Ostensibly, the reason we were in London in the first place was to attend LonCon3, the World Science Fiction Convention for 2014. As reasons go, it’s not a bad one. Especially since I’m a dues paying active member of the Science Fiction Writer’s of America (SFWA) and make such little use of that it barely registers as more than a line on my CV. So, knowing I was going to the con (that’s what we in the “know” call conventions) I volunteered to be on a panel when they had an opening and got an invite to the SFWA reception and had decided to attend the SFWA informational meeting. I figure if I’m gonna get back into this writing thing, I need to start hanging out with people again.
With all that in mind, Friday morning we got up early and headed east instead of west, to the ExCel center instead of into the city. We got off the Light Rail (instead of the Tube – this was fancy!) at the stop for the center and then we had to walk… and walk and walk and walk. Where we wanted to be was the exact opposite side of the convention center and this was the kind of center which would feel welcome in Vegas and could easily host about 30% of ComicCon in San Diego. It was huge! But we found registration easily enough and didn’t have to wait too long in line to get our badges and my participant packet (rumor was that the line the day before was several hours long). Then it was time to figure out our plans for the next few days.
Now, if you’ve never been to an SF Con they’re pretty amazing things. The first thing you’ll notice, because they’re out in the more public spaces, are the Dealer’s Room and Art Show. In this convention there was a subset of the dealer’s room called the Fan Village and the Dealer’s Room itself was part of a general Exhibits Hall. The Fan Village (this may happen at other conventions, it’s just been so long since I’ve been to one I don’t know) was the place where the cities competing to host the WorldCon in the next couple of years were set up to entice supporters (WorldCon is like the olympics in that cities “bid” to host, with the winner for the convention two years hence announced at the current con). It was also where the kids activities were, and a food stand, gaming tent, Tardis replica, etc. In short, it was a place to be social.
The Exhibits Hall hosted a number of pretty cool things, including science projects and Lego builds, Miniature cities and Russian space information. It was also the home of the dealer tables where a number of UK (and elsewhere) publishers were hawking their wares (and yes, I succumbed – but they were an Australian publisher and I would feel bad if they’d had to carry that many books home). In addition to books, all sorts of other representatives of fandom were on display. Jewelry and T-Shirts butted up against movie stills and custom fabrications. Beyond the dealer tables was the art show, where professional and gifted amateurs paid for the privilege of showing off their work (many of which were on offer for immediate purchase or you could take a risk and bid at auction).
The other part of a con is the programming, which is where the cool stuff really happens. At a big con like this one (and this was, according to all estimates, the largest WorldCon ever with more than 10,000 registered and day pass members) there are a multitude of programming tracks to follow, from the wide ranging “Literature” and “Gaming” to the more specific “Tolkien” and even “Academic,” among others. Within these tracks, there are, literally, hundreds of panels ranging from 60-90 minutes where people will talk and share experiences and take questions from the audience and all in all, there are tremendous opportunities to learn and listen. There are also reading from attending authors, lectures from the guests of honour (spelled with a “u” cause London) and tutorials about costuming and fabrication. The hardest part was choosing which panels to attend and which could be skipped.
That first day, we ended up starting with a panel on British Comics, which coincided nicely with the exhibit at the British Library from the day before. It even featured panelists whose work was represented in the exhibition. It was a fascinating look at the evolution of an art form. Probably would have been even more interesting if I had been British and knew a number of the cultural references which kept popping up in comments and touchstones.
From there, a discussion with writers, hosted by a scientist, on the problems of settling an alien world using three specific examples of alien worlds as starting points. Here, the discussion seemed to immediately find an internal conflict as the writers tried to answer questions from a human point of view and then from a writer point of view – which were both in severe contradiction to each other. Seems the things you want to avoid as a decent person are all the things you want to emphasize for good writing. As a writer it was a fascinating way to see something you’ve always known internally (and for me, a failing I know, hard to put into practice) be externalized and so graphically demonstrated. It was a great lesson in story-telling whether or not anything was actually learned about how to settle an alien world. Special shout out to the panelists on this one, including Robert Reed, Tobias Buckell, Amy Thomson, Abigail Sutherland, Laurence Suhner and moderator Marek Kukula (who’s the Public Astronomer at the Greenwich Observatory)
My third panel of the morning (it was a busy morning to be sure) was on writing SF/F in non-Western modes. As a creative writing teacher with a number of students coming from far east countries this was of particular interest. I was looking for ways in which the traditional structure of Western writing was challenged and differentiated in other cultures and story-telling modes. Unfortunately, that’s not what the panel ended up being about and so I left a bit early and instead used the time to meet up with Ken, an old friend I hadn’t seen in many years. We had a bit of a catch up then I went to find Rasa after her panel while Ken’s wife Yuki returned from a dealer’s room shopping trip. We all chatted for a few minutes before again separating – it was lunch time for us.
