Bay Area Museums

Bay Area Museums (January 2012)
Published in Science Fiction/San Francisco #125 (ed. Jean Martin, España Sheriff and Tom Becker)

I recently came to the Bay Area and was given a tour of some fascinating places by España, the editor of this fine fanzine. As a result I was asked whether I would write an article on the museums and other centres of culture that I visited. I jumped at the chance to inflict more of my writing on you, and so this article was born. My trip to San Francisco included my introduction to the California Academy of Sciences, the Contemporary Jewish Museum, an art gallery called Varnish and the Computer History Museum – I am going to tackle them in chronological order, and so this article begins with España and I heading to Golden Gate Park.

Our jaunt to the California Academy of Sciences took place on a Thursday evening, because Thursdays are when NightLife happens, and NightLife is amazing. Imagine the brilliance and fascination contained within the only building in the world to house an aquarium, a planetarium and a rainforest; then imagine that with music, alcohol and a strict 21+ policy and you have the idea perfectly. Each night has a theme around which the events revolve; the night we went it was ‘SF Streets’ and there were exhibitions of street art and a DJ playing some funky mashups (which was a good foreshadowing to my visit to the DNA Lounge later in the week; but that lies rather beyond the purview of this piece).

A photograph of the entrance to the California Academy of Sciences
Entrance to the Academy

One thing I must say before I go any further is that the free iPhone app (which, regrettably, is not yet available for Android or WP7 users) offered by the museum is amazing. It does everything I wanted it to do. It lets you check into different areas of the museum (which, handily, also tells you what there is to see) and also offers more information about stuff that might pique your interest. If you’re going, I really do advise you download and use the app as you go around; it certainly added to my experience! Another thing that added to the experience was the array of cocktail bars – each bar had a unique (and not badly priced) cocktail as well as a range of spirits and mixers. If you’re a completist, like me (or an alcoholic, like España) you can complete the set of the specials!

The entire museum is open, with a couple of caveats; the number of planetarium shows is limited (and there is often more than one show during the night) so if you want to go, make getting a ticket a priority and do it before you do anything else. You’ll be able to specify what time you want to see the relevant show, and that lets you plan the rest of your evening around that point. Alongside the planetarium shows is a timetable of other things going on throughout the night (talks and suchlike) – it might be handy to glance at this before tying yourself down to a specific showtime. It’s also worth noting that the rainforest closes down at 8pm, so bear that in mind if that looks like something you want to do.

A photograph of me and España outside the rainforest
Rainforest at the Academy

The rainforest is spectacular, although some of the butterflies came a little closer to us than I would necessarily have liked (the big ones are a lot less cute than the little ones!). The birds flying around, the fish and lizards dotted in enclosures throughout, and the water life swimming in the faux river below you are all sights to behold and the juxtaposition of the three really helps lend the animals you see a context that you often don’t quite get at zoos, aquariums or aviaries. This is reinforced by the way in which you progress through the rainforest – you start at the bottom and climb up three levels, with different animals on each according to how high you are. The butterflies go from being things fluttering in the distance above you to being things that are nearly landing on you as they swoop past, and the water creatures go from right there to beautiful swimming shapes seen from above.

A photograph of a turtle swimming in the aquarium
Aquarium at the Academy

Of course, when you reach the top of the rainforest, you have to come back down, but this is handled for you in the form of a lift that takes you from the top reaches of the dome you’ve walked through and takes you down into the aquarium, filled with water and wonder. Some of the creatures down there are amazing – the jellyfish are just one example of that, illuminated in an array of different and bright colours. The aforementioned river is visible from the bottom, when you’re on the lower level, via a transparent tunnel and various amazing viewing stations; our favourite animal in there was the turtle and it was amazing to see it swim by, right next to the glass.

A photograph of jellyfish, lit up by green light
Jellyfish at the Academy

There’s a huge variety of stuff to see in the aquarium and it took us until our planetarium show to wander around to our hearts’ content. However, we didn’t want to miss the planetarium so we went to see it. It was an interesting show, that combined the science of how cells are structured with information on the structure of the universe itself: from the very small to the very large. The academy very clearly puts a lot of pride into its productions and they were very well made indeed.

