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My small, timid act of defiance.

Eight thousand kilometers out of Beijing, I already know I’m in China.

The intercom welcomes me to CA962 while the plane’s still taxiing out onto the runway in Frankfurt: “I am the head of the security detachment for this flight. I and my staff have been charged with keeping order. You may suffer detention, sanction, expulsion, and even criminal prosecution if you do any of the following things: Smoke. Grab the seats or the overhead compartments. Interfere in any way with the staff of the airplane. I and my staff will do our duty conscientiously.”

The weird thing is, the guy speaks with an Australian accent.


The Hotel. Not bad.

The Hotel. Not bad.

No problem at Customs, unless you count the fact that they fingerprint me on two separate occasions. Evidently the machine confirms that my prints haven’t changed any time in the past 34 minutes. The driver who meets me doesn’t speak English, and that’s fine by me; by this time I’ve been up for nearly forty hours, and would be a shitty conversationalist anyway. Beijing, at first look, seems pretty much like every other big city I’ve visited over the past few years, once you factor out the traffic signs. Same vehicles. Same trees. Same Golden Arches. Maybe a higher proportion of Asians.

My eyes start stinging twenty minutes into the ride— Beijing used to have the worst air of any city on the planet, until Delhi stole the crown back in 2016— but I think that’s probably psychosomatic; they’re fine again by the time I reach the hotel.


The Venue.

The Venue.


The weekend is an equal mix of chaos and excitement.  For all the glitches, I would do it again.

Vera. I still don't know her last name. (That's Crystal Huff in the background.)

Vera. I still don’t know her last name. (That’s Crystal Huff in the background.)

I will try not to gush.

Vera, one of the con’s top-level commanders, tells me early on that APSFCon is expecting maybe 300 attendees. I am both impressed and dismayed; they’ve shipped in somewhere around a hundred official guests. This is gonna be the highest panelist:audience ratio in recorded history. Also maybe some kind of tax writeoff.

At the Friday Preparty, they announce they’ve sold 1500 tickets. Before noon on the first day, 2000. By the time the guards kick us out of the Science Museum on Sunday afternoon, the number being bandied about is somewhere on the high side of 4000.

I don’t know whether that refers to unique individuals or simply clicks of the turnstile (i.e., someone attending on both Saturday and Sunday would be counted twice). Either way, we’re talking an order of magnitude more attendees than expected. Given the strain that must have put on the network, I’m not gonna complain that their wi-fi’s spotty.

I may complain about a couple of other things here and there. But it’s worth noting that this is FAA’s first-ever stab at running a con. For all the chaos and missed connections, I’ve seen more venerable cons run less smoothly.


I believe this may be a form of veneration.

I believe this may be a form of veneration.


The guests are from everywhere. I even know some of them.

Nikolai, from St. Petersburg, surprises me in the Green Room. You remember Nikolai; he’s the guy who talked his publishers into letting him translate Blindsight into Russian, then got fired when they actually had a chance to read Blindsight, and then got rehired by those same publishers after Blindsight was a hit and the publishers came crawling back to him on bended knee. He’s here.

I meet another Russian, Katerina, who tells me that we are entwined in history. Back when I was in St. Petersburg, I provided the theme for a local writing contest: “It’s only dark when the lights are on.”  (I do not remember doing this, but the line sounds familiar and I don’t want to call Katerina a liar.) Katerina wrote the winning entry. “Untilted”, it’s called. Its English translation appeared in Apex just last November.

Volodymyr. Me. Blindsight.

I am impressed. Small world. I think forward a couple of weeks, to a time when I will want to read “Untilted” for myself but will have to wait because I have to finish some fucking blog post. I imagine that I will feel somewhat resentful.

Canada is well represented: Derek Künsken, Eric Choi, Gillian Clinton all provide familiar company to tribally shelter with at mealtimes. Others, from other lands, I get to meet for the first time: Crystal Huff (US), Chiara Cigarini (Italy). Cheri Huang and Matt Kimberley, of the Science Museum group in the UK. My Ukrainian publishers have sent someone down too, dude called Volodymyr, with the Ukrainian Blindsight prototype and a bunch of bookplates to sign.

