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Miscellaneous ArmadilloCon 2003 panels

Some memorable or amusing moments from panels where I didn't take enough notes to yield an article of its own:

Ideas Somebody Should Write a Book About

Looking for an idea? Watch our panelists brainstorm.

Frontiers in Weird Research

What's the latest strange discovery? Our panel talks about the most recent results and odd topics they've seen.

Inventing the Next Frontier

Looking for new ground in speculative fiction, art and science.

Ideas Somebody Should Write a Book About

Participants: Suzy McKee Charnas, Steven Gould, Dotti Enderle, C. J. Mills (Moderator), Cary G. Osborne, Mikal Trimm

Topic, according to the convention program: Looking for an idea? Watch our panelists brainstorm.

General impression: some of these panelists apparently don't read (much) science fiction and have even less idea about it than I do.

Mikal Trimm says he will scream if someone again uses nanotech in a story as a way to make magic happen.

Dotti Enderle. I don't even know what nanotech is. Is it really small things? I write fantasy.

C. J. Mills suggests an idea about cloning: "You go into a phone booth, put on a helmet, you get downloaded into a clone. [...or something)]". She asks: does a clone come with a soul or does the soul need to be inserted too? (I don't know what kind of SF she writes but it can't be hard SF. -- E.) Another of her ideas: a vampire family counselor.

Steven Gould. My therapist sucks. (Laughter in the audience.)

Dotti Enderle. So, a story about a vampire that gets downloaded with the help of nanotechnology.

Mikal Trimm. There are a lot of religions and ways of life that are underused as a background for a character, where it underscores the character's motivation. Such novels could be very powerful, because you don't know so much about that religion. Examples: Zelazny's "Lord of Light" or "Creatures of Light and Darkness".

Steven Gould. There is a short story about Amish or Mennonite on an alien planet, interacting with aliens.

Dotti Enderle. I'd like to see a book about a higher being who created a religion to mess with humans on a planet.

Voice from audience: "Sandkings" by George R. R. Martin. Also, "Creatures of Light and Darkness".

Cary G. Osborne. A vampire or some kind of monster that's not Christian. E.g. a Jewish vampire.

Steven Gould. He's not affected by Christian... [symbols, like the cross?]

Dotti Enderle. I read a short story about a vampire who was a sun worshipper.

Then for a while they discuss an idea suggested by the audience: ovulation on demand. I.e. what would happen if women could control their own fertility by ovulating only when they wanted to. Unfortunately, I don't remember any salient points of this discussion.

Mikal Trimm. Some things will have to be addressed: e.g. interaction between Christianity and Islam. How will they coexist in future? Orson Scott Card had to change some of the books he recently wrote because of recent events. (I'm not sure if he's talking about 9/11 or some other kind of recent events so momentous they don't need to be named? -- E.)

Dotti Enderle. Suppose this (...?) gets some DNA from the Shroud of Turin, injects it into (...?) and she gives birth to Jesus? Son of Jesus?

A Voice from the audience: it has been done!

Another voice from the audience: Write a nice novel about Christian theocracy in a powerful capitalist country. (Laughter in the audience.)

Dotti Enderle. Or a book about an author who write children's books about magic that sold for billions of dollars, and then it turns out she was writing about real life. She was really magic.

A Voice from the audience: How about a future society where Mormonism becomes a dominant religion? Not just here, but in Europe.

Mikal Trimm. When you are writing about a western religion, it's an impulse to say it's bad. Because you know it so well you know its downsides. Why not write a book where Christianity or a dominant religion is better than usual?

Dotti Enderle tells a true story that happened to her. She was kicked out of Barnes & Noble in Dallas where she was signing her book because of a crystal ball on her table. The manager said "it's slow in here, why don't you pack up and leave?", although Enderle had sold 40+ copies of her book by then. She started asking the manager why was she trying to get her to leave, and the manager finally admitted she was a Christian and she was offended by the crystal ball.

Dotti Enderle. Taking example from Stephen King, how about a story about a writer who is a terrorist and holds hostages until his books reach the NY Times bestseller list?

A voice from the audience. Combine a idea of LCD animated tattoos [which Steven Gould mentioned earlier] with the idea of flash mobs. For example, some guy organizes flash mobs in order to expose them to subcutaneous advertising.

Steven Gould. Or a hacker hacks people so that when they walk by, their tattoos start showing something he programmed.

(I'm starting to get an impression that their ideas have the same quality that a New York Times critic noticed in J. K. Rowling's work: he called it "domesticated magic". Just like J. K. Rowling's magic is kind of specialized, where every magic object has a very specific, often domestic purpose, these writers' ideas strike me as something similar, in that they may be cute, but not very global in their scope. -- E.)

A voice from the audience. Some people get incredible experiences when reading books. One could sell implants with some very good book-reading experiences downloaded on them, then others could download them and experience the same.

Frontiers in Weird Research

Participants: Arlan Andrews, Tom Becker, Alexis Glynn Latner, Elizabeth Moon, Wendy Wheeler (Moderator)

Topic, according to the convention program: What's the latest strange discovery? Our panel talks about the most recent results and odd topics they've seen.

