Eastercon 2019: SF is Not Just Escapism

Some people dismiss speculative fiction as pure escapism. Margaret Atwood famously disdains the science fiction label as she thinks it represents something without the depth of her work. But as a weekend in the heart of British SF shows, there are few genres more engaged in the big concerns of the modern world.

Ytterbium

Space ship taking off
Not the sort of escape I’m talking about, but it would be cool.

I spent Easter weekend 2019 at Ytterbium, the latest in Britain’s long-running series of Eastercon science fiction conventions. Eastercon is one of the big national gatherings for the speculative fiction community, covering, fantasy, horror, and science fiction, with an emphasis on the latter. It’s a great place to get a sense of where British SF is at.

As an attendee, Eastercon always seems very smoothly run to me. The volunteers who do the work give every appearance of professionalism. For a long and lovely weekend, a bland hotel becomes the hub of a normally dispersed community.

The entertainment at an Eastercon covers a wide range of topics. Panels, talks, and workshops discuss writing, editing, and commentary. But this year, I was struck by the level of political engagement.

Facing the Real World

What you get out of a convention will always be shaped by what you choose to attend. But that will also be dependent on what’s available, and this year, there was plenty for the politically concerned attendee. I heard panellists discuss subtle forms of racism, climate change, paranoid politics, and fake news. I went to events drawing attention to under-represented groups within SF. It was enlightening, uplifting, and very relevant to the world around us.

When people dismiss SF as pure escapism, they wilfully ignore its potential to engage in deep topics. This depth comes from two angles. One is the writers using spec fic’s tools to make us consider uncomfortable truths about the world, as when Marian Womack or Kim Stanley Robinson write about the future of the environment. The other angle is the analysis, with thinkers like Helen Gould looking at the assumptions in our writing and pushing us to move past them, to create work that is more enlightened, more representative, more inclusive of our world.

In both these ways, the SF community engages hard with real world issues.

Community

And then there’s the community itself.

Human beings need community. It provides them with support and a sense of belonging. SF is great for that. A shared passion for imaginative stories pulls people together.

That might not sound very political, but a moment’s thought shows that it is. By providing a community, we give support to those who need help to get by or who struggle to be heard. While imperfect, the SF community’s approach to trans rights has generally been forward-looking in recent years. Some in UK SF are pushing to amplify voices sidelined by poverty and colonialism, as in the screening of African SF films at Ytterbium. Just by spending time in this space, I’ve become more aware of the issues at stake.

A community can bind together people of very different backgrounds and help them see each other’s perspectives. That’s a radical political act and one that shouldn’t be so rare.

It’s OK to Escape

I don’t think that escapism is a bad thing. Some of the books I read and shows I watch are chosen for it. They help me relax and recharge, give me the energy to face a tough world. They help keep us sane, and we should never be ashamed of enjoying them just because they offer the relief of escape.

But there’s also a rich strand of SF that is politically and socially engaged, that recognises the politics embedded in any text, that deliberately seeks to raise important issues and make us think about the world.

SF is many things, but as Ytterbium showed, it is not just an escape.

Fantasycon 2018

Writing can be a pretty lonely business, so when there’s an opportunity to meet up with likeminded people, I’ll leap on it. And last weekend was one of the best of those meetups – Fantasycon.

Fantasycon 2018 took place in Chester. As always, it was run by a team of hardworking and helpful volunteers – if any of you are reading this, thank you so much! And as always, it was full of cool fantasy fans and writers from across the UK and beyond.

I love Fantasycon. I know enough people in the community now I can always find someone to chat with. It’s great catching up with people in the bar, where I spend most of the weekend. And that leads to meeting even more great people to chat with next year.

Spending a weekend with people who share your passions is great. You know that you can always find things to talk about. If the person you’re talking with doesn’t share your enthusiasm for a particular book or movie then they’ll at least understand it. It’s an emotionally uplifting experience, as well as one that fills me with good ideas about what and how to write.

Of course, there’s also the convention programming, a range of panels, talks, and readings. I can’t summarise everything I saw this year, but here’s what I attended:

