Marcus L. Rowland (ffutures) wrote,
Marcus L. Rowland

Worldcon revisited

Got back so late last night that I never got round to livejournal. Let's see, what's happened since...

Friday 11.00 AM - Game Design; You've Read It, Could You Play It
This went pretty well, all things considered. We agreed that licensed games are frequently very unlike the source they're supposedly based on, that they can cause huge economic problems for the companies that make them, that Steve Jackson Games seem to be about the only RPG company doing it right, and that the old Babylon 5 RPG was possibly the worst licensed RPG ever. Not really much more to say on this.

Saturday 12.00 AM - Making a Good End Of it: Buffy and Angel
Broad agreement that Buffy jumped the shark in season 6 and didn't recover in S7, and that Angel did better but still fell apart towards the end of S5. Lots of arguments about the precised details, of course, good fun all round.

Saturday 2.30 PM - Edwardian SF
Me talking for half an hour on alternatives to Wells etc. Here's what I wrote for it, though there were obviously some differences as questions were asked and I was inevitably rushed - the actual time available was only 20 or so minutes with questions and the need to clear the room for the next panel.


My remit for this panel is to talk about Edwardian science fiction, which can be a little difficult since the authors probably didn't think of what they were writing as science fiction.

I'd better begin by explaining that I publish a role-playing game based on Victorian and Edwardian SF, and that all the stories I'll be mentioning have been used as source material for the game. The reason is partially that I used them for the game because they seemed particularly good examples of the genre, and partially that I have all of the text on my hard disk which made it easy to paste them into this talk. But there are undoubtedly many authors I've missed, especially in other languages, so please don't take anything that follows as a definitive list of worthwhile authors.

The author who comes to mind in discussing this period is Wells, but I for one think that he'd done his best work by the end of the 19th century. Instead I'm going to talk about some other authors who were active a little later, and try to explain why I think they're interesting.

My first candidate is someone you've probably heard of; Rudyard Kipling. He wrote two wonderful stories, With The Night Mail in 1905, and its sequel, As Easy As ABC, in 1911. The first is a wonderful example of world-building, a travelogue, in which the hero travels on a transatlantic airship in the year 2000 and encounters various incidents including a storm and an airship wreck. I should mention that the airships fly at 200mph or more, and appear to be nuclear powered.

The writing's vigorous but isn't that different from any article that might have been written at the same time describing a real voyage; what makes it different is that it was accomplished by articles and advertisements from "the magazine in which it appeared" - in 2000 AD! I should preface this example by explaining that digs are dirigibles,

MAN WANTED--DIG DRIVER for Southern Alps with Saharan summer trips. High levels, high speed, high wages.

Apply M. SIDNEY,
Hotel San Stefano, Monte Carlo.

FAMILY DIRIGIBLE. A Competent, steady man wanted for slow speed, low level Tangye dirigible. No night work, no sea trips. Must be member of the Church of England, and make himself useful in the garden.

M. R., The Rectory, Gray's Barton, Wilts.

I should warn you that some of the anthologies that include this story omit the extra material, which reduces the effect considerably. The sequel is a technothriller set about forty years later in which the Aerial Board of Control, essentially the air traffic controllers, have become the last vestige of government on Earth, with the sole job of making the airships run on time. When someone starts interfering with traffic the ABC sends its fleet to investigate. Here's an encounter with some rather interesting technology:

As we neared the garden gate I could have sworn we had stepped knee-deep in quicksand, for we could scarcely drag our feet against the prickling currents that clogged them. After five paces we stopped, wiping our foreheads, as hopelessly stuck on dry smooth turf as so many cows in a bog.

'Pest !' cried Pirolo angrily. We are ground-circuited. And it is my own system of ground-circuits too! I know the pull.'

'Good evening,' said a girl's voice from the verandah. 'Oh, I'm sorry! We've locked up. Wait a minute.'

We heard the click of a switch, and almost fell forward as the currents round our knees were withdrawn.

The girl laughed, and laid aside her knitting. An old-fashioned Controller stood at her elbow, which she reversed from time to time, and we could hear the snort and clank of the obedient cultivator half a mile away, behind the guardian woods.

'Come in and sit down,' she said. 'I'm only playing a plough..

In that scene we've got force fields and a remote-controlled plough that a little later turns out to be a fairly versatile robot. Some of the other technology includes biological engineering, sonic and light weapons, and something that sounds a lot like a plasma welder. There's also mention of radiation weapons, and the plot hints at a back history that includes global war, plague, and an intense fear of crowds. It's a tour-de-force of imaginative writing that wasn't equalled until the 1930s.