The legendary Terry Bisson and me, listening to a German dude insisting that Quantum Mechanics is wrong and the real story is in “Before the Big Bang”, a book by a guy named Sternglass.

I get to meet Terry Bisson. You know the guy: he wrote “Bears Discover Fire”, and the brilliant “They’re Made Out of Meat”. But did you know he also wrote the “Official Junior Novelization” of Alien: Resurrection?  (Did you even know there was an official junior novelization of Alien Resurrection?) Did you know he was one of the activists credited with catalyzing the student peace movement after a trip to the White House in ’61?

You’re unlikely to learn any of these things from the horse’s mouth, because from what I can tell Terry Bisson is too humble and self-effacing to blow his own horn. (I had to do a bit of Google-stalking to figure that stuff out.) This is a man, I think, who is bigger than his reputation. It is an honor to hang out with him.

This is Ben Hawker's business card, with all the personal stuff blurred. Just to prove that I met him.

This is Ben Hawker’s business card, with all the personal stuff blurred. Just to prove that I met him.

There are also people who seem to know me by my reputation. There’s a whole Kiwi contingent here representing Weta workshop, and one of them tells me that Blindsight  went through  that company “like a virus”. I think he means that in a good way, but nobody from New Zealand has crashed through my door with bags of cash so maybe not.  (I also learn that Weta is not, as I’d always assumed WETA, an acronym. Apparently it’s named for a giant cricket.)

For my part, meeting the people who build those kind of FX for a living was like meeting a bunch of astronauts.


The gallery.

The gallery.


They warned us, in big all-caps emails, before we ever left our native lands: when in Beijing, never put tap water in your mouth. Not even to brush your teeth. They were quite specific about that.





I spent a fair amount of time with my legs crossed.

In Beijing, I spent a fair amount of time with my legs crossed.

You know how Amazon and Microsoft and Google tell you they have to spy on you all the time so they can serve you better? How voice recognition is such a complex and multithreaded exercise that it can’t possibly fit into an Alexa or Cortana, that the only way those little devices can respond to your commands is if they send everything you say back to Redmond or Silicon Valley, where banks of proprietary superservers do the heavy lifting?

This is bullshit. I know this, because of the party favor APSFCon has put into my attendee bag.

Right next to the author badge and the program and the map: a matte-black flattened cylinder, maybe a little longer than a pack of cigarettes, maybe half as wide. One button says “ENG”, the other says something in Chinese. Speak in English while pressing ENG: once you release the button, the box translates what you said into spoken Chinese.  Press the Chinese button and speak in that language, and the box speaks to you in English.

I try it out on “There are no cats on Baffin Isle”. The cylinder hears “There are no cats on bath, in aisle”, which is pretty damn good given the phonetic ambiguity of that line. Other, more conventional sentences are translated flawlessly. I loan this magic box to Eric and Gillian, who will be tootling around the countryside after the con; they report afterward that it was a “lifesaver”.

Totally self-contained. No internet connection required.  And so cheap that the con was literally giving them away.

If something that size can pull off two-way realtime translation between languages as different as English and Chinese, don’t try to tell me that Cortana has to outsource “Play Add Violence, medium volume” to the fucking Cloud.




Of course, given that level of proficiency, you’d expect some kind of translation during the actual panels. We’ve all been assured ahead of time that translation would be provided, either by flesh-and-blood translators or via “realtime AI”.

These are the spikes driven through the tail of the buried dragon which provides Beijing's energy. So it will not escape. Really.

These giant spikes have been driven through the tail of the buried dragon which provides Beijing’s energy, to keep it from escaping.

I discover later that that did happen on the first two floors. My panels— including the one at which I was supposed to give a twenty-five twenty seven minute talk on delusional optimism aliens— are on the 5th floor. For some reason, apparently, people are just kinda expected to be able to understand English once the elevator takes them past a certain altitude. My slides are bilingual— Chinese front and center for the audience, English smaller and subordinate and meant mainly to let me keep track of my own progress— but my talk consists of more than just reading out the text on the slides (many of which don’t even have text).

