Cheltenham 2010

My main complaint about the sf programme at this year’s Cheltenham Literary Festival is that I couldn’t spare the time and money to go to more of it. As it was, I spent a very pleasant weekend in Cheltenham, staying with friends, and went to three events over two days. All three were worth attending, if only for the pleasure of seeing serious items at a mainstream literary festival take sf seriously. Of course, though it should go without saying that my recollections are likely imperfect, there were also some frustrations.

Most of those came in the first event, China Mieville and John Mullan, in conversation:

Why is there never any science fiction on the Booker shortlist? Yet why have so many ‘literary’ novelists, from Atwood to Ishiguro, borrowed their stories from science fiction? Where does sci-fi lie on the literary landscape? What are the issues of perception surrounding this genre and its counterpart ‘literary fiction’, and how porous are the borders between them?

This was a follow-up to last year’s brief fuss on the same topic, and as Mieville emphasised more than once, all credit to Mullan for turning up to defend his remarks. Each man set out their stall for about ten minutes, then there was some back and forth, and then they opened the floor to questions. Mieville’s contention was that the Booker prize should do one of two things: either be genuinely open to all types of fiction; or admit that it is concerned with a specific category of fiction, no more or less a category than the many others with which bookshops are stocked. Mullan’s reply, stated with increasing firmness as the discussion wore on, was that literary fiction is a category apart, primarily because it eschews formula.

There were, I think, two problems facing the debate, one embedded in the panel description, the other in the panelists. The former was the assumption — pushed at slightly, but never to the extent that I would have hoped for — that a work published outside the category science fiction, and not stocked in the “special room in bookshops” that Mullan talked of, is not science fiction. So Mullan, for instance, mentioned his surprise at being informed that Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, to his mind the greatest English novel of the last ten years, could have been nominated for a science fiction award; and confessed that although his first thought on hearing that it had lost the Arthur C Clarke Award to Ryman’s Air was to be intrigued, his second was to assume that it must have lost not because Air was a better novel, but because Never Let Me Go failed to meet the rules of science fiction (specifically, he suggested, in focusing on the characters instead of explaining its world). The assumption buried in there did not go uncommented on — Mieville even dragged out sf’s no good/they bellow ’til we’re deaf. But, although I wouldn’t wish to claim that that attitude towards “outsider” sf doesn’t exist, it would have been good to be able to suggest a bit more strongly that Air is indeed a novel very worth Mullan’s time; and to be able to emphasise that Ishiguro is far from the only non-category-sf author to be shortlisted for, or to win, a science fiction award; that David Mitchell, Jan Morris, Marcel Theroux and Sarah Hall have all appeared on the Clarke Award shortlist in recent years, and that a couple of years ago Michael Chabon won a Hugo and a Nebula. If, as Mullan contends, the borders have hardened since he was younger, the hardening doesn’t seem to be coming from the sf side.

The second problem was related to the first, insofar as it became awkwardly clear that while the discussion was going to be primarily about the absence of category sf from the Booker list, only one of the participants could and would talk fluently about fiction from all over the literary map. Mullan had almost no recent primary experience with category science fiction. His astonishment, for instance, that Mieville could suggest that a science fiction writer — Gene Wolfe, to be specific — might be the equal of JM Coetzee, seemed to be genuine. And it meant that he had no real way to engage with Mieville’s suggestion that different categories of fiction might have different, but equally valid, “aesthetic specificities”; and that one of sf’s specificities might be estrangement, as compared to literary fiction’s preference for recognition. When making his case for the importance of formula to genre it was telling that Mullan pointed over and over again at crime fiction, describing a template detective story. It would have been good to ask: what is the template story of a science fiction novel? The clearest demonstration of Mullan’s inability to consider that the characteristics of literary fiction Mieville was pointing at might be, in their way, as much generic markers as anything in a science fiction novel was highlighted by his description of Charles Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe — which he’d read as background for a documentary on first novels — as “a send-up of science fiction”, when in fact — with its solipsistic, sadsack narrator obsessed with his relationship with his father — it plays with the conventions of “literary fiction” at least as thoroughly. (And in fact, I’d argue the metaphysics of Yu’s novel are constructed — not even subtly! — to articulate, among other things, precisely the sorts of points about literary categorisation that Mieville was trying to make.)

