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.

Head of Zeus and World SF

Team HoZ.jpg
Team Zeus at Worldcon 75 in Helsinki. From left to right: Stanley Chen Qiufan, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Nicolas Cheetham, Baoshu, Liu Cixin and Ken Liu.

Head of Zeus is an independent publishing house, based in London. It started publishing in 2012 and won Independent Publisher of the Year in 2017.

In the essay ‘Journey to the West’ published in SFMagazine [click on the link to download the issue] Head Of Zeus publisher Nicolas Cheetham points out that Chinese genre fiction arrived on Western markets only in the last couple of years – it was not until 2015 that a Hugo award was won by a work that has been translated from the Chinese (or any other language). At the same time, he asserts that SF is the most universal of the literary genres, quoting Liu Cixin:

SF is the most global, the most universal storytelling vessel, with the capability to be understood by all cultures. SF novels are concerned with problems faced by all of humanity. Crises in SF usually threaten humanity as a whole. It is a unique and treasurable trait inherent in the genre – that the human race is perceived as a single entity, undivided.

Why then is genre fiction lagging behind literary fiction in achieving a globalised presence? In tracing the history of Weltliteratur, n+1 contends that ‘certain texts have always circulated among geographically broad but socioeconomically thin strata’. Is a taste for globalism something that is more characteristic of the literary fiction readership rather than those who read genre fiction? Although genre boundaries between literary fiction and SF have become more permeable and fuzzier than in the past, is SF fandom demographically different from the consumers of literary fiction, or at the very least, less globalised?

Nicolas Cheetham mentions several pre-conditions for Chinese SF entrance to the West: an emergence of local fandom, revival of local critical SF journals, and the establishment of a financially successful local publishing industry. All of these of course did not emerge independently from the economic growth in China, a society that in recent decades started investing heavily in science and technology research, transforming itself into a world leader in tackling global crises such as a climate change. Looking to other global regions, such as sub-Saharan Africa, would the same pre-conditions apply? Namely, would the local fandom, criticism traditions and publishing houses need to reach a critical mass before we can expect to read a greater offering of African SF in the West, in translation or otherwise? Recently established organisations such as the African Speculative Fiction Society, as well as a myriad of new journals that publish African SF and criticism, such as Omenana, BrittlePaper, Chimurenga, Saraba and Jalada, augurs well for African SF. Hopefully, pioneering publishers like the Head Of Zeus will be bringing more of World SF to UK markets – Nicholas Cheetham is certainly interested in science fiction writers from various countries in Africa. Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda and SA are among the most prolific in terms of SF, for more information see Geoff Ryman’s brilliant series of interviews with 100 African writers of science fiction and fantasy.

But who should define the global limits of the genre, especially when the power to impose a definition is centred in the Global North? The definition of the sf genre varies across time and cultures; various writers (e.g. Dilman Dilla, Nisi Shawl, Nnedi Okorafor) report contesting the definition of SF with the Western publishing and film industry whenever spirits or other traditional beliefs are in the fabric of the narrative.

In the Head Of Zeus SFMagazine, Nicolas Cheetham raises an important question ‘What is Chinese SF?’  and shows the pitfalls of essentialising – how does a publisher balance the reader’s expectations of ‘pleasingly exotic colour’ with the needs of the writers to be free from having to ‘perform otherness’ in order to get a publishing deal in the West?

Readers in the West are limited (as far as having access to a wider range of voices) by the lack of diversity within the publishing industry, editors and critics, and creative writing programs.  This problem is particularly urgent in SF, since the genre is concerned with the imaginaries of humanity’s future. Missing African writers is an especially regrettable situation since the future of humanity depends very much on what will happen on the continent which is projected to contain 40% of the global population by 2100.

For a broader discussion of World sf, visit the World SF Blog.

The BSFA’s history in numbers

I was intending to tell you some interesting tidbits about this year’s BSFA Awards – but you’ll have to wait until I have one last piece of information: the approximate current number of BSFA members. I emailed away for the details earlier today, but here I was, sitting in front of a web browser with access to a search engine… which is how I came to be reading the eleventh issue of Peter Weston’s Prolapse fanzine, dated May 2008.

The fanzine features a write-up of one of the BSFA’s fiftieth anniversary events that year at Eastercon, organized by Claire Brialey and Mark Plummer. What interested me most about the write-up, given what was on my mind, was the discussion of the BSFA’s membership history. I particularly appreciated Peter Weston’s graph of ’64 to ’78’s membership numbers. (p. 7) These were based on Greg Pickersgill’s work of compiling a history of membership numbers, beginning with a membership list published in Vector #2, from 69 members up to around 738 of them in 1980. By 2008, he estimated numbers were around 600.

