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Alison Scott

Considering the Best Fanzine of 2008

I realise that up to now I have said very little about fanzines here. I adore fanzines; old fanzines that crumble in my hands, paper fanzines that arrive in the post, virtual fanzines that paginate nicely on my iPhone (actually, I’m still waiting for one of them). And instead of heading for Denver this weekend, I’ll be sitting in a field. So I’ll naturally take some fanzines to read.

Three of the Hugos are given for fanac rather than professional writing; the Best Fanzine, Fan Writer and Fan Artist Hugos. Why Best Fanzine, rather than best blog, or fan fiction, or costume? A little quirk of history, I think; when the Hugos were invented, most fannish activity was taking place in fanzines and their letter columns. But anyway, the fact that the Worldcon still gives out these strange and slightly anachronistic awards is a chance to write a little about fanzines and why you might want to read some of them.

The five nominated fanzines this year include Plokta, which I co-edit with Steve Davies and Mike Scott; I won’t say much about it here. The other four nominees are Steven Silver’s Argentus, Guy Lillian’s Challenger, Chris Garcia’s The Drink Tank, and Mike Glyer’s File 770. And you can go and read them all online! I’ll wait.

They’re all nicer on paper, of course.

Only two of the nominees have won Hugos before, Plokta (twice) and File 770 (five times). File 770 is a zine of fannish news and opinion, agreeably regular and interesting, but I rarely look to fanzines as a news source these days. The latest issue has, amongst other things, an article much like this one; like this one, it goes on to consider fanzines not on the ballot.

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Ancient Secrets

Nature is reporting new results on the Antikythera Mechanism, the extraordinary ancient clock dredged up from the sea in 1901.

The mechanism, which is dated at approximately 100 BC, had 37 gears (of which 30 survive) and is an astronomical clock with complex epicyclic gearing. It was already known to have the Metonic cycle (comparing solar and lunar cycles), the Saros cycle (predicting eclipses) and a moon phase dial. New analysis of X-rays of the machine has confirmed that the Metonic cycle is marked in Corinthian months, thereby placing the device more precisely and providing evidence for early regulation of month lengths to regulate the calendar. In a special treat for the world’s press, a previously unidentified dial has been shown to depict the four year Olympiad cycle. Obviously a dial that counts to four is not terribly scientifically interesting, but culturally it’s quite exciting.

I find this device amazing; it’s 1500 years older than other known clocks of similar capability. Imagine if it turned out that Charlemagne used an iPhone. Nature has a news article and a very interesting video as well the paper. (Thanks to Greer Gilman for tipping me off about this.)

[Image by Flickr user Tet_Sy, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic.]

Old News

You may be wondering where my promised steady stream of fannish news and commentary is. It’s very strange; I’ve been busy reading science fiction.

I carefully downloaded all the freebies, and have been gradually working my way through them, snatching a few minutes of promising first novel in the interstices of my hectic life.

Gradually, that is, until I got to John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, which I scarfed up like yummy pizza. I then realised that I had fallen prey to a trope: the first hit is free.

I can only assume that Scalzi is keeping Heinlein’s brain in a vat, and channelling novels designed to bore directly into my hindbrain. Apparently, there rests there a 14 year-old with an inexhaustible thirst for short chirpy books of derring do where gallant and moderately anti-authority earthlings explore the universe and meet interesting alien civilisations. And kill them, yes, though not invariably.

These books are fabulous page-turners, and they overflow with Scalzi’s sharp wit. Aged SFnal tropes are shaken up and re-examined, the bigger picture is gratifyingly opaque and ambiguous, and the plot drives ever onward. So much so that I forgive them all manner of sins in my desperation to keep reading. That I think is the majority view of these books; the minority view is that the flaws will cause your disbelief suspenders to perish. Mine are holding up well, though I think I would have enjoyed these books even more if I didn’t read Whatever.

Three down so far, don’t suppose the others will take me more than a few more days. Onwards!

One for Artists and Photographers

Terry Karney let me know of the existence of Tin Eye; an image search engine with a difference. This one doesn’t search for pictures of kittens; you give it a picture, and it finds copies of that picture. The copies can be found even if they’ve been rotated, used in a collage, and so on.

The site is in beta, and they point out that they’ve only indexed a fraction of the images on the net. Nevertheless, I found that art and photography of mine is being used without credit all over the place. Obviously I knew that was likely to be the case, but here is the rub; I’m an indifferent photographer and my art is highly specialised. My guess is that if your art and photos are more usable than mine, they’ll be nicked more.

Some of the uses don’t trouble me; if you want to crop a picture of mine for an 100 pixel icon, I can live with that, though I’d like a credit. But whole pictures, large resolution, with no credit and a new watermark? Selling a photo of mine as a t-shirt? Putting photos of my kids in a reel of funny photos? I found all of those through Tin Eye, and I’m not sure I want information to be quite that free.