After all that, the second event — an interview of Iain M Banks by the editor of the Guardian Books website, Sarah Crown — was thoroughly refreshing for the unabashed enthusiasm for sf that radiated from Banks. Indeed, the first audience question could have been a plant, so completely did it seem to justify every caricature of literary snobbishness ever constructed by sf fans — the guy actually stood up and asked, in so many words because I wrote them down, “I realise this may provoke a fight, but I have to ask: why does Iain Banks, one of my favourite writers, spend so much time wasting his prodigious talent on science fiction?” — and so fully did Banks seize the opportunity to offer a full-throated and crowd-pleasing endorsement of sf as “the most important genre of the modern age”. (It was also rather cheering to hear Banks refer to himself off-handedly as writing “in two genres”…) Surface Detail sounds, in many ways, like Culture business as usual; but Banks did a good job of reminding the audience of how appealing that business can be.

Sunday’s event, also ably moderated by Sarah Crown, was probably the one I went into with highest hopes:

British Science Fiction From H G Wells to John Wyndham, Britain has been home to some of the most groundbreaking and successful classic science fiction writers. Explore past classics and the best of the current crop as authors Iain M Banks, Gwyneth Jones, Michael Moorcock and Guest Director China Miéville discuss this very British tradition.

Inevitably — and not just because three of the four panelists were respondents to the survey! — there was familiar ground covered, but it was covered thoughtfully. So, we had a consideration of how the loss of empire shapes British sf, and the extent to which in some cases it may be an assumed influence, even imposed by expectation rather than springing from within. We had The Politics Question, with the observation that it’s not so much that American sf is right-wing and British sf left-wing, but that American sf has both right and left wings, and British sf, generally speaking, has not heard from the right, plus a discussion of how individualistic vs communitarian philosophies work themselves out at the level of narrative. And we had some discussion of how sf has been positioned in relation to mainstream literature, with Michael Moorcock suggesting (not for the first time, I think) that where American sf has a stronger tradition of writers who express their ideas through sf, British sf has a stronger tradition of writers who seek to express science-fictional ideas: that is, more writers for whom science fiction is not an entire career, for whom the idea comes before the form.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the discussion came when it strayed into what-next territory. Nic, braver than I, raised the topic, pointing out that the recent history of British sf has been a self-described golden age, particularly in the resurgence of space opera, but that other developments, such as the reduction in the number of women writers, suggested a narrowing of the field, and asked which the panel felt was the more powerful trend. Gwyneth Jones suggested, in line with recent discussion here, that British space opera, at least, is no longer a growth industry and may be starting to stagnate; and that women writing sf and feminist sf in general may have suffered for being positioned as “the next thing” in a genre that is always hungry for the next thing, rather than more usefully seen as a an evolution. (Mieville, in turn, suggested that it may be worth looking to what he characterised as an “underground tradition” of British sf — involving Katharine Burdekin, Jane Gaskell, and another writer whose name I forget — for a more congenial reception of women.) And speculating on the next thing, the panel suggested that the sf to look for may be that coming from elsewhere — from the Pacific Rim, or Africa — and may not necessarily be prose sf. Or it may be — and this was the point missing from the earlier debate for me, even bearing in mind Moorcock’s comments — that more and more interesting fantastical writing is coming from writers positioned outside the current category; Mieville cited Toby Litt, David Mitchell and Helen Oyeyemi as writers to keep an eye on, all picks I’d cheerfully agree with

All good clean fun. Perhaps not all attendees agreed, mind you; as we were leaving the panel discussion, an elderly gentleman behind me was heard to wonder why, oh why, do sf writers always seem to be so interested in navel gazing?

London Meeting: Diana Wynne Jones discussion

Tonight’s BSFA London Meeting is a discussion of the work of Diana Wynne Jones, featuring Charles Butler and Farah Mendlesohn.

As usual, the meeting will be head in the upstairs room of The Antelope: 22 Eaton Terrace, London, SW1W 8EZ. The closest tube station is Sloane Square, and a map is here.

