Kunsthistorisches Museum Photos

My main interest in Vienna was the Kunsthistorisches Museum. I only had a few hours and of course I spent most of my time looking at ancient stuff. Frankly there was so much bling on show in the Hapsburg displays that it was rather overwhelming. I loved the automata though, and kudos to the museum for having tablet computers with film of each one working available.

Anyway, here are some photos. If you share my obsession with ancient history you’ll enjoy some of these. The gallery plugin I am using doesn’t allow for much descriptive text so do ask if you are interested in anything.

The museum is an exhibit in itself

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Graz Photos

Here are some more photos from my trip to Austria. These are all from the city of Graz, where the conference took place. They include the Schlossberg, the precipitous, fortified hill in the middle of the city.

Graz is 2 hours by train south of Vienna. Part of the reason for the time is that the railway has to wind through the foothills of the Alps. It is not far from the Slovenian border, and only a few hours from Zagreb by road. A lot of the big buildings in the city were built by Italian architects, which gives the city something of a Mediterranean feel. The courtyards are a particular feature of the old town.

City Hall lit up for Christmas

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Vienna Photos

Today is St. Stephen’s Day, and therefore the perfect day to put up some of my pictures of Vienna, given that their main cathedral is named after him. Google has comprehensively broken their photo system, which means that the system I used to work for displaying photos here no longer works. I’m testing a new system. Fingers crossed.


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There is outrageous architecture everywhere. This is an hotel.

A Morning in Hereford

One of the things I had planned to do on my trip to Hay was take some time out on the way home to see more of Hereford. It is a lovely little city with a whole heap of history. In particular, it has one of the best Cathedrals in the country. But to start with I’d like to put in a recommendation for the place where I stayed: No. 21. Here are some photos.

It was very comfortable, the staff were very friendly, the breakfast was good, and it was cheap. You can’t ask for much more than that.

Meanwhile, out in the city, there is plenty of olde Englande stuff to keep the tourist happy. The bull is, of course, nothing to do with stock markets, and everything to do with Hereford’s most famous product.

Finally we get to the cathedral itself, which is quite spectacular regardless of what it contains. If you are there in the summer, try to make it at lunch time on a Tuesday as they have a weekly series of organ recitals. Sadly I could not stay, but I caught some of the rehearsals which were amazing.

The building, however, pales into insignificance compared to what it contains. First up, there is the Mappa Mundi, the largest mediaeval map in existence.

Alongside the map itself there was an exhibition of art inspired by the map. Grayson Perry was the best known artist featured, but I preferred the work of Genevieve Belgard who picked up on some of the fabulous creatures shown inhabiting remote parts of the world. All of these creatures are, of course, featured in Cat Valente’s Prester John trilogy.

Alongside the map, the cathedral has a surviving mediaeval chained library, a relic of times when books were so valuable that you had to chain them up to make sure no one stole them. The library has 16th century copies of works by famous classical authors as well as religious texts. The exhibition is also an excuse to talk about how mediaeval books were made.

Eurocon Day 3

Last night we went out for dinner with Charlie Stross and Feòrag. I am going to be very evil and tell you that Charlie has some great projects in the pipeline. Also, if you think the prospects of a Trump presidency are awful, be grateful that you don’t live in the world of the Laundry Files.

We got a bit of a lie-in this morning as the first panel I needed to be at wasn’t until 11:45. Barcelona was still waking up as we took the short walk to the convention center. The panel was on weird fiction. It featured Johanna Sinisalo, Karin Tidbeck, Haralambi Markov and Ángel Luis Sucasas. I didn’t know Ángel before this, but he’s a very interesting guy. He talked about using interactive fiction techniques as a means of weirding out the readers. He also has a friend who uses VR to help reform people convicted of hate crimes by requiring them to spend time in a virtual environment in the body of one of the types of people they hate.

The others are hopefully all well known to you and were their usual brilliant selves.

Kevin and I then headed out to see La Sagrada Familia which is absolutely jaw-dropping when seen in person. Photos don’t do it justice, though of course we have many and will post them in due course. We also successfully navigated the Barcelona metro system which turns out to be very clearly signed.

