Posts belonging to Category fandom



A Desert Island musical interlude – ‘Time’ by ELO

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Flipping the Desert Island Discs format for Novacon still meant including some music, by way of equivalent to the Castaway’s choice of books. My first selection is the 1981 album ‘Time’ by the Electric Light Orchestra. And honestly the Birmingham connection is entirely fortuitous. I’ve been a fan of ELO and Jeff Lynne’s work for decades. Anyway, we couldn’t play the whole thing that Friday evening so I picked ‘Here is the News’ as the track epitomising this album’s appeal for me.

For those of you not familiar with the song, here’s the official video. Which does look as if it was made for a tenner in about half an hour one Friday afternoon. So, please, just listen to those lyrics and try not to be too distracted by the cutting edge 1980s technology, not to mention the hair and makeup.

The words are the thing for me. Because I listen to lyrics above all else. I always knew that, sort of, but in recent years long car journeys with just the Music Student Son has really driven that home for me. Whether we’ve been heading for a SF convention, a University open day, or latterly, trekking up and down the M1 to Huddersfield where he’s studying, we alternate choice of CDs. When whoever’s not driving is swapping the music over, we’ve exchanged a few thoughts on the other’s choice. My observations are always about the words – “did you see what they did there with those references?” While his responses are always about the intricacies (or not) of the sound – “but they used a standard drum track!” Or alternatively from me – “it was a good tune but the lyrics barely avoided rhyming June with Spoon” versus him “but didn’t you catch what they did with the bass line?” Er… no…

Which is one reason why I cannot listen to music while I’m writing. Certainly not music with lyrics. At worst, I get horribly distracted. At best, the words end up in whatever I’m writing. This is the reason there’s a brothel in one of my books called ‘The Rising Sun’.

And which explains why I love this album so much. The whole thing’s a story, and one that prompts as many questions as it offers answers. Is the narrator dreaming? Is this a real time travel experience? What do these songs have to say about how we live now, about the future, about humanity, about relationships? While offering everything from fast-paced rock to heart-breaking ballads. Where do writers get their ideas from? If you’re like me, it’s from things like this.

As a single track, ‘Here is the News’ has intriguing questions in just about every line. Why ‘good old’ rocket lag? What does a cure for that mean anyway? Someone left their life behind in a plastic bag? How does that happen? Someone’s escaped from Satellite Two? So what happens there that means everyone must now ‘look very carefully, it might be you’? The Justice Computer… let’s think about that one for a while… And so on and so forth. I reckon I could get back from this Desert Island with an anthology of stories based on this one song alone, never mind the entire album.

Desert Island Books – Larry Niven – Tales of Known Space

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As a student, I discovered Larry Niven’s writing in the extensive and eclectic paperback library maintained by the Oxford University Speculative Fiction Society – OUSFG. Which had been forbidden, on its foundation by CS Lewis and Brian Aldiss, to call itself a Science Fiction society, lest any unwary undergraduates were deceived into thinking it had anything to do with actual, proper and respectable science. Whatever.

Niven’s writing showed me still more facets of science fiction. Far more challenging aspects than I than I had encountered thus far, reading the likes of John Wyndham’s cosy catastrophes or the more cerebral musings of Arthur C Clarke. Niven’s books were full of hard edges, often sardonic, even sarcastic. His stories turned on sharp injustices or implacable forces of nature where, sorry, nobody cares. He relished drawing out ideas to logical yet appalling conclusions such as transplant technology leading to organ legging. Along with feeding my appetite for that sensawunda that underpins the best SF – transfer booths, stage trees, Mount Lookitthat, the Bandersnatchi, the Ringworld. Plus his work featured a whole lot of the stuff I already loved; psi powers in the Gil Hamilton stories, solar system adventures with the Belters, so on and so forth. And whatever the Oxford University Proctors might think, I actually picked up a fair bit of science, even if that was in a fairly haphazard fashion, from books like The Integral Trees.