At the mid-point of the show, the hostess took the microphone and talked a little about recent science in the areas being discussed. This was incredibly impressive since she talked about exoplanets and the 700th confirmed discovery of an exoplanet, which had occurred only weeks before the talk – clearly the information in the shows is kept very recent! I’ve never been in a planetarium show that had a segment for more recent science in that way, and I thought it worked very well indeed – I shall have to tell a friend who works at the UK’s National Space Centre, clearly.

For the denouement of the evening, we decided to quickly catch some things we hadn’t yet seen in the time we had before the museum closed. This involved getting another cocktail (naturally) and then climbing the stairs up to the museum’s living roof, which is totally interesting in its own right. However, drinking cocktails in the cool night air with the stars all around was incredibly romantic, and for this reason I highly, highly recommend NightLife if you’re looking for a slightly quirky and unconventional location for a date. There was a telescope pointed at Jupiter through which the planet and all four Galilean moons were visible, and España and I were thrilled to be able to see them. All in all, it was a completely magical night.

The California Academy of Sciences is open 9:30am – 5pm (11am – 5pm on Sundays) and opens again for NightLife between 6pm and 10pm on Thursdays. Their iOS apps are available through their website at www.calacademy.org and the Pocket Penguins app is also offered on Android. Entry is $29.95 for adults and subject to a $5 charge if you go at a peak period (although tickets purchased online are not subject to that charge and can be used at any time). Tickets to NightLife are $12, which is significantly cheaper, doesn’t require taking the day off work, and means you can buy alcohol (no guesses as to which I think is the better deal). You will need ID to prove you are over 21, naturally. The theme for February 2nd is ‘Bourbon & Bull’, whereas February 9th sees ‘Animal Attraction’ – see their website for more details.

Now we move onto the Contemporary Jewish Museum and their exhibition on Ehrich Weiss. Weiss is better known to millions of people as Harry Houdini, and the collection was entitled Houdini: Art and Magic. The pieces on display describe the magic he performed and his life through a number of artefacts from his life. There were several such things, including props he used and diaries he kept, but the twist of the exhibition was the other pieces being displayed; namely, a series of pieces of artwork inspired by the man. This lent the exhibition a real sense of context (and almost interactivity) which really served to illustrate the impact he had – not only on his fellow magicians, but on the rest of the world.

I find magic fascinating as a form of entertainment. I loved the Magic Castle in Los Angeles and have flirted with performing magic myself, on occasion (not always entirely successfully!). As a result, I found the exhibition an illuminating look at a man who basically set the stage for many of the contemporary magicians working today. The sense of context was reinforced by a series of videos around the installation – there were clips from films based on Houdini’s life playing on a large screen, and then later in the exhibition another screen showing interviews with and tricks by magicians inspired by Houdini (amongst which were David Blaine and Penn and Teller, both of whom have been heavily affected by the man).

Another string to Houdini’s bow, alongside his magic and public performances, was his scepticism. He loved to debunk supernaturalism and spiritualism (another area in which Penn and Teller have clearly followed his lead, with programmes such as Bullshit!). One very interesting anecdote told of his clashes with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s wife, who attempted to hold a séance for him.

The Contemporary Jewish Museum is open 11am – 5pm, except for Thursdays, on which it opens 1pm – 8pm. It is closed on Wednesdays, however, and can also shut depending on Jewish holidays. Admission is $12 (free on the first Tuesday of each month) and the website is www.thecjm.org if you want to find out more. Houdini: Art & Magic ran until January 16th, 2012; if you want to see it you can head to the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (in Wisconsin) between February 11th and May 13th. Alternatively, if that’s a bit too far away for your tastes, you could visit www.thejewishmuseum.org/exhibitions/houdini and follow the link to download the iOS app for $0.99 (no Android/WP7 app at the time of writing).

