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.

Ben at Worldcon

I seem to be on the following Worldcon items: four in total, moderating one of them. Some of my co-panelists are old friends; some I at least know; some are brand new to me; so with that and a good mix of subjects, it looks like fun:

What’s In a Name?

Thursday 14th August, 16:30 – 18:00

Megan Lindholm/Robin Hobb, Iain (M) Banks, Tom/Thomas Holt, James SA Corey, Mazarkis Williams: many people publish under pseudonyms, some more subtle than others. Why do writers opt for a pen-name? Why do some have more than one? How important is ‘branding’ to marketing genre fiction, and what role do genre and gender divides play in the decision?

Bella Pagan(M), Catherine Butler, Robin Hobb, Ben Jeapes, Seanan McGuire

Religion in fantasy: numinous or name-checking?

Friday 15th August, 12:00 – 13:30

Religion is central to much fantasy, from the invented faiths of Westeros to exploration of real-world beliefs in novels like “Alif the Unseen”. How do such works explore the social and political consequences of faith? Do they portray religions fully rooted in the texture of daily life and community or just as window-dressing? And to what extent can invented religions ever reflect the complexity of real-world religious experiences and worldviews?

Jenny Blackford (M), Naomi Alderman, Grania Davis, Jonathan Oliver, Ben Jeapes

Sense of Wonder in Children’s SF

Saturday 16th August, 10:00 – 11:00

YA books are well known for their dystopias and their grand adventures. What is it about these categories that have so effectively captured the young adult imagination? When Alice walked off the literary page she opened the door to a truly wondrous world filled with unimaginable things. Since then literary children have latched onto that sense of wonder in literature from Neverland, to Narnia, Hogwarts, and Panem. What is this “sense of wonder” within literature and how does it continue to “blow the minds” of young readers? What are the most spectacular feats of worldbuilding in the YA canon? Where can we find the best aliens? And what about those wondrous infernal machines?

Farah Mendlesohn, KV Johansen, Ian McDonald, Ben Jeapes (M), Jo Fletcher

Adult Readers Within the YA Market

Saturday 16th August, 13:30 – 15:00

Age recommendations on books are meant to be a useful feature for readers. What are the risks and benefits associated with age classification, and is it a necessary evil or a marketing mistake? And what’s all this we hear about the emerging “New Adult” market? Will this have on YA books? Moreover, how do the growing number of adult readers affect the YA market? Are we leaving actual young adult readers behind in favor of attracting adult buyers?

Sarah Ash, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Bella Pagan, Joshua Bilmes, Ben Jeapes

The Bens 2014

My movie-watching for 2013 was way down on previous years. 26 in total, and of those, 8 were watched on the way to, at or back from Worldcon in San Antonio. Dear me. I can only put this down to an increase in Scandi crime viewing on Saturday evenings, our usual viewing slot, including working our way through two series of The Killing.

So anyway. Remembering the criterion and adage that “It’s not what it’s about, it’s how it’s about it”, here goes. The Ben Awards for 2014.

Best movie

So, how do I define “best”? I go for what I perceive as the most satisfactory meeting of ambition and ability; my enjoyment levels in watching; and the crunch question, would I mind seeing it again or would I rather just read a book? All of the above meet these criteria; and indeed, I have seen two of the three more than once. (Cloud Atlas on two successive evenings, TGtB&tU more times than I can possibly count over a period of 49 years.)

Ultimately I felt TGtB&tU is so much in a class of its own that comparisons are unfair, bringing it down to a choice of two. Ender’s Game is a flawless recreation of the book which still allows the director’s own vision to show through (unlike, say, the early Harry Potter movies, which were equally flawless book recreations). The story is simplified for the screen without losing anything, though bizarrely gaining a Kiwi accent for Ben Kingsley which contributes nothing. Ultimately however the movie misses out on the Best tag because, being as good as it is, it also highlights the absurdities of the novel – an interstellar fleet run by children? Most attendees at any games expo would wipe the floor with world-saving genius Ender.

Cloud Atlas wins not only because Ender loses but also for being, quite a simply, a 90% successful attempt to film an absolutely unfilmable book. The book tells six stories broken down into 11 consecutive chunks: five half stories in a chronological sequence, then a whole story set at the farthest point in the future, then the remaining five half stories in reverse chronology. The film takes them and chops them up much more finely, with the same core cast playing characters who are not only very different in type but sometimes age, ethnicity and even gender. In some cases it’s not until you see the end credits that you realise just how many times you have seen the same actor. And every one of them acts, even Hugh Grant, who appears in a brief role so utterly against type that I wanted to rewatch the movie straight away, just to catch another glimpse. (I didn’t, I waited 24 hours.) And, even more so than TGtG&tU, you can tell the cast are having a ball, which adds to the enjoyment; Ender’s Game, it must be said, is just a tad po-faced.

Best actor

Ender’s Game sinks or swims on the strength of Ender’s performance, and it’s hard to imagine any other boy actor in the last 20 years doing as well. Asa Butterfield is spot on: he’s grown since The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas but is still small enough to appear vulnerable, and his character is completely different to pyjama-boy and to his lead role in Hugo. But for all that, maybe because the character of Ender himself is such a contrivance, it’s hard to shake the feeling he’s jumping through hoops on demand, as is every other character in the movie.

Ditto Suraj Sharma, who is very good indeed in his debut performance as Pi, spending much of his time acting at a CGI tiger. Both these young men have the true triumphs of their careers yet to come.

And then we come to Karl Urban, who is Dredd, and conveys it despite having half his face obscured for the entire movie. What was I saying about contrived characters? Well, he takes the not-entirely-uncontrived lawman of Mega City 1 and makes him human. With half a face. And he is also pretty good as McCoy in Star Trek Into Darkness, playing a totally different role. So, Urban it is.

Most unexpectedly good

Dredd comes very close indeed to winning here; its one drawback is that, apart from the Judges themselves, it just looks too contemporary. One thing I will give Stallone’s Judge Dredd is that what we saw on screen really was Mega City 1, which sadly was the setting for a lousy story. But this Mega City is just like downtown Detroit, with (okay, okay) brutalist kilometre-high concrete skyscrapers, but brutalist kilometre-high concrete skyscrapers alone do not a Mega City make.

Whereas Man of Steel is, believe it or not, not a Superman movie. It’s a movie about Kryptonians. Kal-el is not the only exiled member of his race trying to make a new life on Earth. Meanwhile, before succumbing to damsel-in-distress mode, Pultizer-prize winning journo Lois Lane actually behaves in a Pulitzer-prize winning manner and tracks down Clark Kent by following the inevitable clues a man like him would leave behind, without him realising.

Not necessarily bad but biggest waste of a good cast

All three have good casts, two of which include Helen Mirren. However, in two cases the story is predictable because it’s already based on historical fact, and in one it’s predictable because the denouement of the entire fiction-based plot is the only thing that could happen in a pastoral comedy starring Tom Courtenay, Maggie Smith, Pauline Collins and Billy Connolly. But the winner, i.e. the biggest waste, has to be Phil Spector, for not deviating one jot from reality and giving neither Mirren nor Al Pacino anything to do other than recite their lines (Pacino mumbling his around the bits of the scenery he was chewing at the time).