The talk itself has been kind of a train wreck from the moment of its inception. I was originally told they wanted 20-25 minutes on “anything you like, as long as it’s not politics or religion in the real world”. So I prepared a talk on the evolution of Delusional Optimism in our species, to be given during the “World in Upheaval” session (which they later changed to “The World is Changing” because— as I may have mentioned in a previous post— they thought it would be “more optimistic”). It was only about a week before departure that they posted the con schedule online, at which point I discovered there was no “World is Changing” panel any more, and that I was instead giving a talk in the “Meeting the Alien” session. So I threw away the first talk and prepared another one from scratch: “The End of Need: Cognitive Trends in Starfaring Species”. (Probably the most upbeat talk I’ve ever given, insofar as it serves as a kind of counterpoint to Cixin Liu’s “Dark Forest” model.  Maybe I’ll tell you about it sometime.)

“End of Need” is running pretty smoothly in my head right up until about an hour before showtime, which is when I discover that they expect me to talk not for twenty minutes, but for seven. There is no way to make my argument in seven minutes, even with an hour’s advance notice. There is no explanation for why I have to talk for seven minutes, even when I show them all the back-and-forth emails in which they told me to talk for twenty.

And, lest we forget, there is no translator.

Always start with a pander.

Grimly, I buckle down and talk. For twenty minutes. In English. I cannot tell whether the standing-room-only audience is rapt or merely stone-faced. The guy after me talks for ten, reading off his prepared notes. He too is speaking English, but with such a heavy Indian accent that even I can’t understand most of what he says. God help the audience.

I feel a little better for a moment: at least I had snazzy slides. But then the panel is  over, and the other two people sitting with us have had no chance to speak at all, and I feel awful again.


One of the very few selfie-type shots I would be willing to share. If I had even taken it. (In fact, Jane Yang did.)

One of the very few selfie-type shots I would be willing to share, if I had even taken it. (In fact, Jane Yang did.)

The fans cheer me up.

I’m not even expecting anyone to know who I am; I’ve only had one novel and one short story published in China, after all. But I end up signing a lot of books, in several languages. A couple of people even bring copies of Firefall.

There are selfies. Beijingian selfie-takers seem disproportionately fond of photo apps that lay cat noses or rabbit ears onto their subjects’ faces. They seem even fonder of these apps than Japanese were back in Kawasaki. I lose track of the number of pictures that festoon me with whiskers and pointy ears and twitchy pink noses. I hope that if any of these get out, nobody thinks I am, or have ever been, a Furry.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.


Almost all the fans are awesome. Almost. There’s the inevitable in-your-face guy who wants me to agree that Echopraxia isn’t as good as Blindsight (I do), and tells me that I will never truly succeed as a writer because my ideas are too difficult, and that puts people off, and I should make them simpler like he does. (I tell him I will try.)

Meanwhile, in a distant land…

Someone else takes offense at Blindsight‘s (not entirely original) suggestion that free will is an illusion.  He’s a novelist himself, he says, so he knows: how could beings without free will possibly invent dramatic and compelling fictional characters who live and breathe on the page the way they do?

I try to explain that the ability to write fiction doesn’t have any bearing on the question of free will one way or the other; the fact that something makes a choice doesn’t mean it wasn’t just following a deterministic decision tree, no matter how complex.  “But how do you explain all the people in History who stood up to tyranny if there’s no free will?” he asks.

Reasoned discourse having failed, I resort to punching him in the nose. That seems to do the trick.


By an odd coincidence, the woman who is taking me to my next press interview is called “Punch”.


Why, yes. Rick & Morty is quite popular over here. Why do you ask?

Why, yes. Rick & Morty is quite popular over here. Why do you ask?


Robin Williams is revered as a god over here.

Robin Williams is revered as a god over here.

Vera keeps gently herding me toward WeChat: that gummint-surveilled, unencrypted, ranked-even-lower-than-Facebook-and-Google-in-terms-of-privacy-protection Chinese chat app that scored a perfect 0 out of 11 on Amnesty International’s protect-the-innocent scale. Get a WeChat account and you can talk in realtime with the other guests! Get late-breaking news! Find out which gate the bus leaves from so you won’t get left behind!