After a way too expensive (and not very good) meal at the Fan Village (we would later learn the ExCel center had a pretty good food court with better selection, tastier food and less expensive pricing) we headed for our first trip through the dealer’s room. The main thing to note about this particular trip was the meeting of Stefan Rudnicki, a voice-over artist and book narrator I’ve been listening to for years. Of course, small world’s being what they are, I have other friends who have worked with him in the past so the next day, I was able to pass along greetings.
Then came the panel I was to sit on: The Weird on Screen. As always, I had a certain amount of stage fright going in, but my friend Michelle, who did her own PhD work on The Weird, had let me brainstorm ideas with her earlier in the month so I was reasonably confident I’d be okay. And I figured if nothing else, I could just shut up and let the other panelists do the talking. As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. The panel was great. K.A. Laity, our moderator, kept things moving along really well and the other guys behind the table were great! Rob Talbot, Dominick Grace and Alexander Dan Vihjamisson (from Iceland!) made the panel really fun and (I thought) rather informative. We had lively audience participation and afterwards some really good, enlightening conversations.
Ending that first night was the SFWA reception, a beer and wine event (and water, but no soft drinks) which was a bear to find. Remember how I said the convention center was huge? Well this room was going back the way we had originally come but along a back, never-ending hallway. Once found, it was a nice evening, meeting lots of new and fun people. Had a chance to finally meet David Levine and Kate Yule, of whom I’d heard much about. Also met Joe Zieja, a writer/voice over artist/intelligence operative and Amy Sundberg, blogger extraordinaire, both of whom provided wonderful conversation. Was even pretty excited to meet Neal Clarke, who, as editor of Clarkesworld Magazine, is one of the people making sure SF doesn’t languish.
We said our goodbyes as the party wound down and made our way back to the hotel. It wasn’t terribly late but that’s okay, because I knew I would have to get up early the next morning for the SFWA meeting, which, thankfully, was in the same room as the party so it was easy to find my way back.
We also learned on that first day we could take the train one extra stop and it would let us out right where we needed to be. So I went early, leaving Rasa at the hotel and attended my first SFWA meeting.
I’m glad I went but it was a bit disappointing. There were maybe eight people who showed up all told and while it was nice to meet some new folks and put faces to names I’d known for a while, I’m still not sure what I can do for the organization, although I intend to try and find out over the next year. When the meeting ended I was able to meet up with a former student and friend, Ruta, who has been living in London for the past year. It was great to see her and we wandered the dealer room together, but mostly just chatted and caught up. We also met up with another student, Ieva, who was there specifically to get George R. R. Martin’s autograph. She got there early so was fairly close to the front of the line but since it was still hours from the time he was going to show up, we left her there to attend a panel on Revealing the Real World Through Comics.
This is one of my areas of research, so I was rather looking forward to it. Even though it ended up focusing almost exclusively on autobiographical comics, it was still a worthwhile endeavor. This was also where Rasa and I said we’d meet up (since phones are really expensive on roaming charges, we decided to do things old school and just set a meeting time and place).
The Art Show was next on our agenda, since we’d only glanced at it previously. The variety and quality of work was astounding, ranging from brilliant professional pieces which we’d all seen on book covers to cutesy drawings of dragons and fairies. I even went so far as to get a bidding number and placed a bid… only to retract it later when I realized there was absolutely no way I would be able to get a framed print back home again. It sucked but it was the right choice for the situation.
Finally, on Saturday afternoon, came one of the events I had been waiting for… a world premiere play based on the book The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers. Aside from the fact this is one of my favorite books, the theatrical team putting it together is from Vegas. Just before show time, we met up again with Ieva so there were four of us in line early to see the show. It was staged in a huge convention center space with room for about 1500-2000 audience members but no control over the lighting and very little over the sound.
The show itself was good, a nice adaptation although I think they tried to stay a little to faithful to the source material and include as much of everything as they could. For my friends, who had never read the book, though, everything made some sort of sense and they really enjoyed the play. On the technical side, there were a few problems with microphones and since there was no way to effectively create a blackout, it was a bit awkward when a scene would end with no real delineation. All in all, though, I think the creative team should be proud of what they accomplished and I’d love to see what they could do with a real theatrical setting.
Our night ended with the masquerade, an event at all major cons, where costumers of all ages and skill levels get the chance to show off their skills (here’s a photo report from Mike Glyer’s blog – File 770). It was an incredibly impressive display. I’ve never been to a full on masquerade before (only experiencing some really elaborate hall costumes) and was really blown away by the quality and workmanship. While waiting for the show to start, I was also able to chat with a group sitting behind me (Rasa was in a panel on translation theory) and got a fair bit of low-down on the mechanics of costume making. When the show was over, the best group won and we headed home for a well-deserved rest.