My next example is someone rather more obscure; George Griffith, an author who began his career in 1893 and died in 1907. His writing tends towards the sensational, and he's one of the men who helped to invent the techno-thriller with a series of novels about flying ships and future wars, which might have been amongst the influences behind The War of the Worlds. However, the story I particularly want to point at is a 1900 magazine series called Stories of Other Worlds, better known by the title of the novelization, A Honeymoon In Space. Briefly, an American scientist invents anti-gravity, meets a wealthy British aristocrat who agrees to fund his experiments, then dies just in time for the aristocrat to marry his daughter and take her on a honeymoon in the first spaceship, the Astronef. They go on a grand tour of the solar system - the Moon, Mars, Venus, Jupiter and Saturn, returning via Ceres and a fly-by of Mercury - accompanied only by their trusty engineer Murgatroyd. Along the way they meet friendly natives, run into a few mysteries, and blow away large numbers of Martians who have the misfortune to think that an alien spaceship might be a threat, and feel a strange attraction to the heroine:

A low murmur ran through the vast throng, a murmur, half-human, half-brutish, which swiftly rose to a hoarse, screaming roar.

"Look out, my lord! Quick! Shut the door, they're coming! It's her ladyship they want; she must look like an angel from Heaven to them. Shall I fire?"

"Yes," said Redgrave, gripping the lever, and bringing the door down. "Zaidie, if this fellow moves, put a bullet through him.

Inevitably she does. It isn't by any means the first space story, but it has some very nice features including what I think is the first reasonably convincing version of a space suit, air-locks, and aliens who don't speak English - in fact the hero and heroine never manage to learn any alien language, which makes rather more sense than some later stories. I should mention that the later novelization uses telepathy as a substitute at one point, to show beyond a doubt that the Martian massacre is justified, and I really wish that they hadn't because it weakens the story considerably.

Griffith's other novels are less notable, though there is quite a nice non-magical mummy story, but he's certainly someone worth reading, and in many ways he's a more readable writer than Wells.

Moving along very quickly, we have E Nesbit inventing something that feels a lot like our current idea of time travel to the future in The Story of the Amulet.

"There will be a future," said Cyril, driven to greater clearness by the blank faces of the other three, "there will be a time after we've found it. Let's go into that time- and then we shall remember how we found it. And then we can go back and do the finding really."

Needless to say things aren't quite that simple, and a little later we get this:

"How is it we can remember what we saw in the future, and yet, when we were in the future, we could not remember the bit of the future that was past then, the time of finding the Amulet?"

"Why, what a silly question!" said the Psammead, "of course you cannot remember what hasn't happened yet."

"But the future hasn't happened yet," Anthea persisted, "and we remember that all right."

"Oh, that isn't what's happened, my good child," said the Psammead, rather crossly.

In other words they've visited a possible future, and nothing is certain.

I could give more examples, such as Doyle's Professor Challenger stories and William Hope Hodgon's Carnacki the Ghost Finder, both of which are marginally SF, and there are many more examples out there. The problem with finding them is mainly that they didn't think of themselves as writing in a separate genre; as far as they were concerned they were simply writing stories, and perhaps they're best considered in that light.

I did actually say a little more than this, but that's all I'd prepared in advance and can now remember. All of the fiction mentioned is on my web site, - look at the source material for some of the Forgotten Futures games.

Finally, Saturday 7.00 PM - Game design: Realism versus playability
Mostly a question and answer session, in which I think we agreed that there needed to be a balance between the needs of the genre and the complexity of the system, and that the important thing was to have fun.

Apart from that hit a lot of panels, enjoyed myself, bumped into Terry Pratchett (who I haven't seen in a couple of years) and chatted for all of five minutes before someone appeared to drag him off to a panel, and in general had a good time.

Tomorrow I have one more panel

Sunday 5.00 PM - Getting a Game from Idea to Market Place
Problems, market forces, etc. Not moderating it, thank Cthulhu.

I'll also be running a Diana Warrior Princess game from about 2-4.430 ish if all goes to plan.

After that things ought to be a bit quieter, and I may even get to spend a few hours away from the site and visit other bits of Glasgow on Monday.

  • Post a new comment


    Anonymous comments are disabled in this journal

    default userpic

    Your reply will be screened