Anyway, it struck me that quite a lot of you might also be interested to find out who’s using your stuff too. It’s a private beta at the moment, but I emailed them and requested an invite, and got one within hours.


Related Subjects: Living in the Future

Elsewhere on, people have been talking about the experience of living in the future.

This has always been one of my particular fannish traits; I love living in the future. My daughter suggested to me a few weeks ago how excellent it would be if we could travel in time. I explained that I do it all the time. Very, very slowly, to be fair; but from the perspective of middle age I feel like I’ve travelled a very long way.

My earliest memory of living in the future was when I was about ten years old. My next door neighbour’s dad was a businessman, and he had his own photocopier. We got to use it to photocopy our stories, the newspaper of our club, and so on. Now, this was not new technology even then. But it was new to me and it was awesome. Oh, brave new world that has such gadgets in it.

When I learnt in history classes about underground presses, and the historical difficulty of getting the word out, I related viscerally to that in a way that I never did to most of human experience. When I started doing fanzines I had that same delight, and now we live in a world where anyone can get their message out for nothing. How cool is that?

So one thing I might blog about here from time to time is the moments that remind me that I live in the future now. This is obviously a bit different from Big Proper Science, or even Big Proper Science Fiction, so I hope it’s a handy niche. I had one of those moments yesterday, when I read Simon Bradshaw’s account of visiting the RepRap fab lab.

I had another this morning. I learnt from Hackzine that Hand Andersson had designed a Lego NXT robot that solves Rubik’s Cube. Now, of course there are lots of robots that solve Rubik’s cube. But this one uses no parts other than those which you get, out of the box, with a Lego toy. There are some caveats to that, it turns out; the software was written in a better programming language than Lego supplies, and the Rubik’s Cube has new stickers, all the better to see you with, my dear. And the £180 Lego NXT is an unusually cool toy, and probably only usable by unusually cool children without significant adult help.

But still. We don’t live in the future we thought we’d live in when I was a child; the one where we reach out to the stars. But we live in a future where you can make a children’s toy that manipulates objects and solves a puzzle more complex than most people can handle. Isn’t that neat?

Long Excited Cables

Deep in the middle of the night, I discovered that the Watchmen trailer is out. And I immediately had a flashback to Easter, sitting at Orbital talking to Patrick about, and how nobody would be expected to stick strictly to topic in their blogs, because of course there would be some subjects that everyone would race to get up onto the site. So I watched the trailer and then downloaded the HD version to keep all 173Mb of it with me forever and realised that this is why I own a computer with an HD screen. And then I thought I must blog this right now or someone else will.

But it was 3am by then, and I needed to watch the trailer again. And sleep, and then go upstairs to the library and find Watchmen. And then re-read it in its entirety, noting several points where I made new connections that I’d never made before in all the previous readings. And then watch the trailer again, and then show it to my family, and explain to my daughter why this matters. And then watch the trailer again.

I have no sense of proportion about this. I am a total squeeing fangirl. The entire Internet is with me on this. There hangs this awful anticipatory sense of doubt; even after all this, this film may still be pants. We have been here before. But gosh. It may still be pants, but if it is, it will not be because of a lack of attention to its source material.

Every time that the trailer is shot like the book I am in awe at how much trouble they’ve gone to recreate the images. Wow, it’s the Gunga Diner. There’s the newsstand. There’s the Comedian in Vietnam with his smiley face badge. Every time they change something it just seems right too. Of course Rorschach’s face moves. Of course Doctor Manhattan glows. And of course the costumes reflect the glossy armour and leather gear of today’s superhero movies, rather than the lycra costumes of comic books. And Mars is red, not pink.

Suddenly its early 1986. I’m sitting at the party following a CUSFS event; we have just finished interviewing Alan Moore, and somebody else. My memory fails me there; John Grant, maybe? Whatever, I am a total squeeing fangirl, and we are all agog with anticipation for Moore’s new comic, which people have been talking about and which is Coming Out Soon.

Alan remarks that he has some pages with him; are we interested in seeing them? We are all overcome with excitement. It’s issue 4, inked but not yet coloured. Doctor Manhattan is on Mars. We try to say sensible things, but we’re very young and this was all out of context. Eventually, I think of a reasonably sensible question. “What colour is he?” Blue. Blue. Right. But by then I am lost in excitement and wonder.

Gretchen Rubin describes the four stages of happiness; anticipate, savour, express and reflect. How much happiness have I had from all four of those elements from Watchmen over the last twenty-two years? All that anticipation and excitement from that night in 1986, fully realised as I read the comics month by month as they came out. Discovering for the first time all the nuances of the plot and the way it was so non-sequential; it demanded repeated readings. And how much of this reflects the essence of fandom; this shared cultural experience that caused us to point out delightedly to each other all the wondrous detail of Dave Gibbons’ art. And so fandom has erupted in unbelieving delight over the last 24 hours.