Why this particular collection, of all Niven’s books? It has some of my favourite stories in it, such as Eye of an Octopus for a start. It’s also an interesting collection for a writer since it charts the evolution of his Known Space writing and includes a timeline as well as some author’s notes reflecting on the haphazard creation of a milieu through a varied body of work, written over many years. Unsurprisingly, this is of particular interest to me, as I continue exploring the River Kingdom world which I’m developing. I also want to take a new and closer look at Niven’s skills and techniques, in the peace and quiet that I hope to find on this notional Desert Island. The advent of ebooks is seeing a resurgence in shorter form fiction and I reckon we can all learn a lot from looking back to the previous heyday of SF as published in weekly and monthly magazines.

What? I’m calling for a return to the past? Advocating a reactionary, old-fashioned view of SF? Not at all. Don’t be daft. I’m talking about craft, not content here. Mind you, if you want to argue with the content, you’ll need to come prepared. Niven is an eloquent and persuasive advocate for his particular world view. Do I always agree with him? No. But that’s something else I’ve always valued about reading science fiction: getting insights into attitudes that might challenge me to justify my own. All the more so in our current world, now that it’s fatally easy to end up in our own personal echo chambers, thanks to Twitter and Facebook. Reading stories from people who in operate in different spheres can definitely broaden our perspective.

And this series of posts is a personal retrospective on my lifetime of reading SF and fantasy. I wouldn’t hand my own student son my dog-eared copy of Tales of Known Space and expect it to have anything like the same impact on him, or the same resonance. Context is everything, in reading as in writing. Thirty-odd years ago, my SF universe was underpinned by Star Trek, Star Wars, Asimov et al. He’s grown up with Battlestar Galactica (the reboot), Firefly, the Halo games, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, The Martian and so much, much more.

As far as I am concerned, this is the fatal flaw in insisting that today’s newcomers to SF&F must go back and start their reading with the classics of the genre which meant so much to the likes of me, in the way back when. Some may take to these stories as readily as I did and that’s great, but I really wouldn’t necessarily expect it. That was then and this is now. I’m far more inclined to offer the newly curious current work that’s been written in the same context as their own lives and experiences. After all, there’s no shortage of excellent writing available at the moment, from doorstop novels to short stories. There’s time enough for those readers who become dedicated fans, or who decide to turn their own hand to writing, to go on to explore the origins and antecedents of the genre. Where I’d hope they’d find reading Larry Niven as much fun as I always have.

Desert Island Books – Robert A Heinlein – The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

I started reading Robert A Heinlein when I found his ‘juveniles’ in our local branch library’s Junior section. Farmer in the Sky, Tunnel in the Sky, Red Planet and so on. There were also a couple of books by Isaac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke in there, ideal reading now that my appetite for SF had been whetted by Star Trek, Doctor Who, UFO and other 70s television offerings. But there weren’t that many of them. In fact, about a year before I went to secondary school, it was apparent to me and the nice lady librarians that I’d read pretty much everything in the Junior section, many of the books multiple times. This posed a problem because I wouldn’t be issued tickets for the Adult section until I went to secondary school, according to the rules.

A good librarian knows when a rule is more of a guideline. We came to a gentlewoman’s agreement that I would be allowed into the Adult section to read SF. After all, if books by Heinlein et al were in the Juniors, that would be perfectly safe, wouldn’t it? Clearly none of them had ever read I Will Fear No Evil… Well, I certainly found that an eye-opening introduction to just how different the world could look from inside someone else’s head.

But of all the Heinlein I read, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is the book that’s stayed with me. It was my first introduction to a writer using historical events as a basis for a science fiction novel. I soon spotted the parallels with the American Revolution/War of Independence and the Russian Revolution. The mentions of a radically different political situation on Earth fascinated me. I liked the depth and substance added by the digressions and discussions about self-determination, passive resistance and how to organise a subversive network in secure cells. All of which took place in a world where everything has be to paid for; air, water, food. Where people dig their homes out of the moonrock and live in all manner of family structures which weren’t happening in Dorset in the 70s. Or at least, if they were, I didn’t know about it. A dangerous world and not just because vacuum and radiation can kill you. It’s a world where blinkered thinking and selfish greed driving those in unearned authority prompts brutal opposition that leaves no room for compromise. Even the language this story was told in had its intriguing peculiarities. So much of what I’ve loved about recent SF reads, from Ian McDonald’s Luna, to Chris Beckett’s Dark Eden books, can be traced back to this story.

