Labyrinth Sarah Cosplay: How To

“Through dangers untold and hardships un-numbered

I have fought my way here to the Castle beyond the Goblin City

To take back the child that was stolen …”

Many of the people I know have deep and powerful memories associated with the film Labyrinth.  Released in 1986 it stars David Bowie as Jareth the Goblin King, and a young Jennifer Connolly as Sarah, the girl trying to win back the baby step-brother she wished the goblins would take away from her.  She has to beat the Labyrinth within the 13 hour time limit set by the Goblin King to claim back baby Toby.  But this is a goblin labyrinth that changes around you and is full of surreal perils that need all of Sarah’s wit and cleverness to overcome.

Labyrinth is a coming of age story about Sarah’s growing acceptance of responsibility and her sexual awakening, but one that recognises that we all carry an inner child within us.  Regardless of how adult the world requires us to be, we all have the need to play and our imaginations are a core part of what makes us who we are.

Bowie’s Jareth had a huge influence on many of my contemporaries, who were all at extremely impressionable ages when the film came out.

Jareth dancing with the Goblins, with prominent bulge
Dance magic dance!

Let’s get that one out of the way now: the bulge is even more impressive when you finally get to see the film on a proper cinema screen for the first time as a grown woman.  (Previously, I’d only seen it on tv.)

This is a film with a huge number of iconic sequences, but one that is particularly visually striking is the Masquerade Ball scene.  Enchanted by a magic peach, Sarah is whisked away from her friends and shown what life could be if she opted to stay with Jareth: a glamorous life as a beautiful princess.  It’s a scene full of emotional intensity that shows how Sarah has got under Jareth’s skin.  This is about so much more than a stolen baby for either of them.

It’s a classically 1980s vision of a fantasy ball: off the shoulder meringue dresses and big hair.

Jareth and Sarah dancing at the Masquerade Ball
Jareth and Sarah

I’ve always had the urge to do this as cosplay.  Who wouldn’t want to dress up as a beautiful princess and get to be on David Bowie’s arm?  But it’s difficult to do on your own.

Black and white photograph of Jareth and Sarah standing side by side in the Ball scene
Jareth and Sarah

A little over a year ago I met a woman who has since become a very dear friend.  She does the most astonishing Jareth cosplay.  It’s uncanny.  So it was with some trepidation that around the end of last year I suggested that perhaps I could be the Sarah to her Jareth.  She was incredibly enthusiastic about it.

So we did it at WorldCon in Dublin.

Me as Sarah from the film Labyrinth with a friend dressed as Jareth
Jareth and Sarah

And it was the most magical day you can imagine.  It’s instantly recognisable, and there is huge love for the film still.  I felt like a princess all day.

Jareth handing Sarah one of their crystal balls
Insert your own jokes about playing with Jareth’s balls here. (We made them all.)

A friend kindly gave up most of the afternoon for a little photo shoot.  (Though we are both considering a pro photo shoot at some point.)  My Jareth has done some modelling work in the past, and it was fantastic to do this with someone who knew how to set up interesting shots.  (Left to my own devices I tend to stand fairly awkwardly and self-consciously.)  Playing off someone for the pictures was wonderful.

Jareth and Sarah

But how did I go about making it?

The dress

This was the largest cosplay project I’ve undertaken since Missy.  As with Missy,  I needed to mix two different dress patterns to get the look I wanted.

Photograph of the two dress patterns I usedI used the pattern on the left (Butterick 4743) for the base of the dress.  It had the right shaping for both the neckline and the bodice and skirt.  I opted for the full length skirt with fishtail, and added a thumb loop to help manage the skirt (SO important for practicality).  But I used the puff sleeves from the pattern on the right (New Look 6031).  With modifications – the sleeves were fully lined.

The fabric was from one of the little fabric shops on Goldhawk Road.  I found this perfect polyester satin.  It’s white, with green lurex thread woven through it.  That gives it the perfect shimmer for the pearlescent look of the film.  As with much Goldhawk Road fabric it wasn’t perfect – it had a flaw running through it close to one selvedge that I had to cut round.  But 8 metres of it was relative cheap and gave me plenty to play with in case I needed to recut.  (And I did: I had to recut the same lower sleeve twice after it got stained by some spilled balsamic vinaigrette I’d failed to spot on the black dining table.  Wah!)  I spent more per metre on some good quality cotton lining for the bodice and sleeves.

