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When I’m sixty-four

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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

5 thoughts on “When I’m sixty-four

  1. I’ve got to agree that I think that there must be a way of mixing up the formats of things to do at conventions – four days of repeatedly sitting in chairs listening to four people moderated by one or two isn’t really going to rock anyone’s world. That’s why the bar is so important.

    I’m in no way having a crack at the organizers, just pondering whether improvements could be made. What about some kind of Sci-Fi speakers corner where everything is game? Flashmob events or multimedia presentations with satellite link up to writers in the US?

    I’m just throwing stuff in the pot.

    • I think I’d like to appear on more programme items at future cons. They typically have quite a good mix of stuff – not just the four talking heads format. The Mars colony one, for example, was me and Mike leading the audience in discussion and that worked quite well. It’d have worked a damn sight better if we’d planned it and come up with a structure beforehand, of course…

  2. Congratulations on the award, matey. I was chuffed when Mike Cobley told me you had won it.

  3. Congrats Ian!!!

    Well deserved and not before time. Now, for god’s sake, my knuckle duster is ready. If a few publishers don’t take notice you I am volunteering to go round and duff them up.

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