Cons and pros and cons

Last Saturday saw me at Andromeda One, an inaugural one-day convention held in that there Brum and named for the legendary bookshop of that self-same metropolis (whose equally legendary proprietor was present).

And a very good con it was, too. It was held in the Custard Factory, a former … well, custard factory, now converted to a complex full of arty craft stuff and healthy wholefood restaurants venues. Also some very interesting sculptures, which in a Pertwee-era Dr Who would have come alive.

Green Man

Green Man

Impressively for a small-scale do, which had only been planned since May, they managed parallel streams with enough topics of interest to make me think seriously about which one I should be in. In the end – I only had time for four items, plus lunch, before needing to be back home in the evening – I stayed in the main venue, a slightly claustrophobic theatre of a hundred seats or so, for discussion on genre crossover, prediction in sf (or not, and should it, and why or why not?), what exactly is that urban fantasy’n’stuff, and an enjoyable interview with Paul Cornell. All good, writerly subjects, you will note. Elsewhere there were workshops on editing, self-publishing … in fact, if memory serves, even more writerly stuff. It was a very writerly con, which may be one reason I enjoyed it so much.

A dragon and, um, Aslan?

A dragon and, um, Aslan?

I can well see this becoming a regional fixture, like Bristolcon a few hours to the south, and I wish it all the best.

I couldn’t help comparing and contrasting with Worldcon, still fresh in my mind.

For sheer glitz, of course, Worldcon wins hands down. Time was that Worldcon was once literally the WORLDcon. It was and still is the home of the Hugos, which are voted on by that year’s Worldcon membership, and so have their cachet because they were once therefore voted on by the world’s fans, so the winner in each category probably was the best in that category in the world. That reputation still counts for something, even if the total votership is now not only a fraction of the world’s fans but a fraction of the world’s con-going fans.



I won’t deny that having a Program Participant ribbon on my Worldcon badge put an extra swagger into my step – yeah, bitches, I’m participating! And I have access to the Green Room! (I had a single cup of tea there …) But you can come away with the feeling that the whole paraphernalia of badges, ribbons etc is – or has become – almost as important to some people as the actual content of the con. The joy of something like Andromeda One is that no one gives a toss about the add-ons. The point of being there is being there and having fun and talking about science fiction. The bigger a con gets, of course, the more professional-like it has to become; for what I paid in San Antonio I should damn well expect a professionally designed and printed name badge rather than a clear plastic holder and a blank card to write my own name on. At Andromeda One, I would expect nothing more, preferring that the pretty minimal entry fee went into the con itself – as of course it did (and at least they provided a pen!).

I was surprised when I came back and started reading reports to find criticism of Worldcon for being predominantly white, wealthy (apparently flying in the face of fandom demographics?) and misogynistic. I get the feeling this is more criticism than usual, but I’ve generally kept my head down for these things, and I haven’t been to a Worldcon since 2009, so I’m probably behind.

For the first of those two points, I can only say that yes, I’m white, and while I’m not wealthy I am able to put enough by that I can enjoy this kind of thing in a style becoming to it without incurring debt or a guilty conscience.

But, I gather that for all the recent advances in gender parity of panels etc, there were appalling scenes of white guys on panels simply talking over or even shouting down women on panels, which should never happen. For that, the moderators must be held responsible. At present the only moderator training is a page of notes on how to be a moderator – maybe something more hands-on should be arranged in future? Possibly involving cattle prods and Blofeldesque seats that feed directly into piranha pools for offenders. At Andromeda One, I suspect that any similar scenes would have resulted in the panel, if not the audience, rising to their feet and bodily ejecting the perpetrator into the central pool outside the venue. Why not the same at Worldcon? What has happened to make people just sit there and take it when the primary objective ought to be enjoying themselves at a science fiction con, not taking crap?

I’m pleased to say I saw nothing like that on any Worldcon event I attended. The only all-male panel I saw was the one I was on, the Iain M. Banks memorial. But I was meant to have been Pat Cadigan, and I have seen moderator Vince Doherty in a kilt, so maybe that counts.

I have no answers to this – it’s currently baffling, and being tackled by, people far more knowledgeable than me.

But, yeah, Andromeda One. Look out for Andromeda Two and sign up.

Sorry for J.K. Rowling

When I sold Phoenicia’s Worlds, someone who meant well told me that I had obviously reached the point in my career where I could sell any old thing. I knew it was meant as a compliment; I also knew our starting points were so far apart that it would be a waste of breath trying to explain why he had actually just insulted me, every friend who critiqued it and Jon who bought it. So I muttered “whatever” (short for “whatever I can say that will make you think you’ve had the last word and shut up, let’s pretend I said it”) and changed the subject.

And that’s why I feel sorry for JK Rowling. The first couple of Potter books, tightly plotted and written, showed she could do it, before they turned into the bloated, unedited, rushed-out slabs that would have sold even if “DUMBLEDORE DIES ON PAGE 700″ was stamped on each cover. She must so badly want to know she still has it and can sell on the strength of her writing alone, like she used to. She will never know if that’s so again.

This guy understands.

The Bens 2013

Being my awards in various categories for movies watched during 2012. It’s not what it’s about, it’s how it’s about it. See here for the full list of contenders.

