Bright and breezy BristolCon

So, this year’s BristolCon programme is out and, guess what, I’m doing a couple of things on top of all that painful but necessary sitting in the bar and drinking beer …

17:00 – 17:45 Past Lives, Future Visions: What can SF writers learn from history? What events lurk in the past that we don’t realise have happened or don’t think about – are we recreating the past when we envision the future?
with Ben Jeapes (Mod), Janet Edwards, Dev Agarwal, Jessica Rydill, Justin Newland

19:00 – 19:45 Rogues and Ruffians, Pirates and Thieves: From Han Solo to Loki to Locke Lamora, the scoundrel has enduring appeal in SF and fantasy. What is it we all like about a bad boy (or girl?) Who are the best SFF rogues, are pirates better than thieves, and how do you write a good bad good guy without getting completely confused?
with Anne Lyle (Mod), Huw Powell, Ben Jeapes, Gaie Sebold, Lor/Rudie

Campaign for Real Space Opera

Dear BBC. Or ITV, or indy production company, or whoever gets to make TV series in today’s post-regulated media world. Doctor Who is kind of successful for the BBC. I understand – though never watched it – that Primeval wasn’t bad for ITV, as far as wannabe clones of successful series go. Torchwood … let’s just say it found its way, eventually, but even at its best it was hampered like Pertwee’s first three years by being mostly present-day and Earthbound.

Why can’t we have a decent homegrown space opera again?

You see, I’ve been rewatching Blake’s 7 on YouTube. But not all of it.

First time round, I only ever got to see the first season. I was in my last year at prep school and we went to bed at – wait for it – eight o’clock. So, there was just time to squeeze in an episode once a week between end of prep and going upstairs. I still think of it in black and white. I started watching with the third episode, “Cygnus Alpha”, and was immediately hooked. (Terry Nation’s novelisation of the first four episodes later helped fill in the gaps.) I can still remember the first use of the teleport. Our heroes struggle with half understood technology on a stolen starship, so Blake materialises halfway up a slope and immediately tumbles backwards. Genius.

In those days, TV SF that wasn’t Doctor Who was original Star Trek or Space: 1999. Neither of those exactly pushed the boat out in terms of antagonism, anti-heroism, friction between the leading characters … all the things that made B7 fun. B7 was the first space show I saw where the good guys – well, the heroes – didn’t work for a uniformed organisation. Sure, the effects were risible, but not bad for what the Beeb could do in those days. And it’s not what you see, it’s what you remember. This is how Doctor Who and Star Trek made it big. You saw wobbly, cardboard sets and identikit alien planets – but you remembered epic battles across time and space.

And let’s not do the Beeb down. They had no money but a lot of vision. They made pioneering use of video effects with, for instance, the aforesaid teleport. Watch the last few minutes of “The Web”: Blake and Avon teleport out of the lab just as the little dwarfy creatures – I forget their names – break in and start wreaking havoc. It all happens in the same frame, at the same time. A dynamic, motion-filled scene. Mould-breaking stuff. The Beeb’s attitude to effects (and this goes back to Doctor Who, too) was that they knew what they could have done with a decent budget, unlimited time and state of the art equipment … so they went ahead with what they could and pretended that what they had done was what they had in mind.

The original Travis was a brilliant baddy, 30 years before the equally hissable, equally leatherclad Guy of Gisborne as played by Richard Armitage. And Servalan … Hmm. Yes, Servalan. I was entering adolescence in an all-male environment when she came along. Let’s just say I owe her a lot. (Her and Sarah Jane Smith, natch.)

But the first series, as I say, was all I saw. I then moved to big boys’ school, with no TV in the evenings except at weekends. So, I got a healthy dose of The Professionals but no more Blake, apart from the occasional episode snatched at half term or during the hols. Thus I got the start of the third season – exit Blake and Jenna, enter Dayna and Tarrant – and the end, with our heroes stranded on a hostile world as the Liberator disintegrates in orbit and Avon smiles. But that was it. I saw one, mid-run episode of the fourth season – the Headhunter one, just enough to leave me unimpressed with Scorpio as Liberator’s replacement, and wonder who Soolin was and where Cally had got to – and that was it.

The university sfsoc plugged a large hole in my knowledge with its end of term video weekends – the legendary Craig Hinton, in the days before shows were commercially available on VHS, somehow had a line into the heart of the BBC and what came out of it was pure gold, not just B7 but Doctor Who too. But even Craig only showed a couple of fourth season episodes. I don’t think he thought much of it either.

