Author Archives: Alison

My final schedule for LonCon3

This is going to be fun!

Hard Right

Thursday 20:00 – 21:00, Capital Suite 13 (ExCeL)

Hard science fiction is at its core dependent not on science, but on a world with inviolate rules. These rules can manifest as scientific realities or social constructs, but either way, these kinds of stories are often predicated on solving problems, or not, in the face of tradition. Science fiction critic Paul Kincaid has argued (here) this idea is very similar to the worldview of conservative ideologies. While hard sf is not the domain of right wing authors, is there a link between the two? Is that link historical or fundamental?

Neyir Cenk Gokce (M), Charles E. Gannon, Hannu Rajaniemi, Alison Sinclair, Jaine Fenn

Mythbusters: What are the Biggest Missteps in SF&F Writing?

Friday 10:00 – 11:00, Capital Suite 8 (ExCeL)

Swords that go schiiing! as they're drawn, hay bales lying around in medieval times, and flames in a vacuum: just a few examples of factually erroneous writing. The panelists will look at the most anachronistic and scientific blunders and descriptions that just don't make sense, but continue to be used over and over again. Do these obvious errors serve a purpose within the larger context of story? Are they comforts from which an author can build discomfort?

Ian Nichols (M), Andrew Barton, Amanda Kear, Alison Sinclair, Amy Sundberg

The Press vs Science

Friday 20:00 – 21:00, Capital Suite 15 (ExCeL)

In this panel we discuss the representation of science in the press, and how it works for good and for ill.

Martin McGrath (M), Katie Mack, Moira O'Keeffe, Alison Sinclair

Doctors in Space!

Saturday 13:30 – 15:00, Capital Suite 3 (ExCeL)

Medicine is one of the areas of science and technology intimately connected to ordinary human life, yet – Star Trek aside – SF and fantasy narratives about healthcare are less common than you might expect. What are the challenges and opportunities of writing the physician as protagonist? How can genre explore the political and practical constraints that operate on medicine as a system and a profession?

David G. Shaw (M), Michael Blumlein M.D., E.C. Ambrose, Todd McCaffrey, Alison Sinclair


Sunday 17:00 – 18:00, London Suite 5 (ExCeL)

Alison Sinclair, Jack Campbell

Reading The Green Glass Sea

There aren’t many novels that I wish I’d written – as opposed to simply wishing I’d written something as good – but The Green Glass Sea and its sequel White Sands, Red Menace, by Ellen Klages, are two. They’re historical novels aimed at middle-school readers, but they feel like science fiction in a number of important ways. They have scientists absorbed in an important problem, working on the exclusion of it to all else. The worldbuilding – something that’s important to science fiction – is impeccable, in the choice and depth of detail that builds out an unusual perspective to a well-told story. The Green Glass Sea starts in 1943, with a ten-year-old girl, Dewey Kerrigan, being put on an overnight train from St Louis to join her father at an unnamed destination. The unnamed destination is a place called Los Alamos. The scientists who are working so intently are working on the first atomic bomb. That includes Dewey’s father, who is a mathematician, and both Suze Gordon’s parents. Its sequel, White Sands, Red Menace, moves on to Alamogordo, New Mexico, in 1946, where Suze’s father is involved in the first peacetime experiments with V2 rockets built from parts and plans captured from Germany, with the help of emigré German scientists. The military want these rockets for their ability to deliver payload. The scientists want these rockets to lift them into space. These experiments will lead a quarter century later to the landing on the moon.

The two novels aren’t science fiction, but they do a lot of the same things that science fiction can do, and they deal with a time and an event that was significant to history and to science fiction. They’re about the community of science, about the culture of science – and that includes the science fiction of the time. The teenagers in White Sands, Red Menace are passing around copies of Analog, and talking about the early stories of Ray Bradbury. The novels are also about the innocence, conscience and culpability of science. And they have some specific advantages over science fiction in dealing with certain narrative challenges.

For one thing, they don’t have to explain the technology and its significance, a technical problem that SF writers have to solve all the time. Too much for some readers is too little for others. But the majority of readers know the basics of how the atom bomb worked, know what it does, know what it means. So Klages shows the viewpoint of the time, and lets the reader fill in the context. Towards the end of the Green Glass Sea, Suze’s father takes the kids out to the test site of the first atomic explosion. They walk for a few minutes on the vitrified sand left by at ground zero, collecting interesting glasses. As someone who has worked with radioactivity in the lab, that freaked me a little, but that’s what people did. At least Suze’s father had a geiger counter and wouldn’t let them take home anything that was too hot. On the way back, they catch a fragment of a sentence on the radio about the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Suze flicks it off. It’s war news; they can always get more later.