Forty or so years later, I realise this was where I first encountered all sorts of things that were solidly SF back then and are now part of real life. Virtual reality, as fake personalities are constructed from pixels within a computer to further the revolution and protect those really behind it. Think how close to such realism our computer games have become. Surrogacy. The notion of Wyoh, the professional host mother was astonishing to me as a teenager. Now? That would hardly raise an eyebrow, though there might be some medical concerns.

Which prompts further thoughts on Heinlein’s attitudes to women and their roles in society in this particular novel. He’s so often accused of being a reactionary, right-wing writer these days. Really? I’m not convinced there’s over-much evidence here. Yes, in many ways, it’s a book of its time, but not in the way that those who want to excuse old-fashioned misogyny use that phrase so often. This moon is also a racially integrated society, let’s not forget. Which isn’t to say that elsewhere in Heinlein’s books, his attitudes and ideas can be problematic, all the more so where his writing disappears down the rabbit hole of his personal obsessions. All of which leads me to conclude that it’s both difficult and dangerous to make sweeping statements about one author’s entire body of writing, especially when that work extends over decades. (And sees me extremely keen to read Farah Mendlesohn’s forthcoming work on Heinlein)

Then there’s Mike, the dinkum thinkum. The AI by accident. The computer who becomes self aware as more and more processing power is added on to his mainframe in haphazard fashion. Who decides what he really wants to know is what makes something funny. Who wants a friend. A benign artificial intelligence. So different from the eerie menace of HAL or the impersonal functionality of Star Trek’s computer. I loved Mike. I still long for some such discovery in a computer lab somewhere…

Desert Island Books for Novacon – E Nesbit – The Phoenix and the Carpet

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As a writer, you’re often asked about your influences. As a fantasy writer, it’s generally assumed that Narnia must have been central to your childhood reading. Now, I certainly read and re-read the Narnia stories, and loved them as a kid, but thinking back to early reading that’s had a lasting influence on me as a reader and writer, I’d say E Nesbit far outweighs CS Lewis. Not least for the far wider variety of the stories she offered. There are the Bastable books, the Psammead books, the House of Arden books – and still more. All of which include so many snippets of information and history and other interesting asides which fascinated me, alongside the thrilling adventures, with or without encounters with magic.

Then there are the elements in Nesbit’s books which Narnia so conspicuously lacks – such as parents. For Nesbit’s child protagonists, parents mean complications both practical and emotional, bringing a whole added level of interest and complexity to their stories. Then there’s loss and change and these children have to cope with those things – just as children of all ages and eras have to cope with such challenges. There’s no getting away from the realities of life, even if you’ve got a magic carpet. Unlike the Pevensie children who can live entire lives as adult rulers of Narnia and still hit the reset button back to childhood by stumbling through the wardrobe the wrong way. Whose reaction to learning everyone has been killed in The Last Battle struck me as unconvincing then and now.

I was never convinced I’d have much in common with the Pevensies. The children in Nesbit’s books? Oh, yes, we’d have got on famously. Not least for their inveterate habit of playing complex imagination games spun off the stories they’d read and things they had seen. That’s how me, my brother and our friends spent our free time after all. And just like us, they had to handle unexpected bad luck, sometimes as a consequence of things they had done, sometimes coming out of the blue. They so often had to negotiate adult rules and expectations, not merely those of their parents. And to decide just how much of the truth, without actually telling lies, they could share with their parents…

Revisiting these books as an adult, I find they stand up to re-reading far better than Narnia. I can also appreciate far more fully the ways Nesbit slides in adult perspectives and preoccupations which the children in the book can only half-grasp, in the same way that I first half-grasped them as a reader. This must have made reading these books aloud far more amusing for parents; think how Pixar do the same in their movies today. Then there are the social conscience elements, reflecting Nesbit’s lifelong commitment to socialism from the 1880s onwards. In this particular book, the children’s lives include servants as a matter of course but Nesbit shows their cook has good reason to be so exasperated. When the children encounter a burglar, it’s soon apparent his descent into crime stems from social ills rather than a degenerate personality.

It’s worth noting that these are the particular aspects that stood out in my memory when I was trying to decide which particular book of Nesbit’s to choose for this Desert Island collection – the cook, the burglar, the phoenix’s transitory nature and the fact that carpets wear out.

