It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible


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Flying north

Recent events – the desire by our current government to commit political suicide, and half the population to commit economic suicide – have somewhat over-shadowed the past couple of weeks, but prior to the UK imploding very messily, I spent a weekend in Stockholm at Fantastika 2016, this year’s Swecon. It was my second Swecon, and my third Nordic con. My first had been Fantastika 2013, in the same venue as this year’s Fantastika – the Dieselverkstaden in Sickla, an area to the south of Stockholm’s city centre.

I flew to Sweden early on Friday 17 June. I’d been panicking a bit because I’d had trouble finding out where I was supposed to check-in online, but fortunately I got it sorted the evening before I flew. And when I boarded the aircraft – a Norwegian Boeing 737-800 – I discovered I had one of the seats by the emergency exit over the wing. In other words: leg room! After landing at Stockholm, I caught the Arlanda Express into the city-centre – SEK 280! – where I met up with Tobias Bodlund. We caught the Metro to Gamla stan, and had a burger and a couple of beers. The plan was to cross the bridge to Slussen and catch the Saltsjöbanan urban railway to Sickla… But it seemed the railway was closed as they were extending it or something, so we had to catch a replacement bus. The weather was hot and sunny, and the bus was like a sauna.

At Fantastika 2013, this area in front of the Dieselverkstaden had been a building site

At Fantastika 2013, this area in front of the Dieselverkstaden had been a building site

I checked into my hotel, showered and then headed over to the Dieselverkstaden to register… Early in the evening a group of us ate at the Italian restaurant just by the Diselverkstaden – although “restaurant” is perhaps a bit strong. You picked your food from a variety of bowls of saucers and pasta in a display counter, they dished it out onto a plate, and then stuck the plate in one of a dozen microwaves on a shelf behind the counter. Despite that, the food wasn’t that bad. Later, I caught one of the programme items, a conversation between GoH Caroline Mullan and Linnéa Anglemark.

Next was Jukka Halme’s infamous quiz, which I was told I had to go to… and where I was immediately volunteered to be one of the contestants. Jukka’s quiz is designed to be difficult, and the scoring can be a bit random, but it’s also intended to be entertaining. Which it certainly was. Our team was international, with GoH Jerry Määttä (Sweden), Thomas Recktenwald (Germany) and myself (UK). We also won. By a thumbs up. (The audience managed to score the same number of points – don’t ask – as us, but we’d managed a thumbs up for a close guess on one question.) Apparently, the score keeper – a volunteer from the audience – normally wins. I also managed to answer one of the “four fields” questions correctly and scored the full two points, which has apparently never been done before.

I had another beer or two after the quiz – unlike the last Fantastika, they’d set up a small bar in the concourse area outside the two auditoriums used for the programme.

The view from my hotel room on the Saturday morning

The view from my hotel room on the Saturday morning

The next morning when I woke up, it was chucking it down. And it rained most of the day. I wondered if I’d brought the weather with me from the UK. Breakfast was packed – there were at least four coach parties, one British, staying at the hotel. Fantastika 2013 had taken place in October, and the hotel had been a lot less busy. Back across to the Diselverkstaden to catch a few programme items and several wanders around the SAAM/Alvarfonden book room (a Swedish fan charity which sells secondhand books, mostly UK and US paperbacks, for SEK 10 to SEK 30). Tobias and I ate lunch at the Mexican taverna next to the Italian restaurant. Then it was an afternoon of programme items, visits to the book room, and the occasional beer. I ate in the hotel restaurant that night as I was on a panel at 6 pm, which was apparently when a lot of people went for dinner. The panel was titled “That’s why I killed him!” and was about character motivation. On the panel were GoH Maria Turtschaninoff, Anna Jakobsson Lund, Mats Strandberg, myself, and moderator Markku Soikkeli. I thought the panel went pretty well – and I was surprised when Markku asked me about the motivation behind the title character in my story ‘Barker’. (Easy: he’s based on a dog…).

After hanging around, drinking beer and chatting in the Diselverkstaden until around midnight, I headed back to the hotel.