I mentioned the worldbuilding and the unusual perspective, a child’s perspective of school and hobbies. Their interests were expressed through their hands, with the building of hobbyist equipment as a serious leisure activity, and in handcrafts projects – In their rented house in Alamogordo, Suze and Dewey collaborate in assembling a collage mural from Dewey’s cogs and parts, cut-outs of superheroes, anything that strikes their interest. This is something I remember growing up with, but which has been largely displaced in popularity by television and computing. I really like that Klages is faithful to her time, and does not disguise, apologize for or editorialize on situations that were commonplace and unremarked for wartime, but that we would not find appropriate today: Ten year old Dewey rides an overnight train to Los Alamos, unchaperoned. Dewey and Suze spend evenings alone and together, when their parents are caught up in the lab. The children raid the dumpsites at Los Alamos for discarded equipment for their hobbies, and late in White Sands, Red Menace, steal parts from the crash site of a failed rocket.

There’s another challenge in portraying science in fiction that using an historical event gets around. Science happens within social networks. Scientists have colleagues, students, correspondents, rivals, and friends. Scientists need to talk about their work. Probably under the influence of film, there’s a strong push in genre towards fast-moving plot-heavy stories. One of the ways that storytelling gains speed is by stripping down the cast. That tends to feed into the mythology of the genius working alone, whereas in actuality, an isolated scientist is often a compromised scientist. One of the points that Horace Freeland Judson made in his history of the early years of DNA – The Eighth Day of Creation – was that Rosalind Franklin was working largely in isolation, and it may have slowed her in seeing what was in her own diffraction photographs.1

That’s where The Green Glass Sea has a big advantage, narratively. There’s a cast of walk-ons we already know from the history books, people like Richard Feynman (I let out an audible squeak of pure geekish glee when he introduced himself, since a visit from Feynman was one of the highlights of my undergrad), Enrico Fermi, Albert Einstein, Robert Oppenheimer. In another scene, the reader sees through Suze how much her parents delight in being able to bounce ideas off each other. Terry Gordon also assumes an important mentoring role for Dewey, being able to explain ideas and physical phenomena to her.

I’ve been interested for a long time in the way fiction portrays scientists, and that’s another way that Green Glass Sea is true to scientists and its time. The scientists are smart, dedicated, enthusiastic, slightly naieve. They are working for the patriotic end of winning the war, they’re allowed to spend all their time doing what they love to do in the stimulating and nourishing company of the world’s best. There’s a charming bit of characterization in the way Dewey’s and Suze’s parents named their daughters for their enthusiasms. Dewey was born on the twelfth of December, so her full name is Duodecima, the Latin for twelve. Terry Gordon’s favourite scientist and role model is Marie Curie, so Suze’s middle name is Sklodowska, Curie’s maiden name. The girls first bond over their mixed pride and embarrassment.

Another thing I really liked is that Dewey, who builds radios and gadgets and wants to go to MIT, doesn’t fall into the stereotype of the socially awkward nerd. Her mother left when she was a baby, and her father has been away for 4 years, so she’s had to learn to be self-sufficient. She’s used to ignoring people who make fun of her, and always ready to approach people who share her interests. Late in White Sands, Red Menace, her social skills enable her to resolve a painful personal situation respectfully but to her advantage. She loves Los Alamos, because she is surrounded by people to whom a fascination with science and technology is normal. At the same time, she has some of the same moral and political blind-spots as her elders.

Suze is the emerging artist of the pair, but she’s also the more awkward and needy; at the beginning, she’s desperate to belong, to the point she’ll show off by taking a shortcut through a restricted area, or join in bullying Dewey (“Screwy Dewey”). But she’s the one who stands up when her social science teacher tries to gloss over the suffering caused by the Bomb, while Dewey, equally aware, remains uncomfortably silent. Once in Alamogordo, she becomes friends with a girl from the other side of Main Street, crossing a legally enforced divide between the community of mainly White incomers and the Hispanic and Native American long-term residents of the area. Asked to produce a social sciences project on “My Almagodoro”, she creates a 3D collage depicting this division. Her moral vision grows increasingly complex:

As the truck bounced over the rutted gravel track, Suze looked at the dial in her hand with mixed feelings. She had taken it because the V-2 launch had been her first experience of Alamogordo. A whole day spent with her dad, a good memory, before the rockets had taken him away. The dial was still warm from lying in an American desert, but it had been made in a concentration camp. If a rocket did go to the moon one day, far in the future, most people probably wouldn’t remember that. She’d save this piece, along with her white sand and green glass, so she wouldn’t forget.

