Over the past month or so, the British Science Fiction Association (BSFA) has been hosting a series of livestream readings from SFF authors in the UK and beyond. We’re calling them the Lockdown Solidarity Salons or, if you prefer, Very Extremely Casual Tales of Optimism and Resilience (VECTOR). Authors, you are all such charmers!
You can find out more about the series on the Facebook page or YouTube channel. We hope you’ll join us this Thursday (8.15pm UK time) for Chinelo Onwualu, Fiona Moore, and on later dates for Naomi Foyle, Lauren Beukes, Temi Oh, Ian R. MacLeod, and more. Here’s Adam Roberts:
See below for Foz Meadows, Stew Hotston, Valerie Valdes, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Malka Older, Tiffani Angus, Stephen Oram, Geoff Ryman, Wole Talabi, and Andrew Wallace. This Sunday, the BSFA will be holding our annual BSFA Awards ceremony (usually held at Eastercon, the UK’s annual national SF convention) on YouTube at 7pm BST.
Although this Worldcon had about 5,500 paying members who divided their time between, on average, ten simultaneous program items, many sessions, especially the ones connected to Irish mythologies and history’s connection to SF, garnered enthusiastic interest. This provided a chance for academic fans and general fandom to interact and share their expertise. Most of the presenters also tailored their content to a larger audience […]
Ian Moore reports back on Octocon, Ireland’s national science fiction convention, which this year ran in the Blanchardstown Crowne Plaza hotel from 19 to 20 October. This write-up originally appeared at Secret Panda.
I recently attended Octocon, the exciting Irish national science fiction convention. Octocon is the other extreme to huge conventions like Worldcon, being an intimate affair taking place over a weekend rather than a five-day event involving thousands of attendees. If you have been to more than one Octocon you will recognise a lot of the attendees and panellists, with there being considerably more overlap between these two categories than might be the case elsewhere. The programme is multi-tracked but not massively multi-tracked. So Octocon is basically a boutique convention and would suit people who like neither crowds nor a surfeit of choice in the programming.
Due to unpleasantness Octocon this year has moved to the Crowne Plaza Hotel, just beside the Blanchardstown Shopping Centre. The location suits it as Blanchardstown Shopping Centre is itself a strangely artificial place, like something out of a JG Ballard novel; in the near future, we will all live in Blanchardstown Shopping Centre. The hotel meanwhile felt like a pretty swish spot, with well-appointed function rooms and a large open space that served as a light and airy dealers’ room. I don’t know what the two birds in the lobby made of the Octocon attendees but they probably see all sorts.
A cat issue meant that I was late out on the Friday and missed the opening ceremony. I did however catch The Trance Mission Diaries, which was a performance piece by O.R. Melling with electronic music by Cha Krka. This was something of a work in progress as the goal is for it ultimately to include considerably more advanced elements like holograms and singing as well as the projected visuals and electronic music accompanying Melling’s narration. I enjoyed it but found the narrative difficult to follow, which I think was as much down to my own tiredness and it being the first thing I encountered at the con. Nevertheless, the narration and music worked well together and I look forward to seeing how this work develops.
Following that I attended a film-related panel featuring John Vaughan and Robert JE Simpson comparing and contrasting the 1960s gothic horror films of Hammer with the contemporary oeuvre of Blumhouse. The contention was that the business model of the two companies is similar: spewing out somewhat trashy films made on relatively modest budgets but hoping for at least some mainstream success, perhaps throwing in an occasional more serious film to gather some critical respectability. I was at something of a disadvantage here being almost entirely unfamiliar with the works of Blumhouse, and the big unanswered question for me was whether that studio has developed any kind of consistent aesthetic in the way that Hammer did. I was also left reeling by the panellists’ anti-Hereditary comments, which did remind me of some reviews that suggested it was a horror film for people who are not true horror fans.
