The Tea: An Interview with Emma Newman

Photograph by Lou Abercrombie

Vector caught up with Emma Newman, author of the Split Worlds, Planetfall, and Industrial Magic series, and other excellent things, at BristolCon in October 2018. 

Hello Emma Newman! What a delight and an honour. How has your BristolCon been so far?

Well, I actually arrived quite late, so I’ve really just got here.

So far it’s been, “ambushed for an interview.”

Yes! And looking at beautiful art, actually.

Now, you are much better at interviewing people than I am. But one person you never seem to interview is you. So if you were interviewing you, what would you ask you?

“Would you like a cup of tea?”

Would you like a cup of tea? Continue reading “The Tea: An Interview with Emma Newman”

BSFA/SFF Mini-Convention and AGMs

Tomorrow is the BSFA/SFF Mini-Convention and AGMs with Guests of Honour Marek Kukula and Aliette de Bodard.

The venue is the Royal Astronomical Society at Burlington House on Piccadilly in Central London, halfway between Piccadilly Circus and Green Park stations. It’s the first door on the left once you’ve entered the courtyard.

Hopefully many of you will be able to be there.

Here’s the schedule:

10:00 am Welcome (SFF)
10:05 am Marek Kukula Talk
10:55 – 11:05 Break
11:05 am Aliette de Bodard interview with Edward James
12 pm – 12:45 SFF AGM
12:45 pm – 1: 45 pm Lunch
1:45 pm – 2:30 pm BSFA AGM
2:30 pm – Astronomy Q&A with Marek Kukula
3:25 – 3:35 – Break
3:35 pm – SF & Colonialism panel with Aliette de Bodard, Maureen Kincaid Speller, Lavie Tidhar, and Sophia McDougall (moderator)
4:30 Concluding Remarks (BSFA)

Food and Drink – with the exception of water – is not allowed on site. There are many nearby cafés, drink and snack shops, restaurants and pubs.

The designated pub for the day is the King’s Head, located approximately behind the Royal Astronomical Society, at 10 Stafford Street, W1S 4RX.

BSFA and SFF Mini-Convention and AGM 2012

The Science Fiction Foundation and the British Science Fiction Association invite you to attend their Mini-Convention and Annual General Meetings

Saturday, 9 June 2012
10-4:30 pm

with Guests of Honour Aliette de Bodard and Marek Kukula

Location: The Royal Astronomical Society, Burlington House, on Piccadilly, in London. W1J 0BQ. Halfway between Piccadilly Circus and Green Park stations, on the north side of the street.

Cost: Free!

AGMs: The SFF AGM will take place at noon, the BSFA AGM at 1:45 pm.

Vector, Blind Submissions, and Gender Balance

A slew of commentary, mostly thought-provoking, has come out of Paul Cornell’s declaration yesterday that he would, as a panelist at a convention, actively work towards achieving gender parity on panels he’s on, even if it required taking himself off of the panel. It’s a lovely gesture, but there are all sorts of complications in the details of implementing it and what it requires of women participating in genre.

One of these complications is that, on average, women are less likely to volunteer to be put on panels in the first place.

I can’t speak to panel volunteers, but I can speak to those who volunteer for Vector.  The majority of articles which appear in Vector are commissioned. That means that I ask for them, or, more specifically, talk people into writing them.

A minority of the articles are blind submissions, already-written articles which are sent to Vector on the chance that it’s a suitable home for them. It often is. Vector isn’t that high profile, so it doesn’t receive all that many blind submissions – perhaps eight or so last year.

Every last blind submission I have received – and even, in addition to those, all the articles proposed, unwritten, without prior contact – were all sent or proposed by men.

This was my first year editing the magazine, so I can’t say if this is a necessarily a longer-term trend. I can say that this is consistent with what’s been reported by larger convention organizers, that men are more likely to put themselves forward, rather than waiting for an invitation.

Don’t get me wrong – I appreciate the blind submissions just as much as I appreciate all the people, regardless of gender, who have been willing to write for Vector by request. They all go into making the magazine’s features what they are. And some particular men may be in need of active recruitment, just as some particular women readily volunteer.

Part of the challenge of those working to improve the gender balance of participants, regardless of medium, can be in needing to be more pro-active in recruiting women, and the limited evidence of the blind submissions I’ve received is consistent with that tendency.

BSFA/SFF Mini-Convention and AGMs

The Science Fiction Foundation and the British Science Fiction Association will hold their joint Mini-Convention and Annual General Meetings on Saturday, 4th June 2011. This event is FREE to attend.

The SFF’s guest is Mike Ashley. He has written many books including most recently Out of This World, the book accompanying the current British Library Exhibition. Other notable works include Gateways to Forever (Liverpool University Press, 2007) and The Mammoth Book of Science Fiction (Robinson Publishing, 2002). He was awarded the Pilgrim Award in 2002 by the Science Fiction Research Association for his lifetime achievement in science fiction research.

The BSFA’s Guest is Tricia Sullivan. Tricia’s novel Lightborn was shortlisted for both the 2011 Clarke Award and the 2010 BSFA Award, and among many other nominations and awards she won the Clarke Award in 1999 with Dreaming in Smoke. We will be discussing her book Maul here on Torque Control later this month.