After that it was a fairly straight sewing job to make the dress.

  • I bound the raw edges on the inside of the sleeves.  The puff sleeves are stiffened with netting between fabric and lining, and the raw edges would have been extremely scratchy otherwise.
  • I added little bra strap keepers, made from bias binding.

  • I used some 1 mm white rattail (Kumihimo braid) for the button loops on the sleeves.  I sandwiched this between the lining and the outer fabric.
  • The sleeve openings were trimmed with a lace and pearl trim.

The biggest challenge with this dress was the decoration.  There is a lot of sparkle going on in the original.  This was always going to be a case of “More Is More”, but finding the right sparkle proved to be a challenge.  I spent a lot of happy hours searching “Wedding Dress Applique” on eBay and looking in the trimmings section of every haberdashery shop I came across.

Dining table covered in trimmings
Too much?

Yeah, that got a bit silly …

Ultimately I settled on a few key bits of sparkle.

  • The bodice of the dress is decorated with a crystal applique design.  This came ready attached to a net backing.  I trimmed it and then couched the whole thing down using silver embroidery thread.
  • I trimmed the seam between bodice and skirt by couching on a resin crystal drop trim.  This was an embellished cup chain that came in a single piece that was a perfect length.
Back view of the dress, showing the train
Dress!

 

The accessories

The other key part of this look is the accessories.  They present another key opportunity to add MOAR BLING to the outfit.  The key one here is getting the hair to look right.  To me, the solution seemed pretty obvious: embellished hair combs.  Attach the right feathers, beads and streamers to them and you have an instant, easy approach to the look.

There are lots of You Tube videos about how to embellish combs.  The principle is simple: you need comb blanks, beads and other embellishments and wire to attach everything.  (I used 0.3 mm silver plated.)

Hair comb embellished with beads, feathers, cord, braid and ribbon flowers
One of the finished combs

The combs were embellished – in roughly the order I added them to the combs – with:

  • Two different kinds of silver feathers – silver sprayed feathers for the top (the more rigid ones) and silver goose feathers (the longer ones are the bottom).  Each feather was individually wire wrapped onto the comb – if I lost one I didn’t want the whole comb unravelling.
  • Lengths of cord tied to the bottom.  I used 3 mm white rattail (kumihimo cord)
  • Lengths of lighter Kreinik Balger tapestry braid (#12) at the top.  The shade ‘Easter’ has a green shimmer that matches the fabric of the dress.  (This took most of a reel of braid.)
  • Fabric flowers made by gathering lengths of silver organza ribbon around a large central bead.
  • A picot edging made from small Czech fire polished AB crystal beads plus some crystal AB leaf shaped beads.
  • Larger Crystal AB Czech fire polished beads in a row along the base of the comb (largely to hide the untidy wrapped wire)
  • A couple of Crystal AB drops at the bottom edge of each comb.
View showing the combs in place in my hair
The final combs

On top of that I added a large paste crystal necklace that I already own.

And I made some earrings from Swarovski crystal drops (also Crystal AB) and chandelier findings.  (As I don’t have pierced ears I used screwback findings.)

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WorldCon Dublin 2019

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.

Me driving a Back To The Future DeLorean
A DeLorean! I’m so glad someone brought one!

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.

Me sitting in a reproduction of the Game of Thrones Iron Throne - except made from hurley sticks
The Throne of Games

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.

Me sat in the Captain's chair on a mock Star Trek ship set, flanked by two friends
Captaining the USS Cuchulainn

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.

Me with writer Ian McDonald
Ian McDonald giving me a free ARC of his new novella

 

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.

Blakes 7 cosplay - Avon and Servalan are back to back and Blake has his gun aimed at Servalan
Blakes 7 cosplay

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.

Me as Sarah from the film Labyrinth with a friend dressed as Sarah
Jareth and Sarah

 

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.)