  • Blogging in Genre Fiction – Kit Power, Alisdair Stuart, Micah Yongo, and Kate Coe talked with passion about how they blog. Turns out it’s mostly about that passion. And now I have a bunch more blogs to follow.
  • The Elderly Guard – Charlotte Bond, R B Watkinson, David Stokes, Dion Winton-Polak, and Mark Latham discussed older characters in fantasy. My main takeaway – in an apocalypse, older people have lots of useful skills, so keep them around.
  • Fairy Tales and Folk Horror – Charlotte Bond, Tom Johnstone, Teika Bellamy, and Susan Boulton talking traditional stories. Tom pointed out how dark the end of Beauty and the Beast is, with Belle marrying the man who held her prisoner, and how this could be read as about falling in love in an arranged marriage. *shudder*
  • Breaking the Glass Slipper live – One of my favourite podcasts, this time discussing mysteries in genre fiction. Excellent guest work by Claire North and RJ Barker. Look out for that in their podcast feed.
  • From Colonisation to Decolonisation – Nick Wood, Naomi Foyle, Stewart Hotston, and Allanah Hunt talking about colonial and decolonising sf+f. A difficult and important topic, it’s really good to see the fantasy community engage with this, and I’m very happy to just shut up and listen to those with direct experience.

Then there were the panels I took part in:

  • Putting the “Punk” in Fiction, with Lee Harrison, Ren Warom, and Kit Power. As somebody said, adding “punk” to a genre is really just a way of trying to say “look, it’s cool!”, but we still had a great debate about subgenres and making fiction more punk.
  • From Fanon to Canon, moderated by Cheryl Morgan, with Allanah Hunt, Chris Jarvis, and Kate Coe. I wasn’t sure I had anything to say on this, as I don’t write fan fiction, but it turned into a fascinating debate about working with existing stories and the connections between power and culture.
  • Renaissance Fantasy, with Anne Lyle, Jeanette Ng, and Den Patrick. We talked about what good and bad things fantasy writers take from the European Renaissance, what we’re missing out on, and a little bit about other renaissances.

Going to a convention always means finding more books I’d like to read, so the lure of the dealers’ room is impossible to resist. This time I was relatively restrained, only buying two non-fiction collections from Luna Press, one on gender and sexuality in sf+f, the other on African sf+f. I’ve already read the first one, which was full of insightful and fascinating articles. Having started the other this morning, it promises to be the same. Luna Press are doing some great work right now, putting out both innovative fiction and valuable commentary, and I’m pleased to have these on my shelves.

Fantasycon is a great event. If you’re a fan of fantasy or horror fiction and you live in the UK then I heartily recommend it. Next year we’re off to Glasgow – maybe I’ll see you there?

Fantasycon Schedule

We’re only days away from Fantasycon, the British Fantasy Society’s annual convention. This year, I’ve got a relatively busy schedule, with three panels, two of which I’m moderating:

  • Saturday, 10pm – Putting the “Punk” in Fiction
  • Sunday, 10.30am – From Fanon to Canon
  • Sunday, 12.30pm – Renaissance Fantasy

If you’re not already booked and you fancy a weekend of friendly geekery in Chester, you can find details of the convention here. And if you’re already going, then I’ll see you there!

Follycon

This weekend I’m going to be at Follycon, the big science fiction convention in Harrogate. I’ll be moderating a panel on writing tragedy on Saturday morning, then spending the rest of the weekend enjoying the excellent company and interesting content. So if you want to hear me coaxing some wisdom out of other authors then please come listen to the panel, and if you see me around, say hi.

The Best Panel of FantasyCon 2017 – Economics. No, Seriously…

I attended several great panels at this year’s FantasyCon. But the best was on a subject I never expected to be so engaging – fantasy economics. Chaired by Peter McLean, the panel also featured authors Jeannette Ng, Shona Kinsella, Vic James, who’s also a political journalist, and Stewart Hotston, who’s an investment banker with a degree in economics.

Going Wrong

Peter’s first question was what economic pitfalls people found in their writing and how they got around them.

Stewart talked about how wars have to be paid for – this was something that constantly stopped Henry VIII going to war. Wars have economic consequences for hundreds of miles around, as horses are taken and farms burned.

Shona pointed out that, in a prehistoric setting like the one she writes about, everyone has to work to support the community. The value is in time, not money, and if someone doesn’t pull their weight that has consequences for everyone.

For Vic, the inspiration for her writing came from looking at the failures of an economic elite. If you have a magical aristocracy, that will shape the economy. It can lead to things like indentured servitude.

Jeannette pointed out the difference between building a plausible fantasy economy and using fantasy as allegory. The allegory doesn’t necessarily need to be economically convincing, but you have to know where it’s going.

This also led to some reflections on the reality of economics. Stewart argued that all economists are essentially fantasy writers, as they assume that people behave like rational actors to maximise economic utility.  Vic pointed out that a plausible, functional economy isn’t always a sustainable one.

Money

Peter asked how we define an economy, given that it can be built on things other than money, like barter. One definition Stewart gave was that money is a way of storing desire and allowing access to value, and this is how an economy works.

