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.

 

2016: A Look Ahead

Having reflected back on 2015, it’s also time to look ahead to 2016.  I’m not the kind of person who makes New Year Resolutions.  The coldest, darkest time of year is not the best time for me to make plans or commitments, particularly those involving the kind of dramatic life changes that require significant amounts of effort and willpower.  So all I will do on that front is continue to commit to trying new things, having adventures and living life as joyfully as I can.

The TBR bookcase

I thought it would be interesting to take a New Year look at the state of my To Be Read pile.  Well, To Be Read bookcase.  And the piles next to it.

Yes, it’s double, nay even triple, stacked …

That is a lot of books waiting to be read, and a lot of awesome books at that.  And that’s even after I had a good weed through it last week and put aside three boxes of books to take to the charity shop.  Some of that must be down to me continuing to buy the books I would like to read at a prodigious rate, despite having 3/4 of my reading in 2015 dictated by review copies and my book club.

I don’t feel weighed down by this at all.  I love having choice.  It means that when I finish a book I have the luxury of being able to pick the perfect one to suit my mood at that exact moment.  And while I’m lucky enough to be financially comfortable enough to buy books without having to think too hard about it, I will carry on adding to the pile.  The day may well come when I might be less fortunate, but at that point I’ll have a resource to draw on.


One of my reflections from last year is that there are a lot of books by authors that I love that I have chosen not to read yet.  Part of that is knowing that I will only have the experience of reading them for the first time once, making me want to save and savour them for when I will really appreciate them, or want the certainty that I will not just enjoy, but will love a book and be guaranteed transcendent escapism.  The pile on the left are some of those books.  (Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven came out in 2010, which shows you how long I’ve been hanging on to that one.)  But it seems crazy to spend my time reading books I’m a bit indifferent about while leaving ones I’d love on the shelf unread.  So, this year, I’d like to make a bit of a dent in that pile.

The pile in the centre is one I will definitely read.  These are books for my book club for the first part of this year.  There will be a couple of additions to that pile – The Snow Queen by Joan D Vinge (ordered, and on its way) and The Long Way To A Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers.  I’m particularly looking forward to getting stuck into a bit more PKD, and to re-reading Vurt, which I haven’t read since it came out.

The pile on the right are all books that I also have in ebook format, usually because they were on offer or part of a Hugo voter packet, like the Chu.  It’s likeliest I’ll get to some of these on holiday.


This is the main section of the bookcase.  There’s lot of good stuff in here too, and that’s just the front row that is visible.  I’m particularly looking forward to carving out the time to read the Ian McDonald and Aliette de Bodard, not least as both are GOHs at this year’s EasterCon, which I might go to.


Finally, this is the pile on the left, which is a ragbag mix of literary fiction and genre fiction, including a lot of second hand books.

I’d be very interested to hear if there is anything there that you think I should be moving closer to the metaphorical top of the pile, to be sure to read soon.

The Ravelry Queue

Another area I’ve been reflecting on is the current state of my Ravelry queue.  At 1,144 patterns there is little chance that I’ll make everything on it.  I use it more as a “short”-list of patterns I like to rummage through when I have startitis.  But it could do with a serious weed nonetheless, to remove the things I really have no intention of ever making.

There are a few queued items on the first page of the queue worth touching on:

sachertorteI love this cabled swing jacket and I have some Kilcarra Donegal Tweed yarn that has been in stash for a while.  It’s in a lovely purple colour and will be perfect for it.

rhinecliffThis is the cardigan I bought the tweed yarn at New Lanark to make.  But I want to lengthen the pattern so that the garment finishes at mid-thigh rather than on the hips.  That will need a bit of thought.  And some sums.

octopusI fell in love with this colourwork octopus sweater the moment I saw it.  There are some issues with the pattern (the pattern writer suggests doing the whole thing stranded, which is a very inefficient use of yarn for the design, and would make it unbearably warm) so it will also need some thought.  But I have the yarn and would love to get on with making it.

hemlockFinally, I have a burgeoning stash of sock and laceweight yarn, which I would like to make better use of.  That means lots more socks and shawls, like this beautiful two-colour shawl.

It’ll be interesting to come back this time next year and see how different the To Be Read bookcase looks, and what progress I’ve managed to make towards these projects.

November 2015 – Books I’m excited about

Earlier in the year I posted about two books I was looking forward to reading.  One turned out to be a roaring the success, the other a bit of a disappointment.  Hopefully, I’ll get better than a 50% success rate with the ones I’ll mention in this post.

cat valente
Me with Cat Valente at WorldCon in 2014

First up is Radiance by Catherynne M Valente.  I met Cat at WorldCon last year.  She’s an amazingly versatile writer, producing everything from children’s fiction to adult fiction, and even wrote a Kafka homage called the Meowmorphosis.  I’ve mostly read her adult fiction, starting with the strange and odd Palimpsest.  And I’m a huge fan of her novel Deathless, which examines 20th century Russian history through a retelling of Russian folklore.

Cat describes Radiance as ‘Decopunk’.  From the free extract I received through NetGalley it’s clear it’s a glorious mash up of the Golden Age of Hollywood with the Golden Age of pulp SF.  It’s all coctails, rockets and colonies spread across the solar system mixed up with the burning aspiration of celebrity and the way we document our lives in the contemporary world of social media.

I was at the Gollancz Festival a few weeks ago . (I should have written a post about that, but life intervened.  Sorry.)  But I took the opportunity of their Buy One Get One Half Price offer to stock up on some books I’m keen to read, and to get them signed.