I demur. I think I might be the only guest who does. Vera agrees to use email in my case. I feel like I’m being a pain in the ass. But seriously; doesn’t she know? Doesn’t it bother her?

And yet the whole security-state-surveillance thing seems somewhat grayer here than I’d expected. The concomm warned all us foreigners about the Great Firewall before we ever arrived; if you want to access Twitter or Facebook or Google you should install a VPN, the email said. I asked a few folks upon my arrival: you’re not worried about getting into trouble, openly advising people to circumvent government censorship? But it’s no big secret. VPNs aren’t even banned in China, probably because the authorities know such a law would be unenforceable anyway (although granted, that hasn’t stopped the United Arab Emirates). There’s no eyes-down Orwellian keep-your-mouth-shut attitude here that I can see; people on street level have no compunctions at all about political grumbling.

Katerina, on the right, won a contest. Olya, on the left, feels safe here.

Katerina, on the right, owes her success as a writer entirely to me. Olya, on the left, feels safe in Beijing.

And not all of it is grumbling. I meet a charming expatriate, name of Olya (hangs around with Katerina, of writing-contest fame) who swears that she feels safer in Beijing than she ever did growing up in her native— I want to say, Moldova? Back home she’d get assaulted on her own doorstep in broad daylight; here in Beijing, she feels completely safe walking outside alone, night or day. She swears by the place.

I think of a brilliant little dichotomy from The Handmaid’s Tale: “There is freedom to, and there is freedom from.” (I also think: Well, yeah. Moldova’s not exactly the highest bar to clear.) Still. I take her point.

Tibet’s another surprise, apparently. Turns out some Tibetans actually approve of the Chinese presence. Back in pre-invasion days it would take days to get to the hospital if you were sick; now you can drive the distance in a half-hour. I’m reminded of Reg’s rhetorical challenge in The Life of Brian: “apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, a fresh water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”

One thing you don't see a lot of in the Museum of Science and Technology is rowdy behaviour...

One thing you don’t see a lot of in the Museum of Science and Technology is rowdy behaviour…

And the biggest surprise of all: you know that dystopian Social Credit program China is busy implementing, to be fully installed by 2020? That creepy metric that restricts your ability to travel, or to get into the best restaurants, or to get your kids into decent schools if you bad-talk Big Brother? The metric that punishes you the same way if you even hang around with people who do any of that stuff? Black Mirror made flesh?

I ask maybe four or five Beijingians about that over the weekend. None of them have heard of it.

“Where did you hear about this?” one of them asks me. “A tabloid? Was it credible?”

Wired,” I remember. “New York Times. A lot of places.”

“Well we’ve got a kind of automated credit-rating system. It looks at things like criminal record and bank account. But that’s just to let people know if you can afford a house, that sort of thing.”

I’m not quite sure how to parse this. I like to think I’m properly skeptical of the received Wisdom of the Mainstream, but I’ve read so much about this pernicious Orwellian system— from so many highly-regarded sources (even the more skeptical of which are distinctly disapproving)— that it’s difficult to dismiss it all as western propaganda. But it also seems that the whole point of any system based on intimidation is lost if the people caught up in it don’t even know it exists— and the folks I’m talking to seem in no way cowed or shy about expressing their own political opinions. (Later, Cixin Liu reinforces this: tells me there’s just as much ideological diversity on the streets of China as there is in the west.)

Phocoena (left) and Forcipiger. They fight crime.

Phocoena (left) and Forcipiger. They fight crime.

“So you can post anti-government sentiments online, no problem?” I ask one of the women who interviews me on Friday night. “Sure,” she says. “The post would probably get deleted, but no one would come after me or anything.” Which is not to say that people with actual influence enjoy the same immunity. Souhon SciFan criticizes Beijing and her post is quietly deleted; Souhon journo does the same thing and she might not show up for work the next day. This, too, is openly admitted.

I ask my interviewer what happens if I blog this; could it come back and bite her in the ass? She shrugs. It’s cool, she says. Blogging’s fine. “Just don’t use our real names,” Forcipiger advises, and Phocoena— our translator— concurs.