Sunday was a quieter day. The con seemed to be winding down from around mid-morning. By mid-afternoon, when GoH Carolyn Ives Gilman had her signing, people were starting to leave. (I’d brought copies of her books for her to sign but, annoyingly, only realised I’d forgotten her debut, Halfway Human, when I landed in Sweden. Gah.) After the closing ceremony, led off by acapella singing by the Gléowine chair and closed with the spirit of Swecon being handed over to Kontur (Uppsala, 26 to 28 May next year), those of us that remained had the dead dog party in the Dieselverkstaden’s Bistro (last time, it had been in the Bishop’s Arms, a UK-style pub). The weather was nice and pleasant – bar the occasional shower – so we carried on until the bar closed. And when we moved across to the hotel, we managed to catch one more round before its bar closed.

Sergels torg, from the top of the Kulturhuset

Sergels torg, from the top of the Kulturhuset

My flight back to the UK was at 6 pm on the Monday, so I had plenty of time to kill. I woke up early, panicked a bit because I’d forgotten to check-in online the night before, but managed to do it on my phone (and discovered when I boarded the plane that evening that I’d once again got a seat by the emergency exit over the wing; result.) After checking out of the hotel, I took a taxi to the Centralstation, where I dumped my bag, and met up with Tobias. We went for lunch at the rooftop restaurant in the Kulturhuset, which overlooks Sergels torg. It was hot and sunny, just like it had been on the Friday (when I was also carrying a heavy bag around with me). After lunch, I said my goodbyes and caught the Arlanda Express to the airport, where I planned to kill the rest of the afternoon. The last time I’d flown from Stockholm had been on an early October morning, and the airport had been deserted. It wasn’t this time. It was heaving, and there weren’t many places left to sit.

My flight was delayed by 45 minutes, which meant I’d miss the train I’d planned to catch. Fortunately – for me, at least – the next train’s arrival had been delayed by 15 minutes, so I managed to catch it a couple of minutes before it left the station. But it was then delayed further – kids trespassing on the line between Manchester Airport and Manchester Piccadilly, apparently – and I didn’t get home until 10:30 that night. That final train ride is always the worst part of any journey home from abroad, because drives in just how shit our railway network is. Of course, we know who to thank for that…

Three years ago, I’d had an excellent time at Fantastika 2013, so it had always been my plan to attend another Swecon. When I learnt Fantastika, in the exact same venue, had been chosen as the Swecon for 2016, I knew I had no excuse not to go. And especially since I’d met a lot more people in Nordic fandom at Archipelacon last year… And yes, this Fantastika was a good as the earlier one, if not better. Not only are the Swedish (and Nordic) fans extremely friendly, but they’re also still focused on celebrating the books and stories that fandom is actually about. While there was a panel on the novels Robert Heinlein – which was actually very interesting – there were also lots of discussion of current science fiction and fantasy works. The experience reminded why I became a fan myself.

I really ought to shout out to all the people I spoke to over the weekend, but I’ll probably go and get a forget someone – but I’ll have a go anyway. Here, in no particular order, goes… Tobias, Johan, Luke, Fia, Kristin, Erik, Jukka, Jessica, John-Henri, Caroline, Brian, Chris, Barbara, Anders, Jukka, Carolina, Thomas, Patrik, Jerry, my fellow panellists, Tommy, Flemming, AR, Karin… and if I’ve missed anyone, I sincerely apologise.

As mentioned earlier, next year’s Swecon is in Uppsala. I’m hoping I’ll be able to go. And if not, there’s always Worldcon 75 in Helsinki in August next year.

 


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The wrong side of the Pennines

Eastercon this year took place in Manchester, on the other side of the Pennines. I very much prefer Eastercons when they’re outside London, and even more so when they’re relatively close – and Mancunicon was only 55 minutes away by train. Having said all that…

Every Eastercon begins with travel woes, and Mancunicon was no exception. I’d booked a taxi in plenty of time to take me to the station, giving me 40 minutes before my train left. But at the time the minicab was supposed to arrive, it didn’t. And continued not to arrive… until eventually appearing 15 minutes before my train was due. This was because the current minicab operating model has a central dispatching office put out jobs for drivers to bid on. And if they don’t receive any bids, or don’t accept any of those they do receive, then you don’t get a taxi. And they don’t bother to tell you. This is not helpful. The cab driver who eventually turned up told me he’d bid on the job earlier but his bid had been rejected – otherwise he’d have arrived much sooner.

