It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

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Wonderful wonderful– er, fantastic fantastic Copenhagen

So the big project at work that was supposed to end on September 1st… didn’t. A month before, they realised they weren’t going to hit the deadline, and so rebased all their plans. Which meant I was now free for the first weekend in September, the date of Fantasticon, an annual science fiction convention in Copenhagen. I mentioned it in passing to my boss, told her it was doable, if expensive, and she said go for it, I needed to use up some holidays anyway. Which is why, on pretty much a week’s notice, I booked a flight and a hotel room, and flew to Denmark to attend Fantasticon 2017.

I flew out on the Thursday night, as it was easier and cheaper than a Friday flight, although it meant an extra night in the hotel (which, er, wasn’t cheaper…). Usually, when I fly to Denmark, I go EasyJet, but this time I flew SAS, and it was a much better experience. I landed just after 9 pm, topped up my Copenhagen travel card, and caught the train from the airport to the city’s main railway station. My hotel was on Vesterbrogade, about 800 metres from the station. There are a lot of hotels on Vesterbrogade, which meant a lot of tourists, dragging their suitcases along the pavements, which were restricted because of roadworks. When I landed in Denmark, I’d switched my mobile back on and learnt I had two voicemails. Once I was in my hotel room, I listened to them. The first was from work; the second was from my bank… asking me to ring them on their fraud prevention line. I called them, demanding to know what was going on – they’d wanted to cancel my debit card two days before I flew to Helsinki for Worldcon75, but I’d persuaded them to hold off, and on my return they’d cancelled my card and sent me a new one… and now this new one had been compromised, even though I’d had it less than a week. I got a bit shouty. The bloke on the other end of the phone said, we haven’t left you a voicemail today, that one was from 16 August. Oops. It was an old message about my old card, and had got stuck in Vodafone’s voicemail system. I apologised for my outburst.

The view from my hotel window

Fantasticon 2017 didn’t start until 4 pm, so I had most of Friday free. I rang my sister, Kay, who lives just north of Copenhagen, and we agreed to meet up for lunch. I went for a wander in the Indre By, and managed to navigate my way to Faraos Cigarer, with a bit of help from my phone. I’d last visited there at Christmas, but the shop had greatly expanded. Downstairs had been English-language and upstairs Danish-language. Now, it was all English (there was a new Danish-language shop across the road), with novels and manga downstairs, and graphic novels upstairs. I met up with my sister outside the Rådhus, and we went looking for somewhere to eat. The first place, the waitress gave us a blank look when I asked what was dairy-free on the menu. She checked with the chef. I could have the salad. It seemed Copenhagen was going through a brioche phase and all sandwiches were made with bread that contained milk. We left. The second place we tried, the menu was just as unwelcoming, but the guy behind the bar (he appeared to be the only person serving) made an effort and produced two club sandwiches without dairy for us. Danish club sandwiches are not like club sandwiches in the rest of the world. They’re not triple-decker sandwiches with egg, bacon, chicken, salad, etc; they’re hot sandwiches containing chicken breast in curry mayonnaise, often with pesto. But then the Danish don’t call danishes danishes either. (They call them Viennese pastries.)

The Rådhus

After lunch I returned to my hotel to wait for the con to begin. At 3 pm, someone from the con posted on Facebook that the doors were open, so I made my way to Frederiksberg, 800 metres from my hotel in the opposite direction to the railway station, and the Serapion Order, the venue for Fantasticon. I was a bit early. I walked in and the only three people there were Sanna, Bende and Flemming, all of whom were involved in organising the con. (I’d met both Sanna and Flemming at Swecons previously.) So I checked out the venue until the opening ceremony started. More people began to arrive, including a few Swedish fans, Carolina, Thomas and Johan. There was also a Finnish fan at the con, Linn, who was a NOFF candidate. The opening ceremony consisted of Flemming welcoming everyone to the con, apologising that the GoHs – Nina Allan and Christopher Priest – had not yet arrived (their plane was landing as he spoke, he told us), and then mentioning several upcoming cons (including Icecon 2 next year and the worldcon in Dublin in 2019). Later that night, I sat through Jesper Stage’s entertaining, and very dry, talk on the economics of colonisation in fantasy and science fiction. The venue closed at ten. I left with Jesper Rugård, and as I hadn’t eaten since breakfast, we stopped at a posh burger place on Vesterbrogade. They actually had an allergy sheet for their menu.

The Serapion Order

The next morning, after a big breakfast (sadly, no gherkins), I headed to the Serapion Order about 11 am. I spent most of the day talking with friends, and attended two programme items – a GoH interview with Nina Allan, and a panel on the New Wave. The con was much busier than the day before – not just with day members, but half a dozen invited guests had also turned up to give talks or sit on panels. That evening the con laid on a buffet – they’d assured me there’d be some lactose-free food available, so I’d bought a ticket for it. In the event, the chef turned out to have a daughter who was lactose-intolerant, so he made everything using lactose-free ingredients. The dinner was excellent. Again, the venue closed at ten. Most people went home, but half a dozen of us – Jesper R, Lars, Linn, Sanna, Fia and myself – headed for a bar called the Mikkeller. It turned out to be just around the corner from my hotel. Fia, Sanna and me carried on until 1 am, before calling it a night.