A photograph of España looking at a cat's head on a wall
España at Varnish

Varnish is an art gallery in San Francisco that we visited on the same day. España mentioned that our visit occurred in conjunction with the Houdini exhibition in SF/SF #124, and there’s not much to add that she didn’t say much better than I could. Check her article out!

Last, but certainly not least, is the Computer History Museum. This is a museum that charts developments in computing from the very earliest computers (including a working Difference Engine) right through to the Internet age. It’s a fascinating place, full of history and shiny gadgets, but the real fannish link is the curator who was at the centre of our trip – the one and only Christopher J. Garcia!

We arrived at the Caltrain station and caught the bus from there to the museum, taking us along roads winding between Google buildings until we reached our stop. We jumped off the bus and I started to ask where the museum was when I saw it, right next to where we had gotten off. It’s an impressive building from the outside and the walk to the entrance is similarly striking, culminating in entry to a rather grand entrance hall (with a bar, which is the best way to enhance any such space). The first thing one sees is the ticket desk; the second, Christopher J. Garcia sitting cross legged behind the ticket desk typing quickly on his MacBook.

We exclaimed as we saw him, and he exclaimed in return, jumping up and getting us complimentary entry, which was really lovely. The first challenge was putting on my little metal entrance badge – it was one of those with a tag that wraps around a draw string or the hem of a shirt, and I’d never seen one before. With that challenge surmounted, we entered the main exhibition, which is entitled Revolution: The First 2000 Years of Computing.

One of the things I like about this main exhibition is the narrative it presents of the evolution of computing, presented chronologically. As a result, it starts from the very first computers, also known as abaci. I had never actually used an abacus before being shown how to by Chris; they are very elegant, and I can see how they could have been used to achieve great things. Eventually, the exhibition moves beyond the abacus and to machines that required slightly more complexity to create. One example of early machines is IBM’s entry into computing with the tabulating machines it sold prior to World War 2, eventually leading (through things such as missile guidance systems and an Enigma machine) to the 1950s.

The computers of the 50s are interesting because they look like things right out of science fiction – indeed, España was incited to squee over the Univac, a computer made in 1951 which was, for a time, a name synonymous with computer. As one reaches the 1960s, the IBM System/360 is a beautiful powder blue creation, and looks just like the computers from Thunderbirds (which makes sense given they were first introduced a mere year apart). The 1970s bring the Cray supercomputer, which still looks futuristic and evokes SF imagery over thirty years later.

A photograph of me standing in front of the Cray supercomputer
Me in front of the Cray Supercomputer

As the exhibition leaves the 1970s behind, the narrative becomes a little less chronological and starts to expand into different technologies grouped together. So, from a strict progression of time to collections dedicated to such things as the minicomputer (or, as we call it today, ‘the computer’). This area of the museum featured what must be a contender for ‘most misogynistic computer ever designed’ – the Honeywell Kitchen Computer, advertised with the tagline “if she can only cook as well as Honeywell can compute”. This was followed by robots, which were amazing, and the AARON Paint System, a computer that produces artwork designed by Harold Cohen. The issue of whether the artist is the machine or the designer of the machine is an interesting one, and is explored in a video playing nearby.

The segment featuring the Apple I (signed by Steve ‘Woz’ Wozniak) came after that. This was a fascinating look at the rise of the home computer, and was positioned close to the exhibits on computer games and videogames – the Macintosh was released the year before the Nintendo Entertainment System – and so I fawned over the ancient Apple products before playing Chris at a videogame (he thrashed me soundly and completely). I was also happy that there was a copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on display with original packaging (of course, if you just want to play it, you can do so on the BBC website).

Chris had to leave at that point so he rushed us through to the Difference Engine, which is presented separately from other exhibits (for obvious reasons). It is very shiny and exactly what I expected; you really do feel that you’re in the presence of something special. It’s next to a separate exhibition about computing in chess, which was similarly very interesting. We rounded out our trip by sneaking back into Revolution and looking at the last parts, focusing on networking and the Internet: the Monopoly board with websites instead of streets (the .com Edition, as the Internet handily informs me) was particularly hilarious. Google didn’t get a mention, with Yahoo! getting the honour of Mayfair – oh, how times change!

