Odyssey 2010, The 2010 Eastercon, 2 - 5 April 2010
Radisson Edwardian Hotel, Heathrow, London, UK
If you have a greater than average urge to don a hat, waistcoat, beard or a ponytail (especially if all at once), you may be a Fan and not realise it. I currently seem to be making it to only one con, and even to that at the pathetic frequency of every other year. Each time I decide that I'd like to go to more of them. They are fun and fascinating events. Also probably one of the few places where you'll see teenagers with knitting needles instead of hoodies. Perhaps the only place.
Even though as a child growing up in Finland I was reading Lem, Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke and Vonnegut with the odd Edgar Rice Burroughs' Mars book thrown in long before I'd got into Star Trek and the original Battlestar Galactica, I didn't know anything about 'Fandom' before my first Eastercon in Jersey. I'm so glad I now know they exist. One of the first Fans (with a capital F) I met back then turned out to be a bit of a Fandom superhero, Peter Weston. We still only ever bump into each other and catch up at Eastercons.
According to Mike Carey, the difference between a Comic Con and an Eastercon is that the former feels less connected and less personal and the latter feels more like a bunch of people who've known each other for ages. There must be so many levels of these cons I am completely oblivious to - fandom politics and hierarchy, for instance, but to a naive punter like myself the environment feels un-snobbish, welcoming, inclusive and exhilarating.
As always there were more interesting programme items than time, and short of creating a space-time anomaly, one had to choose. I left out the bondage workshops, animatronics and sword fighting techniques, but there were still plenty of sessions I would like to have seen and couldn't.
When talking about happiness, life coaches and other such bods often recite that experiences make us happier than material things. The good (or bad, depending on one's viewpoint) thing about Eastercons is that they provide you with plenty of both.
We pile into the Smart, put on Jokaiselle Tulta and drive down to Heathrow. The journey is shorter than two years ago because we now live in Farnham instead of Horley.
Life of a Hydrogen Atom, Nik Whitehead
At first I am slightly concerned because the black and white Power Point presentation that greets us seems like an example of 'How Not To Use Power Point' from my presentation skills course. Within seconds, Nik's charismatic delivery and humour override any such doubts. She makes the session feel as though I've been given the pudding before the main meal.
"You're a different audience - different in all the right ways," she quips at one point.
Nik takes us through Life, Universe and Almost Everything in one hour, from the Big Bang to a sobering look at what might happen to our Universe in the end.
Current contenders are:
- The Big Freeze = if our Universe is considered to be open and will continue to expand ad infinitum, it will eventually suffer a heat death.
- The Big Crunch = if our universe is considered to be closed, it may eventually stop expanding and crunch inwards; possibly creating another Big Bang in the process. (Apparently this line of thinking is falling out of favour)
- The Big Rip = Everything will be torn apart by the expansion of the Universe and there will be 'rips' in space-time.
Luckily for us, our Universe is only around 14 billion years old. Still, I do frequently suffer from what could maybe be described as existential depression.
Afterwards, I reflect on how irritating I find it when people prefer superstition and woo to the marvels that are right here and very real. We are all made from stars. Fact. How much more amazing could things be?
Comics 101 - Essential Comics for New Readers, Sam Sykes, Claude Lalumière, Mike Carey, Crazy Dave
"Comics is not a genre. It's a medium."
The panel throws out so much excellent commentary and information that I fill 5 pages of my notebook. It is nice to see Dave Mansfield again though I don't think he recognises me from 2008. (If you're reading - hi Crazy Dave!).
One segment makes me hold my breath a little. "What would you recommend to a child who is new to comics?"
I feel too intimidated to comment at this point, just in case mentioning Asterix, Lucky Luke and Tintin would be thought of as dorky. Relieved that someone else puts their hand up and mentions them instead. Also lament that Marsupilami never really made it over here.
Of course, coming from Finland, my comic book reading was hugely influenced by the Moomin comics, as well as Aku Ankka. I don't mention these.
