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.

52 Responses to “The Ambivalent Eastercon”

  1. iansales Says:

    We need the Mexicons back – a mid-sized provincial literary con.

  2. Anna Feruglio Dal Dan Says:

    The review panel was for me pretty much a disaster; which is a pity because I think all panelist apart from the mysterious woman who talked about the end of capitalism were greatly interesting people.

    I am not sure I have been to any con (and I have been to far more than you, over a far longer period) where there were lots of good literature panels. I have rosy reminiscences of Conspiracy 97, but that was my first con, and besides I was blissfully drunk all the time. So I’m not sure it was the literature.

    I don’t go to academic conferences, and to be honest your average academic paper makes me want to climb the walls in fury, so perhaps it is for the best; could it be that there is a divergence between fans who are of an academic bent and the others? Once the only outlet for serious criticism was fandom, now there is bona fide academia and perhaps it has become more of a niche interest as a result.

    I think part of the problem is that so many fans have been to so many cons that at this point all seems already done, ten times, and they are bored to death by it; so they end up hanging out in the bar.

    As for the manlycon, I had your exact opposite reaction: I am rather put out by it and I would only go for the social aspect, because frankly, I don’t see what David Weber has that could interest me, when for example Scalzi would have been much more interesting and less marked as Men’s Interest item. I don’t think that Eastercon should cater only to a particular slice of fandom.

  3. kev mcveigh Says:

    As I drove home I found myself thinking of The Convention and The Convention. It really seemed that there were two vastly different groups of people there in the same space. The programming reflected this, in its specific focus in some areas and generic vagueness in others. It wasn’t just the absence of properly thought out literature panels and panellists, more that some items were clearly response to a request but not worked out. I heard grumbling that there was a slash panel that was just a slash panel with no attempt at depth or focus, likewise the reviewing panel and others.
    I got the impression of reactive rather than proactive programming combined with an unwillingness to seek out ideas. Previous cons have contacted people with special interest for items not just relied on a ticklist.
    A consequence of this lack of awareness about what other people might find interesting was the number of bizarre clashes. NON-SF for SF readers up against Iain Banks goh talk? Feminist heroines against Liz Williams talk? Lab lit against the Hay lecture? It’s as though they just shuffled blocks regardless of content. And what was there that really related to their guests work ?

  4. Alison Scott Says:

    I found it rather fine, on the whole, for all that I had been terribly ambivalent beforehand. I would have preferred more programme to make people think; not necessarily to make me think, you understand, because I would have been sitting in the non-existent large comfortable bar. (Actually, there *was* a large comfortable bar, Henly’s. If only it had, y’know, served alcohol. Particularly real ale. Ideally long into the night). But Dave Hicks perceptively noted that the purpose of a really strong programme is so that old farts can ignore it while sitting in the bar. That way, all the young enthusiastic fans can come and talk to them about the marvellous arguments on the programme, and fantastic conversations can ensue without having to actually get off one’s arse and go to the programme. Ahem.

    Due to the lack of a comfortable bar with beer (CBWB) I did get to quite a lot of programme, and I enjoyed what I went to. But I think, on the whole, I would have preferred a CBWB. On my drunkenest night (not very) I found myself chatting to a lovely Irish fan, Octocon runner, friend of James Bacon, who was astounded by the hostility of the hotel to a couple of hundred people who wanted nothing more than to sit in a CBWB and press money on the hotel for drinks.

    But Ian Sales is right about the need for a medium sized literary con. How’s that going anyway?

  5. Niall Says:

    Anna: I’d say Concussion had a strong literary programme, and I remember a lot at the ’05 Worldcon I enjoyed. Manlycon could be dreadful, but in principle I’m fine with having a specific focus. It’s not my first interest, but if the programme is well designed I can imagine finding a weekend talking about related topics interesting — and I agree an Eastercon needs to cater to a broad spectrum, but I don’t think a mil-sf theme inherently needs to mean a narrow spectrum programme. You could easily have “But What Are The Civilian Applications?” or “… Continued By Other Means” panels, for instance — that is, draw in other topics but use a mil-sf frame.

    As for the “it all seems to have been done” point: well, that’s part of why I pointed at Twitter, in the report; there are a lot of people on there for whom this was a first convention, and for whom it has not all been done before.

