It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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So that was a World Fantasy Convention

While I rate a number of fantasy novels very highly, the genre is only about my fourth or fifth choice of reading material. So in the normal course of events a con devoted to fantasy doesn’t interest me much. Except, of course, that I’ll know quite a few people who’ll be there, and it’s one of the few opportunities I’ll get to see them IRL. Plus, this being a World Fantasy Con, there’ll also be several people present I wouldn’t normally get to meet face-to-face. Having said that, there may have been citizens/residents of 35 countries present at WFC, but it often felt like the “w” and the “r” were superfluous in the first word of the con’s name.

Anyway, fantasy or not, I bought my membership months ago, booked my hotel room, was ripped off by our railways – £93 for an open return! – and at the appointed time left home for Brighton. And this is how it went…

Thursday 31 October: catch tram to railway station with overnight bag and box full of copies of Adrift on the Sea of Rains and The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself to sell on the small press table in the WFC dealers’ room. I prefer to travel light, especially if the journey is going to take hours, but my books are never going to sell if I always leave them at home. End up sharing a table on the train to London with a woman and her three grandchildren (all under the age of twelve). To read on the train, I grabbed Michel Houellebecq’s Lanzarote. Should have known better: I read his Platform while returning home from a con and by the time I reached home the combination of British railways and Houellebecq’s misanthropy had me fuming. To make matters worse, Lanzarote includes several very graphic sex scenes, so have to hold the paperback in such a way only I can see the page. Fortunately, the colour photographs in the book depict the landscape of the titular island… It’s a relief to finish the book and start on Karen Joy Fowler’s The Sweetheart Season, which is much more appropriate train reading material…

The trip to Brighton is pretty painless. Change trains in St Pancras, get a seat on the one heading for the south coast, listen to music on the iPod, stare out of the window, read my book. There are some spectacularly ugly buildings in London. On arrival in Brighton, jump into a taxi and get driven to my hotel, the Best Western Brighton Hotel. Which claims to be one of the best hotel in the city. In the 1980s, perhaps. It is a bit rubbish. And in the tiny lift cabin, there is sign that reads “NO SMOKING ON THIS FLOOR”. Not sure how that works. After dumping my stuff, I head up the seafront to the con hotel, the Brighton Metropole, a 400-metre walk. This is only my second visit to Brighton, and my first experience of the Metropole. I register at the convention, and pick out my giveaway books from the table full of same. God’s War I already own so I ignore that. There’s a bande dessinée which looks interesting. PS Publishing have sealed their free books inside grey plastic envelopes, so it’s pot luck. Of course, I end up with Gwyneth Jones’s Grazing the Long Acre. Which I already have. (I give it away later.) I also grab David Tallerman’s Giant Thief… only to realise later he made me buy a copy of it at the SFX Weekender in 2012. The rest of the books look like epic fantasy, so I give them a miss.

Then it’s down to the bar in search of friendly faces, which I duly find. I pretty much spend the entire evening in there. I meet up with Liam Proven, who is kipping on my floor, and we go back to my hotel to dump his stuff (which includes lots of bottled ale). Later, a large party of us go for a meal at a seafront restaurant which features an opera singer. It’s nouvelle cuisine, which means it’s presented nicely but there isn’t much of it. The opera singing isn’t up to much either. But at least the company and conversation make up for both. Then it’s back to the hotel to continue drinking and chatting. I crash out at 12:30. When I look for my bag of giveaways, I can’t find it. Oh well. At one point, I am introduced to KW Jeter. After telling him how much I enjoyed his sf novels, I add that I’m not keen on “the schlocky horror books, like Mantis.” “Ah, Mantis,” he replies, ” my favourite novel.” Oops.

Friday 1 November: get up early so I can make it down for breakfast. No buffet. You chose one of three types of breakfast from a menu, they bring it you from the kitchen. I thought hotels stopped doing that twenty years ago. Not the best breakfast I’ve ever had. In fact, I don’t even bother breakfasting in the hotel for the rest of the weekend. I grab my box of Apollo Quartet books and head for the Metropole. It is pissing it down and I get wet. Make my way straight to the dealers’ room. It is pleasingly large. As well as the usual faces, there are several dealers from abroad, such as Australia’s Ticonderoga (hi, Russell) and Fablecroft. After setting out my books on Roy Gray’s Interzone/small press table, I bimble about the room but only purchase Lavie Tidhar’s Martian Sands and a copy of Keith Roberts’ Anita (which is priced much less than usual). The rest of the day is spent bouncing between bar and dealers’ room. I have a bottle of water with me, so I stick to drinking that. I don’t manage to get lunch. Apparently, there’s a second bar serving cheap food, but I never manage to find it. The Metropole is like a rabbit warren. The function space is enormous and quite a walk – up two separate flights of stairs – from the front of the hotel and the bar.

At one point in the dealer’s room, while chatting to a dealer who has a signed first edition of Dune for sale… for $7000… I’m approached by someone who wants me to sign something. It turns out to be a copy of the anthology Where Are We Going? I also later spot copies of Catastrophia and The Monster Book for Girls. There’s also another first edition of Dune for sale, but it’s unsigned. And only £3000. One dealer, Simon from Hyraxia Books, has quite a few rare genre first editions – the aforementioned unsigned Dune, plus a signed first of Neuromancer for £1200, a first of A Wizard of Earthsea for £750…

I spend the evening on a real ale pub crawl with Liam P, Charlie Stross, Feorag, Jain Fenn, Jetse de Vries and another couple of whose names I never catch. (And yet everyone wears badges at these conventions. But at least twice I go to speak to people thinking they are someone else.) I don’t remember the name of the first pub we visit, but it is quite a trek from the hotel. It is also large, busy, noisy and very warm… and I’m beginning to regret agreeing to come along. But then we find a table shortly after getting served, things quieten down and it gets much better. Our next pub is the Prince George, which serves vegan food and was chosen so we could eat there. I’m not vegan, but I’ll eat it – and it’s likely to have more dairy-free dishes for me to choose from than a non-vegan place. The beer is very nice – we’re drinking halves so we can try a number – and my falafel burger is good. We are supposed to move onto another pub, but Charlie needs to get back to the hotel, and I’ve had enough – as have two others. so we grab a taxi back to the Metropole. The other four apparently try one more pub and then return to the con. I stay in the bar until 3:30 am. Walking back to my hotel with Liam, we witness an altercation between a taxi driver and a young couple. The young man is dressed like a pirate.

Saturday 2 November: have a bit of a lie-in, don’t bother with breakfast, and head for the Metropole. Another day bouncing between the bar and the dealers’ room. And drinking water. I manage to get lunch this time – I order the soup of the day in the bar, after verifying it is dairy-free. It’s vegetable soup but I’ve no idea which vegetable. I buy a couple more books than the previous day: One Small Step, a women-only anthology published by Fablecroft Publishing, The God Stalker Chronicles by PC Hodgell, an epic fantasy about which I have heard many good things by people who are aware of my tastes, Aliette de Bodard’s On A Red Station, Drifting, and a Women’s Press paperback of Joanna Russ’s The Two of Them. I suspect I might have that last book but I forgot my wants list so I’m not sure. It turns out later I do have it. Though I see plenty of books I want to buy, especially ones where the con is my best chance of getting them at a reasonable price (and without postage & packing on top), I don’t want to  cart loads of books as well as my unsold copies of my own books back home.

Before the con, Maureen Kincaid Speller, Paul Kincaid and Jonathan McCalmont arranged a meet-up at a Brighton pub on the Saturday afternoon, but since I don’t have a smartphone I don’t know when or where. Happily, Alex Bardy does know and comes to ask me if I’m going. I say yes. In the hotel lobby, I spot Niall Harrison, Nic Clarke and David Hebblethwaite and ask them if they’re going. They say yes. The pub is located around the back of the hotel, a five-minute walk away. I spend the next few hours at “Pubcon”, and it’s probably the highlight of the weekend (you can actually hear yourself think in the pub, which is more than can be said of the hotel bar).