Jareth and Sarah

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.

Jareth and Sarah

It was the definite highlight of the con for me.

Paul Darrow

I lost a friend today.

Long ago, hormonal 14 year old me watched repeats of her beloved Blakes 7 on UK Gold and idly dreamed of Avon being in her bedroom.  Little did 14 year old me imagine that would one day happen.  But 14 year old me could also never have imagined that there would be seven of us, warm white wine, crisps and a lot of bad jokes about nuns told in an Irish accent.

Lots will be – and is – being written about Paul Darrow’s acting career and his contribution to the cultural life of the world.  But I want to talk about the man I was privileged enough to get to know and spend some time with.

Paul holding court over lunch, the first day I met him.

 

I first met Paul in October 2012, at a small lunch in aid of charity that I’d seen advertised somewhere online.  I was at a moment in my life where I wanted to meet some new people and mix up my social life.  I took a day off work and went to Hastings for the day, not sure what to expect.  I found an engaging, intelligent man full of enthusiasm for life who was brilliant company and the polar opposite of every cold-hearted, calculating bastard he ever played on screen.  Lunch extended into a slow wander through the autumn sunshine.  Conversation turned to an event he (and Jacqueline Pearce) were due to be at the following day at Kennington Cinema Museum.  As we parted he looked me in the eye and said, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

Paul and I outside a Hastings restaurant

So I duly presented myself at the Cinema Museum the following day.  And I found myself sucked into Paul’s entourage.  We spent a lot of time hanging out on the smoking terrace – with Jacqueline Pearce – and generally running round the Cinema Museum giggling (we were hiding from someone Paul was trying to avoid).  I laughed so much my ribs were aching.

Three months later I found myself in a small hotel, deep in the countryside.  There were about 10 of us, and after a fantastic dinner we played Trivial Pursuit in teams.  Paul’s team won.  He was always very competitive, and picked the pink questions at every opportunity.  (A category where he always had an unfair advantage, I feel.)

l-r Michael Keating (Vila), Tom Chadbon (Del Grant), me, Paul Darrow (Avon), Steven Pacey (Tarrant)

 

That set a pattern for the last six years.  It was like a long lost uncle had suddenly arrived in my life.  But an uncle determined to drag me to the pub and tell me stories about all the exciting things he’d been doing while long and lost. Fascinating insights into the acting profession from repertory to working for the BBC and ITV, and film, told with real pride about his craft.  Behind the scenes stories from on set.  History told with an instinct for drama.  And underneath it all, a childlike enthusiasm for life, often expressed through filthy jokes, impressions and a mischievous sense of humour – all with impeccable comic timing.

Giggling with l-r Stephen Greif (Travis), Michael Keating (Vila), me and Paul Darrow (Avon)

This long lost uncle introduced me to an entire extended family of cousins I’d never have known otherwise.  I met and made some amazing friends through Paul.  Fascinating people I would never have met otherwise.  And a circle of remarkably un-fannish people at that.  Paul drew around him those that were interesting, engaging and good company.  And we all cared for him deeply.

Behind the Liberator control console with l-r Michael Keating (Vila), me, Jacqueline Pearce (Servalan), Glynis Barber (Soolin), Stephen Greif (Travis) and Paul Darrow (Avon)

If there is one thing I learned from the time I spent with him, it was the joy that can come from time spent in good company with no particular plan in mind.  He turned hanging out into an artform of existing in the moment.

They say you should never meet your heroes.  Take the chance.  You may find your life is impossibly enriched by doing it.

Paul and I late one night. Or was it early one morning?

EasterCon 2019, Or The Fear Of Over-Exposure

Last weekend I was at Ytterbium, the 70th annual British science fiction convention.  It’s run each year by a committee of volunteers, and is a huge endeavour that attracts around 1,000 people.  It’s my fifth year attending, since my first, Dysprosium in 2015.  And it was far and away the best EasterCon I’ve been to in those five years.  So much so that it’s taken me nearly a week to get over my concrash enough to consider writing a con report.