There was only one more thing to do after we had seen everything we wanted to see – go to the gift shop. It was a rather good gift shop, but I deliberately restrained myself to only buying a postcard. Well, okay, a postcard and a tin of Super Mario Bros. plasters. The Computer History Museum opens from 10am to 5pm and is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays; entry is $15. They also have the best website of any museum in the world (if you disagree, feel free to write a letter of comment), with lots of information and also many fascinating online exhibits, at www.computerhistory.org – I highly recommend a visit.

Olympus 2012 schedule

So, as some of the people reading this will probably already know, Eastercon is the British National Science Fiction Convention and is held over the Easter bank holiday weekend every year. This year, it will be called Olympus 2012, and be held at Heathrow, near London.1 I have been attending Eastercon since Contemplation was held in Chester in 2007, and I am particularly looking forward to this one. I’ve also been on the programme at every Eastercon I’ve attended, and this year is no different, so I figured I’d post what I’m going to be appearing on up here so you could all check it out!

Friday (6th April)

8pm — The SF video game canon
What are the essential science-fiction video games? What stands up to modern-day scrutiny? What was influential on later generations of games and gamers, and what are the hidden classics we should rediscover?

11pm — Late Night Horror: Jesus Christ Vampire Hunter (18)
This film was made in 2001 and discovered by myself and a group of other physics undergraduates about eight years later. It’s a brilliant film for all the right (and many of the wrong) reasons! I was asked to introduce this film and also lead a discussion afterwards, and I’m excited to be doing so.

Saturday (7th April)

1pm — Superheroes in the movies
Do comic superheroes make good films? How could they be improved?

2pm — Who likes reboots?
A panel on reboots, looking at whether the upcoming Spider-Man reboot makes any sense whatsoever, amongst other things.

4pm — Why fan funds?
Olympus will be one of those rare British conventions where we have a North American and Australasian fan fund representatives visiting this shore. Come along and meet them, find out what Fan Funds are about and how you too could run for one.

6pm — Online fandom (saving fandom or killing it?)
E-zines are largely a pull not push medium, based round fast production and few review columns, leading to a proliferation of fanzines which don’t necessarily talk to each other, or make up a coherent community. E-lists allow fans to talk to each other, but also to create their own circles which don’t necessarily interact with the rest of fandom. Could technological change be leading to a narrowing of UK fanzine fannish circle?

Sunday (8th April)

9pm — Fan fund auction
The fan fund auction is an Eastercon tradition (as well as a tradition of many other conventions around the world). This year will be no different, other than for the presence of two fan fund delegates, so please do come and buy something strange and awesome!

Monday (9th April)

Noon — At what audience is modern SF TV aimed?
Too much UK material (terrestrial & satellite) seems aimed at primarily YA/teen (young adult) demographic whereas US content has a more adult feel (e.g. Battlestar Galactica). However, programmes such as Misfits, Attack the Block and The Fades seem aimed at the E4/BBC 3 audience. Some shows (particularly Misfits) seemed to transcend that, whereas something like SGU (which was targeted at young males) didn’t.

2pm — TAFF talk
John Coxon talks about his experiences as TAFF delegate.

3pm — Virtual convention
What is it like to attend a convention from your own living room? How easy is it to interact with fans over the internet? Is it more fun to attend panels online than in person? Panellists offer views from in and outside “the box”. Come along and tweet the experience (or stay in your room and follow it on #melonfarmer).

7pm — Fan fund quiz
To round out an excellent weekend of fan fundraising and related shenanigans, the fan fund administrators and delegates invite you to an evening of answering questions with your friends. Entry costs a £1 donation to the fan funds per person and prizes will be available for the best and worst teams!


  1. Of course, if you aren’t aware of this, it’s too late for you: Memberships have reached the maximum allowed by health and safety restrictions at the hotel, and so it’s too late to join up. 