After a couple of hours in the pub, it’s back to the hotel for a party thrown by my agent for his clients and industry professionals. This is in a room at the top of the hotel with great picture windows. Everyone remarks on its likeness to an evil villain’s lair, but it’s dark out so you can’t see much. As I leave, an editor from Orbit sees me and says, “Ian Sales! I know you! You liked Ancillary Justice.” What price fame, eh? Then it’s along a very blowy seafront for the launch party for Lavie’s The Violent Century. This is in the tiny basement room of a pub. It is small, busy, hot and loud. I chat to a few people, have a bad pint of some real ale, can’t have any of the free food because dairy, and then head back to the Metropole. I’m hungry so I get a meal in the hotel restaurant. But it’s nouvelle cuisine again – two halves of a new potato and a pair of broccoli florets are not sufficient vegetables. Then there’s a Del Rey launch party in one of the bars, and a Jo Fletcher Books party in one of the function rooms. I spend the rest of the evening in one or the other. (The JFB one is bigger, but when Mitch Benn gets up on stage to sing it’s too close to filk for me so I make a run for it.) At one point, there is also “Corridorcon”, which is myself, Liam and David Tallerman chatting in one of the corridors, saying hello to people we know as they pass by. One of these is Jukka Halme, who stays to chat. We are talking about the recent Swecon, Fantastika, when I ask him if he knows Miikka, one of the Finns I met there. He laughs – I gather it’s a common name in Finland. Fortunately, I remember Miikka’s surname.

It is another late night. I’m mostly drinking the beer Liam has brought. He’s carrying it around in his rucksack, and for refills we go to the toilet to pour it into our glasses. At one point, I’m doing this for Simon Clark when I realise I’m getting odd looks from a man washing his hands. I recognise him as the bar manager. Oops.

Sunday 3 November: My last day at the con. I could have extended my hotel booking and stayed on until the following day, but I decide not to. I check out of my room, and head for the Metropole. The dealers’ room is closing at noon, so I have to get my stuff out. I am on my way out of the room when I get chatting to Brian Ameringen, and in the middle of the conversation spot he has a copy of Brian Aldiss’s Cracken at Critical, which is a book I want. My last book purchase of the weekend. Myself and Liam go for food at a café a few streets away that has been recommended. I have the all day breakfast – it’s basic but more than edible. I get a few blank looks when I ask about dairy-free. This prompts a conversation back in the hotel how gluten intolerance is widely- known, but lactose intolerance isn’t – despite 75% of the world’s population being lactose-intolerant to some degree, and coeliacs less than 1% of the population (by comparison left-handed people account for around 7%). I suspect this is because during the 1980s there was a fad in the US for gluten-free food as a dietary choice – even though it is no better or no worse for you than foods that contain gluten.

I’d originally planned to catch the 13:35 to London but with one thing another end up catching the 14:45. I run into Adrian Tchaikovsky in the Metropole lobby, and he’s about to leave too. But neither he nor Annie are ready and my taxi has just arrived. I see them again at the railway station, and point out to them the train to Bedford, which goes through St Pancras, is much more convenient for their change to King’s Cross. Their tickets read Victoria Station – it seems all train ticket websites assume you have to travel to Brighton from London Victoria (and vice versa)… unless you’re travelling north on East Midland Trains, who use St Pancras as their terminus. The train arrives, but Adrian and Annie are waiting for friends. I go grab seats, and sit there receiving dirty looks from those boarding because I have my bags on empty seats. But Adrian and Annie don’t make the train. Oh well. At St Pancras, I have plenty of time to catch a train home. Though they are cheaper, I’ve been caught out before buying tickets that are only valid on one train. Now I always buy open returns. It is worth the expense. As is becoming more frequent, the reservation system aboard the train has crashed. I don’t have a reserved seat but neither can I see which seats are not reserved. Turns out the one I chose is reserved. And I only learn this when there are no other seats left. So I end up standing until Market Harborough. I’m not the only one. And there are suitcases in the aisle too, making it difficult to get from one end of the coach to the other. At one point, a bloke turns up and finds his reserved seat occupied. He asks the bloke in it to move, but the bloke refuses. He claims the train staff said over the PA that since the reservation system is not working then all reservations are void. This is not true. Myself, I’d have poured my water all over the bloke in the seat. The guy whose seat it is has to go find somewhere else to sit. Dear British people, our railway net work is shit enough without you acting like knobs on the trains. If you are in a reserved seat, then vacate it for the person who has the reservation, even if the display above the seat is not working. Refusing to do so only makes you a total prick. When I reach Sheffield station, there’s a massive queue for the taxis. I eventually get home at 8:15 pm. The cat is glad to see me.

I thought WFC was a bit of a rubbish con but an excellent weekend. I wasn’t at all interested in the programme and missed it completely. I didn’t eat enough but drank too much. I’d liked to have bought more books. And sold more of my own books. I didn’t get to meet everyone I’d hoped to meet, but as well as hanging around with friends – Colum Paget introducing me to Hal Duncan: “Do you know Hal, Ian?” Me: “Yes, we’ve known each other for years.” Hal: “No, decades.” – I also met some people I only know online and some that were new to me. I couldn’t possibly name-check everyone I spoke to. I do remember lots of really interesting conversations. And lots of people asked me about Apollo Quartet 3, so I got to bore many people on the topic of the Mercury 13.

I had fun.


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Fantastika 2013

Back in April at the Eastercon in Bradford, Michael Cobley mentioned that a sf con in Sweden had invited himself and John Meaney as guests (though not as actual guests of honour). I’d always wanted to visit the country, so I said I’d go as well. I looked into it, and discovered there’d be a few other people I knew – both from cons and online – also attending, including one of the actual guests of honour, Lavie Tidhar. So I bought membership, booked my flight and hotel room, and the con even asked me to appear on a couple of programme items. Which I was happy to do.

The convention was called Fantastika, it was this year’s Swecon, and it took place in a suburb of Stockholm called Sickla.

I was originally going to write about the con in your usual con report format – a linear narrative, beginning with my arrival in Sweden, and ending with my return home. But a lot happened over the weekend, and it’d probably end up as TL;DR. So here’s a few of the more memorable incidents from Fantastika 2013 instead:

  • Agreeing to meet up with Lavie at Arlanda Airport so I could tag along to his signing at the SF Bokhandeln. But after waiting an hour in the airport concourse, he texts me that he’s already on the train, having been nabbed by his wrangler. So I make my own way to the book shop, wondering how we missed each other in the airport… only to learn later he landed at a different terminal.
  • The Arlanda Express is a modern, fast, electric train that runs every twenty minutes between the airport and Stockholm’s Centralstation. It also costs SEK 260 for a single.
  • Exiting Centralstation and discovering the map and directions I’d printed out from Google Maps were near useless. I had no idea where I was or where I needed to go. I figured out heading south was good… and when I came to water, I managed to get my bearings. From there, it was easy.
  • Stockholm is a lovely city. Very impressed.
  • After the signing, I travelled out to Sickla on the train with Jo Walton and Karin Tidbeck (the other GoHs), Lavie and Rebecka from the con committee. Lavie and I headed straight for the hotel to check in. As we approached it, a voice yelled out of a window, “I can hear you moaning from the second floor, Lavie!”. It was his agent, John Berlyne.
  • Lavie, John B and myself went for a meal later that evening in Urban Deli, a nearby delicatessen/supermarket/restaurant. I was impressed that the menu was colour-coded for gluten, lactose and peanut intolerances. Despite knowing that Sweden was expensive, I was still a little surprised by the SEK 710 bill.
  • The next day, I returned to the Urban Deli at lunch-time for a sandwich. They didn’t have any that were lactose-free, so the young woman behind the till happily fetched ingredients from around the shop to make one for me. Excellent service.
  • I had no intention of buying any books at the con, and after seeing the prices in the SF Bokhandeln was firm on that resolve. But Johan Anglemark pointed out that SAAM, a Swedish fan organisation, had brought along several thousand second-hand US and UK paperbacks for sale… at SEK 5 to SEK 15 each. I ended up coming home with seven books: five from Jo Clayton’s Diadem of the Stars series, a Mike Mars paperback, and a sf novel by a woman writer of the 1970s I’d never heard of, Gertrude Friedberg. (I also bought a copy of Karin’s collection, Jagannath: Stories, so she could sign it for me.)
  • Pretty much everyone in Stockholm uses their debit/credit card to buy things. Hardly anyone uses cash. I saw someone using  a card to buy a packet of crisps at a bar. I had taken cash with me; I ended up with half a ton of change in my pocket.
  • The people at the con were a lot friendlier and welcoming than I think would be the case at an equivalent-sized British con. I met loads of really nice people. I can’t remember everyone I spoke to, but as well as those mentioned earlier they included Steve, Emil, Miika, Nene, Anders, Thomas, Jon-Henri… and no doubt numerous others.
  • My first programme item was on at 10 pm on the Friday, which is the latest I’ve ever done a panel. The title was “Fantasy and sf worth reading”, and I think Lavie, Jo, moderator Linnéa Anglemark and myself managed to come up with a number of recent books worth reading. And yes, we did mention Ancillary Justice.
  • On the Saturday, Lavie, Mike C and John M were signing at the SF Bokhandeln, so I cadged a lift in with them, and spent an hour wandering around the old town. It was fascinating. But also really busy. A bit like York during the tourist season. Committee-member Ebba came with us and en route asked if we could pronounce the SF Bokhandeln’s address, Västerlånggatan. She said my pronunciation was “very elegant”. Not sure what that means.
  • Learning that the Swedish for “mushroom” is svamp. Which has to be the best word for fungi ever.
  • Mike C and the monster breakfast. (The hotel laid on the usual European buffet breakfast, and there was more than enough to choose from – even for me.)
  • I attended more programme items than I typically do at cons. Around half of the programme was in English. By the Sunday, I was timing how long into an item before Lavie mentioned Shimon Adaf’s name. And yet on the Sunday, in the one programme item in which Adaf was on-topic, “What sf is written outside the English speaking world?”, Lavie completely failed to mention him.
  • The con venue was excellent. The Dieselverkstaden is an old factory that has been converted into a library, cinema, climbing school, function space, bistro and coffee shop. It’s located in Sickla’s Köpkvarter, which is a massive retail park with a huge shopping centre. There was no shortage of places to buy coffee or food. (Although I never visited it, I was much amused by the name of a local Indian restaurant: Holy Cow.)
  • On the Sunday night, the dead dog party took place in a British-style pub nearer the city centre called the Bishop’s Arms. It took me four tries to order a Swedish beer called Rapa – must work on my accent.
  • On leaving the pub, after being given excellent directions by Anders, I led John B, Lavie and Icelandic author Emil Hjörvar Petersen to the Texas Long Horn steak house. Afterwards, John, Lavie and myself ended up walking all the way back to our hotel, which took almost an hour, through a mostly-deserted Stockholm. A somewhat odd end to the convention, but never mind.
  • The trip home went smoothly… right up until the moment I left Manchester Airport. The taxi to Stockholm’s Centralstation arrived early, so I ended up catching an earlier Arlanda Express to the airport. Which proved to be almost deserted. The flight was smooth, albeit a bit bumpy as we went over the Pennines. There was hardly any queue for passport control… And then I got to the railway station and had to wait an hour for a train. Which arrived early and sat at the platform for thirty minutes, but we weren’t allowed to board until five minutes before departure. The train was late leaving Manchester Piccadilly, so we ended up stuck behind a slow train… which resulted in a 15-minute delay. If you think the UK has a good railway network, you are either an idiot or you have never visited another country.

Fantastika 2013 was definitely worth every penny. I liked Stockholm a lot, the congoers were amazingly friendly, I had some really interesting conversations, the venue was excellent, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. I’d definitely do it again.


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When I’m sixty-four

The Easter weekend in the UK traditionally sees around a thousand fans of science fiction, fantasy, horror and steampunk descend on a hotel somewhere in the country to discuss genre in all its forms, drink beer and generally socialise. They’ve been doing this since 1948 – but not the same group of people, obviously. This year, the Eastercon returned to the Cedar Court Hotel in Bradford, the site of 2009′s Eastercon LX. I remember Eastercon LX as a relaxed convention, and this year’s EightSquaredCon proved to be much the same. I had an excellent weekend, saw many old friends, met new ones, pretended to be erudite on a few programme items, bought a number of books, drank some beer, didn’t eat as much as I should have done, and, oh yes, I won a BSFA Award…

I’d planned to leave for Bradford around two pm on the Friday, but by lunchtime I was itching to go so I caught a train an hour earlier… which got me into Bradford around four pm. I had with me a suitcase full of copies of Adrift on the Sea of Rains and The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, which fortunately had wheels, so I dragged it across City Square to the hotel in which I was staying, Jurys Inn. It proved to be one of those modern minimalist places – restaurant/bar and reception on the ground floor, seven floors of rooms, all very comfortable. After checking in, I texted Mike Cobley, who I knew was staying in the same hotel and due to arrive around the same time as me. We agreed to meet in the lobby, which we did, and where we sat around for about thirty minutes catching up on each others’ news while we waited for the bus to the Cedar Court Hotel.

Because the con hotel is outside the city centre, but doesn’t have enough rooms for all the attendees, most of us were staying in either the Jurys Inn or Midland Hotel in the centre of town, or the Campanile a five-minute bus-ride from the Cedar Court Hotel. The con had organised two sets of buses running between the town-centre hotels and the Campanile every 15 to 20 minutes.

We arrived in time for the small press launch in the hotel’s Conservatory. Both PS Publishing and NewCon Press had new titles, and some of them I wanted. The hour that followed was my most expensive of the weekend – I bought four titles at £20 each. I also got them signed, though the NewCon Press ones were signed editions.

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The books are all collections - The Peacock Cloak, Chris Beckett, and Microcosmos, Nina Allan, from NewCon Press; and A Very British History, Paul McAuley, and Universes, Stephen Baxter, from PS Publishing.

After the launches, it was down to the bar… which is where I spent most of the con, a not unusual state of affairs for me.

The following morning, I met up with Mike Cobley for breakfast, after which we went for a wander in a deserted Bradford city centre. We caught the bus to the Cedar Court Hotel, and I paid my first visit to the dealers’ room. I had a bunch of copies of Adrift on the Sea of Rains and The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself to drop off at the Interzone table (thanks, Roy), but I also had a bimble about the room.. Aside from the Friday night launch titles, I only bought secondhand books all weekend, and they were all by women writers.

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A selection of sf by women writers – two from The Women’s Press: Herland (donated by Kev McVeigh, thanks) and Woman on the Edge of Time. Both Walk to the End of the World and Star Rider are in The Women’s Press sf series, but these editions will do for now. O Master Caliban! has the horriblest cover art I’ve seen for a long time. Change The Sky And Other Stories is a, er, collection.

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I’d have missed these if Mark Plummer hadn’t pointed them out to me, as they were squirrelled away in a box – the three female-only anthologies edited by Pamela Sargent from the 1970s, Women of Wonder, More Women Of Wonder and The New Women of Wonder. And Millennial Women, which was a new one to me.

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Three by Marta Randall, including the first two books of a trilogy – Journey and Dangerous Games – and her second novel, A City in the North. Plus Sarah Newton’s Mindjammer, which was self-published and is set in the RPG universe of the same name designed by Sarah.

That afternoon, Mike and I were moderating a programme item on designing a constitution for a Mars Colony. I’d agreed to co-chair in a fit of stupidity, as I had absolutely no idea what to say. I’d provide some technical background, but that was as much thought as I’d put into it. The item started, Mike went into his introduction, I spoke a little about the technical challenges, and then Mike started talking about politics… and I could see we were starting to lose the audience. So I mentioned something Mike and I had actually thought of as we were climbing the stairs to the room where the item was taking place. And that triggered off a discussion which lasted for over an hour. I don’t think we reached any specific conclusions, but people seemed to have had an interesting time.

That evening, my agent John Jarrold threw his now-traditional party for clients and publishers. That was fun. I had intended to avoid the wine and just stick to beer, but I ended up having a couple of glasses without any ill effect. I ate in the hotel that night. As they had done in 2009, the con hotel laid on a canteen-style eaterie all weekend. The food was basic and a bit bland, but it was also cheap and filling. I never actually managed to get out of the hotel to eat, which was a pity.

Sunday I was on two programme items, and the first one was at ten am. The subject was “Older women in genre fiction”, moderated by Caroline Mullan, and including GoH Freda Warrington, as well as Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, David Tallerman and myself. I thought the panel went reasonably well, though none of us could think of many genre novels with an older woman as the protagonist – but Freda did mention her Midsummer Night, which qualified.

