinson said that his own novels about the exploration, colonization, and terraforming of Mars should be considered an allegory of life on Earth, NOT a blueprint for conquering Mars. I found this an interesting comment, because his books often ARE considered to be just such a blueprint. He said we should treat Mars as a place of Special Scientific Interest, like Antarctica.

While the panel agreed that exploring and/or colonizing Mars is a very long term goal, they pointed out that study of the Red Planet has great scientific potential, in that comparative planetology will help us understand Earth. According to some theories Mars might once have been more hospitable to life than Earth, and that indeed life in the Solar System may well have originated on Mars, and been transported to Earth via meteorite. If we find that life emerged separately on Mars and Earth, then it will probably be fair to conclude that life is common in the galaxy.

Benford talked about the recent discovery of equatorial methane plumes in the Martian atmosphere. Methane molecules get destroyed within about 200 years, so some process on Mars is producing methane. There is no evidence that this methane is volcanic or cometary in nature. Other sources have not been ruled out, but it's looking increasingly likely that the surplus methane has a metabolic origin - perhaps being created by colonies of sub-surface bacteria.

Mars is not a dead dirt ball. Mars used to be a blank screen on which we could cast our utopian ideas. But it is clear that the more we look the more interesting it becomes: it is a real and fascinating place.

Figuring out what kind of propulsion system we'd need for a Mars mission is hard. Chemical rockets are infeasible, and ion drives are far too slow. In the absence of solar flares, a minimum-energy transit to Mars would increase the cancer risk to astronauts by about 1%. But a large solar flare would kill them outright. So we need a propulsion system that can get astronauts to Mars fast, and we need to figure out how to keep them safe from solar flares. Benford suggested nuclear rockets such as those studied early in the atomic age would be needed: they can cut the transit time down to around 80 days. Also, nuclear power sources will be needed for Martian bases, as there just isn't enough solar energy available. Such nuclear rockets would have to be assembled in orbit. And there would be considerable objection to launching nuclear reactors into space.

Robinson objected strongly to a suggestion from the audience that we should colonize Mars as an insurance policy for humankind - to continue the species even if the Earth gets trashed. He said that we need to sort out the Earth's problems rather than put resources into establishing some kind of bolt-hole.

2pm - Talk: Mission to "Mars"

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Speaker: David D. Levine.

The Mars Society maintains a Mars Desert Research Station in the Utah desert. The idea is that people live there, doing their best to simulate a Martian base. Levine is a SF writer who spent two weeks living at the base as part of Expedition 88. His talk was profusely illustrated with slides showing what the base is like and what their day-to-day activities consisted of.

There was a long delay before the talk started while the techies tried to patch his Mac into the auditorium's AV system. Levine kept the audience amused by performing a commendable version of Monty Python's Philosophers' Song.

Levine expressed an interest in being part of an expedition, and got slotted into Expedition 88 as the official expedition journalist with only a couple of weeks notice because someone else had to drop out.

The main module at the base consists of a round two-storied hut 8m across called the Habitat. Nearby are the glasshouse and observatory modules. These modules are connected to the Habitat by paths designated as pressurized tunnels. Thus no spacesuit is need to travel between the modules. However, anytime a crew member leaves this network of modules and tunnels, they must wear a simulated Martian spacesuit. This consists of a set of overalls, a large "fish bowl" helmet, and a back-pack that holds a battery and a fan which blows air into the helmet. Time outside is limited to the duration of the charge on the battery - if your battery runs out, your air runs out, and you are 'dead'.

The base recycles all its water through the plants growing in the glasshouse. Levine found that about a half of every day was spent just in water management.

He loved going out on EVAs, even though this was a major hassle - having to suit up and simulate cycling the airlock. He loved the desert and loved exploring on their Mars rovers (actually quad bikes).

The experiments being conducted by the others in the group consisted of: tests to see how much work was slowed down by having to wear space suits; looking for microfossils in the surrounding deposits; looking for extremophile bacteria of a sort that might exist on Mars.

4pm - Presentation: Weta Digital

Presenter: Norman Cates.

Cates described how he came to work for Weta Digital after meeting Weta founder Richard Taylor at an SF convention.

