by Nalini Haynes
Continuum 7, the Victorian state science fiction convention 7, the Victorian state science fiction convention, was held over the Queen’s Birthday long weekend, 10 to 13 June 2011. Located centrally at Ether in Melbourne, in the basement of a hotel on Little Bourke Street, with easy access to coffee shops, a variety of eateries and public transport. Although there was no natural light, Ether provided reasonable lighting with down-lights offsetting traditional fluorescent lights. The rooms were mostly suitable although the foyer could have used a few more comfy chairs. A lounge room with comfy chairs would have been nice, but the games room, with its board tables and ergo chairs never seemed to be full. Plenty of filtered water was provided with clean glasses. Access to the lifts seemed to be through a large swing door. I’m not sure how well this catered to the wheeled attendees.
David Freer and Catherynne M. Valente were the guest speakers for this conference, both of whom were articulate, intelligent and friendly. Numerous authors, podcasters and some artists attended, giving depth and variety to the various panels, from which there were usually a few to choose. Programming allowed for attendees to have lunch and dinner breaks, which I thought was excellent.
First off the bat for me was ‘Continuum 101’, offering advice on how to get the most out of the convention. The basic advice was the 5-2-1 rule, where experienced conference goers both recommended and requested that people have a minimum of 5 hours sleep per night (not per convention), at least 2 good meals a day and at least one shower per day, noting the latter as this was a shared space. Apparently people have collapsed at conventions because they’ve broken this rule, had too little sleep due to room parties and programming, and haven’t eaten enough. Danny Oz recommended choosing only a few ‘must see’ items in the program so that people can go with the flow and enjoy the experience rather than feeling bad because they haven’t kept to a self-imposed over-full program.
Next was a half hour chat by Bruce Gillespie and Tim Train, both of whom are zine creators, talking about the ongoing impact of technology and cultural shifts on zines. Tim and Bruce discussed the history of zines and traditional zines’ decreasing circulation in recent years. Bruce acknowledged that a zine organisation, ANZAPA I think it was called, used to have a limit to the number of members, restricted its readership to its membership and refused to be included in the National Library Archives. Membership is currently below capacity. Discussion included Bill Burns’ website, where electronic fanzines are posted, facilitating networking and distribution of efanzines worldwide.
The Chronos Awards, a people’s choice awards for SF and Fantasy creators living in Victoria, were presented next. Presentation was a humorous affair, with recipients missing in action (chatting in the foyer?) and one, our much-beloved Shaun Tan, in Europe receiving the Nobel Prize-equivalent for literature. A few recipients came forward to accept their awards. Paul Collins was awarded his A. Bertrand Chandler Award a second time as he wasn’t at the NatCon for the original presentation. Paul’s list of achievements, the justification for the award, was quite impressive.
Books were launched on a semi-regular basis on Friday, Saturday and Sunday along with a number of book readings. A cash bar in the foyer supported these events, although a wider variety of drinks would have been nice (some cider for non-beer drinkers!). Paul Collins and Richard Harland launched books on the Friday night.
The Great Debate is an Australian Comedy Festival tradition that has extended into conventions. The topic was Immortality. Moderated by Jack Dann, who assured us he is Australian now. (With that accent?!) The debate was entertaining. The affirmative, arguing for immortality, were Heath Miller, Catherynne M. Valente and Kirstyn McDermott. For the negative, arguing for mortality and the need to die, were David Freer, Narelle Harris and Richard Harland. The debate is traditionally decided by the volume of applause of the audience, but when that failed to give a definitive result, it was decided by a show of hands. I personally thought the negative had the better points but I felt, along with the majority of the audience, that the affirmative argued more persuasively and more humorously. Jack Dann awarded the plastic wicket (that he renamed the ‘3 penis award’) to the affirmative.
New Melbourne Browncoats launched themselves as a new incorporated body and launched the beginning of this year’s season of Can’t Stop the Serenity. There was a quiz, a couple of items were auctioned and Act 1 of Dr Horrible was shown. Although not the end of the night for the convention, this was the end for me as I had a long trek home and needed sleep.
