A couple of weekends ago — has it been that long? — I traveled up to exotic Walnut Creek to gather with fellow readers and writers to talk about genre books, movies, and other bits of geekery at FOGcon. As always it was a fun event, which included tons of coffee and a little booze and karaoke and other such things.
Honored Guests were Jo Walton, Ted Chiang, and Donna Haraway, with Octavia Butler services as Honored Ghost.
Lots of great thinky things at the panels this year to mentally chew on. Nom, nom. The panels tended to be more focused on science discussions that reading and writing discussions, but it was fascinating nonetheless.
The Developing Reality of Intelligent Machines looked at how AI is perceived in fiction and films as a self-aware being compared to how intelligent technology in the real world today is being used to provide better ways to solve problems. The intelligent machines of today are incredibly advanced in how they have been programed to serve human needs. But, as the panelists noted, these computers and machines are limited to their programming — they will do what they are programmed to do. So the concern is not so much about machines suddenly becoming self aware and taking over the world, but who is running the machines and to what purposes are they setting them to.
And even if a machine were to become self aware, it would be questionable as to whether human beings would recognize the moment when it occurred. It’s assumed (in movies and fiction) that AIs would think in the same ways that we do, however, that is not necessarily the case. Someone from the audience stated that the singularity is now, bringing up the game of Go (apparently more complex than chess) taking place between a computer and Go champion that evening (which the computer won).
The From Caterpillar to Butterfly panel delved into the weirdness of nature, from parthenogenesis to penis fencing flatworms to interesting mistakes in biology. We discussed the adorable tardigrade, or water bearer, an adorable micro-animal that is the only creature known to be able to survive in hard vacuum; a multitude of amazing plants (such as a vine that can change its leaves to match the tree they’re on); and animals that can change their gender (such as the clown fish, all of which are male, except for the biggest and baddest, which becomes the only female). The lesson, for me, was that in designing alien or strange species of animals with interesting biology and social structure, a writer can definitely turn to the natural world for inspiration of many kinds. Recommended Reading: The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution by Richard Dawkins and Dr. Tatiana’s Sex Advice to All Creation by Olivia Judson.
Other great panels (which I’m going to go into less detail on, because time):
The Ethics of Magic discussed how the rules of magic are presented in stories. For example, the rules of Star Wars present the Jedi as the “good guys” despite some deeply troubling and morally ambiguous aspects to their order. Recommended Reading: Wildseed by Octavia Butler.
Are 72 Letters Enough? In Search of a Perfect Language tried to define what was meant by “perfect.” For some this was a language that was unabiguous and complete, able to portray every thing in existence accurately. The discussion lead into how often the concept of the “true name” for things comes up in fiction, among many other things. Recommended Reading: The Search for a Perfect Language by Umberto Eco and “TAP” by Greg Egan.
Homo Sapiens Tekhne: Assistive Devices and Body Modification in Science Fiction and Fantasy looked at the past and present of human body modifications, from tatoos and piercings to assistive devices and cell phones, as well as looking at how body modification is handled in stories. Recommended Reading: Runtime by S.B. Divya.
And finally, Domestic Fantasy: Transforming the Domestic looked at how the domestic scene, family and home, are portrayed in fantasy stories. Recommended Reading: Necessary Beggar by Susan Palwick and Little, Big by John Crowley.
The Book Haul
I went rather light on the book haul this year, as I was trying to keep my bookshelves from topping down and crushing me beneath a ginormous pile of books. My grabs:
- Rolling in the Deep by Seanan McGuire – a limited edition, signed copy, which I didn’t realize at the time
- Trafalgar by Angelica Gorodischer
- The Neat Sheats, poetry by James Tiptree, Jr.
- The Fantod Pack by Edward Gorey
- and three editions of Fantasy & Science Fiction
*sleepy, happy sigh*
FOGcon is one of my favorite events of the year, and already I’m looking forward to 2017. The theme next year will be Interstitial Spaces (intermediate spaces between one thing and another), which is a topic I find fascinating.