"We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars" - O.W.

Current Study

Current Projects:
Science Fiction exhibition at The Science Museum in London.

Book Out Now:
Sideways in Time: Alternate History and Counterfactual Narratives (Liverpool University Press, 2019). Co-edited Collection.

Book Forthcoming:

Current Sub-Studies

Areas of Interest:
> literature, trauma, and ethics
> science fiction and alternate history
> 20th and 21st century literature
> history and literature of science
> comics and graphic novels
> science communication

4 April 2016

Eastercon 2016 - Mancunicon - Convention Report

Last weekend I attended my first Eastercon: Mancunicon – the 67th British National Science Fiction Convention – at Manchester’s Hilton Hotel housed in the Beetham Tower. I’m a relative newcomer to the organised fandom scene, my only prior experience being Loncon 3 (Worldcon 75) last summer. Whilst obviously smaller in scale than Loncon, the Manchester convention still provided a packed weekend of panels, people and pints that left me exhausted, impressed and inspired in roughly equal measure.

I had quite a busy convention, appearing on four panels as a participant, three of them on the Sunday and a fourth on the Monday.

My first panel was also the one I was moderating: “1980s Trailblazing Comics”. I presided over a brilliant conversation between Tony Keen, Eric Steele and Karen Brenchley as they reminisced about the comics that they fell in love with in the 80s. My first (non-Beano or Dandy) comic reading was Marvel’s (really not very good) Onslaught Saga in the mid-90s so my knowledge of 1980s comics comes purely from what has become historically (or more honestly, commercially) important, as such it was fascinating to hear the trio take the conversation beyond Watchmen or Dark Knight Returns and discuss John Byrnes’s Fantastic Four run, the material in 2000AD and Warrior, and other less well-remembered titles from the Teen Titans of the time to Cerebus the Aardvark.

"Book Review in the Age of Amazon" L-R: Chris Kammerud, Martin Petto, Me, Martin Wisse, Sarah Pinboroguh. photo: Penny Reeve
Following on from that I was a panellist discussing “Book Reviews in the Age of Amazon”, I was in discussion with Mancunicon Guest of Honour Sarah Pinborough, blogger Martin Wisse, and outgoing Vector Reviews editor Martin Petto, ably and capably moderated by Chris Kammerud, co-host of the Storyological podcast. The discussion was a lot of fun, especially getting to spend a bit of time chatting with Sarah who I last met in Liverpool when doing an event to promote her novel The Double-edged Sword some six years ago-or-so. We debated how much stock readers put in reviews whether Amazon, newspaper, blog, or anything inbetween; as well as the importance of those reviews to authors themselves, to their publishers, and the impact of reviews on sales and reception. Inevitably we also had to discuss the problems with the anonymity of online reviews, made most pressing by some well-documented instances of sock puppetry and, of course, the “Leathergate” controversy (which, since it’s an issue from a different fandom, I had to explain the audience. You can read your own summary elsewhere if you don’t know the sordid details). The discussion mainly focussed on the different forms of review and their values, it may perhaps have been nice to dig more deeply into what actually makes a good review (regardless of venue) but then that’s a whole panel topic all of its own.

My third and final panel of the day discussed the question of “Are We Diving into a Superhero Crash?” with Emmeline Pui Ling Dobson, Lilian Edwards, and Jacq Applebee, moderated by Alison Scott. I suppose it hinged on how we interpreted what was meant by a “crash”: financial, qualitative, or something else. My personal interpretation was a financial crash triggered by the bubble bursting as audiences lose interest. Of course there’s no evidence of that happening just yet but my thinking is that unless the big studios diversify then it’s inevitable. The panel pretty quickly re-worked itself to a discussion on diversity not just of plot types and style, but of casting and character. Jacq in particular made some powerful points about diversifying the racial and sexual profiles of superheroes, reserving high praise for Steven Universe. I’m loving some of the diversity and originality in comics from Ms. Marvel and Unbeatable Squirrel Girl to the Wicked & Divine and Sex Criminals but the panel seemed to agree that we’ve not seen enough of this getting through to the films or television series and that this needs to change for the genre to have a long-term future.

On Monday I was on a panel on “The Definition of an Editor”. I was a late draft onto this panel which featured Farah Mendlesohn, Lizbeth Myles, Michael Rowley and Graham Sleight (and in a change from the programme, was moderated by Niall Harrison). The panel took as its starting position a 1976 Algis Budrys quotation: “An editor, with respect to genre, publication medium, market potential or previous training, is an individual who can establish a monopoly position within the minds of a sufficiently large body of contributors so that this position becomes the standard of excellence for that genre.” In all honesty, I would have felt more comfortable moderating this panel as, similarly with the 1980s comics panel, it was something I felt I was still learning about rather than had fully-formed opinions ready to air with an audience. I was by some margin the least experienced editor on the panel and my fully flaring impostor syndrome (as well as the fact that by this point in the con I was pretty tired) meant I was probably quieter in the discussion than I would otherwise prefer. It was nonetheless an insightful examination of how the role of an editor has changed over the years, how it shapes the work and is shaped by the industry, and even the differences and similarities between editors of fiction and non-fiction.

