[EDIT: See the 2010 report here!]
This year's Eastercon was the best one I'd been to. Orbital 2008 was held at the Radison Edwardian hotel, Heathrow and I went for the whole weekend with my husband Timo. Didn't think anything would beat the 2002 con in Jersey, but I was wrong. Not that I'm a seasoned con-goer and a fan, unlike the veterans celebrating their 40th Eastercon, but nevertheless, measuring by my own tiny scale, this one tops the lot.
It's odd, the bits that you remember about an event like this afterwards. I'm not sure it's entirely fair on the Hugo winning author Charles Stross that out of all of his incredibly detailed, fascinating and simply awesome panel contributions... the story I keep thinking back to is the one about leeches copulating in the anal passage of a hippo.
Then again, that was the Sex and the Singularity panel, during which the sort of stuff was said that the comment "You really had to be there" will be convenient shorthand for simultaneously expressing the tone of the event, as well as excusing the person being questioned from having to re-live any of it (ever again). But it was funny. I needed my tissues for other than nose-blowing purposes. No, get your mind out of the gutter; I needed them to wipe the tears of laughter from my eyes.
There was so much to see and do that the most frustrating part was trying to reconcile the clashes in programming and I was left wistfully pondering what would have happened if the organisers had lobbed ALL of the Guests Of Honour in one, tantalising panel (but I certainly wouldn't have wanted to be the one having to deal with the logistics of fitting 1300 people in one auditorium).
Since we live within commutable distance from Heathrow, we'd made the (poor) decision to not to be resident at the con, but drive in every day instead. It's Easter Friday and the traffic on M25 is awful. I remember one of the bits in Good Omens that I did really enjoy; the M25-is-actually-a-demonic-device-quip. We end up missing "Dress your eggy Sci-Fi Character" at 10am, which we suspect was intended for children anyway, so not too crushed. (So sorry about the pun).
A little bit like the X-factor for wannabe SF writers, I feel the panel are setting the bar too low in what they choose to cover. What I mean by that, is things like this question thrown to the audience quite early on: "How many of you are unpublished writers?". Quite a few hands go up. I expect the next question to be "and how many of you are published writers?", but it never comes and the rest of the content is set at the never-published level.
Am impressed by Thomas and want to find out more about what he's done.
All the members of our writing group who'd arrived at the con by that point are in the room; this feels like a promising start to the weekend. However, the main thrust of the advice from this session turns out to be "for God's sake, join a writing group."
"Novel Discussion: China Mieville - Perdido Street Station"
... which went something like this:
"It seemed to be Gormenghastish."
"Yes, but wasn't it about London?"
"No, it could have been about any urban city. I don't live in London, so I didn't take it to be directly about it."
"No, it was definitely about London."
David: "Ok, so moving on... I would like to open up the discussion about the Remade and the moral implications of..."
"The Remade could have lived in London."
A cold jacket potato with cheese for lunch. Resolve to bring own lunch tomorrow.
A panel about writing careers versus the "Day Job" and what happens if you switch one for the other. Realise that I recognise Mark Robson, but can't at first figure out why. About 20 minutes in, after a passionate and engaging presentation by Mark on how he swapped his RAF career for that of a writer and how he treats it as a business, I remember that he sold me two of his books at our local shopping centre and we'd had a lovely chat about the amount of legwork he's prepared to do to get his books off to a good start. Remember being impressed by his drive and entrepreneurialism. Feel ashamed that have not got 'round to reading the books yet.
Find Paul McAuley exactly the kind of delicious combination of black humour and cockiness that makes me sit up and take notice. Decide to add him to my list of "must read some of his stuff". Contemplate that Paul seems to have sold me his books too, but in an altogether different way.
Laugh out loud when Charles uses Turtledove as a unit of measure for how prolific an author is. Had already bought Accelerando pre-con, but ran out of time to read it in advance. Now deeply regret this. Not the purchase; the part where I was supposedly too busy working to read much prior to the con.
Stay in the (F-ING FREEZING) Commonwealth room for "Judging a book by its cover", which clashes with "Save the planet, or get off the Earth", which I also want to attend, but given that I would like to have more book covers published, the former wins.
(Christian Dunn, David Hicks, Rog Peyton, Pete Young)
The actual panellists who turn up don't seem to match the ones listed and the discussion never gets much deeper than "How many of you have ever bought a book solely based on its cover? How many of you have NOT bought a book because the cover put you off?"