Me with Gareth L Powell after he won with BSFA Best Novel Award for Embers of War

Over the last five years my personal involvement in SFF communities has increased significantly, as has my confidence in these spaces.  Reflecting back to Dysprosium, I spent a lot of my time feeling like an unwelcome outsider.  I was a Muggle at Hogwarts and none of the cool kids would give me the time of day.  Now, I know far more people in the community, and have found/built my little subset of the tribe to hang out with.

Me (l) with friend Ida (r)

Building that community has taken time.  I have one friend who has that fierce brand of confidence that means that she can walk into any room, be the centre of attention, and emerge feted.  That is not me.  I joke that I grow on people more slowly, much like mould, until I become part of the furniture.  A wise friend always remarks on my networking ability.  Professionally, part of my job is to know lots of people and understand the connections between them.  I have slowly learned that not everyone works that way, and I’ve also learned that it’s something I unconsciously bring into my personal life.  But I’m not always good at deepening those connections beyond the superficial, however much I might want to sometimes.  (Fierce, confident friend had to have a few goes at it before I finally twigged what she was doing.  Two bottles of wine and the sharing of many confidences one evening, and the rest is history.  Wise friend invited me for tea and cake with astonishing clarity, and then patiently and explicitly explained to me over said tea and cake that it was because she liked me and was interested in deepening our friendship.  The rest is history.)  And I forget – unless reminded – that the flip side of being the person who knows lots of people is that I’m a person known by lots of people.  I struggle with that, largely because inside my head I think of myself as pretty boring in comparison to all the amazing and interesting people I know.

All of that made this a bit of an interesting EasterCon for me.  This was a weekend where it felt like I was everywhere.  Being on six programme items was, by any measure, a lot.  And it led to the surreal experience of having people keep coming up to me to talk about them.  Plus having lots of the organising team loudly calling me a hero and trying to buy me lots of gin on Sunday night, after I stepped into the breach at short notice earlier that day (see below).  I’m not used to that kind of attention.  Really, I’m not.  I’d already gone into the weekend worried about being over-exposed.  I’m not a famous writer or fan.  I don’t work in publishing.  I’m just me, who sometimes dresses up as characters from Doctor Who and runs a relatively low-traffic book review blog.  So this is a weekend that has messed with my head and my self-perception quite a bit.

Six programme items.  I was on three of them because I’d suggested them.  But the rest were down to accident, the programme scheduling gods, or not moving quickly enough.

SF-ing Clue. L-R me, Helena McCallum, Tony Keen, Tiffani Angus, Tlanti.

SF-ing Clue.  In homage to a popular radio comedy show, this was a team-based panel game, done as a con warm up event on Thursday night.  It had been deliberately set up with an all-woman set of contestants, to help counter the idea that men have the monopoly on doing funny things at conventions.  In line with its inspiration there was a premium on puns and witty wordplay.  We had only 48 hours to prep the rounds, which was harder than you might think.  They included the Umbridge English Dictionary (giving existing words SFnal definitions, such as “Revoke: to turn back into a Klingon”) and YA Film Club (“To Kill A Mockingjay”).  I won’t be giving up the day job.  And the moral of this story is never to agree to do something in the pub when you’ve had a lot of wine after a long day.

Planning For The Apocalypse.  I’d suggested this because it seems that my friends and I have fairly well developed apocalypse plans, and it’s a regular topic of discussion.  I’d had in mind a kind of Choose Your Own Apocalypse type thing, but I had not envisaged the chaotic, surreal hour that followed.  Someone described it as three feminists on a panel with Alan Partridge.  Someone else wondered if it was a scripted radio play.  Regardless, it defies description or summary.  You had to be there.  All I can say is that Tiffani and Helen, my fellow panellists, are goddesses of deadpan humour and witty comebacks.  I was mostly corpseing with laughter.

The Art of Reviewing.  Much less eventful.  And a chance to meet and spend some time with the wonderful Maureen Spellar of Strange Horizons and fantastic book-tuber Claire Rousseau.  We got into the democratisation of what ‘good’ is, and the role of reviewers as influencers.  Claire and I spent a lot of time talking about how lovely Runalong Womble is.

