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The con with no name

Actually, it did have a name, Innominate, but since that means “not named or classified”… The con in question was, of course, 2017’s annual Eastercon, which took place at the Hilton Metropole Hotel at the National Exhibition Centre near Birmingham International Airport over the Easter weekend. Hence, er, the Eastercon. Innominate was the sixty-eighth such to take place, and was actually a rescue bid – the Eastercon was originally supposed to be in Cardiff. The Guests of Honour were Pat Cadigan, Judith Clute and Colin Harris, two of which were at least names known to me.

My first Eastercon was way back in 1990, although I missed several during the mid-1990s, and actually dropped out of fandom when I returned to the UK in 2002 until I was persuaded to attend the Worldcon in Glasgow in 2005. Innominate was my fifteenth Eastercon, and my sixty-first convention; it was also my second visit to the Hilton Metropole Hotel, since the 2011 Eastercon also took place there.

In the past, I’ve tended to turn up to Eastercons around 4 pm on the Friday, but they seem to start earlier these days, and I was actually supposed to be on a panel at 4 pm on the Friday, so I bought a train ticket to get me to Birmingham International by about 1 pm. As it was, the panel was cancelled several days earlier after three of its members pulled out for various reasons. It was on the short fiction categories for this year’s Hugo Awards – not a subject you’d think I’d be a natural fit for, but never mind. Unfortunately, it was cancelled after I’d made an effort to read the nominated short stories. Which I did not like (and I didn’t even bother reading the JCW, as its shiteness was a given). I’d still like to read a couple of novelettes, as there are at least two authors on the shortlist whose fiction I admire, but I can’t say any of the nominated novellas appeal (the irony, from the man who thinks the novelette category should be napalmed).

The Hilton Metropole is a deeply weird hotel. I am pretty sure I had to pass through a mirror to reach my hotel room, which was located some ten minutes’ walk away from the reception and main con bar. It was a very nice room, although the en suite had no door and the shower cubicle resembled a telephone box. The television also had only a dozen or so channels, and I found myself somewhat freaked out on the Saturday morning after watching five minutes of Made in Chelsea as I hadn’t realised such vacuous human beings actually existed.

Anyway, after a typically bad train journey on a CrossCountry train to Birmingham, and then a march through the NEC – which has improved considerably since 2011 – from the station to the hotel, I checked in. And was told I’d reserved four nights. This will prove important later. Since Birmingham is only an hour and bit by train from where I live, I’d planned to travel home on the Monday evening. So, no need to book Monday night. And I’m not sure why I did. But cancelling it was easy – at least, it was a lot easier than accidentally booking a night too few, as I did in Mariehamn at Archipelacon…

In the bar, I met up with Will and Jen… And that’s pretty much how the con went: time spent in the bar, chatting with friends, interspersed with expeditions to the dealers’ room, or trips up to my room. The food was generally good, if expensive. There was a real ale bar serving four ales from Purity, at £5 a pint, which I mostly drank, to the extent I think I’d over-hopped myself by Sunday night.

I spent most of my time with the aforementioned Will and Jen, but also Karen and Ewan, and Andy Knighton. Karen is perhaps better known as KT Davies, the author of, among other titles, the very good Breed, and her mention of a sequel led to a series of suggested titles, from Breed 2: The Breedening to the somewhat dubious Breed 2: Breed Harder to the downright nasty Breed 2: A Good Day to Breed. (Only two of those were mine.)

I also spoke to a number of other people, friends and strangers, many for shorter periods than I’d have liked. I was introduced to Pat Cadigan, who I don’t think I’d ever met before, by Dave Hutchinson, and she immediately started calling me “Sales”, which I think is good. I called Dave’s BSFA Award win for Europe in Winter correct, and it was well-deserved. It was, in fact, a good set of winners all-round.

I spoke to Swedish and Finnish fans, most of whom I knew, and even introduced myself to someone I thought was a new fan (from the UK), only for her to admit she followed me on Twitter. (So it’s not all bots, then. Phew.)

On the Sunday evening, I was on a second panel, Optimism in SF. I mentioned this to Kari Sperring that morning at breakfast and she actually choked on her coffee. In the event, I thought the panel went quite well and I only managed one “… I had a point to make but now I can’t remember what it is”. And if at least one person reads Dhalgren or Jenny Erpenbeck’s The End of Days as a consequence of the panel then job done.

The hotel continued to be weird throughout the weekend. If its mind-bending layout were not enough, one morning I stepped into the lift and there was someone already there despite my room being on the top floor. The lift also start giving me electric shocks whenever I pressed the call button. Which was not fun. On the Saturday night, the most desperate survivors of two boybands, Westlife and Boyzone, apparently performed in the hotel ballroom as Boyzlife… so the hotel was filled thirtysomething women trying desperately hard to recapture their teen salad days. It was a little surreal – even more so than the OAPs who filled the Grand Hotel in Scarborough during last year’s Fantasycon.

I bought a dozen books, which is slightly more than in recent years – the dealers’ room was much better than last year’s – although not all of them were by female sf authors, or indeed on the wants list. In fact, I don’t think any were from the wants list. Ah well.

Three for SF Mistressworks. I’ve been after Falcon for a while. I think it’s Bull’s only sf novel. The Killing Thing I bought more for the cover, and because it’s a Kate Wilhelm novel, than because of the story. And I definitely bought The Dancers of Noyo because of the cover, although I’ve read St Clair before.

I’ve seen If Then and The Destructives recommended several times by Nina Allan, so I thought I’d give them a go. The author was apparently at the con, but I never bumped into him – not that I know what he looks like…

Some random old sf. The Undersea Trilogy – an omnibus of three 1950s juveniles, Undersea Quest, Undersea Fleet and Undersea City – is on my list of sf set at the bottom of the ocean. I bought Virgin Planet because I have the Beacon edition of the book (ie, the “spiced up” edition) and I want to compare it to the original. I just liked the cover of Purple-6. And Those Who Can: A Science Fiction Reader looked interesting: it contains stories by a bunch of well-known names, followed by an essay by them on an aspect of writing as it relates to the story. And it’s a surprisingly good bunch of names: not just the usual ones like Silverberg, Pohl, Ellison, Knight, but also Delany, Russ, Wilhelm and Le Guin. I’m currently reading it, as can be seen from the bookmark.

I left the con on Monday morning, after giving breakfast a miss. I’d been up late the night before with some Gollancz authors, and when asked if I was a writer, got to use the line, “Yes, an award-winning one in fact.” All three nights were pretty late, but only the first one was bad as I’d eaten little during the day. Although the food and drink was expensive in the hotel, I still managed to spend roughly as much as I usually do at Eastercons. The journey home was surprisingly good – the train from Birmingham was a CrossCountry one, and the platform was very busy, but I actually managed to get a seat on it. Yes, really. In fact, the carriage I was in didn’t look at all busy, even though CrossCountry had done their usual and only made up the train from four carriages. I was home by lunch-time, and as soon as Oscar saw me he ran into his room and stared pointedly at his empty food bowl. I didn’t get a telling-off this time, however.

Innominate felt more like a relaxacon than other Eastercons I’ve attended. Which was a good thing. There were people I wanted to speak to, but never managed to. There were people I know that I saw across the room but never managed to say hello to. But I enjoyed myself, and I came away from Birmingham with the feeling that UK fandom is still in good health.

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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:

patent

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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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…