Before my second programme item of the day was the BSFA Awards ceremony. I sat on the front row, alongside fellow short fiction shortlistees Aliette de Bodard and Rochita. Paul Cornell emceed the ceremony entertainingly, but I don’t think he expected to get quite as much laughter as he did when he explained that, “BSFA… that’s what you get when you put BS together with FA”. GoH Anne Sudworth then presented the best artwork prize, which went to the cover for Jack Glass, and Freda presented best non-fiction, which was won by the World SF Blog. And then GoH Edward James took the stage to announce the winner of the short fiction category… I was so sure one of the others would win that it took a second or two to realise it was my name Edward had read out. And I hadn’t bothered to make any notes on what to say should I win. I did have a speech in my pocket, but it was by Karen Burnham, to be used in the event she won the non-fiction category. The best novel BSFA Award then went to Adam Roberts’ Jack Glass. Stephen Baxter was presenting this; he had also been asked by Adam to accept it on his behalf. Which led to a slightly surreal sketch in which Steve both presented and accepted the award.

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I then had to dash straight upstairs for a panel on Joanna Russ vs Anne McCaffery. Again, Caroline Mullan moderated, and the panel comprised Tanya Brown, Bob Neilsen and myself. When it came to doing our introductions, I said that for a week or two I’d be introducing myself as “the award-winning Ian Sales”… I have read a handful of books by both Russ and McCaffery, and I’d have preferred to have been better read in both… but given the way the discussion went it didn’t prove any handicap. There was plainly a lot of love for McCaffery in the room, and I was frequently Russ’s lone defender. I think the eventual conclusion was that Russ’s more cerebral work might have longer staying power than McCaffery’s more emotional oeuvre.

Then it was down to the bar, where I didn’t have to buy a drink all night. I caught the last bus back to my hotel at one am. It had been a good day…

… And I felt fine when I woke the next morning. Admittedly, the thermostat in my room had been misbehaving all weekend, and randomly resetting the temperature to 30 C. Which had led to some bizarrely hot nights. But I was the first in the hotel to make it down to breakfast, then I went for a walk, and then I caught the first bus to the Cedar Court Hotel… Colin Tate of Clarion Publishing had mentioned the day before there was a small press showcase in the Conservatory from 10 am to noon, and he was leaving early and so wouldn’t be able to use the table he’d booked. I was welcome to it. So I used it. I set out copies of my books alongside Sarah Newton and her sf novel Mindjammer. Also present were the Albedo One group, and Tony and Barbara Ballantyne and their new serial genre magazine Aethernet. It was freezing cold in the Conservatory, but I stuck it out and managed to sell some books.

By this point, the con was already winding down. I got a bite to eat and then just hung around in the foyer with friends until it was time to make a move.

I liked Bradford as a venue the last time the Eastercon was there, despite the split hotel thing; and I enjoyed this convention very much too. It was relaxed – somewhat colder than is usual, true; but very friendly and sociable. I saw many old friends and got to meet in person some people I knew only online. I’d need to take notes to recall all the conversations I had, the topics ranged from death metal to reviews of our own books to Chris Beckett’s fashion sense (sorry, Chris), and all points in between. Some names I remember speaking with at some length, in no particular order: John Jarrold, Neil Williamson, Gary Gibson, Mike Cobley, David Hebblethwaite, Leisel Schwartz, Cory Doctorow, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Cara Murphy, Kev McVeigh, Will and Jenny, the Ballantynes, Gillian Redfearn, Darren Nash, Roy Gray, Helen Jackson, Nina Allan, Donna Scott, Neil Bond, Alex Bardy, Johan Anglemark, Eric Brown, Paul Graham Raven, Paul Cockburn, David Tallerman, Jobeda Ali, Sarah Newton, Chris Beckett, Aliette de Bodard, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Simon Ings, Paul McAuley, Phil Palmer, Simon Morden, Ian Watson, Andy Stubbings, Chris Amies, Jim Burns, Colin Tate, Brian Turner, Steve Baxter… and no doubt I’ve forgotten some people. Sorry.

For all that, I think I came away from EightSquaredCon with a desire to do more at conventions. Sitting around in the bar all day is not as much fun as it once was. I could attend programme items, of course; and this time I sat through one panel I wasn’t on, which is almost a record for me. While cons are social events, and an excellent opportunity to hang out with friends you don’t otherwise see, we interact daily online anyway so no real catching up needs to be done. The internet has changed the nature of friendship in that respect. I spend every day with my friends on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, etc, etc, and while they’re no real substitute for meeting IRL, they do make something less special of the infrequent times you do meet in person. And that was what cons used to be for. (Perhaps if I lived in London, and regularly attended events there, the same effect would apply – and would have applied prior to the World Wide Web.)

Anyway, EightSquareCon. A good con. Now I have to wait twelve months for the next one. Which will be in Glasgow, a city I’ve always liked. Roll on Satellite 4


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Postcard from the edge-lit

Once upon a time there was a one-day genre convention at the Assembly Rooms in Derby. Then it moved across the square to the Quad, a cinema complex. Then it stretched to two days. Then it moved cities to Leicester.

And left behind in the Quad a little baby convention called Edge-Lit.

Edge-Lit is pretty much what alt.fiction was back when it was a one-day convention in the Quad. It followed a similar format: two programme streams, workshops and readings; and, of course, the venue was as before. I’m not an especially big fan of the Quad, although its city-centre location is certainly convenient. But the bar/café gets extremely noisy, and there’s two flights of stairs between the bar and the programme items. Still, it’s almost a local con for me – thirty minutes on the train – and it’s a good chance to catch up with people I don’t see very often.

The trip to Derby was uneventful. On arriving at the Quad, I’d forgotten the annoyingly stupid checking-in procedure – you have to get your ticket – bought online – from the ticket desk, and then go upstairs and register with the convention. You’d think they’d have the two together. The first friendly face I spotted was Roy Gray, master of the Interzone desk in the dealers’ room. So I dumped two-dozen copies of Adrift on the Sea of Rains on him to sell, also said hello to Terry Martin of Murky Depths, and then headed down to the bar. Where I ran into Rocket Science contributor Colum Paget and Steve Poore, a member of the writing group I used to belong to.

I spent the rest of the day in the bar, with occasional trips up to the dealers’ room. This is not unusual behaviour for me at a convention. I did make one programme item: “Have the Limits of SF become blurred?”, with Jaine Fenn, Justina Robson and John Jarrold. Though the talk was interesting I don’t recall it reaching a conclusion. I also attended the raffle. I’d bought some tickets, but Roy also gave me his. The last time he did that, I won several prizes – and, on that occasion, since he’d left I kept them for myself. This time I won nothing. Sarah Pinborough and Lee Harris emceed, and Sarah was on fine form, with her self-censor firmly in off-mode.

I bought a pair of books – Carmen Dog by Carol Emshwiller (The Women’s Press edition, of course), and Wolfsangel by MD Lachlan, which Mark then signed for me (I suspect Mark has the worst signature of any author I’ve met). I wanted to buy a copy of Principles Of Angels so Jaine could sign it, but there were none to be had in the dealers’ room.

I can’t remember every conversation I had, though I do recall that some of the topics were pretty weighty, particularly a discussion with Colum on, among other things, the rambutan as emblematic of exotification in The Windup Girl. I also ran into someone I’d corresponded with many many years ago – he used to edit a magazine called Sierra Heaven, which published a story by me; you can find it here. It’s always good to catch up with people.

I’d liked to have stayed for the quiz at 9 pm, but I had a train to catch. As it was, I didn’t get home until 10:30. I was quite looking forward to a kebab as I’d had nothing to eat but a plate of chips all day. But the kebab shop was shut. At 10:30 on a Saturday night. I’ve no idea how that place makes money – it’s usually empty and the portions are extremely generous. So I made myself egg and chips, watched a bit of Download 2012 on telly and thought myself fortunate I wasn’t there (and it’s not like I actually like most of the bands performing there anyway).

And that was Edge-Lit.


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alt.fiction 2012

Last weekend was the sixth alt.fiction, and the first in a new venue in Leicester. I’ve been to every one so far. The first alt.fictions took place in the Assembly Rooms in Derby, which I quite liked as it’s a well-known piece of Brutalist architecture. After a couple of years, it moved across the Market Place to QUAD, a cinema and arts complex. This year, however, alt.fiction has moved somewhat further – all the way to the Phoenix Digital Arts Centre in Leicester.

The move to Leicester doubled the journey time by train for me, but it’s still much closer than many other UK cons. I took with me a suitcase filled with my remaining copies of Rocket Science, and a few dozen hardback and paperback editions of Adrift on the Sea of Rains. Because of this, I took a taxi from the railway station to Phoenix Square, though it’s only a five-minute walk away. I arrived about eleven o’clock, so I missed the first item on the programme. (Some people had arrived in the city the evening before and stayed overnight.) As soon as I walked into the venue, I spotted Colum Paget and Iain Cairns, contributors to Rocket Science. (Later that evening, Craig Pay, another contributor, turned up.)

