Sunday, 6 August 2017

CanCon 2016: Day 3

Can*Con 2016, the Conference on Canadian Content in Speculative Arts & Literature took place from September 9-11th in Ottawa, Ontario. I’m finally doing the writeup 11 months later... well, that’s how long it took me to get to it in 2015 too. I also blogged about 2014 and about 2013, if you’re a completist.

Sunday began with me attending the panel “40 Creative Choices that Drive Away Audiences”. The panelists were Fanny Darling, Caroline Frechette, Susan Forest (moderator) and after a short time, Lisa Toohey (car issues). We began on time, Susan remarking “We’re so organized.”

Susan: 20 published short stories. Collection, book launching last night, was editor on it, about mental health. Also teaches.
Fanny: Author of “Shifty”. Chapter in a writer’s guide about “Creepy or Romantic”.
Caroline: Writer of paranormal horror. Also acquisitions editor.


Susan said there was this great book 3-4 yrs ago, how not to write a novel. “I’ve taken little quotes and passages for when I’m teaching.” She started looking through it, mentioning “Fridging”, which her daughters explained to her as a character, often a woman, who is killed for the sole purpose of giving the male character a “reason” to accomplish his goal. From a story in the 90s. (An audience member says, Green Lantern, note left on the fridge.)

Susan had talked with her daughter who’s doing a phD in creative writing about a character having problems to motivate someone else. Game of Thrones’ “red wedding” being another example, a huge motivator for Aria to go and do things. There could be uses if done in a unique way. Caroline clarifies that it’s perhaps less the way it’s done, more who the characters are and were before the event. In “red wedding” a male character had accomplished things, experienced an arc.

Another from the book, “Heroic Wish Fulfilment” fantasy. Fanny feels that’s all Cassandra Clare writes. There’s one character she likes, the rest are gorgeous and super fighters doing amazing things because the author wants to be able to do those things. Susan says that gets to be too much. Caroline says when characters are so amazing that even struggles are admirable, they don’t seem human.

Susan mentions the term “Mary Sue” (character can do no wrong), Caroline lamenting that “recently it’s been used to designate any female”. Susan says though they might be saying this is a trope that is not a good writing technique, it works. Fanny agrees it’s easier to lose yourself in that, instead of a more beaten down by life person.

Susan wonders if the main character of “Twilight” is also a Mary Sue. An audience member counters it’s a “self insert” who has no personality. Caroline agrees, the Twilight character doesn’t do anything, so she can’t do everything perfectly - it’s a bit different. Fanny remarks on how “a 15 year old reader can become her”, and adds that a person watching someone sleep for a month without telling them goes to her “Creepy or Romantic” chapter.

Susan asks whether “self insert” (versus Mary Sue) is a thing to avoid, or a good selling point. Caroline says the stories that truly ENDURE are about characters who are realistic and flawed and go through struggles and don’t feel like they’ll come out the other end. “You can relate to that, and it gives you real hope.” Fanny adds part of it is the feeling you can’t be as perfect as a less realistic character. Audience member adds a lot of Robert Heinlein is like that, you ride along.

Related, Susan brings up a suggestion from a writing workshop in not giving a character too much of a physical description, since as soon as you do that you narrow the people who could relate. Feels like that’s a technique, just saying “she’s female and plain looking”. Fanny has heard of that, specifically for those writing Young Adult, because apparently girls can’t relate to people with a different hair colour? Susan remarks it “sounds condescending”.

Fanny says it is, she can relate to male characters, she has a character with orange hair and purple stripes who is not human - and feels she’s relatable too. Audience member notes the “Quiller” series, the main character’s never described, and in a spy novel, it’s meant to be nondescript. Also, having been to panels on diversity, if you don’t describe, people read characters as being white.

Caroline counters that the opposite is also true, even if explicitly described, they’re still read as “white”. She’s also been on diversity panels. Trouble is, people insert their own description. Mentions a novel (Nazi Boys?) which describes only white people while the main characters are black.

