Wednesday, 23 April 2014

That was the con that was: Satellite 4

I had a brilliant time at this year’s Eastercon, Satellite 4, in Glasgow.  There was a very strong programme, and like previous Satellite cons, there was  very strong science thread running through it, not least through having Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell (or the Queen of Pulsars, as Sacha put it) as one of the guests of honour.  I got to know a few new people, mostly thanks to dancing with them at the ceilidh, and went to a lot of panels and talks.

Some of the programme highlights for me included the privilege of hearing Dame Jocelyn discuss current and upcoming trends in astronomy; finding out more about the Historical Thesaurus developed at my alma mater; an excellent discussion of women in science and SF; a discussion of CubeSats by local boys Clyde Space; scone tasting; inadvisable rocket science; and the intersection of gynaecology and lasers (Sacha again).

The guests of honour were all delightful as well.  Juliet E. McKenna was kind enough to point me to some of her free fiction online when I twittered that I hadn’t read any of her work (after reading it, I’m afraid it’s not really to my taste, but it was still very kind of her to respond on Twitter).  I picked up several of John Meaney’s books in the dealers’ room and spent the rest of the con trying to corner him to sign one.  I eventually spotted him making a beeline for the bar at the dead dog party on Monday evening.  I approached him, and not only was he very happy to sign for me, but he offered to buy me a drink (something which I was going to offer him) and spent ten or so minutes just chatting (turns out he’s a Haskell and formal methods fan), confirming the impression that I had formed of him during the rest of the con as a thoroughly nice chap and all round good egg.  I bid on a couple of prints by (artist GoH) Jim Burns in the art auction, but was outbid on both of them.  I did attend his interview though, where I learned that he had provided some early conceptual artwork for Blade Runner, which I hadn’t known before.

Other con highlights include the aforementioned conversation with and signing by John Meaney; talking to Charlie Stross about the future direction of the Laundry series (spoiler: doooooooooom!); the ceilidh (although I felt the band themselves were a bit bland and less than engaging) and, of course, the general hanging around in the bar.  I should also congratulate the committee on wrangling cheap tea and coffee at the hotel bar.  Normally, you pay an arm and a leg for bad tea at cons, so I was very pleased to see that the bad tea was going for just £1 a cup.

The one problem with the con, that was more noticeable as the con went on, was the under-representation of women.  Fandom has worked pretty hard over the last few years to move towards panel parity, or at least an equal-ish overall number of men and women doing talks and on panels across the event as a whole, and I didn’t think that Satellite 4 managed that.  This may have been a function of the panels and events that I attended, but I did notice a few people on Twitter saying the same thing.  Hopefully this is just a blip in the process but it was a bit of a shame, I felt.

Sir Terry Pratchett was supposed to have been a special guest at Satellite 4, subject to health.  In the end, he couldn’t make it, but he did record a short video message that was shown at the opening ceremony.  And it was heartbreaking.  The video was very short, but Sir Terry was obviously struggling, and the whole thing took multiple takes to do.  My heart goes out to Sir Terry and his family and I wish them all the best.  I’ll treasure my own con memories of Sir Terry all the more now.

Other than that, and despite my inability to last beyond midnight for two out of the four evenings, I had a blast.  I had a lot of fun with my friends, and got to know some new people, and to cap it all, the weather was absolutely gorgeous all weekend.  I’m not sure what the next con that I’ll go to will be, but roll on Satellite 5!

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Widening participation in fandom

I am a science fiction fan.  That won’t come as a surprise to most people reading this.  But beyond that, I identify as a fan, and the whole subculture of fandom.  It is a fairly large part of my personality and much of my free time is spent associating with other fans and with books and media within the genre.  I spent the Easter holiday weekend at Olympus 2012, the annual British National Science Fiction Convention (Eastercon) and had a thoroughly amazing time.  Now, it’s not unfair to say that the genre and the subculture as a whole has a reputation for being overwhelmingly male and white, but one of the things I found exhilarating at Olympus was the feeling of a culture in the middle of change – it really felt like there’s a push to bring women and feminism into fandom and it was good to be part of that.  This year’s Eastercon could proudly boast that half of its 1300 or so members were women, and there was gender parity on panels as well.  While there’s still a long way to go — I did hear about incidents this year that no woman should have to put up with in the 21st century — it does feel like the idea of diversity is starting become part of fandom.

And so it’s obvious that the next logical step to diversifying fandom is minority ethnic representation.  Just looking around the con, there were probably more BME fans that I’ve ever seen at a con before (not that that is saying much, given that I’ve only made it to about half a dozen of them so far).  Partially I imagine this was the “London effect”, and partially a function of just how big Olympus was, but I also attended a panel on widening minority representation in fandom which indicates that it’s something which is starting to be discussed within the culture itself, which I’m glad about.  At said panel, I was intrigued to hear one of the panel members, the actress Ruby Sahota, state that Indians really love SF.  That’s a very general statement, and one that I’d love see more analysis on.  However, I can’t even provide any anecdotal evidence evidence, given that I actually don’t know many Indian people.  I grew up in a small town in the heart of Northern Ireland where the Indian “community” consisted of two families.  Then I moved to Glasgow, where my friends were almost all met through science fiction, and, well, you can see the flaw in that plan :-).

