On Gollancz Fest and the importance of panel diversity

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Celebrating their 10th anniversary of being published: Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie and Tom Lloyd.

For much of my time at Gollancz Fest this weekend, this was my view: three white men.

When two of them are Scott Lynch and Joe Abercrombie you kind of have to acknowledge the awesome, but even so. Some stats about the event:

  • Day 1 morning – 13 speakers, 5 women (38%)
  • Day 1 afternoon – 12 speakers, 1 woman (8%)
  • Day 1 evening – 3 speakers, 0 women (0%)
  • Day 2 morning – 9 speakers, 2 women (22%)

I make that 37 speaker sessions in the programme, and 8 of them taken up by women. That’s just 21%. There were no speakers from ethnic minorities. But while the audience was also overwhelmingly white, the gender balance was much closer to 50/50.

This isn’t just about the numbers. For me, it was a pretty alienating experience sitting in that audience. The event was so tightly scheduled that there was little or no time for questions. So I sat there reflecting on how this was demonstrating in microcosm what society is like for many of us. If we are not represented in the conversation we can do little other than internalise the message that our place is to be the passive audience for the achievements and creative work of others. Seeing someone that looks like me on a panel does so many things. It can be inspirational, showing other women what can be achieved. But mostly it adds richness and freshness to a debate and conversation that otherwise risks becoming a tired rehashing of the same topics.

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Alastair Reynolds and Stephen Baxter. Talking about the Great Men of SF: Arthur C Clarke and H G Wells. Inevitably.

And what happens when diverse voices aren’t there? You only had to look at the Saturday afternoon panels to see. Of all the books mentioned during the afternoon panels, only one was by a female author (an essay by Rebecca Solnit that the moderator referred to when framing a question about people’s response to crisis). It was probably unintentional, but that will perpetuate the idea that the only good quality books are written by white men, making it even harder for anyone who looks different to get recognition. And the bias was reflected in the books on sale in the room too. While many of the men on the programme had multiple books by them displayed for sale, including in splendid 10th anniversary hardback editions, none of the women had more than a single title on offer, even though many of them are prolific writers. If you were Elizabeth Bear, there were none of your books on sale in the room at all. So, your husband might have to write in the blinding reflected light of all your Hugo and Locus awards (as he revealed during one of the panels), but none of your work was available to buy.

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Can you find a book by a woman here? I count four on the whole table. That’s less than the number of books by Joe Abercrombie on sale.

I wasn’t the only one who noticed the problem. If you checked the GollanczFest hashtag on Twitter you could see in amongst the enthusiastic live tweeting of the wit, humour and insight of the panellists an increasingly vocal set of grumbles about the diversity issues of the event. By the third all-white, all-male panel of Saturday afternoon it was getting pretty vocal indeed, with links being shared to pieces about the importance of panel diversity and ways of improving it.

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Definitely no books by women here …

I’m a firm believer that providing feedback is the best way of getting issues like this addressed. During a lull this morning Marcus Gipps, one of the Gollancz editorial team, was filling time and asked for feedback, so I raised the issue. Fair play to him, he ruefully acknowledged that it hadn’t been the best, and they’d clocked all the comments made on Twitter. He pointed to some scheduling difficulties that had apparently made it difficult to achieve greater representation. It was a very graceful response, and I hope that the organisers will take the feedback on board if they run a similar event next year. But as a publisher-run event, GollanczFest can only draw on Gollancz writers. Looking down their list of authors I can’t help but wonder if it’s Gollancz that has the diversity problem rather than GollanczFest.

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Joanne Harris (with Ed Cox). One of the few women there.

Either way, as a community we deserve better. And unless we keep highlighting these issues they won’t get fixed.

