Con Report: Fantasycon 2018

Fantasycon 2018 19-21st October 2018, The Queen Hotel, Chester

By Eliza Chan

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

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.

Conference Report: Sublime Cognition 2018

By Eli Lee

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Sublime Cognition, the second annual conference of the London Science Fiction Research Community, was held on 14-15th September at Birkbeck, University of London. Over two days, its attendees looked at the theme of science fiction and metaphysics from an enormous, and often highly original, variety of perspectives. As its organisers Aren Roukema, Francis Gene-Rowe, Rhodri Davies and Katie Stone outlined in the conference programme: ‘the functional and thematic relationship of the metaphysical to SF is now widely acknowledged, but the roles played by such phenomena – and their implications for a wider understanding of SF as genre or mode – have yet to be subject to significant interrogation or debate.’ Sublime Cognition set out to address this, by way of presentations and discussions that ranged from evolutionary metaphysics to satanic socialism to artificial intelligence, Buddhism and Chinese SF. It was a fascinating two days covering a huge amount of fertile ground – this conference report outlines at least some of it, with apologies to those whose presentations I missed.

When the LSFRC 2017-18 reading group announced the Sublime Cognition theme a year ago, the reference to Darko Suvin’s sense of the ‘cognitive’ was clear – Suvin understood SF as guided by a ‘rational empiricist epistemology that separates it from the spiritual, supernatural and numinous concerns of other literatures of the fantastic.’ The conference showed just how much this rational, empiricist epistemology is troubled by, as the LSFRC puts it, ‘a long history of engagement with myth, religious imagery, magic and mysticism’. The conference participants were looking to further unpack this relationship between the two, as well as investigate what might be in that ‘tertiary space’ that exists between their oppositional pulls.

Continue reading “Conference Report: Sublime Cognition 2018”

Chinese SF at the Southbank Centre

A couple snaps from the Changing China Festival in early October, where there were two items on Chinese science fiction. The first was a session devoted to discussing the work of Jin Yong, author of the Legends of the Condor Heroes wuxia series.

In the second item, two Chinese SF authors, Wang Yao (aka Xia Jia) and Chen Quifan (aka Stanley Chan), discussed their work with Nicky Harman.

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Right to left: Nicky Harman, Wang Yao, Chen Qiufan, and BSFA Membership Officer Dave Lally (photograph: Lyu Guangzhao)

Conference Report: Utopian Acts 2018

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By Sasha Myerson

Organised by Katie Stone and Raphael Kabo, ‘Utopian Acts’ was a one-day mix of art, activism and utopia hosted by Birkbeck at the beginning of September. The conference provoked us to explore ideas set out by Ruth Levitas in ‘Utopia as Method’ and consider utopia as an act. Aiming to challenge the dystopian pessimism of our current moment, it asked whether examining the intersection of academia and activism might provide a way forward, out of our current impasse, towards a better future. Such thinking informed the structure of the conference, which included a mix of interactive workshops alongside talks by artists, activists and more conventional academics. In a welcome break from the norm at conferences, the event was free and substantive effort was made to ensure inclusivity and accessibility. This included grants to reimburse speakers, step free access to the building, gender-neutral bathrooms, a policy on pronouns and encouragements to keep academic language clear and intelligible. Overall, the conference made an ambitious attempt to relate its content to its form, putting some of its ideas into practice.

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Continue reading “Conference Report: Utopian Acts 2018”

BSFA London Meetings: Interview with Tade Thompson

The Pause That Makes You Human

Tade Thompson interviewed by Liz Williams

Write-up by Andrew Wallace

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Tade Thompson is the author of acclaimed SF novel Rosewater, which won the 2017 Nommo Awards for African speculative fiction. His short story The Apologists was nominated for a BSFA Award in 2017, and his novel Making Wolf won the Kitschies Golden Tentacle. Liz Williams is a novelist whose Philip K Dick Award-nominated novels include The Ghost Sister and Empire of Bones, while Banner of Souls was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award.

 

As a child in Nigeria, Tade Thompson read whatever he could find. Often, the texts were mashups of American comics like the Fantastic Four, or British reprints made of cheap newspaper. He quickly graduated from comics to novels, although his genre tastes were not restricted to SFF – at one point his sister convinced him to get into romance, after which Tade read forty Mills & Boon novels. After that he read Ian Fleming, the Saint and tried War and Peace when he was about ten, although part-way through he fled back to the fantastical, devouring works by Frank Herbert and Lewis Carroll. Tade also wrote his own versions of these stories, many of which featured the Mock Turtle in a kind of Alice-inspired Extended Universe. He got back to Russian literature in his teenage years, starting with Dostoevsky.

