I think Harrogate is the furthest north in England the Eastercon has ever been. Certainly, it’s the most northerly Eastercon I’ve attended. Blackpool, Manchester and Bradford are in the North, but still south of Harrogate. York and Leeds, also south of Harrogate, were before my time. And Glasgow, of course, is in Scotland.
More recently, I’ve been attending conventions much further north – in Sweden, Denmark, Finland and Iceland. But that’s by the by. Follycon 2, this year’s Eastercon, took place at the Majestic Hotel, which is a huge Victorian hotel that has seen better days, in Harrogate. And now that it’s all over… I’m not entirely sure if it was a good Eastercon or a bad one.
The venue was large, with plenty of room to sit down and chat and have a drink. The layout had been knocked about in the past, resulting in odd staircases that appeared to go nowhere, and a poky reception that actually had the main entrance on hotel’s rear, and an original entrance hall which boasted a nice mural above the dado but felt more like a space without a purpose – at least, normally; during the con, it was the main social area. And since there were programme rooms on either side, you’d get a throng crossing it whenever programme items ended. Having said that, the service was occasionally appalling, and I heard a few stories about delayed meals.
However, the Majestic is literally a stone’s throw from Harrogate town centre, so it was a quick walk to plenty of good places to eat. So I ate well during the con. Which is unusual for me. I can recommend Major Tom’s Social on the Ginnel, off Parliament Street, which serves pizza – including two vegan ones – and craft ale. There’s also a good all-you-can-eat Chinese restaurant on Cheltenham Crescent, although it’s not a buffet – and the concept of all-you-can-eat from a menu did confuse a couple of members of our dinner party…
(I wasn’t actually staying in the Majestic, but in the Premier Inn, which was pretty much next-door. My room was large and comfortable – it had a chaise longue! – and the staff, sorry, “team”, were helpful and attentive. The breakfast was also pretty good.)
Then there was the con’s programme. It pretty much had something for everyone, not that I attended any items. Well, other than the one I was on, about AI, which went quite well. There were a couple of other panels I’d liked to have seen, but they seemed to fall at times when I had other plans, like lunch. I heard mixed reports from those who did attend panels, although most people seemed to have enjoyed them.
I no longer attend conventions for the programme – I haven’t done for years – even if I always promise myself I’ll see more of the programme, make more of what’s offered over the weekend. Instead of just sitting in the bar and chatting to friends. Which is pretty much what I did. There was a good real ale bar, which helped. And one of the two bars – the Regency Lounge – was more like a gentleman’s club, with panelled walls and leather(-ette?) armchairs (and peeling plaster above the dado). It was a good place to socialise.
The dealers’ room – I remember when they used be called book rooms – was poor. The usual small presses, a few self-published authors, jewellery and T-shirts… but no secondhand books. I can understand why dealers no longer bother – if they’re not making a profit, or even covering their expenses, then it’s not worth it. But it is disappointing.
No description of the hotel would be complete without a mention of the gents’ toilet near the dealers’ room. It was enormous. There was even a bench at one end for people to, er, sit down. It had seen better days, but was still pretty impressive.
The BSFA Award ceremony took place during Follycon. I usually attend this, but didn’t bother this year. It was pretty much a done deal. I’d expected Nina Allan’s The Rift to win – it’s a very good book and a worthy winner – although I thought Anne Charnock’s Dreams Before the Start of Time slightly better. But Charnock took the short fiction award for her novella, The Enclave. Which is also very good. Although I think the category was reasonably open. Best artwork went to Jim Burns, who must have a garden shed full of BSFA Awards by now, for the cover of a novel published by NewCon Press (who also published The Enclave), jointly with Victo Ngai for illustrations for a JY Yang story on Tor.com. The non-fiction award was won by Paul Kincaid’s book Iain M. Banks, which was the most likely winner of a strong shortlist… and has also been shortlisted for the Hugo. During recent years, books, novellas and artwork published by NewCon Press have regularly appeared in the BSFA Award shortlists. True, the BSFA is a small organisation, and it takes only a handful of votes for a work to be nominated… and probably not many more for it to be shortlisted. I suppose, the same might be said of PS Publishing and the BFS Awards.
But then I think popular vote awards – and the term “popular vote” is a total misnomer – are neither popular nor useful. Like the Hugo Awards, the shortlists for which were announced over the weekend. And, ho hum, the same old faces. It’s good the puppies appear to be a spent force, but all that means is we’re back to the old way of doing things, ie, a small group of writers dominating the shortlists. It’s telling the Hugo Award shortlists (voted for by fans) and the Nebula Award shortlists (voted for by pros) often have considerable overlap. Authors, especially popular authors, bend awards out of shape. I’ve said it before, and each year it proves my point.
But the Hugo shortlists… Jemisin is the new Card, the new Bujold, the new Willis… The Broken Earth trilogy is good, but not so good it contains the best genre books published three years in a row. I’ll read the third book, The Stone Sky, as I’ve read the first two books of the trilogy. And I’ll read Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 too, as I’ve been a fan of his books for many years. But I’ve zero interest in the rest of the shortlist. I suspect Jemisin will win, which will be disappointment, as it’s a safe choice, but neither do I want any of the others to win. And, to be honest, I could say the same for the short fiction categories. Once upon a time, they were dominated by the Big Three print magazines – Asimov’s, Analog and F&SF – but a new Big Three of online magazines now rules the roost – Tor.com, Clarkesworld and Uncanny. But then, at a time when the short fiction is notoriously vast, it only takes a few extra votes to get a story onto the shortlist. I guess we’ll find out later in the year exactly how few votes it takes to be on the short story shortlist.
Oh well. It’s not that I can’t get excited about the Hugo Awards, because I haven’t been for years. Even back in the day, the tastes of its voters never really aligned with mine.
Anyway, I left Harrogate on Monday morning, once the trains to Leeds were running – as the British weather had managed to bollix the service. Now our railways are privatised, they are so much better, honest guv. (When will it be okay to punch a Tory? Their entire ideology is built on dangerous lies which have a habit of doing the exact opposite to their claimed benefits: trickle-down, home ownership, privatisation, low taxes, Austerity, Brexit… One Tory even went on record saying he doesn’t think rented accommodation needs to be “fit for human habitation”! There’s a Tory who deserves a fucking good kicking.)
Anyway, I left Harrogate on Monday morning, once the trains to Leeds were running. I had a fun weekend. I ate well – always a surprise at cons, for me – and I saw some friends I don’t usually get to see (except, perhaps, at Eastercons). I had some good conversations with various people. But, as I remarked to Mike Cobley on the Sunday, we’d made the tactical mistake all those years ago of making friends with people who no longer attend cons. And from what I’ve seen over the past couple of years, young writers, ones that weren’t previously fans who attended cons, prefer to hang out with each other and their publishers. It’s not like UK cons have never been cliquey, but it does seem more marked these days. I don’t see that happening at Nordic cons – although that may well be because Nordic fandom is smaller and they all know each other. Having said that, UK fandom these days – or rather, that subset of it comprising writers and editors and critics – is entirely London-based, and us up here in the provinces can’t generate enough critical mass to get another scene going and sustaining itself.
The fact the Eastercon often takes place in the North means nothing.