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.

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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.

Missy Yarn

I’m feeling a little sad that I’m not at the Knitting and Stitching Show at Ally Pally this year.  I keep seeing photos from friends showing all the beautiful yarn and amazing creations, and it’s making me a bit jealous.  I would say that my bank balance is thanking me, but one of the reasons I’m not going this year is that I’ve spent my money on rugby tickets, and I’m not exactly stinting on the yarn front either.

You might remember that I found a new indie yarn dyer while I was at Nine Worlds this year.  Third Vault Yarns specialise in geeky-inspired colourways.  Lola has a fantastic eye for colour and is producing some beautiful dying with a witty SF touch.  (Please, somebody buy the Nightcrawler and Vortex yarns before my hand slips.)

Last week she was polling views on which of three test dyes should be her new Waters Of Mars colourway, commemorating the discovery of water on Mars with a Who-inspired colourway.  I fell instantly in love with one of her test skeins and bought it.  More on that in a later post.

But while we were talking on Facebook, she spotted my Missy cosplay profile picture.  And this happened.   I ended up entirely accidentally commissioning Lola to custom dye me some Missy inspired yarn.  I’ve never commissioned a custom dye before, so it was really exciting.  Naturally, the yarn is purple and red.  I asked for two skeins, on her pure merino Companion 4 ply, to give me some options about what to make.  I’d really welcome ideas, actually, about what this could become.

It took me a few goes to get that picture, by the way.  The first few looked a bit like this.  

What a helpful cat!

Third Vault Yarns

There’s a big cross-over between geeks and craft.  Cosplay is the most obvious link, where people put hours and hours into making themselves the perfect costume, but it goes far wider than that.  You only had to look at any panel at Nine Worlds last weekend to see people knitting, crocheting and embroidering while they listened.

So I was delighted to meet a new indie yarn dyer last weekend.  Lola Johnson runs Third Vault Yarns.  She dyes and sells yarns in geek-inspired colourways.  Lola normally sells through Etsy, but the pop up market at Nine Worlds was her first in-person event.  And she was very popular!  By the time I got there at about lunchtime, she’d sold a lot of her yarn and was regretting not having brought more with her.

Mind you, the diminished choice was probably a good thing.  As it was, I ended up buying three skeins.  Apologies for the slightly washed-out pictures – I ended up taking these on my phone rather than busting out the good camera.

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First up, in Lola’s Companion 4-ply (a pure merino sock yarn) is this colourway known as Gallifreyan Sunset.  I don’t normally buy orangey-coloured yarns as they don’t suit my skin-tone, but I loved the subtle variagations in this one so much that I just couldn’t resist it.

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Also in Companion 4-ply is this luscious purple called Inara.  I really can’t resist a good purple.

IMG_1893Finally, is a gorgeous alpaca-silk laceweight called Utral Aymokriyä, named after the Tree of Voices in Avatar (shamefully, I had to look that one up …).  Mine is mislabelled, so I can’t give you the yarn base name or exact composition, but it has that beautiful alpaca halo as well as lovely pink and purple tones.

I’m going to be really interested to see what Lola comes up with next.  New dyers are always exciting.  Her Etsy page is a little bare at the moment after selling so much last weekend, but hopefully she’ll restock it soon.

Nine Worlds Geekfest 2015

Over the last few days I’ve been at Nine Worlds Geekfest.  It’s the third year it’s happened, the third time I’ve attended, but the first time I’ve stayed in the main hotel.  In previous years I’ve commuted in each day (2 hours each way …), aiming to get there for the second panel of the day and staying as long as I could (usually to tea-time) before going home.  Which makes for a very exhausting way of doing a con, without any of the evening fun which would at least give one a reason for feeling tired.

Of all the cons I’ve been to, Nine Worlds feels the freshest, most energetic and most welcoming.  It prides itself on its inclusive atmosphere and has programme tracks dealing with feminism, LGBTQIA issues, race and culture as well as tracks on books, films, comics and tv shows.  Panels contain a mixture of famous names and new voices.  People from various minorities are not just confined to their own programme tracks, and there is a huge amount of cross-over, with programme items crossing over more than one track.  But this approach to diversity and tolerance goes beyond programming.  Panel members are briefed not to refer to audience members by their gender during Q&A sessions, and prounoun badges are available so that the transgendered and gender-fluid can indicate in a more subtle way how they wish to be referred to.

All of that is in marked contrast to other cons I’ve been to.  LonCon3 (WorldCon) last year felt like East London had been colonised by the USA for five days.  Marvellous as it was to see and meet so many big names from the States, it would have been even better if they’d made some concessions to not being in their own country.  (I recall Jeff VanderMeer giving me the side-eye when I spoke about the cognitive dissonance I was feeling from all this US cultural imperialism.  Of all the people there, I thought he would get it.)  EasterCon (the BSFA’s annual event) feels like the redoubt of a certain generation of fans: a cliquey gathering that it’s very difficult to break into, full of in-jokes and making little or no effort to welcome new people, beyond exhorting them to volunteer to help run the con.