E-Sport

This article was, when I posted it here, unpublished. I wrote it for Speak Out With Your Geek Out, which was running between Monday and Friday; since Chris Garcia was doing a bit on Speak Out With Yuor Geek Out in The Drink Tank, I offered him the chance to publish it and he leapt on it! Enjoy.

The StarCraft II stage at MLG Anaheim.
The StarCraft II stage at MLG Anaheim.

Speak Out With Your Geek Out: E-Sport (September 2011)
Published in The Drink Tank #292 (ed. Chris Garcia), p3; available on eFanzines.com

I was torn, when it came to the time to write this article. No matter what segment of geekdom I move in, I am still a huge geek by anyone’s standards. I am involved in so many geeky pies that there’s always something that will make anyone look at me and say, “you did what?!” An excellent example of this is the fact that I once spent over $100 on a towel. In normal society, that’s totally insane; in SF fandom, it attracts raised eyebrows, waved hands and questions; even in Hitchhiker’s Guide fandom, it’s not considered an entirely rational step to take. So, believe me when I say I struggled to decide which part of my geek to embrace in this article.

However, I eventually settled on one that a lot of people in a lot of different areas of the pantheon of fandoms and hobbies would regard as somewhat odd: e-sport. As is usual with the prefix ‘e-‘, it stands for electronic; however, in this case we’re discussing the playing of videogames as a spectator sport. This is something that a lot of people haven’t even heard of, much less been tempted to try out! Whereas most people have at least heard of Dungeons and Dragons, or have rolled a dice in a board game, or saw a furry on that episode of CSI that was on a few weeks ago, e-sport hasn’t really achieved the same profile in public as a lot of other pursuits, which is a shame, in my opinion.

So, e-sport, then. The game that got me into e-sport was a real-time strategy (RTS), game by Blizzard called StarCraft II. You may have heard of it, or its predecessor; you’ve almost certainly heard of the MMORPG by the same company, World of Warcraft. At this point it seems sensible to answer a question: what is StarCraft II? You start out with a base and some workers that can be used to harvest minerals. From those minerals, you can build more workers, get more minerals, and begin to make buildings in order to create an army. You then proceed to use this army to crush your enemies beneath your feet/totally suck (delete as applicable). There are three races: Terran (the human race; think Space Marines and you’re there); Protoss (the ineffable and superior alien race; elves in space) and Zerg (bugs that can evolve from one lifeform into a variety of others; if you’ve seen Starship Troopers you’re set). It’s incredibly good fun, and the campaign lasts around ten hours. The multiplayer adds to that, with Blizzard’s ability to match suitable opponents ensuring online play is challenging, yet accessible and (importantly) fun.

SC2, as the game is known by its fans, is the 2010 sequel to a game that came out in 1998. It is played by hundreds of professionals from all the corners of the world, with major tournaments being played in South Korea (the GSL), the United States of America (MLG and the NASL) and Sweden (DreamHack). But all this comes out of the popularity of StarCraft, the first game in the franchise. Hugely popular in South Korea as a televised sport, StarCraft represents a cheap form of entertainment that everyone can pick up and play; a form of entertainment that can easily be broadcast, or streamed http://laparkan.com/buy-sildenafil/ online. As a direct result of this, it took off in popularity in a massive way. One thing that often makes people look at you weirdly when you talk about e-sport is this relatively simple fact: StarCraft is, currently, the largest sport in South Korea. However, I don’t want to speak in great detail about the history of the game (if you’d like to read a little more, I recommend this great article by Ars Technica on StarCraft‘s South Korean popularity).

Why do I like watching people I’ve never met playing a game I’m not that great at in rooms that are often thousands of miles away, often requiring me to shift my sleep cycle so that I’m working on some American timezone? The answer is because it is some of the most nailbiting entertainment I’ve ever watched. The sheer scale of the battles (especially at the higher levels) can be breathtaking, but sometimes games are won or lost with just four units being used very cleverly. The players play at such speed that there is always something going on, and strategies are unfolding all over the map, different plays from both players that could eventually swing the game in their favour.