Best movie

Winner: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It wins for many reasons, not least doing a good job of compressing the plot that the BBC took 6 episodes to relate into a couple of hours, and also of making it plainer. Sadly I already knew who the Circus mole is (again, having seen the Beeb version) but I understood better how the apparently unrelated stories of Jim Prideaux and Ricky’s Russian girlfriend all fit together with the secret Witchcraft thingy.

It was also a wonderful recreation of the seventies – I could almost smell the tobacco smoke arising from the impregnated fabrics.

Tintin is here for being a darn good Tintin adventure with an astonishing combination of lifelike CGI graphics that actually look like the artwork of a Tintin movie. Word-perfect casting for our hero and for Captain Haddock.

Skyfall … well, under most circumstances a Bond movie wouldn’t make the shortlist for this category, even though any direction from Quantum of Solace is up (bringing Roger Moore back would be about the only possible way of going further downhill). But it scores for taking the traditional Bond parameters and pushing them up to 11, at the same time as reaffirming some venerable Bond traditions. And for the very clever way two machine guns pointing in a fixed direction manage to spray enough bullets to bring down a dispersed crowd of hoodlums.

Best animation

Winner: The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn. See above for one reason why. Also, extra extra cudos for fidelity to the original. So often a movie recreation of a childhood friend loses all the magic. This wasn’t an updating or a re-imagining that completely misses the point of why the original is so fondly remembered (looking at  you, Thunderbirds). No, it was a Tintin adventure. Done for the cinema. An expert merging of media that played to the strengths and the requirements of both.

The Pirates! also scores in a less flattering category – see below. But an Aardman animation is never less than excellent, at least in technical terms.

Rio – well, Rio was fun. CGI, yeah; brain candy, yeah; but fun.

Best offbeat indie thingy

Winner: Dean Spanley. Two of these I had never heard of before and this is one. We only watched because it was New Year’s Day and the TV was still on following the concert from Vienna. Father/son bonding as Edwardian Englishmen, rather than Hollywood, would do it, with wonderfully understated roles for Peter O’Toole and Jeremy Northam and Sam Neill, of whom see more below.

The other I hadn’t heard of is A Serious Man, a Coen Brothers movie set in 1950s mid-America and based loosely on the story of Job. Funny, offbeat, and an underplayed ending that seems like a sudden anticlimax, then becomes suddenly chilling when you remember what happened to Job’s children.

Margin Call is a gripping tale, strongly overlapping with reality, of a New York finance firm realising it is way too over-exposed and dumping its toxic assets … and incidentally triggering a financial crisis, and knowing that will happen, but doing it anyway because a firm’s job is to protect itself, not the world. A great cast including Kevin Spacey, Spock Jr, Dr Maturin and Jeremy Irons, and if it weren’t for Dean Spanley it would be the clear winner.

Best actor

  • Sam Neill – Dean Spanley
  • Nigel – Rio
  • Al Pacino – Glengarry Glen Ross

Winner: Sam Neill. Neill is usually seen with a knowing/knowledgeable/smart-ass (delete according to role) smirk, but it is completely absent from this. Instead we get a po-faced, dignified clergyman with a taste for Tokay and a previous existence as a dog.

Nigel is the villain of Rio, an obnoxious, English cockatoo, with a great musical number about why he is so evil. Includes the line ““I poop on people and I blame it on seagulls!”

Al Pacino does Al Pacino – in this case a dodgy salesman who will stoop to anything, and I mean anything, to make his sale.

And now the offbeats …

Most unexpectedly good

Winner: The Sentinel. Michael Douglas achieves the almost impossible task of making us believe he actually could (still) be a Secret Service agent with the life of the US President in the palm of his hand. And Keifer Sutherland is pretty good too.

Most disappointing

Winner: Private Peaceful. There’s two, count ‘em, two adaptations of Michael Morpurgo novels here: how did neither come to be much good? Especially this one. I was almost in tears at the end of the novel. The movie suffers badly from trying to be clever and making us think that two unjust executions are about to take place, rather than the one of the novel … and tying itself into knots to maintain the illusion, when all it had to do was stick to the story to get it right.

I’ve commented above on The Pirates! as an animation – and sadly that is all it has going for it. An Aardman animation is usually heart warming and fun too. This wasn’t. It almost dies of inertia in the first half hour.

Most Oh Good Grief Is It Still Going On?

Winner: The Hobbit. At least the other two weren’t actively padding just for the sake of having lots of cool 3D effects.

Best despite knowing how it would end, really

Winner: Young Adult. We all knew, didn’t we, really, that the seducer of virgins would turn out to be a bounder and a cad, and Clooney’s character would be an idol with feet of clay, and Charlise wouldn’t break up the guy’s happy marriage and would end up as sad and lonely and non-wise at the end as she was at the start. But Young Adult wins because, as well as Charlise’s performance, and some sly digs at the art of ghostwriting, we have fun with other characters along the way. A mature and grown-up look at what marriage is like between two adult, grown-up people who have put their pasts behind them.

Most actually I really didn’t see that coming

Winner: Looper. Well, I didn’t. The Descendants almost makes it, except that I had a strong feeling there would be a happy(ish) ending even if I couldn’t see what. But Looper – wow.