I like having long-term data to play with, and between Greg Pickersgill’s (Unofficial) BSFA Archives and the Prolapse discussions, I’m feeling a little more orientated to the BSFA’s – and thus Vector‘s – development. If I use or abuse these numbers in the future, you’ll know where they came from.

An Open Letter From The Arthur C Clarke Award

Per the subject line, something a bit different for a Monday morning. Please do give Tom feedback on the questions he asks below, whether in a comment here, or by email or another route. And spread the link to this post far and wide! Thanks — Niall

The Arthur C Clarke Award

An open letter to all fans of Science Fiction from Tom Hunter, Director of the Arthur C. Clarke Award

In 2011 we’ll be presenting the prize for the 25th winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award.

A lot has changed in 25 years, and the Award has not been immune to that change.

In many ways the Award is now at one of its strongest points ever. Its profile has never been wider, its organisational and community ties are strong, endorsement and support is high both within the SF community and the broader cultural sphere, and increased sophistication in electronic point of sale tracking is now showing direct correlations between Award announcements and increased book sales.

However the Award has also proven notably vulnerable to change at various points in its history, especially in terms of its reliance on volunteer governance and its historic lack of core financial stability in terms of assets, revenue generation or its ability to capitalise on far reaching fundraising or partnership opportunities.

Following the death of Sir Arthur and the subsequent winding up of Rocket Publishing (Sir Arthur’s UK company which funded the Award’s prize) the Award is now faced with an immediate and pressing need to change, adapt and re-evaluate its role and function as it moves into 2012 and its next quarter century.

This is a process that is happening now, and this letter to you all is a big part of taking my plans and those of Serendip, the Award’s governing body, to the next level.

The Arthur C. Clarke Award is built around three core values:

  • To recognise the best science fiction novels of the year published in the UK.
  • To promote science fiction and science fiction literature both within the UK and internationally.
  • To honour the memory and legacy of Sir Arthur.

I don’t believe that our current resources should define the pursuit of this vision, and rather I see our previous funding model slipping away as a necessary transition and the first step on the road to transforming the Award into a more deeply engaged social enterprise.

The good news is everyone involved with the Award has already been doing a lot of work in this area, looking at consultation, starting new conversations and setting up new partnerships, and the next stage of that process is to open up that dialogue more widely and start sharing our thoughts in places like this blog.

For me, the success of the Clarke Award and Serendip beyond 2011 means more connections with new and existing fans and organisations, and working with them to further raise the profile of the Award. We are also creating ways to quantify the value of the Award and assess its impact. The idea being that from this we can then meaningfully judge its success and demonstrate its continued significance as a key voice within the SF community, the publishing industry and beyond.

The questions we’ve been asking ourselves mostly look like this:

What value does the Award bring to the SF community and what role should it play in its future?

How important is a UK focused prize in an increasingly international and digital marketplace?

What more could the Award do as part of its broader advocacy remit to promote science fiction?

How much does the success and the credibility of the Award depend on it having a cash prize?

What new partnerships and opportunities could we create to generate seed funding for the future?

What do you think? What does the Arthur C. Clarke Award mean to you, how important a part of the SF landscape is it, and where would you like it to go from here?

I’m looking forward to hearing everyone’s thoughts and ideas here, and I’ll aim to answer every question as best I can.

I’d also invite anyone who wants to contact me to discuss these issues or to get involved to find me on Twitter, LinkedIn or drop me an email at ClarkeAward@gmail.com.

People are already asking how they can get involved, and all offers of help, advice or useful connections are greatly appreciated.

Three things people can do to get involved right now are help us show the size of our audience by Liking us on Facebook or following @ClarkeAward on Twitter, re-posting the link to this page and, of course, by letting us know your thoughts in the comments here.

Thank you for reading and for your continued support of the Arthur C. Clarke Award.

Tom Hunter
Award Director, December 2010

The Ambivalent Eastercon

As you may have noticed (or, if you didn’t realise it was taking place, may not), I entirely failed to blog this year’s Eastercon, despite many good intentions beforehand and the presence of free wireless internet in the Radisson Edwardian hotel. I did tweet the convention — quite a lot, actually — but the ephemerality of Twitter makes it unsatisfying as a record of the weekend. It’s not as though I’m the world’s most assiduous convention blogger — previously, most such posts have been of the bullet-point kind, and I’ve saved what traditional convention reports I’ve written for traditional paper fanzines. But this year, I feel the urge to post such a report here.

