Gaie Sebold's Eastercon Report!

Gaie Sebold is the author of Babylon Steel, the new darkly funny fantasy novel coming out from Solaris Books in February next year. (Cover is to be confirmed, the above is a preview.)

This is Gaie's report on Eastercon 2011, 'Illustrious':-

I arrived at this year’s Eastercon feeling a bit like a boiled ham; the sun blazed down throughout the journey from London and continued to do so, from the few glimpses I had of the outside world, for the next four days. In the comparative cool of the hotel, I spent the rest of the day catching up with friends I hadn’t seen for ages as well as one or two I’d seen quite recently. I got patted on the back so often about my forthcoming novel I felt slightly bruised, but pleased (as it’s my first one, apparently I’m allowed to be ridiculously overexcited and go ‘squee’ a lot) and was given a great deal of encouragement and useful advice from more experienced hands. Dave (Gullen) and myself were also invited by the multitalented David Wake to take part in his play, ‘One of our Eastercons is Missing.’ We had great fun being creepy voices in a previous Wake Production, but this year, alas, we had to drop out due to a pair of persistent coughs that would probably have drowned out the rest of the cast.
Unfortunately, I totally failed to get to any panels whatsoever on Friday. I always vow to get to at least two the minute I arrive but somehow it never happens. We did, however, manage to make it to the ceilidh. Much being swung about to jaunty music by random strangers, some of them in kilts and unfairly knowledgeable about abstruse matters like dosey-doe-ing and the Cumberland, well, something, it wasn’t a sausage but involved being spun around until one’s feet left the floor. Great fun.
Though the ceilidh was packed, the convention as a whole felt rather thinly populated; perhaps the current economic climate (being a damn sight chillier than the actual weather) had something to do with it. The selection of panels also felt a little thin, with some odd choices of timing; putting serious discussion panels on late at night when people tend to gravitate to the light-hearted stuff or to the bar didn’t feel like the best choice, but then I’ve never had to run one of these things. And unfortunately (but this always happens) at least one that I wanted to go to was on at the same time as the T Party Writers Workshop, in which I was taking part as a critiquer.
We’ve run the workshop at Eastercon for several years now. We put out a call for manuscripts with a deadline some weeks before the con, write up our critiques and then read through and discuss them in one or more groups depending on how many pieces are submitted. It’s always interesting, if a little nerve-wracking, for us as well as for the submitters. Brave souls that they are, they were a charming and responsive bunch. It must be a scary prospect, especially if you don’t already belong to a critique group, to hand your work to a bunch of strangers and then sit and listen to them dissect it; but we’ve only ever had one run away before we got to their story. So far, at least.
Before the workshop I went to ‘Is SF winning the culture war?’ A lively panel, with some good food for thought, i.e. that emerging economies seem to have a greater respect for SF than Europe and America, which would have been worth a discussion on its own. It was also pointed out that we are now living in an SF world; (so where’s my jetpack, dammit? Never mind the jetpack, in fact, where are my perfect dentition and constant glowing health?) and that perhaps ‘literary’ writers tend to be less technically minded and therefore less interested in writing about these aspects of the world. On the subject of reviews in the broadsheets (or ‘dead tree press’ – a somewhat chilling phrase, I felt) it was pointed out that these can be used for publicity on an author’s next book; but that the blogosphere is much more immediate and interactive.

Someone (alas, I didn’t write down who and now can’t remember) described a slow but profound cultural shift, with SFF as nanites in the body of the literary dinosaur, moving up from the feet to take over the brain – a fabulous image, though how accurate a prediction remains to be seen.

I was interested to hear that YA books are reviewed in a much more catholic fashion than adult literature, with far less differentiation between sf/fantasy and mainstream. It would be nice to think this might lead to a future generation of adult readers with a wide range of tastes.

Someone asked whether SF writers were actually defending their ghetto; a point reiterated afterwards in the bar. Maybe all genre writers get defensive at times; including those who write ‘literary.’ But I think the quote of the day prize for sheer style, whether you agree or not, goes to David Wake, who said: ‘We only win the war when we stick the SF flag into the still warm body of the Man Booker Prize.’ Go David.

Alas, this was on at the same time as the Mirror Universe discussion panel, another one I’d have loved to go to. Who could resist the idea of a Paddington Bear mirror universe? And from the gales of laughter echoing through the party wall, a good time was obviously being had.