This led to a discussion of debt and how it can work if there’s no cash. Jeannette suggested favours and Vic said labour, which raises the question of when to pay that debt – get it out of the way when young, or enjoy your youth and work later?

Jeannette discussed the case of gift giving cultures, where giving increases your status and places obligations on others. This is something that has appeared in various places around the world, including in medieval Europe. Debt, obligation, and economic dominance don’t have to work in the way we’re used to.

The Elite

Next on Peter’s question list was whether the magically powerful in a society would automatically become the super-rich.

As Stewart explained, the social elite and the most wealthy aren’t always the same in reality. Historically, merchants have tended to be a separate class from the aristocracy, who didn’t dirty their hands with trade. The wealth of the aristocracy came from debts and giving opportunities to merchants. So in a fantasy world, the powerful could channel magic where they want it to go and this would affect wealth distribution, but magic, wealth, and rank wouldn’t necessarily match.

Luxury!

In a question that would have got him burned at the stake five hundred years ago, Peter asked how we get to a point, as with medieval monasteries, where one of the wealthiest groups aren’t doing anything useful but are essentially a luxury. This led to a wider conversation about luxuries. Jeannette pointed out that we don’t appreciate what a luxury most clothes once were, as we get them so easily. Giving cloth had real symbolic power. Shona talked about how, in a society that doesn’t take excess resources from the earth, luxuries can take a different form – things made for each other.

This idea of the changing nature of luxury came up again as Jeannette discussed more egalitarian societies, in which anthropologists have seen people mocking the excessively successful. Stewart said that this fits a social difference between the UK and the US – in the US, people are more hierarchical and concerned with economic success, while in the UK we are more egalitarian in our outlook and celebrate heroic failures.

Vic described the aristocracy as a wealth-preserving mechanism – most early laws emerged to decide where property went.

Specialist skills are also important in directing wealth – Stewart explained how the creation of the specialist skill of double-entry book-keeping added to the wealth of book-keepers and their patrons.

Wacky Stuff

Someone in the audience asked the panel about the most out there economic ideas they’d seen.

Stewart said basic minimum income. Evidence is starting to show that it generates wealth and doesn’t create inflation, completely contradicting dominant economic theories. Its day is coming, but many economists, shaped by Hayek and American puritanism, will fight this.

Jeannette said China’s gift-giving culture, where it’s scandalous to game the gifting system for profit but this can be done.

As Vic said at the end, economics is a codification of human relationships. This was what the panel drew out – how economics ties to other relationships, how it is shaped by them, and how it can be used to build more interesting worlds.

Seriously. Best panel of the whole convention.

Histories of Violence – the FantasyCon 2017 Fighting Panel

Fighting features a lot in fantasy literature. And so it makes sense that almost every FantasyCon has a panel about writing combat. This year’s featured:

What Makes a Good Fight?

Adrian talked about how a well-written fight scene has a clear perspective. The fight should be seen from a specific point of view but the writer should also know what’s happening beyond that viewpoint. Anna said she focuses on sensations and emotions, bringing the fight to life. Stewart went more specific on this, saying that as a reader he likes to feel breathless.

Stewart also said that the fight should fuel what else is going on for the character. Related to this, Simon said that there needs to be a reason for the fight, something to care about.

The Influence of Other Media

Discussing the influence of other media on their work, Stewart said that good computer games are an influence for him, but not films, as none of them live up to his experience from HEMA.

The panellists picked out a few examples that have good lessons – the meaningful action of Sam Peckinpah, the sensory richness of costume dramas, the mess and chaos of Saving Private Ryan. But as Adrian pointed out, trying to replicate a good scene from a film wouldn’t make a good written fight – they work differently.

This led into an interesting discussion of the aesthetics of violence in fiction. Simon said that it should be simultaneously appealing and appalling. Stewart said that the tunnel vision that comes in a fight creates a sense of intimacy and even camaraderie between opponents. Anna described it as something that can be deeply mindful.

As Adrian pointed out, if the reader knows more about the fight and its consequences than the participants then this can add to its power and emotion. There is, as Anna brilliantly described it, a moment of human tragedy as you see the mistake unfolding.

Accuracy Versus Entertainment

As David pointed out, most real fights are short, ugly, and not cool. This raised a question – is accuracy not a good thing?

Stewart discussed how, in late medieval and renaissance fighting manuals, most moves have only three steps – by then you’ve won, lost, or backed off. If you don’t hit first and you don’t back off, you might get hit back. If you’re writing something grim, there’s a place for that harsh realism.

Anna said that it depends on what you want to write. This is fantasy, and there’s a place for the gorgeous romance of Errol Flynn-style swashbuckling. As Adrian said, fights with pezazz are part of what readers expect from fantasy.