Yes, we’ve been here before, and for all sorts of reasons there’s still a good chance this film will be pants. But I intend to get as much happiness out of the anticipation stage as ever I possibly can.

And now I must go and watch the trailer again.

We Have Readers! They Ask Questions!

Kate Mitchell, who is a very long way from here, says “I’d love to hear more about what actually goes on at cons. Because I’ve never actually been to one, and it’s always a little mystifying hearing about them (especially with all the bizarre, shortened names)”.

Actually, I had a few sweet sherries at Orbital, this year’s British National SF convention (Eastercon), and accosted people with obviously fake names demanding to know why they didn’t have their real name on their badge. Both Saxon Bullock and Bella Pagan explained to me patiently that these were their full real names, and Helenex explained how her badge name was straightforwardly derived from her full real name. At which point I retired embarrassed; if any of the three of you are reading this, yes, I was the clearly barmy woman and I’m sorry.

Meanwhile, a lot of people at cons use bizarre shortened names. I never have, and I don’t quite understand the impulse. People might want to discuss it in comments, though as I remember this came up from time to time in the Usenet group rec.arts.sf.fandom and always generated a massive flame war. Oh well, I’m sure has a sound moderation policy and it probably needs testing.

The nice thing about questions like ‘what goes on at cons?’ is that they can be answered by reference to my favourite fannish artifact, the fanzine. The convention report, or conrep, is a long-standing staple of fanzines, and it’s been faithfully translated onto the internet. So you can find thousands of con reports from hundreds of cons by merely searching the web.

Let us take a specific example. Orbital, the aforementioned Eastercon, was excellent in many respects, and strikes me as being a model of what a largish British convention should be like. As a particular note in its favour, it’s gathered a couple of dozen con reports together, including reports by some of the guests, and a report by one of the girls who made the giant pig puppet. If you read a few of these, you will quickly discover that a convention of a thousand people or so provides many, many different answers to the question “What actually goes on at cons?” They also have a page designed to provide a little context for people who’ve never attended a con before. You can also look at pictures, but I find that pictures of cons put rather more emphasis on guests and costuming than most people’s experience of the con will involve.

I’ve written the odd con report from time to time; these days, my own experience of cons tends to revolve around finding somewhere comfortable with a supply of real ale, and settling into conversations with friends old and new.

For a glimpse into What Used to Go on at Conventions, I cannot do better than to recommend Peter Weston’s fanzine Prolapse. Yes, it’s very British. Americans might like to try Mimosa.

As for What Will Go On at Conventions in the Future, I have no idea.

Related Subjects: Fandom


I’m going to be blogging at primarily on “related subjects” rather than SF, fantasy and the universe. And within “related subjects”, I think my specialist subject is fandom. Which is a bit hard, because I’m not sure I know what it is. So how better to check whether this thing is on than to essay a little fannish taxonomy?

The seminal piece of work in this field is probably Lore Sjöberg’s Geek Hierarchy. The part of fandom I’m in tends to think of itself as in the second box from the top here; “fans of SF/fantasy literature”. But that’s not quite right, is it? Some of us read SF, certainly, but rather more of us would read more if we only had time, and we can all point to people who read scads of the stuff but aren’t very fannish. We also write fanzines and run conventions, two activities which don’t appear anywhere on Sjöberg’s chart.

One label for the bit of fandom I’m in, particularly the fanzine bit of it, is “Core Fandom”. I’m not terribly fond of that label. At school I remember being taught evolutionary biology in a way that certainly implied, and may even have stated explicitly, that mankind was a sort of culmination of millions of years of evolution. I don’t think they teach it that way any more. I mention this because the name “Core Fandom” contains the very same implication; that the massive diaspora of fandom we’ve seen somehow consists of a single truffish branch and loads of other lesser breeds.

Cheryl Morgan described Core Fandom as “a particular fannish sect who, in the manner of certain religious groups, believe that they are the true inheritors of the fannish tradition and that all other fans are fakes, heretics and apostates.” I think that is probably overstating the case a little but I can see where she’s coming from. I am not, therefore, in a rush to buy my own Core Fandom t-shirt.

I struggle with this particularly because my own fanzine, Plokta, tends to have a great deal of content that is not obviously related to SF. But it does have at least something of a thread leading back through that fannish tradition. So, despite my knowing objectively that there are millions of people out there who think they are in fandom who wouldn’t recognise what I do as fannish at all, I still point to this stuff and say that it is fandom. Perhaps if I do it loudly enough people will notice?

So when I say I’m going to blog here about fandom, I think I mean fans of SF and fantasy, and people who run cons, and people who write fanzines, and probably also people who write stories in which Captain Kirk appears dressed as an ocelot, though I’m not sure I know much about them. And probably also about, well, other things.

Do feel free to disagree. But only to be polite.

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