Why is, in a sense, pure ego. Odyssey was my (quick count on fingers) seventh Eastercon, which feels like enough to start having opinions about what makes a good or bad Eastercon; and if it’s not enough to delude me into thinking anything I notice is new, it’s certainly enough to make me notice, and care about, disconnects between the various attending constituencies more than I used to, which leads to wanting to do what I can to bridge any gaps. This year, in a panel about “Fandom as Gerontocracy” on Monday afternoon, Greg Pickersgill commented that labeling a programme item as part of a “fan programme” is instantly enough to make 90% of convention attendees ignore it. Tony Keen’s quite reasonable response to this, when my tweet on the subject got imported to Facebook, was that 10% of an Eastercon the size of Odyssey (which was either the largest Eastercon so far this century, or a close second to 2008’s Orbital) is still a perfectly acceptable potential audience, even a pretty large one. But it strikes me that one of the panels that attracted a lot of excitement before and at the con — Danie Ware’s Livecon panel — was, if not as new as advertised, given that that most old-school of conventions, Corflu, had live-streamed half its programme a few weeks earlier, thoroughly fannish in its mentality, not labeled as fannish, and popular among many of the people you might want to attract to fannish programme.

So, if you like, this is an attempt to speak to multiple audiences. (I should probably confess that I didn’t actually make it to the Livecon panel myself, since I was manning the BSFA/Newcon Press table in the dealer’s room at the time; but I gather that my name was taken in vain by Paul Raven, so I feel like I was at least etherically there.) This means that it is also, even more than most blogging and any convention report which aspires to present a first draft of history, an exercise in narcissism. Hopefully it won’t become too unbearable.

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I follow fans on Twitter, have them friended on LiveJournal, and read them in fanzines; comparing the three streams in the lead-up to Odyssey was interesting. Or, really, comparing the former two, since fanzine publication schedules being what they are, I didn’t pick up on much pre-convention discussion beyond, hey, it’s happening. On Twitter, all was excitement! Odyssey was to be the first Eastercon for quite a number of the sf book bloggers I follow, and a rare (or, again, first) opportunity to meet up with each other, and with authors and publishers. This is to say that the convention programme — by which I mean the presence of bondage workshops and talks — was noticed and commented on, but in passing. This was Eastercon seen primarily as a social and networking event.

Meanwhile, on LiveJournal, where what I think of as traditional British fandom (or at least the bits of it that aren’t so traditional they shun the internet and all its works) hangs out, there were more rumblings of discontent. The bondage workshops were the initial spark, after an email to the Odyssey Yahoo group from Jane Killick that questioned the place of such events at an sf event, and a family event. There inevitably seemed to be a certain amount of disingenuousness behind some of the discussion that followed, but my perception, at least, is that the majority of those who commented were more put out on the former grounds than the latter. That is: while an Eastercon should be a big tent and cater to all areas of fannish interest, surely the sf should come first; and is not three workshops, one serious talk and one humorous one, on one non-sf topic a bit excessive? The best articulation of, and discussion of, this issue that I saw was on bohemiancoast’s LiveJournal, which led to a certain amount of number-crunching on the programme to calculate that there were somewhere between 197 sf-related and 52 non-related items (as an upper, generously inclusive bound) and 129 sf-related and 130 non-related items (as a lower, more strictly defined bound). This probably also produced a convention committee that even before the event was underway ended up feeling a bit got at.

For myself, the literary programme — which is my major area of interest, after all, with media and fannish programmes secondary to that — looked a bit sparse, but more problematically I thought it looked a bit undercooked. A lot of the programme items looked somewhere between generic and positively stale, with descriptions that didn’t seem to encourage very deep probing of their topic, and certainly didn’t excite me to attend. (“Utopia — how the concept has developed in philosophy and sf”; “Reading critically”, which actually asked, “what can we gain from reading sf and fantasy in this way?”) But an unusually large number of my friends were attending the con — the regular ranks of Third Row Fandom swelled by London residents who don’t always go to Eastercon, other friends attending their first convention, and Abigail flying over from Israel for a holiday — and while I worried, rightly as it turned out, that they would be disappointed by the programme, I reasoned that a social and networking convention would not be such a bad things. In many ways, Odyssey started to remind me of Concourse, in Blackpool in 2004 — the second Eastercon I attended, but the first with a critical mass of friends, and the one at which several of said friends were pointed at during a “future of fandom” panel and declared to be, well, the future of fandom. (And look where that got me.) Plus, Farah Mendlesohn was busily organising some last-minute supplementary literary programme. There were, in other words, reasons for optimism as well as skepticism.