    Kev: yes, the excitement of the programme team seemed to be focus in places other than the sf-related content, and I do think that’s a problem. (And I can’t believe I didn’t think of The Convention & The Convention…)

    Alison:

    That way, all the young enthusiastic fans can come and talk to them about the marvellous arguments on the programme, and fantastic conversations can ensue

    Ha. But I’d have been happy to play that role…

    But Ian Sales is right about the need for a medium sized literary con. How’s that going anyway?

    We are agreed that there is a need for it! :-)

  6. penny Says:

    I was pleasantly surprised by how many panel items I ended up going to in the end. I did come away with a strong desire to read more books and we acquired less than 20 new ones, so those are both positives. One conversation that did leap from panel to panel was the “feminist space opera” panel conversation continuing in the “body mutable” panel but overall, yes I could have done with more thought-provoking panels.

  7. kev mcveigh Says:

    I can recall quite a few specific panels over the years where discussion continued into the bar and long into the night. Panels where I was inspired to do research in advance even as an audience member. This eastercon had nothing remotely in that category.

    The time maybe has come again for something like Mexicons but I’d also say that there were great programming ideas at the previous three eastercons I attended (Glasgow, Chester and Bradford ) so it isn’t intrinsic to the eastercon cover all the bases philosophy.

  8. Anna Feruglio Dal Dan Says:

    Well, ok, if Illuminatus turns out not to be focused on awfully written rewash of anti-Napoleonic propaganda whose primary function seems to be to allow right-wing geek libertarians to feel all validated in their world-view, then I don’t have any problem with it.

  9. Paul Kincaid Says:

    The more it changes, the more it stays the same.

    Sorry, Niall, but you sound exactly like me from around 1980. Exactly the same complaints and comments about exactly the same sort of Eastercon.

    In fact, Mexicon started because a group of us were sitting around at a lacklustre Eastercon saying that we need a convention for people who, you know, read science fiction.

    I feel history repeating itself all the way through this post. So all I can say is: beware!

  10. David Moles Says:

    My first Eastercon. Admittedly my picture was rather skewed since I only really attended Friday, but the programming I did see —

    1. Jessica Yates reading us summaries of her favorite time travel stories. Mostly harmless, though I can’t say it deserved to be standing room only — billing it as having something to do with Terry Pratchett was a bit bait-and-switch. (Not an observation, more of a question: Is this sort of talk common at UK cons?)

    2. A panel about steampunk that I went to on account of it had Al Reynolds on it. Not too dull, mostly thanks to Kim Lakin-Smith (anyone read her stuff? is it any good?), but it was the so-called “questions” segment that was unintentionally hilarious, and probably only in light of the “Death of the Panel” panel at WisCon 30.

    3. The utopia panel mentioned above. More novel than I expected, partly because Iain Banks and Martin McGrath are funny, partly because Edward James could actually talk about the history of utopia; some interesting if mostly vague discussion of British vs. American utopias.

    4. Niall’s survey panel. I thought it was pretty interesting (and fairly well run, nice work Niall), but mostly worked as a teaser for the book.

    — certainly didn’t make me want to rush back.

    On the whole it felt like a largish regional con in the US; maybe a little less grim (though also less colorful) than, say, Norwescon, but more or less the same sort of event — which is to say it felt very fannish. Even the literary program, what I saw of it, felt fannish, thanks to the preponderance of middle-aged gentlemen in the audience who seemed to think they should be in front of it. Not really my scene.

    On the bright side, unlike the average Norwescon, there were not three separate and vaguely differentiated “Is there fantasy beyond Tolkien?” panels.

    If I do attend another Eastercon — and I expect I will one of these years — it’ll mostly be because, trying to do the con and something else concurrently, I didn’t make enough time this year to hang out in the bar, or to rearrange my sleep schedule for more hanging out in the bar. But it’d be nice if the programming was a bit, I don’t know, sharper?

    That said, I’m not sure it’s the panel topics per se that are the problem. Good moderation can go a long way.

  11. David Moles Says:

    So of course after reading this thread I had to google up the historical context, and found this in Dave Langford’s Mexicon IV writeup:

    The Mexicon atmosphere is always loaded with pleasing intangibles, like the second-hand satisfaction felt when there’s a damn fine programme for me not to attend.

    That is pretty much what was missing.

  12. Martin Says:

    This was my first convention and yes, it was a fairly ambivalent experience. I think perhaps this was partly my own fault, I’ve got a feeling I should have jumped in for the whole weekend rather than just dipped my toe in for the Saturday. However, although I had been warned that it was more about social interaction than science fiction I still hadn’t quite been prepared for this. I did see some friends and it was also helpful to make a few contacts professionally but I was after something more than that.

