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Some thoughts about Fantasycon

I’ve seen a few reviews of this year’s Fantasycon, which took place in Chester a couple of weekends ago, and how good it was, and… well, not everyone was quite so impressed. I’m the first to admit Fantasycons are much better than they used to be. I attended one, or it may have been two, when it was at the Britannia Hotel in Nottingham, and it was awful. But starting with the one in York in 2014, there has been a definite improvement. However…

The Queen Hotel was a good venue. The rooms were comfortable, the breakfast pretty good, and there was plenty of space, both function and social. But it was also expensive – not that I can really complain, given I’ve stayed in hotels in Stockholm, Copenhagen and Reykjavík this year. But the hotel didn’t put on enough staff in the bar; or indeed enough beer, as it ran out on the Saturday night. The location was good for the railway station, although it was a ten-minute trek into the town centre. Having said that, finding somewhere to eat in the evening that wasn’t fully booked was only marginally easier than it had been in Reykjavík… I will say this for Chester, however: wherever I went the staff were friendly and helpful, more so than in any other UK city I’ve visited.

So, a good venue – and I’ve not even mentioned the Victoriana, the portraits or the statues. The convention itself, however… The programme was not very appealing; with four streams, which is too many for a con of that size. While individual panel items might have come up with something new, the topics covered were the same ones UK cons have been doing for years. I don’t generally attend programme items – I’m there for the social, more than anything else – but no item in Fantasycon’s programme persuaded me it might be worth sitting through. But then it’s not just Fantasycon. UK conventions as a whole seem to have got into a bit of a rut. (I’m told Nine Worlds is different, but I’ve never been to it.) Having four or five people sitting behind a table just seems boring these days. I like IceCon’s more relaxed approach, where the panellists are in armchairs or on sofas. I think UK cons should adopt it. I also think there should be more talks/presentations given by individuals, and programme items that are just interviews/conversations between two people.

But then Fantasycon has always felt like a showcase weekend for UK small presses, with its back-to-back book launches and dedicated stream of book readings. The entire Sunday afternoon is taken up with a banquet, in which members of the British Fantasy Society hand out awards. Not always to each other. Although one year the best novel and best short story awards were won by the partner of the BFS chairman, and acting awards administrator, and the chairman’s own publishing company won best small press… With four programming streams, this year felt more than ever like it was designed for writers to showcase themselves. But since pretty much everyone else attending was also a writer…

That’s what UK fandom seems to be turning into these days: writers marketing themselves to other writers. Actual fans seem to be a dying breed.

Speaking of readings, I’m not a fan. I’m a person who prefers to look at the words on a page, not hear them. Reading and listening use different parts of the brain – I suspect the former part of my brain is more developed than the latter. Book launches, on the other hand, I no longer attend having done so for years and ended up with bookshelves of books I’m unlikely to read… Well, perhaps that’s not strictly true. But you do feel obligated to buy something at a book launch, whether you really want it or not. Ironically, I bought a book at Fantasycon before the book launch, because I hadn’t known it was being launched at the con…

Which neatly leads into the organisation of Fantasycon. The two organisers have been praised by many. But. There were no programmes available until midday on the Saturday. When I registered on Friday afternoon, all I received was my membership badge. No programme. No goody bag. And the programme, when it did finally turn up, included a story by the convention chairman. Since when was that acceptable? And the programme doesn’t include a list of attendees, so I had no idea who was present. It contains only a partial list of those appearing on panels. It’s also riddled with typos, and even manages to spell the name of one of the Guests of Honour incorrectly. The top half of the second page is an introduction from the con’s “Coodinator”, while the bottom half, ironically, is an advert for a proofreading service…

(However, the volunteers, the Red Cloaks, were omnipresent and helpful.)

I attend conventions chiefly to hang out with friends, I admit it. Fantasycon is friendly, yes, if you know people. And on the Saturday night in the bar, it’s as friendly as any place full of people in various stages of drunkenness who are all gathered in one place for the same reason – and even have handy ID badges hanging around their necks… It is, if you like, a social crucible. A good place to meet people and make new friends. Because you all have something in common. But that’s true of conventions in general, it’s not unique to Fantasycon. And while Fantasycon has much improved in that regard, it’s still no better and no worse than other cons.