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Arriving at the hotel mid-afternoon on Friday, the skeptic got the first chit in their scale: Nic and I had to wait half an hour for our room to be cleaned. On the upside, there was the usual whirl of convention greetings to distract us as people drifted through the lobby, and within twenty minutes I’d also acquired a copy of Gary Wolfe’s new collection of reviews, Bearings. (Which is proving fascinating, because it covers the period — 1997 to 2001 — when I started to pay attention to the sf field, rather than being only a casual reader.) Still, by the time we were allowed to check in, and had made our way through the maze of twisty-turny passages all alike to our room (only to find, inevitably, that it was actually just around the corner from ops), there was only just long enough to brush up on my notes for my first (and only official) panel, on the Twenty Years, Two Surveys book just published by the BSFA.

For what I’d expected to be a niche-interest panel, it was gratifying to see a pretty much full-room audience. I gather programme attendance in general was pretty good, and that was certainly my experience throughout the con, even for the last-minute (i.e. not in the official programme book) items, which suggests that at least in part I’m just — as Ben Goldacre dubbed the whole con — a picky fucker, although what proportion of the audience found the programme as unsatisfying as I did is obviously a rather harder question to answer. I mean, I think the survey panel went pretty well, despite the somewhat rushed reading the panelists (David Hebblethwaite, Caroline Mullan, Claire Brialey, and John Jarrold; the aim being to offer perspectives on the survey from anyone but writers) had had to give it — but I would, since I was on it. As I think Caroline commented, of necessity we skimmed many topics — including the extent to which contemporary British sf/f can be considered “confident”, the reduction in the number of mainstream publishers even as there has been an expansion in sales, and the role of voice and place in creating a sense of “Britishness”. Perhaps the most interesting question was the one raised two minutes before the end of the panel, from Jo in the audience: to what extent will British (and other kinds of “national” or subcultural sf) maintain their identity as content moves online and markets are no longer so strongly separated by geography? In the survey, several writers noted that they considered their work to be in some sense “transatlantic”; perhaps that’s a trend that will continue.

My other panel, which took place on Saturday morning and, as I say, was nearly as well attended despite being one of the last-minute additions and only advertised in the convention newsletter, challenged British sf from another direction. “So We Had This Empire Once…” was the title; “is cultural appropriation something British sf writers should be interrogating more closely?” was the description. It was, I hope — and this time I gather there is some feedback from the audience that it was — a careful, relatively wide-ranging and reasonably useful discussion. One aim was to bring the discussion of cultural appropriation, and its challenges, into a specifically British context in a way there hasn’t always been an opportunity to do online; so, for instance, Liz Williams discussed the research and responses to her partially Indian-set Empire of Bones (2003), and we touched on the changing place of Empire in the construction of British sf, and the need for diversity in representations of Britishness. (Welcoming the Indian-Irish protagonist of Ian MacLeod’s Song of Time, say, while also challenging the sense of the British places in the novel.) If there’s one core criticism I’d level at Odyssey’s programme, it’s that I didn’t feel this sort of productive cross-connection of panels as often as I wanted to, over the weekend as a whole.

This comes, I’m pretty sure, from a fundamental philosophical disconnect between what I expect — or at least want — from an Eastercon programme, and what the Odyssey committee decided to offer. It became clear during the discussions before the convention, and probably should have been obvious when they started trying to get the programme arranged as early as last summer, and it can be summarised as, as Greg Pickersgill put it, the difference between “What do you want to do?” and “Here’s what you’re going to get.” The Odyssey team followed the former approach, and emphasized that if anyone had got a panel together and suggested it to the committee, they did their best to accomodate it — and this is true, it’s how the survey panel got on the programme, and I’d guess it’s how the Livecon panel happened as well. In this model, the Eastercon provides the space and logistical support to enable the convention to happen. The thing is, the conventions I like best are those in which the programme team has a vision of what they want to offer, and set out to deliver it to the best of their abilities. This vision should ideally be responsive — which is why I think ten months in advance, when many people who will be attending haven’t even purchased memberships, is far too early to start programming — but not to the point of lacking a clear identity. And it should be aware of what has come before: its panels should seek to ask the next question.

