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.


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.


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.

Disability in SFF: Beyond 101 – an Eastercon panel

For me, writing about other people sometimes feels like a minefield. I don’t want to write lots of white, straight, cis, able-bodied, male characters – the world has plenty of those. But as I am all those things, there’s a very real risk of writing other perspectives badly.

So when Eastercon had a range of panels on disability in science fiction and fantasy, I was determined to go and learn more.

Beyond 101

The panel I went to was trying to get beyond the basics of representing disability in sf+f. The panellists were Sue Smith, Caroline Mullan, and Diane Carr, all of whom made some excellent points.

As Sue pointed out at the start, sci-fi is a productive space in which to explore disability and access. This doesn’t mean that it’s done flawlessly. Representations of disability often have an ablist bias – something I’m sure I’m guilty of myself.

Fortunately, the panellists pointed out both obvious and less obvious pitfalls.

Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

The panel skimmed over one of the biggest problem areas – presenting disability just to wipe it away. For example, Geordi La Forge in Star Trek seldom shows the real challenges of blindness, as he has a visor that lets him see. Similarly, Daredevil is effectively not blind due to his other senses. There was a whole other panel on this, so this panel didn’t cover it for long, but the overall message was clear – if you’re not showing the experience of being disabled, you’re not really showing disability.

Diane pointed out a less obvious but equally important problem area – metaphors. When you use disability as a metaphor in a story, a lot of the nitty gritty of living with disability is lost. You’re seeing a symbol, not a reality. Metaphors are usually spoken from a position of power, one that assumes its own view to be neutral. Someone else’s experience is leveraged to make a point. But that point is seldom about other people’s experiences.

This opened up a whole can of worms in my brain. I seldom think about the messages of my metaphors, beyond the message I’m trying to send. Clearly, that’s something to work on. And clearly, when I include disabled characters, they should be there as people, not symbols.


The panel raised some really interesting ideas, things that I’ll try to use in future writing.

They talked about DIY solutions to disability, such as people building custom-made prosthetics. This sounds like it’s rich with character and story potential.

An audience member talked about how having seizures leaves her on edge all the time, as she never knows when they will strike. That’s an experience I want to use to enrich a character.

And the panel talked about how medicine, with its technology, power structures, and resources, tries to fit people into those structures rather than adjusting to them. That’s an interesting conflict right there.

Becoming a Better Writer

I’m not going to pretend that I’ll flawlessly represent disability from now on. But just thinking about what I might be missing will make me better at it. And anything that makes me better at writing other people’s experiences makes me a better writer.

Huge thanks to the panellists for that.

I Love Eastercon

Meet Wayne the Wyvern – he used to be a towel

This year was my second trip to Eastercon, the UK’s annual sci-fi convention. I’ve got to say, it’s fast becoming my favourite con.

Obviously, the joy of cons is subjective. My enjoyment was helped by meeting old friends, some of whom I usually see in different contexts, and making new ones. But then, isn’t that part of what convention going is all about?

Meanwhile, I learned some 18th-century dancing, went to panels on disability and revolutions, heard a talk on 3D printing, and made a wyvern out of a towel.

For me, conventions are useful for inspiration and professional contacts. They’re also fun social events. But both of those things work better if there’s variety on the program. Craft activities create a chance to talk with people. Interesting panels give you something to talk about. Well organised refreshments make everyone more relaxed and happy. And dancing is fun.

I’ve got nothing but love for Eastercon. I’ll be back.

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…



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