Did I mention I went to Medellin, Colombia? Well I did, and now I’m back.Actually, I’ve been back for two weeks, but it’s taken me forever to write this post, and there’s _still_ more I could write about.
To answer the questions of my nervous relatives first: No one attempted to kidnap me. (Well, two local writers did, just for lunch, but it didn’t work out.)
Second, Juan Valdez exists. He’s kind of like Lassie, in that you don’t want to ask which Juan Valdez you’re with, or how many came before. On the other hand, the Juans last a lot longer than Marlboro Men. But he gave us all coffee! Which I’m drinking as a type this. Thanks, JV!
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Maybe I should start with why I was in Colombia in the first place. That was for Fractal ’10, the second annual conference on “fiction, art, science, and techonology.” The conference is like no SF con I’ve ever been to. The organizers, Hernan Ortiz and Viviana Trujillo, run a small press called Proyecto Liquido, and they started Fractal last year to jumpstart science fiction in Colombia. This is not your standard SF con: Hernan and Vivi decided to bring together scientists, digital artists, science fiction writers, musicians, and programmers to talk about all things futuristic and weird. They hold it Medellin’s botanical garden, in the stunningly beautiful Orquideorama. (Those plants lit up in the background of the photo like Go-Go dancers in the most eco-friendly dance club ever? Orchids.)
This year’s theme was “Reinventing the World.” On the writing front they invited me, Bizarro (that’s a genre) writer Jeremy Robert Johnson, John Kessel, and Kij Johnson. Unfortunately, John and Kij couldn’t make it at the last minute (Kij, for example, broke her ankle right before the trip), so Jeremy and I had to represent the American SF scene. The local media provided a lot of coverage of Fractal, so before it even started we had done an interview with El Colombiano, the biggest newspaper in Medellin (link is to the machine translation) and with a student crew from the local university’s student channel. Hernan and Jeremy also did an interview with a popular rock station that broadcasts in Medellin and Bogota.
At the opening ceremonies Friday night, Hernan and Vivi gave a few remarks, and Juan-Diego (more on him below) mentioned all the obstacles they’d overcome to reach this night. Jeremy and I read (very) short stories we’d written for the conference, which you can read (if you can read in Spanish) on the Fractal website: Digitalizándose (my story, “Becoming Digital”, about a man who wakes up to find his consciousness has moved to the index finger of his left hand) and El Remero (Jeremy’s story — which if I remember correctly, translates as “The Boatman” — about Tibetan monks ending the world with an empathy bomb and the psychopath who wants to stop them). While we read, a local artist, Oscar, did a live, improvised digital painting illustrating each story. Multimedia, baby!
At the conference itself the next day, I was first up, to give a talk on Philip K Dick. Once I realized that most of the attendees would be students who probably had never heard of the man—Bladerunner notwithstanding—I whittled my wide-ranging and esoteric discussion of Dickian techniques into more of an introduction to Dick. I was editing right until I stood up to talk, which is not a technique I recommend, but I will say that it’ll get your heart moving early in the morning.
Later in the afternoon Jeremy spoke about the rebirth of the Weird. His thesis, ably supported: Oppressive politics makes for very weird fiction. Other Americans included bio engineer Joey Davis, an MIT PhD who works for a startup focused on “democratizing” biological engineering, gave a talk titled “Programming DNA for fun, art, and human needs.” Paul D. Miller, aka DJ Spooky That Subliminal Kid, a writer, DJ, and composer. Paul gave a talk on William Gibson and closed the conference with a talk on “Sonic Fictions — How music and literature can reinvent the world,” a wide-ranging multimedia presentation that rocked the crowd. You have to check out the iPhone app he created with Apple that lets you do remixes on your phone — too cool.
Three Colombian neuroscientists gave talks on the consciousness, creativity, and neuroengineering. In more bad luck, UK programmer James Aliban, who works on augmented reality, couldn’t make it to the conference because of that pesky Icelandic volcano, but a computer station was set up where attendees could play with his software. A demo of his software is on the Fractal site.
But for me, much of the action of the conference was what happened before and after. Hernan and Vivi and a variety of friends and volunteers were excellent hosts, ferrying the guests around their city and into the mountains and out to colonial villages, feeding us at every opportunity. Medellin is a modern city, bursting with life, and the streets are crowded with brightly painted private buses (many private companies compete for riders throughout the city — there are no government owned buses), tiny yellow taxis, and an infinite number of darting motorcycles. (Thanks to the drive-by assassins of the 90’s, all motorcyclists have to have their license number on their bike, on the back of a nylon vest that they must wear, and on the back of their helmets—so you always know the license of the insane person who just cut in front of your bumper.) I felt completely safe though, because the locals were driving.
I also felt safe walking around the city. One of our hosts, Juan Diego Gomez, gave us a walking tour of the Centro, downtown Medellin. The city provided, for free, a “tourist policeman” to walk around with us. Didio was a young guy who looked and smiled like a younger, less-steroidal Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
It’s a little difficult to feel endangered when there are kids running everywhere and everything is on sale on every sidewalk. Especially popular: fruit juice, roasted chicken, ice cream, and shoes. Also: cell phone rentals. If you ever want to make a call for a few minutes, you only have to walk about five feet in Medellin. A surprising number of the vendors are young woman wearing complicated vests holding multiple cell phones.
We did inhale a bit of culture. Medellin is the home of the painter and sculptor Botero—if you’re like me, you’ve seen his work even if you didn’t know the name. Of course, I’m a philistine, so you probably did know his name. Anyway, there’s a museum of his work in downtown, and he’s also donated many sculptures to the city. Among the most striking was the bird sculpture in San Antonio Park. In 1995 terrorists planted a bomb inside it that killed 31 people. The shredded brass sculpture remains as a memorial, and in 2000 Botero donated a second bird sculpture to stand beside it—a bird of peace beside the bird of war.
They also took us to some of the older colonial cities. Santa Fe de Antioquia, 50 miles and over the mountains from Medellin, is a 500-year-old city that was once the capital of Colombia. The Colombians have kept it as a tourist destination, with cobblestone streets and many small shops and restaurants, including a juice shop where we did our level best to sample in liquid form every fruit known to science, and some that are still being identified. On another day they took us out to El Retiro, which was only a couple hundred years old. That explains why there was free wi-fi throughout the town. See the picture links below for a picture of a really passionate Christ statue.
Probably the most science fictional moment on the trip came during our visit to a coffee plantation. We visited the farm of Gabriel Ochoa, who runs the last coffee farm inside the city of Medellin. Gabriel bought the land in 1974, and he runs the entire place himself with the help of one man. All beans are picked by hand, and the process is pretty low-tech. But then Gabriel found out that Paul D. Miller was a DJ, and Gabriel’s eyes lit up. He took his to the bottom of the hill where he has his own private Cantina, God’s own collection of LPs, and a multi-turntable setup with kickass speakers and mixer.
We also did some “work” too. Jeremy and I spoke to a group of elementary school kids about writing, and we did a couple group story games. These kids attended a school were all classes (except Spanish class, natch) were taught in English, and they were amazingly bright and funny and creative. We also spoke to escritura liquido, the writing group that Hernan and Vivi started, and tried to answer questions about writing. (Pictures of the group below.)
There’s more I’d like to talk about: more about the people I met, the food I ate (lots of meat and corn meal and some kick-ass soups), the things we talked about… but if I don’t click Publish on this blog post soon I’ll never do it. I had a great time.