One of the better panels I attended, for instance, was the one on “LabLit” — although to my earlier points, I did wonder why Geoff Ryman, who I passed leaving Ben Goldacre’s talk immediately before the panel, and who has just recently edited an anthology of writers-paired-with-scientists stories, When it Changed, hadn’t been drafted; and why on earth it was scheduled against the George Hay scientific lecture. As it was, the actual panelists Henry Gee, David Clements and Jennifer Rohn raised all sorts of interesting questions about how science becomes fiction (or even narrative), the role of technical detail in scientist-focused fiction, what “a scientific perspective” might mean, and much else … but because the panel’s topic was so loosely composed (and because Clare Boothby’s moderation was so directionless — seriously, never underestimate the importance of a moderator to a productive panel), the end result felt to me at least to be frustratingly superficial, and sometimes repetitive.

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You might reasonably object, at this point, that the Eastercon is not an academic conference, and that you go to spend time with friends as much as anything else. And this can be, of course, true: the Blackpool Eastercon I mentioned earlier is now, I realise, widely regarded as a pretty sucky convention, but at the time I didn’t notice or care because I was with a large group of friends, and we were having a blast. On the other hand, at a certain point you start to wonder, as Jo put it to me, why you’ve spent all this money to come and have conversations you could have had in the pub, or online; and for some people, up to and including at least one of the guests of honour (although one who said they had an excellent time nevertheless), that’s not really an option, and the opportunity Eastercon provides to actually talk about science fiction with other real people is relished.

All of which is to say that I had a thoroughly enjoyable social convention, but that it didn’t join up with the sf con as often as I’d have liked. It was relaxing to spend Saturday afternoon first shopping for supplies for a room party and then manning the BSFA/Newcon table in the dealer’s room, sure, not least because the latter gave me the opportunity to chat with a number of people I probably wouldn’t have seen otherwise. But the reason I could so relax was that there was almost nothing on this extensively programmed convention that struck me as essential during that period, so I didn’t mind missing it. And I know that, for instance, Martin, who was dipping his toe into the Eastercon waters for the first time, ended up thoroughly bored during this period and went home early. I came away from the con with plenty of good new memories: I remember toasting, with the other motherfuckers, the health of Andy Remic, for bringing us together; I remember conversations in the bar with many people, particularly the discussion with certain editors in the bar on Saturday night during which I managed to suggest that, er, I don’t like anything they publish (oops); I remember enthusiastic dinner discussion of the new Doctor Who (I rather enjoyed Moffat’s debut, for what it’s worth, or at least it didn’t send me into the sort of disbelieving rage that “Rose” elicited; it felt much more like it was about something, that its concern with myth/fairytale/story/memory added up to a coherent statement in a way that so little of the RTD years did). But I didn’t come away feeling particularly challenged by the programme, or with many good new thoughts.

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Sunday was an improvement over Saturday, perhaps because it was more or less all awards all the time, and I’m all about awards. But it was still a day of ups and downs. The morning reviewing panel, for instance, was once again hampered by its moderation: John Clute is a remarkable man of many talents, but moderation is rarely if ever one of them. This is not to say the conversation the panel had wasn’t interesting — if nothing else, there was a certain audacity to Alison’s opening gambit of linking the development of new reviewing paradigms to the ultimate decline and fall of capitalism — but it wasn’t always, shall we say, directly related to the ostensible topic. On the other hand, the Not The Clarke Award panel — a recurring feature arranged each year by the SF Foundation, in which a panel of former Clarke judges discuss the year’s shortlist — was, as ever, a highlight, even if in this instance of course hopelessly wrongheaded to select (by a three-to-one vote) The City & The City as the deserving winner (the one went for Far North) when clearly, clearly the award should go to Galileo’s Dream. But even at the best of Eastercons, a ninety-minute in-depth discussion of specific books is a treat; here it was a drink to a parched man.

Sunday evening’s entertainment was more awards stuff. First up was the BSFA Awards, as introduced by the comedy stylings of Donna Scott and Ian Watson (“an evening of hilarity from the team that brought you Vector!”, apparently). My failure to blog the convention, I now realise, means that I haven’t actually posted the winners yet: they are, The City & The City for Best Novel, “The Beloved Time of their Lives” by Ian Watson and Roberto Quaglia for Best Short Fiction, cover to the Pyr edition of Desolation Road by Stephan Martiniere, and Nick Lowe’s “Mutant Popcorn” column in Interzone for Best Non-Fiction. Good work by the BSFA there, I think; as I’ve commented elsewhere, The City & The City is a good book, even if in the horserace of awards it’s not my pick. It’s particularly gratifying to see Nick Lowe get some recognition. His Sunday-afternoon talk on the narratology of transcendence — or, alternatively, how the actual script for 2001 buggers up many peoples’ theories or claims about its production — was as sharp and insightful as you’d hope, and Lowe, brilliantly, looks pretty much exactly like he’s walked out of an Open University broadcast circa 1972.