9:30am – Doors open
10:00 – Welcome
10:05 – Women writers, science fiction and Britain in 2011- panel, with Niall Harrison, Tricia Sullivan, Pat Cadigan, Shana Worthen (moderator)
11:00 – Mike Ashley – interview with Edward James
12:00 noon – BSFA AGM
1:30pm – SFF AGM
2:00 -Tricia Sullivan – interview with Tom Hunter
3:00 -The State of SF publishing – panel, with Mike Ashley, Simon Spanton, Jenni Hill, and Ian Whates (moderator)
4:00 – Conclusion

Location: The Royal Astronomical Society, Burlington House, on Piccadilly, in London W1J 0BQ. Between Piccadilly Circus and Green Park Underground stations. (Note that the relevant section of the Victoria line will NOT be running that day.)

There are no facilities for serving food at the venue. The gathering place for those not wishing to attend all the individual events of the day is the King’s Head, 10 Stafford Street, London, W1S 4RX, phone 020 7493 0337

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.

Worldcon Schedule

As I think I’ve mentioned, I’m going to Worldcon this year. The full draft programme is now available [pdf]; and if you’re going, should you want to you can find me on these items:

Thursday 17.00-18.30
Bookgroup: Neal Stephenson’s Anathem

Discussion of one of last year’s blockbusters, led by Niall Harrison.
Location: P-523A

Thursday 22.00-23.00
I’ll Be Back

Who could have guessed 25 years ago that “The Terminator” was starring a future governor of California? Having spawned several sequels and a TV series this jarring image of a bleak future that might yet be averted or changed continues to hold our attention. Why have the “Terminator” films been so influential, and what do they say about the times that produced them? How does “Terminator Salvation” fit in?
Jeanne Cavelos, Niall Harrison, Russell Blackford (m), Seanan McGuire
Location: P-511BE

Friday 14.00-15.30
The Hugo Award: Short Form Dramatic Presentation

The nominees: who will win, who should win, who was overlooked? What does it say about the state of the art as of 2008?
James Zavaglia, Lee Whiteside, Mandy Slater (m), Niall Harrison, Vincent Docherty
Location: P-524B

Friday 17.00-18.30
Handicapping the Hugos II: The Short Fiction

Our panellists survey the Hugo-nominated short stories, novelettes, and novellas: they tell us what they want to win, what will win, and why.
Ann VanderMeer (m), Jonathan Strahan, Karen Burnham, Niall Harrison, Bill Fawcett
Location: P-516AB

Saturday 17.00-18.00
Is Blogging an Art Form, or Just a Fanzine by Any Other Name?

Does a blog require a different style? A different layout? A different mode of approach? Do the technical requirements make it more or less accessible a medium?
Cheryl Morgan, Kathryn Cramer, Niall Harrison, Heather McDougal, Tobias Buckell
Location: P-514AB

Sunday 10.00-11.00
Kaffeeklatsch: Niall Harrison and Graham Sleight

Two non-fiction editors answer your questions.
Location: P-521B

Monday 11.00-12.00
Non-Fiction for SF Fans

What non-fiction should SF fans be reading? The panel recommends and discussed recently published books and perennial classics.
Geoff Ryman, James Cambias, Kari Sperring, Niall Harrison (m), Vincent Docherty
Location: P-511BE

If you’re not going, you should feel free to share your thoughts on any of these topics, so that I may steal them and pass them off as my own.

On Expertise

A perspective on Readercon:

This weekend I went to my first Readercon. There’s a lot to like about Readercon, but there’s also a lot to dislike. To start off with, the name is false advertising. This isn’t a con that centers itself on or meets the needs of readers, or enables readers to talk to each other. This is a professional networking conference that also meets the needs of a small set of fans, most of whom seem to be white, male, and over 50. It is designed, in many ways large and small, to reinforce the status of professionals–particularly writers, but also editors, paid critics, and academics–above that of people who are “just fans” or “just readers.”

The con’s setup (everything from the programming to the hotel selection) allows and encourages this group of people to talk to each other, and fans and readers to express appreciation to this set of authorities, but does very little to encourage literary conversation as a conversation among equals. Readership, audience reaction, is strongly encouraged to stay within strict bounds; criticism and participation in the discussion are treated as privileges accorded to a few, not the basic rights of every reader.

(I was going to do a general post-Readercon links post, but then it was pointed out to me that the relevant links are already being collected at the Readercon livejournal community, so I suggest you go there, instead, and I’m just going to single out this one post.)

I haven’t been to a Readercon. It’s always been on my list of conventions I’d like to go to someday, but to date has never quite made it to the top, because the constellation of writers it places in the centre of the field is in large part not a constellation that particularly excites me. (I have a memory of seeing, in a panel description somewhere, a statement to the effect that Little, Big was the definitive Readercon book, to which my response was: right, well, this is not for me, then.) But I have to say that this description of it, though intended as criticism, really, really makes me want to go.