Someone from the Audience brings up the issue of Rey in the latest Star Wars, compared to Anakin, and was he a “Gary Stu” (male fulfilment). This is when Lisa Toohey arrived (about 10:20). Susan suggested moving on, and considering the issue of “Disempowered Secondary Characters”. Those who don’t really contribute in the novel.

Caroline says that’s a lesser aspect to Fridging. It’s the woman who, despite having skills, has to be rescued by the main male character who has become super good. Think “The Matrix”. Lisa says it goes to the “White Knight” complex, that every woman needs a man to save her, and to further the plot, secondaries become two dimensional, like placeholders. Susan tosses back in the issue of a “whitewashed” secondary cast that looks nothing like Europe or North America today.

Caroline says, as a broader term, it’s the huge issue of gender identity, sexual attraction, cultural heritage, all sorts of different things. It doesn’t make sense that characters are white with the same cultural experience. People wrongly think if there’s any sort of diversity, the book has to be about that. No, people are people. Lisa agrees, it adds another layer of depth. Like friends from southern US, who don’t know about snow, not everyone grows up with same outlook.

Fanny adds, you don’t have to have your gay character be “coming out” in a subplot or main plot. Can have a character who happens to be gay. With the caveat, Lisa remarks, you shouldn’t do it “just to do it”. Caroline says there is the danger of tokenism, like the token black. Or, Susan says, “one elf, one dwarf” in fantasy. Caroline says tokenism is avoided as long as you make them people, and make them matter in the story.

Lisa says, when writing a novel, she has sheets for main points about each character. Eye colour, hair, education, things that don’t come up in the story but it defines their voice. Or the risk is, everyone’s voice blends into one. They also need (as Susan puts it) goals and desires. Susan then asked panelists if there were other ways to “Drive Away Audiences”.

Caroline says, something just as bad as Fridging is having a woman do great things because the hero needs this, even if it’s part of her development. Because people avoid the entire aftermath and concentrate on the act itself. Fanny agrees, even if people are saved, whoever went through it is still traumatized. (ASIDE: In my mind, Clara and The Doctor. They NEVER deal with that “Impossible Girl” thing except as it relates to him, she doesn’t even get a personality until after that arc. End Aside.)

Lisa brings up the “Eragon” book series. They rescue the guy’s girlfriend, and two chapters later she’s pregnant. (a) they wouldn’t know that fast, (b) after such a trauma, her body wouldn’t be releasing eggs. All these things affect a woman’s cycle. And there’s little things in your story, like horns on his bulls aren’t trimmed to pull the wagons. And don’t treat your horse like a motorcycle. Horses can’t run all day long. Go spend $40 and take a horseback ride.

Caroline chimes in, so many people are very happy to answer questions! If you say you’re writing a book and want to know what they do, they’ll say ‘where do I start’. Fanny says she has more info than you ever want about O-rings. But going back to the end of a traumatic rescue and the person’s magically cured, it’s not every male’s wish either, that things end up like this. Lisa concurs, first “a woman is more than her womb” and also in books of Mercedes Lackey, a character hits a point where she doesn’t want to be touched by her true love. If there’s a traumatic event, there’s always going to be an impact.

Susan wonders about other choices, and an audience member says cliches. Caroline notes that lots of them have roots in things like racism and classism. “I stopped seeing them as that and see them as what they are”, prejudicial and terribly offensive. Lisa says, for archetypes, reusing basic story elements is okay if it’s in your own voice and own style. And Fanny says even some things you see coming (training montage) can be done so that it’s stirring.

Regarding cliche versus trope, cliches have become such because they work when you do it right. If you go beyond what was previously done. Audience member then brings up Fanny’s “Creepy or Romantic” chapter, in the context of a person “congratulating” themselves for not having sex with an unconscious woman. Fanny remarks on the problem of “Sixteen Candles” and “Stalking versus Instalove”. Caroline hates the instalove.