After Hiroshima, after Nagasaki, Phillip Gordon throws himself into the rocket experiments, still not acknowledging their dual-use potential, or that they are using parts made in work camps and working with former Nazis, while Terry Gordon joins the lobby headed by Einstein and others to stop further development and use of the Bomb. “We built it,” she says. “We’re the only ones who can stop it.” Their marriage starts to break up – it’s a microcosm for what is happening within the science community. The atomic Bomb wasn’t the first time that science had to confront its culpability – chemistry, for instance, had had its moment in the trenches of the First World War – but it was a crucial event both for science and for science fiction.

I both hope and don’t hope that there will be a third novel about these characters, though now they’re entering the fifties, with all that means for the stifling of women’s aspirations: Terry Gordon with her determination to get back to her own work, having spent a year in Almagedro as a trailing spouse, Dewey with her ‘unfeminine’ interest in technology and ambition to go to MIT (there’s a ghastly encounter with a school guidance counsellor, as well as the mandatory training in manners and etiquette; I wish it were a caricature), Suze with her awkward social conscience, and Suze’s friend Ynez with her ambition to use her skill in hairstyling and makeup for an entree into Hollywood and a career writing and directing films that portray her community as it really is. Maybe I’d rather leave them as they are, Dewey, Suze, and Terry, driving out of Alamogordo, heading for Berkeley, with Dewey at the wheel.

  1. SF does have a bunch of favourite conventions and settings that allow it to portray science as a community. Aside from more conventional lab and company settings, SF has everything from militarized exploration starships like the Enterprise to campuses in space like the setting of McIntyre’s Starfarers quartet or Joan Slonczewski’s The Highest Frontier. Or there are the colonization narratives in which a group of people in an unfamiliar environment have to use applied science to stay alive, like the hundred scientists sent to settle and terraform Mars in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, or my own Cavalcade

River receding. June 22, 2014

A month after my first foray onto the river for 2014, I was back to see what change time had wrought.

The cherry trees were in full dark leaf, not a blossom to be seen. All the foliage was full and just losing the brilliant emerald of spring. The river had withdrawn from the grass and dropped enough to leave a lip of bank, maybe down about 3-4 feet, although the trees at the edge were still rooted in water.

I paddled up towards the bridge to Île Gagnon, but the current under the bridge still looked brisk, so I decided not to court a dunking quite so early, and turned back, past the launch site and out the Eastern end. Bright blue, cloudless sky, just enough wind to burr the water, water still very brown, silty and opaque. Quite a few kayaks and powerboats out amongst the islands.

I started out by crossing over to the lower part of Île de Juifs, to check whether the channel between Île de Jiufs and Île aux Fraises was still passable; it was, with sufficient attention to the inverted Vs in the water marking rocks. Water was still high enough that the greenery came right down to the water's edge, no bank visible. I paddled west up the channel and out the upstream end, past a spectacular deadfall.

Then west to Île Langlois and across to the south bank and the culvert alongside the Trans-Canada Highway / de Laurentides bridge, which was still passable, though not as much as a month ago. Sheltered, it was still, warm, and scummy, and ruled by red-winged blackbirds. From there I went uneventfully through the tunnel under the Autoroute de Laurentides and steered wide of the people fishing off the embankment to the bridge to Ile Locas. Still a stiff current coming under that bridge, but this time I was prepared for it, and did not get turned around in the eddy. I merely had to work a little. From the other side of the bridge I could see that the platform was once more out near the marsh.

I wanted to check out last month's flooded areas, given the drop in the water level. Île Lacroix had reemerged from the waters and was now fringed with spiky young reeds. A few points along the southern shore were still flooded, and with care I could work my way in amongst the trees and look back out, but the long contiguous passage towards the rear of the marsh that I had explored on my last outing was gone.