Back at the convention we attended a panel on promoting European SF. The main item of interest to come out of this is that Helen Marshall (on behalf of Anglia Ruskin University), assisted by folks at Leeds University and by Strange Horizons are looking at a possible online magazine dedicated to translated SF&F. The project is in very early days at the moment, but I’ll keep an eye on it and update you as and when I know more.

Unfortunately the panel got a bit bogged down. It is very true that awards and “best of” anthologies are useful ways of showcasing work. It is not necessary to spend ages in pointless discussions about whether these really identify the “best” stories, because we all know that’s a subjective question.

And then, far too early, it was time for the Closing Ceremonies. There were some fun video clips. Cristina managed to make thanking all of the con staff entertaining (though a rolling slide with all of the names on might have helped her out). The ESFS Awards were presented.

The ESFS Awards ceremony is a difficult problem. There isn’t really time in the schedule for a separate awards ceremony, given that Saturday night is usually given over to national awards. I have seen awards ceremonies that go on for ever. This year they went to the opposite extreme and just read out the names of the winners very quickly. There wasn’t even a slide with their names on. The full list of winners is available here.

I am particularly pleased with the win for Tom Crosshill. I think I first met him at the very first Finncon I attended. Irma and I can now say, “I knew him when…” I saw that he’s gone on Facebook slightly perplexed as to why he deserved such an honor when Europe has so many fine writers, which is typically modest of him. But the ESFS awards work in interesting ways. They are voted on by the delegates (2 from each country) after presentations made by nominators at the Business Meeting. A good speech can sway the voters.

In Tom’s case a long-time Latvian fan called Imants (whom I knew from previous Eurocons) had made a great speech about how much harder it is for someone from a small and little-known country to attain recognition. Tom, of course, has three Nebula nominations behind him already. I’m very pleased for him and look forward to more great fiction in future.

I’d also like to highlight Sophia Rhei’s win for children’s fiction. She has this great series featuring the young Moriarty and a whole host of other Victorian personalities, both real and fictional. It sounds very much like Kim Newman for kids. Or possibly fun kids books that parents who are Kim Newman fans will love to read to them. The books are not yet available in English, but the publishers tell me that they have rough drafts of translations are are looking for a publisher. I could tell that this was out of my league. I hope someone big in the UK or USA picks them up.

After that all we had left to do was eat tapas and drink beer. Huge thanks to Croatians for organizing an impromptu dead dog tonight because the official one isn’t until tomorrow afternoon by which time many of us will have left.

And now, packing. Farewell Barcelona, it has been brief but hugely enjoyable.

Finland Update

Iisalmi Church Outside
My apologies for the lack of blogging over the past few days. That’s partly due to being on the road, partly due to lack of wifi access (I get free roaming in Finland on my phone, but that doesn’t include tethering), and partly due to my being so boggled by the goings on back home that I have no idea what to say. Here, in lieu of anything more intelligent, is a little bit of Finnish history.

Well, sort of history anyway. The basic facts are true, but I have embellished them somewhat. Also I have translated the mythic context from Finnish to Scandinavian. That’s partly because you folks will be far more familiar with Scandinavian folklore, and partly because the Finns don’t have an equivalent of frost giants. Irma tells me that, like the forest, snow is something that Finns are not afraid of. They see both things as something that keeps them safe from invaders rather than a threat.

Iisalmi Church Inside 1
Once upon a time the people of Iisalmi decided that they would like to have a church of their own. They had been Christian for many generations, but there had never been a church in their town, so they decided to build one. They built the church out of wood, but this proved to be a mistake because Thor was angry with them for deserting him. He threw a bolt of lightning at the church and it burned to the ground.

The people of Iisalmi determined not to be cowed by pagan gods. Swiftly they erected a new church. But they did so in such a hurry that the first time a frost giant stomped past that winter it fell down.