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 — not just BSFA members — and there will be a raffle with a selection of sf books as prizes.

London Meeting: Dan Abnett

The guest at tonight’s BSFA London meeting is Dan Abnett, author of a lot, including the “Gaunt’s Ghosts” series of Warhammer 40,000 novels, and the recent alternate history Triumff. He will be interviewed by Lee Harris.

As usual, the meeting will be head in the upstairs room of The Antelope: 22 Eaton Terrace, London, SW1W 8EZ. The closest tube station is Sloane Square, and a map is here.

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 — not just BSFA members — and there will be a raffle with a selection of sf books as prizes.

Science Fiction Foundation Masterclass 2011

The details about next year’s event, which looks as enticing as ever:

Science Fiction Foundation announces SF Criticism Masterclass for 2011

Class Leaders:
Paul McAuley
Claire Brialey
Mark Bould

The Science Fiction Foundation (SFF) will be holding the fifth annual Masterclass in sf criticism in 2011.

Paul McAuley is the author of eighteen novels, many of which have been nominated for the Campbell, BSFA and Clarke Awards, including the Arthur C. Clarke Award winning Fairyland. His most recent books are The Quiet War and Gardens of the Sun.

Claire Brialey is co-editor of the Nova award-winning and Hugo-nominated Banana Wings, has been an Arthur C Clarke Award judge, and contributed critical articles to Vector and other fanzines.

Mark Bould is the co-editor of Science Fiction Film and Television and author of The Cinema of John Sayles: Lone Star and Film Noir: From Berlin to Sin City. He has co-edited The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction, Fifty Key Figures in Science Fiction and Red Planets: Marxism and Science Fiction and other projects, including several issues of Science Fiction Studies.

Dates: 1st to 3rd July 2011

Location: Middlesex University, London (the Hendon Campus, nearest underground, Hendon Central).

Delegate costs will be £180 per person, excluding accommodation.

Accommodation: students are asked to find their own accommodation, but help is Golders Green Hotel, and the King Solomon Hotel, both in Golders Green, a short bus ride from the University.

Applicants should write to Farah Mendlesohn at farah.sf@gmail.com. Applicants will be asked to provide a CV and writing sample; these will be assessed by an Applications Committee consisting of Farah Mendlesohn, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr. and Andy Sawyer.

Completed applications must be received by 28th February 2011.

SF at the Cheltenham Literary Festival

This is easily the most sf-friendly programme I can recall seeing for Cheltenham, even beyond China Mieville’s Guest Director items. Here’s what I spotted, just browsing through:

Friday 8 October, 13.00
George Orwell
A lifelong socialist, George Orwell made politics a major theme in his fiction. His political fable Animal Farm and the dystopian 1984 have become classics which have lost none of their power sixty years after his death. Leading Orwell scholar Peter Davison opens up new perspectives on the journalist and writer and his powerful visions of the future.

Friday 8 October, 19.00
Guillermo del Toro
Multi award-winning Guillermo del Toro, writer and director of Pan’s Labyrinth and the Hellboy series, is one of the most visionary and inventive filmmakers working today. He joins us in a festival exclusive to discuss his brand new novel, The Fall, the sequel to his acclaimed debut The Strain, which forms part of his modern-day vampire trilogy, co-authored with Chuck Hogan.

Saturday 9 October, 14.00
Fantastic Fictions
Described by Borges as ‘a treasure-house of memory’, internationally-acclaimed Argentinian writer Alberto Manguel’s Black Water anthology of fantastical fiction is a classic of its kind, ranging from H G Wells and Kafka to Cocteau and Calvino. He is joined by China Miéville, author of The City & The City, and Maggie Gee, acclaimed author of The Ice People, to choose and discuss their favourite tales of the fantastic.

Sunday 10 October, 10.00
The Power of Story
No story is an island; for readers and writers alike narratives have always held complex relationships to other past and present tales. Scarlett Thomas, author of Our Tragic Universe, Jim Crace, acclaimed author of All That Follows, join Alberto Manguel, whose All Men Are Liars is a fascinating homage to literature and its shapeshifting inventions, to discuss their latest novels, and how they weave other narratives into their own.