General impression: I was hoping that "weird" in the title meant "cutting edge", or "paradigm-changing", or something like that, but apparently the panelists took it to mean "weird in a cute way", or maybe simply "obscure". None of the research examples they mentioned were earth-shattering, and several of them I've already heard about, so it can't be very much of a "frontier". :-)

Tom Becker works for a cell-sorting company, and he talks about cell sorting as a kind of presumably weird research. His company focuses on T-cells, which may lead to a vaccine for AIDS.

One of the things Elizabeth Moon would like to see happening is mapping the brain neuron-by-neuron, which, she thinks, is still 20-25 years away.

Elizabeth Moon. "We are finding out that not all brains work alike. We'll find out which brain cells die (and they have to die, otherwise their multiplication would result in a tumor) and how experience shapes the brain. Autism, for example, will be a problem in cognitive neurology rather than psychiatry."

Alexis Glynn Latner. Rice university rides the nanotechnology horse, although they won't use the term. They'll say "nanoscale science". In the Center for Biological and Environmental Nanotechnology (so they do use the term "nanotechnology" in the very name of the center? -- E.) a woman focuses on nanospheres as a treatment for breast cancer.

Wendy Wheeler mentions a book "Jacobson's Organ" by Lyall Watson. It investigates the vomeronasal organ, a cross between smell and taste. The vomeronasal organ accepts molecules that the sense of smell doesn't pick up and takes the information to the region of hindbrain, the area of deep instincts. The book highlights research on how the signals sent by the vomeronasal organ affects people's behavior. The vomeronasal organs may be harmed or destroyed by plastic surgery on the nose, so getting a cute button nose may change a person's behavior, for example, they won't pick up on some signals. The vomeronasal organ is a new sense organ in addition to our five senses.

Elizabeth Moon and Alexis Glynn Latner talk about extremophiles, species [of microbes?] that live in places of extremely hostile conditions: vents in deep ocean, Antarctica, geysers. Those conditions are so extreme that you would think nothing would live there, yet they are adjusted to that particular niche. Latner points out that this raises a possibility that some microbes may live on Mars too. Moon adds: or under ice sheets on Europa.

Speaking of evolution, Tom Becker thinks that evolution is a way to understand more than biology: engineering systems are so complex nowadays that evolution may be the only way to understand them. He is very concerned about genetically modified organisms, because by engineering those organisms we are affecting evolution and thereby breeding the most resistant aggressors. We are doing to pests what antibiotics have done to bacteria.

Elizabeth Moon. There was an article in "Nature" a few years ago "Why aren't cows green", which suggested genetically engineering solar panel cows to raise in the sub-Saharan region, in deserts.

Tom Becker. We have to make pigs and chickens green, so we'll have green eggs and ham. (Laughter in the audience.)

Inventing the Next Frontier

Participants:Lou Anders, Arlan Andrews, Laura Mixon, John Picacio (Moderator), Mary Rosenblum, Bruce Sterling

Topic, according to the convention program: Looking for new ground in speculative fiction, art and science.

John Picacio opens the panel by asking participants which science fiction authors could be described as the "next frontier". Or maybe his question was more general, not just which authors but which genres, topics, ideas...

Bruce Sterling. New issue of Locus on British SF was pretty good. Charles Stross is the weirdest guy working in SF, and so is Cory Doctorow. The greatest thing was watching "Lord of the Rings" and "Harry Potter" take over pop culture. People find more hope reading a 50-year-old book by a British writer than they find in modern SF. Why is our mainstream society so enamored by 50 year old fantasy?

Mary Rosenblum. Maybe because it doesn't offend anyone except religious right.

Bruce Sterling apparently disagrees. "People in former soviet states get beaten by police over Tolkien."

Lou Anders continues on the topic on how the ideas and themes most popular in SF and fantasy today are several decades old. "The Matrix", he says, is a distillation of 20-year-old ideas. That means that China Mieville won't become popular until 20-25 years from now.

Is there such a thing as a cutting edge in fantasy? wonders Lou Anders. If there is, then China Mieville is it.

Bruce Sterling. I sense a severe diconnection in our society and consequences of our own actions. Hence the fascination with 50-year-old fantasy. Most powerful person on the planet is Osama Bin Laden, a necromancer. His shadow hangs over the planet. He's a wizard, he's an active woodoo. (Sterling then makes an association between Al Qaeda and Asimov's "Foundation" series, that I didn't quite catch. Apparently it plays up the fact that "Al Qaeda" means "Base". -- E.)

"What is it you can say to people that would attract their attention?" - continues Bruce Sterling. - "We can't write 'The Lord of the Rings' again. After 40 years, it's too worn."

John Picacio. Fantasy won't provide the next frontier, it has to come from science fiction.

Bruce Sterling then tosses around a few names: Cory Doctorow and what he calls his "pals" (Corry Doctorow's, that is): Karl Schroeder, Charles Wilson, Margaret Atwood.

John Picacio talks about "Live Without a Net", an anthology edited by Lou Anders. It examines what happens when writers put aside the cyber tropes and replace them with something else.

Overall, John Picacio keeps trying to keep the discussion on target by asking guiding questions, but he's not having much luck with it, since Bruce Sterling keeps going off on his numerous, entertaining tangents. Along the same lines as the memorable Osama-necromancer comparison, he calls J. K. Rowling an "ironing board phenomenon". I didn't quite understand why. Did he imply that J. K. Rowling wrote on an ironing board in her days as a single mother? Even though it's well known that she used to write in Edinburgh coffeeshops?