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Still the people of Iisalmi refused to be beaten. They decided to build a church out of stone that no one could burn or knock down. Stone churches are expensive, so they collected a great of money and silver to pay for it. They put all of this wealth in a great wooden chest with seven locks. But Loki saw all of this treasure are determined to have it for himself. He sent thieves to steal it, giving them magic with which to open the seven locks and get away unseen.

With their money stolen, the people of Iisalmi had no choice but to build in wood once more. They were, of course, afraid that their church would be demolished again, so they got together to decide how to proceed. After much discussion the people decided to build a church so beautiful that no one, not even pagan gods, would dare to destroy it. That is what they did, and the church is still standing today.

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I should note that the church has been renovated several times since it was built, but they have tried to stick to an 18th Century look for it.

I note also that the altarpiece was painted by a woman, Alexandra Såltin. Apparently her work was well known and she did paintings for several other churches in the area.

Toronto Wrap

Royal Ontario Museum
Image from Wikimedia Commons, see here for usage rights

While I am absolutely delighted to have been able to get into Canada, and plan to go back again soon, I have also been forcibly reminded that I do not cope well with eastbound jet lag. Next time I go, I need to allow a day or two to just rest after I get back. Hopefully that way I won’t lose so much time to exhaustion. Anyway, I am now in catch-up mode, and the first job is to tell you a little more about Toronto.

First up I should mention that I visited Chapters, which claims to be the biggest bookstore in the world. It is a long time since I was in Powells so I can’t really comment on how that claim stacks up, but I do know that the place is huge, and the SF&F section excellent. I’d love to see bookstores like that in the UK, but I guess that space is much cheaper in Canada.

Much of Sunday, however, was spent in the Royal Ontario Museum, which I rather like. Partly that’s because it took the challenge of extending a beautiful old building with a modern wing in a way that must give Prince Charles nightmares (see photo above), but it has good content too. I was pleased to see a large gallery devoted to First Nations people (and now know what a parka should be like). And they have a great dinosaur collection. Going around it, I kept experiencing flashbacks to books I read as kid because, poor old Brontosaurus apart, they seemed to have all of the well known creatures represented, including a T.Rex, Allosaurus, Stegosaurus, Triceratops and an impressive array of hadrosaur species. It cost CA$16 to get in, but I spent several hours there and could have stayed much longer.

Two Days Out

As previously trailed, I spent Saturday in London at academic conference on the work of China Miéville. It was held in Senate House at the University of London, which I found rather ironic. I’m actually very fond of Art Deco, but it doesn’t surprise me in the slightest that there’s a story (probably an urban myth) that Hitler wanted to make the building his HQ when he had conquered London.

Anyway, I had a great day. The papers, as ever at such events, ran the gamut from “beginner” to “riveting”. I discovered that I need to read Bruno Schulz. I got a really good idea for a story from Andrew Butler (though knowing me I’ll never actually write it), and a really good idea for an essay (which I do plan to write). More to the point, I felt like I belonged, and was respected by my fellow attendees, which is something that doesn’t happen much at UK conventions.

Also I got to see Paul Cornell, talk about cricket, and deliver a baby present for Spud. Yes, it did have Moomin pictures on it. What were you expecting?

Today was the Sci-Fi day at the Trowbridge Arts Festival. I gather that Joe Abercrombie drew in the crowds at Waterstones, but I spent my time at Bridge House where Juliet McKenna gave a fine writing course and we had readings from Jonathan Howard, Moira Young and Guy Haley. Jonathan is one of those great people who manage to be really funny without stooping to making fun of people, a talent I wish more comedy writers had. Moira proved once again how a background on the stage can vastly improve the quality of your reading. And I continue to be impressed with how hard Guy works at the “professional writer” thing.

I have to say that, Joe aside, the attendance was not good. I know that my friends at Waterstones had learned a lot from their first year. I only hope that the Festival’s management has learned too. Andy Bigwood tells me that their committee had 80 members. Those of you who have run Worldcons, please stop shuddering.