I'm impressed by Claude. He is insightful and articulate. At one point he says: "Comics is a language - if you haven't been exposed to it from an early age it can be hard to decode." Of course this could be some kind of industry cliché I am blissfully unaware of, but it was certainly one of the most thought-provoking moments for me.
The discussion touches on the lamentable decline and eventual disappearance of newsstand comics, which has probably been one of the biggest causes of declining readership over the last couple of decades. I wonder if we could start some sort of a movement to bring comics back. Maybe that would be as likely to succeed as getting your kids really into radio plays.
Here are some of the recommendations:
Flight anthologies - about storytelling and a sense of wonder.
Alfred Bester's The Stars My Destination as a comic. Apparently very hard to get hold of.
Schlock Mercenary (web comic)
Ultimate Spiderman (if you want to get your superhero-fan kids into comics, but don't want to make their head explode by all the back-story).
Sam Sykes recommends Uzumaki by saying: "Are there any Japanese people in the audience?" No hands go up. He continues: "Good, because I might have phrased this a little differently otherwise. If you want truly weird shit, you've got to angle in that direction."
Walking Dead (apparently drawn by a really lovely bloke who once drew Dave a picture of a mad zombie scientist).
Sam also recommends The Boys, which he describes as a "a really horrible, violent comic." I'm beginning to spot a theme with Sam.
Claude mentions Love and Rockets, which I am chuffed about because I've only recently discovered it myself.
Palomar was described as magic realism, which makes me think that I must look it up immediately.
Beanworld is recommended for kids. Apparently it's about walking, talking beans.
Palestine is mentioned as an excellent achievement of conveying complex issues and the genuine horror of war.
Dave explains the general gist of A Super Girly Top Secret Comic Diary. Sadly it seems to have drawn to a close.
The Age of Bronze is mentioned as a good example of historically well researched project.
Lunch - shredded carrot and currant salad from the con Buffet. A bit soggy.
Iain Banks Before the Wasp Factory, David Haddock
The editor of Banksoniain fanzine takes us through what Iain was writing in the 60s and 70s. We hear anecdotes about his early adventure stories and terrible character names. My husband has to explain to me why Toss Macabre is funny.
Allergies - an Introduction to Our Current Understanding, Brian Gray
"Histamine is basically molecular teargas."
Who knew talking about snot could be so entertaining? Brian is a super-charismatic, knowledgeable, educated and a less creepy version of Sideshow Bob. His presentation is engaging and informative. I leave with a well-put-together handout and a grin. I'm also now jealous of North Americans' anaphylaxis kits. Mine is pretty pathetic by comparison.
Was going to go to: Writing Steampunk. Instead end up at: Battlestar Atlantia (LARP intro session)
The hotel corridors are plastered with these cool posters. Both Timo and I are big fans of the new Battlestar Galactica. Even my text message alert goes: "By your command" in a cylon voice. But I digress. I've not done Live Action - or any other kind of - role playing for a very, very long time. I probably won't start again now. However, I must have one of these posters. So I head to the games intro session and speak to the artist. She is delighted that I like her work and lets me have one of the spare copies. I'll frame it later.
I spend the remaining time browsing through the dealer room (for those who don't know what a dealer room is; it's a science fiction fan market with everything from clothing, jewellery and books to two-headed bears). I pass the Genki Gear stall twice before admitting to myself that I must buy at least one of their t-shirts.
Utopia - How the Concept Has Developed in Philosophy and SF, Iain M. Banks, Elizabeth Counihan, Edward James, Nik Whitehead
"In order to create Utopia, you have to destroy what was there before."
A fascinating discussion about the very definitions of Utopia and Dystopia. "Utopias are fun to live in, but crap to write about," said Iain at one point. He clarified by stating that it's much more interesting to write about what he called the peripheral stuff; where conflict occurs.
"Brave New World seemed like a Utopia to the Americans at the time: hey, free drugs!"
