TagEastercon

Bookish travels

I’ve been away these last few days, and now it’s time for a catch-up. Last week was the third annual Penguin General Bloggers’ Evening, when a bunch of book bloggers and vloggers gathered together at Foyles in London to hear eight of Penguin’s authors read from their latest books.

My favourite reading of the night came from Bernardine Evaristo, who read a hilarious passage from her forthcoming novel Mr Loverman. This was one of those rare occasions when a single short reading was enough to make me want to read everything an author had written – Evaristo was that good. It was also a pleasure to hear Mohsin Hamid read from How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia; I liked the book anyway, but Hamid was an excellent reader who brought it to life for me once again.

Other highlights from the evening included James Robertson’s ominous extract from The Professor of Truth; Jonathan Coe’s amusing scene from Expo 58; and Joanna Rossiter reading the opening of The Sea Change, a book that I already wanted to read, and am now looking forward to reading even more.

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Then, at the weekend, it was off to Bradford for this year’s Eastercon. It was good to catch up with people like Kev McVeigh and Ian Sales; to have a proper chat with Nina Allan and Chris Priest; and to meet new people, such as Anne Sudworth (who paints the most wonderful pictures) and Stephanie Saulter (whose debut novel Gemsigns sounds interesting).

I was particularly pleased to take part in the “Best Books of 2012” panel, where a group of us recommended some favourite reads from last year. I went for Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo; Lucy Wood’s Diving Belles; and Adam Roberts’s Jack Glass – and I was able to sneak in a bonus mention of Keith Ridgway’s Hawthorn & Child during the audience questions. I picked up a couple of recommendations myself from the rest of the panel: I’ve read Frances Hardinge before, but her latest sounds interesting; and I’m coming to think I should try something by Chuck Wendig.

The BSFA Awards were also announced during the weekend:

  • Best Novel: Jack Glass by Adam Roberts
  • Best Short Fiction: ‘Adrift on the Sea of Rains’ by Ian Sales
  • Best Non-Fiction: The World SF Blog, edited by Lavie Tidhar
  • Best Artwork: Cover of Jack Glass, by Blacksheep

That’s a fine list of winners, a real vote of confidence in people who are concerned for the vitality of science fiction.

Now Eastercon is over for another year, and it’s back to reading (for the time being – I’ll be at the World Fantasy Convention this autumn, for instance). Now my attention turns to the Clarke Award, whose shortlist is announced in a couple of days. And it goes on…

My Eastercon schedule

This year’s Eastercon, Eightsquaredcon (so named because it’s the 64th), takes place next weekend at the Cedar Court Hotel in Bradford. I’ll be there, and taking part in three panels. I received notification of the timings today, so I’m going to share my schedule here:

Saturday 29 March, 1pm: “SFF on SF: Criticism and Awards”

What are the relationships between critical reception and award shortlists? The panel will focus primarily on this year’s lists. With Penny Hill, David Hebblethwaite, Farah Mendlesohn and Edward James (moderator).

Saturday 29 March, 7pm: “The Best Books of 2012 “

Because of the timing, there cannot be a “Not the Clarke Awards” panel this year. Instead, our panel of reviewers will recommend and discuss their personal best books from last year. Chris Hill moderates David Hebblethwaite, Francis Knight and Sandra Unerman.

Sunday 30 March, 6pm: “The Brothers Grimm”

It’s two hundred years since the Brothers Grimm first published their folk tales. What were they doing, and what was in the stories? How have those stories been reused since, and can we get at what they were like before? Tanya Brown moderates Carolina Gomez-Lagerlöf, David Hebblethwaite and Anne Sudworth.

It should be an interesting weekend; if you’re going, do let me know in the comments.

Eastercon: Olympus 2012

It’s been a week since I went to Eastercon (the British National Science Fiction Convention), and I must conclude that it was the best convention I’ve ever been to. Olympus 2012 was my second full Eastercon, and one I was particularly looking to – partly because I knew so many more people there than I did two years ago, and partly because I was signed up to be involved in more.

Probably the most significant event from my point of view was the panel on mainstream-published sf and fantasy, where I took the role of moderator for the first time; joining me were critics Maureen Kincaid Speller and Damien G. Walter, author Nick Harkaway, and publisher Jo Fletcher. I was too busy concentrating on managing the discussion to really judge how it went; but the feedback I had at the convention was positive, and confirmed that we’d managed (as I aimed) to avoid the defensiveness which so often seems to come along in discussions of the subject. I’m glad that people enjoyed the panel; I certainly enjoyed moderating, and am already thinking about possible topics for future panels.