At times, his mother would only allow him to buy two books at a time, which was a problem if you were reading a trilogy. Tade solved the problem by purchasing book two and three while writing book one himself, and the imaginative discipline required to keep such long narratives in mind was a valuable introduction to story structure. It enabled him to make choices regarding linear narrative, which he believes is over-rated, preferring thematic or other structural links to hold a story together.

During the BSFA interview, Tade explained that this approach extends to the belief that science fiction is best when people work harder to understand a book. He disagrees with editors who want him to be kind to the reader, because he has faith in the reader’s intelligence. Tade wants his books to stay in the reader’s mind, as books do when people put maximum thought into understanding them. In his novel Rosewater, for example, the protagonist is presented as two separate characters: one young and the other old. The story looks at similarities found in each life stage, and the inevitable bleed-over.

Rosewater has an authority figure in the person of the Section Head, who is female.The Section Head’s gender is of interest. During the interview, Tade said he felt women had more of a grasp of what is going on: a capacity to perceive and understand the bigger picture. He grew up in a house of women. The women around Tade were competent at a lot more things, from the social relationships that keep a family together to the responsibilities men are conventionally associated with, such as the time Tade’s mother put out a fire in the house before the fire brigade got there. When creating such female characters, Tade says: ‘I am writing what I know.’

This concept of diffused but effective power finds another expression in the alien entity of Rosewater, which was inspired in part by The Andromeda Strain. Michael Crichton’s novel describes how an extra-terrestrial virus is collected by accident by an orbital probe and then released on Earth with devastating results. Tade liked the idea of aliens who don’t arrive by spaceship, ascribing agency to the alien spores, and considering what kind of bugs they would be. Rosewater depicts a biological invasion: a cellular preparing of the way. It is delivered with a scattershot approach to include as many worlds as possible, rather than choosing Earth specifically; indeed, the aliens might not even know Earth exists.

At the BSFA, Tade explained he was not interested in traditional ‘fight the invading aliens’ narratives. He believes war stories reflect earthly rather than alien concerns, particularly the failure to imagine a scenario involving a meeting of cultures that does not end in fighting. Perhaps the idea of the devastating alien invasion comes from history, because our first contact narratives have always been evil; in Nigeria for example, the British wiped out entire villages. The War of the Worlds scenario is an expression of guilt as much as paranoia.

Tade also explores the subject of a territory as defined by porous boundaries in his novella The Murders of Molly Southbourne. Instead of projecting problems psychologically, which everyone does all the time, the book is about what happens when these metaphors come to life and try to kill us. The story concerns our daily mental battles, and an unwillingness to confront difficult psychological truths.

These ways of defining individuality relate to Tade’s views on world building. At the BSFA, he explained how he thinks the SFF community fetishizes world building because of the success of JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, despite the book’s problematic depiction of subjects like race. In his own work, Tade prefers to focus on character, building each person’s subjective world around them instead of imposing a single over-arching realm.

He believes the ways we are treated by society change how we see that society, and his experience bears this view out. In Nigeria, he is not part of an ethnic minority; in London, he is the same person, but needs to be careful where he goes, particularly on match days. There is a shift in perspective that is not a choice he makes, but which is imposed upon him. In America, these conditions are even harsher; Tade describes merely existing there as a black person is an ‘extreme sport’.

The next Rosewater book deals with the US, or rather the lack of it given that in a previous volume the country was wiped out. Tade describes the difficulty of reaching an audience that cannot conceive of a situation where it is not the centre of everything. Even negating America is talking about America, not least because the book features American refugees.

He plans to write a novel set in a future Africa – a contemporary fantasy based on Yoruba creation myths, whose Earth Magic-inspired stories have not yet been represented in genre fiction.

In the interview, he said that selling any kind of fiction is about educating the audience, and the audience is better educated now than in 2001. He recalls the cringeable scene in Independence Day with the alien spaceship in flames behind some Africans who were carrying spears, as if they’d used those instead of nukes to bring the invader down. We are less likely to get that kind of scene now, so there has been some progress, and SF readers are happier to look at genre stories inspired by different Earth cultures.

There is inevitable pushback due to what Tade said is a result of the old conservative guard feeling threatened; that old atavistic behaviour will spike before it changes. He feels this process is quite normal, and is not worried about it. He explained how the opinion that black people don’t read and write SF was prevalent as recently as 2009, even though writers like Nnedi Okorafor had already published a significant body of work.

Attitudes like these seem to Tade to be part of the same ‘there can be only one’ narrative. In 2008 Tade was told that although his submission was good, the editor already had work by eight black people and, by implication, that was enough. This experience stopped Tade writing for a while; fortunately, Lavie Tidhar contacted Tade and requested the inclusion of a story in the World Science Fiction Blog. It is significant that Tade’s way back was a blog, because technology has democratised publishing and enabled a wider variety of voices, rather than the tokenistic inclusion of a small number of ‘representatives’.