Final Points

A couple of interesting points came out near the end.

Adrian discussed how there are three levels of fights, each requiring different skills from both combatants and writers – the duel, the skirmish between a few people, and the mass battle. He considers the skirmish the hardest to write, as you’ve got multiple combatants but can’t just treat them as a chaotic mass.

Stewart said that, historically, battles with melee weapons tended to have surprisingly low casualties. Victory came through intimidation and breaking the enemy’s will, not through killing.

Overall, this was an excellent panel with a lot of useful insights. There’s a reason why the fighting panel is a staple of conventions.

The Author as a Business – a FantasyCon 2017 Panel

As someone who makes a living off writing, it’s always worth paying attention to the professional side of a convention schedule. At FantasyCon 2017, that meant attending a panel on “The Author as a Business”.

The panellists were lawyer and podcaster Marguerite Kenner, agent Juliet Mushens, author Heide Goody, and publisher Francesca T. Barbini. That’s a good mix of expertise and perspectives, which is exactly what you want on a panel like this. After all, there are a lot of different ways to operate these days and understanding that is part of making writing work for you.

For me, much of this panel was a useful revision of things I’ve heard on podcasts or read in articles before. There’s a lot of information out there, it’s hard to make it all stick, and hearing an interesting discussion on it reminded me of things I’d neglected, as well as shining new light on them. But there was one over-arching theme that came up and that’s worth sharing:

Know exactly what the rules are that you’re working by.

This can mean getting a lawyer to look over your contract. It can mean sweating the details of what rights you’re giving someone to your work. When writing with a partner, it can mean setting out clear rules for how you’ll work together and how the profits will be split.

These details aren’t always exciting. They’re not always comfortable topics of conversation. But if you’re going to be a professional, they’ll affect your livelihood, and that means they’re things you need to know.

Overcoming Impostor Syndrome

Nothing brings out the impostor syndrome in me like a convention. There I am, sitting on panels with authors I’ve heard of, making out like I have something relevant to say. Telling people that I’m a writer when they’ll never find my books in Waterstones. Seldom do I feel so much like I’m faking it.

Or at least that was the case until last weekend and FantasyCon 2017.

Two things at this convention made me feel more like I was, on some level, the real deal.

One was seeing the successes of my friends. Two people I’ve known since university had book launches. Adrian Tchaikovsky, who I’ve got to know since moving to Leeds, won the annual best fantasy novel award for The Tiger and the Wolf. Though I’ve had moments like this before, this somehow became a tipping point, the moment when “these writers are just people like me” became a solid, emotional reality instead of something I would mutter as a mantra as I hunched over my poor battered manuscripts.

The other was people’s responses to me talking about my work. I was on panels about history, ghostwriting, and steampunk. In between, I had numerous conversations in which I talked about the writing I do for a living.  And people’s responses, the way they treated me like I knew what I was talking about, the occasional impressed reaction at how many books I’ve ghostwritten over the past few years, that made me realise that what I do isn’t a sideshow. Sure, it’s not the same as what the big name authors are doing. It’s not where I want to be eventually. But it’s providing me with experience and expertise that’s actually pretty impressive. I am a writer, even a professional one. And the fact that it’s not what people dream of when they say “I’m a writer”, the reality of it is still pretty cool.

Making Horror and Inspiring Emotion – Ian Thomas’s Nine Worlds Panel

Learning from disciplines and genres other than your own is one of the best ways to expand your writing. It helps you look at the craft from different angles and come up with ideas you would never normally encounter. This is especially true when there’s someone smart and insightful talking on the subject. So while I don’t often write horror or games, Ian Thomas’s talk at Nine Worlds on making horror in games gave me some great food for thought.

Looking through my notes, there was plenty of stuff I’ll save for if I ever run live roleplay again. Things like using all your senses, knocking players off balance emotionally so that they stop and watch, or providing a pile of in character documents instead of a character description so that players would fill the gaps and imagine themselves into the character’s life. It’s thinking outside the default approach to games, which is how you make something that stands out.

But there were some lessons that clearly apply to writing as well.

Scare the player/reader, not the character. After all, it’s the reader’s emotions that will keep them engaged. And to a large extent, this applies to other emotions. Whether it’s leading readers into a crush on a romantic lead or making them really angry at the villain, those feelings are the real power in a story. So consider the readers’ emotions.

Put yourself in the player/reader’s shoes. What will they be thinking about at any given point, given the gap between what they know and what you know?

Leave gaps. Our human survival instinct means that we are constantly looking for patterns and jumping at shadows. So create a few bright, clear points where everything is specified, and then leave players/readers to find their way between them. Let their imaginations make it real.