My second event as participant was Niall Harrison’s Fantasy Clarke Award panel, in which I and my fellow-panellists – Nic Clarke, Erin Horáková, Edward James, and Juliet E. McKenna – debated the ‘shortlist’ of UK-published fantasy novels from 2011 that we’d previously drawn up (namely Joe Abercrombie’s The Heroes; Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake; Kate Elliott’s Cold Fire; Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s The Fallen Blade; Frances Hardinge’s Twilight Robbery; and Helen Oyeyemi’s Mr Fox). After a vigorous hour’s discussion, we had it down to The Heroes and Mr Fox, with Abercrombie’s novel ultimately winning out; which is not a bad result at all, in my view.

What this panel – and the traditional Not the Clarke panel, in which a group of former judges discuss the current Clarke Award shortlist – brought home to me was what a difficult job the Clarke jury (or the judges of any literary award, for that matter) must have in narrowing pools of books down. I might think I’ve reasoned out my opinions on the six novels in advance; but, bring them up against the equally-reasoned opinions of four other people, and it’s clear there is a whole lot more thinking to be done – and probably thinking on aspects of the books which I hadn’t even considered. Tough though it was to agree on which books we’d jettison when (and I’m sure all of us had moments of compromise), the Fantasy Clarke panel was also a rare chance to discuss a set of books face-to-face in some reasonable depth, and I could happily have continued longer. Afterwards, the consensus among the audience seemed to be that we should repeat the exercise next year, and I think it would be great if the panel became a regular occurrence.

It wasn’t all great, of course – not in a weekend which included John Meaney’s spectacularly ill-judged speech introducing the BSFA Awards. There’s nothing I can really add to what has already been said elsewhere across the internet; I was one of the people who walked out, and so missed the actual presentation of the awards. But my congratulations to Christopher Priest, Paul Cornell, Dominic Harman, and the team behind the SF Encyclopedia for their respective wins.

Socially, it was – as ever – great to catch up with familiar faces and meet unfamiliar ones for the first time (whether that’s the first time in person or in general). Those unfamiliar faces included Damien, Edward, Erin, Maureen, and Nick from the panels I mentioned above; as well as Nina Allan, Kev McVeigh, Ruth O’Reilly, Tom Pollock, Gav Pugh, Adam Roberts, and Ian Snell – apologies to anyone I’ve omitted to mention. The fluid nature of social interaction at a convention meant that I didn’t always get as much chance to speak to people as I’d have liked, but I hope that we will meet again in times to come.

My overall sense was of a convention that was great both within and beyond my personal experience of it. The event had that general atmosphere of a lot of people having a good time, whatever their particular interests in terms of programming or guests. I’ve long thought that a mainstream literary festival structured like an Eastercon would be fabulous; and Olympus only confirmed to me what a great format this can be for getting people together to share an interest in books (or what-have-you). I’m already planning to attend Eight Squared Con in Bradford next year; so let me say thank you to this year’s Eastercon committee, and good luck to next year’s!

Eastercon schedule

In a coupler of weeks, I’ll be going to Eastercon, the British National Science Fiction Convention; Olympus 2012 is being held at the Radisson Edwardian Hotel, Heathrow (the same venue as when I last went two years ago). The draft programme has now been announced, so it seems as good a time as any to post about what I’m going to be doing at the convention.

I’ll be attending all weekend, but am down to appear on two panels. On Saturday 7 April, at 1pm, I will be moderating a panel on mainstream-published science fiction and fantasy. Regular readers of this blog will know that’s a particular interest of mine; my particular aim for the panel is to explore the place of mainstream-published work within the contemporary sf field. Joining me for that discussion will be Jo Fletcher; Nick Harkaway; Maureen Kincaid Speller; and Damien G. Walter.

My second panel, ‘A Fantasy Clarke Award’, takes place on Sunday 8 April at 2pm. There isn’t a fantasy equivalent of the Arthur C. Clarke Award (that is, a juried award for UK-published novels); this panel is all about discussing some books from 2011 that might be contenders for such an award. Niall Harrison is in the moderator’s chair for this, and my fellow-panellists are Nic Clarke; Erin Horáková; Edward James; and Juliet E. McKenna.

Surveys and wolves: Vector, Autumn 2010

The latest issue of the BSFA‘s critical journal, Vector, has been mailed out to members — and it’s the first  issue which has contributions from me. There’s a transcript of the Eastercon panel in which I took part earlier this  year, on the BSFA’s author surveys; and a review of M.D. Lachlan‘s impressive Viking fantasy Wolfsangel (well worth a look even if epic fantasy is not your usual bag). Of course, there’s plenty more to read in there besides these; if you’re at all interested in fantastic fiction as a literary form, you should check the BSFA out.

