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Towards a Farthing Party con report: Saturday morning

(I did not wake up in time for the Good Reads panel. I hope it went well.)

Mad Science. I moderated this panel. We had a lovely time talking about human subject research, grant funding, and parallels with/outgrowths from mad alchemy (the idea that the worst times come from the best results–someone pointed out that mad alchemists are almost always students, inflating their claims while fleeing from city to city). Wernher von Braun was mentioned as a Mary Sue figure, getting to run an entire program while Tsien (? Chinese scientist) was thrown out of NASA for much less. Works discussed included Girl Genius, those Bujold novels with Enrique, Frankenstein, Cyteen (particularly with the bad parenting/mad science parallels of Frankenstein), Narbonic, Kenneth Oppel’s This Dark Endeavor, Manhattan Projects, the Laundry novels.

There was also some discussion of why comics were coming up a lot in this list, and a few of the answers proposed included that mad science is visually striking and that you don’t have to pay extra for the kind of thing that would break the special effects budget in a movie. Scale was proposed to either underscore or undermine the madness of a particular bit of speculative science: it’s much harder to read something small and subtle as mad science. It’s also harder to read group endeavors as mad, even though the results can be far madder than the strereotypical lone scientist in the lab with an Igor or two.

Someone proposed that autism was replacing madness in portrayals of science: that the stereotypical scientist who would Show You All in years past was much more likely to be hyperfocused and want to be left alone in current portrayals. Mad science is in some ways past visions of the future. Someone also quoted, “All models are wrong, but some are useful,” and proposed excessive faith in one’s model as the root of mad science.

Finally, biopunks were proposed to all be a bit mad. Jon has glow-in-the-dark plants, and who knows what next. Teresa said, very plaintively, “We’ve been good. We deserve to have pygmy mammoths.” (Yes. Very true.)

Candas Jane Dorsey’s Black Wine. Five Rivers Press has just reprinted this hard-to-find book. Isabelle told of finding it when it was new and she was a college student: “I opened the book again, and the sentence was still there.” That made me smile. Hardly anybody seemed to have just bought the book in a normal way when it first came out. It’s on the cusp of at least four genres (SF, fantasy, gothic, and horror) and refuses to choose between them rather than neglecting to do so. Someone suggested that the title should be taken as a warning, not to read this on an empty stomach, to take it slow. There was strong sense that everything on this planet was distributed unevenly, like tech and supplies are on our own planet. It was compared favorably to Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, which some panelists felt handled the subject matter in a way that was far more fetishistic than Black Wine‘s sense that people form a sense of normal that is local to their own circumstances.

Other works and artists it was compared to included Bernini, Ursula LeGuin, Margaret Atwood, Eleanor Arnason (particularly A Woman of the Iron People), Gene Wolfe, Ian McDonald’s King of Morning, Queen of Day, and Carla Speed McNeil’s Finder (this was the most successful insight for me–I had thought of LeGuin but not of Finder, but it’s very Findery in some ways, in its mosaic composition of a world and in its local normals and in some of the awful things that just happen but do not detract from the good things that also just happen).

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