Incidentally, I’ve learned far more about Nesbit’s life and political activism over the years and that’s a fascinating story in its own right. From the writerly point of view, she really does deserve far more recognition than she gets today, when people are discussing the origins of current fantasy writing.

(Next up, the American writers who expanded my understanding of SF)

Desert Island Books for Novacon – Rosemary Harris – The Moon in the Cloud

Last weekend I was having a splendid time at Novacon, where I was most royally treated as this year’s Guest of Honour. After the opening ceremony I settled down to chat with Eve Harvey about a selection of Desert Island books. Given this is a SF convention, I decided to select books I recalled as having a particular impact on me and my love of science fiction and fantasy writing, first as a reader and latterly as an author. It was great fun and I’ve been asked to share some thoughts online for the benefit of those who weren’t there.

Naturally, I am currently madly busy with all sorts of authorly and non-authorly calls on my time… so I’ve signally failed to find any leeway this week to write them all up. So I’ve decided to do one at a time instead 🙂 Here’s my first pick.

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Rosemary Harris – The Moon in the Cloud

This is the first of a trilogy set in the ancient world, when Noah has just been told by God that there’s going to be a flood. So he needs to build an ark, and to stock it with two of every kind of animal. Noah sets his ne’er-do-well son Ham the task of finding two lions and two sacred Egyptian cats for the collection. Idle and feckless Ham contracts this work out to Reuben, a poor musician and entertainer, promising him and his wife Thamar that they will have places on the ark. Reuben resolutely sets out for Egypt with his cat, his dog and his camel – who can all communicate with him. Complications ensue… Oh, and it’s also very funny.

This book – the whole trilogy – have stayed with me for decades, every since primary school. I reckon this was the first time I encountered an author taking an established story like Noah’s flood as a starting point and making something new that was wholly their own. There is real peril and genuine villainy and the pressing question: will virtue really be rewarded? All things which children should be encouraged to think through. All things which still inform my own writing.

How did I come across this book? Mrs Beauchamp, the teacher with responsibility for the school library (I think) would regularly pass me new purchases to read first and this was one of those. I really do feel it’s impossible to overstate the importance of libraries – at school and in the community – for children. Reading expands horizons and offers refuge and so much else, especially when guided by expert and experienced educators and librarians. Closing and downgrading libraries is one of the greatest acts of cultural vandalism ongoing in our time.

What else did this book mean to me? I think my interest in Egypt and the ancient world generally predated my reading this series, but these books definitely helped to focus that fascination. Not least because I read and re-read this trilogy. Eventually I managed to buy my own set – which I still have – and every time I see them on the shelves I remember the Christmas money from Great Auntie Ivy which paid for them. That’s something that gave me pause, when I was choosing this selection. Remembering how precious books were back then, and how expensive they seemed. It’s worlds away from this day and age when I can pick up any paperback I might fancy (okay, within reason) or snag a bargain ebook for 99p if something interesting catches my eye.

Oh, and there’s a footnote about Jean Beauchamp, that wonderful teacher. She was long since retired when I became a published author myself, but the local teachers’ network passed word back to my Mum, also a primary teacher for many years, to say how delighted she had been to see a book written by one of the children whose love of reading she had nurtured.

Awards News – The British Fantasy Society and the David Gemmell Awards for Fantasy

This weekend saw assorted awards presented here in the UK, as part of Fantasycon by the Sea, in Scarborough.

The David Gemmell Awards for Fantasy –

RAVENHEART AWARD (Best cover art)
Jason Chan for The Liar’s Key by Mark Lawrence

MORNINGSTAR AWARD (Best debut)
The Vagrant by Peter Newman

LEGEND AWARD (Best novel)
The Liar’s Key by Mark Lawrence

The British Fantasy Society Awards –

Best anthology: The Doll Collection, ed. Ellen Datlow (Tor Books)

Best artist: Julie Dillon

Best collection: Ghost Summer: Stories, Tananarive Due (Prime Books)

Best comic/graphic novel: Bitch Planet, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Valentine De Landro, Robert Wilson IV and Cris Peter (Image Comics) (#2–5)

Best fantasy novel (the Robert Holdstock Award): Uprooted, Naomi Novik (Macmillan)