It’s starting to sound like I didn’t have a good weekend, when in fact I did enjoy myself. On the Friday night, David Tallerman and myself ended up eating in Koconut Grove, a southern Indian restaurant. Unfortunately, we arrived just after a party of around two-dozen, so it took over an hour for our food to arrive. Walking back to the hotel, we bumped into two people I’d not expected to see: Cristina Macía and Ian Watson. I’d seen both of them back in June, as Ian was GoH at Swecon, but they don’t typically attend Fantasycon. On the Saturday, I went hunting for a supermarket to buy a sandwich for lunch, but found only a street that the 1980s forgot (Brook Street, for the record). Not only did it have shops that sold vinyl, but also two private shops! I ended up having a pint in the Old Harkers Arms at the side of the canal, and it was awful. Worse than Wetherspoons.

After a trek round Chester city centre on the Saturday night – the programme didn’t include maps, not even a map of the hotel, which would have been really useful; with smartphones, who really needs a town map these days? – myself and David finished up in an Italian place on Foregate Street. It was quite good. Cheaper than a lot of the places we passed. However, on both Friday and Saturday night we’d set out relatively early to eat, around six o’clock. Those trying later had difficulty finding somewhere that wasn’t fully booked.

As with any UK convention these days, any shortcomings are thrown into stark relief by the shitness of British public transport, especially the railway. The train journey from Chester to Manchester wasn’t too bad – the train had originated in Chester and was less than half full. But at Manchester Oxford Road, I had to transfer to an East Midland train that was both ancient rolling stock and over-full. I managed to get a seat, but many didn’t. I’d left early, around noon, as I saw no good reason to hang around for the banquet and the awards, which I haven’t done for any Fantasycon I’ve been to. I was home by about 4 pm.

This year’s Fantasycon was a definite improvement on the last one I attended, in Scarborough, but I didn’t think it was, well, an especially good con. I liked the Queen Hotel, and I liked Chester. But the programme was not much different to one you might have found at a UK convention ten years ago. My overriding memory of Fantasycon 2018 is sitting in the bar talking to various people – many of whom I’d known before the weekend, one or two I had not – or trekking around Chester…

There are worse things you could do on a weekend.

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A weekend in Reykjavik

Last weekend was Icecon 2, a biennial science fiction convention in Iceland. I was at the first Icecon in 2016, and had every intention then of attending again in 2018. Which I did. There’ll be a third in 2020, but I’ve no idea if I’ll be able to attend. Brexit and all that…

Thank you 17 million stupid voters for fucking up my future so comprehensively.

Anyway, Icecon 2… Which was nearly scuppered by the UK’s useless transport infrastructure. I’d ordered a taxi to take me to the railway station, and given myself forty minutes leeway – plenty of time for a car to travel about 5 kilometres. But no taxi turned up at the appointed time… Ten minutes later, I decided to take the tram, but there was no guarantee it’d get me to the station on time… Fortunately, my taxi chose that moment to appear, so I arrived at the station in plenty of time. And the train even included the coach containing my reserved seat! (Unlike on my trip to Copenhagen.) Even so, travelling by train is just getting too stressful. Fighting to get on board, the worry over your seat, the far-too-common delays… I’d built plenty of leeway into my travel schedule, but even so it came close to falling apart.

The security check – again in the basement – at Manchester was very quick, and the transit lounge was not especially busy. But when the gate for my flight was called, and I made my way there, there were hundreds of people waiting to board the aircraft. The plane was a Boeing 757, so larger than those in which I’d flown to and from Denmark two weeks earlier. And I suspect a good eighty percent of those on my flight to Reykjavik weren’t visiting the country but just transiting through Keflavik to the US and Canada.

As the minibus drove me around Reykjavik from the BSÍ bus terminal to my hotel (or rather, a bus stop around the corner from it), I spotted a lot more restaurants in the area where my hotel, and the con venue, Iðnó, were sited. Things had changed considerably since my last visit in 2016.

I arrived at my hotel – the same one as my previous visit, Hotel Apotek – around half past four. I arranged to meet up with Kisu and Carolina for something to eat before the Icecon meet & greet at Klaustur bar at eight o’clock. Since I had a couple of hours to spare, I looked up real ale bars in Reykjavik… and discovered craft beer culture had arrived in Iceland. There were four craft ale bars with five hundred metres, and even a branch of Mikkeller a couple of hundred metres further away than that. I decided to try Skúli, and had two very nice IPAs from Iceland. I was meeting the others in the American Bar but, confusingly, the Dirty Burger place next to it looked like it was part of the same establishment. And I went in there. So did Kisu. Then Carolina messaged me to say she was in the bar but couldn’t find us. By which point we’d figured out we were actually next door. Ah well.