Nina Allan interview

I didn’t bother with breakfast on the Sunday, and had a lie-in until 9 am instead. On my way to the con, I stopped in Irma, a supermarket, and bought a sandwich and a small bottle of orange juice with chilli, which proved to be horrible. I nipped to another supermarket, Fotex, to buy a sandwich and a drink at lunchtime. (It was the same sandwich both times, chicken and bacon, which was the only dairy-free one I could find.) I attended a panel on “Will the real science fiction please stand up?”, with both GoHs, which mostly discussed the Clarke Award and the Sharkes. At 4 pm was my only panel of the con, added at the last minute when I bought an attending membership, on “Manned space flight in the past and in the future”, moderated by Flemming, with Asmus Koefoed, Klaus Æ Mogensen, and myself. It was a bit of a free-form discussion – perhaps too free, I noticed Chris Priest nodding off in the front row at times, although apparently something we said has given Nina “the key inspiration for my next novel” (according to her blog).

The end of the con

Fantasticon 2017 ended after the closing ceremony. There was a dead dog party planned, but not in Frederiksberg near the venue. Instead, they’d booked tables at the bar used in previous Fantasticons in Valby, a ten-minute bus ride away. I’d planned to head straight for my sister’s, bus since I had a travel card, I decided I might as well have a couple of beers first. So I caught the bus with the rest of the fans. I also had some food while I was there (fish and chips! I go all the way to Denmark and I have fish and chips!). I left to catch the 19:44 train but, in a weird repeat of Worldcon75, I arrived on the platform just as the train was pulling away. Fortunately, it wasn’t the last one of the night, and I only had to wait ten minutes before another came along. If I’d caught the train I missed, I’d have changed at Østerport and arrived at Skodsborg at 20:39. But the train I actually caught meant I had to change at Copenhagen main railway station, and I got lucky with my connections, and actually arrived at Skodsborg 20 minutes earlier than the earlier train would have got me. Danish trains are good – covered in graffiti, bizarrely – but the timetable is a bit variable.

I spent the night at my sister’s, saw my brother-in-law and my nephews. I’d originally intended to stay a couple of days in Denmark after the con, but in the end booked a flight on the Monday night. And unfortunately, museums are closed in Copenhagen on Mondays. Plenty of people had told me the best coffee in Copenhagen is in Arnold Busck, a book shop, which I already knew, since I go there at least once every Christmas. People had also mentioned Fantask, Copenhagen’s first comics/sf shop, to me, so I dragged Kay there after we’d finished our coffees. I walked into the shop… and there was Sanna. I didn’t buy anything, however. Me and Kay ate lunch in Palæo, which sells grain-free food (most of which is also  dairy-free).

Fantask

After a couple of hours back at Kay’s, I caught the train to the airport. I got a bite to eat in the airport – these days airports are all about the shops, with far too few places to just sit down and relax. And it’s ridiculous shops too – Gucci watches, £50 pairs of tights, Victoria’s Secret… Yes, food, toiletries, books and magazines, these are all useful… but you have to wonder if some of the shops take in enough to cover their rent. And I’d much sooner have somewhere to sit. The flight back to the UK on a tiny aircraft, an 88-seater Bombardier CRJ900, was uneventful. Instead of relying on the vagaries of the British railway network at 9 pm at night, I’d pre-ordered a taxi from an online website. They’d emailed me the driver’s telephone number, and I rang him once I was through the e-passport gates. Manchester was, bizarrely, extremely humid. The minicab turned up 5 minutes later, and drove me home. I think in future, when I travel to Nordic cons, I might fly later in the day and take a taxi home. It was a lot less stressful.

It was all a bit sudden, but I’m glad I made it to Fantasticon. Jesper reckoned they’d had about 65 paying members over the weekend, and certainly the two rooms used for the programme were often only a quarter full. The venue, the Serapion Order – it’s some sort of Masonic order, with lodges throughout Denmark – was surprisingly good. A bottle of beer for only 25 Kr! (That’s £3.) I didn’t try any of the sandwiches they had for sale, but the buffet on the Saturday night was very good indeed. I met a bunch of Danish fans, not just the ones already mentioned, but also Knud, Jan, Klaus, and several others whose name I didn’t catch. It was also good to chat with Nina and Chris, although the con kept them busy over the weekend. The programme items I went to could have done with a little more preparation – and I include myself and the one I was on – but none were boring. A date hasn’t been set for Fantasticon next year, although it’s likely to be the first weekend in September. Nor have they decided on GoHs. But if I’m free that weekend, I’ll probably go again (but I’ll book everything well in advance so it’s not so expensive).