As it was, I managed to make train, although it was close. The trip was uneventful, and I then had a ten-minute walk to my hotel. Not normally a bad thing. But it was a warm day, I was wearing a coat and carrying a box of Whippleshield Books to sell. So I was knackered and soaking wet by the time I made it to my hotel room. I then met up with Tobias, who’d flown over from Stockholm, and we headed across to the Hilton Deansgate, the con venue. I sort of liked the hotel, but I’m not convinced it was an especially good con hotel. Most of the programme rooms were far too small, meaning you had to get to them really early to get a seat. The dealers were split across two rooms, which didn’t work. The hotel had only three lifts, which meant there was a queue when people wanted to head up to the twenty-second floor for book launches in the Presidential suite (which was itself too small). There was no place to sit down and relax – one  bar was pretty much standing-only, the other was laid out like a coffee-shop. And the snack food provided during the con was disgusting.

On the plus-side, the location was excellent – lots of shops and eateries within easy walking distance. And even a museum of science and technology… which I didn’t visit. And a cinema. Given better use of the Hilton Deansgate’s conference facilities – and some comfy chairs in the mezzanine bar – it would make a really good venue. Having said that, Mancunicon was a victim of its own success. I was told they’d expected 700 to 800 attendees, but actually had 950 people over the weekend. It was certainly busy a lot of the time.

I made, as is my usual practice, less than a handful of programme items. I was on one – on space opera, ‘The Stars Are Your Canvas’, with Mike Cobley, Tom Toner, Alison Sinclair, Jo Zebedee and Gavin Smith. I think the panel went well enough, although in hindsight we didn’t actually interrogate our subject much, and by the end it had turned into a bit of a nostalgia fest for certain space opera properties… Ah well. Then there were the BSFA Awards (congrats to the winners)… Oh, and I made the NewCon Press book launch in the Presidential suite too. But the highlights of the weekend were, as ever, meeting up with friends, and those free-wheeling conversations you have in the afternoons while you’re sat round a table – including one discussion on neurology, theology and Game Theory with Simon Morden and Alex Lamb; another on the various media adaptations of Dune with Adrian Tchaikovsky; not to mention all those “catch-up conversations” you have with friends that aren’t really catching-up because you know pretty much what they’ve been up to since you last saw them thanks to Twitter and Facebook status updates… Of course, there’s also meeting new people. Which I did. And seeing many people I’d not seen for many years…

Oh, and for the record, the Traveller identity card I mentioned during the space opera panel? Here it is:

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I also mentioned Judgment Night, the Valerian and Laureline series, The Communist Manifesto and a coin that’s flown around the Moon:

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I didn’t do so well on the social front, and went to be early on all three nights. I’d developed a bad back about a month ago, and all that standing around wasn’t do it any good. As usual, I also ate badly during the day, thanks to the poor choices available (such as the aforementioned disgusting con food). On the Sunday, I nipped to a nearby Sainsbury’s and bought lunch there. I wish I’d done it on the previous two days. Twice, I had dinner in the hotel restaurant. The food was pretty good. On the Saturday night, a group of us went to a nearby Indian restaurant. The food was good, but it was a bit too loud in there (a birthday party on the mezzanine, apparently).

I want to like Mancunicon more than I did. I think the two things that spoiled it for me were pain from my back and the somewhat feeble dealers’ room. I bought three books at the con; I usually come back with a carrier-bag full. In the past, I’ve spent hours browsing the books in the dealers’ room, but that took all of five minutes at Mancunicon. I suspect I was also hoping it would be more of a relaxacon, with places to chill out; and while many of the programme items looked interesting, the faff in actually getting a seat in the rooms put me off even trying. None of which is to say Mancunicon was a badly-organised Eastercon. On the contrary, it did extremely well – especially when you consider it was a rescue bid.

