Eastercon 2009 – few panels, much chat, all good

The journey up

Well, H and I drove up on the Friday, and got very bogged down indeed in traffic. Hey ho, it comes with the Bank Holiday territory. On the plus side, we mastered a new technique for comfortable eating in overcrowded roadside restaurants – just cross to the other side of the motorway! Of course, we still had to eat at KFC, but at least it didn’t feel like we were dining with several football stadia’s worth of stressed drivers and their families.

And I am going to draw a veil over the pan-dimensional hell experience that is trying to find a central Bradford hotel in the insanity that is their one way system. I have seen the face of the blind idiot god Azathoth, carved out in Yorkshire streets, etc. Of course, once we found the hotel the idiot piping stopped and everything seemed to go back to normal.

The one and a half panels I made it to

Well, embarrassingly, I only made it to one full panel, and half of another one. I blame the venue; being quite small, and quite social, it was impossible to go for more than five steps without bumping into someone you could have a Really Interesting Conversation with, and then getting completely distracted. So here’s my 1.5 panel report:

Panel A – A fascinating panel on why writers’ groups are worthwhile, with Tim Powers, Anna Feruglio Dal Dan, and Chaz Brenchley, expertly moderated by Maura McHugh – made me realise that you don’t go to them to be critiqued, but rather to learn how to critique; to help become an accurate editor of your own work, and to be able to help others to write better. As ever, you only learn how to get better yourself by giving to others along the way.

Also, much interesting discussion of self publishing, which helped me understand the big difference between fiction that’s self-published out of a sense of grievance – ‘there’s a conspiracy against my genius’ – and fiction that’s self published to be part of a fan or a social group.

That fan / social group perception also underlay Chaz Brenchley’s comment that ‘the ivory tower model [of writing] is no longer sustainable’. He doesn’t think it’s possible to be a successful writer by just sitting on your own and typing any more; you have to be out there, actively working to build up a readership – as he does, here.

And finally, Tim Powers revealed his secret tip for writing motivation – ‘guilt and fear’. Good to know…

Panel B – A rather interesting panel on pacifism in science fiction, with Farah Mendelsohn, Nick Harkaway, Kim Lakin Smith and Sam Kelly. For my money, if you go pacifist, you wipe out about 75% of the canon. Others disagree, and say 90%. Anyway, some very interesting commentary, tho’ sadly I had the classic problem of not having read many of the books discussed. Hey ho, all good suggestions for when the book hoard has diminished a bit.

One interesting thought results – that SF is frequently really a literature of colonialism, rather than of warfare; perhaps explaining its success in Western Europe and America, the two great colonial regions of our age. And that ‘Starship Troopers’ is basically ‘Zulu’, only with a little more context.

Ken Macleod also made a fascinating comment – ‘SF has encoded into it a set of assumptions that we can eventually have peace without pacifism’. A core duplicity, I would have thought, and a perception that definitely bears further pondering.

The Tim Powers keynote

At least I made it to one of the keynotes, tho’ I do have to admit *full disclosure* that it was only because I happened to bump into various folk on their way there, and was swept along in their slipstream.

Anyway, it was very enjoyable indeed; Tim Powers at once witty, erudite, and wise, while also managing to look like a Kyle Mclachlan / Robert Vaughn gene splicing experiment. Cool! I have a new role model. Anyway, highlights include:

TP on being young and knowing Phillip K. Dick: ‘It was instructive for us to see how a real writer actually lived… you’d be living in low rent zip codes and driving cars that people laughed at as you went by’ – well, I’ve always driven Rovers (thanks to Uncle Bill and the Rover garage he used to run) so I’ve got the second one sorted at any rate.

A TP learning from PKD: ‘You need to have your characters have a job… They’re going to have to get the day off work to go fight the [alien space] squids… his characters were always worrying about the state of their tyres, and how much gas there was in the tank.’

TP also helped me confirm why I don’t like ‘The Anubis Gates’. I seem to be the only geek on the planet who was underwhelmed by it (I thought it was a patchwork of sources that never quite gelled into something fully credible and coherent); apparently it was two other books combined, and was also disliked by Lester Del Rey. So I feel a little more justified in my underwhelmment.

The BSFA Awards

Well, once again, I hadn’t read all the books on offer.  So comments will alas be limited. On the plus side, great to see Ted Chiang take the best short story award; Farah Mendlesohn’s ‘Rhetorics of Fantasy’ a worthy non-fiction winner; and thoroughly enjoyed the Newman Mcauley Overdrive that powered the opening sections of the ceremony.

Oh, and I got to witness MacLeeOddGate, which was both a rather wonderful moment in itself and a reminder that British English is both deeply idiosyncratic and frequently utterly illogical. If only everyone had seen ‘Highlander’! Then these things just wouldn’t happen…

The drunken conversations I had

Well, an embarrassingly large number, because I was rather merry quite frequently. But then again, that is part of the point of the con. So, a lot of chatting with old friends, and making new ones. I’m going to draw a veil over the specifics – is the world really ready for Conan Doyle the Barbarian, and other such horrors? – and leave it at –

Hello everyone! Lovely to see you!

*waves through the screen like a cheerful Japanese ghost movie villain*

The books bought

OK, so not such a huge list as – with the credit crunch etc – I was being frugal. But I couldn’t resist picking up:

Paul Kincaid – ‘What it is we do when we read science fiction’ – always good to pick up a new crit, and given that I’m winding up to write a science fiction novel this seemed to be the one to get. Already fascinating on Gene Wolfe; I’m looking forward to reading the rest of it.

Daniel Fox – ‘Dragon in Chains’ – Now this is driving me nuts, because I read a stunning review of it somewhere the other day, but for the life of me I can’t remember where! It does look rather wonderful – and freshly signed by the author himself. Can’t wait!

Toby Frost – ‘Space Captain Smith’ – The first of a series, and it promises to be wildly enjoyable steampunk mayhem… Huzzah!

The sad news

While whizzing round the dealer’s room on Sunday, I stopped to say hi to Eric of the Fantasy Centre. Alas, they’re closing! Bit of a shock, and very sad. More details here – when I get a moment I’ll be nipping down there to say hi and find out what’s going on.

The journey back

Having watched ‘Red Riding’ the other week, I was glad we could leave Yorkshire without being bafflingly fitted up for something horrific by various brutal people who smoke a lot. But not glad to leave Bradford, as in the end it was a lovely, friendly town with excellent curries and much good con fun. But hey…

A nice easy drive down, back here by 8.30pm, and general post-con collapse! Then a slow Monday mostly taken up by building the new BBQ. So that’s Eastercon 2009…

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