The meet & greet was the same as it had been at the first Icecon. Although the selection of drinks in the bar had improved. This time, there was no book club occupying one room, but a jazz trio in a corner of the main bar. But they finished and packed up not long after I’d arrived. I chatted to friends I knew from other Nordic cons, talked about writing with an Icelandic fan called Birgir, and about conventions and sf with a Danish fan, Jeppe, who hadn’t attended either of the Fantasticons I’d been to.

I was up the following morning at 7:30. The Hotel Apotek’s breakfast had also improved. It now included several Icelandic delicacies. I tried the gravlax and the cold blood sausage, but gave the dried cod a miss.

I reached Iðnó a bit early – it was only a couple of minutes’ walk from my hotel – and saw that the comfy upholstered chairs from the last Icecon had been replaced with hard wooden chairs. But they had expanded the café facilities and now offered food and beer. And free coffee and tea all weekend for con attendees.

Icecon had only a single programming track and it was in English. It also holds the record – true for both Icecon 1 and 2 – for my attendance at programme items. I missed only three panels, which is astonishing for me. A couple I only caught part of, but never mind. And one, of course, on climate change, I was actually a panellist. (And yes, I mentioned Brexit, of course.) The panels were interesting, although they tended to stray from their topic – some moderators were obviously better prepared than others, which is hardly unusual. But the con had no real socialising area: Iðnó’s cafe was too small, four tables and eight chairs in a tiny room, and Klaustur was only used in the evenings. But there was plenty to explore in Reykjavik if a panel didn’t  interest me. Like the craft ale bars…

I visited one, Microbar, there was a small group of people smoking/vaping outside the entrance. One spoke to me. He had to repeat what he’d said before I understood: “Demilich”. I was wearing a Demilich hoodie. They’re an obscure Finnish death metal band, known for their singer Antti Boman’s vocal fry register growl singing. They released a single album, Nespithe, in 1993. Recently they reformed, and made some new merchandise – like the hoodie I was wearing – available. I was impressed. I’d never met anyone before who’d even heard of Demilich. At the bar, the barman saw my hoodie and asked who it was. “Demilich,” I said. “Ah, Nespithe,” he replied. “Good album.” Two people in the same bar! I suspect that may never be equalled. And I really liked Microbar too. It had an excellent selection of ales. Including two sours – blueberry and rhubarb. I immediately messaged Kisu, who had told me earlier than she only drank sour beers.

At the last Icecon, a group of about ten of us had had trouble finding somewhere to eat on the Saturday night because everywhere was fully booked. We’d ended up at a fairly ordinary Italian restaurant. Which at least managed to cater for the gluten-free member of the party. This year, expecting something similar, I’d floated the idea of booking somewhere on social media, but nothing had come together. On arrival, I’d been encouraged by the increase in eating establishments I’d seen, but that proved illusory… Five of us went looking for dinner in the area around Ingólfur Square – a Swede, an Icelander, a German, a Finn and a Brit – and the first restaurant we tried was closed for a private function, the second was fully booked, and the third, a Tapas restaurant, managed to squeeze us around a table for four. The food was excellent. I had salted cod. Carolina had the same, and complained all evening it was so salty it had made her extremely thirsty. I hadn’t noticed. I suspect I like, and eat, saltier food (ie, less healthily). At one point, Claudia and I had tried to explain to Carolina why we both thought Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury was such an amazing novel. It wasn’t easy…

After the meal, I dragged the other four down into Microbar (it’s in a cellar) and Kisu tried the rhubarb sour. Then it was across to Klaustur to meet up with the rest of the con.

I should write something about the programme. It didn’t appear to be themed, although there were a couple of panels on Icelandic genre fiction, or “tales of wonder”, furðusögur, and mythlogy. Other panels covered international fandom, diversity in genre, disability in genre, talking animals, climate change, and gender and race. It was a good broad mix, with plenty of welcome perspectives. My own panel, the climate change one, was a man down, as an attendee had failed to make his flight from Taiwan because of a typhoon. Ironically. I’d not prepared for it, other than continually reminding myself to mention a couple of things. Which I managed to do. I’ve always believed you can tell how well a panel is going by the number of people snoring (it’s happened to me) and the number of people laughing (at your jokes, quips, witticisms, etc.) The latter is obviously better, so I always make sure to throw in a few cracks. I didn’t get a round of cheers this time, but there was plenty of appreciative laughter.