    Tied into being a day member was also a sense of being completely stranded. I appreciate the (astonishing) fact that Heathrow is the only possible venue near London but it is a total wasteland. I ate my lunch sat on the verge of a dual carriage way whcih might have been appropriately Ballardian but wasn’t much fun. I’d been told that the real con happened in the bar but there wasn’t anything that I recognised as a bar. There was an atrium with a couple of pumps in the corner but I can’t imagine anyone would drink there by choice. I’ve never even been to a bar that only served two beers before. The result was that I spent most of my time in the dealers’ room which was fine for a couple of hours but couldn’t sustain anything more.

    thanks to the preponderance of middle-aged gentlemen in the audience who seemed to think they should be in front of it.

    This is a persistant problem I have when I do interact with fandom and one of the things that keeps me away from it.

  13. Niall Says:

    Penny:

    One conversation that did leap from panel to panel was the “feminist space opera” panel conversation continuing in the “body mutable” panel

    Good to hear. Although of course the latter was one of the last-minute panels, and (frustratingly) ended up scheduled against Not the Clarke, which is just about the only item I never want to miss.

    Paul:

    I feel history repeating itself all the way through this post.

    *ominous soundtrack music here*

    David:

    it felt very fannish.

    The interesting thing about this is that it seemed to me, partly because of the London location, that there were a perhaps unusually large number of authors and publishers in attendance. But the way the hotel is set up led to a bit of a divide, with the fans upstairs in the atrium, mostly, and the industry people downstairs in the expensive bar, mostly. Mind you, as a criticism of the programme I can’t argue with you.

    Martin: I can’t believe Heathrow is literally the only possible venue in the London area; maybe it’s just habit? The hotel has some upsides, but not so many that it seems like a no-brainer choice, at least from the outside. And yes, it is awfully stranded. One of the most enjoyable Eastercons in the last few years, for me, was Chester — which for all that it was a last-minute replacement had a solid programme, and was right in the middle of a very nice town.

  14. marco Says:

    John Clute is a remarkable man of many talents, but moderation is rarely if ever one of them.

    Why, you amaze me. I would have thought his brisk, straightforward, no-nonsense approach made him particularly well-suited to the task.
    ;)

  15. Mike Scott Says:

    I too enjoyed the Chester Eastercon both for its programme and for its location. I’d point out to any interested parties that there’s likely to be an opportunity coming up in 2014 to run a slightly smaller and more fannish Eastercon, if there’s going to be a Worldcon in London later that year.

  16. Jonathan McCalmont Says:

    “middle-aged gentlemen in the audience who seemed to think they should be in front of it”

    To be honest, I find that a problem with the monthly BSFA meets too. Without a really strong moderator it is incredibly easy for middle-aged men (and it’s always middle-aged men) to sit in the audience and paralyse discussion with a series of tangential and spectacularly banal observations.

    In fact, my refusal to really engage with conventions is largely down to the devil and deep blue sea problem of not particularly liking having weak short stories read at me and nor particularly liking it either when it is thrown open to questions and what might have been an interesting space for the exchange of ideas is instantly swamped by a tsunami of duh.

    Is the discussion about Readercon relevant to all of this? In particular I’m thinking of the expressed preference for expertise over inclusiveness.

  17. Paul Kincaid Says:

    Speaking as a middle-aged man, I have to deplore the ageism even while I applaud the sentiment.

    But moderating a panel is a very tricky skill, not many people can do it, fewer still can do it well. When I was involved in programming conventions we used to spend ages trying to decide on the right moderator for each item.

    You have to remember that a moderator is a conduit for other people’s ideas, you need to encourage people to speak and know how to shut them up, you have to keep the conversation moving, and mostly you do it without taking part in the conversation yourself. Which is why I would never have used Clute as a moderator, he has too many interesting things to say as a panelist.

  18. Graham Says:

    Speaking as “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)” I have to say that a) you seem to have misunderstood my position and b) sorry, but I don’t consider “death stares” to be substitutes for counter-arguments.

    I really don’t want to get into a post-mortem on the panel, I’d just point out that the original proposal for it came about because of someone’s assertion in the Odyssey Group that what was done in the Dollhouse was not justifiable, full stop, and my response that just because someone may not *like* the idea of what was happening, did not mean that their opinion was a fact and I was willing to state why I considered their position to be wrong and give reasons for this.

