Everything Is Nice

Beating the nice nice nice thing to death (with fluffy pillows)

Con Report – Eastercon

with 15 comments

My first Eastercon was in 2010, a time when I was feeling particularly anti-social, and was held at Heathrow, a particularly anti-social location. I didn’t have a great time but both those limiting factors had changed by this year’s Eastercon. I thoroughly enjoyed myself this year and must concede, once and for all, that I am part of fandom.

First order of the day – after registration and buying the 50th issue of Black Static for a quid – was lunch with what once upon a time would have been called Third Row fandom. Is that still a thing? We couldn’t make it over to dim sum and they wouldn’t let us in for tapas so we had Greek. There was meat and beer. It was good.

Back inside, my first panel of the con was Catastrophe And Salvage. It very nearly wasn’t my first panel since it was held in Room 7 which had capacity for about 30 and was fully twenty minutes before the panel started. I just got in, many others didn’t and this was a bit of a pattern for the weekend.

The panel itself was okay but I found that they just stopped short of making progress before switching onto the next thread. I’d not seen Mathew de Abaitua speak before and he was very interesting. Tricia Sullivan still seems to be (understandably) burnt out on SF which is a shame because she is so smart and had lots to contribute but I just didn’t feel she wanted to be there.

Due to a large number of interruptions from the floor, there wasn’t time for any questions. If there had been, I would have asked: “We’ve talked a lot about the lack of agency in the 21st Centure and disaster fiction as fantasies of agency. That is external change, what about internal change? Why are revolutions so under-represented in SF compared to disasters?”

I wanted to get into The Stars Are Your Canvas and The Female Gaze but they were both in Room 7 (all the best programming was) so I didn’t risk it. Elsewhere the BSFA Awards were announced. Things I didn’t want to win won – c’est la vie. However, my choice for Best Non-Fiction – Rave And Let Die by Adam Roberts – did win so that was nice. I think Nick Hubble’s review of the book is worth reading alongside this win:

There is something discordant, too, about the proximity of Roberts’s contention that “whatever else reviews are ‘for,’ they ought to be entertaining” (p. 14) to his discussion of why he doesn’t particularly value entertainment as a criterion of a book’s worth. One of the least entertaining reviews in his collection, of J. R. R. Tolkien’s Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, is one of the most incisive in critical terms. Roberts is, amongst his many other distinctions, a significant Tolkien scholar and his 2013 study, The Riddles of the Hobbit, is a model for how good an accessible academic book can be. In some ways, of course, it is the contradiction between being a top-level academic and an entertainer that can make Roberts such an interesting and unpredictable critic to read.

I made my dinner plans based on a quick Google of Time Out just as my phone was dying. It recommended Tattu, gave it five stars and two out of four for affordability so I took a punt. It turned out to be located in the huge new Spinningfields development with its diamond-like Armani building and Australiasia. Once this would have been described as noveau riche but it is more like credit riche or Premier League Aspiration and Tattu turned out to be a very hollow experience.

I ordered an Orchid Blush to drink which tasted of tequila and mouthwash and arrived after the starter. Said starter of scallop with Iberico xo sausage, brown shrimp and pumpkin was fine and for £14 I wanted more than “fine”. I could just about taste the pumpkin but nothing made the dish come alive. It was an example of expensive ingredients and pretty presentation being used as substitute for flavour. This was even more the case for the black pepper and honey ribs which had no heat, spice or really any flavour at all. I’ve never had a Chinese meal with so little seasoning. I ordered a side of rice with this which boasted of duck egg and Chinese sausage but again, you’d be hard pressed to actually find them.

This came to just over £50 for one which I’m not sure is two out of four for affordability and I’m definitely sure is very poor value for money. I ate a much better meal at Jitrada in Sale the night before for half the price.

Back at the con in the morning and I was working. Or, at least, I was on the Book Reviews in the Age of Amazon panel. This went well with a nicely balanced, interesting panel, a great moderator and an audience of a hundred odd people. Still, I couldn’t help reflecting that it was a bit of a well worn topic and I’d have liked to have seen some of the other panels having that much space.

