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.

Nine Worlds Geekfest 2016

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.

Fibre East 2016

After a gruelling few weeks, what could be better than a trip to a yarn show?  I took myself off to Fibre East with a couple of friends for the day about a week or so ago, to soak up the atmosphere.

Fibre East was a new show to me, but it’s become a regular fixture in the calendar.  It has a real focus on spinning and weaving, with some people from one of the local spinning guilds taking part in a ‘sheep to shawl’ challenge over the course of the weekend, scouring, carding, spinning and weaving freshly sheared fleece.

The Sheer Sheep Experience was there, exploring some of the UK’s native sheep breeds and the different characteristics of their coats.  (Though spot the Antipodean interloper on the far right!)

img_2406There was a shearing demonstration, using both electric clippers and traditional hand shears.  The lucky owner of the fleece, which had been auctioned earlier in the weekend, was also in the audience.

img_2396John Arbon had this beautiful antique on his stand.  It’s gloriously steampunk in design.

And there were lots of ways to indulge in some retail therapy.  I’ve noticed that the tougher the time I’ve had recently, the more outlandish my purchases are.  At Fibre East I kept being drawn to 80s style neon colours, in bright highlighter pen shades.  I mostly escaped unscathed, but there were a few I just couldn’t resist.

img_2439This pink, called Pink!, from WooSheeps, called to me from across the hall.  Paired with a more subdued charcoal grey, it will make a fantastic colourwork shawl.  And it comes in generous 150g skeins too.

img_2443I loved the neon spatter dye of For The Love Of Yarn‘s Speckled Lagoon, and picked up a couple of skeins in more muted shades.  They have some fantastic dyeing, and some beautiful shades.  I will definitely keep an eye out for them at future yarn shows.

img_2440As always, I had to pay a trip to see Lola at Third Vault Yarns.  Lola joked that I probably have most of her colourways in one base or another, but I still picked up these two beauties.  The top one (Bad Apples) will be perfect for a pair of socks I have in mind.

img_2448And I paid a trip to Sparkleduck as well.  If you like purple (and who doesn’t?!) Sparkleduck is the place to go.  These are all beautiful laceweights.

But these were probably the most unexpected purchases of my trip, and probably a measure of just how tired and run down I am.

img_2446I’ve never spun in my life.  But I came home with a sparkly top-whorl drop spindle from Spin City, and two lots of fluff.  I nearly succumbed to the one with candy-coloured unicorns, but went for the slightly subtler one with the iridescent heart-shaped confetti and glitter.

So, I guess I need to learn to spin.  Does anyone have any good resources they can point me to?

FO:  Two By Two

Recently I did something I’ve never done before: I took part in a gift swap through one of the Ravelry groups I am a member of. it was organised by Lola from Third Vault Yarns.

The rules were pretty simple.  Each of us would take it in turns to host Sadie, a knitted bunny, for two weeks.  At the end of the fortnight Sadie would get posted on to the next person in the chain with some surprise gifts.  There should be one handmade gift, which didn’t have to be knitted, and one shop-bought gift.

I received a beautiful handmade notions pouch with some stitch-markers and a colourful scarf  The pouch is large enough for a small project  and the scarf has quickly become my go-to office wrap for when the air conditioning is fierce or i just feel the need of an extra layer

Unfortunately, the package spent a week at the sorting office waiting to be collected, so I only had a week with Sadie. She missed the chance to come with me to the Sri Lanka Test Match at Lord’s, and I didn’t get to take her on a business trip to The Hague.  But we packed in some fun.

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After spending some time chilling with Baby Groot, I took Sadie to a recording of a Radio 4 comedy called the Now Show, which was doing a special for the EU referendum. The recording was at the beautiful Radio Theatre in Broadcasting House. Unfortunately I couldn’t get any pictures of the auditorium (not allowed).

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But I did get this snap of Sadie meeting a Dalek just outside.

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And later that week Sadie helped me vote in the EU referendum itself.

But it wasn’t long before I had to wave Sadie off on her travels again, this time with gifts from me.