The fourth season was the season that should never have been. The series was all meant to end with the third – until the Head of BBC TV decided to uncancel it literally as the last episode was rolling, and the first anyone had heard of a fourth season came in a surprise continuity announcement immediately afterwards.

So the fourth season was the unplanned child, the one Mummy and Daddy never wanted or budgeted for. No more Liberator – our heroes are stuck on a broken down space freighter that makes the Millennium Falcon look swish. The same bloody sandpit, week in and week out for different alien worlds (even more so than before), none inhabited by more than three people. All the former spaces of Liberator compressed down to a single set on Scorpio because that’s all the budget could stretch to. Exit telepathic Cally, enter the somewhat bland but still gunslingin’ Soolin, who was never really given enough to do other than make up the numbers. Supercomputer Zen was blown to bits with the Liberator so replaced with the grovelling and deeply tedious Slave. Such are the budget restrictions that I’m pretty sure our heroes spend the entire series in the same outfits, apart from Soolin who manages one change. (Servalan continues to model a range of ever more setting-inappropriate glamourwear, and is no longer the scheming evil uberbitch of yore but the depressingly predictable surprise-surprise baddy each week.)

And so the fourth has a poor reputation, which may be why I never really bothered. Until just recently, my curiosity was piqued by Adventures with the Wife and Blake, and I snuck a look. And, you know what? The fourth season has been done down.

All the above points? Oh, true, all of them. That’s what I saw. But that’s not what I remember.

I can and will go further. The fourth season should have been the third. It broke the series out of a rut. No more smug swanning around the galaxy in their super-starship, tweaking Servalan’s nose, teleporting out of trouble and hitting Liberator’s go-faster button whenever a Federation pursuit ship hoves into view. Nope: right from the start, our heroes have lost everything and they keep losing. Avon gets madder and madder. Their situation grows more and more hopeless. The whole dynamic has changed. But there is still a feeling of continuity. Life has moved on and our heroes are having to move with it. All the way to the final, Hamletesque five minutes of the very last episode …

The attitude extended into the look of the programme. There was variety. Sometimes – literally only once or twice – we got to see Scorpio landing or taking off. It wasn’t just the teleport all over again. A story should be more than just the effects, of course (which in the case of B7 was never difficult) but if you’re going to have a TV show, you need movement. Season 4 had much more movement than 1-3. And of all the seasons, it had the best run of guest stars – Roy Kinnear, Lynda Bellingham, Stratford Johns – to add a bit of gravitas.

So, Beeb, come on. You did it once, you can do it again. Don’t let the Yanks fun off the field with Firefly. Give us an intelligent series with good actors and modern effects and good personality clashes with no guaranteed happy endings for anyone, where the drama arises from the interpersonal stuff rather than alien of the week. Go on, you know you want to.

And now a song.

Loncon days and Loncon ways

Where I belong, at last

Where I belong, at last

Well, that might have been my last Worldcon – let’s be realistic. For why? cries fandom bitterly. Well, most Worldcons are abroad, and I justify the expense if (a) it’s somewhere I would want to holiday anyway and (b) I have a career to talk about. (a) isn’t going to happen soon (though I shall reconsider very strongly if Helsinki wins the bid for 2017) and (b) – well, who knows. I did come away with inspiration for how to progress with one novel and insight into how to revise another. The first of those is sf, the second isn’t. Both would need to sell to be worth talking about. So. Last. Maybe.

But if it was, it was a great way to go out.

Loncon3 will always be remembered by me – and Beloved – as her first con. And (I breathe a sigh of relief) she enjoyed it. It was a delight to introduce her to old friends that I’ve known for years and watch them get along. One morning, when I had to scoot on ahead for the panel I was moderating, she strolled casually along from the hotel in her own time chatting all the way with Stephen Baxter. (And that’s quite a bit of strolling: see below.) She was looking up events of her own in the programme that she might like to go to, and did. (Not always getting in: again, see below.) It even got to the stage of me tentatively suggesting that we could give Octocon a go next year. You know, like, together.

Other things I liked:

The programme was as every Worldcon should be, i.e. crammed so full of good stuff that you would need multiple clones to get through every item of interest in the time available. Every item (at least the ones I experienced) had helpful and informative speakers, all of whom were where and when they were meant to be by the time the panel started (looking at you, Toronto). Putting something like that together and making it work is a colossal achievement.