(Speaking of which, 2017’s Eastercon in Cardiff collapsed, but a rescue bid in Birmingham was announced at Mancunicon: Innominate at the Hilton Metropole at the NEC, GoHs Pat Cadigan, Judith Clute and Colin Harris. And 2018’s Eastercon will be Follycon in Harrogate, with GoHs Kieron Gillen, Kim Stanley Robinson, Nnedi Okorafor and Christina Lake.)

Oh well, perhaps I’ve been spoiled. Archipelacon is going to take a lot of beating. I did quite well with my own books (and I’m eternally grateful to Roy Gray for having them on the TTA table). It always surprises me – in a good way, of course – when people come up to me and say nice things about them I was hoping I wouldn’t have to carry a box full of Whippleshield Books back home, and happily I sold just over half of those I took with me. (The books are, of course, still available from the Whippleshield Books website here.)

In summary, a middling-to-good Eastercon for me. Mostly my fault – but also partly because the venue didn’t quite work as a con hotel. I wish I could say I came home fizzing with ideas and enthusiasm for writing projects… but I didn’t. I left at lunch-time on the Monday – it was absolutely hammering it down and I didn’t fancy walking to the station but a friend planned to order a cab… The journey home went without a hitch, and the cat at least was happy to see me and spent a good five minutes telling me off for disappearing on him. I did tell him but… Anyway, Birmingham next year – and I remember the hotel from the 2011 Eastercon… A good venue, but expensive and miles from anywhere, I seem to recall. But that’s twelve months away…


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Åwesome

When I learned the 2015 Eastercon would be in Heathrow, I knew I’d be giving it a miss. And when I discovered its guests of honour were urban fantasy writers, then I had even less reason to attend. At Fantastika, Swecon 2013, in Stockholm, I’d heard about Åcon, a small con which takes place in Mariehamn in the Åland Islands, an archipelago between Finland and Sweden (it’s a self-governing part of Finland, although the natives speak Swedish). I quite fancied attending Åcon – I’d found Nordic fandom hugely friendly at Fantastika, and Mariehamn looked like a nice place to visit – but plans to do so in 2015 came to nothing… But that was okay because then Archipelacon was announced. An Eastercon-sized convention. In Mariehamn.

So that would be my alternative to the Heathrow Eastercon.

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As the  date of the convention approached, I started to worry about travelling to Åland – the Finnish fans catch a ferry from Turku, and the Swedish fans from Stockholm. I didn’t fancy finding my way from Helsinki to Turku and onto the ferry in a country I’d never visited before. But then I found out Mariehamn had an airport… and I could fly there from Helsinki Airport. Sorted. I booked my flights, my hotel room, and my days off from work.

As journeys go, it wasn’t too bad. I had to spend five hours in Helsinki Airport waiting for my connection, but it’s a nice airport so it was no real hardship. And at the gate to the flight to Mariehamn I ran into some friendly faces, Icelandic writer Emil Hjörvar Petersen and his girlfriend Kristin. We were staying in the same hotel too, the Park Alandia. So on reaching Mariehamn, we shared a taxi from the airport. And met up later for food and drinks in the hotel bar… where I discovered all food in Finland is either gluten-free, lactose-free or both. (I was told a lot of Finns are lactose-intolerant, but most food is actually only “low lactose”. However, I had no problem finding lactose-free food during my stay – and even in Helsinki Airport half of the sandwiches in the café were labelled lactose-free.)