Fan GOH Rog Peyton saves the day by being very entertaining. Was hoping to learn trade secrets, but at least it was an hour well spent having fun. End up chatting with Rog afterwards in the Dealers room and buying a copy of Asimov's from him.
Husband returns from "Save the planet, or get off the Earth" and says: "We should do both, but we're doomed because we've left it too late. I'm depressed now." For a moment I think he's referring to the con's programme clashes.
Having now lost all sensation in my extremities (did I mention it was cold?) I nevertheless decide stay for the next session in Commonwealth: "When it changed", a discussion on the careers of female authors of science fiction and fantasy.
(Juliet E McKenna, Tanith Lee, Kari Maund, Jaine Fenn, Liz Williams)
Juliet: "... so basically, my writing career really only kicked off after I got SO bored of being at home with the kids."
A voice from the seat behind me says: "Thanks a lot, mum!"
I turn and we share a giggle. Later I tell the voice how much I enjoyed a writing workshop Juliet ran at an Eastercon few years ago.
This panel discussion doesn't go in the direction I was expecting it to, which is not a bad thing. The panel is more balanced and involves more narrative of the authors' real life journeys than I had anticipated. Jaine Fenn points out that she hasn't experienced any discrimination as a female genre author: "...either that, or I haven't noticed", said Jaine.
Tanith Lee talks about the way many male authors still end up receiving larger advance payments than women and how shockingly uncertain getting a new contract still is, even for her.
This the sort of panel that ANY aspiring author should have sat in, actually.
Desperately want to stay for the next item "Hidden Gems" (about overlooked books and authors in the genre), but am also desperate for the loo, for some warmth and for something to eat. Nature wins and I take a break.
Return to Commonwealth (which I now mentally refer to as "The Freezer") for "A hitchhiker's guide to web comics".
(John Coxon, Andrew Ducker, David Mansfield, Joanna McKenzie)
Am strangely reassured by a description of RSS feed cataloguing by one of the panel members, as it reminds me of the (some would say tad anally retentive) system I developed for my rambling things-to-do lists before I was sent on a TimeManager course.
I was hoping for some more specific recommendations and URLs, but this still seems like a nice way to spend an hour. Feel like I'd enjoy a long discussion with John Coxon, given the opportunity. He's that sort of guy.
Still at Commonwealth, I stay for the big "Opening ceremony". Enjoy husband's reaction to the Alien Jazz Band (he can't stop grinning and shaking his head. This is his first con of any sort). Wish the Guests of Honour wouldn't have been hauled and effectively imprisoned on stage just to sit through the reading of rather dry ops updates. They were all very professional though and if they minded, it didn't show. Orbital 2008 is declared officially open.
"The UK short fiction market" at Royal. No longer freezing; a good start.
(Gary Couzens, Jetse De Vries, Niall Harrison, Colin Harvey, John Meaney)
Wanted to go to this for many reasons, one of them being Gary, who is in the same writing group. Other
attending T-Party members give me funny looks when I ask where our cheerleading pom-poms are.
Whilst the state of the UK short fiction market is described as somewhat gloomy (and the opinion seems to be that the old "rules" of how one breaks into the genre have also changed), there are some nice positive messages to be had and I leave feeling surprisingly optimistic.
Drive to Heathrow is considerably easier on the traffic front, but it's really windy, which is the most rubbish kind of weather to be driving a Smart on the motorway in. End up arriving half an hour later than planned and missing "Use of mythology in fantasy". Get a coffee instead.
"Guest of Honour: China Mieville"
China's witty and passionately delivered speech-slash-thesis on "For God's sake, it's just a story: a reader's guide to ruining SF" started by a list of disclaimers about how potty-mouthed the speaker would be and exactly how many works would be ruined during the talk. China also noted, that in case the open debate element would be rendered impotent by everyone agreeing with him by the end ".. .then we can all just sit here and nod our heads sagely together."
A convincing case was made for why there effectively is no such thing as "reading it wrong". And how much China cringes when an author defends against an alien and/or disagreeable critique by using the "yes, but I didn't mean it that way" argument. That writers can (and do) communicate more than they intend to through their writing. The talk was so thorough in its structure that I would feel presumptuous attempting to summarise it much beyond this (just in case I'd get it wrong), but then again, maybe there isn't such a thing as a wrong interpretation of what China meant.
The final conclusion reached seemed a little too severe, so I raised my hand and got the opportunity to throw in a comment.