The marsh was wide open, with a thin but healthy growth of new reeds sketching in the usual summer limits (my usual panorama shot). I paddled through the reeds and debris, all the way into what later in summer will become an internal pond accessible only by a channel and then as the water drops further, becoming inaccessible. It was windless, with brilliant sunshine sparkling off any flaw in the water, and reeds and foliage perfectly mirrored. The bird watching platform had has been placed on what will probably be edge of the reeds, but right now was far out in the waters. In the still blanched reeds of the northern bank, a unseen heron wheeze-gronked at I don't know what: me? the people on the far bank? passing shadows? her mate? I saw two others in flight around the periphery of the marsh, dark against the emerald trees.

After that, I decided I needed a break, but although there were now several visible steps and a dock at Île Gagnon, there was no beach, and my last attempt at reentry from that dock had ended with me chest deep in warm river for several minutes while I worked out the technique for extracting both feet from the mud. So I circumnavigated the island looking for somewhere I could use as a pull-out that was fairly close to the path, I being in sandals, and not wanting to push my luck after escaping ill-effects from last time's excursions. I found a tree on the water's edge beside the lookout, and I used that as anchor and leverage to help me scramble out onto the slanting, stony, slippery bank. The paths were again paths, rather than canals. I ate my samosas and yoghurt sitting on the bench, and then walked along to the toilet, finding the path up to the toilet shed enthusiastically overgrown. The toilet roll had suffered the depredations of some nest-building critter – the outer layers were shredded, with drifts of small fragments trapped against the base of the shed.

We shall draw a veil over my re-entry. I avoided falling into the water, and I did not lose my sandals, my paddle, or my dignity, although I preserved the latter mainly by making sure no one was within view, and a notable amount of mud came into the cockpit with me.

I was tempted to go back to the marsh for some more photographs, since the sky had begun to fill up with photogenic pebbly white clouds. But there were other places to see. Crossing the main channel from Île des Juifs had convinced me I still did not want to wrestle with the downstream current past Île de Mais (and that I need to get myself into a gym next winter), particularly since a couple of power-boat and aquaskis were already tearing up the main channel. I headed across to the far side of the river to check out road bridge linking Île Morris and then the Pont Gédeon-Ouimet (the one I keep thinking of de Laurentides) for swallow's nests. I caught a glimpse of one or two birds, but the nests I saw were few, old and empty. I only spotted two families of ducklings, one quite mature, and one younger, although I saw very few female mallards.

With the water still high, I could work my way up the channel between Île Lefebvre and Île Morris, through mats of water-lilies and around stands of broken reeds, to the columns supporting the motorway bridge, which rested on mud and just enough water to float a kayak. Something is preying on the water-lily leaves: many of them were yellow, with concentric curving cuts, like paper art (there's a word, but that neuron is just not letting go). On the far side of the motorway bridge, beyond the water, was the rusted relic of an older bridge, one that looked more like a railway bridge than a roadway bridge. From there, I could look eastwards down the channel towards Île Saint-Mars and Île des Lys. As I cleared the reeds nearest the bridge, a flurry of splashing broke out behind me, repeated at intervals in an uneven circuit around the edge of the reeds, with flashes of scale and and fin and slaps on the water. I could track it … whatever it was … by the irregular motions of the reeds. My foremost hypothesis that one of the huge river carp was trying to eat something large and uncooperative – and I was torn between holding the paddle and or the camera, but as the disturbance began working its way towards me, I opted for the paddle, and a slow retreat. Top predator or not, I didn't want that brawl exploding under my keel.

All went quiet for a little while, until something splashed off a fallen log against the shore of Île Lefebvre. I expected to see a muskrat or a maybe even a beaver swimming away, but all I saw was the same pattern of twitching leaves and thrashing headed up towards the bridge. It dawned upon me that I was seeing the big fish brute-forcing their way through the obstacles of reeds and shallows. I tracked a third set of twitching reeds and ripples upstream on a similar transit to the second, during which a broad scaly back broke the surface and unfurled a dorsal fin the size of my five fingers. The closest I knowingly came to one of them was when my brain belatedly caught up with my eyes as I slid my paddle down between lily pads onto a long shadow. I don't know which was more startled, the fish or I.

I then crossed over to explore a section of the riverbank accessible from the shore by a raised walkway, which was still flooded enough to let me through into what must later in summer be a pasture. The water was shallow, still, clear, and noticeably amber, but clean enough to support an abundance of tiny fish, and the occasional larger one, passing through. And turtles. While I was on the landward side, a heron dropped in alongside my exit channel, but I was saved from the decision as to when to disturb it by a quartet of my fellow humans, tramping down the walkway. Not sure whether they even noticed the bird. I spread out my map on my deck to figure out where to go next, and took a panorama shot from the shade of the forest.