I’ve now been to conventions in four of the five Nordic countries, only Norway is left. True, the cons I went to in Finland were a Nordic con and a worldcon, so neither were actually Finnish conventions. But there’s always Åcon or Finncon. Swecon next year is back in Stockholm, at the Dieselverkstaden in Sickla. Assuming work doesn’t get in the way, I plan to be there – it’ll be my third Fantastika there. And, as previously mentioned, there’s going to be a second Icecon in Reykjavik in October next year. The first one was excellent, so I’m definitely up for that.

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Kiitos, Helsinki

This year’s Worldcon took place in Helsinki, from Wednesday 9 August to Sunday 13 August. It was called Worldcon75 (not the most original name, it has to be said), and the guests of honour were John-Henri Holmberg, Nalo Hopkinson, Johanna Sinisalo, Claire Wendling (although she bowed out due to illness and did not attend) and Walter Jon Williams. It was my second Worldcon – my first was Interaction, in 2005 in Glasgow. I didn’t go to Loncon 3, in, er, London in 2014, because reasons.

The trip did not start well. A couple of days before my flight, my bank rang to inform me my debit card had been copied and they were going to cancel it and send me a new one. “Oh no you’re fucking not”, I told them. I explained I was about to visit Finland and would need my card. We reached a compromise, and my card remained valid throughout my stay in Helsinki. Yes, I want my bank to protect me from fraud, I want them to make sure no one steals my money, but… this is the same bank that had previously cancelled my card because they sent a marketing letter to the wrong address and it had been returned with “not known at this address”. So, you know, precautions.

I had planned to take some copies of my books to Finland, so if anyone wanted copies I’d have some on hand to sell. And perhaps I’d buy lots of books at the con. So I decided to take a suitcase to go in the hold (I normally travel only with cabin baggage). I’d already started packing it…

… when I thought to check my ticket. And discovered I had check-in baggage for the flight to Helsinki, but not for the flight from Helsinki. Oops. I suppose I could have contacted Finnair and asked them to add check-in baggage to my flight home, but I suspect they’d have charged for the privilege. And no, I wasn’t intending to smuggle Oscar into Finland. Anyway, I put the suitcase away, and took my usual cabin baggage. And it’s just as well – I saw someone tweet the day after Worldcon75 that they’d not had check-in baggage on a ticket to Copenhagen and had been charged €200 for their suitcases.

The trip to Helsinki was uneventful: train to Manchester Airport, a ninety-minute wait until I boarded the aircraft, a Finnair 100-seater Embraer 190. There was no one I knew on the flight, although two female passengers were clearly heading to Worldcon75 as one of them was wearing a T-shirt advertising the con. After two and a half hours in the air, I landed at Helsinki-Vantaa Airport, passed quickly through the electronic passport control gates – I must look a lot like my passport photo as the gate took less than a second to admit me – and then walked what felt like kilometres to find the railway station.

The train which runs from Helsinki-Vantaa to Helsinki päärautatieasema (central railway station) runs on a loop, so it’s impossible to catch the wrong train. And the train is a lovely modern one, with plenty of space, and very quiet. There are flat screens which announce each station, and display the route, in Finnish, Swedish and English. My hotel for the duration of the convention was the Sokos Vaakuna, which is sited just across the road from the central railway station. I’d picked it because of its location and because the website described it as having a “functional design”. This latter proved to be something that looked like it belonged in 1970s Soviet Russia. I loved it.

After checking in, and having a quick shower, I caught the train – the same one which ran to the airport and back – to Pasila, the first stop on the line. It took five minutes (and cost 5 euros). From the station, it was a short walk, across a dual carriageway and halfway down a block to the entrance to Messukeskus, the convention centre where Worldcon75 was taking place. Even though I had landed at 3 pm, I was at the convention for 5 pm.

After registering, I decided to look for the dealers room, but went downstairs instead of up the ramp… and immediately spotted Tony Ballantyne and Chris Beckett enjoying a coffee at the café on the downstairs concourse. So I joined them…

And that was sort of how it went for the entire con: bumping into people I knew, in between arranging to meet up with people I knew. I remember saying that if there were 6,000 people at Worldcon75, and I could lay claim to knowing perhaps ten percent of them… I’d probably still keep on bumping into the same thirty or so people.

I later met up with Tobias Bodlund, who had his young son in tow, and the three of us headed into Helsinki for food. The convention pack included a restaurant guide, and from it we picked Zetor, which served Russian/Finnish agrarian food (or so said the guide). It was also apparently owned by a member of the Leningrad Cowboys. That no doubt explained the tractors and the stuffed cow. I recognised about a quarter of the people in the restaurant, which was a bit odd. I ordered the Karelian stew, which came with gherkins. It was very good. I also love gherkins. Afterward, I went straight back to my hotel and had an early night.