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The following morning, I went for a wander in the centre of Mariehamn. Which didn’t take long. It may be small, but it’s very pleasant. I found the convention venue, the Alandica conference centre, quite easily, but when I turned up they were still getting things ready. I returned later, bumped into some friends, and so Archipelacon began in earnest…

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Much as I’d like to mention everyone I spoke to during the con, I’m likely to miss someone off so if I have done, apologies. But here goes anyway: Tobias, Ian, Cristina, Edward, Farah, Johan, Linnéa, Johan, Kimmo, Rollo, Kristina, Alexander, Emil, Kristin, Jukka, Juha, Elio, Linda, Gary, Niall, Liz, Nic, Jukka, Polar bear, Loponen, Jerry, Juha, Christina, Doug, Dave, Gaie, Minnow, Alexander, Eugene, Cheryl, Karin, Mia… and no doubt there’s someone I’ve forgotten. I met people from a dozen nations, and hung out with people I knew from Fantastika, UK fandom, online fandom, not to mention lots of very friendly people I’d never met before. Archipelacon is also the only time I’ve had a convention-goer introduce themselves to me in a non-convention venue. I’d nipped back to the Park Alandia Hotel bar for some food on the Thursday night, and the person next to me spotted my membership badge and introduced himself and his wife – they were, of course, also members. We were then joined by a fourth person who had spotted our badges. I don’t recall anything like that ever happening at a UK con.

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The programme was very good, although I didn’t attend as much as I’d planned (but certainly more than I typically do). I was on only one programme item, “Why SF Writers Should Rule the World — or Should They?”, with Kristina Hård, Kimmo Lehtonen and Farah Mendlesohn. Obviously, we all said they shouldn’t. Then we sort of talked around the subject, prompted at intervals by Kristina. The audience seemed to enjoy it.

There was also a strong academic track – and a lot more academics present than is the case at Eastercons. In fact, sitting outside on the Alandica deck at one point I found I was the only non-academic in the group at the table. On the Friday night, there was a big party around the pool of the Hotel Arkipelag (the main con hotel). The Arkipelag also has the only nightclub in Mariehamn – so when we moved indoors later, it was very busy. The nightlife in Mariehamn is… odd. It all felt a bit nineties. At the Saturday night pool party, I left around midnight, and took a wrong turn leaving the hotel… and found myself at the nightclub entrance, where bouncers held back Mariehamn twentysomethings queuing behind a rope. And when I got to the Park Alandia Hotel and entered through the bar, I noticed that everyone there was over the age of forty-five. I was later told the nightlife in the town revolves around the hotels, but wandering about town on the Sunday I found a couple of small bars. Outside one were three men who looked like they’d just stepped out of an Aki Kaurismäki film. Except they were speaking Swedish, of course.

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The Alandica was a superb venue. The central space was big and airy, with plenty of seating. The two auditoriums were excellent. There was food available throughout the day – much of which was lactose-free. And the bar sold bottles of the local beer, Stallhagen – which is what I drank for most of the weekend. It’s very nice. Sunset each day was around 11:30 to midnight. Which meant it was always later than you thought. The weather was sunny and hot – you don’t expect to get suburned in Finland, but I did.

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I’d promised myself I wouldn’t buy any books at the con, but I’d said the same at Fantastika and still left with a dozen or so. Thanks to Alvarfonden. This is a fan-run fund which sells secondhand US and UK paperbacks cheap – at Archiepelacon for between €1 and €2. So I ended up coming back with half a dozen or so, mostly for SF Mistressworks: The Clewiston Test, Kate Wilhelm; Outer Space Stories, AL Furman; Strange Bedfellows, Thomas N Scortia; The Tomorrow People, Judith Merril; Galactic Sibyl Sue Blue, Rosel George Brown; Godsfire, Cynthia Felice; A Woman A Day, Philip José Farmer; and A Voice Out of Ramah, Lee Killough. I read the last during my flight home, so a review of it will be going up on SF Mistressworks this coming Wednesday.

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The only bad thing to happen during the weekend was entirely my own fault. On the Sunday afternoon, I received a telephone call from my hotel. “You must check out now.” “I’m booked through until tomorrow.” “No, you’re not.” I wasn’t. Gah. I’d booked a room from Wednesday to Sunday, meaning including Sunday night. But the hotel took that to mean checking out on Sunday. And I never noticed I’d only booked four nights instead of five (possibly because Archipelacon started on a Thursday rather than a Friday, and that threw me). Tobias offered the spare bed in his room – he was in the same hotel – but the hotel managed to find me a free room. Except it had no shower. Which meant using the one down in the saunas. I took that room because I’d be up at seven am to catch my flight, and thought it unfair to Tobias. But skulking naked around the hotel sauna was not an experience to be repeated.