After the workshop I was a little wiped out, and apart from a long and satisfying (if increasingly husky-voiced) chat with my agent, mainly wandered about the dealers’ room before collapsing again in the fan bar, (the hotel bar being terrifyingly pricey, though the staff were without exception charming and helpful) and chatting with various friends and acquaintances. A few of us did poke our heads into the disco, but as the dj seemed to be under the impression that the appropriate music for a con was the same as that for a 14 year old girl’s birthday party, it was populated only by a small handful of, well, 14 year old girls. We hung about in an elderly fashion for a bit, shuffling vaguely, and then retreated to the bar again.
Alas, I missed the Sex and Sensawunda panel as by 10.30 pm I was far too tired for anything sensible.
On Sunday I went to the Women in SF panel, to hear a number of depressing statistics about how books by men get reviewed, and books by women don’t, even though there are rather more of them. The Bechdel test came up; and it was pointed out that there are disadvantages to its being used as a benchmark, in case it encourages writers to think that simply putting in a scene where two female characters discuss something other than the male characters, will make the writer invulnerable to any criticism of the way they depict female characters throughout the rest of the story. I shall try to watch out for this phenomenon from now on.
I also went to ‘Finding an Agent’ as, although I already have an agent, I had a friend on the panel and felt guilty at having missed so many other panels on which people I knew were appearing. It was straightforward and, I thought, useful, with lots of good advice – the recurring themes being; ‘Write a good enough book,’ and ‘Follow the damn submission guidelines. No, really, please follow the damn submission guidelines.’ Oh, and, ‘Don’t be a d*ck.’
‘Technology versus Ideology’ was another interesting panel, though sadly most of my notes seem to have disappeared. I did manage to retain one quote – ‘The real world is a lot weirder than most people’s imaginations,’ (which I think depends on the people you know. I have friends with very weird imaginations, which is one reason why I like them. But then, admittedly, they’re not ‘most people’.). I also heard for the first time the inappropriately charming phrase ‘cherry blossoming;’ the practice of sending one’s employees online to say nice things about one’s product while pretending to be Ordinary Punters. Ah, the interwebs. All those new possibilities for deception and bad practice. Thank geekdom for those who track down all these enthusiastic reviewers to their suspiciously similar IP addresses.
The next panel I made it to was ‘Sex, Love or Money: what’s modern vampire fiction really about?’ where I spent most of my time wiping drool off my shoulder due to sitting next to a friend who goes a bit wibbly every time someone mentions Eric from True Blood. Someone raised the very interesting point that the Sookie Stackhouse books deal with money and poverty in great detail. This reminded me that Jane Austen was, likewise, intensely concerned with the precise income and financial expectations of her characters – a point I was too slow to raise at the time. I also heard about some vampire books which sound intriguingly off the beaten track; as always I have come away from the con with a to-be-read pile, both actual and potential, slightly larger than my entire flat.

That night was the Admiralty Ball, an excuse to dress up in all our piratical finery and admire everyone else’s costumes, and to take part in a sort of Regency-style ceilidh, with much formal bowing and curtseying and waltzing around the room. These charming proceedings were halted for the 2011 Hugo nominations, where I was delighted to see friend and former T Party Writers member Aliette de Bodard among the novelette nominees.
On Monday I went to the ‘Nuke from orbit – it’s the only way to be sure’, panel, on the best way to invade a planet. Fascinating and funny, and I’m quite glad that some of the panellists aren’t running the world, because they have scary brains. All sorts of possibilities were discussed. It was pointed out that which method you used was rather dependent on what you want to do with the planet afterwards, and how quickly you needed it. Destruction of the biosphere, colonisation, adaption of one’s physique to the existing biosphere, terraforming, handing out vast numbers of free short range weapons and watching the locals kill each other off, invasion by meme, by religion, by kindness, by division, by financial management, by creating disasters and becoming ‘disaster consultants’ and by pornography were all suggested. (Although it was pointed out that if handing out loads of pornography to everyone worked, we’d have been invaded already, and maybe lolcats were actually proving a more effective Weapon of Mass Distraction).
As to how we defend ourselves against the potential for such invasion, it seems one answer is to become the Alien Menace ourselves, and put everything we have into getting out there first with every kind of hardware, software and malware we can lay our hands on…or, as someone else put it, ‘shoot all the bankers and arrest all the consultants.’ Which suggestion received warm applause, and one or two cheers. Attendance at that one panel alone could probably have provided a year’s worth of short story ideas or two or three potential novels, and some really tasty nightmares as well.
Then we were back at the hotel bar, which was already beginning to have that slightly sad, end-of-con feel, to eat lunch and wave goodbye to people trundling past with their cases.

We decided not to stay for the closing ceremony, as, being a bit fragile by this point, we would either have fallen asleep or coughed our way through it, so we headed off into the sunny afternoon.

Illustrious was perhaps not quite the liveliest or best-organised convention either myself or Dave have been to; but since we were both ill for most of it, perhaps we were feeling a little jaded. It definitely had its moments, though, and we shall almost certainly be at the next one; unaccompanied by the coughs, with luck.

- Gaie Sebold

(Admiralty Ball photo credit: Luke Thomas)

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