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.

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.

Edge Lit 6

Conventions are one of my favourite things about science fiction and fantasy fandom. The chance to hear and talk about sf+f with like minded people is great. And with Derby within day trip distance, one of my regular ones is Edge Lit.

Epic panellists dwarfed by epic title

The Epic Panel

I didn’t go to many panels this Edge Lit. I enjoy the panels as conversation starters, but I get easily distracted and end up staying in the bar.

The one I went to was on epic fantasy.

The panel’s starting question was about why epic fantasy is so popular at the moment. But there’s a reason why I say “starting” question. The titles of panels are seldom their whole focus. Instead, they provide a theme and a starting point for the panelists to work from. What’s interesting is what they do with it.

This particular panel featured RJ Barker, Lucy Hounsom, Stan Nicholls, Anna Stephens, and Gav Thorpe in the chair. They talked about how epic fantasy lets them write the stories they want to tell, about how various media are making it more popular, about the bad cliches that can be a problem, and all sorts of other things around what epic fantasy is. It was a wide-ranging and fascinating discussion that ended with some good recommendations for books.

This is the joy of panels. It’s hearing smart, lively people talk about interesting stuff. The panel titles might get a bit repetitive, but it’s the panelists that bring them alive.

The Event Running Workshop

Alex Davis, who runs Edge Lit, ran a workshop on running events. It’s certainly something he’s got experience on, making it a valuable addition to the convention. I’ve been toying with the idea of running some sf+f evenings in Leeds, so I went along to learn about the practicalities.

I know Alex puts a lot of effort into these events. Hearing him talk about it only made me more aware of that. So kudos to him for keeping the convention going. Whether I act on what I learned remains to be seen…

All the Books

I have too many books on my to-read pile already. Every convention I go to, I plan not to add any more. Every convention, that plan fails.

My main purchase this time was Laura Mauro’s Naming the Bones. I heard her read from this at the book launch and it caught my attention. A horror story that starts with a terrorist attack and ends up in the tunnels under London is something new for me, but with familiar elements I’m fascinated by. I’m looking forward to reading it, though probably not when I want to be able to sleep.

And then there was the raffle. I bought five tickets. Three of mine got drawn from the massive bowl. Slightly embarrassed, I asked them to draw again and let someone else have my prize the third time. Because like I said, I have too many books. But hey, I won!

In summary, Edge Lit 6 was everything I expected, in a good way. Books, panels, conversations, more books. Plenty of inspiration for what to read and write.

Needless to say, I’ll be back in the winter for Sledge Lit.

Philosophy and Final Fantasy at Nine Worlds

As I’ve mentioned here once or twice (or a bazillion times), I love conversations where philosophy and high culture tackle pop culture. Using geeky narratives to explore deep issues is my idea of fun. And I’m going to be doing it in public on the 4th of August on a panel at the Nine Worlds convention. If you’re going to be at Nine Worlds then please come hear me pontificate and other people share real wisdom. And if you’re not, hey, maybe next year.

Crime and Fantasy

Edge-Lit_LOGOIn fiction, fantasy opens up a world of endless possibilities, while crime narratives constrain story into a specific structure.

That was the main insight I gained from the crime and fantasy panel at Edge-Lit this year. As someone who doesn’t generally write crime, I hadn’t thought to compare the two genres before. This point particularly grabbed my attention. Like any generality, I’m sure there are ways in which it’s untrue, but there’s also a lot of truth to it. And it shows how different genres, when brought together, can create interesting contrasts as well as bringing different strengths to the mix.

Maybe there’ll be more crime in my fantasy in future. I certainly like to write with constraints.

High Fantasy, High Art – an Edge-Lit Panel

Judging the book by its author, I expect to be very entertained by this.
Judging the book by its author, I expect great things.

What happens when fantasy fiction and literary fiction meet?

I recently went to Edge-Lit, an annual fantasy, science fiction and horror convention in Derby. It was an excellent event, with interesting panels including….

High Fantasy, High Art: Is Fantasy Fiction Growing More Literary?