Sunday 10 October, 18.00
Utopias
Writers and thinkers have for centuries imagined a myriad of ideal worlds. Literary critic John Carey, editor of the now-classic Faber Book of Utopias and biographer of William Golding, philosopher Julian Baggini, author of Do They Think You’re Stupid?, and Anthony Kenny, author of A New History of Western Philosophy, choose their favourite literary and philosophical utopias and discuss our constant urge to define the perfect world.

Monday 11 October, 12.00
Red Plenty
What if the Soviet ‘miracle’ had worked and the communists had discovered the secret to prosperity, progress and happiness? The USSR’s magical ‘planned economy’ would gush forth an abundance that the penny-pinching capitalist countries could never match — and for a brief period in the late 50’s it looked as if the dream might actually come true. In Red Plenty, Francis Spufford paints a fascinating picture of that moment in history, how it came about, and how the illusion vanished.

Thursday 14 October, 21.00
Horror Stories
What is the lure of horror? Leading horror and fantasy writer Lisa Tuttle, editor of the acclaimed Skin of the Soul horror anthology, joins Ramsey Campbell, author of The Grin of the Dark and Sarah Pinborough, author of A Matter of Blood, to discuss their writing, and why scaring ourselves to death makes us feel better.

Friday 15 October, 12.30
John Wyndham
From The Day of the Triffids to the post-apocalytpic The Chrysalids and The Midwich Cuckoos, John Wyndham created some of the most terrifying visions of possible futures ever imagined. Novelist Jane Rogers, bestselling author Christopher Priest and Arthur C Clarke Award-winning writer M John Harrison explore the author and his literary legacy.

Friday 15 October, 15.30
HG Wells
H G Wells is the author of a wealth of science fiction classics, from The Time Machine to The War of the Worlds. Christopher Priest, author of The Prestige, philosopher and cultural historian John Gray and science fiction critic John Clute discuss this seminal author, his work and influence on subsequent writers.

Saturday 16 October, 12.00
How to Read Science Fiction
Are you open-minded about science fiction but don’t know where or how to start? For an introduction to some recommended reads and an expert guide to this alien world join Toby Litt, author of Journey Into Space, Nalo Hopkinson, and Arthur C Clarke Award-winning author of Nova Swing, M John Harrison, as they explore some beguiling writing.

Saturday 16 October, 14.00
China Mieville and John Mullan
Why is there never any science fiction on the Booker shortlist? Yet why have so many ‘literary’ novelists, from Atwood to Ishiguro, borrowed their stories from science fiction? Where does sci-fi lie on the literary landscape? What are the issues of perception surrounding this genre and its counterpart ‘literary fiction’, and how porous are the borders between them? Join critic and former Booker Judge John Mullan and Guest Director China Miéville, Arthur C Clarke Award-winning author of The City & The City, for a fascinating debate.

Saturday 16 October, 18.00
Frank Schatzing
Multi-million bestselling author Frank Schätzing’s The Swarm paints a terrifying picture of a world in which the inhabitants of the deep oceans have turned on humanity, and is a powerful warning of the perils of upsetting the earth’s ecological balance. He joins Forum for the Future’s Ben Tuxworth to discuss his writing and the perilous consequences of man’s interference with the environmental order.

Saturday 16 October, 18.30
Iain M Banks
Author of over twenty novels, Iain M Banks is one of the most popular science fiction writers working today. He joins us to discuss Surface Detail, the latest addition to his Culture cycle of novels, which centre on an interstellar, utopian society, peopled by both artificial intelligences and humanoids.

Sunday 17 October, 14.00
Audrey Niffenegger
The best graphic novels are a potent alchemy between words and pictures, and trained artist and bestselling novelist Audrey Niffenegger’s The Night Bookmobile is a hauntingly-illustrated magical and mysterious tale. The bestselling author of The Time Traveler’s Wife and Her Fearful Symmetry joins The Times’ Tom Gatti to discuss her latest work.

Sunday 17 October, 16.00
British Science Fiction
From H G Wells to John Wyndham, Britain has been home to some of the most groundbreaking and successful classic science fiction writers. Explore past classics and the best of the current crop as authors Iain M Banks, Gwyneth Jones, Michael Moorcock and Guest Director China Miéville discuss this very British tradition.

