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Posts Tagged ‘interactive fiction’

A week ago my husband and I attended the 2017 Worldcon, this year held in Helsinki, Finland. It’s taken me a few days to write up my thoughts, but better late than never.

Every year the Worldcon – the World Science Fiction Convention (also covers fantasy, horror etc.) – is held in a different location. Often it’s in North America, so it’s quite exciting if it’s elsewhere. I was last at the Worldcon in London a few years ago, and was determined to go again if it came back to Europe. Two years ago I was a site selection voter for Helsinki, and delighted to be able to go there.

The venue this year was the Helsinki Convention Centre – the Messukeskus. As a Finnish convention the programme of talks had a substantial Nordic content, including some talks in the Finnish language. And it had a massive turnout from Finnish members. Normally a Worldcon held in a non English speaking location gets around 3000 attendees through the doors over the five days. This one had over 7000, including a vast number of local memberships sold in the weeks before the con. This caused problems for overcrowding in a venue which had been picked based on the smaller numbers. Rooms were over full, queues too long, corridors jam packed. But the con organisers took drastic action, and limited new members after the first day. I can’t remember this being done at a Worldcon before, but think it was a good decision, and it was effective in reducing the problem.

However even in such a huge event with thousands of attendees it did feel remarkably intimate. Even though we’re not active participants in the fandom scene we did keep running into the same people over and over again, including fellow Scots. It actually reminded me of being an undergraduate student at St Andrews in Scotland, where you could rarely walk into the town without running into someone you know … On that subject I met an online UK friend at the con – we hadn’t arranged anything in advance, but he saw one of my tweets saying which talk I was going to next, and was able to come and find me, and we had a great chat. I also had a very memorable breakfast chat with a US fan from Illinois.

As well as taking drastic action to cope with the overcrowding issues the con, as is usual for Worldcons, was highly organised around making it accessible. For example at registration on the Wednesday we – including me in manual wheelchair – were able to go straight to the special access desk, thus avoiding the longer and winding main queue. But there were still some problems. Lifts were probably too few for the numbers needed, and often busy, both in the main hotel building (which shared part of the convention complex) and elsewhere in the convention centre. Particularly problematic for us was a huge ramp in the main convention centre, which we had to get past to get to the main trade and exhibit halls. I could never have wheeled myself up there. And there were frequent problems with people walking along looking at smartphones, and threatening to walk into wheelchairs which could not just step easily to the side to avoid them. Very much a modern malaise of course.

Because of my neurological illness, similar to multiple sclerosis, I had to alternate days of total rest with days at the con. So allowing for flights there and back I could only attend the con on Wednesday and Friday, with total sleep days between. Luckily the hotel was quiet – because of my wheelchair and mobility issues we were allocated a room in the on-site Holiday Inn. This let me come back to the room and rest between panels, and manage as much as possible.

Before the con I studied the programme – released online some weeks in advance – to see likely things I might hope to get to. There were hundreds of talks to choose from, in ten or so parallel streams over five days. I tend to prefer panels with multiple members over individual speakers, unless I’m confident the one speaker will be good. And I always hope to have a variety of subjects covered in the panels I attend. My plan was to attend on the Wednesday and Friday, but also marked up Thursday and Saturday possible events, in case I was stronger on those days. We were flying home on Sunday afternoon, so after checking out from the hotel were going to head straight to the airport.

The first panel I attended was “Uses of Fantasy” in the Academic track, a 90-minute academic panel looking at research into audience responses to the Hobbit trilogy of films, especially in Finland. This was a fascinating start to the con for me, an academic historian who researched historic reading habits for my PhD. But I also increasingly dabble in cultural history, including in the modern era. The speakers were a mix of prof, post doc and PhD student, all interesting. All very different in presentation styles, but well linked. There was much amusement among the audience about Finnish attitudes to Hobbit films: essentially huge disappointment! And there was a lively Q&A session at end. I asked my first question of the con, and another questioner was also a Scottish lady.