Best film/television production: Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, Peter Harness (BBC One)

Best horror novel (the August Derleth Award): Rawblood, Catriona Ward (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

Best independent press: Angry Robot (Marc Gascoigne)

Best magazine/periodical: Beneath Ceaseless Skies, ed. Scott H. Andrews (Firkin Press)

Best newcomer (the Sydney J. Bounds Award): Zen Cho, for Sorcerer to the Crown (Macmillan)

Best non-fiction: Letters to Tiptree, ed. Alexandra Pierce and Alisa Krasnostein (Twelfth Planet Press)

Best novella: The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn, Usman T. Malik (Tor.com)

Best short fiction: Fabulous Beasts, Priya Sharma (Tor.com)

The Special Award (the Karl Edward Wagner Award): The FantasyCon redshirts, past and present

Something for everyone there, I’d say!

And apropos Zen Cho’s win for the excellent ‘Sorcerer to the Crown’, you can find my review of it here

You can find her guest post reflecting on life as a debut novelist here.

Good things on the Internet – SFF Writers blog for mental wellness #HoldOnToTheLight

The best writing reflects real life and day to day challenges to mental health are a reality for everyone, to a greater or lesser extent. Through September and October dozens of authors will be blogging about mental wellness, mental illness, depression, suicide prevention, domestic violence intervention, PTSD treatment and related issues.

Gosh, that sounds like a whole load of fun… really?

Don’t be fooled. This isn’t some worthy gloom-fest. Look at that hashtag #HoldOnToTheLight. This initiative is about illumination, about exploration, about using the power of the Internet for something positive.

Few things are as isolating as the struggle for mental health. This campaign is already highlighting that whatever your particular challenge may be, you are not alone. If you’re desperate to help a burdened friend but don’t know what to do for the best, see what you can learn from the experiences of those who’ve already been there and done that, from both sides of the issue.

So check out that hashtag on Twitter. Keep your eyes open on Facebook and other social media. I’ll be writing my own post towards the end of this month.

Meantime, here’s more from Gail Z Martin about the project.

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Interesting things from the last little while – and explaining the recent link posts

I’m doing a lot of background reading, world-building and story-plotting at the moment, as well as the admin and other stuff associated with getting the next ebook out. Then there’s all the domestic administrivia which is mostly down to me at present since Husband’s currently working 12-14 hour days, six days a week, on a demanding new project for a prestigious new client. So me finding time for reflective and interesting blog posts isn’t really happening.

Fortunately there are all sorts of interesting things crossing my radar online.

On the history front – “Vatican library digitises 1,600-year-old edition of Virgil”

The 1,600-year-old document is one of more than 80,000 manuscripts, running to 41m pages, in the library, which was founded in 1451 by Pope Nicholas V.

A major project to digitise all 80,000 documents will ensure that scholars have less need to consult the originals, and also make the texts available to the general public.

“Our library is an important storehouse of the global culture of humankind,” said Cesare Pasini, prefect of the library. “We are delighted the process of digital archiving will make these wonderful ancient manuscripts more widely available to the world and thereby strengthen the deep spirit of humankind’s shared universal heritage.”

On the equality in SFF front – “Eisner Nominee Renae De Liz Shares Short Guide for Artists on How to De-Objectify Female Characters”

Renae De Liz, the Eisner-nominated artist and writer behind such series as The Legend of Wonder Woman, The Last Unicorn and Lady Powerpunch, shared her thoughts on how to draw women without objectifying and oversexualizing them. In her impromptu guide, she tries to dispel many assumptions people have when they set out to draw women because of deep-set trends in comics.

And I found this prompted me to consider the assumptions people make about writing women because of deep-set trends in SF&F

On the technology front – “Slow-motion replays can distort criminal responsibility”

“Researchers found that slowing down footage of violent acts caused viewers to see greater intent to harm than when viewed at normal speed.
Viewing a killing only in slow motion made a jury three times more likely to convict of first degree murder.”

As a lifelong crime and mystery fan, in books and TV/film, I found this very interesting. I’m also thinking about the ways in which perceived technological progress can turn out to be not so helpful after all. When I get round to a longer blogpost, that’s something I want to discuss.