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My handmade gift was this pair of fingerless mitts, made in Rowan RYC Baby Alpaca DK. The pattern is Hands of Blue by Lucy Hague, a Firefly/Serenity-inspired pattern. I love the texture  created by the twisted stitches. I also popped in some handmade stitch markers and a notebook before sending Sadie on her way.

Love Your Yarn Shop Day 2016

Last Saturday was Love Your Yarn Shop day.  Last year I was away on holiday, and visited a shop in Co Sligo, Ireland.  This year, I thought I’d stay a little closer to home and visit two of my closest yarn shops, on a bit of a mini yarn crawl.

My first stop was Sharp Works in Herne Hill.  It’s a shop I go past every day on my way to work, but I’d never been inside.

It’s certainly worth stopping for a visit if you are passing – it’s exactly the kind of yarn shop I’d like to own myself.  It has an interesting mix of brand and more unusual yarns, including some things (like Navia) that are a little bit rarer in the UK. There was a whole cabinet full of commercial sock yarn and a few more unusual things.

It’s a busy little shop too – in the short time I was there lots of people popped in and out, many of them looking for help and advice with their WIPs or new projects.


When I’m visiting a yarn shop I normally like to buy something a little unusual that I haven’t been before.  As you can see here, I binged a bit on Juniper Moon Findley.  It’s a laceweight mix of merino and silk that I’ve not seen before in real life.  It has a lovely handle, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it works up.

I also bought this pure silk laceweight from SilkIndian, in some pretty pink and blue shades.  I have  no idea what it will be, but it demanded to be tried.

I went straight from Sharp Works to lunch with a friend in the centre of London.  From there, I walked down to the South Bank and popped into I Knit London.  Nestled in the community of small traders on Lower Marsh, in the shadow of Waterloo Station, IKL has become a bit of a London institution.  It’s founded on the idea of community and has an alcohol licence, so it’s open late into the evening and always has a crowd of knitters hanging out on the sofas and working on their projects.

One of the best things about IKL is the huge collection of pattern books that it stocks, including a lot of US imports and rarer titles.  It’s one of the few places in London where one can be sure to pick up a copy of Vogue/Designer Knitting.  (The other, strangely, is the branch of W H Smith in Victoria Station.)


So while I was in IKL I picked up two issues of Jane Austen Knits.  It’s always an interesting collection of Regency-style pieces, inspired by the works of Jane Austen.

On the yarn side, yes that is a skein of Wollmeise on the right.  IKL is one of the few stores to stock it, and they have a pretty good selection at the moment.  I fell in love with these bright purples. On the left is a skein of Fyberspates Gleem Lace in a some slightly autumnal variegated shades.  The two in the centre are a pair of IKL’s own sea silk/silk blend in some cheerful colours.  They will become a two-coloured shawl at some point.

Arthur C Clarke Award Shortlist 2016

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.

Award Director Tom Hunter announcing the shortlist

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:

  • The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers (Hodder & Stoughton)
  • Europe at Midnight – Dave Hutchinson (Solaris)
  • The Book of Phoenix – Nnedi Okorafor (Hodder & Stoughton)
  • Arcadia – Iain Pears (Faber & Faber)
  • Way Down Dark – J.P. Smythe (Hodder & Stoughton)
  • Children of Time – Adrian Tchaikovsky (Tor)

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.


  

Gendered merchandising: A rant

Over the break between Christmas and New Year I went to several exhibitions.  One of them – Celts – I’ve already blogged about, but I had a fabulous day out taking in three more with a female friend of mine.  The first one of the day was the Cosmonauts exhibition at the Science Museum, which I bought tickets for on the recommendation of another female friend.