Susan has an excerpt, five things not to do with sex scenes: “When the author looks away. As in, some time later, she was no longer a virgin and in love.” Lisa says, if you’re having a sex scene, have it. If you have the opening, own it. Fanny noting, that doesn’t mean we need Tab 1 into Slot A, and Susan saying, write what you are comfortable with. Some are more the fade to black. There’s also the opposite problem: “Offered no foreplay. Suck me.”

Caroline asks if we can return to instalove, one of her most hated “creative choices”. Fanny agrees it’s infuriating. Lisa says the best example of our generation is “Twilight”, as if you ever read the Edward perspective, he’s NOT instalove, only her. He’s more a gradually all consuming creepy love. “That never made sense to me.” They talk about this notion for a bit.

Caroline says, the issue is there’s never any buildup, but somehow they love each other. Fanny says the amazing part of falling in love is that buildup, and the goal is learning all about the person and having new experiences, not necessarily living happily ever after. So describe the learning. Lisa says she was once trying to force two characters together, and saw 2/3rds of the way through, “she’s falling in love with the secondary character... I have to kill him”. It was a sacrifice, and a building point, the lesson being you can’t force two characters to love each other.

Audience member question, is there a problem in mysteries, a character “doing research between chapters” to preserve mystery for the reader? Susan says, as a SF/Fantasy writer, it’s a point of view cheat - if we’re in the character’s head, we need to know what they know. But it is one way to get through that problem. Lisa says Sherlock Holmes gets away with it because we’re in Watson’s head. When you go back and reread, you see Holmes finding all these clues. Even when Holmes is away, he says things when he’s back. Caroline concurs, there’s a reason we’re in Watson’s head.

Fanny points out the hated mystery character, the genius autistic who gives you all the answers and then goes away; how cute. Susan says another problem is backstory in the middle of the action, you get “he sped away” - with a description of the car. Caroline says that’s not the worst thing she’s read in a published novel, there was a whole paragraph explaining why the villain was motivated.

Lisa remarks on the related issue of cutting to some memory, then returning to the action right where it left off. (Or, Caroline adds, a whole chapter of flashback.) Lisa says it’s a problem doing it at the beginning of the story, something exposition heavy. Despite all that, she didn’t know the height or hair colour of the main characters. Fanny echoes that back to “putting ourselves in the story”, Lisa saying it may have been described in “Book One” but still needed in sequels.

Susan references the “Bourne Identity” spy who has amnesia. With a girl in a car to Paris, then they stop to make love. So good idea/bad idea. Regarding sex in the middle of an action scene, Lisa says “emotions are racing” so that can make sense, Caroline adding “adrenaline is high”. (Bit more talk here.)

Susan remarks on having a plant she doesn’t water, and it makes flowers, she calls them suicide flowers, Fanny remarking “I’ll just die, it will hurt less”. Susan says it can be realistic, first person to land a good blow wins the fight, most fights don’t go on and on and on like the movies. And with swords and nuclear weapons, that doesn’t matter. But there’s a need to extend emotional high points.

Caroline says that can be done really well, but be mindful of your pace. The movie “Hero” did it well, two characters facing off, each anticipating to draw out the scene. Or, Lisa mentions the “Holmes” movie, where he thinks how he’ll do this and that, there’s an understanding one on one combat takes a bit longer than mass battles. Battle scenes almost blur together, don’t know how many people are killed, who is alive or dead, and that’s also realistic. Person only recalls “that perfect stab”.

Audience member suggests the opposite can be very effective, warriors bred for battle who are very calm. Susan says turning off a soundtrack at that point give you a very different look at what’s going on. In literature, Lisa mentions Elizabeth Haydon’s “Rhapsody” trilogy. Perspective of one character on watching a guy, Death, coming for him. The opposite end of the battle spectrum, on the edge, another way to do an action scene without being in the action.

Susan says she did promise to come back to “info dumps” before the end. Caroline says put relevant information at the point the reader’s going to care about it. If you make a laundry list at the beginning, the reader won’t assimilate it. Lisa agrees, start writing, then later cut the first 1 to 3 chapters; if the info’s important, find a better place.