UPDATE: I’ve had some fantastic conversations this evening with various Gollancz staff. I’ve been really touched by the way they’ve approached this issue with a genuine willingness to engage. I’ve been told that there had been plans for an additional three female panellists, but they’d had to pull out at the last minute for various reasons, including childcare reasons. The opening out of the programme to non-Gollancz writers like the awesome Catriona Ward and Antonia Honeywell (who write for other Orion imprints) was in part intended to address the gender balance issues. I’m also told that Gollancz only publishes Elizabeth Bear in ebook, hence the lack of physical copies of her books for sale. Refreshingly,Gollancz have acknowledged that these points aren’t the whole solution, and they will reflect further. I’m left feeling much more positive. This is why it’s important to speak up in a respectful and constructive manner, folks.

Revenger – Alastair Reynolds

My brother and I have a rule: everything is made infinitely cooler by the addition of pirates.  (Or ninjas.  Or both, in the case of Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World.)  Revenger, the new Alastair Reynolds novel (out next week, review copy from Gollancz) proves that rule.

Arafura Ness is a teenage girl growing up on the backwater planet of Mazarile, with her widowed father and her wayward older sister, Adrana.  At Adrana’s urging, Fura runs away from her father at a dull drinks party, kicking off a chain of events that finds her signing up to join the crew of the sunjammer Monetta’s Mourn.  Both Arafura and Adrana have the signs of being talented bone-readers, able to use the skulls of an ancient and extinct race for instantaneous communication across space.  It’s a rare talent, and one that only manifests in the young.

Under Captain Rackamore, the crew of the Monetta’s Mourn are treasure-hunters, making dangerous raids on so-called baubles.  These are worlds that are the remnants of previous civilisations, many thousands of years old, that are protected by force-fields that only open briefly every now and then.  Society depends on the technology that can be salvaged from the baubles by crews like Captain Rackamore’s.  It’s a business that has the potential to make a crew incredibly rich, but it’s also dangerous work.  Accidents are common and crews can be left injured or trapped on baubles whose force-fields close unexpectedly early.  During one such expedition, the ship is attacked by the near-mythical pirate captain Bosa Sennen and her ship the Nightjammer.  Adrana is captured, and most of the crew are massacred.  Only Arafura and the gruff Prozor survive.

Arafura is hell-bent on rescuing her sister and avenging the murdered crew.  With terrifyingly single-minded determination she hatches a plan to get her sister back.  It’s one that involves her getting a berth on a new ship, and putting the lives of the entire crew at risk.  One of the strengths of Revenger is seeing how Arafura changes from a naive teenage girl who is easily swayed by her strong-willed sister into a ruthless, hardened space-farer.  In many ways, she becomes just as corrupted as any member of Bosa Sennen’s brainwashed crew.

The picture Revenger paints of a civilisation living in the ruins and ashes of its predecessors, trying to piece together the past, is a compelling one.  One of my favourite sequences is early on in the novel, when Arafura is introduced to Captain Rack’s library, painstakingly assembled over his lifetime.  He pulls out a slab of opaque, milky glass which he tells her is a book, but nobody can read it or make it work.  But occasionally, during an electrical storm words flicker across its surface before disappearing again.

But most of all, Revenger is a cracking adventure story full of buried treasure, daring escapes and hard-won friendships. It’s glorious, unashamed fun.

Goodreads rating: 4*

Avon Cosplay: How To

“Do you know what,” Sophie said as she pointed at my brand new, black knee boots, “if you got yourself a silver leather tunic you’d be Avon.”  As is so often the case, Sophie gets the credit for coming up with an idea that I’m mad enough to turn into a reality.  And this one is mad: cosplaying Avon from Blakes 7 feels a bit like heresy, even if it does fit with my hipster 1970s British SF cosplay aesthetic.

2846744For those of you unfamiliar with the source material, Blakes 7 was created by Terry Nation, the creator of the Daleks, in the late 1970s.  The pitch was for the Dirty Dozen in space – a drama that followed the exploits of a mismatched crew of convicted criminals who had escaped from a tyrannical Government on a stolen spaceship and under the leadership of the messianic Roj Blake. the only innocent man among them.  Famously made on a shoestring budget and with a notoriously inaccurate title (Blake only appeared in the first two series, and there were never seven of them …) it was still a massive hit, pulling in weekly viewing figures of around 11m, despite being scheduled against Coronation Street.  The strength was in the scripts: this was a drama influenced by Thatcher and the Northern Ireland Troubles, where the ‘good’ guys cause more death and destruction than the ‘bad’ guys, and men of principle become the very thing they despise.  It’s a series whose influence reaches far, into Firefly, Farscape, Dark Matter and any other number of series you could mention.