My second panel looked at the processes behind the Helsinki Worldcon bid, from original idea through to the con of now. This had three speakers, somewhat variable in quality, indeed one I wish had spoken less, and given the others more space. But it was an interesting insight. I was also greatly amused by the tartan tammie wearing Finn on the panel with a Scottish twinge to his accent – turned out he’d done his language residency in Edinburgh, and clearly still felt close to the country. Nice!

I had hoped to attend more panels on the first day, but in the end couldn’t keep going for so long. So my next panel was on the Friday, looking at Caribbean SF. This was in a large room on the ground floor, and I was pleased to see that the chaotic queuing of the first day had improved. Again because of the wheelchair I got a seat at the very front. Originally this panel was intended to be three Caribbean authors including chair, but a 4th author was added. This was very very good – a rich insight into the language, culture and society of the islands, and what makes Caribbean Sci-Fi and Fantasy writing unique. Each of the writers – including luminaries Karen Lord and Nalo Hopkinson – talked about their own writing approaches. And, yet again, there was a lively Q&A at the end. I asked for tips re starting points for new readers of Caribbean SF, and got many useful suggestions.

Because of the still somewhat busy talks and corridors – even after steps had been taken – we didn’t try to attend a panel more often than every two hours. This gave time to get from the previous panel to the new location, ready to queue again. As a wheelchair user I was usually seated first, but it was still sensible to get there before things got too hectic. Both my husband and I had “Access” ribbons on our Worldcon membership badges – him as my assistant – to give us priority access through crowds etc.

My second Friday panel looked at the James Webb Space Telescope, one of many astronomy talks at this year’s Worldcon. The speaker in this case was NASA public affairs officer Jenny Knott. So not a scientist, but I think she coped pretty well with questions. It was rather unfortunate that this talk was scheduled directly against another astronomy one about Mars, but both my husband – whose day job is in space technology research for the European Space Agency etc. – and me preferred to try for the telescope one. Much of the talk was a pre prepared video explaining the science behind the telescope and the plans for its launch and deployment. The rest of the time was a lively Q&A. Many people, including me (on my 4th question in successive panels), asked about the risky aspects of the mission, and about testing etc. It’s using a lot of new technology; if things go wrong it will be very hard to fix long distance. The speaker couldn’t answer everything, but again I think she did pretty well, and offered to put people interested in knowing more in touch with NASA scientists who can help more.

I had intended to go to a panel on Finnish steampunk, but went for lunch instead, and another look around the trade hall. So after that I looked in the programme book to see what else that might be on imminently that could appeal, and ended up in a panel on “Writing for Video Games”. This had five writers for video games, including three writing for interactive fiction company Choice of Games. I’m writing interactive fiction games myself at the moment, and have been interested in them for 35+ years; so am always hoping for inspiration re my own writing, which made this panel ideal. It was an interesting discussion, well balanced among the panel, and touched on lots of issues, including the role of the writer, developing a character, and agency. Again it wrapped up with a lively Q&A. I was trying not to ask a question for a 5th panel in row, but gave up after 5 mins. I asked the panel for their thoughts on how easy it was for amateurs to get into this field, based partly on the long tradition of amateur writers in interactive fiction in particular. This led to further questions, where audience members were asking for more details of free / open source systems like Inform 7, Choice Script etc.

Note: both of the last two panels mentioned above can be viewed on YouTube. Because both were in room 208 they were some of the few recorded and streamed on the Internet for viewers long distance.

I should also comment on other aspects of the con. I’ve already mentioned how easy registration was for us. In a large part this was because of the access desk, but looking across to the main registration queue it seems to have been remarkably efficient for people in general too.

The Trade Hall is always a Worldcon highlight for me, and I was there on both days. The Trade Hall was quite small this year in the number of traders, I think. There were many Finnish language books on sale, which was nice to see, even if I couldn’t buy them to read myself! Also there were several sellers of steampunk items. I could easily have bought an amazing watch and some goggles …

The Exhibits Hall was rather sparsely filled, certainly in comparison with London. There were lots of posters, but for me from my wheelchair position they weren’t always easy to read. We did like some of the displays though, including Discworld figures, and a huge Discworld Great A’Tuin turtle.

