WorldCon75 – All bound for Helsinki

 

My first World SF Convention (WorldCon) was LonCon3, and my second was the one in Helsinki this August. Some of those involved with pre-con planning were the same for both WorldCons, and during the build-up to Helsinki hosting WorldCon 75 I had learned enough about Finnish conventions to know they had organised relatively big events before. And Helsinki was a draw for me; I’d never been to Scandinavia before and so leapt at the chance.

Twitter followers will know that I did Nine Worlds London Geekfest the weekend before, which is what I did for LonCon3 as well. That meant needing to fly to Helsinki from London, but because one of the Helsinki pre-con volunteers had said that the ferries between Helsinki and Sweden and Germany are a great way to travel I investigated that for the return trip. So, yes, I signed up for WorldCon 75 to get a bit of a holiday as well.

Anyway, I arrived in Helsinki on Tuesday afternoon after a good flight from Heathrow. I got to my hotel easily and after checking in headed out for a wander to get my bearings. It’s a lovely city, especially when bathed in sunshine. I found one of the harbours, and an outdoor market, and then a place for dinner – Nepalese. I love how different countries affect restaurants like this. It was pleasant, and nicely threw in rice and salad with the main meat dish I ordered.

I had an early night, recovering still from Nine Worlds and an early morning for the flight.

The venue for WorldCon was, so the advance information said, an easy train ride from central Helsinki. That was indeed true, but as Wednesday dawned with blue skies I decided to check it out on my phone’s map and saw it would be less than an hour to walk it. As it ended up, the walk goes through two parks and then alongside the railway. Straightforward, and I ended up walking in every day. I walked back twice, the other times going by train.

On arrival, I saw quite a few Nine Worlders and we joked about our wisdom in doing two conventions back-to-back. I also met a lovely woman Doctor Who fan I know from Twitter. Check-in to the convention was efficient, and I ended up spending time familiarising myself with the venue and saying hello to lots more friends. I went to the large room for the opening ceremony and started to hear about the over-crowding – not everyone was able to get in. Not so great for people with access needs, but as I understood it the convention responded very quickly. The opening was quite good, and I appreciated the introduction to Finnish culture. Those long, cold winter nights… and then the long summer days. I was born and bred in Sydney, Australia, where there isn’t really that much difference. I’ve adjusted to living in London where there is a difference, but it’s not as extreme.

I stayed for Tea and Jeopardy – about the only thing I really, really wanted to see. Emma and Peter Newman are so talented, and George RR Martin a most excellent foil for the live version of their podcast. I was so delighted when Emma and Peter won their Hugo for Tea and Jeopardy. Well-deserved, and while I didn’t get to see much of the Hugo ceremony I did see their win. Also, I really enjoyed what I did see of the Hugo ceremony and related gala. I am delighted that Emma and Peter are going to release a video of their show as soon as they are able to. A few words for the spoiler-shy: there is only one direct Game of Thrones reference, and there are no spoilers in it.

The things I love about SF conventions are the chance to meet people and share views about things, learn from others about science, history (not just English-speaking or western), mythologies, pedagogy, linguistics, and whatever else takes people’s fancy. The vast array of people’s interests and experiences are mind-blowing. Honestly, the thing that I find most exciting about SF/F/H at the moment is its breadth and depth. I already have a lot of books on my to-be-read pile, and I have now added to that pile – both physical books, and electronic. And there are a few that I hope will be translated into English at some point. I think I saw all those who I knew were going to be there, plus a few. I had a few chats with people I met just at the convention, and others I had met briefly at other conventions. All fascinating. All lovely. Plus, of course, I spent quite a bit of time with old friends who I only really ever see at conventions.

Panels are the big thing at these conventions. Loads of people go to them to learn stuff – whether it be facts about all the subjects that you could possibly want (it’s really not just about space and rockets, even though space itself is endlessly amazing and surprising and the rockets humanity has built have taken us to reaches of space that were SF when I started reading Asimov as a teenager), or hearing favourite (or new) authors talk about their creative processes.

The panels at WorldCon were listed as going for an hour, but in order for people to move about they really only went for 45 minutes, or 30 minutes if the panel opened up to the audience for questions or comments. The number of people on panels varied quite considerably over the convention, and the smaller ones were able to better get into the topics while the larger ones barely touched on them. As ever with these things, the skills of the moderator to keep on topic and deal with any issues that might arise. Their job is to keep the conversation flowing, and then to wrangle questions from the audience. I’ve seen a few people take to social media pointing these things out, and if ever you do end up moderating a convention panel it really is a good idea to take note of this advice. As an audience member of poorly moderated panels, it is a relief to see a good moderator at work. As a panellist who has worked with both poor and good moderators, it really does matter when you have a good moderator to work with. I have moderated a few panels now, and I’m not going to claim perfection, but I have learned what works and what doesn’t.

