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.

 

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Shadow Captain – Alastair Reynolds

Shadow Captain (review copy from Gollancz) is the sequel to last year’s Revenger by Alastair Reynolds.  Revenger is a cracking adventure story about teenage sisters who turn to a spot of space piracy in order to enact revenge on the infamous and evil Bosa Sennen.

Shadow Captain picks up the story immediately after the events of Revenger.  Arafura (“Fura”) and Adrana Ness are now the co-captains of Bosa Sennen’s ship, the Nightjammer, which they have renamed the Revenger.  Their crew is tiny and they are running low on supplies, but they have a hold full of currency.  They will need to make port soon to buy food and extra supplies, but that’s harder it could be when Bosa Sennen is the most wanted in the solar system and no-one knows she has been defeated.  There is a bounty on their heands, and that of their ship.  The sisters and their crew head for a backwater world run by Mister Glimmery, a cruel mob boss, desperately seeking medical treatment for one of the crew who was injured in mysterious circumstances.

Told from the perspective of Adrana Ness, this is a story about conspiracy, paranoia and distrust.  Adrana herself is battling to throw off the psychological conditioning she received while she was Bosa Senn’s prisoner.  And although she’s grateful to be rescued, the changes wrought in her sister Fura are hard to come to terms with.  This isn’t the sister she remembers.  Fura has her own agenda, determined to unravel Bosa Sennen’s secrets and the mystery of the banking collapse that took place at the end of the previous book.

Shadow Captain is a rollicking good adventure that continues the story from Revenger.  Some mysteries are solved.  New ones are added, setting up for an intriguing next instalment.  Sit back and enjoy the voyage.

Goodreads rating: 3*

The Psychology of Time Travel – Kate Mascarenhas

The Psychology of Time Travel by Kate Mascarenhas (review copy from Head of Zeus) is an exciting and fresh take on time travel.  It’s hard to tell a good time travel story.  It’s far too easy to get caught in grandfather paradoxes or the desire to change the course of world events.  But rather than focus on the impact of time travel on the world around us, Kate Mascarenhas shows us the impact of the technology on the time travellers themselves.  How are you affected when you know that events are fixed no matter what you seek to do?  This is the story of the four women who invented the technology enabling time travel, and the rivalries between them.

The wonderful Hidden Figures-style opening to the novel shows us four women in rural Cumbria in 1967 on the verge of inventing time travel.  They are close friends, working in an isolated spot with limited resources.  But the group starts to break apart when one of the four, Barbara, suffers a breakdown on live television as they announce their amazing invention.  She has suffered the temporal equivalent of jetlag, after spending too long time travelling in a way that has upset her circadian rhythms.  Fast-forward 50 years, and Barbara’s grand-daughter Ruby is sent a news clipping from the future about the mysterious death of an unidentified woman in the basement of London’s Toy Museum.  Ruby is intrigued and attempts to solve this curious locked-room mystery.

This novel is a novel of fantastic strengths.  The cast is almost-entirely women, with men pushed to the periphery in supporting parts or existing only as absences.  It features a wonderful queer romance.  There is art inspired by time travel, including anomalous items that only exist in time loops.  Time travellers create their own jargon.  And it is great on a very British style of bureaucracy.  Of course the Government would set up an agency to manage time travel, with its own currency, judicial system, the use of technology to help the future by preventing extinction events, and the exploration of marketing opportunities by selling goods from the future in the present.

But where this novel really shines is in the psychology its title foregrounds.  People behave differently when they know they can travel through time and their actions are largely irrelevant.  They become hardened to death because it is inevitable, and grief has less meaning when you can travel back in time to visit a person while they are still alive.  Risk-taking behaviours increase, because when one knows the date and time of one’s own death there is no peril.  And infidelity is common when a person is disconnected from their own timeline and the significance of those emotional connections decreases.

This is a fantastically intriguing puzzle box of a novel, with a very satisfying payoff.

Goodreads rating: 4* 

Stronger, Faster and More Beautiful – Arwen Elys Dayton

Normally I love a mosaic novel.  They can be a great way of telling a single story from multiple view points and they are excellent for stories that have to span multiple time periods.  But they are incredibly tricky things to pull off.  You have to weave together the narratives otherwise the reader is left with what feels like little more than a loosely connected collection of short stories shoved together to make a book.  And you are at risk of getting the reader engaged with a set of characters before moving away from them never to return.  Unfortunately, Stronger, Faster and More Beautiful by Arwen Elys Dayton (review copy from Harper Voyager) is in the category of mosaic novels that don’t succeed.

The premise is a great one.  Dayton is exploring the idea that humanity is capable of incredible scientific progress when it comes to genetic manipulation and body modification, but they are equally and simultaneously capable of using these new technologies in ways that mess things up royally.  The novel follows the stories of various generations of people living with the new technologies.  As time passes they become more advanced and more radical changes and transformations are possible, but that just increases the ways in which these technologies can be misused.

Each piece works well as an individual story exploring the different issues raised by this technology: ie all the ways humanity can mess things up through greed, bigotry, selfishness and general inhumanity towards other people.  But they don’t hang together well as a novel.  The equivocal nature of the technologies concerned ironically gets in the way of the work cohering.  And the pieces vary in quality.  Some are superb, but others are much weaker.