Susan suggests one last comment from everyone.
Caroline: If you start a story with an interesting, amazing character, and point of view, and then they die? I’ll throw your book in the grass.
Lisa: If you’re going to head hop, each character needs their own voice. If same character, same voice, it’s frustrating.
Fanny: No one thing drives me insane. It’s okay to do creepy things too, as long as you know they’re creepy.
Susan: “I’m going to steal that from you.” What you do, make sure you do it on purpose.
Fanny: And don’t turn it into something romantic.

That concluded the 10am panel. Nothing panel-wise jumped out at me from that point, so I decided to go to the Guildhall for “Interested in Being on Programming Next Year? Drop In.”, less due to an interest in joining, and more into seeing what goes on behind the scenes. Even May and Brandon Crilly were there.

A number of us sat in a circle, there were introductions. I mentioned knowing about “Serializing” one’s writing. There was also a suggestion of “Citizen Computer Science” aka “You Can’t Do That With A Computer”. And, having a micro-schedule on bookmarks. LGBTQ. French. Double checking author schedules to make sure they’re not going 4 hours straight. Having panels end at xx:50 instead of xx:55. (Felt a bit like the final feedback panel, to a point.)

At noon, I went to “Readings from Clockwork Canada”, partly because I’d never been to a reading before, partly because it would give me a new checkmark on my RPG-Style badge, so kudos on that one to the organizers. Dominik Parisien (Editor), Kate Heartfield (author of 7:00 man) and Brent Nichols (author of The Harpoonist).

The idea is British and French colonialism (with a bicentennial issue next year). There was actually some interesting discussion here too. I have scribbled:
-“Steampunk” resists rigidity as a genre, or else it becomes archetypal, a series of tropes. So you can have elements of magic, as long as mechanical is in the forefront.
-There's a need for organic storytelling, unexpected narratives.
-Translating into Turkish, can’t do it, has no gender change.
-Editor who changed ‘poutine’ to ‘pizza’ in Ottawa setting. When to own Canadianisms.
-Vancouver used to be called GasTown (back in 1888).

Kate’s story draws from cultural mythos, a French-Canadian myth about a bogeyman (she’s French and knows it first hand). Brent’s story is one of three linked stories within anthologies; misfits trying to find their place. It wasn’t a conscious decision to link them. (I’ve scribbled “Gears of Justice”, possibly one of the others.) It was interesting, hearing each author read their works. They obviously didn’t get all the way through, but gave a taste.

From there, at 1pm I went to “Can Mathematics be the Basis of Hard Science Fiction?”. Five great panelists, that for sure is one I transcribed, so you can read it in a separate post.


The last major slot of time was at 2pm, which brought me to “Terrestrial and Space Borne Quantum Cryptography.” Delivered by Dr. Phillip Kaye of the Tutte Institute for Mathematics and Computer, it was more an interactive lecture style.

We started by looking at programming, not just in literature but bringing the science and more of the quantum world. Importantly, “we’re people for whom science is exciting, and we’re optimists, not doom and gloom”. Turning quantum physics into technology is exciting because it feels like SciFi, and as with anything exciting, a bit of groundwork is needed to get there.

Cryptography! How does it work? There’s symmetric key (SSH, SSL) and public key cryptography (PKC). Also asymmetric. In symmetric, the key is pre-established, versus being created on demand. The notion of RSA (named for the ones who described the algorithm) is “anyone in the world can encrypt one way, but only I can do it the other way”.

Dr. Kaye goes more in depth here on cryptographic keys; there’s a shared key between two users, called a symmetric (or session) key, which again are usually established on-demand (PKC). Two people who have never met can establish a secret (the key). Mathematically, it involves factoring, which is sort of like dividing.

Thing is, we cannot PROVE that factoring is hard, but for decades we couldn’t make it easy. Until QUANTUM COMPUTING. And Feynman questioned, can we harness this weird behaviour to do computations? And yes, they are real. Small ones though, we’re talking 20 quantum bits, very delicate and hard to scale up to interact with them. But within 15-20 years, we’ll see it.