Anyway, I didn’t end up seeing too many panels. I heard about some excellent ones, which will no doubt be highlighted in other reviews and reminiscences. The one that I did see that stood out was the one supposed to be on pre-Harry Potter magical schools. While I quite enjoyed it and found some of the panellists interesting – and I would have like to hear more about Italian versions, rather than just the Anglophone ones – it was a victim of too many panellists for 45 minutes, and the moderator was less than optimally effective, especially when a latecomer arrived on the panel and took over.

The Resistance panel was also good, but very heavily US-centric, saved by Kameron Hurley talking about her experiences in South Africa and drawing on her academic work in the field.

I enjoyed the one on Cyberpunk with Pat Cadigan (but, honestly, I could listen to her all day), and I found Quifan Chen’s contributions to be fascinating about real-life now cyberpunk cities in his native China. I’m reading Pat’s Synners, at long last, and greatly enjoying it.

I had a lovely set of panels that stretched one a day over four days, all but one at 3pm. Two of them were on military SF, and I moderated both. Jean Johnson was on both, too, which was good – she’s entertaining and interesting and I have made a note to read some of her work… once I get my reading pile down a bit. The first panel we were on was on women writing military SF and joining Jean was Walter Jon Williams. While Walter was lovely, and a guest of the convention, it seemed odd having him on a panel about women writers. I didn’t want to pitch “men against women”, or to ignore trans and non-binary people, and I also believe that people want to see their favourite authors talk about their craft at these things. Anyway, they were both brilliant and we discussed quite a few women who write military SF. A Japanese woman approached me afterwards and gave me a copy of the first instalment of the manga Wombs by Shirai Yumiko. It would be fab if her work could be connected up to the project about space marine midwives, if it isn’t already.

The second military SF panel I moderated had Jean again, two US veterans (Jack Campbell and Jonathan Brazee), and an Irish writer (Edmond Barrett). It was about characters in the sub-field, and this one was easy to moderate. All four were interesting, none were retiring and none dominated. We talked about individuals and groups, and the drawing on what’s authentic, and ditching what might be accurate but slows stories down because you would just have to explain it too much. We also talked about characters who end up becoming main characters even though they were only ever supposed to remain background. Jack very kindly gave me a copy of his book, The Dragons of Dorcastle, which I am very much looking forward to reading.

The last panel I moderated was called On the Side of the Law and featured writers Max Gladstone, T.G. Shepherd (also an Emergency Services Dispatcher from Canada), and public prosecutor Britt-Louise Viklund from Sweden. The panel was quite late on the last day, but ended up being a rather energetic and interesting one – despite too many people wandering in throughout from a door up the front. We discussed the tensions between making characters and situations recognisable in real life also drive narratives in fiction. We explored the use of easy tropes that we see day-to-day in TV and film and other books – many from the USA – and how they emerge as ‘truth’ in fantasy and SF. The obvious example was the reading of ‘Miranda rights’ in non-US set fiction.

I was a speaker on a related panel on Friday, moderated by the lovely Melissa F. Olson. My co-panellist was Icelandic author Emil Hjörvar Petersen who has written a series described as Nordic noir (a favourite genre of mine) meets fantasy. We explored the works of Paul Cornell (his Shadow Police series) and Ben Aaronovitch’s PC Peter Grant series. We had a good little romp through their books and others that are similar.

Five days with a packed series of different strands means that It’s impossible to go to everything. I’ve enjoyed both WorldCons I’ve been to immensely, and mostly it’s the meeting people who you can just chat with, listen to and learn amazing new things from, and just enjoy being with others who don’t find thinking about extreme possibilities as remotely odd. Kiitos again to our Finnish hosts for their hard work in bringing this WorldCon to us.

Finally, I am really pleased that Dublin won their bid and I am fully signed up for it in 2019.

Review: Kameron Hurley’s The Stars Are Legion (Angry Robot Books)

I had been looking forward to this book for some time, and finally got to it on my increasingly large to-be-read pile. The audience of a panel I was on at LonCon 3 (the 2014 World SF Convention) told me about Kameron Hurley’s God’s War trilogy, which I sought out and read with great interest. If you’ve not read them, and are interested in SF/fantasy/(body)horror that makes you think about more than what it throws in your face, then I strongly recommend them. They are also terrific adventures with a cast of astonishing characters.

The Stars Are Legion is a one-off (though the demand for other stories set in this universe is strong, and I understand if you support Hurley’s Patreon/sign up to her newsletter you may well get what is demanded). It is a totally different conceptual framework from the God’s War trilogy – the Legion is a fleet (?) of generation starships that have become organic (or so is hinted at the end), and are sickening and dying. Wars rage within and between the various peoples who inhabit the various levels of each. These generation starships are huge – world-size huge – and have existed for a long time. Hurley excels at conveying just how complex these two facts make world-building (a theme that captivated me in her God’s War books – these are not mono-cultures, but richly diverse, and internally logical).