Be careful not to break the player/reader’s mental model of what’s going on. That can wreck their immersion, and so the emotional momentum you’ve built. If you’re going to pull the rug out from under their feet, make sure it’s in a way that adjusts that mental model, not shatters it.

And if you want to read more on how Ian applies this stuff, check out the write up on the game God Rest Ye Merry, which friends of mine have been raving about ever since.

Rocket Man! Nick Bradbeer on Spaceship Design for Writers

Of all the people I’ve ever met, no-one is as qualified to talk about designing sci-fi spaceships as Nick Bradbeer. He’s a naval architect, a sci-fi geek, and a charismatic public speaker. So when he gave a talk on Space Design Considerations for Writers at Nine Worlds, it was bound to be good.

How History Shapes Our Writing

The reasons we imagine the world the way we do are always fascinating. Nick started out by delving into this territory, talking about the history of how authors have depicted spaceships.

Before the 1950s, space could be whatever the writer wanted it to be. No-one had been there and the reading public had few preconceptions about how space flight should work.

In the 1950s, writers started depicting spaceships in a style similar to airplanes. Rocketry was the hot new thing, jet planes were in the skies, it was natural to see this advanced new technology as the future of space. This led to the Star Wars style winged fighter ships, but also to some more realistic designs based on real rocketry.

Then came Star Trek and with it all the trappings of a navy. The bridge as command point. Crew structures based on those of warships. Bulkheads and metal beams.

It’s a model that’s continued to the present day because it’s familiar. It’s something we recognise from the real world and so can easily wrap our heads around.

But space isn’t really an ocean and that model isn’t inevitable.

Maturing Technology

To understand how technology will be shaped, we need to know who’s shaping it.  This was the next part of Nick’s talk.

Borrowing from the Rocketpunk Manifesto blog, he discussed how technology goes through four stages of maturity:

  1. Experimental – It’s unusual, sometimes unreliable, and almost no-one has it. Like space flight in the modern world.
  2. Government / megacorp – The technology is mature enough to be replicated and used, but so expensive that only the largest organisations in the world can have it. Like submarines or a weaponised Boris Johnson. (I’m kidding. We all know there’s nothing mature about Boris Johnson.)
  3. Commercial / rich – The technology is common but ownership of it isn’t widespread. It’s owned by large organisations and the rich. Like airliners, or maybe access to Boris Johnson. (Just because it’s costly doesn’t mean it’s worth having)
  4. Personal / ubiquitous – The technology is cheap enough to be widely available to individual people. Like smartphones or a platform from which to make cheap jokes about Boris Johnson.

Technology generally moves down this list as it matures. Look at how portable communication devices have gone from the toys of the wealthy to something most people rely upon in the western world. To understand how space travel fits into your setting, it’s important to think about where it is on this scale.

Design Fundamentals

The further down the tech scale something is, the more freedom people have in designing it. They aren’t just bound by function anymore. Aesthetics can play a larger part.

Which brings us to the fundamental factors to consider in ship and so spaceship design:

  1. Role – What is the spaceship meant to do? What features does it need to do that?
  2. Sizing – How big is this spaceship? How big does it need to be to fulfil its role? How much space do you have for all the people and gadgets you want?
  3. Layout – How do the parts fit together? What’s the most efficient way to do this? For example, should the stores be near the galley? Do you want ammunition easily accessible from the big damn gun on the front, or do you want it mostly stored further away to avoid destructive accidents?

Having taken that into account, you get into issues of structure. What is it built from? Is it a skin of some material over reinforced beams, like in real life ships and planes? Does that structure show?

And then there’s your near-inevitable faster than light drive. It’s the big damn lie powering any sci-fi spaceship. But hey, this is speculative fiction, you need a few of those lies.

The People Side

And then there’s the people side. As Nick said, “Technology miniaturises but people don’t.” People need somewhere to sleep, to eat, to work, to rest. They need to exercise. They need meals. They need air. They need to be protected from the heat created by engines and from the icy void of space.

Odds are, people and their needs will take up a lot of space on your ship. Are they given lots of space because it’s a luxurious cruise liner, or crammed in together in a dystopian manufacturing fleet? How does this affect the ship’s size and other requirements?

And something that wasn’t touched on in the talk, but that fascinates me – how does that affect the behaviour of those people? What dynamics arise depending on how a ship is laid out?

Questions About Space

This talk didn’t provide answers to the question “what should my spaceship be like?” Instead, it provided something far more valuable – a host of questions for writers to consider when designing their ships. It was a great talk with lots of food for thought.

Here’s hoping Nick can be persuaded to do one on airships next year.