He presented a fascinating series of videos showing some stuff that Weta had done. In each case you saw the finished shot, and then a series showing how each successive layer of detail or simulation was added to the initial live shots. By far the best sequence was one I'd never seen before, an ad that Weta did featuring a man stumbling and falling down a very steep street, collecting detritus and other pedestrians as he tumbled down the road, snowballing into a huge ball of cars and people and street stalls and furniture and wedding parties all manner of stuff, before crashing against a building. The finished shot was hilarious enough, but it was even funnier to see the green-screen rig they built on a soundstage somewhere: it was a real ball of junk with live actors strapped into it rotating on its axis while suspended in the air. Cates showed us the various layers going into the final version of the scene where the ball crashes against the building. As the dust layer went on he said, "Ah dust, that great coverer of mistakes."

He talked about working on The Lovely Bones, about how strange it was to hear two people arguing about what heaven looked like when neither believed in the place.

Cates is a compositor, and said that it is often cheaper to do things at the composition stage than at the render stage.

He demonstrated the 'virtual camera' system that Weta set up for James Cameron to use while directing his motion-captured actors during the shooting of Avatar. The director could move the virtual camera around the physical soundstage, and it would show on its screen a rough render of what a real camera would record were it really at that point and orientation on Pandora.

5pm - Panel: Objects in Space: The Giant Artefact in Science Fiction

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Panelists: Mark Olson, Alastair Reynolds, Alan Stewart.

This was a very disappointing and waffly panel discussion about the Big Dumb Object trope in SF. A BDO is an inscrutable, mysterious, and stupendously huge alien artefact. Stories about them usually involve a small group of humans trying to understand what the thing is for.

Niven's Ringworld is the archetype for the BDO. Other early examples were Clarke's Rama and Budrys's Rogue Moon. Rama was an interesting example in that there was nothing about it that we couldn't understand - no FTL drive, no superscience - it's basically just a huge O'Neill colony.

There is something appealing about the threatening alien thing that we don't understand.

Do Banks and Reynolds represent the resurrection of the BDO in modern SF?

How much about a BDO should a writer reveal? The explanation of the mystery is almost never satisfying. Writers feel the pressure to reveal too much backstory. To be a satisfying BDO story, the writer has to solve some of the mysteries and leave some of the mysteries in place. If they don't do both the result is an unsatisfying story.

BDOs are like the mystery of the Pyramids writ large.

Why do so many BDOs get blown up at the end of the story?

SF hasn't finished with the BDO. There are still many BDO stories to be told. A new book - Godlike Machines - is about to be released. It features six BDO stories.

8pm - The Hugo Awards

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Having been reading about the Hugo Awards since I was a kid, it was a big thrill and a great privilege to be able to attend the 2010 ceremony. Compere Garth Nix did a good job, talking about how he had tracked down Asimov's cowboy boots and Heinlein's bow tie to give him confidence. He mentioned that as a kid he wanted to be a Time Lord, and talked about his confusion about the Martian feature Nix Olympus - he thought it was named in celebration of his family's sporting prowess! He also suggested that the Hugos were going to be decided by a series of Death Cage matches - the irony of which was not lost on the audience when the most interesting result of the night was announced: that there was a tie for Best Novel, between the two favourites The City and the City and The Windup Girl. Mieville gave a very funny acceptance speech, saying how as a kid there were two things he desperately wanted: a Hugo Award and those Sea Monkeys advertised in the back of comics. Many years later he finally got some Sea Monkeys. "And thus are dreams crushed. For Sea Monkeys are shit." So at least he now has a Hugo Award with which to console himself.

Charlie Stross was so sure that he wasn't going to win that he hadn't prepared an acceptance speech. And Peter Watts was so super-sure that he wasn't going to win that he hadn't even bothered to dress formally for the ceremony!

Shaun Tan's comment that "we're weird and that's OK" was met with approval.

Cheryl Morgan took her iPad on stage with her to accept her award for Best Semiprozine, explaining that she was live-blogging the event.

When Phil and Kaja Foglio accepted the award for Best Graphic Novel, Phil thanked their children, left behind in the States: "They've long since come to accept that we love SF more than them."

It was a fun evening, and I am very pleased to have been present.

More pictures from the Hugos are available here.

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