    As was said by (I think) Paul Cornell, Dollhouse challenges and questions people’s established views, so the question then becomes how you respond to those questions.

  19. Nick Hubble Says:

    It was my first Eastercon and I enjoyed it on the whole. Yes, there was nothing on saturday after Iain Banks and bfore the ‘lit crit’ panel, but it gave me a chance to properly browse the dealers room and have a drink. Sunday, I wnet to a lot and the Clarke was good. I thought Graham’s comments alone were worth a decent chunk of the fee – and would like to talk about leavis with him some time. A smaller literary con would be cool but I had a good time.

  20. Abigail Says:

    I don’t consider “death stares” to be substitutes for counter-arguments.

    There were, in fact, plenty of the latter, both from the audience and the other panelists. It was, as I recall, your adamant refusal to acknowledge, much less engage with, these that led to the former.

  21. Graham Sleight Says:

    Nick: many thanks, although I was worried that I was being a bit mean about literary academia. (Assuming, of course, that you mean my comments rather than those of the other Graham…)

  22. Kimberley Says:

    This was my first Eastercon, so I don’t know, but do you think the “What do you want to do?” approach to programming has a negative impact on the quality of the panellists in general? The Dollhouse panel being a case in point. Apart from Affordable Graham — “my anecdotes about dominatrixes trump Audience Member’s data based argument about women in prostitution” — the panel also included someone who’d only seen the first season of Dollhouse.

  23. Chris/The Magician Says:

    Interesting con report, thanks!

    There’ll be a longer reply along shortly, but just to point out that “Military SF” is one of two themes we’ve announced for Illustrious, and that a theme is not a programme or a convention, it’s a stem that we can wind things around.

    And given the number of women on the Illustrious committee (3 out of 7 committee, including the chair) and staff already, I’m not sure they’d appreciate being called “manly” (grins, ducks and runs!)

  24. Jonathan McCalmont Says:

    Affordable Graham? Cheap to those who can afford him, very expensive to those who cannot.

  25. Nick Hubble Says:

    hmmmmm ….. It wasn’t the previous comment when I posted!

    Graham S:

    The only concern about the discussion of literary academics I had was that I was sitting next to an MAStudent and a PhD student and I felt I ought to say something. So I was happy when Farah went on to say there are good academics under 35 coming through (although not much consolation on a personal level!). I find the actual discussion about books in the sf comm. Attractive because you don’t get it academia – but as I said, I still think we have got things to bring to the party if we come in the right spirit.

  26. Graham Says:

    @Abigail

    “It was, as I recall, your adamant refusal to acknowledge, much less engage with, these that led to the former.”

    Wheras my recollection is that I simply had a different opinion from those that some others had.

    @Kimberley

    “the panel also included someone who’d only seen the first season of Dollhouse.”

    Tony Lee was aware that the panel would cover both seasons, but was still happy to participate.

    As for “my anecdotes about dominatrixes trump Audience Member’s data based argument about women in prostitution” I recall the Audience Member who raised that issue agreed with me that there are women who, of their own free will, enter both professions and I have no problem with that. I also said that of course I don’t agree with women (or men, of course) being forced or co-opted into such work.

    @Jonathan: FYI the “Affordable Graham” name comes from the business I run called Affordable Leather Products making and selling BDSM gear to consenting adults.

  27. kev mcveigh Says:

    Niall: re large numbers of authors and publishers present.
    Its partly generational, in that a large number of those authors were the relatively new, up and coming crop who perhaps have more to gain in profile raising. (Not to suggest that’s the only reason they were there, but its part of it.) I think back though to cons where Gwyneth Jones, Lisa Tuttle, Garry Kilworth, Graham Joyce, Ian mcdonald, Colin Greenland, m john Harrison, etc were all regular attendees. And they were used throughout the programme. Go back four years to Glasgow and the names there even. I believe that if authors are invited to get involved they will come, and their publishers will come and maybe sponsor events, take advertising in publications etc.

  28. Abigail Says:

    Affordable Graham:

    Thank you for demonstrating the exact behavior I was talking about.

    As the audience member who raised the point about prostitution, I object to your characterization of that exchange. As Kimberly says, your response to my point about the similarities between dolls and real-world prostitutes was to note the existence of people who do sex work of their free will, to which my response was that their existence did not negate the majority of prostitutes who enter the profession due to financial, social, or psychological pressure. At which point you objected to the use of the word ‘majority.’