On the SF conventions front – no, I’m not going to discuss the debacle of this year’s World Fantasy Convention programme. For those of you coming late to this story, this particular convention has a long-established lousy record for offering interesting or up-to-date panels and this year’s offering might just as well come with an introductory, explanatory note saying “Yes, we hear you explain how everybody gains from diverse and inclusive programming. WE JUST DON’T CARE”

So how about trying one of the many conventions that offer a packed programme of fascinating discussions between people with plenty of relevant things to say?

Fantasycon by the Sea 23rd- 25th September in Scarborough – guests of honour Mike Carey, Elizabeth Bear, Frances Hardinge, Scott Lynch, Adam Nevill and James Smythe>

Bristolcon – 29th October – guests of honour Fangorn, Ken MacLeod and Sarah Pinborough.

Key differences between Literary Festivals and SF Conventions when it comes to payment

I’m extremely pleased to see Philip Pullman making a stand on the issue of literary festivals not paying writers – when everyone else involved gets paid – and to see a host of other authors backing him.

But I am also seeing a degree of confusion, particularly from SF&Fantasy fans/writers who think this is a call to pay programme participants at SF conventions. Some clarification may be useful. As well as regularly attending conventions, I’ve long been involved with non-genre literary festivals thanks to working with The Write Fantastic and also as a committee member for my old Oxford college’s Media Alumnae Network. Consequently I have observed how very different their approaches are.

Literary festivals organise their programming primarily around publishers’ schedules and offer one or two writers per slot an opportunity to publicise their current book. The biggest names with the highest media profiles get the biggest venues and the best time slots because these are commercially-minded enterprises whether or not they’re structured as charities like the Oxford Literary Festival. Everything from venues to publicity to technical support must be paid for and that means selling tickets to fill the seats. None of this is criticism. I always enjoy hearing a talented author share their enthusiasm for their work, fiction or non-fiction, as I sit in a quietly attentive audience. And yes, the big name events do help fund the lesser known and special interest authors’ events – such programming is assuredly valuable for readers and writers alike.

But make no mistake; this is work for an author. It’s essentially an hour’s professional performance or presentation. It’s just not treated as such. Over the years, as a contributor at assorted festivals, I’ve turned up, got a cup of coffee in the green room, done my thing, and that’s pretty much that. Depending on the time of day I might be offered access to a buffet lunch (problematic for anyone with dietary issues). I’ve generally had my travel expenses covered but in all but a very few cases, I haven’t been paid for my time on the day or for the essential preparation. And no, the royalties I might get from however many of my books are sold at the festival wouldn’t come anywhere close to a reasonable fee. I might get a ‘goody bag’ with something like a bottle of wine, maybe some perfume, and a couple of books (which alas, I seldom actually want). I would usually get one or two complimentary tickets for my own event, nice for friends and family, but if I want to go to any of the festival’s other events, I have to buy tickets like any other punter.

SF conventions are very different. From their earliest days, conventions have been fan-led events. Readers and writers alike are encouraged to get involved, exploring their shared enthusiasm. Those going to SF conventions pay for memberships rather than tickets. People aren’t buying a seat to passively attend a one hour event. They’re investing in the funding of a collective enterprise over several days, run by volunteers for fellow enthusiasts.

A weekend’s membership gives access to dozens, even hundreds of programme items. There are fact-based sessions, where fans and authors alike share their knowledge and expertise on everything from science in all its ramifications to historical, linguistic, political and psychological scholarship – just a few disciplines which underpin the ever-broadening scope of speculative fiction. As well as sessions exploring creative writing, programme items explore visual skills and disciplines from fine art providing inspiration to writers and artists alike, to comics and graphic novels. There’s discussion of SF and fantasy in film, TV and audio drama, from author and audience perspectives. Then there’s the fun programming, including but not limited to games and costuming events, ranging from the admirably serious to the enjoyably daft.

At a literary festival it’s rare to see a handful of writers talking more generally about their writing, about the themes and topics which their broader genre is currently addressing, about on-going developments in their particular literary area, comparing and contrasting their own work and process with each other and with the writers who’ve gone before them. It does happen, particularly with crime writers, but it’s still nowhere as prevalent as it is at SF conventions. I think that’s a shame, because audiences so clearly appreciate such wide-ranging discussion. It’s rarer still to see a fan/reviewer taking part in literary festival panels to broaden the debate with their perspective whereas such participation is an integral and valuable facet of convention programming.

