Nine Worlds Geek Fest 2016

I have been to each and every Nine Worlds to date, and have blogged my thoughts about them previously: 20132014 and 2015.

The big change was the venue. Nine Worlds has shifted from Heathrow to Hammersmith, in part because of the trouble that the last venue caused, but also because of location and the plans the organisers have (as I understand it – apologies if I’ve got that horribly wrong! Happy to amend). This year we were at the Novotel West London, a large convention hotel quite close to the bus, overground and underground hub and near a range of food options. Ironically, perhaps, because the venue put on reasonably priced food and drink, and a decent range (given the usual caveats of convention food). Not a lot of choice, but they did cater as far as they could for diverse diets. Even though it was in the convention handbook,  I think people didn’t realise that the convention had a minimum spend to meet – I don’t know if they did, but I hope they did.

The main bar was fab, and we were lucky with the weather being sunny. It meant we could spill out to the outside areas. The bar staff were such a contrast to the staff last year it’s really not fair to compare them. They actually worked as you would expect bar staff to – actually serve you drinks you want, and then deal with the payment, in a reasonable time. They responded to peak times, and were efficient in clearing away mess. They also replenished the much-needed water supply in a way that I don’t think people really noticed – apart from those of us who had noticed the tardiness at the last hotel over that very matter. The other bars were a not quite as well stocked, but that was to be expected, and all the staff I interacted with during the convention were polite and keen to help. I learned during the convention that Nine Worlds had trained some of them in diversity matters, which showed. I heard and saw a few people say that staff had commented favourably about the convention, too, which is nice.

I had no problems at all with the free wi-fi in any part of the convention space, or my room. That was an astonishing contrast to the last four hotels I’ve stayed at either for Sf conventions or my work where it’s been abysmal.

(Outside of the convention the hotel was a little bit less brilliant; the check in on Thursday was slow even for those of us who had checked in online, and I noticed the difference in breakfast – and reflected how I was more used to better service once the convention deal had stopped. Nothing dramatic, by the way, but noticeable.)

The convention itself featured many cool cosplayers, and I massively rate the tokens method having been at another convention this year where they have a costume event. I have too many to list that were amazing – I did think the Zombie London 2012 Gamesmaker was fab, and I loved the two EU flags.

There was the same sense of learning from errors of the past, but also settling into an expectation of being a safe space for the diversity of sexual orientation and gender, and disabilities (including invisible), and for families and children of all ages. There is still a problem with being overwhelmingly white, but I am aware the organisers are painfully aware of it and trying loads of things to address it. My own personal commitment is to step down from any panel if there is a person of colour who wants to be on it but for whatever reason wasn’t invited.

My interactions with the various volunteers were all positive, and helpful. Clearly they knew what they were doing, and loved it.

I wasn’t involved at all in the organising, but have always been on panels. I knew they experimented with a slightly different approach to the past organisation along tracks. I think it worked quite well, but there were a couple of things that need improving for next time. Timing being one – seemed a bit long at some stages, and then at meal times a little rushed. Not a drama, and I wonder if it was because there was a lot to do with the change of venue, and four years in a row is a substantial commitment for any convention. Words can be hollow, but I would volunteer in a heartbeat (or two) if my job, writing life and health weren’t quite so demanding. I don’t want to volunteer and then not deliver. If things change, then I will reconsider. I love Nine Worlds and its ethos, and enjoy being a part of it.

I was on three panels, all of which were tops. Really good other panellists, and terrific audiences. They were the one on Star Wars and canon, Doctor Who canon (2005+ series, but of course we went back – timey-wimey allows that, nay encourages it!), and Ewoks! I had been a little bit nervous about the Star Wars ones because while I love the movies (in general) I don’t consider myself a fan. My fears allayed very quickly because both panels were about diversity of experience, of course. It’s Nine Worlds. Which meant that the usually fraught with danger discussion of Doctor Who‘s canon was lovely and fun. Little note: we were able to talk about Rogue One for the first Star Wars panel in the light of the new trailer released just before the panel; and in total contrast, we held a minute’s silence for the memory of Kenny Baker, who died over the weekend and we got the news just before the Ewoks! panel. We then celebrated his life, especially his role as an Ewok.

