Two years ago I travelled to Helsinki to attend WorldCon. I pre-supported Dublin for 2019 and voted for it in Site Selection. I’ve been looking forward to it for the last two years, so it was fantastic to finally make it there.
And I had an amazing time.
It was great to see a distinctly Irish flavour brought out throughout the event. Some of that was in the programming, with a strong thread around Irish writing, myths and legends. But it also featured in the stuff around the convention centre. There was a Back To The Future rigged out DeLorean (a fine Northern Ireland company!) and a version of the Iron Throne from Game of Thrones (a show filmed in Northern Ireland) that was made from hurley sticks and appeared on the day of the All-Ireland Hurling Final being held in Dublin.
The proximity of Dublin to the UK meant that there were a lot of friends there. Many more than in Helsinki, and from three distinct groups in my life: EasterCon people; book club/SRFC people; and old friends who were also attending, many of whom live on the island of Ireland and were attending their first WorldCon. And after this year’s EasterCon and a really busy first part of the year I’d made the deliberate choice not to put myself forward for Programme so that I could relax and enjoy the event. That changed the tone of the event for me, making it much more social than either of the two previous WorldCons I’ve been to. Fewer panels, more late nights, and a lot more bar con.
Some of that was down to the programme. Apart from a couple of items, which I will come on to, there was very little in the “cannot miss” category for me. Lots of great items, but very few that were wowing me either in the subject or the panellists. And with the venue offering rooms that were often quite small (leading to lots of advance queuing and frequent complaints from people who weren’t able to attend items they wanted to go to) sometimes the best thing to do was to skip a session and let someone else take a spot.
But there were a couple of sessions I simply could not miss, and I’m glad I didn’t, because they were highlights of the weekend for me. I’d particularly wanted to catch these because I have an academic and professional background in Irish history, culture and literature, so looking at Irish writing through an SFF lens was a must. The first of these was a session on Northern Ireland SFF, featuring Ian McDonald (one of the Guests of Honour) and Jo Zebedee. The second was a panel on Irish SFF more generally, featuring McDonald and Zebedee again, but also Sarah Maria Griffin, on her only panel of the weekend. I adore her writing – Spare and Found Parts is a brilliant, astounding novel – so I was particularly keen to hear her speak
There was a lot of commonality between both discussions, pulling out the essentially political nature of Irish SFF – North and South. In both cases, writing focuses on engaging with the past, whether colonial history or the Troubles, and it provides a vital and urgent way of engaging with contemporary political issues around feminism, queer politics, violence, migration etc. Griffin (who is a joyously angry and articulate goddess in person) was particularly vocal about the need for writers to be archaeologists, exhuming buried skeletons and exposing them and their consequences to the light. In all cases there was a tension between writing authentic fiction rooted in Hiberno-English and strongly redolent of place, with the imperatives of finding a commercial audience. At times that meant fighting hard to protect the text, at times a “word by word battle” as Griffin put it.
If there were differences to be drawn out between North and South, then they were ones of style and tone. You should expect writing from the North to be sharper and harder, with a distinctive black humour. But it’s harder to escape the Troubles, with writers frustrated at expectations that everything they write should be about that to some degree or other, or that they should expect people to read unintended Troubles allegory into their writing regardless. (Zebedee talked about the pressure she felt under to put alien bombs under cars, and McDonald related the story of a NI screenwriter who had their work un-commissioned by the BBC because it wasn’t about the Troubles and the commissioner considered that the only appropriate topic for a NI-set drama). If there is a gap, then Zebedee felt writers in the North were at risk of being disengaged from their cultural heritage, which otherwise would provide a rich heritage for them to drawn on.
Another stand out panel for me was one on the treatment of faith and religion in SFF. It’s rare to see religion treated as anything other than world-building colour in SFF. It provides some seasonal celebrations and the basis for rituals, or Gods are made manifest and appear as characters (the old Granny Weatherwax line in response to Nanny Ogg pointing out that gods exist: “That’s no call to go around believing in them. It only encourages ’em.”). But characters are often relatively secular in their outlook – rarely do you get the sense of characters being guided by a faith-based moral code. (One of the rare exceptions to this is Maia in Katherine Addison’s The Goblin Emperor, whose quiet faith is deeply rooted.) This ended up being a conversation that continued in the bar with Meg McDonald, one of the panellists, while she was painting glitter on my face. In her view, faith and belief should be active things, constantly engaging with the events of the world and adapting and changing as a result.
Otherwise, the major theme for WorldCon for me was cosplay. I’d arranged a couple of group cosplays with friends. On Friday and Sunday, I cosplayed as characters from Blakes 7 with a couple of friends, who were Blake and Servalan. It was particularly poignant this year, given the recent sad losses of Gareth Thomas, Jacqueline Pearce and Paul Darrow. I’m very glad we did it, and it was great to see so much love out there for a forty year old television show.
I also debuted a new costume on Saturday, with a friend. I was Sarah from the Masquerade Ball scene in Labyrinth, to her Jareth. I’d been apprehensive about suggesting it to her, given it could be read as me crashing an already extremely successful cosplay of hers. But it had been a lifelong dream of mine to do, and Ida was delighted to have the excuse to refresh her costume for a very specific – and famous – scene in the film. (I’ve blogged separately about the cosplay and the making of the costume.)
We had a fantastic day. We couldn’t walk across a room without being stopped at least three times by people wanting photographs. We gave up most of the Saturday afternoon to a mini photo-shoot, and the pictures are stunning.
It was the definite highlight of the con for me.