Even after attending just a few sf+f conventions, I’ve realised that the subjects of panels get repetitive. Certain issues remain relevant, people want to talk about them, and that’s fine. It means that for a regular con attendee, what makes a good panel isn’t the subject so much as the panelists.

This panel had great panelists. Marc Turner was the perfect chair, asking interesting and relevant questions and getting everyone involved, rather than using his position to keep voicing his own views. The other panelists – Cherry Potts, Edward Cox, Peter Newman and Jen Williams – were all charming and insightful. Newman was particularly excellent, meaning that his book The Vagrant went straight onto my to-read list. Everyone was entertaining and worth listening to – not always the case when writers talk.

So what were my take aways from this?

Attitudes Towards Genre

The panelists generally approached literary fiction from the same angle I do – discussing its flaws while recognising that everything is somebody’s cup of tea. As Peter Newman said, we’re all cheerleading from our own corner, supporting the literature that struck a chord with us early in life. I think that’s very valuable in understanding our own attitudes to fiction, and our limitations. Those early experiences can create attachments that close our minds to alternatives. That’s not always bad, as we find things we love, but it’s worth being aware of.

There was much discussion of the tendency for literary fiction, at its most extreme, to leave out entertainment in favour of literary style. Jen Williams said that, as  a former bookseller, she found that “the interesting stuff goes upstairs, in genre”.

It’s a reminder that geeky interests are pushed out to the periphery physically as well as in the discussion of literature. Games stores end up outside the centre of town, fantasy fiction on the top floor of Waterstones. And again, being aware of it can stop us letting that assumption colour our view of the world.

Perhaps the telling insight came from Cherry Potts. As she pointed out, the phrase “literary fiction” assumes that everything else isn’t literary, implicitly putting down everything from fantasy to romance.

Addressing the Big Issues

Marc Turner raised the question of whether fantasy is a good medium for exploring social and political issues. Like me, and I’m sure anyone reading this blog, the panelists agreed that it is, giving plenty of examples to show that it was as good for this as any genre.

Then came the point I really liked, again from Peter Newman. He argued that using fantasy is often better than talking about issues in the real world. It can be hard to hear someone’s viewpoint if they’re disagreeing with you on real world things you care about. By placing the ideas into a fantasy world, we can make it easier for people to take them in. Fantasy becomes a way of opening minds.

How’s that for a defence of the genre?

Write What You Know?

Finally a comment from Edward Cox, which I thought was useful even outside of this topic. He suggested that the old concept of “write what you know” might now be obsolete. The internet makes research so much easier that anyone can get to know about anything.

“Write what you know” is certainly an awkward concept, and one that can be more restrictive than useful if applied badly. I’m still mulling it over, but I think I might agree with Cox on this.

Far more was discussed in the panel than what I’ve covered above. If you ever have a chance to see any of these panelists talk then I heartily recommend it. And if you can make it Derby, there’ll be another Edge-Lit event just before Christmas. It’ll be well worth your time.

Plot Twists – a Mancunicon Panel

Twist - the bee did it!
Twist – the bee did it!

The best writer-oriented event I attended at Mancunicon was also the first I went to – a panel on plot twists on the Friday afternoon. Moderated by Gillian Redfearn, Publishing Director at Gollancz, it also featured authors Susan Bartholomew, Charles Stross, David Tallerman, Chris Wooding and Sebastien de Castell. All involved were on fine form, being both entertaining and insightful. Among their top writing tips were:

  • A good twist should be preceded by a bunch of stuff you can look back at afterwards and say “I should have known” (CW).
  • Be careful that your twist doesn’t ruin the meaning of what came before (DT).
  • Be careful your twist doesn’t undermine the main character – Poirot should have noticed what was happening in Murder on the Orient Express, so making it a twist undermined his credibility as a smart character (GR).
  • A good twist doesn’t come too soon or too late – usually about two-thirds of the way through the story (SB).
  • A good twist gives the narrative a different meaning (DT).
  • A twist that makes everything before it a lie or irrelevant is a bad twist, as readers feel like they’ve been wasting their time (CW/DT).
  • A twist should be seasoning, not something the whole story relies on to work (SdC).
  • The further you twist things, the more likely that you just won’t be in your genre any more (CW).
  • Your twist needs to be consistent with the setup earlier in the work – plausible but not predictable (CS).