Concepts like macro (how good a player is at controlling their army’s economy and production) and micro (how good a player is at controlling their army’s units) come into play, and different armies have different abilities. For instance the teleportation of a Protoss Stalker can be used to duck out of enemy fire, whereas the long range and devastation of a Terran Siege Tank can hold a position very effectively. Different players bring their own style to each of the armies, creating a cacophony of strategies that it is incredible to see come up against each other.

My favourite tournaments to watch are DreamHack and MLG (Major League Gaming) – this isn’t hurt by the fact that both tournaments are entirely free to watch, making them incredibly cheap entertainment over a weekend. I have three friends who live together in Leicester and I often watch MLG at their place, especially since they have both a projector and the best vodka punch you’ve ever tasted. But both MLG and DreamHack show other games, like League of Legends, the free-to-play, microtransaction-funded Dota clone. MLG also shows Halo: Reach and Call of Duty: Black Ops, whilst DreamHack streamed footage of Super Street Fighter IV and Heroes of Newerth at their recent Summer 2011 event. So, if RTS games aren’t for you, maybe you’ll find something else that tickles your fancy!

It’s fair to say that it’s plausible that, if you’re not a huge videogame aficionado, this is not really the sport for you. Part of what’s great about e-sport is that you can go and recreate the strategies and moves you’ve just seen, after you’ve watched the professionals make it seem real easy. However, I didn’t get into watching StarCraft II by playing the game; I got into playing the game because I’d watched the sport, so it isn’t a prerequisite. The commentators, too, can be the deciding factor in whether you enjoy watching the game – my favourite is Sean Plott, aka Day[9], whose enthusiasm and quirky sense of humour are really what drew me in, and are (to an extent) what keeps me engaged with it now.

Do I hope that e-sport becomes more widely watched? Yes, I do. At the moment, streams of big e-sport tournaments in the west are drawing in five-figure audiences, which isn’t by any means a small number of people (and the sponsors, such as Dr Pepper and Coca-Cola, certainly seem to feel it’s worth the money). However, it’d be great to one day see matches being streamed in pubs, just like football. Because, let’s face it: football has fewer explosions.

Variety is the Spice of Life

I’m still not sure what I think about this article. It came about as a result of me having severe writer’s block and not wanting to do a retread of what I’d already written before, and so I thought I’d write something about a tweet that I’d seen fairly recently. It’s fair to say that arguments about programme at SF cons have been happening since the dawn of time so it’s entirely possible that nothing set out here is new, original or even interesting; but it’s what I think on the matter, so I’m glad I’ve put it into writing!

ESA's Kepler spacecraft as seen from the ISS.
ESA's Kepler spacecraft as seen from the ISS.

Variety is the Spice of Life (February 2011)
Published in The Drink Tank #273 (ed. Chris Garcia & Steve Green), p6; available on eFanzines.com

I recently saw an argument brewing on Twitter, and it motivated me to think about the conventions I’ve been to in the context of the argument. Since the argument took place more than a day ago and Twitter is horrendous at letting one read tweets that occurred in the past, I can’t provide copious quotations from the argument, but suffice to say that @niallharrison tweeted, “@davecl42 @Paul_Cornell @pornokitsch I would be in favour of an sf convention where every item was about sf. Too radical?”

Before I go into that statement and my thoughts on it, I want to try to provide some context by describing the three conventions I went to in my first year of convention-going and what they offered that drew me into SF conventions as opposed to online fandom. I’ve been going to conventions since my first Eastercon in 2007, and since then I’ve been to a bewildering array of one-day events and weekend conventions that have entertained and engaged me in a variety of different ways. So, on with the cons!

The Eastercon that marked my first was Contemplation, held in Chester. It was a rescue con, having taken over from Convoy, which would have been held in Liverpool (and lead to the delay of the TAFF race that year, incidentally). As such, it was a bit different to your usual Easter event — most notably, there was no Guest of Honour, and the attendance that year was notably smaller than the other three Eastercons I’ve attended since. But, on the other side, I remember going to some interesting panels and I remember having a damn good time, so that worked!

