My weekend as Fantasy Writer Guest of Honour at Satellite 4, Eastercon 2014

Well, I say “weekend”. We travelled up on the Thursday and came home the Tuesday following so it was considerably more of a trip than a usual con. Happily it was a straight-forward journey by rail to Glasgow Central Station and then by taxi to the hotel. The Crowne Plaza is an excellent venue, with good function space, efficient and friendly staff and that vital requirement for a convention; plenty of sitting around and chatting space. The views over Glasgow are also splendid and not only during the lovely sunny days we had over Easter. The night time lightscape from my bedroom window was most striking.

I notice these things more than ever now, having chaired last year’s Eastercon in Bradford. Which did mean it felt rather odd to be there the day before the official opening but not having a several-page list of things to do and folk to check in with. The Satellite 4 team were all busy doing that, calmly and efficiently, or at least giving that soothing impression which amounts to the same thing when conrunning.

After a relaxed Friday morning where I had time to review my panel preparations, the convention programme opened on Friday afternoon. Baillie Phil Green of Glasgow City Council was there at the opening ceremony to welcome us all to the city with genial hospitality up to and including a glass of wine for every fan to follow the formalities. He proved to be something of a SF&F fan himself, with a nicely dry sense of humour. I’d have loved to be a fly on the wall when he was on the phone to London, calmly explaining that the gunfire at his end was a fifty calibre machine gun mowing down zombies. I wonder if the other person realised World War Z was being filmed in Glasgow at the time. It was a pleasure to meet him, and to be introduced to Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the Science Guest of Honour as well as to meet up with John Meaney, Jim Burns, and Alice and Steve Lawson.

My first panel was discussing how to find new authors to read with Gillian Redfearn, Kris Black, Ian Whates and Joshua Bilmes. This was a lively and interactive discussion, highlighting how word of mouth is still the key to selling books, and social media’s an invaluable resource these days as bookshop stock and print media reviews continually decline. Follow agents and authors and publishers on their blogs and Twitter etc, as well as the review blogs you like and you should find plenty of good reading out there. Oh and the audience’s answers supported recent evidence that ebooks are becoming established as a sector of the market rather than driving the paper book to extinction.

Then Dame Jocelyn, Christine Davidson, Clare Boothby, Stephanie Saulter and I discussed the professional challenges that women in science, writing and other careers. Dame Jocelyn cited a range of solid evidence collectively giving the lie to the theory that when enough young women come into a profession, they will naturally, gradually rise through the ranks until we achieve parity. We discussed the ways in which women have been asked to change, have done so and then found that unless the systems and culture which work against them change too, nothing meaningful will happen. Not because of evil sexists but because of dumb systems and cultural inertia. Where we do see meaningful change, and this is starting to happen, thankfully, then everyone benefits, men and women alike.

So it’s time for those systems and their culture to adapt. One thing that needs to change is the expectation that it’s up to women to mentor their younger peers. Not so. We need to distinguish between role model and mentor, not least because of the benefits of male mentors supporting young women will include help to break through Old Boy Networks.

So that was good, meaty stuff to get my teeth into on a Friday afternoon. After that, I caught up with pals such as Geoff Ryman and had a little down time with a glass or so of Murphy’s Later by way of light relief, I joined David J Wilson for the Horrorshow at 10pm. This is actually a chat show format, and was extremely light-hearted, not to say downright silly at times, especially when we got onto the proposed script for Prometheus 3… Great fun, alongside Gillian Redfearn and Hannu Rajaniemi.

I was up bright and early on Saturday to run the first of my writers’ workshops on using visual references and resources to stimulate your imagination and add depth and breadth to your writing. We looked at faces in the first one, and places in the second on Sunday. I really enjoy doing these and with a new group of people every time, the responses to the slides are always different, as we discuss what the way someone presents themself tells us and how the interaction between characters of varying ages and gender will influence a story, just as key details of location will add atmosphere and interest.

After that, I relaxed with a Kaffeeklatsch where we chatted about conventions we’d been to, the systems of divination in the Aldabreshin Archipelago and oh, a whole lot of other things. As I said then, and several times over the weekend, someone told me at one of my first conventions, that a con is a place full of friends you simply haven’t met yet. That was certainly the case this weekend.

One of my longest standing friends in fandom is Kari Sperring and she kindly agreed to interview me in my role as fantasy writer Guest of Honour. Not only did she ask some very interesting questions, as a writer and academic herself, she had some thoughtful observations on my work which gave me new insights into the underpinnings of my writing. It’s always invaluable to get other perspectives. And talking of friendship, there was one question from the floor that I wasn’t expecting and rather fumbled. It’s not something I think about much these days but in my 20s I suffered some serious ill-health, up to and including hospitalisation. Had this influenced my writing, the questioner asked? Um… actually now I come to think of it, I reckon the role my friends played in helping me through all that is probably reflected in the importance of friendship in my fiction, motivating characters above and beyond money or romance. It’s always interesting when you learn something new about your own books, isn’t it?