 

A Jolly Weekend at Mancunicon

Cram a thousand sci-fi writers and fans into a single hotel and what do you get? A fantastic weekend, it turns out.

I spent Easter weekend at Mancunicon, aka Eastercon 2016, one of the biggest UK science fiction and fantasy conventions of the year. It was a great weekend, with interesting talks and panels, lots of fantastic people, and a real ale bar to make up for the terrible hotel beer. I listened to mathematician Colin Wright talk about the maths of juggling, lawyer Lilian Edwards talk about how the Marvel universe explores privacy and identity, and a whole bunch of authors talk about plot twists.

That’s not to mention the late night bar conversations, on everything from the new series of Daredevil to the peril of bees to abandoning author R. A. Smith naked in the streets of Helsinki (it made sense when we were drunk).

 

If you’ve never attended a con then I heartily recommend it. If you’re in the UK then I particularly recommend Eastercon – I’ll certainly be back next year. Reading is more fun if you can enthuse about the books with others later. Writing is a lonely business, and meeting others in your field can be sanity saving. Frankly, any time you can spend with people who share your passions is great, and that’s what this was.

Huge thanks to the volunteers who ran the con.

I’ll finish with a few pictures from the hotel I stayed at. It was a couple of miles from the convention, out in Trafford. This is a somewhat neglected area of Manchester, and I expected a cheap hotel catering to football fans. What I’d forgotten was that it was near the BBC’s media city complex, and so the hotel catered to creative types. Which leads to this…

Predator

 

anchor chain

 

lobby

 

chair

 

books

Is national genre culture declining?

Interzone magazine: the epitome of British genre culture

I read a column in issue 253 of Interzone that suggested we might be seeing a decline in distinctive national genre cultures. That with the international culture that comes in the age of the internet and global mass cultural industries, a certain amount of homogenisation is taking place. British science fiction and fantasy becomes more like American science fiction and fantasy becomes more like Japanese science fiction and fantasy becomes…

You get the idea.

I’m sure there’s an element of truth to this. Doctor Who has gone from something loved by Brits and the more diligent international nerds to a global phenomenon. New shows like The 100 or Gotham get around the world within weeks, and inspire works exploring similar ideas and themes. An e-book uploaded to Amazon becomes instantly and equally accessible around the globe, and the people we turn to in picking which book to read are bloggers and reviewers, often on completely different continents.

But I don’t think that means the total death of national differences. Conventions and other geographically located events mean that the hard core of geek culture in each region tends to talk with itself more than with the rest of the world, and then take those in-person conversations and relationships online. That builds communities of taste and interest that are geographically oriented, though no longer geographically bound. Brits are still more likely to be fans of Douglas Adams and Red Dwarf than anyone else is. I dare say there are books beloved by many Americans that the rest of us never see. But the geographical distinctions may start to become more about regions than nations, based on the area capable of supporting a local convention circuit.

Is geek culture becoming more international? Sure. Does that mean it’s becoming more homogenous? No, because that interconnected global mass allows the emergence of new popular genres and subgenres, things like steampunk and dieselpunk, as well as supporting independent creators. The scene is just as diverse, if not more so, but that diversity is more widely available.

We talk about declines as bad things. But for each thing that declines something new rises to take its place, and isn’t that a glorious thing?

Gentleman thieves, loveable pirates and sexy tricksters – a FantasyCon panel

If you’re writing from inside the head of someone who’s just been robbed, they’re not going to think ‘I’ve been delightfully subverted’. – Frances Hardinge

This panel’s description featured the most amusing misprint of the FantasyCon 2014 program, promising us a discussion that would cover ‘sex tricksters’. For better or for worse, the panel swiftly moved away from that dubious-sounding subject, into a fun discussion of the place of roguish characters in fantasy fiction.