Year of the Teledu marked the second convention I attended, in Leicester later that year, and it was almost a completely different kettle of fish. The first difference was the way in which the convention was organised, which was via Wiki. Anyone could edit or add to it, and this produced a real community feel to the con’s promotion and programming, amongst other aspects. I produced the readme for the convention, which was extremely good fun!

Recombination was yet another totally unique experience, being a science fiction convention, games convention and filk convention rolled into a package and held at a university! The crowd of people there was very different to my two previous conventions and the programme was also distinct from the other events I’d attended. I was on panels, I played (and bought!) games, I helped out with Green Room and a bunch of other stuff.

So, back to the argument, and I’m hopeful that you’re beginning to see my point. The three conventions above were all totally different conventions. By percentage, I’d actually say that Recombination had the highest proportion of panels and items directly related to what it had set out to do (although, given that any panel mentioning SF, gaming or filk came under that description, it could be described as having cheated!). Contemplation also had a sizable chunk of SF programming and Year of the Teledu wasn’t really designed to be a serious convention in the same way, but had space-hoppers.

These three conventions are all examples of totally distinct and unique conventions, and they all had their own programming and their own hotels and their own feel, their own style. Most of the programming was about SF, and some wasn’t. Certainly, I think that if one goes to an SF convention, there’s an expectation that SF will, at some point, occur; but I don’t think that it’s necessary for a convention to have a programme fully consisting of SF, especially given how difficult a definition that could prove to be!

As an aside, the question of whether Alastair Reynolds talking about his research would count as SF was posed. @niallharrison responded with a tweet. The first part read: ‘”Al Reynolds discusses his research background” is out.’ But, that’s something relevant to my interests as a fan of his work, and to me, that means it should qualify for inclusion at a convention at which he’s a guest. Is it SF? Well, I think there are pretty good arguments on both sides for that. I’d say it is, since his books are about space and tend to incorporate physics, both of which I’d say are probably facts that are directly linked to his research background.

A talk by Alastair Reynolds that was about his research background and how it had influenced his writing would, it was suggested, be alright. This seems like a slightly arbitrary distinction to me, since the two talks would likely have a significant amount of common ground and I’m sure that both would be well-received by the people in attendance!

This leads me to the second part of @niallharrison’s tweet: ‘This is not complicated, surely?’ I think it is. In fact, I would go so far to say that I think having a rigid limit on what can and cannot be a programme item at a convention is a bad idea because of its complexity! Surely, it’s a far better idea just to hold lots of conventions all with different ways of tackling the problem, and let the problem sort itself out as people work out which conventions they like best and go to them. However, even this idea runs into trouble when considering the large conventions such as Eastercons (and, I imagine, Worldcons, although since I have never attended one, perhaps I’m not qualified to talk about those!), at which a series of committees have to try to keep a very diverse and very vocal membership happy with similarly styled convention programming.

Maybe I, like @niallharrison suggested in that first tweet, am also being too radical.

What Makes Me an SF Fan

This is the second article I wrote for Journey Planet, and was written in order to plug my candidacy for the 2011 TAFF Race to Renovation, the 2011 Worldcon. This was written and published during an incredibly stressful point in my life, and I’m fairly happy with how it came out, especially the incredibly non-linear nature of the story!

The Hitchhiker's Guide panel at Odyssey, the 2008 Eastercon.
The Hitchhiker's Guide panel at Odyssey, the 2008 Eastercon.

What Makes Me a Science Fiction Fan (January 2011)
Published in Journey Planet #8 (ed. James Bacon, Chris Garcia & Claire Brialey), p12; available on eFanzines.com

This contribution to this brilliant fanzine arises because I’ve been asked, alongside the three other fantastic candidates for TAFF,1 to pen something on the subject of what makes me a science fiction fan. It’s a tough question, and I have decided to answer it by explaining how my first interactions with other fans and my entry into fandom really marked a distinct change (or number of changes) in my life, for which I am extremely grateful. This is also something that I talked about, briefly, in the first issue of my own fanzine, Procrastinations, alongside the article on T-shirts as a fannish equivalent of tribal tattooing.