Cultural Difference (Stereotyping)

The Adelaide Oval cricket ground has built some large new stands recently. When the test match took place there last year the English commentators on Sky and the BBC were in full flow whingeing about how the look of the ground had been ruined by hideous modern architecture. There’s a one-day international taking place there today, and Nasser Hussain just asked Greg Blewett whether there had been any complaints by the locals. “There were some complaints during the test match…” replied Blewie, “…because one of the new bars ran out of beer.”

Living in the Future

I’ve had a weekend of being busy with Wizard’s Tower and Clarkesworld matters, but I do have a post for you. I wrote this a few weeks ago and then forgot about it. It is a report on the one-day conference at the Architectural Association that I went to last month.

What does science fiction have to do with architecture? Not a lot, you might think, but the Architectural Association begs to disagree, because its London School of Architecture run a series of seminars with the pulp-inspired title of Thrilling Wonder Stories that bring together speculative fiction writers, comics creators, video game producers and futurologists. The objective appears to be to encourage those who will build the cities of tomorrow to think about what those cities might look like. One such day of seminars too place in later November.

The role of buildings in framing the stories of our everyday lives was amply demonstrated by Will Self, promoting his book, Walking to Hollywood. Self said that if he were a dictator he would force all architects and urban planners to walk through cities as part of their training. Not that this would necessarily help, because sometimes buildings are designed to be hostile. Self reserved particular ire for airports, which he described as “a kind of abattoir of the psyche,” but he acknowledged that they were deliberately made that way to discourage travelers from getting excited about dashing around the globe at vast speeds. Airlines much prefer us to be bored and docile when we fly.

Buildings can be instruments of political oppression too. Jeff VanderMeer described how, in his novel Finch, the invading Grey Caps revise and repurpose the architecture of the city of Ambergris in order to make their mark on the landscape, and send a message to the human population that the city no longer belongs to them. Admittedly we are talking about mushroom people here, but VanderMeer pointed out that he uses fantastic settings in his fiction to encourage his readers to think more deeply about the issues he is discussing. A reader brings far less emotional baggage, and far fewer preconceived ideas, to a story about Ambergris to one about an invasion of a real world city.

Video game designers have very particular requirements for their cities. It was interesting, therefore, to discover that the ideal setting for a game in which nothing happens except that people run around with big guns killing each other is a Libertarian utopia of the type proposed by the seasteading movement.

Most architecture students, however, will have more practical problems in mind. They will not get to design killing grounds. Nor should they need to be told that mysterious ruins can impart a sense of wonder to fiction. Bryon and Shelley were playing with those ideas centuries ago. Did the guests lecturers have anything more appropriate?

Geoff Manaugh brought up the very real but somewhat exotic issue of nuclear waste depositories such as the proposed Yucca Mountain facility in America, or the actual facility at Onkalo in Finland. Given that the waste will continue to be dangerous for millennia to come, deterring curious explorers from future generations is a real design issue. Manaugh talked largely of booby traps. My suggestion of stationing a balrog and hordes of bloodthirsty orcs at the bottom of the shaft to deter trespassers did not get much traction.

Rachel Armstrong talked enthusiastically of seeding the lagoons of Venice with artificial lifeforms that would build a coral reef under the city, shoring up its foundations. Had Prince Charles been there he would doubtless have muttered darkly about “gray goo” and the end of life as we know it. But HRH has always had a fondness for the gloom-filled imaginings of Michael Crichton. I much prefer Kathleen Ann Goonan’s take on nanotechnology. Her Flower Cities are bursting with creativity, and sometimes keep the humans around as pets.

The speakers whose ideas would have the most immediate impact on our lives were Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby. They describe themselves as “design provocateurs,” so perhaps their suggestions were not intended entirely seriously, but they certainly provoked comment.

Raby talked about the future of agriculture, noting that by 2050 the population of the planet will reach 9 billion. Her solution to this was a return to foraging, with people equipped with external digestion systems that would enable them to feed of a much wider range of plants than is currently possible. No self-respecting science fiction author would come up with such a solution, unless it followed a massive reduction in population. The whole point of farming is that it allows you to support a much larger population on a smaller amount of land.