Conflict Without Violence panel. L-R John Scalzi, Aliette de Bodard, Juliet Kemp, Brian Atterbury, me

Conflict Without Violence.  This was the panel I’d been most anxious about all weekend.  It was my first time moderating.  I was doing it in the big room, with John Scalzi `(one of the Guests of Honour) and Aliette de Bodard, two writers I really admire, plus Juliet Kemp and Brian Attterbury, a professor specialising in SFF literature.  And on a serious topic too – the prevalence of stories about physical violence in SFF, when there are so many different ways of telling stories and resolving conflict.  Much of it is a blur, but I think we explored the topic fairly well.

I walked out that room congratulating myself and feeling in desperate need of a cup of tea and the chance to decompress.  I bumped into one of the organisers, who was in a massive panic because the moderator for one of the panel items had pulled out at the last minute.  Stuff happens to us all, but there is something inexcusable about letting down volunteer organisers at short notice and without good reason.  It creates a horrible mess for them to have to sort out.  I’ve been in that organiser’s position, and there’s no way I could leave them with a crisis on their hands.  So …

The 2019 Hugo Award Shortlist.  I ended up moderating this with 10 minutes notice.  10 minutes.  That was long enough to Google the shortlist, try to work out what areas to focus the panel on, introduce myself to the panellists and take it from there.  I think I got away with it.  But a badly prepared moderator is not a good thing, and bad moderation can ruin a panel, however good the panellists are.  I’m incredibly grateful to an understanding audience and the panellists for their tolerance, and for enabling us to have a great discussion.

Me looking exhausted and very hungover (l), Charlie Stross, Kate Towner (r)

Administering Fantasy Worlds.  My final panel on Monday lunchtime was a struggle.  I was exhausted and panelling is Hard Work.  But I poured my remaining spoons into it.  This was a re-run of a panel a few of us had done at Nine Worlds last August, looking at governance and bureaucracy as world-building issues in SFF.  My friend Kate (an accountant) moderated, and did a fantastic job helping us to cover a lot of ground.  The other panelists were Wendy Bradley (retired tax inspector) and author Charlie Stross.  Kate and I have been fans of Charlie’s for years, so were having to suppress our inner fangirls whilst talking about the lack of proper procurement frameworks for laser guns, or the logistical challenges of handling taxes paid in live chickens.

me (l) with Ida (r)

The programme as a whole was excellent, and the organisers should be congratulated for that in particular.  Diversity was built in right from the start, with none of those awful “Women in SFF”-type panels that compartmentalise people who aren’t straight, white, able-bodied men into discussions only about their protected characteristics.  The team did an amazing job in building thoughtful panels of knowledgeable people that brought different perspectives to issues.  Big name authors were mixed up with debuts and subject experts, leading to rich discussions.  Inclusion was built into the event from the ground up, in panelist/moderator guidance, with the use of pronoun badges, and badges to signify access needs, including invisible ones.  It feels like the best parts of events like Nine Worlds were taken account of.  It’s in marked contrast to previous years and ha set an incredibly high standard for next year’s EasterCon.  I hope next year’s organising team have been paying attention and deliver the same standards.

Andrew Wallace performing from Celebrity Werewolf

Other stand out items were a performance by SF author, songwriter and comedian Mitch Benn, who performed his new song Zombie Jesus Chocolate Day.  Rapid-Fire Info Shots was a gloriously chaotic mix of three-minute segments by willing volunteers on subjects as diverse as why Captain Benjamin Sisko is the leader we need right now; how to draw the perfect demon summoning circle; and the problem with Lembas bread.  All while having (vegan) marshmallows thrown at them.  I also saw author friends read from their work, and went to their book launches.  I’m sad I missed so many other great items for scheduling or energy level reasons – including a couple of brilliant-looking Doctor Who items.

me (r) with Magnus (l)

But the best part of the weekend was the bar-con.  I met and hung out with loads of amazing people, some of whom I’ve known in passing for a while, but got to know better over the weekend.  One friend made a special trip to come down for the Sunday night.  There was dancing.  There was gin.  There were many hugs.  Nights were late.  Feet were sore.  Heads were sore the following morning.  The craic was mighty.

