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.