For me Friday ended with a panel on how we as fans deal with things we like that have changed, particularly when the change moves things on from what we liked about them in the first place. This kind of thing is sometimes framed negatively (i.e. discussions of butt-hurt racists saying that they will never watch a Star Wars film again now that an Asian actor has appeared in one or people moaning about the Doctor becoming female). However, I think that there are times when fans are right to abandon a property (while obviously being wrong to harass persons involved in its production); e.g. two of the three Star Wars prequels were completely terrible and anyone who saw them and decided that they were done with Star Wars was making a reasonable decision, while no true Trek fan should waste their time with the recent Star Trek films. Also, people do just grow out of things sometimes.
The changing canon panel also had me thinking about how much a thing has to change before it is no longer the same thing. The panel discussed whether the character of Iron Fist should have been portrayed by a white or Asian character in the recent adaptation of the comics (in which Iron Fist is white but playing a character that in our enlightened times might perhaps be more appropriately presented as Asian). I have no familiarity with Mr Iron Fist but I was reminded of the periodic discussion of whether James Bond could be played by a black or female actor; my own view on this matter is that in this case such changes would so far deviate from the core of the character as to essentially make it an entirely different one with the same name (though I must add that I do not give a shit about James Bond and his misogynist antics and would be happy for the character to be played by Leslie Jones, edgily re-imagined as an American ophthalmologist).
For me though the most fascinating thing that came out of the canon panel was C.E. Murphy mentioning the Kirk-Drift theory, this being the idea that the popular conception of original series Star Trek‘s Captain Kirk as an alpha male dipshit shagger is essentially a mass delusion. Further investigation brought me subsequently to Erin Horáková’s development of this idea and its consequences in a piece she wrote for Strange Horizons, which I encourage all readers to investigate.
Saturday morning saw me first of all working on the Octocon reception desk, where we dealt with registering convention attendees as they arrived. If you arrived at Octocon on Saturday morning then maybe mine was the friendly face that greeted you (or the surly jobsworth who couldn’t find your reservation). I made friends with some pandas who had come to the convention to examine Octocon’s Hugo trophy.
The morning also saw me make my debut as an Octocon panellist. As part of my efforts to promote the World Science Fiction Convention that is coming to Dublin next year I took part in a panel intended to drum up enthusiasm for volunteering at Worldcon. It turned out we were rather talking to the converted as almost everyone present was already volunteering for Worldcon, but this did allow us to gang up on the others. If anyone reading this is not a Worldcon volunteer then I encourage you to get involved, as volunteering is fun, a way of meeting people, a way of giving something back to science fiction and a way of seeing the inside of what will be the biggest science fiction event to ever come to Ireland.
More time on the reception desk and then my own interest in lunch meant that the next event I attended was the guest of honour interview by Octocon chair Janet O’Sullivan with Pat Cadigan, an American science fiction writer who now lives in England. I was not previously familiar with her work (which is more a reflection on me than on her as I am a slow reader and am unfamiliar with most writers). I found the interview fascinating, as any question would set Cadigan off on a stream of anecdote that would lead very far from the initial starting point. I particularly liked her favourable recollection of Robert Heinlein, someone who now is perhaps unfairly and simplistically pigeon-holed as a right-wing ultra, but whom she recalls as a very generous character. I was also touched by the particularly star-struck question from a member of the audience and Cadigan’s gracious response.
Cadigan also mentioned having previously attended some class of event called a relaxacon. I don’t know what these are but I want to go to one.
Not the Monster panel
As you know, this is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and with it the birth of science fiction. Octocon had an entire programming strand engaging with Frankenstein’s legacy and I now found myself attending a panel discussion on the Monster’s perspective. This got a bit “could it be that we are the real monster?” but I was struck by the discussion of consent issues (e.g. Frankenstein’s Monster badgering him to create a Lady Monster for him, taking for granted that she will want to be his mate). More general discussion of how a simple shift of perspective can make monsters appear like victims led to an interesting recollection by one panellist of a story they read once about people in the remote past fighting Trolls, where the reader realises that the Trolls are the last Neanderthals being hunted to extinction; it occurs to me now that another work of this kind is I Am Legend, the 1954 novel by Richard Matheson, where the book ends with the protagonist’s realisation that he is a monster to the vampiric new humans (I wish I had thought of this at the panel and established my remembering-things-about-books-I-have-read credentials by mentioning it). I was also reminded of various works in 2000 AD by Pat Mills, where his writing was very evocative of the non-human mindset of dinosaurs and other monstrous creatures.