Then it was time for the Hugo Award nominations, announced at Eastercon despite the fact that the Worldcon is in Australia by dint of the fact that this year’s award administrator is Vince Docherty. There’s a lot to celebrate about this year’s slate. Best Fan Writer is the strongest it’s been in years — hooray for James Nicoll and Frederik Pohl‘s nominations, although I must admit I’m hoping Claire Brialey can pull off a win — and the Best Related Book category is excellent. I’m pleased to see nominations, too, for Juliet Ulman in Best Editor Long Form, and Rachel Swirsky’s “Eros, Philia, Agape” in Best Novellette; and the Best Novel ballot (Sawyer notwithstanding) is much more credible than it has been in recent years. (The lack of overlap with the Clarke shortlist was commented on, but it’s arguable that there was only ever one novel on this year’s Clarke list that had a real shot at the Hugo ballot, the others being published as mainstream, or only published in the UK, or published very late in 2009.) Of course, there are also things to gripe about. Best Dramatic Presentation Short Form makes me cry: why, fandom, must you like such terrible television? Why must you nominate Doctor Who three times, for three episodes that even if you like Doctor Who don’t measure up to the best of recent years, when you fail to nominate The Sarah Connor Chronicles even once? Is it just habit? Both novella and short story look a bit of a mess, and I continue to wait for the day when Susan Marie Groppi (or the Strange Horizons fiction team en masse) get a deserving nod in Best Editor Short Form. So some good and some bad, probably more of the former than the latter, and yet after the nominations were announced, I felt a crushing sense of anticlimax, to the point that my sourness led me to be actually quite rude to an understandably ecstatic double-nominated Paul Cornell. Possibly it was because some of the categories feel like foregone conclusions, which doesn’t mean I think bad works will win — The City & The City in Best Novel, for instance; and I can’t shake the feeling it’s Scalzi’s year in novella, and while The God Engines isn’t great it’s certainly the least unworthy fiction he’s had nominated — but it does take some of the fun out of the process, at least until I’m proved wrong in September. Or possibly it’s because, as I suggested to Mark Plummer — thereby making his night, apparently — I’m getting old. I remember jumping with excitement after the announcement of the 2005 nominations. Literally, jumping.

This time, not so much with the jumping, and so while Abigail went off to blog her reactions, I mooched around for a bit, and eventually ended up in Henleys with much of the rest of the Third Row, alternately dissecting the shortlists and hatching plots. In addition to awards, it was quite a day for conventions. The London Worldcon bid for 2014 had officially launched its chosen site on Friday evening — and more power to it, though I haven’t yet signed on myself — but Sunday saw the bid session for the next two Eastercons. I failed to attend, which undermines my griping here somewhat, but through the miracle of Twitter I was able to follow developments. There was, it seems, some debate with the 2012 convention committee (a set of people which overlaps with the Odyssey concom) about their plans for programme, and their reticence to announce whether they would have a fan guest of honour (they’re still talking about it, apparently), and although the bid passed, it did so with an unusually high number of votes against. Whether that will lead to any changes in practice, or whether Olympus will be another Odyssey, remains to be seen. Of course, before we return to Heathrow, we’ll be off to the Birmingham Metropole in 2011 for Illustrious, or as I prefer to think of it, manlycon: theme military sf, guests of honour Peter F Hamilton and David Weber. That’s not a slate that excites me much, but it excites me that they do have a vision: I look forward to seeing what they come up with. And in the meantime, maybe some other group will run a small, literary-focused convention in the next couple of years to fill that hole in my life …

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Most of Monday morning was taken up by packing, checking out, and carting luggage out to the car (I kept getting back to find there was just one more thing I needed to store). The rest was taken up by finally having a proper look around the dealer’s room, which — one brief stint as Geoff Ryman’s personal shopper, during which I failed to find him a copy of In Great Waters, aside — I had somehow failed to do. Purchases included James Blish’s Doctor Mirabilis (when I’ve got hold of all of After Such Knowledge, I have vague plans to blog the whole thing), Robert Holdstock’s Where Time Winds Blow, and Christopher Priest’s non-fiction collection “It” Came From Outer Space — which on the basis of the first couple of articles, at least, promises to be a fantastically grumpy read. Then it was off to Room 41 for the earlier-mentioned “Fandom as Gerontocracy” panel, during which Caroline Mullan spent a lot of time explaining the similarities between the Orbital/Odyssey/Olympus convention committees, and a team of which she had been part twenty years ago. The more things change … and then the final panel of the convention for me, on ethics and identity in Dollhouse. Reasons this panel was memorable: the fun spot-the-odd-one-out line-up; good contributions from Liz Batty, Paul Cornell and John Coxon; less good contributions from the panellist who rather uncomfortably likened his interest in the show to his interest in BDSM and seemed utterly oblivious to challenges to this position (not to mention the death stares from Abigail and Nic, seated either side of me); and the gophers stationed at the back of the room who may or may not have been there in case things got rowdy. And then that was that, for another year.