Icecon’s custom of presenting panels as four to eight panellists sitting in armchairs and sofas on a stage – dictated to them by the venue – actually works really well. Most cons I’ve attended put their panels behind a long table, so you have a line of people behind nameplates and it all looks a bit formal and intimidating. Icecon’s more informal approach works really well. True, the con is much smaller – less than a hundred attendees this year, I believe, most of which were Icelandic, but also including several Americans, a Dane, a couple of Finns, a couple of Germans, at least one Irish, and, I think, myself the only Brit (unlike the previous Icecon).

In fact, I got chatting to one of the Americans, a young woman, in Klaustur on the Saturday night. She told me she had arrived in Reykjavik with no plans – I forget where she’d flown from, but it was in Europe – and seen mention of Icecon and decided to attend. That was her life now, flitting from country to country. I asked her if she was a “digital nomad” and she seemed shocked I knew the term. “I’m not that old,” I complained. She explained she didn’t think the term was that well known among all age groups.

I left Klaustur about one-ish, I believe, and I was not the last to leave. I had plans for Sunday morning. Icecon does not programme on Sunday morning, only starting again with a lunch at noon. But this year they’d arranged for Michael Swanwick to give a writing workshop. I didn’t sign up for it. I’m told it was fully subscribed and very successful. I did see Swanwick and his partner waiting for the lift in Hotel Apotek, but never got the chance to speak to him. I’ve enjoyed his fiction for several decades and while I’ve not read any of his later novels I do rate this early ones highly. Anyway, I had plans…

After breakfast, I went for a wander around the harbour area. The area next to the concert hall was a giant hole in the ground on my last visit. Now it looks like this:

Rekjavik, in fact, seemed to be doing very well. There was a lot of construction going on, but also a lot of new places: food and drink and, er, tat, I mean tourist, shops. I revisited Hafnarhús, a modern art museum, which was half-price as only half of the galleries were open. But they were worth seeing. There was a video installation by Ósk Vilhjálmsdóttir called “Land undir fót” (take a wild guess what it means). I love video installations, and this was a good one. There was also a gallery of photographs by Ólafur Elíasson (but sadly no book on it in the shop) and an exhibit entitled ‘No Man’s Land’ that I found a bit hit and miss.

I bought myself a souvenir:

I saw the artwork the book covers on my previous visit to Reykjavik, and was much amused by the sticker on the cover.

For lunch on the Sunday, I decided to try the shawerma place I’d spotted on Ingólfur Square. I was later told there are actually two shawerma restaurants next door to each other, and they’re mortal enemies. I, unfortunately, picked the lesser of the two. Their shawerma didn’t resemble any I’d had in Abu Dhabi, and I wasn’t convinced the young woman serving understood what lactose was… And given how I felt later that afternoon, I may have been right to suspect as much…

The con wrapped at six o’clock, although there was a dead dog party, and pub quiz, at Klaustur later. I had to be up at three am to catch my bus to the airport for an eight am flight, so I’d only planned to to attend the dead dog party for an hour or so. Myself, Kisu and Carolina, on a recommendation from Einar Leif Nielsen, ate at Sjávargrillið, a seafood restaurant. The food was excellent, but something I’d eaten earlier had been contaminated and I was not feeling well. The dead dog party was out for me. I remarked at one point that I used to be able to recover from a weekend of drinking and late nights and early mornings in a day or two, but then it started taking a week or so… So what did I do? Started attending Nordic cons – so I now have to cope with jet lag on top of the drinking and late nights and early mornings…

But not for me that night. I went straight back to my hotel and straight to bed. At eight pm. Later, I discovered the Northern Lights had made a rare in-town showing, visible even outside Klaustur. Which was just bloody typical.

I left early the next morning, catching a minibus at 4:30 am, flight at 8 am… then on arrival in Manchester, a massive queue at passport control. Would it be too difficult to put in more electronic passport gates? They’re machines. You don’t have to pay them to sit there when they’re idle. Or would too many machines make the UK too welcoming for EU citizens? One day, someone will come up with a really good explanation for why we need to control our borders, and it will still be total bullshit. Border control is a nineteenth-century invention, so we managed pretty well for millennia without it. Then, to add insult to injury, the taxi I’d ordered was running twenty minutes late. Not the taxi-driver’s fault, it has to be said – his previous fare’s plane had been delayed. I don’t think any plane I’ve flown on this year has arrived on schedule (although this one actually landed twenty minutes early.)

We chatted during the drive over the Pennines. At one point, he asked me what I did for a living because “I knew a lot about a lot of things”. I was tempted to reply it was a sign of a misspent youth reading too many science fiction books. But instead I just said I worked with computers. It’s a lot easier than trying to explain science fiction. In fact, when people asked me why I visited Iceland, I told them I was visiting friends…


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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…