It seems likely Archipelacon was a one-off, but I think pretty much everyone who attended would like it to be repeated. The Alandica was an excellent venue, Mariehamn (nightlife notwithstanding) was a lovely little town, and everyone seemed to have a really good time. I know I did. It was the best con, in fact, I’ve been to for a long time. I certainly plan to visit Finland again – perhaps an Åcon, or maybe a Finncon (next year it’s in Tampere, I believe). And, of course, there’s always Sweden – Fantastika is back at the Dieselverkstaden in Stockholm in 2016. There was even talk of running small con in Reykjavik. I’d definitely go to that.

ETA: Archipelacon has posted all the photos by official con photographer Henry Söderlund. You can find them here.


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To York and beyond – Fantasycon 2014

So that was the new all-improved Fantasycon, and you know what? It was a bloody good con. The hotel was nice, if expensive, but it had an excellent real ale pub next-door and was five minutes walk from the city centre (and hence many fooderies). The company was convivial, and from what I heard the programme was successful. Okay, so the bar smelt of chlorine (which prompted me to start quoting Wilfred Owen at one point) and it was stinking hot in there on the Sunday; but at least the beer wasn’t massively expensive for a hotel (£4.40 a pint). My room was a single, and I’m just not used to sleeping in a single bed any more and nearly fell out of it a couple of times; but the room’s bathroom was enormous, almost as large as the room itself.

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And speaking of bathrooms, the gents toilets on the ground floor were like something out of Hogwarts and quite amazing – tessellated floor, marble fitments and an enormous skylight above the centre of the room.

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I spent most of Fantasycon chatting to people – old friends and new friends – in the bar and in the dealers’ room. It would be impossible to name them all, but I should definitely give a shout-out to Gillian Polack, the 2014 GUFF race winner, who had come all the way from Australia (albeit chiefly for Loncon 3, of course). I can’t recall much of what the weekend’s many conversations were about, but I remember getting a loud groan out of about a dozen people with the Saeed story one night.

The con ended with the British Fantasy Awards – congrats to all the winners – and I left for home not too long afterwards. That was a nightmare – unlike the very pleasant journey to York. A four-coach train from Edinburgh to Reading, so naturally it was packed solid and I spent the journey home standing. Fortunately, it wasn’t a long trip. The next government in power seriously needs to renationalise the rolling stock companies, and I don’t care if it means some of their rich friends end up out of pocket. In fact, I’d welcome it if they do.

Finally, no con report would be complete without a list of the books I came home with. For the second con running, I managed to purchase books only by female authors. The books by male authors pictured below were all freebies – except for the Calvino, which I bought in Oxfam on Micklegate.

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These were among the freebies available when you registered – although pretty much the entire Moorcock series was there, I already had most of them in the Fantasy Masterwork editions… but not The Eternal Champion and Von Bek (which weren’t in the Masterwork series anyway). David Tallerman is a friend and I picked up his book, Crown Thief, so he could sign a copy for me. Extinction Game didn’t appear on the freebie table until the Saturday, and I’d been intending to buy it so that saved me a bob or two. A dealer at the con was selling off a large stock of unwanted review copies all weekend for £1 each (and 50p on the Sunday), but after the dealers’ room closed for the banquet and awards ceremony, they dumped their remaining books in the hotel foyer for people to take for free – which is where I spotted The Suicide Exhibition, when my eye was caught by the Nazi eagle, flying saucer and black sun logo on the cover…

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School For Love and If On A Winter’s Night A Traveller I bought in the Oxfam on Micklegate, when Mhairi Simpson, Kev McVeigh and myself went for a wander on the Saturday afternoon. The Start of the End of it All, on the other hand, Kev picked up for me from a dealer at Loncon 3, and brought to Fantasycon.