Right from the start, Paul Darrow stole the show with his characterisation of Kerr Avon, the cold, calculating fraudster.  Avon is probably the truest antihero in the history of British television: scriptwriters were famously told to always give him two reasons for any choice he made, the altruistic one and the self-interested one.  This computer genius is not the awkward, bespectacled geek one sees in contemporary dramas.  He is resourceful, ruthless and with cutting remarks and sarcasm as sharp as his cheekbones.  As a child I was captivated by the slow reveal of his character’s tragic backstory of betrayed love, and his sparring with the evil Servalan, where sex was just another weapon in their tussle for power.

img_2498Costumier June Hudson brought a fantastic look to the second series, in particular.  There was a hell of a lot of beautifully tailored leather and some iconic looks.  Paul Darrow (and Jacqueline Pearce) would cheerfully wear anything she designed for him, leading to some pretty amazing outfits.    One of Avon’s most famous is known as the ‘oven ready’: a glorious tunic made from silver doe-skin, worn with thigh-high Household Cavalry-style bucket boots.  If you listen carefully, you can hear them squeaking as he walks around the set.

So if I was going to cosplay – or rather crossplay – Avon, the oven-ready was an obvious choice.  Swap the tunic for a mini-dress and you’re home free.  To be honest,  I’m surprised no-one seems to have done it before.

avon-and-orac-2-nw2016Unlike last year’s Missy, which was an epic make, this costume was one pulled together mostly from commercial sources.  The dress is one I found on eBay.  It’s a Marks and Spencers silver sequinned dress which comes in both regular and petite lengths (this is the regular).  The sequins give it the same look as the doe-skin.  The polo neck is one I had already.  Instead of ski-pants I’m wearing 120 denier opaque tights, and the boots are model’s own, from Ted and Muffy (formerly Duo).  The studded belt was another eBay bargain.

Where this costume got spendy, was in the accessories.  My teleport bracelet was one I bought through Horizon, the Blakes 7 fansite.  It’s made by Martin Bower, the original designer, from the original materials (all except the pink perspex, which is a replacement).  The Liberator gun was from Century Castings, with the webbing belt another eBay find.

The finishing touch is my mini-Orac.

img_2156In one of the episodes of the second series, Gambit, Orac shrinks himself and is taken on a heist by Avon and Vila.  (And in that episode, Avon is wearing the silver doe-skin tunic.)  My Orac was an impulse purchase from an amazing prop-builder called Richard Bailey, who I found on Facebook through one of the Blakes 7 fan groups.

Heart of Granite – James Barclay

Regular readers will know that I wasn’t a fan of Heinlein’s seminal novel Starship Troopers.  I found it an unquestioning love song to the military.  But, despite some superficial similarities, James Barclay’s Heart of Granite (review copy from Gollancz) is a much better and more enjoyable read.

Heart of Granite follows the exploits of Max Halloran.  He is an arrogant, risk-taking pilot in the armed forces of United Europe, a futuristic power-bloc engaged in endless war.  But in Barclay’s world, the people of Earth have harvested alien technology and DNA to create new weapons of war.  Max pilots Martha, a fire-breathing drake, as part of Inferno-X, an elite squad of pilots based with others on a giant lumbering lizard (the titular Heart of Granite).  In a post-fossil fuels world, war is being fought over land, which has inestimable value in growing food and biofuels.  The challenges of aerial combat require minimal alteration to drake DNA, and a strong telepathic link between drake and pilot.  This puts their human pilots at eventual risk of a career and life-ending phenomenon when dragon-senses and intelligence overwhelm those of the pilot: The Fall.  But despite the risks, the thrill of flight and combat means there is no shortage of those seeking to become drake pilots.