All attendees get a registration pack, including a souvenir book and various bits and bobs. I was particularly pleased to see that the souvenir book – a large format paperback – includes good articles about the history of Finnish SF and F. And as a real bonus we got a specially published collection of Finnish weird fiction in paperback form in our registration pack. This would be good enough for me in itself, but it also had the bonus of having lists at the back of it of Finnish SF and F – both short stories and longer novels etc. – available in translation in various languages worldwide. More for me to read!

Overall I’m delighted with our time at the con. I could only be there on two proper days, though my husband managed four days. We both had a fantastic time, very rewarding, which in particular has left me with a legacy of much new fiction and non fiction for me that I now want to read. We got to visit a fantastic city – the Finnish people were extremely welcoming – and had a wonderful break. I hope it’s not too long before the Worldcon comes back to the Nordic countries, but this was a wonderful experience. Thank you.

Oh and for a glimpse of Helsinki, rather more so than the Worldcon itself, my husband has uploaded quite a lot of photos from his wanders, especially on the days before the con started.

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Just before the old year ends and a new one begins I thought I’d do a recap on how things have gone for me in the last year, particularly academically.

My honorary research fellowship was renewed again. This is from History in the School of Humanities at the University of Dundee. After I finished my PhD in 2010 I asked if I could get an honorary fellowship, to help me continue to access vital resources like electronic journals, which are typically only available to current staff and students of universities subscribing to them. This is particularly important as more and more university libraries switch from subscribing to print copies to e-journals, which, generally, are restricted in who can use them. I’m a life member of one local university library, and have another one nearby, but neither opens up their e-journals to people who aren’t staff or students. So this was important to allow me to keep up to speed with current research and new developments. And the fellowship has been renewed every year since. It’s also nice that when I give a conference paper or publish a new academic journal paper it provides some kudos to the department which has supported me so well.

Over the year I’ve submitted more journal papers. I learned early in January that another paper had been accepted. It’s derived from part of my PhD thesis, with new additional material, and will be published in Library & Information History in 2014. Another prize-winning paper is due to be published at some point in the Journal of the Edinburgh Bibliographical Society. And I was asked to do my first academic book review, for the Journal of Scottish Historical Studies, and it was published in November 2013. Other papers are with editors, or at various stages of development. And I was pleased to see two of my past academic papers became freely available online, under open access rules.

I took part in four academic conferences this year. The first was a conference for archivists, where I gave a talk about my experiences as a disabled user of archives. This was held locally, in a hotel in Dundee, so was easy for me to get to, but I was very weak from the neurological disease that day, and it was something of a struggle. But I wanted to present this important view, and was glad to make it. I blogged about both my time there, and the topic I was talking about.

In the summer I attended one day of a conference about the Middle Ages in the Modern World. This was at St Andrews, my former university, actually very near to where I was once a science undergraduate and postgraduate student. This was much fun. Again my husband was with me on the day, to help me manage everything in my wheelchair, and I blogged about my time there.

The third conference was that of the Economic and Social History Society of Scotland. Their autumn conference, in September, was held in Inverness, and focused on the topic of Rural Scotland. I gave a talk about my postgraduate Masters dissertation research examining Melrose regality court records (local court records for Melrose and the surrounding area) in the late 17th century. I am currently looking to publish this as an academic paper, and got very good feedback and had a very rewarding time there.

The fourth conference was held in late October to celebrate the work of my PhD supervisor who died a month earlier. It had been planned long before he died, and was a conference of mixed emotions, but ultimately positive.

I also had another flying visit to the Edinburgh International Book Festival in August. Not academic at all, but a wonderful celebration of books and reading, and I was very glad to be able to go again.

In November I took part in Academic Writing Month again. My goals were more modest this time: resubmit a revised journal paper (done), and submit a paper to the SHARP (Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing) 2014 conference in Antwerp (also done). Whether my paper for SHARP is accepted or not I will be there. I’m also planning on going in 2014 to a book history conference at St Andrews in the summer, and will be flying down to London to attend the Worldcon World sci-fi/fantasy/etc. convention at the Docklands.