One of those I’m most excited about is Aliette de Bodard‘s House of Shattered Wings.  I love her short fiction, with its feminist commentary on colonialism.  So the prospect of a magical novel set in the aftermath of the destruction of Paris really appeals.

I also bought some books by Ian McDonald.  For some reason, I never bought his work when I was living in Belfast, despite it being heavily promoted as he is a local author.  But I finally read his Hugo-nominated short work Vishnu and the Cat Circus while I was on holiday last year, and was smitten.  So I’m planning to canter through his back list soon, as well as reading his new book Luna.

Both Aliette de Bodard and Ian McDonald are Guests of Honour at next year’s EasterCon.  I may go, so that’s even more of a reason to get up to date.

The Joy of Socks

i love making socks. I always try to have a pair on the go. For me, they are the perfect portable knitting project. 

A sock project fits neatly into a small pouch you can carry round with you. I have many specially designed sock pouches (and I find them all but irresistible, particularly in bright and geeky fabrics) but the one I use most at the moment is a make up bag I got free as part of a Clinique Bonus Time offer. 

That portability is a great advantage. Socks have become the thing I reach for if I’m leaving the house and want to take some knitting with me. Lace is similarly compact, offering a lot of knitting bang for its weight, but its complexity and the long rows are much less practical for knitting in the pub, on the train or in dim light. Socks are things you can pick up and put down in short bursts and yarn robust enough to survive the wear and tear of shoes can survive being taken out and about. 

I knit during my book club. It helps me to concentrate by keeping my fidgety fingers occupied. The non-knitters in our group think this kind of multi-tasking is some kind of witchcraft. It’s not, honestly, it’s just the result of long practice. My fingers can move on automatic pilot. I once knitted most of the body of a sweater on autopilot. In black 4ply yarn. In the car. In the dark. But it was stocking stitch, and with stitch markers in place I just kept pootling along, knitting entirely by feel.  

The pick-up-and-put-down approach means progress can sometimes be a bit slow. The second sock of my Shur’tugal socks took most of the year they were on the needles, simply because opportunities to pick them up proved to be few. 

So, when I knew I was going to be going to EasterCon last weekend it was going to be a perfect opportunity to make progress on my Jane Bennet socks. 

During the opening ceremony on Friday they looked like this: 

  

And by Monday night they looked like this:

  

That’s a lot of progress over just one weekend, and I was only really knitting in the back of panels (I read while I was travelling). I was not the only one crafting while I was there. I saw a lot of knitting and crochet going on, and even a couple of people cross-stitching, though that’s much less portable. 

Appropriately enough, the yarn I’m using is a skein I bought at WorldCon in London last year. It’s from Germany, and has been hand-dyed using natural plant dyes. The pattern is one of Rachel Coopey‘s, from the second volume of Jane Austen Knits. It’s very quick to knit, and easy to memorise. I’m expecting to fly through Sock 2 over the next few weeks. 

The dilemma then will be which pattern to pick next … 

EasterCon 

Last week I decided at very short notice to go to Dysprosium, the 66th EasterCon (the BSFA’s annual convention). I’d been in two minds about it, in part because I’ve been a bit underwhelmed by BSFA events in London and I wasn’t going to know many people there. Events like this are always much more fun with friends. I lucked out in the end, and some old friends of mine who live nearby booked at the last minute, and there were a few other people I knew there, including my comrade in Musketeer-love from my book club. 

I had a wonderful time, mostly dashing from programme item to programme item, but it did force me to accept that I don’t have the stamina to commute to stuff like this any more. If I’m going to go I need to commit to it and book a hotel room. That much excitement, so many interesting programme items and so many people have left me exhausted. And that’s without the whole cognitive dissonance of going from a creative, playful environment back into the office. 

So, before the magic fades, here are some personal highlights. 

The invasion of the cat people. 

There were a lot of people wearing cat ears, thanks to the lovely people at Genki Gear. I was one of them. 

 

 

Seanan McGuire

She was horribly jet lagged (“I can see time!” “You are all lizards!”), but gloriously entertaining on every panel she did. She’s a favourite author of a friend of mine (though I have never read any of her books), so it was really interesting to hear her speak. Never have I seen anyone get so excited about necrotising fasciitis. 

The dealers

I spent a lot of fun time visiting the dealers. There was some amazingly creative talent there this weekend, and I succumbed several times, including to a purple top hat. 

One of the highlights was hanging out with Doctor Geof, who drew my portrait and enrolled me in the First Tea Company.  

 

He has some wonderful steampunk inspired art and collectables. Check out the posters, in particular.

Free books!

Gollancz must have been clearing out their stockroom as there were free books galore. I probably got my membership cost back just in free books. 

Playfulness 

There is something wonderful about being surrounded by people enjoying themselves in creative play. There was fabulous cosplay. There were inventive and funny panels too. My favourite was the late night bar argument that turned into a programme item on which was best, Thomas the Tank Engine or Ivor the Engine. (For the record, Ivor won, largely because of the poor health and safety record and endemic bullying culture in NWR, whereas Ivor has a dragon for a friend and is allowed to go to choir practice.). And there was wild speculation, like Charlie Stross wondering if the Dangerous Dogs Act applies to werewolves, particularly given its requirements for muzzling and castration. 

And a lovely man let me hug his Catbus. 

  

So, will I go again? Probably.