How Writers, Artists and Illustrators Interact, Mike Carey, Al Davidson, Deidre Counihan, Chris Moore, Steve K
There is a definite difference between book jacket illustration and graphic novels/comics in that the former is more like packaging design. It's meant to sell a product. There is some more discussion about how novelists and illustrators interact. I've never properly thought about what goes into comic script writing and the session ends up focusing on this topic fairly heavily. I learn about the old Marvel 3-step process and what happens these days instead. The best part is when everyone starts to share their war-stories about demanding agents and ridiculous art direction. Mentioning no names, of course.
I discover that Mike Carey is a fellow book-sniffer and find this delightful. There's nothing like a science fiction convention to make you feel less like an outsider.
It's my birthday and we decide to have a slow start. This allows me to open presents, the winner of which is this super-awesome Irregular Choice bag. I immediately turf out all the junk from my current handbag and put the new one into use.
We bump into Martin Owton, Dave Gullen, Gaye Sebold from the T-party. I make a feeble attempt to explain why I've let my membership lapse to never-seen associate status. Martin suggests I should try the (now) local to me writing group he is a member of in Farnborough.
Guest of Honour: Iain M. Banks, interviewed by Jane Killick
I am beginning to understand why the only two authors I really couldn't seem to get into when I first started reading English fantasy and science fiction as a non-native speaker were Terry Pratchett and Iain M. Banks. Who knew space opera could be so...colloquial?
Iain is animated, charismatic and charming. His talk keeps everyone entertained and the hour whizzes past.
I am still catching up with my Banks reading. I've gone up the science fiction 'branch' of his career first.
Iain's fantastic Scottish accent is beginning to flavour my internal dialogue.
Bad Science, Ben Goldacre
"All Men Will Have Big Willies"
At first I couldn't believe my luck when I saw that Ben was going to be here too. You'd just have to throw in some kind of olfactory lecture and it'd be perfect programming for Pia.
There are some technical difficulties in the beginning. Ben ends up with his laptop on a chair, on a table and comments: "Now that the Pierrot-part of my presentation is over..."
A great presenter, Ben shows that he's done this sort of thing on stage before. The early technical hitch cuts the show short, which is a shame because everyone is enjoying themselves immensely.
I already know most of the stories he tells us because I've got his book and read his blog, but I'm thrilled at the opportunity to see him in action.
We pile out of the room and to my surprise, Ben stops me: "Don't I know you from somewhere?"
We talk for about an hour and Timo joins in half-way through. I tell Ben about the book I'm working on and he scolds me for not pulling my finger out and sorting it out already. He threatens to write it if I don't.
We end up missing what we were planning on doing and decide to have something to eat instead.
I pop to the dealers room and treat myself to an adorable (very flattering) portrait done by Al Davidson. I can't resist the pull of another Genki t-shirt, so I reason that it's my birthday and who needs to eat lunch anyway? I end up chatting with Lydia on the stall and she tells me about their adventures as an independent company.
Drawing Comic Art, Al Davidson
"Never commit too early to your lines."
I signed up for this session, which is lucky since it seemed over-subscribed. There aren't enough chairs and the arrangement is awkward for Al because he needs to draw onto a flip chart from a seated position. Somehow Al manages to run the session with ease despite these difficulties. He shows us some of his Doctor Who original artwork panels, discussed various drawing techniques - and we get to participate in some quick lessons in comic art short-hand. It's amazing how much Al is able to fit in. I learn a lot, but leave wishing I could sign up for a course taught by him.
Whisky tasting with Iain Banks
Did you know that Iain's original idea for a science fiction pen-name was a blend of his favourite whisky brands at the time?
We didn't sign up for this session, which means we were banished to the back rows and only got a few glasses passed around to us. The volume of audience 'participation' increases in tandem with number of whisky samples. The mods seem annoyed by this, but I don't mind. It's like a strange kind of bar with pauses for tasting notes. To my delight, the discussion touches on olfaction a fair amount, at which point I am able to contribute a little. Now it really is a perfect programme for Pia.
The whisky tasting ends at 6pm and we head home. I only sniffed, so I'm driving.
Biggest Biological Tropes in SF, Stephen Gaskell, Paul McAuley, Michael Owen, Sharon Reamer, Gary Stratmann
"Life as we know it (if there's a Jim in the audience)".