Of the panellists’ own works, Sarah Maria Griffin’s take on Frankenstein, in which a brainy teenage girl attempts to build herself a boyfriend, sounds like it might have a Christmas present date with my niece.
The last programme item I made it to on the Saturday was the Vault of Horror. This is always a highlight of Octocon but it is also an event that is hard to describe in a way that does not make it sound a bit rubbish if you have never experienced it. The Vault sees John Vaughan playing snippets from a terrible film and drawing attention to the film’s awfulness. He does this in a way that is actually funny rather than being some smug guy making fun of other people’s attempts at making films. This year he reported that he has almost run out of terrible films but then he had found a terrible Gerard Butler vehicle called Geostorm with which to delight us. He also provided us with the sad news that due to a progressive illness he will not be in a position to continue serving up the Vault indefinitely into the future, but he will next year be bringing the Vault to Worldcon and presenting one of the most terrible of the films with which he has previously charmed Octocon. Are you coming to Worldcon? Then you will come to the Vault, you will.
I sadly ate so much food for dinner at this point (a recurring theme for me at Science Fiction conventions) that I was too disgustingly full to enjoy the Monsters Ball and left early, thinking that next year is definitely the one where I find some kind of easy cosplay outfit to wear.
The world isn’t a great place right now. It feels like everyone is yelling at each other across social media soap boxes. With the news more like the elevator pitch from a dystopia, it was a relief to get away from it all at Fantasycon 2018. Chester was a dream location with its unique mediaeval Chester Rows, a cathedral, city walls and history oozing out at the seams. But the Queen Hotel was not to be outdone—replete with gladiator armour, golden arched doors, animal statues and giants chairs— every corner was a story prompt waiting to be noticed.
The launches were overwhelmingly skewed towards horror: from Great British Horror 2 (Black Shuck Books),New Fears 2 (Titan Books), Best British Horror 2018 (Newcon Press), This Dreaming Isle (Unsung Stories) and much, much more. It made me wonder how much was a direct reaction to the events of the world, a way to deconstruct the uncertainty we are living through right now.
Despite the horror content, the atmosphere was immediately friendly and warm. Allen Stroud and Karen Fishwick did a great job pulling it all together and, as always, the volunteer army of Redcloaks led by Alasdair Stuart and Marguerite Kenner were always on hand, cheery and helpful. A ‘New to Fantasycon’ panel set this up from the get-go, giving newbies a chance to chat and feel part of the community. The hotel layout certainly contributed, but it was the well-planned programme that stood out for me. The theme of the weekend was welcome and diversify. This shone through in a range of panel topics but also the effort made to include a mix of genders, races and experiences throughout.
Personal panel highlights for me included ‘Feminism and Feminist Themes in Genre Fiction’. Although this may seem like well-trodden ground, the panelists made some succinct points about supporting the indie presses that have the financial freedom to “take risks” on female and non-binary projects. Also that male allies should call out sexism so that others can get on with creating than spending time defending themselves. ‘Invisible People’ explored a range of hidden disabilities and differences from dyspraxia to Asperger’s. They discussed the merits and pitfalls of describing versus outright naming (for example, Jamie Lannister’s dyslexia) and the fetishisation of mental health difficulties in manic pixie dream girls. In the ‘Fantastic Inspirations’ panel we discussed the difficulty of researching oral folktales, how all cultures were superstitious in their own way, and the ethnocentrism of half-elves in Fantasyland tropes where the other half is nearly always human.