Challenges remain, however, not all of them in the West. At the BSFA, Tade described how the publishing industry in Nigeria can be neither fair nor supportive of new writers. A friend sent him a contract and asked for advice; the contract was atrocious, with the publisher retaining all rights including subsidiary rights in perpetuity for a tiny advance. The decision was not straightforward, however, because Tade could not think where else the work could be sent. If you write professionally, then whoever is selling your book dictates what you write, so the West still influences what African authors write simply by controlling a large share of the market through its more established publishing system.

The audio recording of the interview is on Soundcloud and the full video recording can be found here.

The BSFA’s Monthly London Meetings are FREE!

Where:  The Artillery Arms (upstairs), 102 Bunhill Row, London, EC1Y 8ND

 

 

Virtual Futures: Tomorrow’s Wars

Losers
Losers by Phil Jones

Virtual Futures: Tomorrow’s Wars – 17th April 2018

Inspiration & Terror by Andrew Wallace

Virtual Futures began in the early 1990s, when writers, thinkers, performers and scientists got together at Warwick University to grapple with the implications of technological changes sweeping society. Now that we are in that feared and fabled future, a new incarnation of Virtual Futures has been taking place in London. At the inception, one of the most popular elements of the events, or ‘salons’ as they are known, proved to be a short piece of science fiction written and read by science fiction author Stephen Oram. These pieces were so popular that science fiction got its own night within Virtual Futures, with Stephen as the curator. Mixing fiction specially written around the evening’s theme with keynote introductions by noted speakers often prominent scientists in the relevant field, the nights are unlike any other science fiction event in London.

April’s Salon explored the future of warfare, asking these crucial questions:

War has, so far, been inevitable throughout human history but what will the future of conflict or cooperation look like? Will the discoveries of the future lead us to a world without violent disagreement, or just result in us killing one another in more creative ways?  Continue reading “Virtual Futures: Tomorrow’s Wars”

Near Future Fictions Salon: Virtual Persons

Extruded Bodies & Phantom Flesh by Andrew Wallace

Virtual Futures’ March 2018 Near Future Fictions Salon explored the theme of Virtual Persons

Virtual Futures grew out of a series of conferences in the mid-90s that sought to develop a new discipline that would confront the technologisation of culture. Its latest incarnation is a regular ‘Salon’, where philosophical, scientific and creative thinkers combine discussion, performance and fiction to explore current and potential technological extensions of the human condition.

The Near Future Fictions Salons place science fiction centre stage, with previous guest participants including Alan Moore, Pat Cadigan, Gwyneth Jones, Hari Kunzru and Geoff Ryman.

Monday’s event explored the theme of ‘Virtual Persons’:

The digital world is a personality playground that offers us an unprecedented ability to curate and create a public persona – but what does this ability mean for the future of personhood? [from http://www.virtualfutures.co.uk]

Opening keynote by performance artist Stelarc

Stelarc took part in the original Virtual Futures conferences at Warwick University in the 90s. His work explores alternative anatomical architectures, interrogating issues of agency, identity and the post-human. He has performed with a mechanical third hand, a stomach sculpture and a six-legged walking robot; while Fractal Flesh, Ping Body and Parasite are internet performances that explore remote and involuntary choreography. Most recently, he has harnessed surgery and stem-cell technology to grow an ear on his arm.

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Stelarc and Andrew Wallace

Continue reading “Near Future Fictions Salon: Virtual Persons”

Virtual Futures: Near-Future Fictions Vol. 5 ‘Virtual Persons’

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Near-Future Fictions Vol. 5 ‘Virtual Persons’ will take place on March 20, 2018, at The LIBRARY London. You can register here

By Stephen Oram

The digital world is a personality playground that offers us an unprecedented ability to curate and create a public persona — but what does this ability mean for the future of personhood? As the digital world expands around us and the Internet of Things combines the physical and virtual do we have a moral obligation to represent ourselves with truth and integrity in the digital realm, or should we view it as an opportunity to explore new and radical ontologies?

Join us for an evening that incorporates original reading, performance and live art as Virtual Futures continues its mission to reassert the significance of science fiction as a tool for navigating the increasing technologization of society and culture.

Keynote Presentation by Laurie Penny, Writer

Laurie Penny is an award-winning journalist, essayist, public speaker, writer, activist, internet nanocelebrity and author of six books, including Unspeakable Things (Bloomsbury 2014), Everything Belongs To The Future (Tor, 2016) and Bitch Doctrine (Bloomsbury, 2017). Laurie writes essays, columns, features and gonzo journalism about politics, social justice, pop culture, feminism, technology and mental health. When she gets time, she also writes creepy political science fiction.