Saturday for me began with the opening ceremony, a short opening with a film sequence spliced together from excerpts of famous movies followed by a few short speeches. Catherynne’s Guest of Honour speech followed at midday. Catherynne read out her short story ’13 ways of looking at space/time’. This was an interesting short story with 13 ‘chapters’. Catherynne said the reaction to this story being published in a fiction magazine was mixed, with some vociferous emotional reactions – people were angry that a short story based partially on personal truth was published in a fiction magazine. Catherynne’s story is here.
Boxcutters ran a live podcast panel called ‘Boxcutters asks a question – Australia has a great tradition of SF and fantasy children’s television, but why don’t we make it for adults?’ Josh Kinal and John Richards from Boxcutters moderated the discussion between Chris Gist, ABC Commissioning Editor in Melbourne, Philip Dalkin, writer on Sea Patrol and Stingers etc, David Napier, director of K9, and Mark Shirrefs, co-creator of Spellbinder & The Girl from Tomorrow.
The insights they gave were interesting as well as disappointing. In a nutshell, the reason we don’t see more quality SF and Fantasy TV made in Australia is cost, the cost of the show, lack of understanding of the market and genre (Channel 9 especially – see Dark Matter Issue 2, the article on Armageddon including Ben Browder’s comments on working for Channel 9 on Farscape). This panel is here.
Next up for me was the Alternative Energy Panel with David Freer, Tiki Swain, Ben McKenzie and one other. With a self-supporting marine scientist, a PhD and research assistant, and a scientific commentator on the panel, this was interesting and informative. A large part of the discussion revolved around alternative energy sources and their real costs. Some energy sources, such as solar energy, have hidden detrimental costs that are not commonly taken into consideration. For example, the batteries used to store solar energy are full of acid. Also alternative fuels, such as bio-diesel, have a cost in terms of replacing food crops and displacing carbon dioxide. Discussion also ranged into sustainability, covering issues such as self-support and energy efficiency – for example, building better houses. The most interesting aspects of this panel for me were some of the alternative power sources I hadn’t heard of before, providing endless fodder for SF stories.
‘Do uploads dream of electric sheep’ was next, with panellists Catherynne M. Valente, David Cake, M1k3y and Christopher ‘Ruz’ Hayes-Kossmann. Discussion revolved around duality – are mind and body separate? Can the mind be separated from the body? For the sake of furthering discussion, the panel agreed that the mind could be separated from the body. Catherynne took the argument further, saying that if that technology was available, then it would be possible to simulate the effects of the hippocampus and amigdala in order to choose whether an event has an emotional reaction. None of the panellists referred to Iain M. Banks’ Surface Detail and his hypotheses around uploading personality.
‘Mind and Perceptions’ was the next panel on my list – possibly, just maybe, because I was a panellist. ‘Audience’ is the wrong term to describe the non-panelists in the room, because they were highly involved in the discussion, asking questions and contributing opinions throughout. We touched on a number of topics all too briefly to do them justice, everything from evolution as it pertains to emotion (had the hive mind in Dark City evolved beyond love or had they not yet evolved to the point of being able to love? What is love?) to drugs; is a change of mood (depression to contentment) a loss or change of personality? Is an exoskeleton (or wheelchair) such as in Dark Angel a valid tool for use of the disabled? Mind-wipes – are the bodies responsible? (Passing Through Gethsemane, Babylon 5). I enjoyed this panel, and the audience participation so much, I think I’ll volunteer for a few more panels next year.
After the panel I needed a break, so I took an extended dinner break before returning for the costume parade and Maskobalo. At the base of the stairs, there were a choice of ‘doors’ to pass through for entry. A tardis and a wardrobe with a lamppost and snow behind were the two doorways, although a wide path was left to enable access for wheeled attendees to view both sides (elevator access was through another door). David Freer and Catherynne M. Valente judged the costume parade, then the dancing began. Music included some classic pop music as well as SF tracks. A tardis console stood before the DJ, to the delight of attendees young and old. In a ‘time out’ room, there were toadstools, comfy chairs, minature tea sets and decorative lighting. It was easier to have conversations in this room. Some people also hung out in the games room. From the attendance, this event is not overly popular at Continuum; perhaps it is a combination of Melbourne’s numerous cosplay groups not being aware of the ball, and the Continuum attendees tending towards the more conservative. However, it doesn’t take a crush to make a Maskobalo successful.