Of course there was still time for silliness at a con, my favourite being ‘Dungeons and Disorderly: Sheep on the Borderland’ moderated by David Thomas Moore and Nate Crowley, the improv RPG with an improved costume budget. Ghoastus the Roman Ghost made an appearance, as did Lee Harris riding a gorilla, nineteen lemurs, a flatulent cabbage and a ‘death death death’ dice made especially for Anna Spark Smith. I may also be biased since I participated as an incendiary fart-wielding teddy bear. The ‘Breaking the Glass Slipper live podcast’ was also great fun, with regular presenters joined by Claire North and RJ Barker, presenting very different ways of writing a genre mystery. Useful tips included taking a koala with you when you are planning murder, and not crowbarring in the magical goat sword that will suddenly becoming useful later in the novel.
I also managed to attend some lovely readings which gave me quieter moments to appreciate the range of genre writers in the community today. There were many many more panels — four simultaneous streams in fact — and I unfortunately could not attend everything I wanted to. But cons are not all about the panels. So karaoke may have ended too early but barcon continued for as long as you wanted it to: in my case, into the wee hours.
The British Fantasy Awards epitomised my overwhelmingly optimistic feelings of the weekend. Celebrating current talent has always been crucial to the awards but it was more than just a tagline this year. From Jeannette Ng’s rousing battlecry on crushing Nazis and Laura Mauro’s raw heartfelt acceptance speech to the well deserved nods to NK Jemisin and Jen Williams, the Hamilton lyrics ran through my head “how lucky we are to be alive right now”. British fantasy, science fiction and horror may have an imperfect past, but looking around the room, it has a very bright future.
See you all in Glasgow for Fantasycon 2019.
Eliza Chan writes about East Asian mythology, British folklore and madwomen in the attic, but preferably all three at once. Her work can be found in Asian Monsters (Fox Spirit Press), Fantasy Magazine, Tale to Terrify and New Writing Scotland. Find her on Twitter @elizawchan or her website www.elizawchan.wordpress.com.
Oh, well, I’ve always liked Nine Worlds! I missed last year, but that’s the first year I’ve missed. This year, there have been some fantastic panels – the Hidden Histories panel was a favourite. But probably my highlight was playing four hours of The Good Society. It’s a Jane Austen based tabletop RPG. And it was really intense.
Who were you?
I played the heiress, the daughter of the lady of the manor. You know, beset by suitors, having to choose the one that was least awful … and you can’t choose nobody.
Oh my God. What happened?
Well, the misconception is that in Austen novels nothing happens. But imagine if you watched somebody trying to defuse a bomb, and you didn’t know what they were doing …
You’d assume they were doing nothing?
Yes! Every tiny movement in Austen is immensely high stakes. Everything is life or – okay, if not death, then at least permanent disgrace and penury. It’s massively mercenary and exciting. What’s really interesting was watching people who are used to playing swords‑and-sorcery games adapt to those mechanics. And we had a fantastic game as well.
That sounds so cool. I wanted to ask you, actually, about the role of conflict when you write fiction. In a lot of writing advice, we’re told how important conflict is. I wonder what you think about that from a craft perspective?
I mean, I’m not the most accomplished fiction writer. We’re sitting at Nine Worlds here, and I guarantee you that within this three-hundred square metres, there are people …
We stare in quiet awe at a nearby group of people.
I don’t know these people here, but I absolutely guarantee you that there’s probably somebody better to ask just sitting around.
We’re all fucking brilliant.
Everybody’s fucking brilliant. But to answer your question, I guess ‘tension’ is as good a word as ‘conflict.’ If you’re writing about something that’s problematic, something that’s tense …
In August we caught up with Florence Okoye at Nine Worldsin London.
How are you enjoying the con?
I loved how you get a proper introduction to everything when you come in. They’re so considerate of every single thing, from pronouns, to whether you want to be spoken to, whether you want to be photographed – like, every single thing! And also accessibility allies, which is a fantastic concept. So I’m actually very impressed.