The usual topics of carbon-based life forms versus the possibility of silicon-based; what IS life anyway and all that jazz gets covered. Very interesting, but find myself once again mesmerised by Paul McAuley's brain.
The question of "is there another type of life on Earth that we just haven't discovered yet?" is an interesting one.
Gary has a fantastic way with words: "The broader question of life is easily answered - it's DNA versus Lego." And: "It's been important to human psychology to believe we are special."
Guest of Honour: Alastair Reynolds
"It's a great time to be writing science fiction. Science moves faster, so you just have to work a little bit harder."
Alastair presents a journey through early science fiction to modern writing by drawing on the theme of how science and fiction interact. He puts developments in the genre in political and cultural context and admits to still hoping that faster than light travel could be possible.
He mentions his frustration at not knowing what will be discovered by science after he has gone and I nod in agreement. It's one of the most annoying things about being curious.
We pick up a copy of Murky Depths from the dealers room. This is a new one for me, but the sample copy I picked up looked interesting.
Pictured: our book haul from the con.
Best Unread (in English) European SF books, Jonathan Cowie, Jo Fletcher, Kirill Pleshkov, Hannu Rajaniemi, Christian Sauve, Ian Watson, Cheryl Morgan
Discussions about the difficulties of translation - and specifically - interpreting the content correctly are always fun, given my background, but I was cheating a bit and mostly looking for some good Finnish recommendations. Hannu mentioned Karsta, Apina ja Uusikuu and Lumikko ja Yhdeksan Muuta. I'll have to get hold of them when I next visit. I didn't know that 'New Weird' was called 'Uusi Kumma' in Finnish. It sounds funny.
Mike is interviewed by Paul Cornell. The conversation moves fluidly through Mike's works. I am charmed by both of them. I hadn't noticed how much Mike looks like Lucifer in the comics until Paul points it out.
The pair cope admirably in what can only be described as a Monty Python-moment when two gophers decide to sweep the stage during the talk.
The description of this panel featured a question I would have been interested in: "How interdependent are language and culture?"
Instead most of the panel focuses on Culture; which is still fine and entertaining, given that we're in the company of the person who invented it and another one who is writing her PhD on it. Audience participation moves the discussion towards personal experiences and reading of accents - how much we use accent and dialect as a social marker and so forth.
Timo suggests that I should give Feersum Endjinn a go. Iain says he wanted to make a short book longer "...so I thought I could slow it down by making you have to figure out 'what the hell is he saying now?'"
Was: Climate Scepticism: Pros and Cons, but we tossed a coin and went for Just a Minute instead.
Just a Minute, a rip-off of the game by the same name. John Dowd, Lisa Konrad, Sue Mason, Neil, Henry Proctor and Alastair Reynolds.
Some of the topics: the geography of Radisson Edwardian hotel, the colour blue, potatoes.
Black Holes For Beginners, Nik Whitehead
"Singularity really means: shit, we don't know what the maths is doing here. It's where it all breaks down."
I realise that we've come a full circle and end our con with another Nik Whitehead item. This session is even more fascinating than the first - probably because it involves so much more tantalisingly unknown and mysterious material. I wish I could attend lectures by Nik all the time, but I doubt I'd have the smarts for it.
She mentions the 'spaghettification' of space-time and I can't resist shouting out: "Does that mean the Pastafarians are right?"
We're hungry and knackered and decide to head home. We're in the lobby paying for our parking when I lament to Timo that I hadn't had a chance to get my copy of Lucifer signed by the author. At this point, in a spooky replica of the John Meaney-moment from 2008, Mike Carey turns up and I get my autograph. He asks us whether we enjoyed the con and we try not to be too tongue-tied.
Listening to Plastic Beach on the way home, we discuss the con and how it feels for it to be over and whether we'll be going to the next one, or the one after that. Maybe the every-other-con pattern will continue, which may be just as well considering how much you come away with. We pick up a bottle of Dalwhinnie 15-year-old. Cheers, Iain!