I might have mentioned that Cixin Liu is also in attendance at this shindig.  Vera intuits that I wouldn’t object to the chance to say hello. Maybe it’s because I started off my talk with a slide interrogating the Dark Forest model; maybe she just noticed the three big honking trade paperbacks I’ve been lugging around in my backpack, on the off chance. She sets up a conversation: just me, my man Cixin, a translator, and maybe a dozen people trying to look inconspicuous as they mill around in the hotel lobby, just within earshot.

I pepper him with questions about Remembrance of Earth’s Past, and his views on Human nature. (Like f’rinstance: once aware of the Trisolaran fleet, his characters immediately swing into action meeting a threat that won’t materialize for another four centuries. Here in the real world, climate change is already wreaking havoc on the planet and half the powers that be don’t even admit there’s anything wrong.  I wonder if the difference might come down to the fact that Liu lives in  a nation where the leadership can actually mandate long-term change on a dime, without having to pander to any of those short-sighted electoral distractions that keep others from looking more than a few months ahead.)

Cixin Liu does not shy away from political questions. The more political the better, he says. So I tell him that one of the things I found heartening about The Three Body Problem was the first chapter, set during the days of the Cultural Revolution. It was a pretty scathing indictment of what happens when you elevate political ideology above science, and when I first read it I thought hmmm: if he can be so openly critical of such an attitude and still be lauded as a hero, things must have loosened up over there.

But that was then and this was now, according to what some fans have told me; they’ve claimed that Liu’s trilogy, ten years old now, would have a tough getting published in China today because of the recent change in leadership. Apparently there’s been some backsliding. This new, welcoming environment for SF in China is not quite what it’s cracked up to be. (I’ve been told, for example, that time travel stories are frowned upon by an administration that doesn’t want its citizens reflecting upon— alternatives to the way things turned out.)

Liu rejects this out of hand. Says not only that he wouldn’t have any trouble getting Three Body published today, but that things weren’t even quite so rosy ten years ago. The initial Chinese release of Three Body did not open with the Cultural Revolution chapter; they buried that in the middle of the book, framed as a flashback, because they figured the censors wouldn’t bother to read that far.

Eh? Ehhhhh!?!

Eh? Eh!?!

If I’m really interested in stories that get up governmental noses, he points me to Hao Jingfang’s “Folding Beijing”, which won the 2016 Hugo (and which, once again, I might have already read if I wasn’t writing up this damn blog post). Apparently certain higher-ups did object to that one— and the Chinese government is definitely hardline by Canadian standards. But even their brazenly-named “Department of Censorship” has limited power to squash undesirable material, not least because it frequently falls afoul of other departments with different agendas. Apparently that’s how “Folding Beijing” got away. (The tale reminded me of a time in my own past, when a documentary I’d had a hand in writing won the Environment Canada trophy for “Best Film on the Environment”  while simultaneously being decried by another branch of the same government as “Anti-Canadian Propaganda”.)

And yes, he has read Blindsight. Even claims to have enjoyed it. Wondered how the hell I came up with the whole vampire thing.

I suppress a squee, ask him which book of the Remembrance trilogy is his favorite. Death’s End, he tells me. That’s the one he wrote purely as a fan, the one he wrote unconstrained by any commercial or market considerations, the story he told just because he wanted to and thought it was cool. Not wanting to impose, I haul out only that third volume and ask him to sign it.

He insists on signing the others as well. I don’t object too strenuously.


The whole reprobate crew.

The whole reprobate crew.


I’m not even back home— still in Bergen, recovering from Fish to Mars— when I get an invitation for a repeat visit.

This time it’s Danzhai, which I’m told is quite different from Beijing.  This time it’s a workshop, not a con; I spend a few all-expense-paid days participating in an SF workshop, then write a 10-15K novelette “inspired by” those experiences. I can pick my time: June, July, or August.

But this time, I have to say no.  The summer’s already spoken for, and I’m headed to Ukraine in the fall. Even if I squeezed in the trip, there’s no way I could put together a novelette in the two months following. I’m glad to have been asked, though, and a little relieved; I honestly wasn’t sure what kind of impression I’d made. Unless Danhai is a good place to dispose of bodies, though, I guess I pulled it off.

I only told them no for this year. Maybe they’ll have an opening in 2019.


Reposted bykrolik krolik

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