Sunday began for me with the panel ‘Sexuality and ethnicity in Modern Fantasy’, with panellists Catherynne M. Valente, Alice Clarke, Emily de Rango, Riannon Kraft and Kirsty Sculler. The discussion focused on ‘good’ and ‘bad’ representations of non-traditional sexuality and ethnicity in fantasy. For example, Catherynne criticised A Game of Thrones on the basis that she would have liked to have seen treatment of characters with homosexual relationships portrayed less realistically and in a more positive light. Catherynne argued that it’s fantasy so everything can be changed. Trudi Canavan’s The Rogue was held up as an example of approrpriate writing becaue Trudi’s writing does not differentiate between relationships regardless of orientation, although same sex couples suffer discrimination in some societies. Other topics included
• society’s reception of straight actors playing gay men as ‘making’ or proving their careers, in contrast with portrayal of lesbian relationships as ‘soft’ acting.
• Defining a character by ethnicity in the sense of ‘he’s X colour, therefore he’s bad’, and the double standard imposed when white mistreating black with the goal of showing it’s bad to treat black that way, as opposed to black mistreating white with the goal of showing the reverse is bad – the latter is perceived to be racist although the moral is the same in terms of seeking to improve race relations.
• The lack of ethnic variety in Australian television, including tokenism such as Neighbours importing a Chinese actor from New Zealand because they ‘couldn’t’ get a Chinese actor in Australia.
David Freer’s guest of honour speech provided a potted history of his life and career as well as exhibiting his sense of humour. When Dave talked to Dark Matter, there was significant (although not consistent), overlap in the conversation. I highly recommend reading or listening to Dave’s interview.
I took the rest of the day off and went home with an upset stomach. This was disappointing, but provided a valuable lesson – eat and drink carefully during a convention.
‘Pick an Era, Any Era’, was an excellent panel with which to begin Monday. Panelists were Dave Freer, Jack Dann, Richard Harland, Erika Lacey and Paul Poulton. The moderator had done his homework, bringing along a selection of alternative history books. The panel discussed alternative history novels, how so many stem from similar ‘twists’ in history, and some less common points of divergence from actual history. As Dave pointed out, a distinct advantage of alternative history is that you don’t have to construct a detailed new world for a setting, instead our world provides the basis for the fictional world, with points of difference defined by the ramifications of the event or technology that caused the divergence.
While I intended to attend the panel ‘Crones, witches and marginalised power in fairytales’, I scheduled my interview with Dave Freer during this time, using Murphy’s Law and a biblical precept (there are 2 types of people in this world, the quick and the dead) as my justification for getting that interview done as soon as possible. To my surprise I was told the panel refused to discuss any Discworld material as they said Terry Pratchett should have a panel of his own (but didn’t).
‘Forget the dice: Roleplaying as a Story telling experience’ was the panel after lunch with Catherynne M. Valente, Hespa, Gareth Hodges and Patrick O’Duffy. Ben McKenzie was in the audience, not on the panel, which was a disappointment as Ben MC’s Melbourne’s Dungeon Crawl, a theatre improv comedy based on role playing games. This panel tended to focus on comparisons of various role playing games and the technicalities of each game. I was a little disappointed in this panel as my experience of role playing games outside of computers ended in the 1980s, shortly after I rebelled against a party leader who treated everyone’s characters as supporting NPCs to his main character. I split the party and headed off on my own, thoroughly enjoying the experience of actually playing the game as a participant. However, the DM allowed the party leader to take over the game and my character shortly afterwards. It wasn’t that long afterwards that the DM and I separated… Since then, my experience of role-playing is entirely computer based, as it doesn’t require knowing the right people and being able to synchronise timetables. This panel had minimal discussion of computer based role playing games.
‘Adult content in Fantasy lit’ starred Crisetta MacLeod, Richard Harland, Karen Healey and Steve Rossiter. The discussion focused on distinguishing between adults-only, YA-only and all-ages for literature, the problems associated with distinctions or lack thereof. Censorship, readers disliking age-related categories, and readers consuming age-inappropriate content were some of the issues discussed.
The closing ceremony was brief, and included a raffle draw for a free Continuum 8 membership. Yours truly won the raffle! I was so stunned, I thought she was just calling my name for a different reason – like not paying attention in class. It took a few seconds to sink in. This raffle prize membership will ensure Dark Matter has a report for Continuum 8 in 2012.