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.

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.

 

Adventures in Dyeing

On Saturday I spent the day learning how to dye yarn from Lola of Third Vault Yarns.  When Lola took her new studio, she offered a small number of dyeing classes to help cover some of the fixed costs of expanding into a studio.

Of course I was going to snap one up.

This was a brilliant day playing with colour, learning a new skill and seeing how the magic of hand-dyed yarn comes together.  I’ve left with a new respect for Lola and every single yarnie out there.  This is one of those bits of craft that is the perfect mix of technical skill and creativity.

We started with a health and safety briefing (very important!) before Lola ran through the different kinds of dyes and how they work on different kinds of fibres.

The first exercise was applying the same dyes to three different fibre blends to see the differences in how they turn out.  The centre mini-skein here is a pure, superwash merino, where there is good colour definition and crispness.  On the right, a merino/cashmere/nylon blend gives a softer result, with more blending of the colours.  On the left, a 50/50 silk/merino blend has a lighter colour pick up, but the silk makes the colour glow.

We then explored three different dyeing techniqes, and I got to have a go at all of them.

First up was handpainting.

This was definitely the messiest of the three, with the need for clingfilm on the table surface to capture the excess dye and water.  But it has the scope for greater control about the overall result, even if as the dye sets you get to see the colours blend and play together.

Here I aimed for subtlety.  On the left is the test skein, with the final result on the right (with a lower concentration of dye than the test skein giving a paler result).  I was trying to see how subtle you could get, with this mix of sand, baby blue, shell pink, silver grey and brown.

If I’m honest, this was the most labour intensive of the three techniques, and probably my least favourite.  Though I do like this skein – even if it’s less bold than the other two that followed.

Next up was low-water immersion dyeing, where I went for the exact opposite – bold, bright contrasting colours.

Here you lay the skein of yarn out, apply dye powder to the surface, and then add water.  The effect you get depends on how you arrange the yarn and where you apply the dye.  There is much more scope for the colours to break, bleed into one another and generally play around.

This is definitely the way to go if you like bold, variegated yarns with lots of contrast.  It was insanely satisfying to do – from sprinkling the dye powder onto the yarn to poking and prodding it to get the dye into the right nooks and crannies of the skein.  But it takes a lot more dye than the other methods did.

Finally, we did kettle-dyeing, with resist techniques.

This was probably my favourite of the three skeins, both for the end result and for the technique.  This used some resist techniques (twisting the yarn with varying degress of tightness, and then immersing it in successive dye baths.  This colour was built up with a base of sand, followed by blue and then two shades of turquoise on top.  Each colour shows through to varying extents by itself, as well as blending with the other colours.

I had an amazing day, and learned loads.  I loved playing with the dyes and yarns, and it’s definitely something I’d like to do again in the future.  But Lola and fellow yarnies need not fear – I don’t think I will be setting up in competition any time soon.

Archie, The Little Suitcase Who Could

Archie,

Eight and a half years ago, one December day in Cape Town, I welcomed you into my life.  Since then, you and I have had many wonderful adventures together.  We have been on many work trips away, but lots of fun times too.  We have travelled all over the country, and across the world.  Always you have been happy and eager to see what was waiting round the next corner, and excited for the next adventure.  You have been my constant, reliable, and cheerful companion, rattling along next to me with reassuring solidity and the promise of adventure.

Archie, with his happy smiling face

There was the time we got snowed into Belfast and I had to leave you there over Christmas because I wasn’t confident I could get you home in the snow.  I felt so guilty leaving you, but your happy, smiling face was waiting for me in January and I was so pleased to see you.

We have had so many fantastic nights away with friends.  I would pack you with excitement, and you’d carry pretty dresses, shoes and make up with ease.  For a while, when my life was different, we only did fun stuff together, but recently there have been more work trips.

You have been practically perfect in every way.  Your Mary Poppins-like interior holds a huge amount.  Your inner pockets are just so.  The secret space in your lid has held many emergency books and sets of work papers.  You nestle into overhead lockers like a pea in a pod, with your smiling face waiting to greet me the moment I open the door.  I can push or pull you with equal ease.  You helped me smuggle knitting projects  on flights before the security rules were relaxed and it was allowed again.

But you are showing your age, every scuff on your exterior a mark of the time we have spent together.  I’ve had to reluctantly make the decision to retire you.

A few weeks ago, the mechanism for your telescoping handle jammed.  It had been sticking increasingly frequently, but every time previously a determined jiggle would free it up.  Not this time.  I had to carry you back from Leicester, cradled in my arms like a child.  No amount of WD40 has been able to fix you.

Last week I went shopping for a new suitcase.  It felt like I was being unfaithful to you, walking around the shop looking at all the other suitcases and assessing what they had to offer.   Trying to imagine spending time with them in the way that I have done with you.  None of them were right, either.  Too flimsy, too ugly, and the wrong arrangement of pockets inside.  I came to the crushing realisation that I will never be able to replace you.  You are unique.

This week I go away on business, and I will take my new suitcase with me.  But every time I look at it I will feed sad.  Because it’s not you.

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.

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.