Since I'd been playing the 'I'll get the next bus' game with myself for two hours by then, I ducked down behind Île Ducharme to check its bridge for nests – no – and its pullouts for turtles – also no – although I was pleased to see one small house in particular restored from the damage it had suffered during a severe thunderstorm last July. Since I wanted to go under the bridge into the lagoon with the current, that then meant I had to go upstream and around the top of Ile Gagnon, which I did, again via the channel between Ile des Juifs and Ile aux Fraises, and then crossed the channel (and the current) west of Ile Chapleau and Ile Kennedy, took a panorama looking west from Ile Gagnon, and then paddled around the upstream side of Ile Gagnon and raced two kayaks and two canoes to the bridge (I came second). I was trying to get ahead of them in the queue, to make sure I caught my bus – the 1441 73 to Cartier. Despite a few suspenseful moments when it seemed the quartet in front of me at the return desk would never focus on the task at hand, I did.

First paddle of 2014: Parc de la Rivière-des-Mille-Îles, May 19, 2014

(Note: I am linking rather than embedding photographs until I have time to come to terms with Flickr's new embed structure. Cross post to Kayak Yak.)

All through this long winter, I have consoled myself with the idea that there would be plenty of water in the river when the thaw finally came. There was indeed: I have never seen the river so high.

The cherry blossom at the location d'embarcation has not passed its peak; indeed, it was still in the form of tight little pink buds, not even as advanced as during the late spring of 2011, although the trees themselves were in full leaf. Give them a few days. (Why do so many flowers, including cherry blossom, have 5-fold symmetry, and how does that work developmentally?)

The usual launch was well underwater, the mooring for the floating pier submerged, such that the Parc attendants had had to lay a narrow bridge between the land and the rising hinged section of the pier. The river had spilled over the lip of the beach onto the grass, the trees were river-bound, the boat storage racks themselves were parked in mud and puddles, and the lower part of the grass had been taped off. There's usually a middle ridge in the lagoon at the launch site, but it was inundated except for the trees and bare spiky shrubs of the branches. The lookout float was still at its winter mooring in the lagoon and had not been moved out to its location on the marsh. The river was the colour of milky tea, perhaps a hint more yellow than red.

The Kaskos I had used for the past 5 years have been retired: they are up for sale, piled on the grass before the location d'embarcation. With Boreal Kayaks having gone bankrupt, the Parc can no longer get parts to repair them. I was paddling a blue Pelican Elite, a nice, tough composite boat. But, hip stretches need to be a thing in my life.

From the location d'embarcations, I paddled upstream in the lagoon to the tunnel under the bridge to Île Gagnon. The water under the bridge was high and the current looked brisk, and I decided I did not have the clearance I would need for vigorous paddling, so I drifted downstream in the direction of the Pont Marius-Dufresne and out the east entrance of the lagoon, where I shot my first panorama of the season, looking west. Several powered fishing boats were already standing off the north of Île Gagnon. More than I have seen on previous occasions.

The leaves were half out, not fully masking the dark straight lines of trunk and branches, creating a beautiful effect of pen-and-ink drawing or fine nineteenth century engraving (photo does not do it justice at all). In a week, the foliage will be confluent. There was a peculiarly autumnal warmth to the foliage, created by the early leaves of the maples with their bronze blush. The pigment is acanthocyanin, responsible for the autumn reds, and there are various hypotheses as to its usefulness to young leaves, ranging from protection of the growing leaf from UV damage to camouflaging it or rendering it unappealing to pests and herbivores.

I paddled up to the left of Île Kennedy, keeping out of any of the narrower channels. The downstream current was noticeable and noticeably uneven , with eddies and eddy-lines and irregular rips that kept checking my progress, or nudging me off in unintended directions (hence, no mid-channel photos). Before the tunnel under the south end of the de Laurentides highway bridge, I took a detour up the culvert on the east side of the bridge, probably a hundred yards further than I'd ever made it before, until stopped by a snag of branches. Constant thrum of traffic to the left, while I could see the roofs of square-topped buildings – stores and warehouses – on the right. A pair of red-winged blackbirds perched in the bare twigs. Wrestled briefly with my camera, which was giving me long silent pauses, before figuring out it was on the rapid-frame sports setting. Resolved once again to read that manual.