Unlike the Heinlein, Barclay uses this set up to examine questions about expediency, and whether and how we value people as individuals in military hierarchies, rather than treating them as expendable resource, and the difficult trade-offs that sometimes have to be made.  The military hierarchy have to make a hard decision about whether or not to introduce a drake upgrade.  If successful, it could shorten the war and save the lives of many, but doing so will hasten The Fall, thereby shortening the lives of pilots.  There are parallels here with WW2 fighter pilots, where scarcity of materials and construction challenges made the planes more valuable than the pilots.  And echoes of Anne McCaffrey’s genetically-engineered dragons on Pern, with their close telepathic imprinting on their riders.

But over and above all that, Heart of Granite is a rollicking adventure story of dogfights, heroism, loyalty and cameraderie.

Goodreads rating: 4*

Nevernight – Jay Kristoff

Grimdark Harry Potter.  It’s hard not to compare Jay Kristoff‘s Nevernight (review copy from Harper Voyager) to that iconic series of books about a boy at wizard school.  Except that Mia Corvere’s time at the Red Church training to be an assassin is tougher, bloodier, swearier and sexier.  And utterly glorious.

As a child, Mia was forced to watch her high-ranking father executed for treason and her mother and brother imprisoned.  She narrowly escapes being murdered by her father’s enemies, and hides on the streets before being taken in by an antiquarian and assassin.  Mia wants revenge, and chooses to train as an assassin herself.  Without that training she won’t have the skills to get close to the three men responsible for her father’s downfall.

Mia’s time at assassin school is no cakewalk.  Getting there requires a trip across a monster-infested desert rather than a sweet-fuelled train ride.  Lessons have a high mortality rate, with teachers actively trying to kill their students.  Instead of Potions, it’s Poisons, and students are taught the finer arts of charm and seduction as well as how to kill.  With only a tiny number of students from each cohort passing the course to become fully-fledged assassins, competition between students is fierce and often fatal.

Mia herself is a delightfully refreshing break from traditional female leads.  She is small, dark, angry and not particularly pretty.  She swears like a trooper, smokes and has a healthy sexual appetite.  She is also a darkin: with the ability to call and shape shadows, and a familiar in the shape of a shadow cat called Mr Kindly.  But her talent for shadow is not much use in a planet with three suns that only experiences true night every few years.  But her underpinning morality and sense of fairness, combined with her primary motivation of revenge may not make her the best candidate to be an assassin.  The training she is undergoing is designed to create those ruthless enough to carry out a contract, regardless of how unethical or immoral it may be.

Nevernight is glossy, high-concept fantasy, with a compelling plot of conspiracy and corruption.  It’s the perfect antidote to all those hooded rogues, Buffy clones and farmboys with secret destinies.  I look forward to its sequels.

Goodreads rating: 5*

The Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief – Lisa Tuttle

Jesperson and Lane are Victorian London’s newest team of private detectives.  Lisa Tuttle‘s The Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief (review copy from Jo Fletcher) challenges them with a potentially career-making case, fraught with danger and challenge.  With their new business on the verge of running out of money they must investigate two cases: their sleepwalking landlord and a series of disappearances of some of the world’s most prominent psychics.  But are those two cases linked in some way?

The comparisons with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle‘s work are obvious.  Jasper Jesperson is intelligent, if at times heartless.  Miss Aphrodite Lane is his resourceful partner, more used to operating in society and an experienced investigator of psychic phenomena.  They live together with Jesperson’s long-suffering mother, who keeps house for them.

The Somambulist and the Psychic Thief is a gloriously entertaining mystery story full of twists and turns, about which it is difficult to write without spoilers.  Both Jesperson and Lane are extremely likable leads whose partnership is entertaining and promises much.  Despite the level of peril and the complexity of the plot, Tuttle executes it with a delicate touch and great elan.  Hopefully we will get to see more of Jesperson and Lane.

Goodreads rating: 3*

Nine Worlds Geekfest 2016

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Another awesome Nine Worlds has finished.  As I think I said last year, of all the conventions on the calendar, it is far and away the most welcoming and inclusive, which creates a joyful and creative atmosphere.

