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.

NineWorlds London Geekfest, 4 – 6 August 2017

This was my fifth 9Worlds London Geekfest, and it is a convention firmly in my calendar. It was in its second year at the Hammersmith Novotel, and once again the hotel staff were pretty good. Check in was certainly a much better experience for me this year. I do love the fact that the hotel fielded a team in the Shark game.

This year I had actually submitted two panel ideas, and I was delighted that both were accepted. The convention programme planners assigned me to two other panels: both squee (a word going in the Oxford English Dictionary). One on queer Dax (Star Trek), and one on the transgressive nature (alleged) of Miss Phryne Fisher. That last one proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that 9Worlds is not all about the SF/F/H.

This year is also the second year that I have done the 9Worlds one weekend, then the World SF Convention (WorldCon) the next. This time the second convention is in another country – Finland. More on that later. So, I intended on pacing myself, including in the hotel department. That meant I arrived on Friday morning rather than Thursday. Sad to miss the Cheese and Cheese – from all the reports I saw, people enjoyed it immensely.

Anyway, on arrival I met with several friends, but I sought out a space to get my head into panel space. Especially since I’d been told that based on the pre-con selections on the Grenadine app the first panel I was going on was among the most popular. In Cremant, the huge room, no less. That panel was one I had put forward and proposed to explore the police in the supernatural novel series of Ben Aaronovitch (PC Peter Grant) and Paul Cornell (Shadow Police) from the points of view of three women who work in policing. First thing a disclaimer – none of us were talking from the points of view of our agencies, but from our generic experiences. I’m really pleased that the audience enjoyed it – and the questions were thought-provoking and intelligent. Far from easy, but respectful, particularly about our views on inclusion and diversity in the modern UK police forces. I said it at the panel, I love the fact that both Aaronovitch and Cornell ensured their books are fairly representative of London, which the police do try to bring – following Sir Robert Peel’s ethos the police being of the people to police the people. The police lead in some areas, and do lag behind in others. We spoke about many other things, but that’s an important point for me. To bring home the point, quite a few colleagues of mine took part in Brighton’s LGBT+ Pride march on the Saturday of the convention, led by our Director General flying the rainbow flag that also has our emblem.

I’m a participant at a similar panel at WorldCon, and I’m fascinated to see how it will be different.

The rest of my Friday and all of Saturday I could attend what panels I wanted to, catch up with friends, and spend a bit of time in my hotel room to decompress. Plus admire the imagination of cosplayers – highlights were the 13th Doctor, the TARDIS full of bras, and the lemmings for their choreography. Loads of others, but they stand out.

I attended Marina Berlin’s talk on women writing about war, which skated over a complex topic. As she said, there is a long history of women writing war in SF/F, but she limited herself to three authors writing war in the 21st century – Naomi Novik, Karin Lowacher, and Kameron Hurley. I’ve not read Novik or Lowacher, but devoured Hurley’s Belle Dame Apocrypha. Berlin compared them with tropes identified in men writing war in SF/F, which irked even though I could see where she was coming from. Still, it gave me some pointers for the WorldCon panel I’m moderating on women writing Military SF at WorldCon.

On Saturday I attended the panel on race in SF/F with a wonderfully diverse panel in terms of gender and ethnic backgrounds. The panel’s strength lay in discussing the rich variety of experience through which they both write and read/consume. Pretty much all of them had grown up in one culture, some as part of a diaspora, others not, then all moved elsewhere. I agree with them that SF/F’s gift is the ability to grab tropes and tear them apart, and the issue of SF/F being metaphorical. They discussed the damage caused by people being scared of accusations of cultural appropriation – but that there is of course a responsibility to check and avoid stereotyping and making the alien other exotic. White-washing is damaging, and a panellist noted that other cultures (Han Chinese was singled out) do the same and it doesn’t make it any less damaging. They also discussed complex issues to do with translating from one (mostly English, but not exclusively) flooding out other voices. All in all, a thought-provoking panel.

I attended John J Johnston’s talk about archaeology in Doctor Who, which was great fun.

Sunday was my day of panels. I was on three, and I am so glad for the generous gap between them. My panels also bounced from squee to serious to squee.

The queer Dax panel was a lot of fun, but made some really good points. Neth is a great moderator who took pains to ensure that everyone on the panel had a different queer perspective. I had been a bit nervous that I wouldn’t be able to contribute much and I had to confess that I’m not a Trek fan. I do love the love of the Trek fans, though, especially those on this panel. But, my fears were unfounded, and once my brain busted through the laying Stargate memories over DS9 ones, all was good.

I had also been a bit nervous about the Robots, AI, and the Labour Market panel I had put forward, was moderating, and was in the second biggest room. Back in February 2017 I listened to a BBC World Service programme about robots and AI, and the fear of them taking over work as we know it. It was an excellent panel (available here – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p04rq0px?ocid=socialflow_twitter)  that I thought ripe for discussion at 9Worlds. Turned out I was correct with an incredibly knowledgeable panel from both a diverse set of writing and other work experience. To open up to the audience meant we could only really talk for about 45 minutes, and we could have spoken for a lot longer. I fear we only scratched the surface of some difficult questions, but I am pleased that the point of ‘AI’ coding being value neutral was totally trashed. It’s actually a really dangerous idea thinking that coding is value neutral. We also brought in a fair bit of real world stuff, and the role that SF can play – again the let’s explore and bust open the tropes point. I think the panel also strongly made the point that definitions matter – most of the robots and AIs cited as doing certain things are neither robots or AI. The audience again didn’t disappoint with some excellent questions, and also some good Twitter conversations.

Final panel for me of the convention and a fabulous one about just how transgressive the Honourable Phryne Fisher is. Wonderfully, one of the panellists cosplayed as Dr Mack and there are some fab pics out there of her with some Miss Fisher cosplayers. While the show does have its problems, the love we all have for it shone through (I adore the fact that Pat Cadigan is now going to give it a go on the strength of our enthusiasm!!). Personally, I am grateful for the audience member who knows far more about Melbourne’s socio-economic history than I do who chose to share that knowledge fully in the spirit of 9Worlds.

Then, all too fast, the inevitable end of another wonderful 9Worlds. My only regret – not being able to go to all the panels I wanted to, and not catching up with all the people I wanted to. Some of them I hope to see in Helsinki, but otherwise, next time.

I tweeted at some point that if there was a motto for 9Worlds it would be to: keep on learning!