Beyond the panels I attended as a participant, I also sat in the audience for many brilliant discussions. I won’t make a detailed description of all of them but I will take a moment to pick out some highlights from the schedule.

I saw three of the Guest of Honour conversation events and they were all brilliant: Ian McDonald was interviewed by Peadar Ó Guilin in a masterclass of an interview which feels like a relaxed conversation but reveals intriguing anecdotes and humorous quips whether that by the categorisation of Ian’s novel Luna as “Dallas on the Moon” or “Game of Domes”, or that it was the subject of a six-way bidding war for its adaptation rights. Ian Whates was also a great choice to interview Sarah Pinborough as he was able to take us on a tour of her publishing history whilst also allowing her the space to tell her own stories and, seemingly, forget she was on stage leading to more than one observation or comment that required a humorous apology to her elderly father who was watching from the audience. Aliette de Boddard was interviewed by Kari Sperring, both had already impressed me on other panels and seeing the two of them discussing the historical and cultural roots of Aliette’s work was a real insight.

I also got to attend my first BSFA Awards ceremony which was precisely the right tone: lacking in ostentation and self-importance, instead focusing on a sense of good humour and enthusiasm. The winners were Adam Roberts for best non-fiction, Jim Burns for best artwork, and Aliette de Boddard for *both* best short story and best novel.

BSFA Award Winners: Jim Burns, Ian Whates (collecting for Adam Roberts), and Aliette de Boddard
I came away with a ridiculous number of book recommendations from very stimulating discussion on the “Year Just Gone and the Year to Come” panel. Panellist E G Cosh helpfully collected most of the recommendations into a single list which you can find here.

The “Place, Identity, Story” panel was another highlight with a great discussion ranging from Tiffani Angus’s passionate geeking out about gardens, as chronotopes (is chronotopiary a thing?) heterotopia, to the unique characters of cities like Manchester and London. The quote of the panel (if not the convention) has to be from Ian McDonald though who remarked of himself “I’m Dickens at heart really… with better sex”.
"Place, Identity, Story" L-R: Ruth EJ Booth (m), Russell A Smith, Tiffani Angus, Kari Sperring (standing in for Taj Hayer), Ian McDonald

The "Criminality in SF" panel was also brilliant, not only for the way they quickly put down and moved on from a bizarre audience question which became an anti-EU rant. It was also another top panel for book recommendations as the panellists shared their thoughts on science fiction/fantasy – crime fiction crossovers and where the genre-blending worked best: Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora got a lot of love, as did Adam Roberts’s Jack Glass. The true highlight of the con, however, has to be the people.

I also want to reserve special praise for Taj Hayer’s play North Country which was performed by a trio of actors from Freedom Studios. The product of his creative writing Ph.D, Taj’s play is set in a society ravaged by disease where most of humanity has died off and society has collapsed. The play is set in and around Bradford and dealt with the consequences of apocalypse for racial tensions and identity in a manner I’ve rarely if ever seen in a post-apocalyptic text. It was a thought provoking and moving piece of drama that should you have an opportunity you should absolutely see for yourself.

It was great to meet up with existing friends such as Science Fiction Foundation Masterclass-mate Val Nolan, and fellow PhD-ers Meg Macdonald and Taj Hayer, authors and publishing people, as well as make loads of new friends, too many to list here, who I’ll hopefully see again at cons and conferences in the future.

Overall I greatly enjoyed my first Eastercon and will definitely look forward to attending more conventions in the future. I heard from others (and saw on twitter) that some attendees had problems with the hotel, particularly the frustration with waiting for lifts up to the rooms in the tower but since I was staying the Palace Hotel around the corner I didn't have any such problem. Complaints that the rooms panels were being held in were too small were something I *could* relate to however, at multiple times audience members had to squeeze into rooms to sit on the floor and the rooms could get quite hot and stuffy as a result. It was unfortunate but I couldn't say it was a major detraction from my personal convention experience (in all honesty a greater inhibitor of my enjoyment was the price of drinks in the bar, but then hotel bars are what they are).

Thanks to everyone I shared a panel with, who moderated my panels, all the great people I met and chatted to in the bar and panels, and to the convention team for organising a great day. 

1 comment:

  1. Hi Glyn, Nice write-up. One minor correction - Fantastic Four was done by John Byrne, rather than John Burns, a very different, but rather excellent, comics artist.