  
I’d love it if in blogging about my visit to the exhibition, the key thing I’d want to write about would be the fascinating insights into the early days of space exploration.  How so much of the Russian space programme hinged on the collaboration between two visionary men: the thinker Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, whose thought experiments about what it would be like to be in space helped to shape so much of our current reality of space travel; and Sergei Korolev, the director of the Russian space programme who turned that vision into a reality.  About the ground-breaking design it engendered (I really want one of those Sputnik-inspired samovars).  About the terrifyingly brave men and women who took those first steps into space.  (And who knew that one of the main qualifying criteria for the programme was to be small enough to fit in the capsule?)  About the Cold War battle for space and the subsequent international co-operation that has led to the International Space Station and all the scientific developments it has engendered.

  
But, no.  The main impression I was left with after this exhibition is that the Science Museum doesn’t think science is for women.

  
I loved the exhibition so much that I wanted to take home some souvenirs.  Particularly one of the range of awesome tshirts that were for sale, given that I love wearing geeky tshirts.  I wear them round the house with jeans.  I wear them with skirts and funky tights when I’m out and about.  Perhaps I should buy one featuring the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova.  Or one inspired by those glorious Russian propaganda posters, with their instantly recognisable design aesthetic.  But it turns out that the Science Museum only offered one tshirt in a woman’s fit – a rather dull design based on a spacewalk motif.  When I asked the assistant on duty if there were any woman’s fit tshirts available he seemed surprised I’d even asked.

  
I checked the Science Museum’s website, and of the 23 tshirt designs they offer for sale, only one is available in a woman’s fit.  (Compare that to the Tate, who offer 10 out of their entire range of 38 tshirts, including children’s sizes, in a woman’s fit).  So I contacted the Science Museum to ask them if they had any plans to expand their range.  Disappointingly, I was told that not only do they have no plans to expand their offer, they’re actually intending to decrease it, phasing out the one design they currently offer in a woman’s fit.

A large proportion of the products in the Cosmonauts shop have been targeted at either unisex or female customers. These ranges include an exclusively commissioned range by the designer Keely Hunter and a number of items aimed at a contemporary adult audience. The Science Museum stocks unisex t-shirts (as opposed to men’s or women’s fit t-shirts) to ensure that our products are gender neutral where possible. We offer these in sizes XS to XL to cater to the needs of most visitors. The Spacewalk women’s fit t-shirt that you described is part of an old product range, and the move away from this style to a unisex fit was based on audience research, aiming to target the needs to our wide variety of visitors.

A quick straw poll of my female friends reveals that while some are happy to wear a unisex tshirt, most aren’t.  We should be careful not to generalise, but women’s bodies are, in general, a different shape to those of men.  We have breasts and hips.  We tend to wear skirts and jeans with a lower waist that sits just above the hips, and well below the natural waist.  Clothes are normally much more fitted, though fashions can vary.  A so-called unisex tshirt is designed for a typical male shape: straight up and down and with a loose fit.  Some women may choose to wear that style, but I’ve generally found them to be in the minority.  Personally, I don’t wear unisex tshirts because I don’t think they are flattering on me.  Buying a smaller size in the hope of getting something more fitted doesn’t work, because unisex tshirts lack the stretch that comes from the more fitted women’s styles.  So I’d love to know where and how the Science Museum did their audience research if it concluded that reducing people’s choice was a good idea.

I get that commercial imperatives may make it uneconomic to stock a range of tshirts in multiple sizes in both unisex and fitted styles (though that doesn’t seem to be a problem affecting the Tate).  But if that’s the case, please admit it’s that, rather than blaming it on audience research or pointing to the availability of overpriced fluffy hats as some kind of substitute.

The message I and others can’t help but take from this is that the Science Museum doesn’t think it’s important to cater for women in their merchandise.  It’s particularly disappointing given the important role the Science Museum plays in educating people about science and technology, and the huge range of evidence about the difficulties of attracting women to careers in STEM fields, much of which is down to the perception that science is for men.  You would expect the self-styled National Museum of Science and Industry to be at the forefront of breaking down those barriers, not reinforcing them.

This blogpost was written while wearing this cool Godzilla tshirt.  The original feedback email to the Science Museum was written while wearing this brilliant Blake’s 7 tshirt, designed by an awesome friend of mine.  I wear a woman’s fit, in size Large, thanks.