Panel discussions have always been part of the draw of conventions, for me. I can get readerly discussion of books in conversation with friends, down the pub, or online; I can, almost literally, get it all the damn time if I want. At conventions it is what the bar is for, what going out for meals is for, what book groups are for. You know what I can’t get on a regular basis? What I very rarely get enough of even at a convention? The experience of listening to experts on a particular topic discuss it in depth. That, to me, is what panels are for.

When I started going to conventions, I chose the panels I wanted to go to by topic. This proved to be a very hit-and-miss way to approach things, as you can imagine. So then I started to choose panels based on the panelists, because experience taught me that nine times out of ten, published authors will be more interesting on a panel focused on a topic they know about than “just fans”, and a good proportion of the time critics and academics will be more interesting than authors.

(Note that I do not consider myself a critic, precisely because of the status implications of the term. I am not putting myself in the top tier of panelists that I’m creating in the paragraph above, and if I went to a Readercon and was offered more than, say, a panel on the collected work of Stephen Baxter, I would think something had gone wrong somewhere. You would be amazed [or maybe not] at the breadth of the shallowness of my knowledge of sf and fantasy. Note, also, that I am talking about literary panels; science and technology panels, fan panels, culture panels and so forth are a different kettle of fish. And I tend to go to less of them.)

I have lost count of the number of times that audience involvement has been the death of a fascinating panel discussion. Few phrases strike fear into my heart like, “This is really more of a comment than a question …” Sometimes the audience discussion phase is fascinating and insightful; but mostly, not. And there are obvious reasons why problems arise: a room is more difficult to moderate and focus than a panel. These reasons are not insurmountable, but if they are surmounted then you get a different kind of discussion — it becomes, again, the kind of discussion I can easily get in other times and places.

Of course, this approach to panels necessitates among other things (a) a convention committee who can be trusted to find the five best people for a given discussion, and (b) a programme book that allows con-goers to find out who the names on the panels are. Readercon seems to have (b) covered, since it provides more extensive biographies of panelists than any other programme book I’ve ever seen. The other criticism in the post linked above, though, is that they’re not so good at (a): “There are a number of perspectives which simply do not appear–particularly those of people of color, but also those of younger generations, queer people, women, young professionals, poor or working class people, and fields of literary criticism developed since 1968.” This is, no doubt, a problem, and makes me move Readercon back down my list of priorities. If they’re not including a wide variety of perspectives, they’re not finding the best five people to discuss a topic, which undermines the whole point of being so strict about the regulation of panels.

But in principle, a convention that, within the panel format, unashamedly celebrates expertise? Bring it on.

Notes From Newcon 4

I spent yesterday at Newcon 4, a small Northampton con that punches above its weight when it comes to guests of honour. Although I missed some of the GoH stuff by virtue of only going to one day of the con. Still, I did catch:

  • Science fiction non-fiction: what’s the point? Panel discussion moderated by Tom Hunter with Donna Scott, John Clute, Farah Mendlesohn, Colin Harvey, and er, someone else who is apparently not listed in the programme booklet Paul Skevington. I thought this went rather well, actually; particularly enjoyed the discussion of reading criticism as a constructive act (Clute: reviews as documents of recovered naivety; Farah, reviews as opening a window onto a text, and as well-constructed pieces of writing in themselves). Useful discussion of canons, too, and whether or not they are a barrier to reading enjoyment, the role of multiple canons in the sf field, the difference between historical canon (i.e. lines of influence) and personal canons and critical canons. Also interesting points about what sorts of criticism are scarce, particularly criticism about fantasy and criticism about endings, and the idea that even the most basic synopsis, in that it is a partial representation of a larger work, is an act of criticism; the problem with reviews that focus on plot synopsis is that they are unaware of the choices they’re making.
  • Is ‘New Space Opera’ just ‘Old Space Opera’ in fresh clothes? This one felt a bit over-endowed with authors to me, since the panel consisted of Iain Banks, Ken MacLeod, Jaine Fenn, Tony Ballantyne, Ben Jeapes, and Ian Whates moderating. As a result it tended to circle around surface points without really getting under the skin of the topic.
  • Paul Cornell‘s guest of honour spot, and later, excerpts from his adaptation of Iain Banks’ “State of the Art”, to be broadcast on Radio 4 next year. (The condition for playing the excerpts at Newcon, apparently, was that the broadcast date be repeated many times. So: it’s going to be the afternoon play on 6 March, 2009, from 14.15.) I thought it sounded very promising; and the new ship name Paul Cornell has added fits right into the Culture. Other upcoming Cornell projects: a contribution to an anthology organised (and presumably edited) by Geoff Ryman titled “science and fiction”, in which sf writers were paired off with working scientists (Cornell got someone working on the LHC) and chatted until they came up with an idea for a story; and a new novel, described as being of the Buffy meets The Sweeney school of urban fantasy. If that is an extant school of urban fantasy.

All in all, a thoroughly enjoyable day, let down only slightly by the venue, which was a big, echoey hall in which if could be difficult to hear what panellists were saying. I imagine I’ll be back for the next one.