The day proved to be one of spotting people I knew, and saying hello but very little else. Some people I knew were present I never actually saw. I had several lengthy discussions, on topics as diverse as writing, science fiction and, er, programming methodologies. I didn’t make it to any of the programme items. So no change there. The dealers room, as at past alt.fictions, wasn’t very good. Terry Martin of Murky Depths had a table. And someone else was selling independent graphic novels. There was also a volunteer from Waterstone’s with a table full of paperbacks by alt.fiction’s guests. He kindly agreed to sell copies of Rocket Science and Adrift on the Sea of Rains. And he did a good job of it, too, selling most of the stock I’d given him.

I ate at Phoenix Square, and it was a pleasure to be able to say to the staff “no dairy”, and for them make no fuss over it and provide what I wanted in a dairy-free form. I hadn’t dared do that at the Radisson Edwardian Hotel during the Eastercon. I pretty much spent the entire day in the café/bar on the ground floor of Phoenix Square. In the evening, a large group of us went for a curry, which was much better than the one I’d had in Heathrow the weekend before. The restaurant was called, unsurprisingly, The Curry House. Afterwards, we headed back to the hotel where we were all staying, the Ramada, and filled up the bar. I eventually went to bed about two am.

I’d enjoyed the curry, but I don’t think all of it agreed with me. I was fine when I woke up, and had the usual hearty hotel breakfast… Though I have to admit I think they’ve gone down in quality over the past few years. Somehow hotel chefs do something to fried eggs that makes them look and taste completely unappetising. I like fried eggs, I have one or two most Sundays. But those gelid primary-coloured things you see sitting in a bath of grease at hotel breakfast buffets bear only a passing resemblance to them. And the bacon… Do chefs have some philosophical objection to cooking it? Or do they get a kick from the thought of diners spending fruitless minutes trying to chew rubbery fat?

Anyway, by about eleven I was starting to feel ill, and I recognised the symptoms. Something I’d eaten had contained dairy. None of the meals I’d eaten had on previous occasions caused me any trouble… except I did have a tarka daal with my chicken saag and pilau rice in The Curry House. Perhaps there was ghee in the daal? I don’t know. I ordered a plate of chips for lunch in Phoenix Square, but I couldn’t eat it. I went outside a couple of times for some fresh air. I even went and sat in a programme item, to see if that would help. The panel was on “The Return of the Short Story”, which the panel members admitted was a misnomer as the short story had never gone away. I lasted about fifteen minutes before needing some more fresh air. I didn’t actually feel any better until I got to the railway station around quarter to two.

I’d only been there about twenty minutes when Ken MacLeod appeared on the platform. It seemed we were catching the same train, although he was getting off in Derby to catch a connecting train back to Scotland. I was staying on until the terminus in Sheffield. At Derby, Ken disembarked. When I reached Sheffield, I climbed the stairs from the platform… and saw Ken MacLeod looking somewhat lost. (He explained that his train had stopped for ten minutes in Sheffield, so he was looking for somewhere to buy a coffee.)

So that was alt.fiction #6. I like the new venue. There are less stairs than the QUAD, and the café/bar in the foyer is bigger and more pleasant. There was a terrace, but it was too cold to use it. Leicester city centre, or at least that portion where Phoenix Square is located, seemed curiously deserted throughout the entire weekend. So no marching brass band playing outside like last year’s alt.fiction in Derby. (Or drummers practicing in the room next to the bar as at a previous alt.fiction in the Assembly Rooms.) The hotel was modern and very pleasant, and conveniently close to Phoenix Square. It is, I think, an all together better venue for alt.fiction. I certainly plan to go next year.


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Sold lots, didn’t win award, am very hungover

The title of this post is the text of a, er, text I sent to a friend on the Monday morning of Olympus 2012, this year’s annual Eastercon in the Radisson Edwardian Hotel, Heathrow, London. The Eastercon is one of the major events in British science fiction, but this year’s was especially so for me as I was launching two books: the anthology Rocket Science, and my novella, Adrift on the Sea of Rains.

Mark Harding, Mutation Press supremo, arrived at my place on Thursday night with boxes of Rocket Science. He stayed overnight and the following morning, after making my Breakfast of Champions (Vegetarian Edition), we drove to Morrison’s to buy wine for the Rocket Science launch and comestibles to consume en route, and then headed onto the M1. The journey was relatively painless, though when we hit the M25, traffic ground to a halt. In fact, it took us an hour to travel the twenty miles along the M25 from the M1 to the M4. We reached the Radisson Edwardian Hotel around two-ish.

I checked in and registered, and headed up to my hotel room to dump my bag. I’d forgotten what a labyrinth the Radisson Edwardian is. It didn’t help that I used the wrong lifts and ended up having to walk a couple of miles to find my room. Then it was down to the bar to find any familiar faces. I spent the rest of the afternoon alternating between the bar and the dealers’ room. I bought beer, I bought books. I talked with old friends, I met new friends. This is what you do at a convention. I didn’t attend any programme items that day. I always tell myself I will, and then fail to do so.

Back in 2008, the main bar was called the Polo Lounge, but it has since been remodelled and renamed the Bijou Bar. It has silver wallpaper. It was like sitting inside a birthday present. The staff were slow and mostly useless, and the drinks were expensive. On the Friday afternoon, I saw Sarah Pinborough buy a large glass of wine… it cost her £11. On the Saturday night, I bought a friend a vodka and coke and that cost £9.75. The staff routinely put a 12.5% optional service charge on all drinks bought. One pint I was served in the Atrium Bar had too much of a head so I asked the barman to top it up. He poured the entire pint away and poured a new one into the glass.

On the Friday night, a large group of us headed to a nearby Indian restaurant. A table for fourteen had been booked, but we were three over that number. So those three sat at another table. They ordered their food, received it, ate it, paid and left… before the rest of us had even received our food. Because it took two hours, I ended up having to wolf down my chicken saag (creamed spinach, not leaf), and dashing back to the hotel for John Jarrold’s party. He had laid on wine, and since I hadn’t had time to get a beer for myself, I started drinking that.

Mistake.

At some point during the night – I think it was about four am, after I’d been asleep for several hours – I apparently took a wrong turn after coming out of my en suite bathroom. And found myself in the corridor. Wearing my pyjamas. So I had to walk down to reception and get a new keycard. The first one they gave me didn’t work, so I had to go back down again. Perhaps they did it deliberately.

The Saturday was better. I had a proper look round the dealers’ room, and bought a number of books. In the afternoon, I was on a panel, How Not To Suppress Women’s Writing, with Amy McCulloch, Tricia Sullivan, Penny Hill, and moderated by Juliet McKenna. The preparation Juliet had done was awesome. I thought the panel went well, and from comments afterwards I understand others did too.

Saturday night, a group of us went to the restaurant attached to the Pheasant Pub. What a bizarre place. It’s like someone’s attic, but constructed of lots of little mezzanines and staircases and platforms. Happily, the food is excellent, and the service was very good. Back at the hotel, we stayed in the bar and talked. I lasted until about one am before calling it a night. At one point, I was approached by Amanda Rutter, who admitted she’d undergone something of an epiphany that day and was keen to get involved with SF Mistressworks. Since she prefers fantasy more than science fiction, I suggested she start up a sister site covering that genre. And so she has – Fantasy Mistressworks. Later, Michaela Staton decided that more recent sf novels by women writers should not be forgotten. And so she’s set up Daughters of Prometheus, a blog for reviews of twenty-first century sf by women writers.

I did not lock myself out of my hotel room that night.

Sunday was my big day – the Rocket Science launch, and then a couple of hours later, moderating a panel about the anthology. Breakfast was a joke. They put people in a corner of the restaurant, and then waiters stood around doing nothing, preventing you from getting to the food or returning to your table.

I always feel like a fraud standing up in front of a room full of people and talking – especially after seeing Juliet McKenna moderate the How Not to Suppress Women’s Writing so superbly. Fortunately – or, on reflection, perhaps not – we had brought that wine. So I did my spiel, I mentioned the Guardian review, and then introduced the writers who were reading excerpts: Iain Cairns, Deborah Walker, David L Clements, CJ Paget, Stephen Gaskell and Martin Mc Grath. Nigel Brown was also present but not reading. Afterwards, there was a massive rush to the front and we sold – and signed – lots of copies. I’m rubbish at signing – my signature is different every time, and the only thing I could think to write was “Enjoy!” We later worked out we’d sold about eighty copies of Rocket Science throughout the weekend, and about half that of Adrift on the Sea of Rains. We’ve already put in a second order with the printers for more copies of Rocket Science.