No blanket forts this year (as far as I’m aware), but there was Panel Panel before Bifröst (the disco bit of it). I do hope it returns next year.

But, mostly, for me the three days were full of great conversations about all sorts of things with an incredible range of people. If there’s a mark of how much I enjoyed it, it might be this. I am going to World Con in Helsinki next year. There’s a little bit of uncertainty with my job next year (nothing bad, but I am aware that until I know for certain what I’ll be doing after May next year I can’t really plan beyond my already made commitments) and I had decided to give Nine Worlds a break and just do World Con. But, instead, I’m going to incorporate planning around the potential to do both Nine Worlds and World Con, and have a bit of a holiday in and around Helsinki.

Wolf Hall / Bring up the Bodies

I read Hilary Mantel’s novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies pretty much when they were both released. I’ve always been interested in the history of Henry VIII and his daughters Mary and Elizabeth. Such a turbulent time of England and Scotland’s history, with so many lasting effects. The story of Henry and his wives has often been told in fiction, and just before embarking on reading Mantel’s novels I had watched the most recent TV version of Henry VIII’s life and death – the at times astonishingly good (yes, really!), but mostly wildly entertaining The Tudors.

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Hampton Court Palace: once Wolsey’s home, taken by Henry VIII

Mantel’s novels tell the story of Henry VIII through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, a lowly born London lad blessed with a head for finance and the law, and an excellent memory. Wolf Hall begins with Cromwell in the service of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. Henry VIII has been on the throne for about 20 years, with a kingdom geographically including England, Ireland, and parts of France . The winds of change in the church are blowing from the continent, and various characters are caught up in spying and intrigue in incredibly dangerous times. Thomas More staunchly opposed the reformation in the church, and the run ins between him and Cromwell are fascinating explorations of the theological debates of the time.

The first parts of the novel detail Cromwell’s relationship with Wolsey, and cleverly traces how Cromwell gained favour with the King while Wolsey fell out of favour. The court intrigue centring around Anne Boleyn, who is portrayed as a complex character making what happens incredibly tragic. She’s bright, with a lively mind, and the intellectual attraction between her and Cromwell is one of the key features of the novel, counterpointing with Cromwell’s discussions with Thomas More.

Court intrigue and the jockeying of various families to gain power are the other strands of a complex history where a considerable amount is on the record, but there are gaps. This is the skill of a novelist writing historical fiction based on real people and real events. Choosing the lens through which to view the events, and being careful to bring each to life in a way both believable to a modern audience and yet as true to the feel of the time as is possible. Mantel’s style is clean, crisp, and incredibly efficient as well as evocative.

Wolf Hall takes us up to More’s execution. Bring Up the Bodies traces Anne Boleyn’s fall and Catherine Seymour’s rise in Henry’s favour. There are flashbacks to Cromwell’s childhood and adolescence in London and the continent, which provide a richness to his character.

During 2014 the Royal Shakespeare Company produced a play of both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies in the Aldwych Theatre in London. I saw them back to back and it was a fascinating experience to see both in that way in the same theatre in the same seats. The adaptation itself was brilliant, and staged in a minimalist way.

With a certain sense of inevitability the BBC also adapted the books, which I just caught up with this week via DVD. Unfortunately they chose to compact down the two novels into one six part series, and it showed. The complexity and nuanced nature of Cromwell’s relationship with Anne Boleyn just wasn’t there, and as a result her execution – incredibly powerful in both the book and play – left me cold. A real shame, because the acting and sets were as lush as you’d expect. I thought Damian Lewis was particularly noteworthy as Henry VIII.