Sunday 17 October, 16.00
Writing Ghosts
How do contemporary writers create ghosts in their fiction? What traditions do they draw on? What are the challenges they face? Novelists Susan Hill, Penelope Lively and Andrew Taylor, who have all written hauntingly beautiful modern ghost stories, join us to discuss capturing the true power of the supernatural on the page.

Sunday 17 October, 18.00
Doctor Who: The Coming of the Terraphiles
Join us for the launch of the brand new Doctor Who novel, The Coming of the Terraphiles, with Michael Moorcock, award-winning creator of the Elric Saga and Mother London. Find out what the influential science fiction and fantasy giant has in store for the Doctor and Amy Pond.

All this and the usual appeal of the festival, too! I think a weekend in Cheltenham might be in order.

London Meeting: Lauren Beukes

The guest at tonight’s BSFA London meeting is Lauren Beukes, author of Moxyland and the forthcoming Zoo City. She will be interviewed by Jonathan McCalmont.

As usual, the meeting will be head in the upstairs room of The Antelope: 22 Eaton Terrace, London, SW1W 8EZ. The closest tube station is Sloane Square, and a map is here.

Also 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.

Beukes is also doing a signing at Forbidden Planet, London on Thursday 29th July between 6 pm and 7 pm, and is the guest at a British Fantasy Society Open Meeting, in the George, The Strand, London, on Saturday 31st July, from 1 pm to 5 pm.

BSFA/SFF AGM Event

Of course, no sooner does one event pass than another hoves into view. This coming Saturday:

The Science Fiction Foundation and the British Science Fiction Association invite you to attend their Mini-Convention and Annual General Meeting, with guests Rob Shearman and Malcolm Edwards.

Held at The Royal Astronomical Society, Burlington House (map), London on Saturday 19th June 2010.

Programme:

9:30 — Doors Open
10:00 — Welcome
10:05 — SFF panel: “How do we understand TV as a literary medium?”
11:00 — SFF guest: Rob Shearman interviewed by Jane Killick
12:00 — BSFA AGM
12:30 — Lunch
13:30 — SFF AGM
14:00 — BSFA guest: Malcolm Edwards interviewed by Graham Sleight
15:00 — BSFA Panel: “Is fandom a valuable support for genre publishing or merely a pleasant diversion?”
16.00 — Close

See you there?

Post-Masterclass

some masterclass students and tutors

So, this year’s SFF Masterclass is over. As with the first one I attended, a couple of years ago, it was both intense and rewarding; and as I was then, so I am now still digesting everything we discussed. Topics included: what makes a “classic”; examined and unexamined exclusions from narrative; is there such a thing as essentially science-fictional music; to what extent posthumanism is the central topic in contemporary sf that must be acknowledged or at least reacted to; the characteristics of science fantasy; the differences between UK and US New Wave; the politics of story; and in the course of the above, considerations of all the texts I’ve been blogging about over the past month or so from many different angles. But almost as important as the discussions in the class were the discussions outside, and the sense of community that the masterclass creates. Huge thanks, therefore, to the three tutors, Istvan Csicsery-Ronay, Jr, Roz Kaveney and Liz Williams, and to all the other attendees for such friendly, thorough, enjoyable and wide-ranging discussions.

And now what? Having spent a month on the reading list for this class, and before that a month on awards shortlists, and before that a month on reading for an essay for Vector, I’m itching to get stuck into the pile of 2010 books I’ve accumulated. (Paolo Bacigalupi’s Shipbreaker, Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven, Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, Ian McDonald’s The Dervish House, Olga Slavnikova’s 2017, Anna Lawrence Pietroni’s Ruby’s Spoon, Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty, The Best of Kim Stanley Robinson … to name a few.) And I have several books I’ve already read that I still want to write about. So over the next couple of months, that’s what I’ll be doing here.

London Meeting: Doctor Who book launch

Tonight’s BSFA London Meeting will be a panel discussion of and book launch for The Mythological Dimensions of Doctor Who, featuring contibutors to the book, Melissa Beattie, Simon Guerrier, and Colin B. Harvey.

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

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

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.