In the wake of Odyssey, all seems still to be excitement on Twitter; and there is still some grumbling on LiveJournal. For the fanzine response we must wait. For myself, neither the optimist nor the skeptic got a clear victory, in the end; I’m not as energised as I can be after a really great con (or a really terrible one), but I have a couple of new projects, nevertheless. So I am ambivalent. To the tune of about four thousand words, apparently.

London Meeting: Jim Burns

The guest at tonight’s BSFA London meeting is Jim Burns (SF artist, winner of the Hugo award for best professional artist three times—the only non-American ever to have won it—and winner of 12 BSFA Awards), who will be interviewed by Pete Young.

The venue is the upstairs room of The Antelope, 22 Eaton Terrace, London, SW1W 8EZ. The closest tube station is Sloane Square, and a map is here.

As usual, there will be people in the bar from 6-ish, with the interview starting at 7. The meeting is free, and open to any and all, though there will be a raffle with a selection of sf books as prizes. See you there, I hope.

Future meetings:
24th February: David Edgerton interviewed by Shana Worthen
24th March: BSFA Awards discussion*
21st April: Kari Sperring interviewed by Tanya Brown**

* Note that this is a month with five Wednesdays
** Note that this meeting is on the third Wednesday

London Meeting: Claire Brialey and Mark Plummer

The guests at tonight’s BSFA London meeting are Claire Brialey and Mark Plummer, editors of the Hugo-nominated fanzine Banana Wings. They will be interviewed by Tony Keen.

The venue is the upstairs room of The Antelope, 22 Eaton Terrace, London, SW1W 8EZ. The closest tube station is Sloane Square, and a map is here.

As usual, there will be people in the bar from 6-ish, with the interview starting at 7. (I’m going, this month! Though I probably will not arrive until just before 7.) The meeting is free, and open to any and all, though there will be a raffle with a selection of sf books as prizes.

London Meeting: Jaine Fenn

The guest at tonight’s BSFA London Meeting is Jaine Fenn, author of Principles of Angels and Consorts of Heaven; she will be interviewed by Kari Sperring (author of Living with Ghosts).

As usual, the interview will start at 7pm, though there will be people in the bar from 6-ish; the meeting is free, and open to any and all, though there will be a raffle (with sf books as prizes).

The venue is the upstairs room of The Antelope, 22 Eaton Terrace, London, SW1W 8EZ. The closest tube station is Sloane Square, and a map is here.

Reasons to care about Racefail

So Tom left a comment on our open thread yesterday:

You should have a mission statement, or some kind of definition of what TC is for. Since you don’t have one, i can’t wave it in your face as evidence that coverage of Failgate 2099 is outside your bailiwick. Curse you!

I don’t know why i’m so exercised about this. Obviously, i hate black people, but it’s also that it seems like diverting any more eyeballs or brain cells to a phenomenon which has already consumed so many of them for absolutely no positive result seems futile.

As this implies, Tom is aware that Liz and I have been mulling over how and what to post here about the evolving situation. For those who don’t know, what is being called Racefail has been rolling along for two months now, mostly but far from exclusively on livejournal. It has been, at various times, a discussion about race and culture as explored in science fiction and fantasy, a discussion about racial and cultural diversity in fandom, and a discussion about the terms on which discussions of race and culture as explored in science fiction and fantasy should take place within fandom; and it has included numerous exchanges on, primarily, the latter of those topics that couldn’t be described as anything so polite as a discussion. Well-known writers and editors have behaved in ways that hundreds of fans have found beyond the pale. One livejournaller, rydra_wong, has been providing regular round-ups of relevant links; again, there are hundreds, so what I link in this post is only going to scratch the surface of the scope and extent of what’s been said. But there’s a summary of what I think of as phases one and two of Racefail here (and a Guardian blog on roughly the same period here), and similarly for phases two and three here, which should give you the broad outline of what’s been happening.