Another major interest of mine is genealogy. I run a Cavers one-name study, researching all families with this surname, particularly before 1900. Developments on this in 2013 included me starting a new Y-DNA study to use DNA to look for connections between different Cavers lines. I also gave a talk about my Cavers one-name study at a Guild of One-Name Studies regional meeting at Perth. A version of this is online, with PowerPoint slides and my audio delivery.

I also run two one-place studies, where I research two parishes in the past. Both of these have a particular focus, for practical reasons, before 1820. The two parishes are Coldingham in Berwickshire, and Melrose in Roxburghshire, both Scottish Borders parishes with family connections for me. I continue to transcribe and develop online resources for these studies, and in 2013 this included adding a person index of about 9000 names for Melrose court participants between 1657 and 1676. Likewise for Coldingham I put online a list of 19th century prisoners from the parish.

I’m a roleplayer, and play Call of Cthulhu online at Play@YSDC. This works well for my neurological disease, meaning I can play as and when I’m able to. It also means I get to play with people around the world. In 2013 I started a new game in our ongoing campaign of Doctor Who / Call of Cthulhu crossover games. And I also started a game set on the Bass Rock, hopefully the first of many games (if our characters survive!) set in Scotland. Sadly I also dropped out of a game for the very first time – it was proving too unreliable in terms of keeping going, with long periods of inactivity by the keeper which I couldn’t keep up with – but I hope that won’t happen again for a long time.

Continuing the roleplaying theme I’ve been writing more of a series of crossover history/roleplaying articles, which I plan to compile into a book, probably in digital format. This is slow-going, but I hope to make more progress in 2014. Likewise I have been continuing to develop my very long-standing interactive fiction (text adventure) work in progress – a whodunnit set in Hermitage Castle in the Scottish Borders, about 500 years ago. Again another thing to work on in 2014.

My neurological disease continues to be a problem, but is being a bit better behaved at the moment, and may have gone into remission or need less daily chemotherapy and steroids to control it. I’m still left with the legacy of brain damage from the past, and wide-ranging disability that this causes. But I hope for a bit of a break from too toxic a cocktail of daily drugs. And maybe I will be able to get more done in 2014 than I have for a number of years. It may be just a temporary respite, but I want to make the most of it.

Anyway I’m looking forward to 2014 in an optimistic manner. Hopefully it will be as productive and rewarding as 2013 was.

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It’s the last day of the month now, and my Academic Writing Month of 2013 is drawing to a close. I thought I’d reflect here on how it’s gone, and lessons I’m taking from it for the future.

This year I had fairly modest goals. Last year I had more goals, but this year I had two main ones: finish revising an academic journal paper that’s been lingering since the summer, and write and submit a conference paper proposal (CFP deadline 30th November 2013) for a book history conference next year. Although they were just two goals, they were big ones. The journal paper was about 10,000 words long, and needed quite significant revisions before resubmission, and that couldn’t be done in a hurry. Equally the conference paper proposal was slightly outside my comfort zone, so I needed to familiarise myself with existing research and writings, before selling my pitch.

I’m pleased to say that both goals were achieved. The conference paper proposal was submitted mid month, and the revised journal paper resubmitted towards the end of the month. I started tackling both of them as the month started, and nibbled away at them, working steadily, as and when I could, until both were finished. So that was really good, and a big result of AcWriMo for me.

Another goal that I added part way through the month was related to my Melrose one-place study, and this was to put a person index, about 9000 persons (names, occupations, addresses, any relatives recorded) who were involved with the Melrose regality (local) court between 1657 and 1676. Although this was primarily a genealogical index it arose from my MPhil dissertation research a decade ago. Again I’m pleased to say this was done, and I blogged about it here.

More minor goals included judging the IF Comp games this year (done, at least 10 of them played, judged and rated), and to move my own text adventure writing project onwards (done: lots of player interaction added and coded up). I also wanted to move on my urban history research, and immediately after I resubmitted my journal paper I started planning a new one, that develops considerably on just a couple of sentences in my PhD thesis, combining book history and urban history in rather a nice mixture. It’s early days, but I will be able to take this forward in the coming month or two.