Looking down the concourse

Looking down the concourse

The ExCel was a great venue, physically and spiritually. Physically, because it can get everyone in; spiritually because it’s part of a space-age metropolis built on the ghosts of Victorian docklands, the scene of so many great stories. Where else are you going to put the cream of worldwide science fiction?

(It is also huge, to the tune of >500 metres, and I’ve picked up a lot of complaints on Facebook about the sheer amount of walking required, as though the con committee could have somehow warped space to shrink the distance, or moved the con to the other end (hence to the detriment of everyone whose hotel was at the east end instead the west). And okay, I’ve mentioned the walking a few times myself. But I don’t complain. I’m sure I walked less far each day than in Boston or Denver or Glasgow. It’s just that when you’re doing it all in one building, in a straight line, it becomes more observable. So, I observe.)

ExCel superimposed on Abingdon, for scale ...

ExCel superimposed on Abingdon, for scale …

All the social activities were concentrated in one of the spaceship-sized hangars, a.k.a. the Fan Village, lining the main concourse. I approve. One of the things I most dislike about cons is that a crowd can be a lonely place to be, and who you bump into after hours strongly depends on which hotel’s bar you happen to be in. And I loathe those hotel room parties where personal space is best measured in millimetres, and I’m trying (but can’t, due to body pressure) to lower my head to listen to someone shouting something at the level of my shoulders, or lower, which is where most people’s heads are in relation to mine. Putting everyone into one general space, with plenty of room for everyone and things to wander off and look at if you get bored, was an ideal solution.

My first panel on the use of pseudonyms and noms de plume included Guest of Honour Robin Hobb, who recorded a get-well video clip for a friend recovering from a breast cancer op with a stack of Robin Hobb novels, inter alia. What a lady.

I moderated one panel, “Sense of wonder in children’s SF”, leading to helpful discussion, recommendations of reading and writing hints for anyone interested. A little ripple of pleasure ran around the room when I announced that it was Diana Wynne Jones’s 80th birthday and she had a Google doodle in her honour. During both that panel and the Robin Hobb one I could feel my phone buzzing as Twitter informed me people were tweeting my words of wisdom as they came out of my mouth. And following me. Speaking of, a panel on how authors can/should use social media was very useful, not only for positive hints and tips, but because it helped validate some of the things I don’t do.

Dealers room, dealing

Dealers room, dealing

The dealer’s room was amply stocked and I got to sign stock, which is always nice and pushes up the value of those copies of Phoenicia’s Worlds that by some miracle remain unsigned. Sadly, one thing and another meant I never quite got round to taking in all the exhibits or the art. But what I saw, I liked.

Things on which I shall gripe:

A tiki Dalek. Obviously.

A tiki Dalek. Obviously.

I wish all panellists would grok the Green Room concept. The idea is, the panel convenes there beforehand and gets to know each other and plan it out. Some do, some don’t and prefer to go straight to the meeting room. Personally I think doing the Green Room thing is the most helpful thing a panel can do. Grab a tea/coffee/something stronger, and mindmeld. And, hey, as a panellist you’re entitled to enter the room and take a seat and generally use it as your own quiet space away from the madding crowd. If you’ve got it, use it, y’know?

It was also a shame that some panels were full to overcrowding while others were in echoing double suites that held a fraction of their capacity; and of the overcrowded ones, some had audience members turned away with varying degrees of politeness, and others had people sitting on the floor or standing unchallenged. It all seemed to depend on (a) the briefing the moderator had received and (b) the zealousness and ubiquity of the ExCel’s own security droids. I know organising a programme is hellishly difficult and there will always be room size mismatches, so I don’t complain about that (just raise an eyebrow at some of the room choices per subject …). I do however complain about the inconsistency. It feels less unfair when everyone is treated the same.

When I rule the world ...

When I rule the world …

And the 1.5 hours standing in the registration queue. Even being serenaded by this guy was only partial consolation. I know, several thousand people is a lot to process. But there must be ways … mustn’t there? Any suggestion I can make for speeding the queue up has no doubt been tried and tested and in this case discarded for what seems like a good reason. So I won’t make any. I just have a lingering feeling it could have been done better.

So. Worldcon. My last? Maybe. Or maybe not. But a very high standard for future ones, where and whenever they may be located.