More fun stuff followed as I competed with the other Guests of Honour Jim and John, to consign objects of hatred to oblivion in Room 101. I got a lot of nods of agreement when I nominated single sided badges at conventions, citing a few of the embarrassments that’s caused me (recommending someone’s own book to them for starters…) while John was on to a loser from the outset by proposing a ban on beer. Jim Burns got the final nod with his arguments against a hefty bag of books that you may not want or already have. As a booklover who winces to see discarded tomes haunting hotel corners, I was forced to agree. Happily fans at Satellite 4 were able to make their own selections over the weekend from the books generously donated by publishers, as at EightSquared.

Still, I got the nod on consigning Heinlein’s Juveniles (his SF for teens) to oblivion – not because I didn’t adore them when I read them back in the 70s, but because doing that would stop the folk who insist on trying to encourage new SF fans by recommending them now, when they really are so painfully dated. There’s just no need, given the vast array of contemporary and relevant YA genre reading currently available. I also got the ‘wildcard’ vote for idiot drivers who do things like slow down to 45mph for speed cameras when the limit’s clearly posted at 60mph. Are they expecting the road to speed up under them, like an airport travelator, or will the numbers on the signs to suddenly scroll back to 30? I’m clearly not alone on that one. Mind you, I was surprised that Jim Burns didn’t win with his eloquent arguments against the malice of inanimate objects like garden hoses that deliberately tangle themselves up with the bikes. Resistentialism, it’s called apparently. An entirely new word to me and that doesn’t happen very often, as those I’ve thrashed at Scrabble will attest.

Then I hurried off to hear Geoff Ryman give a presentation on current African SF, where it’s apparent a lot of very good stuff is being written. Not only that, there’s a lot of stuff happening online, as the continent goes straight from little or no book-distribution infrastructure to a wireless-communication world thanks to mobile phones and tablets. I came away with a long list of reading.

After Sunday’s workshop I discussed politics in SF&Fantasy with Ken MacLeod, Nicholas Whyte, Traci Whitehead and Farah Mendelsohn. It was a particular pleasure to be on a panel with Ken who I consider one of the finest SF writers working today, and one of the most politically aware and astute – with that vital added ingredient of a subtle sense of humour, which is one reason why I reckon his books win awards. I only learned later that this was Traci’s first panel given she handled it like an old hand. Very impressive.

Talking of humour, my last item of the day was celebrating Terry Pratchett’s work alongside Paul Van Oven, John Meaney and Steve Lawson, chaired by Edward James. When Terry was announced as a Guest for Satellite 4, we all knew that his presence would be dependent on his state of health. So while we were sorry not to see him there, everyone understood why. Nevertheless he sent the Con a video message, wishing us well. After we and the audience had talked about the range and subtlety and importance of his work for about an hour and a half – and we could have gone on much longer – we learned that the session was being recorded, to be sent to Terry. How nice! Though perhaps if we’d been told that first, I might not have described The Colour of Magic as ‘ripping the piss’ out of epic fantasy. I mean, it does, but I could have found a more genteel way to say so…

Monday was my lightly programmed day! In the sense that John Meaney and I demonstrated our respective martial arts for a couple of hours in the morning, discussing the differences and common principles underlying karate and aikido. We’ve done this a few times now and like the workshops, the session’s always a bit different, depending on what we’re thinking about at the time and what questions we get. So that was great fun. Incidentally, if anyone has any photos that aren’t a meaningless white blur, I’d be interested to see them. Which is to say, my 5th Dan husband wants to see them…

Then John and I dashed off for a shower before taking on a team of scientists in a ‘Universally Challenged’ Quiz. As Writers we’d enlisted Charlie Stross and Brian Milton which was a very smart move. The Scientists, Dave Clements, Doctor Bob, Nik Whitehead and Sue Maw, won a pretty close match, mainly due to lightning-fast reflexes on the buzzers. Still, we writers gave a good account of ourselves and most importantly, everyone had a lot of fun.

And then that was that, bar the closing ceremony where we were all delighted to get commemorative plaques from Bean Tighe ceramics, and to enjoy a relaxing meal out with the Con Committee who very definitely deserved some down time after all their very demanding, and very successful hard work throughout the weekend. All of us GoHs were wonderfully well looked after as well.

So that was my official programme. In between times, I relaxed and chatted with old friends, and chatted and shared enthusiasms with newfound acquaintances, now assuredly friends. I sat in on a couple of other panels, enjoying other writers’ thoughts and perspectives. If I hadn’t been so busy as GoH I’d have gone to a few of the science talks and presentations which were by all accounts very fine. Everyone I spoke to couldn’t say enough good things about Dame Jocelyn!

So that, even at this considerable length, is a very succinct summary of my Eastercon, to give you some idea of just how much I enjoyed it. My sincerest thanks to the Satellite 4 Committee – and to all of you who were there.

(and you can click on the photos to enlarge them)

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One comment

  1. Resistentialism – les choses sont contre nous – the only sensible philosophy of the 20th century, propounded by the two-eyed, bespectacled, betrousered Jean-Marie Ventre, and popularised by the late great Paul Jennings, a sadly unsung genius.

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