One thing I didn’t manage was to write any more of my roleplaying / history crossover articles which I am building into a book. But that’s ok, this month was primarily for academic writing projects, and I can tackle that next month. In December I will also be doing another piece of less formal writing: analysing and reviewing the Sapphire & Steel annual for my third article for an upcoming fanzine about the series. Fun.

So overall it’s been a very successful month for me. Although I set myself slightly more modest goals than last year, at least in terms of number and quantity, they were individually ambitious and time consuming, and it’s a big achievement to have managed all the big ones. This helped me finish one project that had been hanging around for too long, finish another that was urgently time critical, and set myself up for the next research project and journal paper I’m working on. And starting working on the AcWriMo projects from the beginning of the month, and blogging my progress week by week, got things done. I never spent a huge amount of time in the week on any one project, but kept working steadily at it, and that way progress was made, and things finished.

All going well I definitely intend to take part in AcWriMo 2014. Looking forward to it. In the meantime I hope to continue the momentum I have built from this year.

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Checking in after another week of the month, and really pleased with progress in the last 7 days.

Conference paper proposal for the SHARP (Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing) 2014 conference in Antwerp has been finished and submitted online. Was really easy to do. They even asked for my Twitter handle in the submission process! My proposed talk is titled “Fanzines and British TV series Doctor Who, and their changing relationship over nearly 50 years”. I’ll find out by mid February if they’ve accepted my proposal, but I’m going whatever.

And I’ve almost finished my other big goal, revising and resubmitting an academic journal paper this month. I finished scribbling my many changes to the text a few days ago, and last night spent a very productive hour typing them into the Word document. When I originally submitted the paper it was 9999 words long – yes the journal did allow 10000! And I’m amazed that even with all my additions and clarifications the new version isn’t much over 9900 words. Though I did hack out quite a bit of text in one section, including a lengthy table the anonymous reviewer thought was superfluous. I’ll easily be able to finish and resubmit this paper by the end of November, which is superb.

IF Comp also finished in the last 7 days. In the end I played and judged 10 games out of the 35 total, which given my other time constraints I’m quite pleased about. And I now have all the other entrants, including the eventual winner, to look forward to playing more slowly.

I also resumed writing my own interactive fiction game. It’s a whodunnit / mystery, set in a Scottish Borders castle circa 1500. Much of the game involves talking to other characters, to try to figure out the clues. The other night I filled out more of the Inform 7 conversation tables for this, which is great progress, that I’m really pleased with.

So good progress. Alongside finishing my journal paper revisions in the next 7 days I’d like to do more urban history research / thinking, and also roleplaying / history crossover articles for my book in progress. Will see what happens!

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Another seven days down, and checking in once more on progress so far.

I’m really pleased with how the week has gone, though initially I moved away from the two main goals. For the conference paper proposal I was still waiting for some more academic textbooks on the subject to arrive, some bought, some borrowed from university libraries. They’re now all here, in house, so I’m going to have a good look through them over the coming week, and look at producing my final paper proposal, tweaking the first draft I produced earlier this month.

I also put the journal paper revising a little to one side, to give me more brain time to ruminate over things, before tackling it properly. I’d annotated the first submission PDF on my iPad, and printed that out 2-up with a blank side on the back for scribbling new versions / revisions. And I’ve been carrying that printout about with me, in an envelope in my bag, ever since. So when husband and I found ourselves in the Old Union Coffee Shop at the University of St Andrews yesterday, I was able to spend a good few minutes, with cup of tea on one side, working through my revisions.

I have 13 items on the revisions todo list. There are now just 2 left to do. In the last few minutes, sitting up with my printouts and a pen, I worked on the 4 hardest items that I’d been putting off until I’d figured out how to tackle them. Once I got my brain into gear it was really easy, and I wrote out new text for the relevant parts of the paper very quickly. I should definitely be able to finish this in the next week or two, and certainly resubmit the paper in November. Yay!