So, I was very excited about going this year, and particularly that I’d managed to persuade some of my geeky friends to come along to.  As I’d learned last year, staying over at a con is only fun for me if I know you have a core of people to hang out with.  Evenings are no fun if everyone else is enjoying themselves and you have no-one else to talk to.

Cosplay

IMG_1857Cosplay was a big part of my Nine Worlds experience.  Having had so much fun dressing up at LonCon3 last year, I wanted to repeat the experience, and Nine Worlds has a much higher density of cosplay than any other con I’ve been to.  So, on the Friday I dressed up as Missy.  (Regular readers will have seen the series of posts documenting the process of making my costume).  I was expecting to be only one of several Missys – every set of con photos I’ve seen recently seems to have included a mandatory group of Missys.  But it turned out I was the only one there.

One of the items on the programme that day was a panel on Gender Fluid Time Lords, and I bumped into the moderator and another of the panel members, both of whom insisted I come along.  When I walked in the room for the start of the panel they gave me a big cheer.  (The photos in this post were taken at the end of that panel).  I was quite struck by something Laurie Penny said in that panel about Missy looking a bit like a suffragette.  So I think the next step will be to add a suffragette sash and rosette to my Missy costume.  Instead of “Give Women Votes” I think it will have to read something like “More Women Time Lords”.

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Knitted Wonder Woman, with a mini Power Ranger

On Saturday I reprised my Nyssa costume, from last year.  Which led to the writer Simon Guerrier (the one I’d fangirled at about his Blakes 7 audio dramas at a Doctor Who event at Conway Hall a few days before) confessing that Nyssa had been his first childhood crush, a fact an old friend of his had once accidentally confided to Sarah Sutton (without knowing who she was) at a party.

There were some amazing costumes there, ranging from the clever and witty, to the laboriously screen accurate.  The sheer level of creativity on display was astonishing.  I have very few photos,  I’m afraid (having too much fun …) but some of my favourites were knitted Wonder Woman, a woman who came as the bowl of petunias from Hitchhiker, an amazing Imperator Furiosa, a clutch of Peggy Carters and a woman who came as Sherlock’s wallpaper (dress with a black and white damask print on it, with a yellow smiley face embroidered on it).

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My friend Georgie’s Aeon Flux

Programme items

There were many, many amazing programme items, ranging from the deeply silly to the very serious.  The hotel’s lack of chairs (yes, really) meant that it sometimes proved difficult to get into some of them unless one was very early indeed.  But there were plenty of alternatives on offer.

Some particular highlights:

  • The Gender Fluid Time Lords panel I mentioned above.  It provided a fascinating insight into how Missy had been received by people from the transgender community.  It was interesting to hear their anxieties (boob jokes, a fear that the gender swap would be presented as a consequence of the Master/Missy being crazy and unstable etc).
  • A fantastic gin-tasting from Jensen’s gin.  Their Master Distiller and one of their Brand Ambassadors took us through the history of gin and their distillery.  While plying us with gin.  £5 well spent.
  • A talk by Dr Lewis Dartnell, author of The Knowledge, a book about how to reboot civilisation after an apocalypse.  He’s a very engaging speaker and brought along lots of toys to play with.  And who knew that you could prove the heliocentric model of the solar system using just Miley Cyrus (with her wrecking ball) and a watch.
  • Death in Genre.  A discussion of death and violence in fiction, including its anthropomorphic personifications.  You haven’t lived until you’ve heard Joe Abercrombie suggesting Death could be a squirrel, hoarding acorns, each of which is the soul of the departed.
  • The F-word in Fantasy.  This was a late night panel on sex in fiction, which had me laughing myself silly.  But one of the best parts of it was seeing Laurell K Hamilton (who was playing it as if it were a serious panel) being gently teased and deconstructed with a very British sense of humour.
  • Dancing with Imperator Furiosa while Peggy Carter was singing Bon Jovi.

Coping with the awesome

Cons are exhausting places to be.  There is no denying it.  The sheer quantity of people, and the amount of content in the programme can be overwhelming at times.  I think I’m still struggling to find the right balance so I can have the maximum amount of fun while staying sane and not collapsing with exhaustion.

As one of life’s outgoing, confident introverts, rooms full of people are fun, but incredibly draining.  Add to that a lot of programme content that one needs to pay active attention to, and it’s an exhausting mix.  Much as I love that mix of people and content, I need a lot of downtime to re-energise.  Half an hour of fighting my way through the crowds to get to the next panel is not going to cut it.

Some of the best parts of the weekend were the times I got to spend quietly with just a few friends: a quiet dinner with a friend and her baby, or sitting outside the hotel in the sunshine with a few other friends.  I need to find ways to build those times into my weekend in the future, and not be afraid to skip a panel to grab a nap or get some quiet time so I can enjoy the evening entertainment.

Ironically, while cons are the best places to meet fellow geeks and hang out with them, the sheer overwhelmingness of the con environment means you will never find me at my best or most engaging.  I’ll probably be struggling to some degree or other with the scale of the event, punchdrunk and trying to wrestle my introvert self (with addded Imposter Syndrome) into some semblance of sociability.  Last year I bumped into one friend, and I was so spaced out all I could do was hug her and squee incoherently.  Conversation was entirely beyond me.

Finding a route through all that is definitely still a work in progress.