Roll on Dublin in August.  Roll on EasterCon next year.

 

FO: Thirteen

I hadn’t expected to be as moved as I was by the casting of Jodie Whittaker as the 13th Doctor.  I thought it would be just another announcement when it happened.  We’d all debate it furiously for a few days, speculate wildly, and then move on to the next thing.  

But all around me I saw legions of women profoundly affected by a simple casting choice.  Finally we would get to be the heroes of our own stories, rather than just the Companion along for the ride.  We could save the world, be brave and courageous, kind and clever too.  In a year where our childhood princesses had become Generals, all those playground games where we’d centred ourselves, all that female-led fan-fiction, was finally validated.  
Representation matters.

Over the summer there was a glorious flurry of cosplay, from the TARDIS full of bras to people urgently trying to find grey hoodies to replicate that first, precious sight of the 13th Doctor.  But the moment that hit me was in early November when the first image of Whittaker’s Doctor in her new costume were released to the press.

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I saw that and my knitterly heart skipped a beat.  Cosplay and craft has always been one of my favourite ways of engaging with story, and all of a sudden I wanted that sweater and to be wearing it in a way I haven’t felt for a long time.  I needed to be putting my own mark on the 13th Doctor, and this was my way of doing it.

I immediately started searching on Ravelry for top down sweater patterns I could adapt.  And I found myself near a branch of John Lewis with time to kill the following day.  I thought to myself, wouldn’t it be cool to have a sweater finished in time to wear for the Christmas special?  I’ve done NaKniSweMo before, so this should be possible, especially as most of it is plain.  

Cue 6 and a half weeks of furious knitting.  I finally finished this afternoon, just in time for the Christmas special.  

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The pattern is Take It Easy by Annamaria Otvos, which is a simple seamless top-down sweater with set-in sleeves.  I used Rowan Felted Tweed DK.  It’s lovely to work with, has a good range of colours and the stripes mostly came out of leftovers from other projects.  You can find the details fo the colours I used and in what order on my project page on Ravelry.  Suffice to say, it took a degree of angsting over that single, very over-processed picture, and quite a bit of swatching to get colours and a sequence I was happy with.  

If it turns out the sleeves are striped as well I’ll scream.

A Tale of Two Cons: Nine Worlds 2017 and WorldCon 75

It’s a TARDIS full of bras!

This summer I did the crazy thing that I last did back in 2014.  Two back to back conventions: Nine Worlds and WorldCon 75 in Helsinki.  Two crazy weeks of spending time with my geeky tribe, having my imagination and creativity stimulated and learning lots of things.  But they were very different events.

Things look different from up here – the view from the stage at Nine Worlds

In many ways, Nine Worlds has become my ‘home’ convention, even though its multi-disciplinary programming means it doesn’t always have the book content I instinctively crave.  This year I sought to help fix that, rather than just complain about it, by taking part in a panel for the first time.  My panel was Police and the Supernatural, which was a discussion about the works of Ben Aaronovitch and Paul Cornell, both of whom have written supernatural police procedurals set in London, but ones that are very different in style.  We turned out to be the second most popular programme item after the Saturday night cabaret and disco, so no pressure there then!  It was a brilliant experience, I have to say: my fellow panellists were awesome and the time flew by.  What was particularly lovely was having people coming up to me the rest of the weekend (and in Helsinki!) saying how much they’d enjoyed it.

From L to R: me in cosplay as Missy, with a woman wearing a knitted Dalek dress and another woman cosplaying as the 13th Doctor

There were some fantastic programme items at Nine Worlds.  Some were thought-provoking (including a deeply interesting session on architecture and world-building in fiction, plus one on robots, AI and the labour market) and some were deeply silly, but they all shared a generosity and humility from the speakers.  And I learned a lot, for example about theories of education through the example of teaching in Harry Potter, or some amazing examples of powerful women in West African history.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl

And it was just so much fun too.  As always, you stuck out if you weren’t in cosplay or dressed flamboyantly, and people were determined to enjoy themselves and facilitate the enjoyment of others by being relentlessly and furiously kind and thoughtful. Rarely have I encountered an environment that is so energetically inclusive and generous in its acceptance of others.  Diversity in all its forms is firmly within the DNA of Nine Worlds, proving that it’s possible to do with a bit of work – and it doesn’t take that much of it either.

