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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
For 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.
Costumier 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.
Unlike 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.
In 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.
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.
Cosplayhas 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
On Wednesday night I was lucky enough to be at the announcement of the shortlist for the 2016 Arthur C Clarke Award. The announcement took place at the launch even for the Sci-Fi London Film Festival, at Stratford Picturehouse. There were canapes and I had a badge that entitled me to free wine. If only it worked for more than just that night.
The Clarke Award is in its 30th year. As a juried award it will always carry a certain cachet The announcement of the shortlist just 24 hours after the Hugo shortlist was inevitably going to show up the differences. The Hugos have always been a bit of a popularity contest, even before their recent Puppy-infested controversy. By contrast, the Clarke Award is a juried award, and it often ends up reflecting a uniquely British take on genre fiction. I frequently disagree with the judges’ choice of winner, but the shortlist is always an interesting snapshot of the state of genre fiction in the UK that year, and every book is an interesting read.
This year’s shortlist is no different. The six books announced on the night were:
It’s a really interesting list and I have a huge amount of respect for the team of judges who have managed to whittle a submissions list of 113 books down to a shortlist of just six. As Award Director Tom Hunter said, “This is a quintessentially Clarke Award kind of a shortlist. Look once and I’m sure everyone will see a choice they agree with. Look twice, and you’ll likely see a new book you want to read next. Look a third time though, and I hope you’ll see how well all of these six books sit together, and how they represent a particular special moment in time for UK science fiction. In other words, like all great books, this is a shortlist that rewards the more you read into it.”
I’ve read two of them already. I really enjoyed the Becky Chambers, but it feels a bit lightweight to me for the Clarke. I’d pegged it more as the kind of book that would be a Hugo contender (though it didn’t make the shortlist). And even though I found the Tchaikovsky interesting and engaging, I preferred Kim Stanley Robinson’s Aurora as a colony ship story. Even if it lacked Tchaikovsky’s super-evolved spiders.
Of the others, I already had Way Down Dark by J P Smythe on the TBR pile. Much as I love Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, I thought his novel The Machine was far the stronger and more interesting book of that shortlist. David Hutchinson made the shortlist last year with Europe in Autumn (to which Europe at Midnight is the sequel). I haven’t yet read it (part of my failed bid to read the Clarke shortlist last year) but I’ll move that one up the list pretty sharpish.
Of the other two, I’m probably most excited by Arcadia. I really loved An Instance of the Fingerpost by the same author, when I read it several years ago, so I’ll be interested to see how he’s evolved as a writer. There’s quite the buzz about Arcadia at the moment. I haven’t yet read any of Nnedi Okorafor’s writing, but I’m looking forward to The Book of Phoenix. She is gathering a real head of critical praise as a writer.
If you’re interested in sampling the shortlist, by the way, all three of Hodder‘s shortlisted books are on offer on Kindle at the moment. I’m intending to read as many of them as I can between now and the announcement of the winner later this year.
In the meantime, I’ll leave you with these pictures of some of the awesome cosplay on show on Wednesday night.
I’m feeling a little sad that I’m not at the Knitting and Stitching Show at Ally Pally this year. I keep seeing photos from friends showing all the beautiful yarn and amazing creations, and it’s making me a bit jealous. I would say that my bank balance is thanking me, but one of the reasons I’m not going this year is that I’ve spent my money on rugby tickets, and I’m not exactly stinting on the yarn front either.
You might remember that I found a new indie yarn dyer while I was at Nine Worlds this year. Third Vault Yarns specialise in geeky-inspired colourways. Lola has a fantastic eye for colour and is producing some beautiful dying with a witty SF touch. (Please, somebody buy the Nightcrawler and Vortex yarns before my hand slips.)
Last week she was polling views on which of three test dyes should be her new Waters Of Mars colourway, commemorating the discovery of water on Mars with a Who-inspired colourway. I fell instantly in love with one of her test skeins and bought it. More on that in a later post.
But while we were talking on Facebook, she spotted my Missy cosplay profile picture. And this happened. I ended up entirely accidentally commissioning Lola to custom dye me some Missy inspired yarn. I’ve never commissioned a custom dye before, so it was really exciting. Naturally, the yarn is purple and red. I asked for two skeins, on her pure merino Companion 4 ply, to give me some options about what to make. I’d really welcome ideas, actually, about what this could become.
It took me a few goes to get that picture, by the way. The first few looked a bit like this.
Over the last few days I’ve been at Nine Worlds Geekfest. It’s the third year it’s happened, the third time I’ve attended, but the first time I’ve stayed in the main hotel. In previous years I’ve commuted in each day (2 hours each way …), aiming to get there for the second panel of the day and staying as long as I could (usually to tea-time) before going home. Which makes for a very exhausting way of doing a con, without any of the evening fun which would at least give one a reason for feeling tired.
Of all the cons I’ve been to, Nine Worlds feels the freshest, most energetic and most welcoming. It prides itself on its inclusive atmosphere and has programme tracks dealing with feminism, LGBTQIA issues, race and culture as well as tracks on books, films, comics and tv shows. Panels contain a mixture of famous names and new voices. People from various minorities are not just confined to their own programme tracks, and there is a huge amount of cross-over, with programme items crossing over more than one track. But this approach to diversity and tolerance goes beyond programming. Panel members are briefed not to refer to audience members by their gender during Q&A sessions, and prounoun badges are available so that the transgendered and gender-fluid can indicate in a more subtle way how they wish to be referred to.