Paddled through the tunnel against the current, which was work but doable; there was plenty of room to swing a paddle. Noted that a new kayak rental operation has set up on the water's edge just west of the bridge, at the end of Rue Joinville.

Multiple fisherpersons off the embankments to either side of the bridge between the bank and Île Locas were treated to the sight of me powering into the jet of current from under the bridge and then going swiftly sideways. Fortunately no-one seemed to be fishing off the centre of the bridge itself, so I could sort myself out and line up between the two eddy-lines and slog through underneath. That was work.

The eastern end of Île Lacroix is largely underwater, with confluent inundation of the north and south edges, and only a dome of bright green ferns preserved in the middle. The trees were mature and widely enough spaced for easy paddling. Broken light and shadow from passing clouds. Bright green foliage and reflections. Very still. I must have spent half an hour just mooching amongst the trees.

The low-lying portion of the opposite bank is also extensively flooded. I worked my way deep into the forest and along parallel to the river – no current to fight here – for at least a couple of hundred yards, hoping to connect with the marsh area, before I ran out of flood. The trees here were younger and closer together, so after a few paddle-snags, I settled on handing myself from trunk to trunk, particularly since the wildlife ruled the main channel: first turtles sunning themselves on fallen logs, and then a great blue heron, perched supreme on a branch. Even saplings appeared to be able to sprout leaves with no apparent inhibition, despite their waterlogged roots. I did run out of flood before I reached the marsh and had to work my way back, again without disturbing the wildlife. The light in the photographs I took was much duller: a bank of cloud – cirrostratus, at a guess – had been gradually moving and was now covering much of the sky. There was no forecast of a change in the weather, so I hoped it was transient and pressed on.

There were no biting flies. Something nipped my foot at a midpoint on a crossing, and it is itching a little, but not the mad consuming can-think-of-nothing-else, gnaw-my-foot-off-to-escape itch I remember so well. This will not last; I need to get bug screen.

The marsh area was again disconcertingly wide open, so that I had difficulty getting my bearings for my traditional panorama shot. The bird-life was much more subdued than at the equivalent time in May 2011; either I had just missed the full explosion, or I was still too early for it. I could hear the distinctive calls of red-winged blackbirds.

I decided to have lunch while waiting for the sun to come out, and paddled over the steps at Île Chabon. Or step, since the water was level with the topmost platform. What a contrast to Thanksgiving 2011! I considered mooring and scrambling out onto the steps, but the banisters made that look a little hazardous, and then had the bright idea of paddling around to the lookout on the west side of the island and pulling out onto the beach there. Beach? What beach? The water was almost up to the level of the platform itself. The bench, formerly across the path, was surrounded by water. The footpath was a channel. I paddled into the channel and worked my way back along the course of the path until I met dry land, dismounted ankle deep in wood chips that had once cushioned the path, and pulled the kayak up onto the path. There was a convenient rock, where I sat and ate my samosas. I had brought a small carton of yoghurt and no spoon; since no-one was around, I had a rare chance to eat like a kid.

I tried to make my way in the opposite direction to the toilet on the far side of the island, thinking that the opposite direction might be less flooded. Every dozen yards or so, there's a sign saying herbe a puce, with a distinctive three-leafed profile, so ploughing through the new ground-cover in sandals did not seem a particularly good idea. By the time I was mid-shin deep in cold water and wood-chips, I decided that 'less flooded' was relative, not absolute. I waded back to the kayak, turned it around, climbed in, and paddled back along the course of the path. Past the lookout, I met shallows again and ran aground in reddish-tan dirt and sand. I clambered out and towed the less burdened kayak up the path, scattering schools of tiddlers, and parked it on a patch of violets while I walked the handful of additional yards to the sign that said 'toilet'. The water was within a few inches of the level of the path at that point, and I probably could have dismounted there. It was only on the bus home that it occurred to me to wonder how dead herbe a puce had to be before it was non-toxic, since I had almost certainly been wading shin-deep in its litter. Google search induced an immediate psychosomatic itch: it seems herbe a puce can never be dead enough. And you shouldn't burn it, either. But so far so good.

By the time I finished lunch, the cloudbank had cleared. I consulted my shoulders and we decided that trying to circumvent Île de Mai in either direction in this current would be no pleasure, so I would paddle around the marsh and then go back into the flooded forest. The marsh was wide open except for an isolated stand of trees in the middle, and islands of bare sticks and shrubs. I caught sight of two more herons, one already aloft, startled by a canoe, and another one that was fishing but took wing as I tried to work the camera with the zoom lens out of its waterproof bag. Around the edges, the remains of last year's reeds formed broad floating mats.

