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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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.

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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.

Nyssa Cosplay: How To

I thought I’d set down how I went about pulling together the Nyssa costume, in case anyone is interested.

For research, I watched The Keeper Of Traken, the Doctor Who serial where Nyssa first appears, and used stills found via Google Image searches to try and get the details right.

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The Jacket

NyssaoftrakenfairyskirtThis is the key part of the costume.  It was the most time-consuming to make, and is probably the most complex thing I’ve ever made. The original is in a sort of patchwork velvet in dark red/russet colours.  That is very difficult to replicate, so I ended up opting for a plain crimson velvet instead.  It has leg of mutton sleeves and a high collar. It’s fastened with four buttons, and button loops.  The hem is straight.

I used the jacket from Simplicity pattern 2207 as the base for mine.  It’s a princess-seamed jacket, which gives the right shape through the body.

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But I had to do some significant modifications to it. To make sure I’d got these right and understood the jacket construction I made a full toile/muslin before cutting into the super-expensive velvet.

The modifications were:

  • I recut the collar to make it a high, straight collar.
  • I recut the sleeves as well, to turn them into leg of mutton sleeves.
  • I changed the fastenings to four, self-covered buttons and button loops, which were sewn into the front of the jacket between the front and the facing.

By far the most difficult modification was the sleeves.

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I did this by making up the sleeve in calico.  The pattern was in two parts (an upper sleeve and an under sleeve), so it was impossible to do the modifications without making it up in that way.  I then cut across the sleeve head horizontally and inserted another piece of calico to add extra fullness and length (about an extra 10cm in length across the full width of the sleeve).  I pleated the excess into the sleeve opening, using the same technique as on my Rowena.  When I was happy with the look I undid the seams on the sleeve and cut the inserted calico on a straight line between the two pattern pieces.   This piece of calico became my pattern piece for the sleeves, with seam allowances tidied up.

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I toyed with straightening the hem, but decided that the shaped hem was more flattering.  If I did straighten it, I would have liked to have added a bit more length in the side seams.

The fairy skirt

This was a very simple and quick part of the costume (about 2 hours from start to finish).

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I cut a series of leaf shapes out of three different fabrics, using another bit of calico as a pattern piece.  The green and pink are both polyester lining fabrics.  The blue is a voile with a printed sparkly gold design on it.  I had it in my fabric stash already, and it provides a bit of variety in the skirt.

I layered the leaf shapes over each other.  The green provides the base, then the blue, then the pink on top.  I then gathered them into a very simple waistband which acts as the channel for some 1″ elastic.  It’s not the most elegant of skirts, but the waistband is covered by the jacket and it gives the right effect.

I left the edges of the leaves raw.  I might go back and do some simple rolled hems, but it will be a lot of work for something that is only going to get occasional wear.  I also experimented with putting some net under it for shape and structure, but found it left the skirt too bulky when the original has quite a draped look.

Accessories

There are a few other key pieces for the Nyssa look.

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The brooch Nyssa wears at her throat is very hard to see from stills and I struggled to find a good close up of it.  So I had to aim for something that was broadly the right size, shape and texture.  I made this one from a button I had in my button box that I’d got from a mixed lot of vintage buttons.  I simply glued a brooch back onto the back of it using jewellery glue.

The tiara is a child’s tiara for a wedding or confirmation.  It’s on a comb, which makes it secure an easy to position.  I found it on eBay.

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Nyssa’s shoes are, again, not really shown on screen.  From the way she moves and the sound, I get the sense they were low-heeled pumps of some sort.  And the colour clearly matches the rest of her outfit.  I’ve had these suede, kitten-heeled courts for a long time, so I thought they’d be perfect.

The tights are a pair of Jonathan Aston opaques in a gorgeous, bright blue, which turned out to be a perfect TARDIS blue.  I found them in the sale in John Lewis.

The final result

Hair and make up were very straight forward.  I scrunch dried my hair with a bit more of the creme I use than normal (Aussie Frizz Remedy) and parted it in the centre rather than to one side.  Make up was heavy on the pinks.

Photo courtesy of Duncan Lawrie
Photo courtesy of Duncan Lawrie

Yes, I know, I appear to not be wearing the shoes by this point …

Cosplay

I took part in cosplay for the first time last summer at LonCon3.  I dressed up as Nyssa, a companion of the 4th and 5th Doctors.

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I decided to do it because a friend of mine was telling me how much fun she’s had in the past cosplaying at events.  It seemed like a great way of hurling myself into the whole con experience. I’d been at other events where people had been cosplaying and I’d been in awe of the amazingly creative outfits they’d pulled together, whether it was the woman whose Wonder Woman outfit was completely handknitted, or the man I saw who dressed as a Sharknado.

I picked Nyssa for a few reasons:

  • She was a companion at around the time I first remember watching Doctor Who (5 was my First Doctor …).  My inner hipster liked the idea of going a bit retro and dressing as someone from Classic Who.
  • I also liked the idea of dressing from someone from British SF traditions.  WorldCon was in London and it seemed appropriate to fly the flag for one of the most iconic bits of British SF television.
  • It’s an easily recognisable costume. If you’re dressing up, it helps if people know who you are meant to be …!
  • But it’s also very comfortable and easy to wear.  Not skintight.  Not too much flesh showing.  Practical for things like going to the loo.  And I wouldn’t need a wig or special make up.

The idea came to me because a friend of mine saw a photo of me from a friend’s wedding a couple of years ago and suggested there was a resemblance.  IMG_0493

So I pulled a costume together for the main cosplay day of the convention.  And apart from some strange looks from the hotel staff at breakfast that morning, I had an absolute ball.  I kind of got a bit of a window into what it might be like to be Kate Middleton – people shout your name at you (well, your character’s name …), they want their photo taken with you, they give you things (hall costume awards), and I got to wear a tiara!

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It’s an amazing ice-breaker and way of connecting with people.  I met someone in the vendor’s hall who normally cosplays as the 5th Doctor and was suddenly regretting not having brought their costume this time.  I was photographed next to one of the two TARDISes at the Convention by a man from San Francisco who wanted to put me in his Who fanzine.  I even got Instagrammed by a gushing Hugo Award-winner.  Apparently Nyssa had always been Mary Robinette Kowal‘s favourite companion, and was a huge role model when she was growing up.

It’s also an incredibly playful thing to do.  I’m a big fan of play.  I have a busy job, and being able to let my hair down and engage in playful and creative activities is one of my favourite ways of relaxing, whether it’s making stuff, or being deeply silly with my friends.  As a child I used to be part of a local drama group, and I also did Drama at GCSE,.  Both of those were a great creative outlet, but I probably haven’t acted since I was a teenager.  Cosplay is a great way of having the fun of pretending to be someone else and performing a role, but without the stress of learning lines or being quite so obviously in the spotlight.

It’s something I definitely want to do again, so I’m just about to start work on a new costume to wear at an event later this year.  I plan to write a series of blogs about the costume-making process.  In the meantime, I’ll write one about how I pulled the Nyssa costume together, in case it’s of interest.