Members of Worldcon75 were given a travelcard for Helsinki, which meant the 5-minute train ride from the central station to Pasila cost me nothing. I don’t know if this is standard practice at worldcons, but it should be. I had one programme item on Thursday: Secrets in science fiction and fantasy. To be honest, I’ve no idea why I was picked for it. And after meeting my fellow panellists – Jane Anne McLachlan, Jennifer Udden, Kim ten Tusscher and J Sharp – I suspect the topic was someone’s suggestion and they put together a random selection of authors and agents. Jane Anne had prepared several questions, and we spent the panel answering them. I’m not overly keen on doing panels like that as it prevents a free-flowing discussion and can seem stilted. It seemed to go okay. Although someone did fall asleep in the front row. I bumped into Adrian Tchaikovsky, who had been in the audience, and he said he enjoyed it.

I spent the rest of the day sitting outside the Terra Nova Brasserie, which was the bar attached to the Holiday Inn, which was the hotel attached to the Messukeskus. I went for lunch to a nearby Nepalese restaurant, with Barbara, Tobias and his son, and we ran into Lennart there. The food was okay. That evening I headed into Helsinki with Will, Jen and a Finnish friend of theirs, and the Mexican restaurant we had planned to eat in was closed so we ended up in an Australian burger bar, which wasn’t bad. Eating in Helsinki was really good for me – I didn’t have to worry about menus, as they all featured lactose-free dishes. In fact, most menus featured meals that clearly had dairy in them, but were made with lactose-free versions of the dairy products. I’ve found you either eat well at conventions or eat badly. I usually eat badly. At Worldcon75, I ate well.

I returned to the con and stayed until 1:30 am, chatting to friends outside the Terra Nova or hanging out in the Winter Garden, where I met Shaun Duke and Paul Weimer in person for the first time. I ‘d been reliably informed trains to the central railway station ran all night. They don’t. During the week, that is. I got to Pasila station at 1:31 am. The last train left just as I walked up the ramp to the platform. The next train wasn’t until 4:18 am. So I walked back to Messukeskus, and jumped in a taxi. It cost me €18, which was less than I’d been expecting.

On the Friday, I met up with Berit Ellingsen, and we had a coffee in the Fazer Café on the Messukeskus concourse (it was the best of the food/drink venues in the centre). We’ve known each other for several years, but it was the first time we’d met up in person. There was another person at Worldcon75 who’d I only known online and never met IRL – but Michael Martineck and I have been friends for more than 20 years. We first met in an online writing workshop back in the 1990s. I’d gone for a sandwich in Fazer Café with Will Ellwood, while I tried to figure out how get Michael and myself both in the same place at the same time… when I turned round, and saw he was two places behind me in the queue. We spent most of the afternoon sitting outside the Terra Nova.

I’d arrange to go for dinner that evening with Gillian Polack. Tobias was up for it too, so I went off to find Gillian. She was sitting outside Fazer Café, talking to… Michael. “I didn’t know you two knew each other,” I said. They’d apparently met at a programme item, my name had come up in conversation, and they realised they both knew me. So the four of us took the tram into the centre of Helsinki, for dinner at Stone’s Gastro Pub. Which was very good. At one point during the tram ride, a guy came up to us and asked if he could sit with us and listen to our conversation. We said sure. I assumed he was just some random nutter on the bus. Later, I saw him at Worldcon75 – he was an attending member of the con.

Back at Messukeskus, I stayed until 3 am, caught the train back to the central railway station (they run throughout the night on Friday and Saturday night), and crossed the road to my hotel.

My second panel of the con was at noon on the Saturday, Mighty space fleets of war. When I’d registered at the con, I’d discovered I was moderating the panel, which I hadn’t known. I checked back over the emails I’d been sent by the con’s programming team. Oops. I was the moderator. The other two panellists were Jack Campbell and Chris Gerrib. As we took our seats on the stage, Mary Robinette Kowal was gathering her stuff from the previous panel. I jokingly asked if she wanted to join our panel. And then asked if she’d moderate it. She said she was happy to moderate if we wanted her to, but we decided to muddle through ourselves. The panel went quite well, I thought. We got a bit of disagreement going – well, me versus the other two, both of whom admitted to having been USN in the past. I got a wave of applause for a crack about Brexit, and we managed to stay on topic – realistic space combat – for the entire time. I’d prepared a bunch of notes, but by fifteen minutes in, I’d used up all my points. In future, I’ll take in paper and pencil so I can jot stuff down as other members of the panel speak. After the panel, I met up with Eric Choi, a Canadian sf writer who contributed to Rocket Science back in 2012, and we had a quick chat.

Last year, when I bought my membership to Worldcon75, a friend who lived in Helsinki suggested we meet up for drinks or food. I used to work with Melody Jane about ten years ago. I left the company, she left the country. On the Saturday evening, I returned to my hotel, to meet Melody Jane. No sooner did she arrive, then the heavens opened. Thunder, lightning, the lot. Even strong winds, which caused enough damage to close one of the train lines. We waited inside the hotel for about twenty minutes, but it obviously wasn’t going to stop. So we borrowed umbrellas from the hotel reception, and walked to Farang, an Asian fusion restaurant located in the Kunsthalle Helsinki. The food was excellent, and I had a really good time. After the meal, I headed back to the Messukeskus, and stayed until 3 am. After a thirty minute wait at the station, I returned to my hotel.