In 1995, factoring was shown to be easy for a (sufficiently large) quantum computer, in Shor’s algorithm. These quantum computers will break PKC, RSA will become insecure, “and that’s a huge problem”. Because we can reverse engineer, so anything you encrypt now will not be secure once we reach twenty years in the future and beyond! It’s the “back traffic” problem, what we call the “quantum threat”.

At least, for PKC. Regarding ciphers, symmetric key, Triple Vees, it’s not known if those can be broken. Yet. We need to stop this NOW, but we can’t stop communicating, so what? Carry briefcases of keys? Not feasible. One approach: Pick other math problems that will be HARD (we hope) for quantum computing. The risk being, we don’t have enough experience yet to know the limits.

Thing is, it’s not just keys but also authentication. If we only need security for the length of an authentication (this message did come from who you think), another option is to harness strange properties again for key exchange, the QUBITS (quantum bits). These are measured by spin or polarization (right/left being 0/1). The qubit begins in both states at the same time (weighted superposition). So how do you know which? Measurement and entanglement, which collapses the system.

We can’t send a signal with this, but two people could be in different galaxies, we’d guarantee both see the same thing after the collapse. That is, if the qubit’s 0 or 1 (right/left). The entanglement means two qubits (one per galaxy) can be guaranteed to be identical after a measurement, even though both are initially uncertain. It does not violate relativity, although it seems to. Hence, Quantum Key Distribution (QKD).

We cook up pairs of quantum bits. Yours will be entangled with mine, but will never have to interact with me again. Now we have a session key. Tapping the line cannot occur, the qubits cannot be measured without superpositions collapsing, and they cannot be copied. An adversary cannot snoop without being noticed, as measurements/observations will CHANGE things. At the end, “checksum”, doing statistics to see the state’s not changed.

On the “Back Traffic” problem, can’t do that, laws of physics make it secure. So this DOES rest on the laws of physics, versus some math being hard for computers. (“Crystal ball secure”). For physics, bear in mind, Newton wasn’t wrong, it was only incomplete, he had a subset of the larger theory.

There is QKD that doesn’t use entanglement, but we don’t get into that. At present, laser pulses for QKD are very faint (single photons), so point-to-point QKD is limited to between 100-200 km. But commercial fiber based QKD systems do exist today. Classical amplifiers cannot boost these signals without collapsing the superpositions, but quantum repeater technology can overcome the distance limit (it’s years away).

Bringing us to space-borne QKD, satellites, and “trusted nodes” for signals. On August 16, 2016, China launched the first quantum satellite, Micius (or Mozi). The Government of Canada has sen working with IQC and Canadian Industry to develop a Canadian space-borne QKD mission (satellite or ISS). Of note, QKD was co-invented by a Canadian, Gille Brassard (with Bennett).

Dr. Kaye took questions at the end, leading to more of an explanation for measuring qubits. Picturing a system with a 0 and a 1 at right angles to each other. And I’ve marked down “measuring at 45 degrees to how it’s coded”, but I’m not certain if that’s related to the entanglement or the adversary spying (fail on my notes). It was also clarified that the change is only detectable statistically.

When things wrapped up at 3pm, CanCon was technically over, the only thing left being a listing of “The End - Thank Yous and Feedback”. Enjoying my freedom of not “needing to run off and mark papers”, I dropped in, figuring I’d give a thumbs up. Only to see it was an entire panel of discussion, with people taking notes from the audience.

I heard remarks, from “registration was great” and the handling of “consent on livestream” (running in the Sunset Room), to having ten minute switchovers (given two towers to go between) and the dangers of having a whitewashed panel. Oh, if anyone can outreach to them there, by the way, it’s appreciated. I headed off as something was mentioned about canadian spec lit.

That’s everything! I ended up with 400 XP. (Oh, there were a couple visits to the Dealers’ Room. Shoutout to, and also to “A Match Made In Austen”.) NOW that’s everything.

Once again, hopefully you found some of this to be interesting, informative and/or helpful. Feel free to drop a comment if you have an opinion or a question. Thanks for checking it out.

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