Capricon Notes

As I wrote previously , Mia (my wife) and I spent last weekend at Capricon, a Chicagoland science fiction convention. We went to most of the Capricons in the ’80’s and ’90’s, but in our first years in Minnesota the pressures of parenthood prevented us from going. Those have eased somewhat and we have been to most of the Capricons (and Windycons) since 2009. While most Capricons have been in the Chicago suburbs, this year the convention was downtown, at the Sheraton Grand Hotel.

The con began Thursday evening, but there was not much going on then. Friday was more active. I went to two good panels (Descriptions quoted from the Program Guide):

  • Does Physics Work In Fantasy? …. How does a bulky dragon get off the ground? And why don’t they burn their tongues? Are broomsticks aerodynamic?”

    Such questions have in fact been used in fantasy stories, such as Poul Anderson’s classic Three Hearts and Three Lions:

    Downward the monster slanted , overhauling them with nightmare speed . Holger glanced back again and saw flame and smoke roll from the fanged mouth . For a lunatic moment he wondered about the metabolism ; and what amendment to the square – cube law permitted that hulk to fly?

  • Space Operas vs Space Operas …. Is your space opera musical or vintage? Where did the term “space opera” come from and what would the plot or music be like for an actual opera set in space? Whether we’re talking about epic space stories or about people singing in space, the thing both kinds of opera have in common is melodrama. Our panelists discuss.

    Loosely speaking, a space opera is a story with lots of action that is set in space. There is not a lot of concern about the accuracy of the scientific background.Star Wars (“It’s the ship that made the Kessel Run in less than twelve parsecs!”) and Firefly are good modern examples. One thing I learned there is that the attack on the Death Star at the end of Star Wars: A New Hope (Episode IV, the first movie to appear) is based on The Dam Busters. I need to see that movie.

    Also, there are at three cases where a staged production of an SF story set in space has been set to music, an actual space opera.

Saturday Programming

  • Strange Cosmologies ….
    The time of Galileo marked a revolution in science…including some truly bizarre ideas of what the Earth looked like and how (and why) it was situated in the heavens. We’ll look at some of the more colorful concepts that people espoused at the times…and what that might tell us as we grapple today with dark matter and dark energy. …

    This was a virtual talk given by Br. Guy Consolmagno, S.J., long-time science fiction fan and current directory of the Vatican Observatory. It was about pre-Copernican cosmologies, and how there were in fact good reasons at the time to be skeptical of the then new Copernican view of the universe. It was really excellent. I had heard Br. Guy give a similar talk before (at Convergence in 2019, IIRC) but it was worth repeating. The only problem was that this was a virtual talk and we lost about 10 minutes near the end because of Zoom problems. Br. Guy also said that much his talk was based on articles by Chris Graney.

  • Mars Rovers: Class of 2021 …. NASA’s exploration of Mars continued in 2021 with the arrival of NASA’s Perseverance rover carrying the Ingenuity helicopter. What’s more, an orbiter and a rover journeyed from China, a new player in interplanetary space. Perseverance’s mission begins a plan that, years from now, aims to bring samples of rock and soil from the Martian surface to laboratories on Earth. Bill Higgins examines the engineering and science of these remarkable robots.

    Bill said “Class of 2021” because, with the limitations of current rocketry, you cannot send a spacecraft to Mars at any time, but only in specific launch windows, one of which occurred in 2021. After launch it takes the spacecraft about 6½ months to reach Mars.

    There is quite an international presence on and around Mars now. The US, China, India, the European Space Agency, and the United Arab Emirates are all represented.

    Olaf Frohn has done some nice graphics about active spacecraft in the solar system. 2020 update.

  • Then All the Scientists Groaned … Our panelists discuss impossible science in movies and TV and how they could fix at least some of it.

    Lot of examples. Movies and TV are much worse than print SF. “Every writer is allowed one bit of Handwavium, and then they tell a people story.”

  • Chicon 8: The Worldcon Returns to Chicago in 2022 …. Have questions about Chicon 8, this year’s World Science Fiction Convention in Chicago? Come listen to the con chair, Helen Montgomery tell you everything you need to know about Chicon 8 and answer any questions you might have.

    Mia and I have registered for Chicon 8 and are looking forward to it. Helen said that the pandemic has seriously messed up planning and that registrations so far are well behind what they had at this point 10 years ago for Chicon 7.

    The con is going to have safe spaces for minorities. Along with this there will be a low sensory input room, called, of course, Tranquility Base.

  • Lost, Or At Least Confused, In Space … Right now it’s fashionable to say that we’re going back to the Moon as a steppingstone to Mars. How well would that actually work? After the first Mars landing, will it too be demoted to a steppingstone to somewhere else (where?)? Should we really make everything else secondary to one set of goalposts? (That didn’t work so well last time.) What should be our goals in space, and in what order?

    Interest in space is widespread. There are about 80 countries that have some kind of office dedicated to space activities.

    Return to the Moon vs. go straight to Mars. The advocates for an early Mars mission do not really understand that it is much more difficult than going to the Moon. It takes about 3 days to fly to the Moon, while a trip to Mars takes 6½ months. Furthermore, with current technology flights to Mars must be launched within specific launch windows which occur only once in every 26 months. Once on Mars, you have to wait 459 days, well over a year for a launch window to return to Earth. So your round trip will take about 28 months. The longest Apollo missions to the Moon took less than 13 days. It will be a long time before we can safely send human beings to Mars and expect them to return.

    Br. Guy gave five reasons for returning to the Moon:

    1. Tourism. Think of Arthur C. Clarke’s A Fall of Moondust.
    2. Astronomy. In particular that far side of the Moon would be great for radio astronomy. It is completely shielded from Earthly radio waves.
    3. Collection of Helium from the solar wind. Eventually we will run out of Helium on the Earth.
    4. Medicine. The low gravity environment could be helpful for some conditions.
    5. Building materials. If we are going to build substantial structures in space, it will be a lot cheaper to lift the materials from the Moon than the Earth, simply because of the lower gravity.

    One of the panelists was Jim Plaxco, President of the Chicago Society for Space Studies. I knew him from when I was a member of that organization back in the 1980’s. After that pressures of parenthood and then the move to Minnesota made it impossible for me attend meetings. But I still have fond memories of CSSS and after the panel I reintroduced myself to him. We had not met in over 40 years, but we had a good chat.

Several of our old friends who usually attend Capricon missed it this year, but there were others who were present, and we enjoyed reconnecting with them. It was a good con.

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