Stronger, Faster and More Beautiful is an ambitious book, but Dayton doesn’t quite manage to pull it off for me.

Goodreads rating: 2*

Thin Air – Richard Morgan

It’s been eight years since Richard Morgan published a new book.  Thin Air (review copy from Gollancz) is his latest, and it takes no prisoners.   Hakan Veil is muscle for hire.  A human enhanced to be an Overrider, working for the corporates to deal with crises in deep space.  But an incident left his contract terminated, and him living from contract to contract in the frontier colonies of Mars.

Waking from one of his regular periods of hibernation, Veil is “running hot”: the crisis response he was engineered to deliver, pumped with adrenaline and super-fast reactions.  Within a very short space of time he finds himself arrested for murder in the aftermath of one of his contracts, but released on condition he provides security to Madison Madekwe, one of a team of investigators sent by the Earth authorities to investigate alleged corruption in the colonial administration.  Madekwe is kidnapped and Veil finds himself trying to protect his charge and unravel a conspiracy.

This is a thriller that travels at extreme break-neck speed.  So fast that you barely have time to draw breath and any weaknesses in the plot will pass you by.  As you would expect from Morgan, it is also incredibly violent with an extremely high body count and the fetishisation of firearms.  But if you want a fast-paced, high-concept thriller with lots of excitement and some fantastic twists and turns, this will deliver in spades.

Goodreads rating: 3*

Rosewater – Tade Thompson

It’s always a treat to read books that give a fresh and new take on genre fiction.  Tade Thompson‘s Rosewater (review copy from Orbit books) is the first in his Wormwood trilogy, and unlike anything else out there at the moment.

The world changed when the Earth was invaded by first contact with an alien entity.  But this isn’t your traditional alien invasion.  An alien fungus has landed and is colonising the planet after sending its tendrils and spores everywhere.  The USA has gone dark, and Europe is cut off.  Rosewater is a town in Nigeria that has grown up around a dome-like structure grown by the fungus.  It provides free energy, and once a year the dome opens, healing the sick and bringing the recently dead back to life as zombies.  Rosewater has become a destination for the desperate seeking healing and for those studying the dome.  Over time it has grown into a thriving town full of graft and superstition.

Kaaro is one of those that has been changed by exposure to the fungus.  His symbiotic relationship with it gives him psychic powers.  It makes him a finder, able to use the connection between people and objects to find lost things.  By day Kaaro works with others of his kind as a psychic firewall for one of the major banks, working in shifts to stop people like him breaking the safeguards and stealing from the bank.  By night Kaaro is the unwilling employee of the security forces, interrogating suspects.  But people like Kaaro are slowly dying, and no-one knows why.

Kaaro is not your typical white hat hero.  He uses his powers to steal from the people around him.  He objectifies women and exploits them for sex.  He is rude and insubordinate to his bosses.  He is largely indifferent to his colleagues and it takes him a long time to notice or care about the fate of the other people with powers like his.

This is a fresh story with a pleasing sense of mystery that steadfastly refuses to comply with traditional genre tropes, and does so proudly.  At one stage one of the characters says to Kaaro, “I am tired of women and men of destiny.  The idea of a singular hero and a manifest destiny just makes us all lazy.  There is no destiny.  There is choice, there is action, and any other narrative perpetuates a myth that someone else out there will fix our problems with a magic sword and a blessing from the gods.”

We need more stories that get away from those over-used story-telling modes.  I can’t wait for the sequel.

Goodreads rating: 4*

Rejoice – Steven Erikson

Steven Erikson‘s Malazan Books of the Fallen is one of my favourite fantasy series.  It has rich, deep worldbuilding; strong emotional power; subtle interiority to a strong ensemble cast; world-shattering epic impact; and an emotional punch that regularly reduced me to tears.  I was really excited to see what Erikson could do with Rejoice (review copy from Gollancz) – a  first contact science fiction novel.

Oh dear, was I disappointed.

There is nothing in Rejoice of the Erikson I know and love from the Malazan books.  What he’s given us is painfully obvious polemic with thinly disguised self-insertion.

The main character in Rejoice is Samantha August, a reasonably famous science fiction writer who is kidnapped by aliens to be their interlocutor to humanity.  August is chosen because the aliens like her work.  She is well-known and her vlogging about climate change and associated issues has led the aliens to believe she will be sympathetic to their plans to save Earth’s biome from environmental collapse by taking drastic interventionist action.

What follows is a sequence of crudely written interventions by the aliens.  They render weapons ineffective, protect habitats and restore migratory routes, and tackle food and energy scarcity.  These are written with an aliens-know-best sensibility that minimises the impact of imposing solutions like these on the Earth’s population.  And interspersed with bits of woo-woo philosophy about Earth’s diverse biome containing all the solutions to humanity’s problems.  There is no subtlety here whatsoever.  At least not in the 20% I read before giving up.

Rejoice is a poor shadow of other books dealing with the same issues.  Instead of this, read Octavia Butler’s Lilith’s Brood, which relates similar alien intervention designed to heal the Earth with the experience of colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade.  Or Sherri S Tepper’s The Fresco, which writes the same scenario as a Swiftean satire.

Goodreads rating: 1*