I’d been getting into breakfast around 8 am each morning, at the restaurant on the Sokos Vaakuna’s top floor. But for the Sunday, I decided to miss breakfast and have a lie-in. Around lunch-time, I went looking for some modern art museums. Happily, the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art was just around the corner from my hotel. Also happily, its collection features lots of video installations. I like video installations. Not all of them worked for me – one or two, the CGI was a bit crude, and they felt no better than Youtube videos. But the ones by Ed Atkins and Cécile B Evans were impressive. I also thought the one by Tuomas A Laitinen was very good. Coincidentally, it was all very science-fictional, with most of the pieces actually either based on science-fictional ideas or set in the future.

For lunch, I popped into the 24-hour supermarket in the basement of my hotel and bought myself a sandwich. After spending ten minutes puzzling out the ingredients in Swedish, I spotted it said lactose-free in both Finnish and Swedish on the front label. And then it was back to the con for last day…

… which ended with the Dead Dog Party. This is a tradition at cons: those staying for another night gather in the hotel bar and have an informal party. Because so many attendees had flown into Helsinki for Worldcon75, a lot of them – myself included – weren’t flying out until the following day. A group of us had planned to head into town for food, but that plan didn’t come together. Then we heard the Dead Dog Party was laying on a tex-mex buffet. We also heard it was packed and people were being turned away. We decided to give it a try, but unfortunately took a wrong turning and it took us three times as long to get the Sokos Pasila, where the party was taking place. So I was not in the best of moods when we arrived. And saw the queue for the bar. And the queue for food. But we joined the line for the buffet anyway. Tobias and I had just reached it – tortillas and taco meat – when it finished. We waited. The chef brought out something that looked a bit like chicken fajita. It was the “vegetarian option”. Quorn or tofu or something. It was vile. I went and asked for my money back. I also persuaded the others – Tobias, Michael and Ian McDonald – to try the bar we’d spotted opposite the hotel, the Ravintola Windsor. Ian bowed out, but we were joined by Stephen Vessels. We went there, it was quiet, we got beer, and we got food (I had kebab and chips, it was very nice).

After we’d finished our food, Michael and Stephen left. Then Tobias left, so I headed back to the Dead Dog Party. I chatted to Liam Proven for a bit, and the people he was with – one told me they’d overheard an American complain during the Closing Ceremony that the con had been “too Eurocentric”. By midnight, I was ready to head back to my hotel – the last train was at 12:30. But then I bumped into Sanna Bo Claumarch, a Danish fan, and joined her and Fia Karlsson and some young Swedish and Finnish fans, and ended up staying until 2 am. To get back to my hotel, I shared a taxi with Liam and a Finnish fan.

Will and Jenny were on the same flight as me back to Manchester, so we agreed to catch the train to the airport together. But by the time I’d checked out of my hotel, I couldn’t be bothered to hang around for another couple of hours, so I caught the train on my own, checked in, and waited in the airport for them. And for Tobias, whose flight to Stockholm was around the same time as our flight to the UK. And then, when I boarded the plane – another Finnair Embraer 190 – I discovered I was sitting next to Fran and John Dowd.

The trip to Finland finished in a nicely surreal fashion on the train from Manchester Airport, when the PA first insisted the train was heading to Manchester Airport, where it would terminate, and then repeatedly told us the next stop was Batley, despite the train going nowhere near Batley.

I had a great time at Worldcon75, met some really nice interesting people – not all of which I’ve named here, but also includes John-Henri, Daniel, Bellis, Edward, Jo Lindsay, Hal (Al), Ian W (there was a plan on the Sunday to get the four Ian writers together for a photo, but it never happened – perhaps it’s just as well as it may have caused a singularity or something), Hanna, (the) Anders, Johan, Brian, Jukka, Luke, Emil, Thomas, Christina, Jeremy, Kristin and Erik, and apologies if I’ve forgotten anyone – from a variety of countries (mostly Sweden, the UK and Finland, but also the US, Canada, France, Austria, Ireland, Australia, Poland…). True, I spent most of the four and a bit days sitting outside the Terra Nova, drinking beer and socialising with friends (in fact, the con drank the bar dry of beer several times.) As is usual for me, I went to no programme items – not even the Hugo Awards, and I couldn’t get into the Closing Ceremony – but I did wander around the dealers room a number of times. In the end, I bought a single book – a first edition of John Varley’s Titan for 10 euros (bargain!) – so I wouldn’t have needed my suitcase, after all.