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I decided to pick up some more of Nina Allan’s work and, fortunately, although not unexpectedly, both PS Publishing (Stardust) and Eibonvale Press (The Silver Wind and A Thread of Truth) had tables in the dealers’ room. Changing Planes I bought from the aforementioned dealer with all the review copies.

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All bought in the dealers’ room – Langue[dt]doc 1305 from Gillian herself, Mars Evacuees from the table run by Fantasycon, and vN and Walking the Tree from the review-copies dealer.

Next year’s Fantasycon is apparently back in Nottingham, but in the East Midlands Conference Centre rather than the horrible Britannia Hotel. I’m certainly considering going…


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Loncon 3 and me

As you likely all know, the Worldcon this year takes place in London. So they’re calling it Loncon, the third of that name as there were previous Loncons in 1957 and 1965. It will take place from 14 to 18 August at ExCel, which is some sort of humungous exhibition centre in Docklands. It also seems it’s going to be the biggest Worldcon so far. All of which is academic as far as I’m concerned, as I won’t be going.

I did buy an attending membership, and I volunteered to be on programme items. I was asked to be on one panel, but I turned it down. It was not a topic that interested me, or one I felt could usefully contribute to. All of which is, again, pretty much moot.

There are a number of reasons why I’ve decided I’m no longer attending Loncon 3. One of them is that I had hoped to have Apollo Quartet 4 All That Outer Space Allows and Aphrodite Terra ready for the con. But that’s not going to happen, so I think I’d better spend the time working on them. Loncon 3 is also the weekend after a metal festival, and I doubt I could recover from one in time for the other.

There are lots of people I’d hoped to meet IRL at Loncon 3 for the first time. Back in 2005, at the Glasgow Worldcon, I remember such plans failing spectacularly – but then the “voodoo board” wasn’t very effective… These days, of course, social media and smartphones make it all so much easier. Another time, perhaps. Helsinki in 2017?


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Eastercon is over

So that’s Satellite 4, the 2014 Eastercon, over and done with. It was a con of ups and downs. On the one hand, it’s always good to spend time with friends, especially ones you don’t see IRL all that often. On the other… I didn’t reckon much to the programme, the dealers’ room was disappointingly small, and the hotel isn’t all that well-suited to conventions – the main bar and function space are separated by two staircases… or a shortcut through the main restaurant.

The train journey to Glasgow didn’t start too well, but proved mostly painless. British railways are still an embarrassment, however. The ROSCOs seriously need to be nationalised, they’re robbing us all blind. I hadn’t managed to get a room in the con hotel, the Crowne Plaza, but was instead staying in the Hilton Garden Hotel about five minutes’ walk away. It proved to be the better hotel – while the rooms were small, and the en suite bathrooms tiny, they did contain a fridge, a safe and an… iMac. The hotel breakfast was nothing special, although unfortunately I managed to poison myself on the Saturday – I suspect the mushrooms. I think they must have been cooked in butter, because I spent most of the day feeling like I’d been kicked in the stomach. Lactose intolerance will do that to you.

In fact, I didn’t eat well all weekend. It was either bar food or the hotel restaurant, and there wasn’t a fat lot on the bar food menu I could eat. So I pretty much had chips. Just chips. Every day. Including a trip to Strathbungo with the Steels and Dougal. (Which happened during the Hugo Award announcement, so I watched the shortlists appear on Twitter on my phone with mounting disbelief, sitting in a car in Strathbungo, eating chips.) Bizarrely, the con ended with Hal Duncan and myself eating in the hotel restaurant on the Monday night… which is what happened the last time the Eastercon was in that hotel, back in 2006.

Other “downs” – being glass-fronted, the hotel was uncomfortably hot throughout the weekend. What is it about the UK and its inability to air-condition buildings effectively? And on one night, someone turned off the lights in the gents while I was in one of the cubicles. I was not happy.