Another thing I’ve been doing this week is putting up a person index to participants in court cases in the Melrose area of the Scottish Borders between 1657 and 1676. This is a massive index, of nearly 9000 names, including often occupations, addresses, and names of relatives. I compiled this in the process of building a database of the local court records for this area. And I’d been meaning to put the index online for other genealogists and local historians to use. It’s now online, so massive I had to split the web pages for the name index into three sections, and I blogged about it here.

I’ve also been doing more IF Comp judging. Still not as much as I’d like, and judging closes tomorrow. But I’ve now raised the number of games I’ve judged and rated from 5 to 9, which is quite an improvement. Still a bit of a drop in the ocean out of 35 games total, but I’m happy. I may manage another couple between now and tomorrow night.

Something else that’s been good this week is that two of my old academic journal papers have gone freely online, under green open access rules. Green open access is very rare in humanities, so I was very pleased to get confirmation from Edinburgh University Press that I could put the final as-published PDFs of both papers in my personal website. I blogged about this. It also gave me a bit of a boost while I’m preparing more journal papers for submission, not least that one I’m currently revising.

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Well it’s a week in, and as is normal with Academic Writing Month I’m reflecting on how things have gone so far.

It’s been a great start. Neither main goal is fully achieved yet, but both are well on the way. The conference paper proposal has a first draft written, which came in at almost perfect length even before tweaking/editing. I need to check a few more academic books, and give it a couple of weeks distance for final editing, but I should definitely have a proposal ready in time. I still have to decide whether to submit it, but that’s a separate decision. Main thing is I can if I want to.

My other main goal was to revise and resubmit a journal paper. I’d been quite ill and weak for several months after getting the response from the editors, which caused a delay. But it also helped because the reviewer’s comments were quite harsh, and a bit of distance helps deal with that positively! But a few weeks ago I turned the editors’ requests and the reviewer’s critique into a to-do list of improvements to be getting on with, and I made a proper start on that last night. There were 13 items on my to-do list, and I completed 6 of them in about an hour. The tweaks are all quite surgical, not too lengthy (which is good, because I’d need to cut other words if I add any more), but needed that bit of distance and focus. And Academic Writing Month has encouraged me to finally bring this to completion. I’ll be working on the remaining items over the coming week or so, but am confident I will have it ready to resubmit this month.

On the downside I haven’t done much more IF Comp judging. I have reached the 5 game threshold, i.e. 5 games judged and rated, which means that my votes will count towards the final ranking. But with over 30 games entered in the competition that’s only a very small minority of games judged, and I would like to judge more. The deadline for judging and voting is 15th November, but I am confident, given how my other goals are going, that I should manage some more.

No more work yet on my own text adventure game, but I finished reading After Flodden, which gave me lots of ideas. And in my urban history research I’ve already started looking through and assessing the late 18th century Scottish shop tax lists, to see which would be suitable for further more detailed analysis. So that is a good start in itself.

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Now it’s the eve of Academic Writing Month 2013, which runs through November, I’m going to state my goals up-front. This is with the hope that doing so will encourage me to complete them.

Goal 1 is to finish revising an academic journal paper I have a revise and resubmit offer on, and email the revised version to the editors by the end of November. The editors haven’t asked me to do any new research, or read further around the subject. Rather they want me to introduce my work more clearly, state the thesis up front, etc. That should be doable, if my brain gets into gear, in a relatively short time. For some of the material I add I will probably have to hack out some other content to keep within the 10,000 words (including footnotes) word limit. But, again, that should be manageable.

Goal 2 is to research, plan, write and submit a conference paper proposal for the 2014 SHARP conference in Antwerp. I am considering putting in a proposal for a paper based on Doctor Who fanzines. I’m still slightly undecided about doing this, given my neurological disease which is very disabling. I will make a final decision on what to do later in November. But I am gathering relevant academic books on the subject around me, and also brainstorming ideas for my own paper in my favourite mind mapping app on my iPad. The process will take a little time, but I think should be doable before the CFP deadline.

Those are my two goals. Alongside them I will be doing other writing, with an emphasis on having fun. And I will continue to judge the 2013 IF Comp entries. But these things will be done as and when I can, rather than towards fixed goals.

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