I headed back the way I came, detouring into Île Lacroix again for a look (and some photographs) of the flooded forest with sunlight on it, back under the bridge to Île Locas, which again had fisherpersons on either side, but fortunately not in the middle, because with that current behind me, I was going. My final port of call had to be the channel between Île des Jiufs and Île aux Fraises, which is usually blocked by a branch and rock bar. Not so this outing.

Then I ferried the channel in my best Gulf Islands style, constantly looking around for power skis – because it was mid afternoon and those were out – to the upper end of Île Gagnon, past my favourite house with the red roof (photo from a previous visit), and prepared myself to go under the bridge, which involved making sure the cameras were in their waterproofing, carabiners were attached, and my legs were clear. Just in case, you know. But I scooted under the bridge like a pea rolling under a table, with easily enough clearance to steer, and that landed me back at the location d'embarcations in time for the 1541 73 de Laurentides bus. First paddle of the year, accomplished.

Ad Astra, 2014: A convention report

Why is it that, no matter how I travel to a convention, I always seem to wind up with not enough space in my luggage on the return? If I'd my copy of The Curse of Chalion to hand, I'd pull out Cazaril's quote about overflowing saddlebags, although this trip's luggage crisis was made up of two parts: I had left my larger duffle bag on the other side of the continent, and I needed to pack business casual clothes for a second conference immediately after Ad Astra.

So it was with a snugly-packed small duffle bag, a computer case, and a Vancouver Public Library book bag with copies of the Darkborn trilogy – just in case – I headed out on Friday morning, April 4, to meet my ride to Ad Astra, and the launch of Breakpoint:Nereis – minus, it transpired, my camera and dental floss. Half way to Toronto, we met the forecast rain-front and spent the rest of the way in intermittent grey outs.

Ad Astra was at the Sheraton Parkway Hotel in Richmond Hill, north of Toronto, where World Fantasy Convention was a couple of years ago. I was staying at the associated Best Western Hotel, along with several hockey teams from a med school charity meet. I was in a suite: tucked under an arch to one side of my room was a small bar area. I didn't spend much time in the suite, though. I made it into the swimming pool twice, on both mornings – one of the swimming pools, since I only discovered the Athletics Club with the second swimming pool on Saturday evening, looking down from the tenth floor party suite, and only went looking for it, wet swimsuit in hand, after the second swim, after I realized that geometry made it impossible that the pool I had swum in was the pool I had seen. Next time.

I was scheduled for three panels and a book launch (mine).

The aesthetics of SF, with Donato Giancola (artist), Michael Martineck (writer), and Zainab Amadahy (academic/activist, who proposed the subject and prepared a slideshow that looped on the screen throughout).

Colour schemes in 'serious' science fiction and fantasy tend to be muted – even monochromatic – messes. Is it because we equate bright colours with children and immaturity, or just plain ugliness? Which (if any) SF/F works get away with a colourful palette? Open your mind, and maybe your crayon box, for this colourful discussion.

We talked about trends in illustration and visual design for film, and how it anecdotally did seem to be moving towards a more muted display, with examples from the field of artists being asked to desaturate their colours. About whether that was due to the current fashion for dystopia, which tended to hark back to the grimy drabness of 1984 and post-WWII Britain, and how drab seems to be 'right' for poverty to the Northern-Western eye, even though in Latin American and Asian cultures, poverty keeps a vivid palette. About how colonialism influences our aesthetics, by associating bright colour with tropical 'primitive' cultures. We compared the available, living palettes of the tropics and the north, and the economics of colour. We brought in the influences of militarism, and religion – austerity was one of the ways that emergent Protestantism (particularly its strains of Calvanism and Puritanism) contrasted itself to Catholicism. We considered the gendering of colour, how in North Western societies the allowable palette for men's dress is much more muted than that for women (though professional women are advised to emulate the male), and how women's dress historically was for attracting mates and displaying family wealth. We got a bit into the uses of colour by writers, and how the meaning of colour changes across cultures. I mentioned how I had used the colour yellow in Contagion:Eyre (sequel to Breakpoint:Nereis), and brought up JM Synge's use of the meanings of white, black, red and grey in Irish mythology to heighten the fatalism in his plays Riders to the Sea and Deirdre of the Sorrows.