At 3 pm, I moderated ‘The Science of Rocket Science’. I’d not done any preparation for it as I was hoping the other members of the panel would do all the work – David L Clements, Martin McGrath, Deborah Walker and Iain Cairns. Happily, they did. The panel went well, and several members of the audience came up to us afterwards to chat about the topics covered. We even sold some more copies of the book.

Unfortunately, because of those programme items – and the BSFA Awards at 6 pm – I didn’t get much opportunity to eat, and ended up having a small bowl of chips in the Bijou Bar. It wasn’t enough.

The less said about the BSFA Awards ceremony the better. It was like watching a slow motion car crash – just when you thought it couldn’t get worse, it did. And then more so. Chris Priest’s acceptance speech after The Islanders won almost made up for it. (Given the response to Meaney’s presentation, I am somewhat mystified by the inclusion of Leviathan Wakes on the Hugo shortlist…)

I was disappointed SF Mistressworks didn’t win, but I’d been pretty sure the SF Encyclopedia would take the award anyway. And so it did. Afterwards, I stayed in the Atrium Bar (mostly) talking to people and having a good time. A group of us did go to the panel on steampunk and colonialism, but I found it disappointing. I spoke to someone afterwards who told me Nisi Shawl is currently working on a steampunk novel. I’m not a fan of the genre, but from the description given her book did sound really interesting.

I’m not going to name-check everyone I spoke to. I’m sure to miss some, for a variety of reasons. But the conversations were fun and interesting, though less centred around writing than I recall from other cons. I never quite felt on top form throughout the weekend, but I think I managed to get away with it on a few occasions.

My last experience of the Radisson Edwardian was not a happy one. I was there for the Eastercon in 2008, spent more money crossing London than I did getting to the city, and that spoiled my mood for the con. So much so, in fact, that I didn’t go when the Eastercon returned there in 2010. And I’d have stayed at home this year if it hadn’t been for the Rocket Science launch. But I went and, despite my dislike of the hotel, I had a good time. Probably too much of a good time. As Neil Williamson has said, it was like a normal Eastercon but turned up to 11. Too much of everything. Except food. I could have done with more food (but being lactose intolerant makes that more of  a problem than it should be).

Mark and I left on the Monday after lunch. The drive home took a little longer than expected as we encountered a monsoon on the M1. Happily, we survived it. Once we’d got to my flat, Mark decided to continue on up to his home in Scotland, rather than kip over as he had done on the way down to London.

Since I’d travelled to the Eastercon by car, I’d imagined I’d buy lots more books that usual. After all, I wouldn’t have to worry about carting them home on public transport. I ended up buying twenty, many of them hardbacks. I actually found it difficult to find stuff I really wanted, though it was one of the cheapest dealers’ rooms I can remember. Anyway, here is the complete haul:

These paperbacks are for review on SF Mistressworks: Time Future, Maxine McArthur; Extra(Ordinary) People, Joanna Russ; Passing for Human, Jody Scott; Islands, Marta Randall; Starshadows, Pamela Sargent; Star-Anchored, Star-Angered, Suzette Haden Elgin; and the first two books of Jo Clayton’s Diadem series, Diadem from the Stars and Lamarchos.

And these ones I’ll read and review for Daughters of Prometheus: Homecalling And Other Stories, Judith Merril; The Maquisarde and The Child Goddess by Louise Marley; and Watermind, MM Buckner.

Some paperbacks by male sf writers. Well, one hardback and some paperbacks. But the hardback was as cheap as a paperback. The Helix and the Sword by John C McLoughlin was recommended by someone on LibraryThing. Wildeblood’s Empire is the third of Brian Stableford’s Daedalus Mission sextet. And I’ve no idea why I keep on buying Sutton’s novels as they’re early 1960s trash sf – perhaps it’s the covers.

Some hardbacks. Justice City is for the Compton collection. Einstein’s Question actually has equations in it, though it’s a novel. I couldn’t resist it. As for Osama, well, if we don’t reward Lavie Tidhar for writing books like Osama, he’ll only write the steampunk ones. And I’ve been a fan of Ian Watson’s sf for years, so a new collection is always welcome.


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Me @ Eastercon

As you are no doubt aware, the UK’s annual Eastercon – this year called Olympus 2012 – takes place this coming weekend at the Radisson Edwardian Hotel in Heathrow, London. Membership has apparently sold out. Fortunately, I bought mine several months ago.

I won’t be at Olympus 2012 just to launch Rocket Science, however. Or my novella, Adrift on the Sea of Rains. I’ll also be on a couple of panels. And, of course, I’ll be in the audience at the BSFA Awards ceremony, on hand in case SF Mistressworks actually wins the non-fiction award. Anyway, my schedule looks like this:

Saturday 7 April
5pm How Not to Suppress Women’s Writing, Royal B+C room
with Penny Hill, Amy McCulloch, Juliet E McKenna and Tricia Sullivan

Sunday 8 April
12pm (noon) Rocket Science launch, Room 12 (Tetworth)
several of the contributors will be present to read excerpts from their stories

3pm The Science of Rocket Science, Room 12 (Tetworth)
with Iain Cairns, David L Clements, Martin McGrath and Deborah Walker

For the rest of the convention, I shall either be wandering around the dealers’ room – probably trying to hunt down copies of The Women’s Press sf novels – or in the bar. Don’t forget to say hello.


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Hi de bloody hi

So Liam P emails that he has some free tickets to SFX Weekender 3, and who fancies going? While some people seem to think the SFX Weekender is the future of cons, I’m not convinced – though, to be fair, everyone claims to have a good time. Since this year it’s in Prestatyn, North Wales, and a good deal closer than the previous two in Rye, Sussex (166 km by road compared to 413 km, according to Google Maps), I decide I might as well see what all the fuss is about. So I say yes. Then a whole bunch of people pile in and start organising chalets – because SFX Weekenders take place at Pontin’s holiday camps – and I don’t know any of these people and it starts to seem less likely I’ll be in one of the chalets they’re arranging. So perhaps I won’t be going after all.

Then Lavie Tidhar emails me: three of them are staying in a nearby hotel and they need a fourth to make up two twin rooms. I check out the hotel – it’s definitely close and it looks quite pleasant. I agree. So it seems I am going after all.

Beaches Hotel

Except the person I’m supposed to be sharing a room with pulls out two days before as he’s now staying in a chalet. I ring the hotel and get my booking changed to a single room. They agree too quickly, so I ring the next day to make sure… which is fortunate as it had all got garbled. But. Anyway. I have a hotel room.

I catch the train to Prestatyn via Manchester and it’s a painless journey. As I walk into Beaches Hotel, I see Lavie and David Tallerman, who have also just checked in. I dump my bags and together we head off to Pontin’s, a walk of about 800 metres. There’s a queue for tickets out the door at the main facility, so we blag our way in. Lavie and David’s tickets are with their publisher, Angry Robot, but I’d have to queue for mine – I’ve been told I just need to ask at reception, they’ll have my name on a list – but I’d sooner wait for a smaller queue.

After a pint, I head back outside to see if the queue is smaller. It’s not. It now stretches across the car park. But I have no choice so I join the end. Two hours later, I reach the front. And it occurs to me that perhaps I should ask at the Artists & Media window for the free ticket. So I do. They check but I’m not on any list. They give me a free ticket anyway. I’m in. And it only took two hours of unnecessary queuing. I go look for the others. They haven’t moved.

The Pontin’s venue consists of a foyer, which they’ve decked out with grey plastic panels and hazard tape to look science-fictiony; and a large main hall with banked seating at the back. Next to that is the dealers’ room, which is pretty large, though all the books on sale are new books. (I only buy one, Ken MacLeod’s Intrusion, so I can get it signed. I think that’s a con record for me.) There is also a lot of media stuff being sold. A passage leads alongside an amusement arcade and into another hall, which has no stage, but stepped levels to left and right with tables and chairs. There is a long bar running along the back of the room. And finally, there is the Queen Victoria pub. Everywhere looks a bit run-down and cheap and nasty. The function areas are painted black, like low-rent night-clubs. The beer is not especially cheap – £3 for a pint of lager, £1.90 during the 7pm – 9pm happy hour.