Traditionally, at SF conventions, no one gets paid for the considerable amount of time they contribute, by which I mean none of the organising committee or any of those people who help out with such things as Ops, Publications, Tech and any amount of other vital support. Membership revenues cover the costs of venues and the various commercial services essential for the event to take place. Those authors who have been specifically invited as Guests of Honour have their expenses covered as a thank you for what will be a hard working weekend but they’re not paid a fee as such. Some conventions offer free memberships to other published authors on the programme and believe me, that’s always very much appreciated, but even then, those writers are expected to cover their own travel, hotel and sustenance expenses.

Is that fair? Well, an author assuredly has the opportunity to get far more from a convention than they do from a literary festival and not just a thoroughly enjoyable social event. It’s a weekend of networking and catching up on industry news, of benefiting from other writers’ experiences and perspectives, of learning things that are often directly relevant to whatever they’re working on or which will spark their imagination for a new project, of engaging with established fans and readers new to their work, often getting valuable feedback and usefully thought-provoking questions. Opportunities for paying work often follow from contacts made and conversations had.

Which is great – as long as you can afford to get to the convention in the first place and with authors’ incomes dropping year on year, that’s becoming an increasing issue for many SF&F writers. Plus the line between fan-run, non-profit events and overtly commercial enterprises has become blurred in some cases in recent years. I’ve been invited to SF&F events where I’ve discovered media guests are being paid fat appearance fees but the writers are expected to participate for free, in some cases without even expenses paid. You won’t be surprised to learn I declined. Then there have also been events where I’ve discovered some writers’ expenses are covered at the organisers’ discretion – but not others. That’s wholly unacceptable as far as I am concerned.

So do I think writers appearing at literary festivals should get paid? Yes. They’re doing a job of work to a professional standard and everyone else involved is getting paid.

Do I think programme participants at SF conventions should be paid? In an ideal world, yes – but doing that would force up the cost of convention memberships far beyond what the other fans could afford, especially once their hotel and other expenses are factored in.

Should all conventions factor in the cost of free memberships for programme participants? Personally, I’d very much like to see it. It’s saying ‘this is the value we put on your contribution and thank you’ as opposed to ‘kindly pay us for the privilege of working this weekend’ but once again, that would force up the cost of membership for everyone else with implications for levels of attendance and thus funds for essential expenses. Some conventions will decide their event can sustain this, others will decide that they can’t. As I know from my participation in running Eastercon 2013, a big convention’s budget is a dauntingly complex affair.

But the crucial distinction remains. Literary festivals and other commercial enterprises should pay the writers without whom there’d be no event. Non-profit conventions where readers and writers are sharing their common passion as fans are something else entirely.

Bristolcon, and the Universal Monster Template Theory Reprised

This weekend saw this year’s Bristolcon, and it was another excellent event, thanks to the hardworking team behind what’s now established as an outstanding regional convention in the UK calendar.

I heartily recommend it; both for long-time fans and also for those more recently come to SF&F who’re wondering about investigating the convention circuit. It’ll offer the former an interesting and entertaining programme that’s very much not the usual suspects and subjects, as you’ll see from this year’s website. At the same time, it’s a compact, friendly and very accessible event that’s not going to be overwhelming for a first-timer in the way that, potentially, a big convention like an Eastercon can be.

Next year’s event is on October 29th, with Guests of Honour Fangorn (artist), Ken McLeod and Sarah Pinborough (authors). Mark your diaries and make your plans accordingly.

Anyway, back to this year’s convention, I thoroughly enjoyed contributing to discussions on censorship and to a wide-ranging exploration of alternate history within speculative fiction. It was also great to catch up with friends as well as to meet new, interesting and enthusiastic readers and writers – not least to remind me that my life really isn’t going to be all about EU digital VAT for ever and a day. It was also fabulous to find so many people sharing my enthusiasm for the new Southern Fire ebook cover.