‘Mainstream’

There was a discussion panel at Eastercon this year called ‘What do we mean by “mainstrean”?’, with particular reference to the works of Iain Banks – the reason behind it being that, even though it seems fairly straightforward to say that Banks publishes science fiction with a middle initial in his name, and mainstream fiction without, when you actually look at the range of what he has published under the name ‘Iain Banks’, he becomes a difficult writer to pin down (by the end of the discussion, the suggestion was that he’s often a gothic writer).

This topic is of interest to me, not because I’m particularly widely read in Banks (I’ve read only three each of the two ‘groups’ of his books), but because of how I’ve changed as a reader over the last few years. Even five years ago, I was primarily a reader of science fiction and fantasy; now those are just two aspects of what I read. What has happened is that, over the last few years, I have ‘discovered’ – grown to appreciate – mainstream fiction.

Or have I?

To explore what I mean, I’m going to refer to my list of favourite books read in 2009 (the first year when I both recorded everything I read, and made a properly considered list of favourites). Five of these twelve clearly fall within the field of the fantastic; two more are part of that field (by my definition), but were not published as such (and perhaps were not conceived as such, either); and five fall outside it. Of the five non-fantastic novels, there’s something unusual about the style or structure (or both) of four of them, and I’d suggest that even the fifth is not straightforward.

When I look at those latter five books, the term ‘mainstream’ doesn’t seem right for them to me.

(Interestingly, when I look at the sf/fantasy/horror works on my list, I find that they’re also quite unusual in their own ways, and I actually see quite a lot of commonality across the twelve. I’m clearly to drawn to that kind of book in general, a thought that’s borne out by my favourite reads so far this year.)

So, how would I define ‘mainstream fiction’? One could define it as ‘not genre fiction’, but I think that’s an artificial opposition, because it seems to me that genres overlap and merge into each other so much. One could define ‘mainstream’ in terms of popularity, but (though I haven’t any sales figures) doesn’t ‘genre fiction’ tend to be the most popular? The more I think about the term ‘mainstream’, the more elusive it seems to be.

Over to you, reader: what does ‘mainstream’ mean to you, and where does it sit in your personal reading spectrum?

Eastercon: Odyssey 2010

I’m back from my first full Eastercon, and what an experience it was. For those who don’t know, Eastercon (to borrow an idea from Gareth L. Powell) is something like a Glastonbury Festival for science fiction, only in a hotel. Probably, no two attendees experience quite the same thing, as an Eastercon can seem less like one event than an amalgamation of four or five different ones. But there are programmed items of various kinds (such as panel discussions, talks, and workshops), mixed in with plenty of socialising.

It was great to catch up with old friends (Nick, Gary, Tony, and everyone else) and meet new ones. There was quite a lot of meeting new people, including those I already knew from online, some I knew of but hadn’t interacted with personally, and others I hadn’t known in any capacity — but I am glad to have met them all. In alphabetical order: Liz Batty, Claire Brialey, Nic Clarke, Niall Harrison, John Jarrold, Gareth D. Jones, Caroline Mullan, Abigail Nussbaum, Alison Page, Paul Graham Raven. And I know there were other people there I know online whom I didn’t get a chance to meet — some other time, hopefully.

Though I’ve been to other conventions before, this was the first where I was a participant — in Niall’s panel on the conlcusion to the BSFA survey, along with Claire, John, and Caroline. Naturally, I was nervous to begin with, but in the end I rather enjoyed it, and now like the idea of doing another one. I’m not going to attempt to summarise what we discussed; Niall intends to post a transcript in the near future — I hope you’ll find it interesting.

Other events I attended included: various panels on topics such as reviewing, anthologies, the Clarke Award (whose consensus was that The City & the City should win), grammar (the most heated of all discussions to which I went), and the definition of ‘mainstream’ (which is likely to inspire a separate blog post from me); an apple-tasting workshop (from which I conclude that, indeed, apples do not all taste the same; a gig by Mitch Benn (‘this is the closest I get to a homecoming gig’), and the BSFA awards (congratulations to all the winners, but particularly to Nick Lowe, who won for his Interzone film column — great to see that being recognised). [EDIT, 9.20pm: Somehow I omitted to mention Ben Goldacre‘s excellent talk on bad science. Consider that rectified!]

One of the things that sets conventions like Eastercon apart from other kinds of literary festival is that authors (including the Guests of Honour) are as much a part of the crowd as anyone else — which means you never quite know whom you’ll encounter, or how. I had a couple of those surprising moments: looking through the Dealers’ Room, I came to the TTA Press stall, where I saw a copy of Marcher by Chris Beckett. I very much enjoyed his story collection The Turing Test last year, so I decided to buy the novel — and did a double-take when I realised that the person currently staffing the stall was Beckett himself.