The first change was attending two AGMs of ZZ9 Plural Z Alpha. They are a totally awesome club and if you are fond of The Hitchhiker’s Guide, you could do much worse to give them a look, even though my three or four years of active service have now come to an end. This really opened my eyes to the sorts of people that existed in fandom. Through the events I met people like Doug, Flick, James Bacon and many more people, as well as interacting with my very first Beeblebear.

The second change (a slightly misleading title, since it happened between my two ZZ9 AGMs) was attending the Peterborough SF club for the first time. I am eternally indebted to Max for inviting me along to my first meeting alongside the rest of the denizens of the society. It was at that club that I met Tobes, too, and for a long time I went religiously, like clockwork. It provided me with a place to go and discuss something that was very dear to me with people who had the same sorts of interests. My friends at school were good to me, and I enjoyed their company, but I was definitely the geek of the group – it was nice to know that other people existed who shared my interests, and that those people were, undoubtedly, the sort of people I wanted to meet more of.

The third change (which occurred before the second change) was being introduced, by Doug, to LiveJournal and the role it plays in wider fandom. Not everybody is on LiveJournal, but when you’re 14 years old and you can’t just get the train down to London being able to read about what other fans are doing and see what’s going on in the wider world of fandom really was a lifeline for me. I threw myself into the online world with gusto, and indeed, there was a time when I posted on LiveJournal almost every day (although now I am back to the levels I used to achieve when I first started on the site, and the days when I had to go back over a hundred entries to catch up in the morning are long gone).

The fourth change (which does actually come after the first three changes), which came around mostly as a result of the second and third changes, was my first event in more general fandom. This took the form of <Plokta.con> π: The Dangercon, which was my first one-day convention, held in London. This was a change for me in two important ways: firstly, it marked the pubbing of my first ish of Procrastinations; secondly, it marked my first real entry into wider fandom. I appeared on a panel or two, and failed spectacularly to win the balloon debate I appeared in.

I remember vividly arriving at London Bridge Station and looking around to see how to get to the pub at which the event was to be held. Having not often visited the city, and not often visited the station, it was slightly disorientating! However, as good fortune would have it, I saw two people who I decided to ask for directions on the basis that they looked like fans. Those people were Claire Brialey and Mark Plummer, and they were able to direct me superbly! I promptly gave them a copy of my fanzine, which turned out to be a fine investment as it has lead to be reading several a brilliant fanzine in return.

It was that event – the atmosphere, the discussion on the panel items, the conversations in the bar, the lovely, lovely people, that made me decide that I needed to attend a convention. My first Eastercon (indeed, my first convention at all) was Contemplation, in Chester, in 2007, and represents the fifth, and arguably the biggest, change of them all. Some people would say that it was a bad choice, since it was a smaller convention with no GoH, but actually, I think if it had been a larger convention, I would have enjoyed it less as my entry into the con-going world. From there, I sailed gaily onto Year of the Teledu (in Leicester) and Recombination (in Cambridge), both of which were also brilliant.

Some might assume that the answer to the question, “What makes you a science fiction fan?” is, “I like science fiction.” Whilst it’s true that the impetus for getting involved in science fiction was Douglas Adams, I think the thing that really makes me a science fiction fan is the people, not the subject matter. Having said that, being a science fiction fan is definitely increasing the amount of science fiction I consume (I make a point of trying to read something by every GoH at every convention I attend, something which has introduced me to some very fine literature!), and I do avidly enjoy it. I love appearing on panels (a particular highlight was a panel on The Hitchhiker’s Guide in front of hundreds of people with Neil Gaiman and three other brilliant Guide fans!) and I love being able to talk intelligently about things I’ve read or watched with other people who really get it.

Fandom vies with university as being the best thing that ever happened to me. It’s a huge part of my life, and I hope it will get even bigger as I continue into the future.


  1. You should definitely vote for one of us – I think you should vote for me, but I am, after all, biased.