The main venue

I later heard about 6,000 people turned up, though the Saturday was about twice as busy as the other days. Most people seemed to be there for the media side of things, but I met a surprising number of people I knew through written sf – including, in no particular order, Stephen Baxter, Alastair Reynolds, Michael Cobley, Jaine Fenn, Jim Burns, Peter F Hamilton, Ken MacLeod, Ian Whates, the aforementioned Lavie and David, Sam Moffat and Paul Skevington, Donna Scott and Neil Benyon, Kim and Del Lakin-Smith, Sandy Auden, Andy Remic, editors from various publishers, Terry Martin from Murky Depths, Chris Teague from Pendragon Press, Roy Gray from TTA Press… I got to meet Jared and Ann from Pornokitsch for the first time, and also China Miéville and Joe Abercrombie. Others I spoke to include Niall Harrison, Nic Clarke, Liz Batty, Gareth L Powell, Paul J McAuley… and no doubt many more whose names I either didn’t catch or have criminally forgotten.

I managed to attend three programme items – well, two and a half. The Kitschies Awards ceremony, and then the pub quiz which followed. We came third, though this was chiefly due to Saxon Bullock, who knows far too much about sf films and television. And I sat through the first half of the space opera panel, before the heat drove me from the room.

People throughout the weekend seemed to flip between two states: drunk or hungover. I was back in my room by midnight every night, and up early for breakfast the next morning. Unfortunately, there was nowhere on the Pontin’s site to sit down and chill out. Everywhere was too noisy. I only managed to read a single book over the weekend, Betrayals by Charles Palliser. (It’s very good.) There was a canteen which sold food and coffee, but it too was large and loud. I seem to recall spending most of the time wandering from one bar to the other, walking to the hotel and back, going to chat to friends on dealers’ tables, and having snatched conversations in the pub. I ate lunch in the hotel bar on the Friday and Saturday – and it was very nice – but failed to eat in the evenings. The Gollancz party was fun, though somewhat compact. There were a lot of people wandering around in costumes, including some dance troupe in weird costumes on stilts. And there were Imperial Stormtroopers everywhere, often stopping the cars driving through the camp.

This is not the droid you're looking for

Having now survived an SFX Weekender, I’m not convinced it’s the future of cons as some claim. It’s a more commercial convention than a typical sf con like the Eastercon. There was no real time for reflection or quiet conversation – those were probably supposed to take place in the chalets. The cosplayers weren’t all that different to the masqueraders you used to see at Eastercon, though there were more of them – and, of course, the cosplayers’ costumes were (mostly) recognisable as media sf and fantasy characters.

The Thursday night was cold, but Friday was sunny and warm. I even went for a short walk on the beach by the hotel. It chucked it down all Saturday. And the heating was on full-blast that day in the venue, making it uncomfortably hot. How some of the cosplayers – especially the Wookie – put up with it is beyond me.

We’d known for weeks there was no rail service from Prestatyn on the Sunday. But someone clearly neglected to tell whoever had organised the replacement bus service there would be several thousands people heading home from SFX Weekender on that day. I got to the station at 10 am, and there were already several hundred there queuing for a coach. I’d been told a taxi to Chester would only cost about £40, so was cheap enough if split four ways. I mentioned this to the guys next to me in the queue. We decided to do that. I then saw Al Reynolds waiting in line for the replacement bus, so invited him on our plan. A couple overheard us, and they too joined in. We got a six-seater minibus, and it cost us £50 in total. Result.

At Chester station, I bumped into Mike Cobley, who was taking the same train as me, though not all the way to Manchester. He’d got a lift to Chester in a minibus laid on by Orbit for its authors. As the train moved out of Wales and into England, so snow began to appear on the ground. In Manchester there were several inches. It made the weekend I’d just spent in a holiday camp surrounded by Imperial Stormtroopers seem even more unreal and otherworldly.

Will I go next year? It’s going to be in Prestatyn again. I don’t know. Beaches Hotel is very pleasant and I recommend it. If I do go, I’d definitely stay there. But I suspect I need more of a reason than simply attending to do SFX Weekender 4. If I was selling or promoting something, perhaps it would be worth going. We shall see.


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A tale of two cities

Well, that was a busy weekend. Two cities in two days, each in the opposite direction from home.

On Friday night, I was in Manchester, at the Academy to see Opeth perform live. The support act were Pain of Salvation. While I like bits of Pain of Salvation’s two Road Salt albums, I’m not really a fan of their music. Live, they put on a good show, but they struck me as bit posey and frontman Daniel Gildenlöw seemed to think he was Lenny Kravitz.

Rumour had it the Opeth set would be taken entirely from the new album, Heritage. Which is entirely progressive rock. Given that I still think that Blackwater Park is the band’s best album, and that Heritage is an album that is only slowly growing on me, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, even though this was the fourth time I’d seen them perform. And the set did indeed open with some tracks from Heritage. But then Mikael Åkerfeldt started bantering with the crowd – that night it was a lightly sarcastic paean to Kiss – and I knew that despite the new “direction” Opeth hadn’t really changed. The band then performed some older songs, although the entire set featured only clean vocals. In the case of ‘A Fair Judgment’ from Deliverance (a favourite track of mine), this wasn’t an issue as the album version features clean vocals. But ‘The Face of Melinda’ from Still Life is certainly different when it has all the growl vocals taken out. Still, Opeth are superlative musicians, and I suspect I’ll find myself liking Heritage a bit more after being reminded live just how good they really are.

The gig was my first in Academy 1. Last year, I’d seen Ghost Brigade, Orphaned Land and Amorphis in Academy 3, which is the smallest of the four venues. Academy 1 is like a small aircraft hangar. We were up near the front for Pain of Salvation’s set, and that wasn’t a problem – you could still get out to visit the bar or the toilets. But about five songs into Opeth’s set I felt the call of nature, and it was a real battle to get out of the crowd in front of the stage. And once I was done, there was no way I was going to be able to get back to where I’d been standing. That was annoying. (Also, I was wearing my Mithras Forever Advancing Legions T-shirt that night, and someone said, “Nice T-shirt” to me.)

So, Manchester meant getting home after midnight. And the next morning I was up and off to Nottingham for Novacon. I’d checked train times, both there and back – I was intending to only spend the Saturday at the convention, but I did take toiletries and a change of clothes in case I decided to stay the night. The last train home was at 23:15 but it didn’t get in until… 10:16 the next morning. Essentially, it dumped you in Derby, and you then had to wait for the first train the next morning. That’s not a viable journey, and you’d think railway timetable websites would recognise that. However, there were some direct trains between 20:00 and 21:30, so I had until then to make a decision.

I arrived in Nottingham at 11:00. Back in the late 1980s, I lived in Mansfield, my home town, and spent many weekend nights pubbing and clubbing in Nottingham. I’ve only been back a handful of times, but even so I know the geography of the city pretty well. I noticed a few changes in the city centre, but Mansfield Road, which is where Novacon’s hotel was sited, looked exactly as I remembered.

I bought a day membership on arrving at the hotel, and then headed straight into the bar. The first familiar face I spotted was Chris Amies, who I’d not seen for many years. After a chat, I left my bags with him and hit the dealers’ room. The usual suspects were all present: Porcupine Books, Cold Tonnage, Replay Books, Murky Depths, NewCon Press… I was at the Porcupine Books stall, when I spotted a couple of Women’s Press sf titles I didn’t own, and reached out for them. The stranger standing next to me turned to me and said, “You must be Ian Sales.” Which was a pretty good trick: my day membership badge didn’t have my name on it. The stranger proved to be Colum Paget, who has a story in Rocket Science. After a few more chats with various people, I returned to the bar… Which is where, as usual, I spent much of the con.

I had conversations with Al Reynolds, Ian Whates, Terry Martin, Kim and Del Lakin-Smith, Caroline Mullan, Fran and John Dowd, John Meaney, Leigh Kennedy, Janet Edwards… There was quite an intense discussion on utopias with Charles Stross, Justina Robson, Kev McVeigh and myself. I also remember a long talk about Uriah Heep (the band, not the Dickens character) with Swedish fan Bellis. The only programme items I attended were a 15 to 1 quiz and the second book auction (but I didn’t bid on anything). By about six o’clock, it was clear I’d be better off staying the night, so I checked into the hotel. I was quite impressed with the room – it was small but very modern. The shower – there was no bath – had a huge showerhead set flat again the ceiling, which was quite odd.