One of the many disreputable figures up for discussion

This panel featured:

  • David Tallerman – author of various novels, including a trilogy about a thief
  • Joanne Harris – writer of both literary and fantasy fiction
  • Frances Hardinge – children’s author, wearer of a rather dapper hat
  • Kim Lakin-Smith – author of fantastical fiction, particularly interested in gender issues and mixing up biology
  • Libby McGugan – fantasy writer with a taste for science
  • James Barclay – fantasy author, chairman of the British Fantasy Society, has a certain charmingly roguish air himself – James was chairing the panel

Favourite roguish characters

Favourite examples was a good starting point for the panel, and one that grounded the discussion in familiar stories.

Joanne mentioned the Pied Piper, and how he appealed to her because he was a villain but one who had been wronged, the sort of character who emerges once black and white moral divisions have been used up. For her the appeal of rogues goes back to childhood and fairy tales.

David talked about his own character, Easie Damasco, who he wrote because he wanted to deliberately get away from treating thieves as sympathetic people. After all, in reality they’re criminals preying on the innocent. It was a bit of a cheeky answer to this particular question, but I’m currently reading the first Easie Damasco book and I have to say that Easie’s becoming one of my favourite rogues, so I’ll let him off this once.

Frances discussed the Dread Pirate Roberts from The Princess Bride. She pointed out that, much as we love Wesley, he’s presumably been killing lots of people in his pirate role.

Kim listed Pan, Puck and Robin Hood as among her favourites – mythic characters who intrigued her.

Libby picked Crowley from Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens, a character whose defining quality is that he is struggling with being bad.

Motivation and complexity

James asked if it was the motivation and complexity of rogues that made them appeal, leading to an interesting discussion about where that appeal comes from.

Reasons for their appeal that the panel mentioned included:

  • The fantasy of freedom, letting us safely imagine doing what these people do (Frances)
  • Respect for people breaking the system (Libby)
  • Catharsis (Joanne)
  • Realistic decision making (David)
  • We all do wrong sometimes, and it’s enjoyable to see this in others (David)
  • Being intrigued by the bad boy/girl (Kim)
  • The character showing a broader social context (Frances)
  • Corrupt systems making law-breaking acceptable (Joanne)
  • They’re more fun to write (Libby – and I suspect that’s how most of the panellists got to this point)
  • Characters determining their own moral code (Joanne)
  • Making bad girls/boys safe (Kim)
  • The distance of time making people more appealing – we love Caribbean pirates not Somali ones (Frances – and with my historian hat on this comparison made me smile – ah history, how you warp our perspective)
  • The fun of dressing up – rogues often have great outfits (Frances)

How to make them appeal

James asked a couple of questions near the end that covered how to make such dubious characters appeal – do they need the capacity for redemption, and is this appeal partly down to sleight of hand?

The general consensus seemed to be that the possibility of redemption was needed. As Libby pointed out, we need something to identify with in a character. David made the point that there’s not even tragedy without the possibility of redemption, and it’s hard to read anything without hope in it.

There was also agreement on there being some authorial trickery involved. As James pointed out, the cleverness of the rogues themselves distracts you. But as Joanne pointed out, there’s a darker side to this, as we rely on taking away the victimhood of their victims so that readers don’t think about those consequences.

Last thoughts

One of the last notes I made was another one about historical context – shock horror, the history grad paid attention to the history bits. According to Frances, it has been argued that the appeal of roguish characters is a particularly English thing, a cult of the criminal having grown up here in the 16th and 17th centuries, celebrating the innovation and courage of such people.

I don’t know enough about other cultures to make a comparison, but certainly the appeal of dangerous rogues to the English rings true. In the middle ages we were renowned across Europe as a violent and disreputable nation, and some people took pride in that. The fame of figures such as Dick Turpin, Robin Hood and even the Krays reflects a long held romanticisation of armed robbers and violent crime.

On that charming note I’ll leave you with one last question – who are your favourite rogues and why? Leave a comment, share your love of bad boys and girls who kick against the system.