For example, the 30 Years Of The Arthur C Clarke Award panel immediately afterwards in yes, Room 7. It was an interesting discussion of the history of the award but two particular things stood out for me. Firstly, the interest in the Award putting out a longlist. This is something I’d like to see too but isn’t a direction the award will be going in. Secondly, both Nina Allan and Nick Hubble mentioned Torque Control as the place that facillitated the best discussion of the award as well as being a hub for British science fiction in general.

Torque Control was established by Niall Harrison when he was editor of Vector, the magazine of the BSFA. Although the subsequent editor Shana Worthen continued the blog, it no longer functioned in the same way and for the last five years there hasn’t been a UK hub of the type Nina and Nick (and me) found so productive. Several times I’ve begged Niall to blog again (although he does a bit with a different hat on) and, indeed, I buttonholed him straight after the panel too. The age of blogging has passed and the age of Twitter has many benefits but still, you can dream.

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Written by Martin

29 March 2016 at 16:09

Posted in food, sf

Tagged with ,

15 Responses

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  1. must concede, once and for all, that I am part of fandom.

    Admitting it is the first step on the road to getting help, after all.

    The panel itself was okay but I found that they just stopped short of making progress before switching onto the next thread

    As we (briefly) discussed after the panel, I found it a bit more satisfying than you did. And I didn’t get the sense that Sullivan didn’t want to be there (though I did sense her frustration,sure: her metaphor of writers rendered into pale sausages by the publishing system was particularly vivid). Like you I would be sad if she moved away from the field.

    Also like you, however, it was de Abaitua’s contributions that have stuck in my mind — probably in part because I hadn’t seen him before either, so his views had more of a novelty factor. But I think his points about the nature of agency in the twenty-first century were well-made; I was struck by his assertion that “raising awareness” is a twentieth-century context because everyone who wants to be (in a society like the UK, at least) is already aware, and probably resistant to implementing that awareness. I mean, that’s certainly true of me.

    To your question: are you presupposing that revolution requires an internal change? Because it is sometimes rendered as a purely external change, surely. (This is something that was touched on in the “radical worldbuilding” panel later in the convention.) If your question can be rephrased as “why is there so little sf that deals with dramatic changes in typical human behaviour and psychology?”, I don’t have a good answer in a positive sense, but arguably all those YA dystopias are examples in the negative sense: people have to have changed their assumptions and behaviours to make those societies last for longer than about thirty-six hours.

    Or maybe I have entirely misunderstood what you mean by “revolution.”

    Secondly, both Nina Allan and Nick Hubble mentioned Torque Control as the place that facillitated the best discussion of the award as well as being a hub for British science fiction in general.

    It’s disconcerting, if flattering, to watch TC being discussed as a significant moment (maybe a period, just?) in British SF/fandom discussion. I can’t deny that it was (among other things) a deliberate community-building exercise, nor that I also miss it. I think a lot of its success was being in the right place at the right time, however, both technologically — not just before the dominance of Twitter, but before the dominance of the great content-accumulator sites (both Tor.com and io9 launched in 2008) — and philosophically, in that I just happened to be the one (along with Gene at the start, of course) articulating an approach to SF that an influential and active chunk of British fandom broadly agrees with. In absolute terms its readership was only ever modest, but it was a good readership to have, certainly.

    What would a contemporary equivalent look like? Hard to say; I don’t think the blog is dead as a platform, but within SF it certainly feels a little archaic. I’m no longer used to thinking in comment-sized responses — it feels like writing this has taken approximately forever, although I know I’ve written plenty longer in my time — so you’d need a commitment from a group of people to get the habit back. But I think it could be done. I suspect the route to go would be a group effort like Crooked Timber — although that introduces the additional challenge of luring potential contributors away from their own spaces into a shared space.

    (although he does a bit with a different hat on)

    There’s a bit more behind the paywall, as well…

    NH

    29 March 2016 at 22:23

  2. At this rate “We need a new Torque Control” will be to the 2010s what “We need a new Mexicon” was to the 90s and early 00s.