I came fairly late, so I’ve only had time to get to one panel before the one I was on. That was ‘Let The Past Die: Sacrificing Sacred Cows in Star WarsThe Last Jedi.’ It was a really interesting panel – a lot of unexpected connections being made by the panellists, some great questions being asked.
It’s a very informal collective I started up in 2015 with some friends, back when I was living in Manchester. We were just like, ‘Well, we’re really interested in Afrofuturism, and nobody around us really talks about it … so let’s just do a thing about it.’ We started with a conference in October 2015, where over a hundred people turned up, which was amazing. It was just the power of Black Tumblr and Twitter at work to be honest.
Since then Afrofutures UK have done conferences and events, working with other organisations, trying to raise discussions at that intersection of race, technology, and speculative fiction from a variety of different perspectives. We tend to make sure that there are practical things like workshops – Arduino and programming or zine making workshops, for instance – really going for an approach that is intersectional, holistic, and creative.
Creating cultural infrastructure, as well as talking about culture that already exists. Awesome. So the theme of our next issue of Vector (#288) is economics. Would you like to talk a bit about Afrofuturism and economics?
I think at some point you realise how much everything is dependent on economic infrastructure. So you might say, okay, we want more Black people to be writers. Then you think, hang on, this is also to do with funding, this is also to do with levels of education attainment, this is also to do with just having spare time. I know plenty of creative people who have literally no time to do their creative work. So if the funding isn’t there, could Black communities provide funding ourselves? Oh, but we don’t have the money either, because we’re historically disenfranchised! And so very quickly you come back to this question of economics and the impact of institutionalised racism.
One thing I’ve found really interesting – really through Tumblr at first – was how Black people have been really good at taking advantage of digital infrastructure. So that might be someone using Patreon to fund their education, for example. And that can be a very practical quid pro quo: ‘You’re giving me money to help with my education, I’m going to make sure I write this number of books, and share them.’ Or that might be somebody using Etsy, and saying clearly, ‘Look, this is a Black-owned business, this is how we work, come and support us.’ So there are all of these interesting things that have happened through the internet. It’s really about people saying, ‘Okay, how do we support each other, in financial terms?’
Circumventing structures that might have systemic bias.
Well, yes, even though we’re still all using those systems in a sense. It’s about doing what we can. And maybe one day, as we have more amazing software developers specialising in financial software, maybe there will be like, say, a Black, co-operative version of PayPal. So we can be like, ‘Actually, yes, this is the right infrastructure to use to share our work.’ Personally, I like to think what you’re seeing now are prototypes.
Right, because the big tech companies that provide this infrastructure are still problematic. They’re still bound up in various ways in systemic racism. But the model is there.
Exactly. The co-operative model is there.
So tell us about what you’ve been working on recently.
In August we caught up with Dave Hutchinson at Nine Worlds in London.
Are you enjoying the con so far?
I always enjoy Nine Worlds. It’s different to Eastercon of course. The emphasis isn’t quite so much on fiction – it’s more multimedia and general culture. Just saw a panel about villains, which was good … that was Adrian Tchaikovsky, Jeannette Ng, Anna Stephens and Mike Brooks.
Oh yeah, I saw that. That was good.
There was some conversation there about the Bond franchise, and the way the villains are frequently ‘othered,’ whether that’s a racialized other, or what-have-you. It struck me that it’s always been that way. Bond was always fighting the Russians, it was always the West versus the East. The Russians disappeared as the geopolitical other, although perhaps that dynamic has returned to some extent. But we are sort of looking for different ‘others.’
And meanwhile, there are increasingly plausible rumours about getting our first Black Bond.
Idris Elba? He’s a terrific actor. He’d be really good. One of the many reasons I hated Prometheus is that it totally wasted him.
I’ll watch anything that’s got him in it.
Haven’t seen Prometheus though! Maybe that’s …
You may want to draw the line with Prometheus. [Laughs]. It really is a terrible film.