I only managed to make three programme items, though I’d promised myself I’d be more diligent. First was the NewCon Press / PS Publishing launch. It occurred to me during it that it’s only small presses who launch books at Eastercon now. It must be several years since I last saw one of the big imprints do so. Then there was Neil Williamson’s talk about how he uses music in his writing – which managed to put one member of the audience to sleep (the second time that person has done so during one of Neil’s readings). And finally I attended the BSFA Award ceremony. It’s gratifying to see the BSFA can still be resolutely amateur – with the slideshow not always working, at least one of the list of nominees given to a presenter proving incorrect, and a plain lack of script. Still, I guess it’s an improvement on (some) previous years… I correctly called the winners in three of the categories, but I thought Christopher Priest might take the Best Novel. I certainly wasn’t expecting a tie, and while Ancillary Justice was my second favourite to win, I hadn’t thought Ack-Ack Macaque stood much chance. I’d not reckoned on the effect being on-site has, however. Anyway, congratulations to all the winners.

I spent much of Satellite 4 in the hotel’s main bar, talking to friends and meeting new people. In that respect, the convention was much like any other. I can remember the topics of only a handful of the conversations, nor can I remember everyone I spoke to. But it was nice to speak to you if I did speak to you. I do sort of recall one conversation about Apollo Quartet 4 All That Outer Space Allows, and discussing a dinner scene from something that I fancied taking off in the novella… But when I got home on the Tuesday, I’d completely forgotten in what it was the dinner scene had originally appeared. Which was bloody annoying. But then – and this is apparently how my brain works – last Sunday I was reading a short story by Margaret Atwood and it mentioned in passing Walden Pond and I remembered I had a copy of Thoreau’s book, Walden, which I wanted to read for All That Outer Space Allows because in Sirk’s film All That Heaven Allows it’s Rock Hudson’s favourite book and he shows it to Jane Wyman just before… the dinner party. Aha! After all that, it proved the most obvious answer – the dinner scene is in the movie which partly inspired the novella and which its title references. Doh.

Anyway, I digress. I enjoyed Satellite 4 for the socialising, but after the 4 am finish on the Saturday, I was definitely wondering if I was getting too old for this shit… Except one of the other people who stayed up until that ungodly hour was Jim Burns. And he has a couple of decades on me. So clearly I must be doing it wrong. Ah well.

No con report would be complete without a catalogue of book purchases. So here it is…

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My haul from the New Con Press / PS Publishing book launch: Neil Williamson’s debut novel, The Moon King; the first in the Telemass Quartet by Eric Brown, Famadihana on Fomalhaut IV; his latest collection, Strange Visitors, part of NewCon’s Imaginings series of collections; The Uncollected Ian Watson is precisely that; and Memory Man & Other Poems is Ian’s first poetry collection. (The NewCon Press titles have yet to appear on their website, so the titles link to the site’s front page.)

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Some books for SF Mistressworks: Second Body by Sue Payer I just couldn’t resist after reading the blurb – “Five hours later, Wendy’s head was fused to Jennifer’s tall, voluptuous body, and her life would never be the same!”. Queen City Jazz by Kathleen Ann Goonan, The People: No Different Flesh by Zenna Henderson, The Journal of Nicholas the American by Leigh Kennedy and A Billion Days of Earth by Doris Piserchia are all books I’ve heard of – in fact, they’ve all been reviewed once already on SF Mistressworks.

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I also collect fictional treatments of first landings on the Moon published before Apollo 11 – First on the Moon by Hugh Walters from 1960 is one such novel. The Testimony by James Smythe and The Serene Invasion by Eric Brown are both books I didn’t have and want to read.

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Finally, Paul Kincaid’s latest critical work, Call and Response.

As for Whippleshield Books… All three books of the Apollo Quartet were available in the dealers’ room throughout the con on the TTA Press table. I even sat behind the table for an hour with Jim Steel, so Roy could attend a programme item. We were not exactly mobbed. Over the entire weekend, I managed to sell around two dozen books, which was slightly better than I’d expected. I still had a 1.5 boxes of books to ship back home, however.

Next year’s Eastercon is in Heathrow, with Jim Butcher and Seanan McGuire as Guests of Honour. I doubt I’ll be going. I don’t like the site, and I’m not a fan of urban fantasy. I shall stay home and write something instead…


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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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