Authors & Contributors

  • A C Tyger: “Aldebaran”
  • Anne McKinnon: “Memory Inc.”
  • Britta Schulte: “iDentity”
  • C R Dudley: “The Test”
  • Jamie Watt: “Conjugal Frape”
  • Jane Norris: “Beautiful Mirror Being”
  • Marc Böhlen: “With a robot on the last day”
  • Sophie Sparham: “Concrete Genocide”
  • Stephen Oram: “From Dust to Digital and Back”

Curators

Britta Schulte is a PhD student by day and a science-fiction writer at night. She thinks about the technologies we have, those we are likely to get and those we might not want. She publishes on wattpad.com as well as in zines online and in print.

Stephen Oram writes science fiction. He’s been a hippie-punk, religious-squatter and a bureaucrat-anarchist; he thrives on contradictions. He has two published novels, Quantum Confessions and Fluence and is in several anthologies. His recent collection, Eating Robots and Other Stories, was described by the Morning Star as one of the top radical works of fiction in 2017.

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Virtual Futures’ Near-Future Fictions was born after a salon event sometime in early 2017. Although Virtual Futures has embraced science-fiction since its inception, with Pat Cadigan, Alan Moore, Gwyneth Jones, Hari Kunzru and most recently Geoff Ryman all having graced its stage in its near-twenty-five years of existence, this represents the first time that fiction has been the central focus.

The inspiration came from a desire to provide a creative counterbalance to the theoretical and technical discussions of Virtual Futures’ salon events. Our first movement toward this creative fusion was inviting Stephen Oram to be our Author in Residence for a year; presenting a theme-inspired story before audience questions at expert panels discussing near-future issues such as Neurostimulation or Prosthetic Envy. The synthesis was a success. Stephen’s stories grew ever more stimulating, we thought we heard whisperings of something a little larger in the audience’s applause and Stephen has since become the lead-curator of Near-Future Fictions.

The aim of these live reading events are: to assert the significance of fiction as a valid means of navigating the changes instigated by emerging technologies; to find new sci-fi talent in and outside London, with a stress on diverse authors who are atypical of the scene; and to offer science fiction fans speculation on the future in a venue that reflects the vibrancy of the authors and their stories.

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The 2018 series started in February with The (Dis)ease of the i-Mortal and will be closely followed by Virtual Persons on 20 March, Tomorrow’s Battles on 17 April and Post-Brain on 15 May.

Fantasy Fiction with Vic James, Anna Smith Spark & Lucy Hounsom. A SciFi Sessions conversation, hosted by Glyn Morgan at Gower Street Waterstones in London.

IMG_0283By Andrew Wallace

January’s Sci-Fi Sessions was a conversation between three very different contemporary fantasy authors. Each one has a trilogy in progress. Lucy Hounsom has just released the final book of her acclaimed Worldmaker series (Starborn, Heartland and Firestorm). Tarnished City, the second novel in Vic James’s Dark Gifts trilogy, was published last year. It follows the success of book one, Gilded Cage, as a BBC 2 Book Club Choice. Finally, Anna Smith Spark’s Court of Broken Knives, the opening volume of her Broken Empire sequence, has already been nominated for numerous awards for best fantasy novel of 2017, with second and third volumes yet to follow. Continue reading “Fantasy Fiction with Vic James, Anna Smith Spark & Lucy Hounsom. A SciFi Sessions conversation, hosted by Glyn Morgan at Gower Street Waterstones in London.”

SF and the future of security: an interview with Ping Zheng

Defiant Today
‘Defiant Today’ Phil Jones

In late December 2017, a group of writers and scholars of SF, scientists and technologists, and defence analysts and policymakers, gathered at Dstl (UK government’s defence science and technology laboratory) in Salisbury to explore science fiction’s contribution to defence policy. Vector caught up with Dr Ping Zheng from Canterbury Christ Church University Business School, to ask her about her impressions of the day, and a few other things …

During the first breakout session, you were in the Human Behaviour in Smart Environments group. How did that go?

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Dr Ping Zheng

We had some inspiring discussions about how humans may react in smart environments. I think the group dynamics probably extended the scope of planned discussions, and allowed us to engage in more diversified discourse, ranging from individual perspectives, to emergent impacts at a societal level, and also to policy perspectives. For example, two prominent issues were debated: national and cultural differences, and ethical concerns such as privacy.

Perhaps the value of events like these is that you might discover that your original questions can be re-framed, or that your stakeholders are not precisely who you imagined them to be. Your other breakout session was ‘Defence (In)efficiency: What Does the Future Hold?’?

Continue reading “SF and the future of security: an interview with Ping Zheng”