    Jonathan McCalmont

    30 March 2016 at 10:27

  3. Niall: Or maybe I have entirely misunderstood what you mean by “revolution.”

    The panel diagnosed a lack of agency in life and literature caused by late capitalism in the early 21st Century. This partially explains the popularity of disaster and post-apocalyptic fiction which re-sets society and hence creates fantasies of agency. I’d suggest dystopias stem from a similar impulse but instead removing capitalism, they exaggerate and simply it into something that can be more easily defeated by individual actors.

    You also increasingly have collapse or crisis novels (I forget the terms the panel used) which identify the problems of late capitalism but see them as intractable then add in climate change and conclude that disaster is inevitable and that agency is impossible. Perhaps IF THEN by de Abaitua would be a good example of this. I’m pleased these novels are being written as an antidote to the more facile sort of fantasies of agencies but it is a disappointing and strange that there isn’t more SF that addresses late capitalism that is something could be changed. And I think you’d have to call that change revolution (see, I got there eventually!) Where are the SF novels that Paul Mason would write Perhaps Lightborn by Tricia Sullivan would be more along those lines so it was a shame that she didn’t talk more about that novel, although I appreciated the points she made about collaboration in the face of adversity. I’d like to see the pair of them in conversation again actually.

    What would a contemporary equivalent look like? […] I suspect the route to go would be a group effort like Crooked Timber — although that introduces the additional challenge of luring potential contributors away from their own spaces into a shared space

    Well, the challenge back to Nina might have been that if she allowed comments on her blog then it probably would be the successor to TC. But yeah, expand that to a group blog with an academic blogger (say Aishwarya Subramanian) and a pure fan blogger (say Claire Briarley), maybe even an industry blogger (say Anne Perry), and you’ve got all the ingredients.

    There’s a bit more behind the paywall, as well…

    Hang about, is there secret Harrison bonus blogging in the ebook? (Good plug, by the way.)

    Jonathan: I think the difference is that this isn’t trying to re-create something out of nostalgia but a desire to consolidate what already exists in an age of fragmentation.

    Martin

    30 March 2016 at 18:13

  4. And I think you’d have to call that change revolution (see, I got there eventually!)

    I think I’m hung up on your use of “external” and “internal” — they set off New Wave “inner space” resonances in my head, but now I think you don’t mean that, you mean internal in the sense of change-within-the-society rather than change-within-people per se (though of course the two are linked).

    Anyway, the answer to your question of where those books are, though you’re not going to like it, is Kim Stanley Robinson. There’s a riff in 2312 (and probably elsewhere) on Raymond Williams’ idea of society as a mix of the residual and the emergent, philosophically, which sees capitalism as a mix of feudalism (which came before) and whatever system comes next. So then KSR’s approach is to find seeds of what might be next and attempt to amplify them.

    Well, the challenge back to Nina might have been that if she allowed comments on her blog then it probably would be the successor to TC

    Gauntlet thrown.

    Hang about, is there secret Harrison bonus blogging in the ebook?

    I don’t think it’s blogging if it’s in an ebook, is it?

    NH

    31 March 2016 at 20:37

  5. Maybe because any revolution is by its nature political, and therefore divisive?(which in turn costs you readers). Crucially, the same issues can be addressed via disaster/catastrophe-based storylines, without the idealogical baggage – you can extrapolate from current trends, in the hopes that by highlighting the negative consequences of a certain course of action you’ll encourage people to consider the alternatives. You don’t preach change, but you discreetly encourage it, via stories that are, in effect, cautionary tales. 1984 is a prime example – coincidentally a book which critiqued a political ideology that was overtly *anti*-capitalistic.

    Aonghus Fallon

    1 April 2016 at 10:34

  6. Niall: I think I’m hung up on your use of “external” and “internal”

    Perhaps not the best terms (internal was just opposition to the clearer external) but yes, I think you’ve got what I mean.

    Anyway, the answer to your question of where those books are, though you’re not going to like it, is Kim Stanley Robinson.