Me: "You say that the it's-just-a-story defenders are, ultimately, people who hate books. I would argue that the reaction has more to do with fear - sometimes people are just acting defensively for the fear of being associated with meanings and politics they don't subscribe to. I went to a rather strict Communist-style Russian school and after reading the Narnia books and really enjoying them at the time, didn't then like being accused of being a filthy Christian. I think it's quite a natural reaction at that point to cry out yes, but it's just a story!"
(Neil Gaiman, Geoff Ryman, Louis Savy, Graham Sleight)
This turned out to be an engaging panel, peppered with anecdotes from Neil Gaiman about Neverwhere (mostly involving surreal BBC-related events).
In the "it's odd what you remember about these things"-department, did you know why the lampposts aren't set in concrete on the Mall? They're screwed down instead, so that in an emergency, the road leading up to Buckingham Palace can be converted into a functioning airstrip.
Geoff: "I wonder if the palace swivels to one side. Thunderbirds are go!"
We decide to eat our packed lunch in the car with the fan heater turned on. I may have mentioned that the Commonwealth (where I seem to have spent most of the con) was rather chilly.
Part way through a cheese roll, the fan heater makes a spluttering sound and dies. We hadn't turned on the engine and the battery's gone flat. This surprises us quite a lot. There's lots of cursing. Husband phones the AA. Whilst waiting for them to attend, we go to another panel discussion.
"Religion in SF"
The panel feels ruined by poor sound quality and people coming and going. On top of which, I feel distracted because I'm worrying about the car.
Husband has gone to meet the AA bloke at the hotel car park. I'm left sitting at reception among other fans. I have the better deal; the chair is comfy and I get to eavesdrop on conversations about what other people have been up to at the con. Feel like I could have gone to this con four times over and had an equally fun experience doing completely different things. I can't believe I missed the human Pokemon game. Then again.
Whilst I have time to kill, I pull out my notebook and start making that list of panellists whose written works I really ought to explore after the con. Being a panellist is a brilliant marketing strategy. I write down "John Meaney" first. An arm reaches over my shoulder. It's putting down some promotional leaflets on the coffee table about a book signing taking place on Sunday. I turn around and realise the arm belongs to John Meaney.
"Oh, heh, I'll definitely grab one of those; in fact, you've saved me from having to google your bibliography! I was just making a list of people whose panel contributions have made me curious about what they've written," I say.
We chat for a while. Another little con gem of a moment.
AA has asked for us to run the engine for a while to recharge the battery. We decide that perhaps it's time to go home.
"Guest of Honour: Charles Stross"
If I wrote down everything from this presentation it'd be a novel. No, a text-book. Quite a weird one though. Am left with a sense of awe and my mind races. Charles covers rocket science, computer science, plane spotting, the concept of a technological singularity, a much hoped-for possibility of having goggles that record your field of vision into a prosthetic memory... and a whole lot more.
I keep thinking about my husband's blind mum and how interesting it would be to wire up the gogglevideo straight into the brain and maybe you could make blind people "see".
"Politics in young adult fiction"
(Cory Doctorow, Amanda Hemingway, Martin McGrath, China Mieville, Ruth O'Reilly)
A really interesting discussion, which was very nicely moderated. Wanted to make a couple of comments, but the topic ran off before I got the chance. Cory Doctorow came across as insightful and down to earth.
"Guest of Honour: Neil Gaiman"
Neil was going to start by reading the first chapter of his new book. His plans for how this was going to go were messed up by a technical problem with a printer. In other words, the printer in Ops made his words into unreadable gobbledigook. Being the seasoned pro he is, the problem itself became an amusing anecdote and acted as a sort of warm-up for the main content.
Instead, Neil started by reading his short story "Orange" to us. It was written in the form of the answers to a questionnaire, except that the reader never gets to know the questions. That made for some ticklishly funny moments. I found myself thinking back to the "stand-up comedy for SF fans" comment I made about Good Omens in my blog prior to Eastercon and feel like having now met Neil and seen him live; witnessed how well he understands comic timing and listened to his pleasant voice - that perhaps Omens should have been a radio play.
Some new print-outs of the previously gobbledigooked first chapter were brought in and we got to hear the beginning to "The Graveyard book" after all. It's very good. Neil filled us in on how he came to write about a boy brought up by dead people.
This was one of the highlights of the con for me (and for a few hundred others).
I eat some chips at the bar.
Go to dealers' room with the intention of purchasing John Meaney's Bone Song. Find John at one of the tables, doing the book signing thing, but when I ask about the book, I'm told there aren't any left. I didn't want to get the second book in the series first, obviously. So, I turn around to leave - and appear to summon up a bearded dealer with the last copy out of thin air. He'd dug one out to get it signed.