  29. Kimberley Says:

    To clarify, Abigail’s point is the one I was talking about.

    Also, apologies for referring to “Affordable Graham” without explanation. I wasn’t having a go at Graham, it’s just how I know him from alt.fan.pratchett and also how he identified himself at the panel.

    @Graham, I’m sure Tony Lee was happy to participate but when you already have four panelists plus a moderator, I’m not sure how useful it is to have another panelist who’s only seen half of the topic under discussion. That’s what I was getting at.

    I’m just using the Dollhouse panel as an example because it was one mentioned here that I’d also gone to, but I did see similar on other panels. And I still wonder if it’s the “What do you want to do?” approach is more prone to it, as nice and open as it sounds in theory. Or if it’s just one of those things at cons where you grab whoever’s willing to give up their time and are grateful to get them.

    I fear that I’ve sounded more critical than intended: I do know first-hand how tough it is to get and organise volunteers and appreciate that.

  30. Liz Says:

    I am not particularly interested in rehashing the panel online, because I don’t think it will end up any more productive than the first time round and will be just as uncomfortable a discussion.

    I would like to echo Kimberley’s points about using participants who haven’t seen part of the material being discussed – I think the solution is to say thanks but no thanks and find a panelist who has seen the whole show, even if the person is happy to participate, and you’ll get a better panel for having everyone able to fully contribute. (There were 5 panelists plus moderator on this particular panel because I volunteered a few weeks out to be the token woman.)

  31. Graham Says:

    @Abigail:

    We can argue the toss about whether it’s the “majority” or not until the cows come home, but you did agree that some (however you choose to characterise an imprecise number) do enter such professions of their own free will, so in my opinion, I don’t think that I’ve “mis-characterised” that exchange and short of a recording of exactly what was said by whom, I see little point in discussing this further.

    @Kimberley and Liz:

    Perhaps the choice of Tony Lee wasn’t the best one as he’d not seen the second series and it may have been better to have substituted Liz for him instead of including him as well, however that was not down to me, even though the lack of a female panel member and the late request for one was (I think) my idea.

    Regarding the question: “I still wonder if it’s the “What do you want to do?” approach is more prone to it”, I pretty much came onto the Programme Team by accident (helping Judith with a few things that turned into a lot of things…!) but I’ve noticed several comments in various blogs about “why was there so much X, or not enough Y, or why wasn’t there a panel on Z?”

    My (non-official) answer is simply that had the Programme been done on the “Here’s what we’ve decided you’re getting” basis, there would have been *more* such gripes, but either way it’s a case of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t!”

    (And, yes, it’s a hell of a job getting volunteers, then getting them to confirm they want to be on a panel or even getting the b*s to actually answer e-mails!!!)

    As a final note, even though I often found myself having to programme two items against each other, both of which I would have liked to have attended, I had a wonderful time and spent pretty much all of the time when I wasn’t eating or sleeping at various entertaining and edifying and utterly hilarious (cough Bad Sex in SF cough) panels :-)

  32. Jonathan McCalmont Says:

    Ah. I see.

    I took it to be a comment upon Graham’s general availability for panels and willingness to much in with author interviews and generally deploy his knowledge of SF for the benefit of others. ‘Affordable’ as a synonym for reliability and accessibility rather than… um… cheapness :-)

    Regarding volunteers, I take it to be a damning indictment of human nature that there are many people willing to dominate conversation from the audience but relatively few willing to jump through the hoops necessary to be placed before the audience. Without wanting to sound too much like Cheryl, I guess it is easier to heckle from the sidelines and feel that you should be the one up front. Which is why I tend to refrain from asking questions *ahem*

  33. David Moles Says:

    Speaking as a middle-aged man, I have to deplore the ageism even while I applaud the sentiment.

    Speaking as a soon-to-be-middle-aged-man, I should in fairness say this might to some extent have been a function of the con’s demographics in general — though I’d want to see the numbers.

  34. Martin Says:

    Do cons gather equality stats? They would be really interesting to see.

  35. Tony Keen Says:

    It’s not just middle-aged men – I’ve seen plenty of women do the same thing. It may be a middle-aged phenomenon though.

    I don’t think it’s just that certain fans are in love with the sounds of their own voices, though I’d admit that there’s an element of that. Mainly, it’s an egalitarian attitude to panel items, that sees them as slightly more structured group conversations, with a permeable divide between panel and audience.