Me wearing a dress with cats in space, standing next to a person cosplaying as No-Face from the film Spirited Away

Numbers were a bit down on last year, which was a bit of a shame.  I think that was in part because many people couldn’t afford the time or money for two conventions and had chosen to go to WorldCon instead.  Understandable, given how rarely it makes it across the Atlantic (of 75 WorldCons, only 8 have been outside North America, 5 of those in UK, and 3 of those in London).  But those of us there were made the most of it.

Me with Major Ursa, on Day 1 of WorldCon

WorldCon75 in Helsinki was a different kind of con.  Much more book-focused, but very traditional in its approach.  Being WorldCon, the spread of authors was much greater, with big names from the US and Canada that are rarely seen on this side of the Atlantic.  There is little like sitting there eating your dinner watching George R R Martin walk past, or going to what I dubbed the “Hangover Panel”: 2pm on Day 4 (the day after the Hugos) where famous writers like Robin Hobb, Elizabeth Bear and Jeff VanderMeer were talking about their cats.  With lots of cat pictures and funny stories about them ‘helping’ with the writing.

From the country that brought you Lordi: steampunk blacksmiths

WorldCon was huge.  There were around 7,000 people there, in a venue that was probably designed for about 4,000.  It got full very quickly, in a way the organisers had not foreseen.  This was the third-largest WorldCon in history, with the largest still being LonCon3 in 2014.  There were a lot of complaints about the crowds and the queuing, but the organisers were responsive and I never had any difficulties.  A bit of patience and planning got you into most things, and if you weren’t able to make it into one of the rooms then ther was bound to be something else on the programme that appealed.

A person dressed as an owl

But there were a couple of off-key aspects for me.  As with LonCon 3 this felt very US-centric and dominated by US concerns with a very low level of awareness of US cultural colonialism and its impacts.  That was uncomfortable for an event taking place in Finland, and at times it just felt plain tone-deaf.  The main example of this for me was a panel on resistance, which was composed entirely of US writers and led to a discussion dominated by Trump, healthcare and various issues in the US system, with only one panellist referencing non-US examples (Kameron Hurley talking about the experience of South Africa).  All of the over-riding cultural framing was the US narrative from its founding myths of resistance.  At one stage, one of the panellists suggested that paying one’s taxes in order to support other people in society was in some ways a rebellious act.  The audience pointed out with increasing irritation that this was normal in Europe.  In another panel, an audience member from the US questioned why the panel was discussing the work of two British writers rather than the US writers she named.

A recording of Tea and Jeopardy, with special guest George R R Martin

The panels themselves felt short – 45 minutes compared to the hour, hour and a quarter of Nine Worlds.  This meant they never really got beyond scratching the surface of a topic.  Panellists rarely got to speak more than twice during a discussion.  And some of them felt either poorly organised or poorly moderated – with panellists unsure why they had been selected for a particular panel, or with moderators taking a wildly different interpretation of the brief than appeared in the programme.

Authors talking about their cats

That sounds like I’m being harsh, and I guess I am.  But that didn’t stop it being an amazing event and an opportunity to meet and hear from people I don’t normally get to encounter in the UK.  But what really made the event was the awesome crowd of people I met and hung out with over the five days of the event, swapping ideas for panels and badge ribbons.

Best dressed club. From L to R: Ali, Helena and I

In two years’ time WorldCon will be in Dublin.  There’s a huge buzz about it already, and I’ve bought my membership.  I can feel in my water that it will be another big event.  Hopefully there will be a bit more sensitivity when it comes to some of the cultural issues (I can’t say I’m looking forward to having Irish history mansplained at me by Americans – I fear there will be some crashing insensitivity displayed, but it will at least highlight the difference between Irishness and the wholly separate identity of being Irish-American).

But that’s two years away.  In the meantime there’s next year’s Nine Worlds to plan for.  Excuse me while I go and think up some panel ideas.

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.