Actually, on that note, I joined Io in my second year at Uni and remained active in the society for about a decade.  In that time, as far as I can remember, there were, in addition to myself, two other non-white active members (and one of those was my sister, who I introduced to the society, and would probably not have otherwise have become involved, so I’m not sure she even counts for this purposes of this discussion).  In that time, I very much noticed the lack of BME members, especially in a University with a fairly decent non-white student population and embedded in a city with a large Asian population.  University seems like a great time to bring people into fandom, with students trying out new things, but Io remained stubbornly mono-coloured during my decade’s involvement.  Perhaps I could have done more to change that, bringing it to the attention of the society as a whole, trying to appeal outside the traditional market, but I never did, which I somewhat regret now, although I’m still not really sure how to go about widening the appeal of the genre in that way.

Anyway, the point that Ruby was making was that although Indian people may love the genre, most of them would never think about about coming to a con or getting involved in fandom.  The panel didn’t really come to any solid conclusions or make any suggestions on how to change that (to be honest, it could have done with some stricter moderation and cutting off some audience members who had a tendency to ramble and go off-topic) but it’s definitely the beginning of a new conversation within my fandom.  It’s inspired me to look for new writers beyond the traditional (an appeal over Twitter has given me several leads which I intend to follow up on this year) and I’m certainly going to continue to follow the development of minority representation in fandom over the next few years, in the leadup to Satellite 4 and London in 2014.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Odyssey 2010 report

So Odyssey 2010 is over and I, for one, had a fabulous time. It was a particularly large con, with over 1300 people in the final headcount, including a huge number of on-the-day signups (apparently something that’s not of much use to most cons, since they need to know numbers in advance in order to plan the size of the venues needed and aren’t interested in making a profit). Despite the whopping hotel bill, I’m quite glad I went down to London for it a day either side although, at a pinch, I’d be okay with going down on the Friday rather than the Thursday next time (and, yes, there will be a next time – the same group have had their bid for 2012 accepted and I’m more than tempted to go down – the only reason that I haven’t already signed up is the huge knocking that my wallet has already taken).

This time, I went in a much smaller group than I’ve attended cons with before, with just Stevie and Sacha joining me. I wasn’t sure how this would pan out, but in the end, it worked out pretty well. I’ve never been very good at talking to other people at random, and this helped a lot, since my friends were often at different panels or just crashing out for a bit. Examples of this included at the ceilidh, when they crashed after the first half, I hung around, danced the rest of the ceilidh and then started talking politics with a random chap while recovering; and the last night, when I found myself on my own again, and after chatting a while with one of the Glasgow fans I know from Io, got into a conversation about Fandom with one of the more established fans (who turned out to be Caroline Mullen, chair of the SF Foundation) who then introduced me to some other people who I happily spent the remainder of the evening chatting to.

Some of the highlights of the con for me included:

  • One benefit of coming down a day early was that I was able to meet up with some old school friends in London. I mightn’t have been impressed by their choice of bar (it screamed ‘yuppie’ so loud that it almost overwhelmed the vast crowd in it) but it was lovely to see them and catch up for the first time in many years. They also took me through the ‘gayest street in Soho’ to find a lovely little Italian restaurant where we had dinner.
  • I’m not there yet, but I’m starting to feel part of the con-going community. I’m starting to recognise (and be recognised by) others, especially in Glasgow fandom. I’ve already signed up for the next Glasgow con (Satellite 3 – come along, it’ll be fantastic!) and have taken out a pre-supporting membership for the WorldCon bid for London in 2014. Any UK WorldCon is not to be missed and although Glasgow was discussed and would have been fantastic, London hasn’t had a UK WorldCon since the 1960s and Glasgow has had two recently, it was probably the right decision
  • Most terrifying sentence of the con: I’m a furry! emerging from the mouth of Mad Elf’s little girl, while pretending to be a cat
  • Iain M. Banks was a fantastic guest of honour. The man is a born entertainer and has a huge charisma so is a joy to listen to, whether in a one-on-one GoH interview, on a panel about utopias in SF (particularly interesting to me since I’ve just done a short philosophy course on political and moral philosophy which spent a fair bit of time on the subject) or in a discussion with his old mate Ken MacLeod about the writing process
  • Watching the first episode of Doctor Who in a room with over a thousand other fans. I had been unsure about Matt Smith, but was I was completely won over, and from the noise in the hall and the conversations I overheard afterwards, so was everyone else
  • The terrifyingly full-of-cool-stuff dealers’ room. I eventually had to just stop going in, since every time I went, I came out with more stuff, whether it be a stack of old SF paperbacks two feet tall, con memberships or shiny new SF Masterworks – not to mention a promise from someone at the Gollancz stall to look into getting the complete version of of Cordwainer Smith’s The Rediscovery of Man reprinted, after I got excited at and then disappointed by the new edition of the SF Masterworks one, which is an abridged version
  • The con hotel (the Radisson Edwardian) was pretty awesome, it’s a gloriously elegant hotel with rich furnishings and a wonderful atrium on the second floor which is beautifully light and airy during the day and has lots of hidden nooks and corners, not to mention a missing floor – there’s a reason it’s colloquially known as the Radisson Non-Euclidean! By the time I got around to booking, the hotel was full, so I had to stay down the road in a hotel that was posh but didn’t have the character or charm of the Radisson. That’s another reason to book early for 2012
  • So EasterCon is over and I don’t have any other cons planned until 2012, which seems an awfully long time away. On the other hand, my bank balance will be breathing a sigh of relief. Mind you, now that the Central Hotel is back in business, there’s already talk of a Glasgow EasterCon bid for a few years down the line :-). In the mean time, I have my fantastic memories and a huge stack of books to happily start wading through.

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