Jukke Halme and his team can definitely be proud of the convention they put together. There were a few problems initially, as twice as many people had turned up as had been originally planned for, but the issues were quickly resolved. I’d certainly put Worldcon75 in my top five cons I’ve attended – and I’ve been going to science fiction conventions since 1989. And I loved Helsinki, it’s a great city. I wish I’d seen more of it, but I’d had to limit my time in Finland because dayjob. I want to go back.

And that was my worldcon.


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Hello Helsinki

Next week, I’ll be attending the 75th Worldcon, taking place in Helsinki, Finland. It’ll be my first visit to Helsinki, but my second to Finland – I was at Archipelacon in Mariehamn, in 2015 – see here. I’m looking forward to it. Not just visiting the city, or attending the convention, but also meeting up with friends, some of whom I’ve never actually met in IRL. I’ll be on two panels at Worldcon75:

Thursday 10 Aug @ 15:00 (101d)
The Role of Secrets in Speculative Fiction, with JA MacLachlan, Jennifer Udden, Kim ten Usscher and J Sharpe
Obviously, I can’t tell you what this one is about…

Saturday 12 Aug @ 12:00 (101a&b)
Mighty Space Fleets of War, with Jack Campbell and Chris Gerrib
The title says it all.

Other than that, I’ll be knocking about the venue, the Messukeskus, or in one of the con bars (which I think are in the Holiday Inn, the on-site hotel). Or maybe off wandering somewhere.

The last – and only – Worldcon I attended was in 2005 in Glasgow. It used a “voodoo board”, where people could pin up messages arranging meet-ups. It was not especially effective. Happily, these days we have smartphones, free wifi and social media. So I’ll be extremely disappointed if I don’t manage to catch up with the people I know who are also going.


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Apollo Quartet audio books

I’m not sure what happened to March, it seems to have been a lost month for me. Which is a shame as something pretty damn cool happened during it: the Apollo Quartet was published as audio books by Novel Audio. So now you get to hear all those acronyms and technical terms actually spoken, instead of just littering the pages of the four books.

Check them out.

Adrift on the Sea of Rains
Narrated by Jeffrey Schmidt

The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself
Narrated by Jeffrey Schmidt

Then Will The Great Oceans Wash Deep Above
Narrated by Trina Nishimura

All That Outer Space Allows
Narrated by Kathryn Merry


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All the awards that’s fit to print

I found myself completely uninterested in genre awards this year, despite being nominated for two last year (and it’s not like I had anything eligible for any of this year’s awards anyway – well, my one published piece was a spoof coda to the Apollo Quartet, but it was probably unreadable unless you’d actually read the quartet). I suppose my indifference is partly a result of the lacklustre shortlists generated by the various awards last year. But there’s also the increasing disconnect between what the awards mean and the works they’re rewarding. Yes, yes, popular choice wins popularity contest, news at ten and all that. And, true, there’s always been a bit of personality cult about the popular vote awards, which is why so few people keep on winning so many awards, and currently it’s a different set of faces to those of ten or even twenty years ago. A more diverse set of faces, which is good, but given the size of the field these days it would not be unreasonable to expect more variety.

And then there’s the way social media has completely fucked up awards, not to mention the cutting back on promotion by publishers which has normalised the sort of grasping self-promotion bullshit, as epitomised by elegibility posts, that is now common. There may have been an element of awards going to people not to works in the past, but now it’s pretty much nakedly out there.

I suspect I’m not alone in my apathy. I saw almost no conversation about the BSFA Award longlist, and last year’s Clarke Award was notable for its lack of commentary…

Which neatly leads into a recent development which plans to address that last: the Clarke Award Shadow Jury, put together by Nina Allan and hosted online by the Anglia Rusking University’s Centre for Science Fiction and Fantasy. Shadow juries are nothing new – hell, we even have a Shadow Cabinet in our government – although I think this is the first time it’s been done for a genre award. And it’s a really strong shadow jury – I actually know more people on it than I do on the actual Clarke Award jury – and I’m looking forward to seeing their thoughts on the books that have been submitted (there’s a list of submissions here).

A quick scan down that submission list, and I can see a number of interesting books… but I can also see a lot of commercial crap that I hope gets nowhere near the shortlist.

And speaking of shortlists… the BSFA Award shortlist has now been announced. And there are some… odd choices. (And they still haven’t sorted out whether it’s named for the year of elegibility or the year the award ceremony takes place. It’s fucked up at least two year’s worth of trophies in the past. It’s not difficult. Fix it.) I understand the BSFA has around 800 members (yes, I’m one of them), and few of them actually bother nominating or voting. I mean, I’m sure Adam Roberts: Critical Essays is an excellent book, but I doubt more than a handful of people have read it – and yet two of the essays in it have made the non-fiction shortlist. And I count six appearances of NewCon Press across the four shortlists.

But the big one is the novel shortlist, and it looks like this:

The Beckett is the third book of a trilogy, the first of which won the Clarke Award in 2013, and both books one and two were also shortlisted for the BSFA Award. The Chambers is also a sequel, and the first book seemed to make every English-language genre award shortlist in existence… except the BSFA Award. Europe in Winter is the third book of a trilogy, and both books one and two were previously shortlisted for the BSFA Award (and the Clarke Award). Sullivan has made the BSFA Award twice previously, in 2004 and 2011, and Occupy Me is her first sf novel since that 2011 nomination. Azanian Bridges is Wood’s first novel.

