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.
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.
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. 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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.