I’m on the come-down from a brilliant weekend, and recovering from the heady mix of lots of people, days packed full of content, and late nights socialising.  Inevitably, that makes my reflections a little fragmented, but I’ll pull out some thoughts.

This year we were at a new venue, the Novotel London West in Hammersmith.  After last year’s hotel debacle, this was a refreshing change and it proved to be a much better location.  The food was better, the rooms were better, the space worked really well for the event, it was easier to get to, there were more facilities (shops and restaurants) close to the hotel and the staff were amazing, with prompt and friendly service.  I really hope we will be back there next year.

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Missy with a knitted Dalek cosplayer

Cosplay has become a big part of my con-going experience.  This year I reprised Missy, but with a twist.  At last year’s con Laurie Penny remarked after seeing my costume that she’d only just realised just how much Missy looks like a suffragette.  As a proud feminist that really chimed with me.  So what better to do at a convention that prides itself on its progressive ethos, than to cosplay Missy as a suffragette, campaigning for more Time Ladies to appear in Doctor Who?  I made her a sash, with the slogan “Time For Ladies”, suggested by a fabulous friend of mine.  I’ll post about the making process for that sash in due course.

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Awesome photo by Duncan Lawie. (Thanks!)

I also brought a new costume, a female Avon from Blakes 7.  (I tried it at EasterCon earlier this year, but this is the first time I’ve managed to get pictures of it – the 1970s concrete exterior of the hotel also provided the perfect spot for a dystopian photo shoot.)  Regular readers will know that I’m a huge fan of the series, so the appeal of cosplaying my all-time favourite character was hard to resist.  I still feel slightly uncomfortable about doing it, as if I have no right to attempt something so iconic, but it’s a great character to play.  And it’s wonderful to see just how much love there is out there for the series.  I had people running across the hotel foyer to give me cosplay tokens, and I had some great conversations about my costume and the series.  Come find me as Avon at a future con and I might even let you pet my Orac.  I’ve blogged about putting this look together in another post.

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Look what I made!

The programme was great, as always, with some really thought-provoking sessions.  The stand-out one for me were Alex Lamb’s session on modelling complex systems.  Alex is the author of Roboteer, but he’s also a part-time stand up and improv, as well as having worked creating agent-based modelling systems for academic research.  He is clever, funny and has tremendous energy.  He got the whole audience for his session playing variants of Rock, Paper, Scissors, and then showed how the insights from that could be modelled in increasingly complex (and beautiful) ways.  Though it led to the depressing insight that we are doomed to society ultimately collapsing once corruption takes hold.  Honourable mentions also go to sessions on monsters in art history, how writers get and refine their ideas, a taster session on metal clay work, and a glorious end-of-con session on writing humour.

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Kate with BB8

If I have one small complaint, it’s that there didn’t seem to be as many sessions on books as in previous years, and some of those in the evening slots proved to be a bit … drier … than I might have expected for that time of night.  (There seemed to be no equivalent of last year’s gloriously hilarious panel discussion on writing sex.)  From talking to one of the organisers, it sounds like there had been some difficulties behind the scenes that may explain it.  I think the new model for organising content tracks may not have helped either.  I really hope that gets sorted for next year.  I love the broad church of fandom that Nine Worlds includes all under one roof, but I’m primarily a lover and reader of books, and if I’m give a choice I will gravitate towards book panels and events.

Photo courtesy of Kate

But as always, the thing that makes Nine Worlds is the people.  Friends make the weekend special, and are the source of all the best memories.  The late night room parties.  Enthusiastic dancing at the Bifrost disco.  Heckling panels via text message.  Cosplay photo shoots where it’s hard to keep a straight face.  But there are also smaller moments of joy too.  Catching up with people you haven’t seen for ages.  Making new friends and planning future shenanigans.  Finding out an author friend has given a character your profession, after a chat you’d had at EasterCon.  But mainly just the simple joy that comes from hanging out together and chatting.