But my biggest surprise of the convention came when I went to the launch of Jetse de Vries’ new anthology, Shine — and Alastair Reynolds (who was a Guest of Honour) walked up to me and said, ‘You’re David, you just reviewed Terminal World, didn’t you?’ I didn’t expect that to happen…

So, I returned from Eastercon having had a great weekend, with many more books than I intended (this has been the case with every sf/fantasy convention I’ve been to), and looking forward to next year’s. My thanks to everyone involved in Odyssey for all their hard work in staging the event.

What I’ll be doing at Eastercon

I have some news.

Eastercon, for those who don’t know, is the British national science fiction comvention. It’s held in a different place each year, over the Easter weekend; this year’s is Odyssey 2010, at Heathrow. I went last year for the first time, just for a couple of days; it was fun, but I decided that I’d only really get the best from it if I went for all four days. So, this will be my first full Eastercon.

But that’s not the news. The news is another first.

I’m going to be on a panel.

I should explain how this came about. Last year Niall Harrison of the British Science Fiction Association conducted a survey of British sf and fantasy writers (a follow-up to an identical survey run by Paul Kincaid twenty years earlier), exploring what they thought about their work, whether and how ‘Britishness’ related to it, and so on.

The results of the new survey will be published (along with a reprint of the 1989 survey’s) next month, but Niall also decided to organise a panel of non-writers to discuss the results at Eastercon — and he invited me to take part in that panel.

I was surprised to be asked — after all, I’d never done anything like it before — but also pleased, naturally. And now I’m more than a little nervous, as I really have no idea what it’s going to be like. I never anticipated, when I booked for Odyssey, that I’d end up particpating, but that’s what’s going to happen.

As far as I know, the panel is scheduled for 5pm on the Friday — and, of course, I’ll be at Eastercon all weekend. Perhaps I’ll see you there.

Eastercon

I went along to Bradford for my first Eastercon (British National Science Fiction Convention) at the weekend — just for a couple of days, to see what it was like. I enjoyed myself, but not as much as I’d hoped to; I think that came down to feeling more like a ‘visitor’, so I’ve booked for the full weekend next year. This post will give some general impressions I had of the con.

First, there was a lot going on, much more than at Fantasycon or Alt-Fiction (the conventions I usually attend) — something like nine or ten different rooms in use (not all at the same time, but still), plus media programme, games room and art show. I was very impressed at the range of events on offer, which included film shows (in addition to the media room), music performances, talks on science and history, and even items that had nothing much to do with science fiction (oh, to have been there for the ‘science of chocolate’ session!).

I was surprised by the size of the venue. For all its many streams of programming, and its much larger number of delegates (I believe that Eastercon typically averages about 800-1000 attendees, compared to Fantasycon’s 200), the physical space of the convention could not have been much larger than that of Fantasycon (and I’m sure the social areas were smaller). The dealers’ room was also much smaller than I had expected. Having said all this, I don’t if it was typical of Eastercon, or whether it was just the size of that particular hotel.

As for the events I attended — I saw John Clute ‘in action’ on a panel for the first time (he was every bit as erudite as I thought he’d be). There was a talk on the Clarke Award shortlist, which I’m sure I would have got more out of if I’d read all the books. And quite an interesting panel on ‘old versus new SF’, in which the two ‘teams’ of participants recommended three books of ‘old’ or ‘new’ SF to each other. I hadn’t read any of the six books under discussion (More than Human, The Man in the High Castle, Stand on Zanzibar, Revelation Space, River of Gods, and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union); but I found it striking that the ‘new’ books were all by reasonably well-established authors (respectively Alastair Reynolds, Ian McDonald, and Michael Chabon), and I wondered which ‘new’ writers the panel would have recommended. Alas, there was no time for such questions, and it’s a whole different discussion anyway.

Highlight of the two days: well, it has to be discovering one of my reviews quoted in publicity material, but that doesn’t have anything to do with Eastercon, so…

Best panel: not about SF, but a talk on urban exploring, and seeing fascinating photos of the old American Adventure theme park, and other abandoned buildings. It’s amazing what abandoned places are out there — though I’ll happily leave the exploration of them to others!

Most interesting fact: I never knew that Tiffany was a name that goes back hundreds of years. But, to paraphrase the contributor (I forget who it was), ‘Princess Tiffany’ would just not sound right in a serious fantasy novel nowadays.

Favourite coincidence: there was a depot opposite the hotel belonging to a company called ‘T H White’. I don’t think they were guarding Arthur, but you never know…

Anyway, that’s my little report on Eastercon LX, and I look forward to experiencing the full weekend next year.

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