    I also think it’s unfair to characterise these as people who aren’t prepared to pout themselves on a panel, becvause very often the people who do this are also the same people who *do* volunteer for panels. The consequence of that, of course, is that someone who thinks this is acceptable behaviour as a member of the audience is unlikely to slap it down if they’re moderating. Some moderators clearly open up the panel to the audience very early, after the panel members have made initial statements but said little more.

    I will concede that the practice can sometimes be irritating, especially if it derails discussion somehow. I find it intensely irritating if I’m giving a structured talk and someone suddenly interrupts, though I think people are getting better in that respect.

    And they also tend to be less inclined to jump in when an author is being interviewed. There’s the occasional interjection in a BSFA event before it’s formally opened to questions from the audience, but I don’t think it’s a serious problem.

  36. Jonathan McCalmont Says:

    Tony — Oh I bet that they volunteer. Volunteering is largely a function of Ai) Knowing what there is to volunteer for, Aii) Knowing who to volunteer to and B) Having enough ego to think that you have something to offer to the project.

    I’m sure that the people who annoy me more than satisfy all of these criteria.

    When I say that they’re unwiling to put in the effort required to be placed before an audience I was thinking more of putting in the effort of systematically thinking your opinions through and gaining the kind of reputation for having well-formed opinions that might make other people want to go out of their way in order to listen to you.

    I welcome interventions from the middle-aged men in this thread because they have made that effort over the years. The middle-aged men who annoy me have not.

    I think that ‘egalitarian’ is a useful idea because as far as ideas go, not everyone’s are actually interesting and I think that discussions about ideas really benefit from a willingness to keep the noise to signal ratio within a certain set of values.

    I can completely understand the social dynamics behind WHY these people don’t even bother to raise their hands before speaking but I still think that these types of discussion would be vastly improved if people would know their place. Not a very modern or fashionable opinion I know but that’s how I feel.

  37. Graham Says:

    @Jonathan:

    Two perennial problems we had with getting volunteers to be on panels was that a lot of people we invited either felt that they didn’t know enough about the subject to be capable of being able to fulfil the role of a panelist or that they simply lacked the confidence to sit and speak in front of an audience.

    @Martin:

    I wasn’t really connected with the membership lists, but from what I saw they only dealt with whether someone was an adult or junior member (not even whether they were male or female).

    @Tony:

    I also tend to hold the view of “an egalitarian attitude to panel items” although I do know that some Moderators consider that the audience should just shut up and listen to the panel.

    Interviews, I feel, are somewhat different because they’re not so much a discussion of a subject (and also because when they’re held in the main hall without the house lights on nobody on stage can even see if anyone has a hand up!)

  38. David Moles Says:

    Mainly, it’s an egalitarian attitude to panel items, that sees them as slightly more structured group conversations, with a permeable divide between panel and audience.

    Perhaps the lack of structure is the problem, then. A moderator who can barely organize four panelists is going to have even less luck organizing a couple of dozen, especially when twenty of them have spent the last half-hour ignoring the actual discussion while hopping up and down for the chance to take the panel to task for not mentioning their favorite obscure author.

    I feel like an egalitarian attitude to panel items is something I should be in favor of, but in practice it seems to mean “Let’s open it up to questions” followed by twenty minutes of dull rambles. Possibly entertaining for the ten percent of the audience that gets to talk, but the price is paid by the other ninety.

  39. David Moles Says:

    As an aside, I’m very much in favor of giving anybody who wants to be on a panel at least one shot at it, and very much against the practice I’ve seen at some US conventions of limiting access to those who can make some vaguely plausible claim to “pro” status.

    But to really work well the egalitarian approach to panel membership (panelism?) needs a solid feedback mechanism — somebody to keep track of “the kind of reputation for having well-formed opinions that might make other people want to go out of their way in order to listen to you,” since broad, public reputations of that sort (or even the reverse) don’t grow on trees — and that may not be possible without a standing program committee.

  40. Graham Says:

    @David:

    There was an item on Friday at 5pm called “How to be a Panellist or Moderator”, apparently not many people turned up for it…

  41. David Moles Says:

    Ah, well, clearly the problem with the items I attended was that they were scheduled before anyone’d had a chance to go to that one. I’m sure the rest of the weekend was a smooth-running machine.

  42. Jonathan McCalmont Says:

    The “Pro” thing cuts both ways.