Quality of the various books aside, that’s an unadventurous shortlist. Seriously, two book threes from trilogies, of which all the previous installments were also shortlisted? True, some of those earlier volumes have also been picked by Clarke Award juries. Yes, I know, small pool of voters, large field, familiar names – and even faces, as half of the shortlist regularly attend the Eastercon (members of the convention also get to vote on the shortlist). And yes, the nominees are good people (and some of them are friends of mine). But I’m not voting for them, I’m voting for the work.

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The BSFA Award is a popular vote award, so I shouldn’t be all that surprised that the same old names keep on cropping up. I look to juried awards to give a better indication of what’s good in the genre in a particular year. But I also remember when the BSFA Award actually used to be a pretty good barometer of what was good in the British sf field in a year. Not so much for the short fiction category, that was always a bit of a crapshoot, but certainly the novel category. And now I find myself wondering: when did that stop being true? I don’t doubt the books shortlisted this year are good books – well, except for the Chambers, as I wasn’t at all impressed by A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet – since I’ve read and enjoyed those earlier installments by Beckett and Hutchinson, and have heard good things about the Sullivan and Wood. But I can also see several novels on the longlist (see here) that were more than good enough to make the shortlist. Even then, only thirty-five novels were longlisted. Thirty-five! The Clarke Award submission list is eighty-six novels. (And only twenty-seven nominations in the BSFA Award short fiction category!).

I honestly don’t see the point of awards for short fiction anymore – I wrote as much in an editorial for Interzone back in 2015. I get that awards are a celebration, but what exactly are we celebrating? Back in the day, sf was a ghetto, and it was all reverse snobbery elitism. Awards were an affirmation of that. But it’s been open season on sf tropes now for several decades, and science fiction is still playing the same old game. And this during a period when the field has exploded, not only all over the internet, with way more fiction venues out there now than there were twenty or thirty years ago, but also serious efforts to bring non-Anglophone sf to Anglophone audiences. It’s almost becoming axiomatic that the only people reading genre short fiction these days are other writers of genre short fiction. Sf has always been self-fertilising, it’s one of the genre’s strengths, but that’s ridiculous.

They’ve tried revamping the BSFA Award a couple of times over the last few years, but I’m not convinced their changes have had much impact. For what it’s worth, I think they should drop the short fiction and non-fiction categories, institute a new award for non-fiction/criticism separate from the BSFA Awards, and limit the BSFA Award to best sf novel published in print in the UK and best piece of sf artwork to appear in print in the UK. But leave the definitions of genre up to the voters. No longlist or two-stage nomination process. Just keep it simple. December and the following January each year to nominate five novels and five pieces of artwork each. Top five in either category makes it to the shortlist. Then it’s business as usual: voting and an awards ceremony at the Eastercon. Let’s not just celebrate science fiction, let’s celebrate science fiction in the UK. And with the most visible forms of it – novels, which appear in book shops; and art, which can be plastered all over the internet. That sounds horribly Brexit-ish, which is not my intention at all – I voted Remain, and am hugely pissed off by all this Brexit shit – but the fact remains that when you’re addressing a parochial electorate it’s best to keep it parochial. And let’s not forget that authors from many other nations get published in the UK (although perhaps not as many non-Anglophone ones as we’d like).

I started out this post documenting my apathy toward genre awards, and ended up getting a bit excited about what they could be. And I guess it’s that disconnect, that sense of disillusionment, that fuels my annual awards annoyance. But in the world we have today, and all the shit that’s going to go down in 2017, praying for an asteroid strike is too much of a long shot. And, short of causing every Nazi newsaper in the UK to spontaneously combust, or Corbett and May to give the finger to the Nazi cabal pulling all the strings, we can at least do something positive in the world of science fiction and make a proper job of this celebration-type thing we call an award.


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Stinking, outworn, spaceship yarns

These last couple of days I’ve started working again on my space opera, A Want of Reason, the third book of my An Age of Discord trilogy. (Preceded by A Prospect of War and A Conflict of Orders.) Real life sort of got in the way throughout most of 2016, but now that 2017 is turning out so shit, writing space opera seems a good way to tune it out. Except…

When I originally started writing An Age of Discord, I’d planned to write a space opera using the narrative structure of an epic fantasy. But that wasn’t enough for me, so I started turning space opera tropes upside down to see how they played out. And I also completely buggered up the typical structure of an epic fantasy trilogy – by, for example, putting the Final Battle (TM) in the middle of book two… When I finished A Conflict of Orders back in 2007, I had A Want of Reason plotted out, but after failing to sell the trilogy, I put the project on the backburner.

But then I sold it. In late 2014. And I only had two books of the trilogy written.