    I like KSR! I just so happens that that he spent the first decade of the 21st Century publishing a bunch of books I had no interest in; I’m looking forward to getting to 2312 (and Aurora). However, its title suggests the problem with it as an example. The counter-weight I am seeking is to all the near-future disaster novels. Why haven’t more books like The Star Fraction been published in the last twenty years?

    Aonghus: Maybe because any revolution is by its nature political, and therefore divisive? (which in turn costs you readers).

    Yes, I definitely think it is a cop out.

    Crucially, the same issues can be addressed via disaster/catastrophe-based storylines, without the idealogical baggage

    This, on the other hand, I’d disagree. A novel about the potential for societal change is not the same as an “If this goes on…” novel (and most disaster/catastrophe novels aren’t even “If this goes on…” novels).

    Martin

    4 April 2016 at 22:27

  7. It’s possible that the lack of revolutionary sf and the popularity of dystopic sf may be related. Dystopic sf doesn’t just provide a fantasy of agency, it posits a world in which the usual power structure no longer exists. By extension neither does the typical sf reader’s privileged place within that power structure (I’m talking white, middle-class, western). There’s nothing to feel guilty about. Nice!

    Aonghus Fallon

    5 April 2016 at 14:37

  8. just so happens that that he spent the first decade of the 21st Century publishing a bunch of books I had no interest in […] The counter-weight I am seeking is to all the near-future disaster novels. Why haven’t more books like The Star Fraction been published in the last twenty years?

    I assume that when you say “books I had no interest in” you’re thinking of The Years of Rice and Salt and Galileo’s Dream, but if I understand you right, surely the Science in the Capitol trilogy is exactly what you’re looking for? A trilogy about attempts to redirect/reinvent society from within to avert catastrophe. The first book starts with the world-as-it-is, and then by the third book you’re on a more utopian trajectory.

    Admittedly there are 150 pages of a man living in a tree in a park in the second book, but maybe that’s part of what’s been trimmed in the omnibus.

    On a related note, we are back from holiday to the land of sweet, sweet internet! While on holiday one of the books I read is All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders, which is a) about as pure a summation of genre in 2016 as you are likely to find, and b) about as transparent a fantasy of agency in the anthropocene as you are likely to find.

    NH

    8 April 2016 at 12:27

  9. Perhaps unfairly, my impression of Science In The Capitol was “West Wing does climate change”. I’m much more interested in walk-and-talk in a context striped of existing institutions (as he’d just done on Mars or Antarctica) rather than in DC. But perhaps they suggested more disruptive change than I imagined. (Plus the three book investment was too much; a shame the omnibus wasn’t the actual book.)

    Martin

    11 April 2016 at 07:23

  10. The omnibus is now the author’s preferred text, if that helps. And I thought you were specifically asking for SF that works with existing structures — Red Mars is as much of a blank-slate story as any apocalypse. (Green and Blue, not so much, admittedly.)

    I feel like this conversation is petering out, but at least we made it to double-figures comments!

    NH

    11 April 2016 at 16:09

  11. So if we go back to the premise of a lack of agency in life and literature caused by late capitalism in the early 21st Century then disaster fiction dodges this by wiping the slate clean. Red Mars and Antarctica, by contrast, dodge this by getting a brand new slate. But these new institutions very much existing alongside and reference the old institutions and the concept of Science In The Capitol seemed like an attempt to apply the approach of the new slate to the old slate which strikes me more as evolution than revolution. A revolution would – to use an unfortunate buzzword -be more disruptive. But I’ve not read the book (and I’m pleased it is just a book now) so this probably isn’t worth continuing.

    I feel like this conversation is petering out, but at least we made it to double-figures comments!

    I look forward to the broader conversation with more participants in the brand new comments section of Strange Horizons once the transcript of the panel is published there.

    Martin

    12 April 2016 at 14:06

  12. […] might also remember I picked up Interzone’s sister magazine, The Third Alternative, in actual paper at […]

  13. […] return to the other two later. (I’d also like to return to another issue Allan raised – the concept of a British SF ‘hub’ – but don’t hold your […]

  14. […] am writing this – my last editorial – in the aftermath of Mancunicon, the 67th British national science fiction convention. As usual, there was a strong BSFA presence, […]


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