The Once and Future Plague, with David Stephenson (see the panelist page), Hayden Trenholm, Katrina Guy, Stephen B. Pearl.

From the Black Death to schistosomiasis to zombie hordes, infectious diseases and the plagues they cause have made for many a fascinating read. Even as we progress towards eradicating disease, we continue to tinker with tailor-made germs. This panel will explore how historic traumas shaped classic stories, and where the fear they create overlaps with present-day anxieties to create something altogether new, yet familiarly terrifying.

Alas, I scrambled in late, and I missed everyone's introductions. But we talked about forensic anthropology and accidental rediscoveries of burial grounds from the Black Death and other epidemics, SARS and how it exposed a the vulnerability of healthcare workers as well as the effect of political distraction and denial, what kind of fatality rates would change society forever, vaccine politics and renascent outbreaks, accidental releases and bioterrorism, synthetic biology and the eventual possibility of rolling our own bad bugs, and the fact that the most devastating infections might not affect us directly, but might affect our food sources. As a finale, we got a chance to speculate on how a devastating pandemic would play out in the here and now. My answer was it depends – largely on whether we recognize and react soon enough. (Which you can guarantee not to see in fiction; after all, where's the fun in that.)

Biotech, Identity and Personal Freedom, with Shirley Meier.

In Donna McMahon's Second Childhood, one of the characters comments that nobody living in the twenty-second century can know for certain that memories and thoughts are one's own. In this panel, discuss this concept along with whether advances in biotech and greater understanding of our genetic makeup will make us more free, or less.

This is a topic I've pitched before, and it's different every time, depending upon the constitution of the panel. Shirley talked about the tech, since her interest was steampunk, artificial intelligence, and identity, and mine was in neurobiology, psychology, and ethics. We coincided on the subject of liberty and internal and external threats to freedom, whether resulting from programming or our own biological circuits.

The Bundoran Press launch on Saturday night, for Strange Bedfellows, Breakpoint:Nereis, both from Bundoran Press, and Robin Riopelle's Deadroads, from Night Shade books. Strange Bedfellows is Bundoran's kickstarter-funded anthology of politically themed science fiction. Deadroads is a novel about family, ghosts and devils, three Louisiana siblings who have inherited their parents' paranormal abilities, as well as their – in several senses – demons. Hayden read from Gustavo Bondoni's short story “Gloop” from Strange Bedfellows, I read the scene from the cover of Breakpoint:Nereis, of Aeron Ivesen reluctantly visiting a relic of the pre-plague settlement, Robin read a scene in which Baz makes what is clearly going to be a very bad deal in exchange for the whereabouts of the sister he has not seen since she was a small child – spooky and a perfect length for a short reading, and Andrew Barton read from his short story “Three Years of Ash, Twenty Years of Dust”, also from Strange Bedfellows.

As for the rest of the weekend, I didn't leave the hotel, though occasionally I noticed there was bright sunshine out there. I had a couple of hours stint in the Dealer's room, watching books get sold. I dropped by the SFCanada table, hosted by Ira Nayman. I met Matt Moore, of the Ottawa ChiSeries readings, and Annette Mocek, of the Merrill collection, and James Alan Gardner. I said hail-and-farewell a few times in the hall to a Doppler-shifted Julie Czerneda. I signed books. I finally got to meet Derek Newman-Stille, of the Speculating Canada blog, in person. I met my editor (Hayden), and Bundoran Press' publicist (Beverly Bambury), and Alyx Dellamonica, author of Indigo Springs (winner of the Sunburst Award), Blue Magic, and a memorable and – dare I say it, very Canadian – urban fantasy from, “The Cage”. While I enjoy butt-kicking heroines as much as the next woman, I love civilization even more. Dellamonica's heroines in “The Cage” defend themselves and each other with guile, law, and community. Her forthcoming novel, Child of a Hidden Sea, promises to scratch more of my itches: portal fantasy, with oceans. Anyone I missed mentioning, sorry, not on purpose! I did not meet the guest of honour, David Weber, which was a shame, because, yes, I'm an Honor Harrington fan, but I know he's coming north again this year.

Book tally, in my overflow bag (remember the Vancouver Public Library bag in the opening act):

  • Eight author's copies of Breakpoint:Nereis
  • Michael J Martineck's The Milkman.
  • Robin Riopelle's Deadroads
  • Tom Barlow's. I'll Meet You Yesterday.
  • Plus two geeky T-shirts from Antimatter Apparel.