The last panel I sat in on, in the audience, was ‘Here be dragons’, discussing mythological creatures in fantasy and going far beyond dragons to discuss ones that have been overused and those which deserve more exposure. On a personal level I was pleased to see heads in the audience nodding as the panel pretty much agreed that today’s friendly, conversational, telepathic and pet dragons have gone as far as anyone needs to in denaturing the original scary beast. Because if anyone’s looking for devasting dragons, The Aldabreshin Compass ebooks should be just what they’re wanting…

There was also some discussion about humanity’s enduring fascination with and relationships with monsters, but as is invariably the case, there were so many interesting threads to the conversation that not all could be fully explored. I immediately thought of The Universal Monster Template Theory – but with time at a premium and since an audience member expanding at length on something tangential to the panel’s main discussion is bad convention manners, I held off sticking a hand up. That’s what blogs are for, after all.

So for those of you who didn’t come across this when I blogged about it before – because checking back, I discover that was in 2007! – here’s the Universal Monster Template Theory Bearing in mind that I’m summarising from a talk I went to given by cryptozoologist Richard Freeman who was in turn summarising the presumably considerable quantities of thought and argument that went into developing this.

Cryptozoologists are always interested in myths, since they seek out mythical creatures, and it has become apparent to them that wherever one goes in the world, there are common themes in monster myths. The six universals are giant hairy humanoids, little people (often magical), big mysterious dogs, big dangerous cats, giant snakes and flying predators – which are variously expressed as birds or dragons which also encroach on the giant snake theme.

One puzzle about this is while fear of enormous lizards or predatory cats may be perfectly reasonable in areas where crocodiles or tigers are part of the local fauna, these six archetypal monsters crop up everywhere, including in places that have never had even faintly relevant animals. And anyway having myths developed from local animals still doesn’t explain the persistence of giants and little people in folk lore.

At which point, we move to Madagascar, a place of considerable interest to cryptozoologists on account of its unique wildlife, its extinctions (or not) and its rich mythical culture. One puzzle there for zoologists, crypto and otherwise, is a particular behaviour of lemurs, which are, please note, a primitive primate, and as such, creatures whose overall behaviour is primarily instinctual rather than learned.

As I discovered recently visiting ‘Monkey World’ primate rescue centre in Dorset, lemurs and tamarinds can still successfully parent offspring even if their own prior treatment has been appalling and they were captured or separated from their own parents too young to have observed their own kind raising infants. Unlike the higher primates like chimps, orang-utans and gorillas; those seized as infants and separated from their own kind prove incapable of successfully mothering their own offspring.

Bear that in mind as we focus on the specific lemur behaviours which fascinate cryptozoologists. If something blots out the sun, be it a cloud or a plane or anything, lemurs will freeze and exhibit classic prey-animal-not-wanting-to-be-eaten reactions. But there’s nothing flying around Madagascar that is remotely big enough to carry off a lemur, and certainly not one of the largest species, but even the biggest animals exhibit exactly the same response.

But recent fossils discoveries have shown a truly massive eagle once lived there, umpty-thousand years ago. So it’s suggested that this prey-animal behaviour in lemurs is a very ancient instinct, carried over from the days when something could indeed swoop out of the sky and eat them.

So we return to the persistence of the six universal monsters in human myth. The theory goes that all these stories have grown out of humanity’s common subconscious because Homo Sapiens still has primitive instincts lurking in the most basic bits of the brain.

When we were Australopithecines living in the African savannah there were indeed other hominids/primates bigger and smaller, who didn’t make the evolutionary cut. There were creatures akin to Gigantopithecus as well as little hominids like Homo Florensis. Those Indonesian discoveries happened since I heard this talk, and I imagine had cryptozoologists hopping up and down with excitement.

At about 4’6″, our remote ancestors were certainly preyed upon by big dogs, big cats, giant snakes and big eagles all quite capable of carrying us off – these megafauna are in the fossil record along with the humanoid variants that similarly died out, and together with plain evidence of Australopithecines being eaten by such things.

That’s the theory anyway. Make of it what you will. I certainly find myself wondering what role this might be playing in the ongoing mythmaking about monsters which still goes on around us today. Does this lie behind the enduring belief in the Beast of Bodmin and other such creatures? Has Gigantopithecus morphed into Bigfoot in the popular imagination while instinctive fear of small hominids has evolved into tales of alien greys?

And have a rather wonderful picture of a lemur from our visit to Monkey World.

blog-lemur