In the seven years the trilogy has sat in my bottom drawer, I’d had plenty of time to think about that third book I’d never got around to writing. And the first thing I did on returning to it in 2015 was throw away the plot I’d worked out eight years before. I put together an entirely fresh synopsis for A Want of Reason, and started work on it. A lot had changed in the intervening years; I had changed, as had my tastes in fiction. Previously, the third book had simply uncovered the historical conspiracy underlying the events of the first two books, and explained its genesis. But that no longer interested me – or rather, I didn’t feel it was the core of my story. Now I wanted it to be about the inequalities baked into the typical space opera universe, and I wanted to burn them down and build something new. And that’s what I started writing…

This was back in 2015. I’d done some clean-up work on A Prospect of War and it was published in July 2015. I’d done the same to A Conflict of Orders, and it was published in October 2015. The plan was to write A Want of Reason – all 200,000 words of it – and publish it in March 2016. That didn’t happen. But I started work on the novel, before real life got in the way… And coming back to it this last week… It’s a little frightening how much of it predicts what’s happening in the US. When I wrote this 18 to 24 months ago, my intent was to make my space opera empire swing further to the right in response to a perceived threat (which remained unknown to most of the population). It’s an understandable response: when the bandits ride into town, everyone shutters their windows.

Bit the perception of that threat is an important element of such a response. In a space opera empire, typically feudal in nature, the bulk of the population get no choice in perception or response. But what I could do in my space opera was change the nature of the threat. Yes, it would bring the empire crashing down, but it would replace it with something much more equitable. I’d already presented that argument in A Conflict of Orders when I showed that the villain of the piece was motivated in his attempt to seize the empire’s throne by a desire to improve the lot of the empire’s serfs, or, as I called them, proletarians.

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But when you write about a centre-right government cracking down, even if it’s a space opera empire, you end up writing about the sort of crap that Trump has pulled over the last week. I care about politics – of course I do, it affects me in every fucking way – and I like to stay informed… but I was writing space opera and trying to make it more realistic politcially, it never occurred to me this shit would turn real.

Had things gone according to plan, A Want of Reason would have been published last year and everyone would be saying how prescient I was. That didn’t happen, so you only have my word for it that recent events in the real world have uncomfortably reflected events in the plot of A Want of Reason. And had I a recently finished book to sell, then this post might well be considered just another piece of self-promoting bollocks. But A want of Reason is not finished – far from it, in fact. I may have returned to it in the last couple of weeks, but there is still a lot of work to do before it’s ready. And, let’s face it, who’s going to remember this post a week from now, never mind nine to twelve months from now.

I suppose that if I have a point to make, it might as well be this: if you look to science fiction writers for predictions, and those so-called predictions come true, then we are all well and truly fucked. Science fiction has never been futurism, and every sf novel is more about the time it was written than the time it was published or set. When sf novels become just as much about the time they were published…it’s pretty much accident. But a scary accident. Okay, so Random Space Opera Agency in Jackboots doesn’t map precisely onto a real world analogue, so plot points don’t map onto Trump’s Executive Orders… but it doesn’t take a genius see where things are going, and the one thing you can say about sf authors is that they know their invented world better than anyone else on the planet (note: does not apply to shared world universes in which sad nerds are likely to have encyclopædic knowledge, such as SWEU).

If there is a upside to this it’s that space opera can be a useful commentary on the real world. Which is, I guess, a first. Perhaps it just has to wait for the right conditions in real life to pertain. Which is a bit of a fucker. After all, let’s not forget the role science fiction, or “fantastika”, played in the USSR. To put it bluntly, if space opera has become samizdat, then we are well and truly screwed.

And all this, I hasten to add, is post facto. The popularity of dystopias in, for example, YA fiction has bugger all to do with real world political situations, although it might well be predicated on generational feelings of powerlessness. But to claim that The Hunger Games is a “blueprint for resistance” is the act of an idiot.

I didn’t intend for An Age of Discord to reflect the real world as much as it has. It’s a space opera, FFS. The fact that is has done is extremingly worrying.

But it’s also one of those things where you fix the real world, not the space opera.

Remember that.


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Apollo Quartet 5: A Visit to the National Air and Space Museum

And so here it is, the, er, fifth installment in the Apollo Quartet. Its official title is Coda: A Visit to the National Air and Space Museum. It’s 7,000 words long, approximately, so technically a short story (which means the quartet now comprises all three legitimate lengths of fiction – short story, novella and novel). It has an introduction by Adam Roberts, author of The Thing Itself. It is – well, YDSFMV: Your Definition of SF May Vary.

Don’t forget the rest of the Apollo Quartet – that would be books one to, um, four – are currently available on Kindle and in paperback at a new low price. I am not entirely convinced Coda: A Visit to the National Air and Space Museum makes a great deal of sense without knowledge of them, although it does, I think, sort of read well enough on its own. (But you’ll miss all the jokes, damn it.)

Anyway, here it is.

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