Besides, thanks to Harry Harrison, science fiction readers know that in the future we will all be living on stuff called “Soylent Green”. Had Dunne known that, he would not have suggested a future in which “euthanasia parties” would be followed by burning the corpse and making a granny-powered battery that the family could take away and use. Dead bodies are too useful to burn.

Dunne also had some very strange ideas about the future of the security industry. Police forces are apparently already working on brain scanners. Dunne suggested that each neighborhood would have a local scanner operator. He’d have a friendly name like “Dave” or “Nick”, and instead of a crisp black, jack-booted outfit he’d wear an ill-fitting, second hand uniform as a result of public spending cuts. The theory was that this would make us more comfortable about having our little grey cells examined.

Another way in which our governments busily snoop upon us is Echelon, the global surveillance network. Dunne suggested that we might be more relaxed about having our emails read and phone calls listened to if the chaps doing it lived locally and were easily recognizable because they wore red hats with antennae on them. I suspect they’d have a jolly motto too — something about “three main weapons: a global surveillance network, powerful supercomputers, and pretty red hats.” Goodness only knows what Orwell would have made of this.

This, I think, is where science fiction writers are needed. Left to themselves, engineers of all types tend to obsess over functionality at the expense of thinking about how their creations will be used. One of the objectives of science fiction is to consider the effects of new technology on people. While there are those who still think that science fiction should only be about ideas, it is in the interaction of those ideas with the book’s characters where the real power of fiction is unleashed. There are many science fiction writers who do that very well.

Off to London

Jeff and Ann VanderMeer will be in London next weekend. They are appearing at a one-day conference called Thrilling Wonder Stories. This is not, as you might expect, something about pulp literature, but rather an eclectic event pulling in cutting edge people from many different disciplines under the auspices of the Architectural Association’s School of Architecture. Panels will look at the future of cities and urban life from a range of different viewpoints.

As well as Jeff and Ann, the conference features Will Self, comic creator Anthony Johnston (Wasteland, Daredevil), concept artist Gavin Rothery (Moon, Grand Theft Auto) and an organization called The Why Factory who are a think tank specializing in urban futures. Jeff has more details on his blog.

I’m going to pop down to see them (and hopefully bag an interview or two while I am there). Obviously this is very short notice, and inconvenient for anyone not in the UK, but the whole thing will apparently be streamed lived through the Architectural Association’s website.

If you are in London, the event is from 12:00 to 20:00, and the Architectural Association’s offices are at 36 Bedford Square. The panels will be in the Lecture Hall, which will hopefully be well signposted. Attendance is free.

I may be a little late as I have a prior engagement at the residence of the Finnish Ambassador where they are launching Turku’s year as European Capital of Culture (which is not entirely due to it hosting Finncon, but I’m sure that helped).

Taking Tea (Somewhat Early)

This morning I decided to head out to explore the nearby town of Bradford on Avon. It looked very pretty from the train, and it proved to be just as nice on foot.

I managed to get lucky on the way. As I was heading off for the station Marjorie drove past. She was also headed for Bradford and was able to both give me a lift and show me round the best places. Mostly Bath is better shopping, as you would expect, but there are some nice little shops in Bradford, including an excellent picture framer where we engaged the young man who served us in a lengthy conversation about Neil Gaiman and comics.

The best thing to do in Bradford, however, is drink. Not alcohol (though I did spot a shop offering local cider), but tea. Because Bradford is home to The Bridge Tea Rooms. This is a place that would make Gail Carriger die of happiness. It is in a lovely old building, is done out as a proper Victorian tea room, serves rather splendid food and ever better tea. The waitresses are all in maid costumes. Marjorie and I would love to turn up there with a bunch of people in steampunk costumes. And in 2009 it was voted the best tea place in the country, so you don’t have to take our word for its quality. It is, of course, totally Theme Park Britain, but as the food and tea is good I’m not complaining.

We didn’t actually have Afternoon Tea, because we both needed to be back home in the afternoon, but I am certainly planning on going back soon. I had their Empress of China tea, in honor of Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven (which I am currently reading). The tea was so nice I bought a packet to take home.

There are a few photos below.

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