I was up at my usual time the next day, wolfed down breakfast, and then just hung around – in and out of the dealers’ room – throughout the morning. I was planning to leave later in the day, but was offered a lift home by Kev leaving at noon-ish, so I decided to accept it.

So that was the weekend. I caught up with a band I’ve liked for many years and caught up with some friends I don’t get to see very often. I didn’t feel up to much when I got home on the Sunday, so I’m now horribly behind on nanowrimo. But never mind. I bought almost a dozen books at Novacon, but I’ll put up photos of them in a separate post.


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Gonna party like it’s 1999…

… or like it’s Fantasycon 2011, although there were times when I did wonder what century we were in. Not, I hasten to add, because of the convention itself, but because of the Royal Albion Hotel.

The journey down to Brighton proved a lot less painful than I’d expected. I disembarked from one train at St Pancras, headed down a series of escalators, and got on another. In fact, I caught the train before the one given on my itinerary. And that took me the rest of the way. Then it was short queue for a taxi to the hotel…

… and a long queue to check into the hotel, a queue that actually started outside the hotel on the pavement. It took me an hour before I reached the front. Apparently, the Royal Albion hadn’t opened check-in until three p.m., minutes before I’d arrived. And even after I’d been given my room, I was told it wasn’t ready and I’d have to wait thirty minutes. So I gave it an hour, and it still hadn’t been cleaned when I found it. Which was an adventure all itself. The Royal Albion is a maze, and the room I’d been given was on a secret passage. Sort of. You had to catch the lift to the second floor, turn two corners, enter a side-corridor, then into a stairwell and up a flight, which took you to a short passage with four rooms on it. (Later during the con, I took that stairwell down to the ground floor, hoping to find a shortcut to one of the bars. Instead, I found myself in a short corridor with a single door on it… which was a cupboard.) My room had a view over the beach, which was nice (see below), although when the plastic things holding the curtains to the curtain rail snapped, it made things a little difficult after dark. It was a surprisingly large room, though it was in need of refurbishment. And it’s been a long time since I’ve slept on a single bed, so I nearly fell out of it a couple of times.

The view from my hotel room window

But conventions are not about the places they’re held, and the peculiarities of the Royal Albion certainly didn’t ruin Fantasycon for me. I had an excellent time. I made only one programme item, Ian Whates interviewing GoH Gwyneth Jones. The room was embarrassingly near-empty, but it was like a sauna and that may have been partly to blame. Perhaps a heatwave during the first weekend of October is unusual, but a hotel with little or no air-conditioning must be just as unusual these days. There were times when it was uncomfortable sitting in the bar and seats by open windows were prized. Not that I spent most of the con in the bar…

I went for a wander on the beach on the Saturday morning after breakfast. I grew up in the Middle East so I’m used to beaches of white sand. Brighton’s beach is nothing like that. It also smells slightly unpleasant. Later that day, half of London apparently came to the South Coast and the entire sea-front was heaving. It was the same on Sunday. Again, I’d gone for a wander by the sea after breakfast, this time with Douglas Thompson. We had a good chat about writing and science fiction and space exploration and science as we tromped along the beach.

The beach, early in the morning

The sea-front, later in the afternoon

I also attended Neil Williamson’s reading (it wasn’t me who fell asleep during it), and a couple of book launches: Newcon Press and Eibonvale Press; and the launch of an entire new imprint, Jo Fletcher Books. There were lots of interesting conversations throughout the weekend, with a number of people. I remember one with Gavin Smith and Jaine Fenn in which I explained that sf needed more nuts and bolts and less magical technology. Gav and Jaine (together): well, thanks… A lot of the conversations revolved around writing. With Terry Grimwood and Sarah Newton; and Laura Lam and Harry Markov. At the Newcon Press launch, I chatted to Gwyneth Jones and her husband Peter. When the awards ceremony was taking place, I had an interesting conversation in the bar with Robert Rankin. There were plenty of others I spoke to, as well as others with whom I’d have liked to exchange more than a handful of words.

I was up until 4:30 a.m. on the Saturday – though I wasn’t dancing in the disco – and up at 6:30 for breakfast (which wasn’t actually served until 8 a.m.). How I managed to survive Sunday on only two hours of sleep is a mystery to me. That night I retired earlier at 1:30 a.m. The following morning at breakfast, the restaurant was full of burly men. They were nothing to do with Fantasycon.

I remember Lavie Tidhar ranting on the Saturday morning because he couldn’t get a coffee in the hotel, so we followed directions to a café, The Mock Turtle, and bought drinks there for £1 each. Lavie went back later that morning, and they charged him £1.50. On the Sunday morning, I was incensed because they’d removed all the seating from the lounge in preparation for the banquet. They’d also locked the bar. So there was nowhere sit in the public areas until eleven o’clock. This wasn’t helped by people trying to check out before 10 a.m., as they had been told to on checking-in, only to learn that for the con they didn’t have to check out until 4 p.m.

I ate well in the evenings, but not so well during the days. I took some sandwiches with me in a plastic container with a freezer block. But it was so warm the freezer block thawed during the first day, and the sandwiches were too ripe to eat on the Sunday. On the Friday night, a gang us were led to Mushi Mushi by Dominic Harman, where I had a free meal. They gave me the wrong dish, and so told me it was free; but they took so long to bring the right one that we’d all finished. Saturday night, I ate in the hotel. The food was better than I’d expected. And on Sunday, another group of us – Neil Williamson, Michael Staton, Sam Moffat, Paul Skevington and myself – had an okay Thai meal. We were actually looking for a Lebanese restaurant, but failed to find the one we’d been directed to.

I understand there was a bit of fuss during the British Fantasy Awards ceremony. I didn’t attend at last year’s Fantasycon, and I wasn’t bothering at this one. I spent the ceremony in the bar, as mentioned above. I will say that if people have issues with the results, they need to fix the system, not attack those who won.

I bought remarkably few books – only three, in fact – but I was also given several free ones. The low number is because I’d carted half a dozen books by Gwyneth Jones to the con for her to sign, and I didn’t fancy hauling a suitcase over-filled with books back home.

These are the three I bought: Roy Gray’s chapbook from Pendragon Press, The Joy of Technology; Bloody War by Terry Grimwood from Eibonvale Press; and Cyber Circus by Kim Lakin-Smith from Newcon Press.

And these were the freebies. Gavin Smith gave me a copy of War in Heaven, his second novel, only just published. The Immersion Book of SF was given to me by editor/publisher Carmelo Rafala. That’s an ARC from theExaggeratedPress of Douglas Thompson’s Apoidea. It also features my first ever blurb on a book-cover, taken from my Interzone review of Douglas’ Sylvow. Fame at last. Finally, Full Fathom Forty was free to all members of the British Fantasy Society. There were, as usual, some free books in the convention pack goody bag, but I didn’t keep them as they weren’t the sort of fiction I read. But thanks to the above for the freebies – they were books I wanted.

The journey back home was not as painless as the trip there. Five of us caught a taxi to the railway station. We lost one person, who decided she’d sooner spend an hour or two wandering around the town than in Gatwick’s departure lounge. Then the train tickets for two of us proved to be valid only on a specific train… which wasn’t the one myself and Lavie Tidhar were catching. Which had twelve carriages. I don’t recall ever seeing such a long train in the UK before. The ones I normally catch have half a dozen carriages at most, and often only two. I changed trains at East Croydon, and arrived at St Pancras ninety minutes before my train. After getting a bite to eat, I decided to catch an earlier train. Thanks to the amazing fuck-up the Tories made of the railways when they privatised it, such decisions can often prove very expensive. As the train pulled away from the station, the purser pointed out that certain tickets were invalid. I was fairly sure mine was okay, but I had bought it online. Fortunately, it was. But long gone are the days when you can buy a ticket at a reasonable price, and jump on any train to travel to somewhere else in the country. So exactly how has privatising the railways improved things? It’s more expensive, less reliable, less convenient and – not so long ago – less safer. The British railway system is an embarrassment, and we can thank the Tories for that.

So, in all, a good weekend. I met lots of friends, made new ones, had many interesting conversations, bought or was given a handful of interesting books, spoke to my favourite sf author, Gwyneth Jones, and generally had an excellent time. I didn’t see much of Brighton – given the weather, it was packed throughout the weekend – but never mind.

Next year’s Fantasycon is in Corby, and I plan to attend.

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