The novel is told from the first person present tense views of two main protagonists – Zan and Jayd. They are lovers who concoct a terrible plot to save the Legion, but it’s far more complicated than that. I won’t go into how – spoilers! – but the two strands of plotting are neatly woven together so that the conclusions aren’t predictable, but are once you reach the end inevitable. The one criticism I have of the book is the use of present tense; there is a clever non-linear time component to the book (cycles within cycles) that the use of present tense jarred against. Emma Newman’s Planetfall needed first person present tense to carry off the denouement, but the Stars are Legion didn’t. A minor point, though, all things considered.

Fascinatingly, this book has no men in it. No males of any kind, in fact, because the world-building has rendered what males bring to reproductive biology redundant. What Hurley succeeds at in this book is making that absence not matter. In the lives of the characters, males have never existed.

The book is viscerally biological, and like Hurley’s God’s War trilogy not for readers who don’t like body-horror. It doesn’t revel in it, though. It’s not gore for gore’s sake. One of Hurley’s real skills as a novelist is to simultaneously make what is normal for one group of people monstrous for others without judgement. Everything in the Stars are Legion is the consequence of something else.

So, all up – this book won’t appeal to all (like any book ever does!), but I wasn’t remotely disappointed by it.

(Also posted to my Goodreads account, 7 May 2017.)

Reviews: Planetfall, the Ancillary series, and the Traitor Baru Cormorant

Planetfall, by Emma Newman

I follow the lovely Emma Newman on Twitter and had read with growing interest snippets about her novel Planetfall. I’ll be honest; the publicity for her Split Worlds series hadn’t inspired me to read them (I’m not a fan of romantic urban fantasy), but Planetfall intrigued me.

Written in the first person present tense, it’s an intensely personal book. Ren, the protagonist, has a flawed view of the other characters and events, and especially herself. That leads to the terrifically tense parts of the mystery that runs through the novel. Emma has spoken and written about her own  anxiety, which is not the same illness that Ren suffers from.

It’s beautifully written, thought-provoking, and like all the great SF stories combines the great questions (does God exist, and is belief compatible with science?) with the ordinary everyday questions (how to live with an anxiety disorder?), with a curious mystery and a dash of adventure. I highly recommend it.

I am delighted to learn that Emma has been commissioned to write more of the Split Worlds series, and once I get through the rather large pile of books / collection on my Kindle I shall be adding these to my list to read. (Turns out marketing labels aren’t the best guide…)

For news about Emma Newman, her blog, audio work, and writing, check out Emma Newman.

Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy, by Ann Leckie

I probably don’t need to introduce the first book of the trilogy – it’s the first and to date only book to win the Hugo, Nebula and Clarke awards in the same year. Ancillary Justice is the one with the weird genders, meaning just about everyone is referred to by the narrator as ‘she’. It also starts with chapters alternating between the past and present, and in the past the narrator is fractured. Confusingly so, until you realise what’s going on and it all clicks into place. I really enjoyed it, once I got into the swing of it. The empire building is sublime, as is the science being quite firmly in the science fiction.

The second book, Ancillary Sword, has a straightforward narrative. While the fresh ground was broken in Justice, I found Sword to be a more rewarding read. The third book, and technically the conclusion of the trilogy (other stories, including apparently another novel, are set in the same universe), also follows the straightforward narrative. However, I found it less satisfying than the first two. Almost like the story couldn’t quite live up to expectation. Having said that, and especially given the break I had between reading the first two and the last, I was pleasantly surprised by characters and situations from the first two books having extra depth added in the the third. I also appreciated what Ann was doing by stating that real life is not a story with neat endings, but still felt slightly cheated.

A fascinating universe, and I love Breq (the narrator), and the explorations of power and corruption.

The Traitor Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson

Nearly all the books I’ve read recently have been either autobiographies or fiction written in the first person. Kameron Hurley’s God’s War trilogy wasn’t, but I often surfaced from reading them feeling as though they were the writing was so intensely caught up in the lives of the protagonists.

The Traitor is written in a distancing style, and while I wanted to get in the head of the protagonist I found I couldn’t. Note I said head and not heart – it’s a fabulously cerebral book, which I adore, but it did mean that the power it should have had was diminished.

I don’t read fantasy because of the odd style its writers tend to use. It’s not the genre – I love the dramatic adaptations of these books that despite their bold and magnificent stories leave me cold – but something about the very writing. It’s a taste thing and nothing about quality.

I have found myself thinking about this book a lot since I finished it. Mostly my thoughts revolve around how I should have felt winded at the end, but I didn’t. Since I’ve stopped myself getting lost in that odd little cul-de-sac I have found myself thinking about the broader themes – about empire, and power, and the meaning of resistance. In so many ways this book and the Ancillary series by Ann Leckie occupy the same space. Both authors are, I believe, American, and I think both are prodding and poking at the ideas inherent in a great power declining slowly and painfully.