Whilst at dealers' room I finally subscribe to Interzone (nice to do something you've been meaning to for ages).
"The appeal of Lovecraft"
(Roz Kaveney, China Mieville, Marcus Rowland, Charles Stross)
Another one in which China dazzles us, makes a whole bunch of interesting points and talks about the horror of the table. I'm suddenly reminded of the conversations I had with my philosophy teacher (which is not a bad thing to be reminded of, as this teacher was one of the ones who liked me).
Roz's knowledge of Lovecraft is impressive.
The best part, however comes at the point in which the panel has connected Lovecraft's personal life up with a tabloid-worthy catalogue of genre influencers of dubious political standing - and China shouts: "What is this, the HELLO of weird fiction?"
A small break and general milling about. I spend some time with the T-Party.
Neil is so soft and attentive with his fans one-on one. Everyone wants to see him.
China remembers me. I squirm and try not to be entirely devoid of self respect. No recollection of what I actually say.
Leave with autographed items. Not sure I like being a fan; it's so embarrassing at times. I'd like to have my cool back. (Suspect I never had it in the first place).
Only in Eastercon could you get a panel of 4 men and a mute woman (poor Jaine had lost her voice and was reduced to communicating with pre-prepared signs) discussing the practicalities and social consequences of having sex in a world where a technological singularity has occurred.
I mentioned this panel right at the beginning, so let's just say "you had to be there".
It was nice to see so many Father Ted fans in the audience, judging by the eruption of laughter in response to Jaine holding up a sign "That would be an ecumenical matter" to a particularly awkward line of questioning at one point.
Signs with "NO", "BOLLOX" and "I WOULD" were also surprisingly useful and appropriate.
"Hitchhiker's: how a radio 4 comedy series took over the world"
(John Coxon, Neil Gaiman, David Haddock, Sharon Lewis-Jones, Liam Proven)
Highlight of panel: discovering that the original Dish of The Day from the theatre production was in the audience. Not that this panel didn't have other highlights, but that was perhaps another one of those more memorable ones.
"You're reading it wrong"
(Andrew Ducker, Penny Hill, Tanith Lee, Farah Mendlesohn, Charles Stross)
Husband was also at this one. When we sat down, the first thing I asked was: "Why the hell isn't China on this panel - given the topic of his GOH presentation?". Husband pointed to the row in front: "well at least he's in the audience."
This bugged me for the whole hour. I would have paid to see what adding a dose of "there is no such thing as reading it wrong" might have done to the dynamic.
Tanith was particularly charming and made some of the best little insertions. On discovering that one of the panellists hadn't yet written fiction, Tanith exlaimed: "your approach to writing reviews is exactly what fiction writers go through! You should write fiction! Try it."
To which the response was: "I know you have my best interests at heart, but..."
"Are you sure?" said Tanith.
Meanwhile, the only slightly off-balance element of this one was that it felt a bit like some stronger moderation could have helped; at times Farah dominated the discussion and I came to hear the others too.
"Darker than Potter: the disturbing side of children's fiction"
(Holly Black, Neil Gaiman, Ruth O'Reilly, Sarah Singleton, Steve Vander Ark)
Absolutely one of the best discussion of the con; to summarise - what children find terrifying isn't always what adults find terrifying, dark themes, violence and a strong sense of hard justice for the "bad guys" are concepts that have existed in children's fiction for as long as everyone can remember, kids liking the darker stuff is not new, but parents suddenly picking it up on their modern over-protective over-PC radar is (and in a way we've got Harry Potter to blame for that because the phenomenon put the sodding spotlight on the stuff and parents started looking at what their kids were reading and going "Wait a minute...").
This was really good stuff. Also felt a little star-struck by Holly Black.
Friend's comment about this photo: "It's the last supper with Neil Gaiman as Jesus".
China: "The first Eastercon I went to, I was as quiet as a mouse. I now realise that I've been getting progressively louder each time, so I propose that the next con will consist of me, on stage, shouting for 3 days straight."
"Identity management in the internet age"
(In which all panellists were multiple-persona anonymous, apart from Persephone Hazard, who is multiple persona "Come on guys, I'm hardly subtle!")
We squeezed in this one last panel, which was interesting, if a little preemptively over-moderated (which, I feel, stifled its potential).
Time to hug people a lot and go home. Feel melancholy, but hope to get to next year's Eastercon, LX, which will be held in Bradford.