All of that is in marked contrast to other cons I’ve been to. LonCon3 (WorldCon) last year felt like East London had been colonised by the USA for five days. Marvellous as it was to see and meet so many big names from the States, it would have been even better if they’d made some concessions to not being in their own country. (I recall Jeff VanderMeer giving me the side-eye when I spoke about the cognitive dissonance I was feeling from all this US cultural imperialism. Of all the people there, I thought he would get it.) EasterCon (the BSFA’s annual event) feels like the redoubt of a certain generation of fans: a cliquey gathering that it’s very difficult to break into, full of in-jokes and making little or no effort to welcome new people, beyond exhorting them to volunteer to help run the con.
So, I was very excited about going this year, and particularly that I’d managed to persuade some of my geeky friends to come along to. As I’d learned last year, staying over at a con is only fun for me if I know you have a core of people to hang out with. Evenings are no fun if everyone else is enjoying themselves and you have no-one else to talk to.
Cosplay was a big part of my Nine Worlds experience. Having had so much fun dressing up at LonCon3 last year, I wanted to repeat the experience, and Nine Worlds has a much higher density of cosplay than any other con I’ve been to. So, on the Friday I dressed up as Missy. (Regular readers will haveseen the series of posts documenting the process of making my costume). I was expecting to be only one of several Missys – every set of con photos I’ve seen recently seems to have included a mandatory group of Missys. But it turned out I was the only one there.
One of the items on the programme that day was a panel on Gender Fluid Time Lords, and I bumped into the moderator and another of the panel members, both of whom insisted I come along. When I walked in the room for the start of the panel they gave me a big cheer. (The photos in this post were taken at the end of that panel). I was quite struck by something Laurie Penny said in that panel about Missy looking a bit like a suffragette. So I think the next step will be to add a suffragette sash and rosette to my Missy costume. Instead of “Give Women Votes” I think it will have to read something like “More Women Time Lords”.
On Saturday I reprised my Nyssa costume, from last year. Which led to the writer Simon Guerrier (the one I’d fangirled at about his Blakes 7 audio dramas at a Doctor Who event at Conway Hall a few days before) confessing that Nyssa had been his first childhood crush, a fact an old friend of his had once accidentally confided to Sarah Sutton (without knowing who she was) at a party.
There were some amazing costumes there, ranging from the clever and witty, to the laboriously screen accurate. The sheer level of creativity on display was astonishing. I have very few photos, I’m afraid (having too much fun …) but some of my favourites were knitted Wonder Woman, a woman who came as the bowl of petunias from Hitchhiker, an amazing Imperator Furiosa, a clutch of Peggy Carters and a woman who came as Sherlock’s wallpaper (dress with a black and white damask print on it, with a yellow smiley face embroidered on it).
There were many, many amazing programme items, ranging from the deeply silly to the very serious. The hotel’s lack of chairs (yes, really) meant that it sometimes proved difficult to get into some of them unless one was very early indeed. But there were plenty of alternatives on offer.
Some particular highlights:
The Gender Fluid Time Lords panel I mentioned above. It provided a fascinating insight into how Missy had been received by people from the transgender community. It was interesting to hear their anxieties (boob jokes, a fear that the gender swap would be presented as a consequence of the Master/Missy being crazy and unstable etc).
A fantastic gin-tasting from Jensen’s gin. Their Master Distiller and one of their Brand Ambassadors took us through the history of gin and their distillery. While plying us with gin. £5 well spent.
A talk by Dr Lewis Dartnell, author of The Knowledge, a book about how to reboot civilisation after an apocalypse. He’s a very engaging speaker and brought along lots of toys to play with. And who knew that you could prove the heliocentric model of the solar system using just Miley Cyrus (with her wrecking ball) and a watch.
Death in Genre. A discussion of death and violence in fiction, including its anthropomorphic personifications. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard Joe Abercrombie suggesting Death could be a squirrel, hoarding acorns, each of which is the soul of the departed.
The F-word in Fantasy. This was a late night panel on sex in fiction, which had me laughing myself silly. But one of the best parts of it was seeing Laurell K Hamilton (who was playing it as if it were a serious panel) being gently teased and deconstructed with a very British sense of humour.
Dancing with Imperator Furiosa while Peggy Carter was singing Bon Jovi.
Coping with the awesome
Cons are exhausting places to be. There is no denying it. The sheer quantity of people, and the amount of content in the programme can be overwhelming at times. I think I’m still struggling to find the right balance so I can have the maximum amount of fun while staying sane and not collapsing with exhaustion.
As one of life’s outgoing, confident introverts, rooms full of people are fun, but incredibly draining. Add to that a lot of programme content that one needs to pay active attention to, and it’s an exhausting mix. Much as I love that mix of people and content, I need a lot of downtime to re-energise. Half an hour of fighting my way through the crowds to get to the next panel is not going to cut it.
Some of the best parts of the weekend were the times I got to spend quietly with just a few friends: a quiet dinner with a friend and her baby, or sitting outside the hotel in the sunshine with a few other friends. I need to find ways to build those times into my weekend in the future, and not be afraid to skip a panel to grab a nap or get some quiet time so I can enjoy the evening entertainment.
Ironically, while cons are the best places to meet fellow geeks and hang out with them, the sheer overwhelmingness of the con environment means you will never find me at my best or most engaging. I’ll probably be struggling to some degree or other with the scale of the event, punchdrunk and trying to wrestle my introvert self (with addded Imposter Syndrome) into some semblance of sociability. Last year I bumped into one friend, and I was so spaced out all I could do was hug her and squee incoherently. Conversation was entirely beyond me.
Finding a route through all that is definitely still a work in progress.