    On the plus side, you are limiting yourself to people you know can be trusted to be at least okay and generally have the potential to be really good and memorable. You screen out the people who are complete wild cards and you minimise the risk of boredom or catastrophic failures such as that one with the folk musician and Geoff Ryman I remember reading about.

    On the minus side : Race fail. A string of panels dominated by aging white men whose reputations while once robust are now questionable and whose relevance to the younger fans is increasingly questionable. Not only do you get intellectual paralysis, you also wind up alienating the very people you should be encouraging and using to renew the institution.

    Sadly, I think that this is a problem faced by all human institutions. Especially old institutions like those of fandom.

    The need for constant rejuvenation is a difficult one to satisfy as David says. You need the right feedback processes (one strike and you’re out being one) but you also need humans with the right set of personality quirks and preferences… someone who is open to new people and active in seeking out the best kinds of people and including them without ever lapsing into cliquishness or a desire to keep supposed barbarians out.

  43. David Moles Says:

    …you are limiting yourself to people you know can be trusted to be at least okay and generally have the potential to be really good and memorable…

    ROFLMAO.

    Seriously, I’m not talking about past BSFA nominees or something here — I’m talking about “has a story coming out in 100 Confederate Vampires. [ed. Turtledove & Greenberg].” At best. In those terms, I haven’t seen any correlation between “pro” status and panel-worthiness that couldn’t be better explained simply in terms of having more experience being on panels.

  44. Jonathan McCalmont Says:

    Well there are different meanings to the word “pro” obviously :-) You are right about experience though. Being interesting in public is skill that one can learn (see previous posts about people not wanting to put in requisite effort).

  45. Gene Says:

    Video comment on this post here:

  46. Anna Feruglio Dal Dan Says:

    I am getting a bit irritated about this attitude that the audience should shut up and listen meekly. Probably because in all my con participation, I only ever end up on The Token Foreigner panel.

    Frankly, sitting in the audience I haven’t often heard all of this boring derailing. I have heard a lot of insufferably boring panelists, though.

  47. Nick H. Says:

    I think suggesting the audience should ‘listen meekly’ is misrepresenting things somewhat. Rather, the point of panels is surely that people go to see what the panels have to say on a particular subject. It’s a it cheeky if people think “Well, I’m not interested in what the panelists have to say, but I shall go along anyway because I want to tell them what I think anyway!”

    Also, and speaking only for myself, I find panels difficult to follow at the best of times. When an audience member then takes five minutes to lecture the panel about something instead of asking a simple question, I end up lost and bored shitless. It’s a panel, not an open forum!

    And while I’m on the subject of accessibility – I’m not too keen on video comments either.

  48. kev mcveigh Says:

    Gene, I’m sure I’m not the only one who can’t view that comment. Even when I get to a computer where I can I don’t like the idea of a video comment. What does the discussion gain from seeing your lips move, what does it lose through having to adjust to a very different form?

    Nick, I’ve been in the audience for panels where things were meandering aimlessly or even way off topic until an appropriate audience comment got things going again. There’s a difference for me between a talk, ie a lecture or a paper, and a panel which ought to create and invite discussion. Sometimes they get derailled, but that’s not always bad. Sometimes they get put back on track too.

    Graham, although I joined up very late I emailed offering my services if any programme items had late drop outs, and mentioned this at check in. Nobody responded.

  49. Graham Says:

    @Kev

    Presuming I’m the Graham you’re referring to, I don’t know when you joined or who you spoke to at the Con check-in, so I can’t really comment on this.

    I would say, though, that if you mailed Judith, she suffers from very bad RSI (which is why I started helping her with the programme in the first place) and anything that she got that wasn’t absolutely vital to the Con during the days just before it would most probably have been ignored.

  50. jeff ford Says:

    I was in the UK for one of those cons at Blackpool, can’t remember if it was Eastercon, but Blackpool was a blast.

  51. David Moles Says:

    Anna, I don’t want the audience to shut up and listen meekly. I want the audience to be interested and interesting, and if they talk, I want them to talk to each other and the panel as if there was an actual conversation.

  52. Niall Says:

    Nick, Kev, I take your points (there is a large part of me that would just like everything to be text: no more podcast interviews, please, and certainly no more original fiction as audio!), but if this is how Gene is most comfortable contributing, I can live with it. I’m still digesting most of the comment, actually, although I can say I will definitely be seeking out some books by Julie Czerneda sooner rather than later.


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