I’ve phrased all of the above in neutral terms, but of course I’m not neutral. By and large, I count myself with the hundreds of fans who are disappointed and/or offended by the behaviour of professionals they previously respected. Charles Stross, for example, has suggested that the whole situation is the result of trolling. He subsequently retracted the suggestion, thankfully. Teresa Nielsen Hayden has made much the same suggestion and, so far as I am aware, not retracted it. Kathryn Cramer has made accusations of libel and defamation against the authors of posts such as this and this, which point out earlier bad behaviour on her part. None of this is acceptable. Roz Kaveney has a good post on why Cramer’s actions, in particular, are unacceptable here. On a personal level, I have sometimes been uncomfortable with the tactics with and terms in which these actions have in turn been criticised. In addition, two people have reported receiving abusive emails, and one has reported her employer receiving calls which attacked her as homophobic and racist. These, obviously, are also unacceptable. But to the extent that there are sides, the scales are clearly weighted more in one direction than the other. Put it this way: if I could retract my Hugo nomination for NYRSF at this point, I would; I am also not sure that I want to write for NYRSF again in the future.

What I do want is for the science fiction and fantasy field, and for science fiction and fantasy fandom, to be welcoming to and accepting of diversity in all its aspects; and in the meantime for both the field and fandom to be more aware of their limitations and shortcomings in this area, and less defensive when discussing issues relevant to this topic.

Saying all of this out loud strikes me as justification enough for posting here; but there are other reasons, too. One is the issue of relevance. Racefail has been happening at the intersection of multiple sf-related communities — which fact, I don’t doubt, has contributed to some of the frustration and miscommunication — and it’s true that the majority of participants have been US-based. But I’ve now bumped up against the idea that essentially it’s none of British fandom’s business a couple of times. In the comments to one (friendslocked) post yesterday, I found myself arguing against the perceptions that Racefail involved only a small subset of fans, or that it was a debate within a clique, or that it’s not as though there are people clamouring at the gates of UK fandom and feeling not included. (To be fair, in the same discussion there was also the perception, or more accurately the despair, that fandom was tearing itself slowly and painfully to pieces.) I think all of these perceptions are mistaken; I think this discussion is an elephant in the room relevant to all fans, writers, and readers of science fiction. You only have to look at the submissions for this year’s Clarke Award to see that British sf publishing isn’t the most diverse field in the world. You only have to look around you at an Eastercon. You only have to read a post like this, from one UK-based fan involved in the discussion:

Congratulations, SF/F. If I had ever wanted to be an author, an editor, or in any way take part in the larger SF/F community, that desire would be dead by now. You know what would be ‘nice’? If more white people found the silence of so many PoC in SF/F more uncomfortable than hearing their criticism.

Or this, from another UK-based fan:

I’m done with them and I’m pretty much done with SF/F fandom, their professional writers, their supporters and their toxic environment. As [info]shewhohashope said to me yesterday: Some people will never move on from this, so we need to move on from them. I’m moving on from this and I’m moving on from anyone like this.

This is not what I want.

But I also need an answer to Tom’s implicit question: what positives have come out of this discussion? Here are some posts or actions worth the time it takes to read them and think about them.

  • I Didn’t Dream of Dragons” by Deepa D; one of the earliest contributions to the discussion and still one of the best, about one Indian reader’s experience with science fiction and fantasy.
  • A Tale of Layers“, by one writer of colour about her experience breaking into the field, and her reactions to Racefail (and an update).
  • This hurts us all“, by Oyceter, about silence and advocacy.
  • The only neat thing to do“, by Rose Fox, about speaking up
  • Perhaps most excitingly for me, Verb_noire, a small press being established to “celebrate the works of talented, underrepresented authors and deliver them to a readership that demands more.” You can donate to help with startup costs here, and read their submission guidelines here.
  • A roundup of recommended reading lists, including a link to the writers of colour 50 book challenge, as well as potential efforts for outreach at Anticipation; more in this vein at a community established to focus and support conversations about cultural appropriation, racial diversity and multiculturalism in SFF fiction and fandom.

(And I should hope that I’ve never given anyone any reason to think otherwise, but I suppose it can’t hurt to say: Vector welcomes submissions from fans and critics of colour, and/or about sf and fantasy work by writers of colour; and the same goes for the Strange Horizons reviews department and submissions of reviews.)

UPDATE: Since this post is still getting a fair bit of traffic, a few more links.

FURTHER UPDATE: Another round of discussion, about a different book and related issues, with the originating post here.