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. 

Why am I a Fan?

I was asked to contribute to the fourth issue of Idle Minds, which also commemorated the first year of its publication (and, at the time of writing, is also the most recent issue to be published). The theme was ‘Why am I a fan?’, and so that’s what I wrote about.

A Sony Walkman, seen through a cassette.
A Sony walkman, seen through a cassette.

Why am I a Fan? (July 2009)
Published in Idle Minds #4 (ed. the Vegrants), p27; available on eFanzines.com

Why am I a fan? It’s something I get asked regularly by my friends, people at school or uni who have never really come across the concept of conventions, or fanzines, or any of those words which to me seem so normal and commonplace.

There are several ways to answer the question, because the question itself can be asking any one of a multitude of things, and I’ll try to answer in three or four ways (concisely, since I’m already behind the deadline that was behind the first deadline, so I need to pull the finger out!). In chronological order then, I will answer “why do you like science fiction?”, “how did you become a member of fandom?”, and “why are you still a fan?”.

The answer to the first one is perhaps a slightly odd one. Rather than being lured to science through the wonders of science fiction, I was lured to science fiction through the beauty of science (or, more accurately, the beauty of astronomy). Throughout my life, the stars and galaxies above our heads have fascinated and enthralled me, and from a very early age I desired to find out as much as I could about that strange world. Through that desire, at the age of twelve I watched a BBC TV programme called ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ whilst at a friend’s house one evening, expecting it to be a documentary. I was instantly hooked, and that Christmas I received the radio plays on cassette. Never had my Walkman known such extensive use! That was in 2001, and so sadly, I was not a fan of the Guide until after its creator’s passing.

This discovery of science fiction beyond Star Trek and Star Wars was also my route into fandom, as I became more and more caught up with the Guide and joined ZZ9 Plural Z Alpha, the official Hitchhiker’s Guide appreciation society (no article on my route into fandom is complete without a plug for zz9.org). I went to my first ZZ9 event at the age of fourteen. Through ZZ9 I met fans: initially on LiveJournal, but, as I got older and more able to travel to the events, I met people in Real Life as well. Through those fans, I got into fanzine-editing, and convention-going (in that order).

The last question is the easiest to answer, since I’m preaching to the converted. Why am I still a fan? I get to go to weekend-long gatherings of people who are interested in the same things I want to talk about but still have disagreements of opinion that will let me think about things in a new and exciting way. I get to publish and read zines in which people write about things that I want to read about. I even get to commission articles from friends if I want to read about something that nobody’s written about yet. I get to expect people I meet at cons to have

Why am I a fan? I enjoy being part of such a vibrant and interesting community of people. Being a fan is a part of my life without which I would be half the man I am today, and I don’t want to let that go.

Zombiecon

This is a con report I did for the first (and, at the time of writing, only) issue of Steve Green’s resurrection of Critical Wave, and it describes my time at Zombiecon. Enjoy!

A zombie in San Francisco's Apple Store.
A zombie in San Francisco's Apple Store.

Zombiecon (October 2008)
Published in Critical Wave #2.01 (ed. Steve Green & Martin Tudor), p8; available on eFanzines.com

As someone who is (relatively) new in fandom, having only been to five conventions since coming onto the scene, Zombiecon was a new experience for me. I’ve attended Contemplation, the 2007 emergency Eastercon; I’ve attended Year of the Teledu, the almost entirely member-run convention held in Leicester in the summer of the same year; I attended Recombination, a fairly casual affair which was a melding of Unicon 21 and the British Roleplaying Society’s annual convention; I attended Orbital, the 2008 Eastercon which brought the convention back to London and attracted more members than any Eastercon since before my birth, and, lastly, I’ve attended Zombiecon, my first James ‘n’ Stef con.

Each con I’ve been to has been markedly different in some way or another, and the first thing that struck me about Zombiecon was how much everyone who went was putting into making sure they had a fun time. The feel at Year of the Teledu was that people needed to construct their own panel items, run them and find volunteers, which meant that the people who were comfortable organising such things were right at home and perhaps meant that the people who were not so comfortable had a more difficult time of it. This did not seem to be stopping anyone at Zombiecon – James ‘n’ Stef were relentless in getting people to help out and appear on panels or do various things and it really gave a positive, optimistic vibe, despite the horrible weather outside!

To be honest, zombies aren’t really my forte (I talk on the subject at a reasonable length in Procrastinations #6) but that didn’t matter. The programme was well done to provide something for people who aren’t really into zombies but wanted to come to the convention anyway, the bar was spacious, relaxed and friendly, the programme area was away from the bar (but not too far), in a suite with its own toilet facilities, meaning that non-fans weren’t able to accidentally wander into the programme items. It was a really good convention – I could go into detail on the panel items and the brilliant, brilliant breakfast but I don’t have room – and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend the hotel or the organisers to anyone wanting my opinion on a convention.

London Town

This is the first of several old fan articles I’ve written over the last four years that I’m starting to archive on this website (in an effort to make it useful for something other than reading about esoteric Hitchhiker’s Guide merchandise). This was written as part of a fanzine-in-an-hour project undertaken by James Bacon and Chris Garcia at Orbital, the 2008 Eastercon held in London, England. That fanzine-in-an-hour was destined to become Journey Planet, and so this article appeared in its inaugural issue.

Tower Bridge at night.
Tower Bridge at night.

London Town (March 2008)
Published in Journey Planet #1 (ed. James Bacon, Chris Garcia & Claire Brialey), p13; available on eFanzines.com

It is always difficult for me to say no to James Bacon. It’s even more difficult when he uses a phrase like “Chris [Garcia] and I want to do a fanzine at Orbital and we want to get some s**t hot writers on board beforehand, so can you do an article?” Combine that with the fact that every time I publish a copy of my own fanzine, Procrastinations, Chris refers to me in terms that would make Jesus blush, and you have a couple of people for whom I’d write an article on almost anything.

So, this article is about London, as that’s where Orbital is based. In fact, it’s about three specific experiences I’ve had in London that are to do with fandom, and in this instance, it makes most sense to start with the second one, and the fannish event that really introduced me to fandom out of ZZ9 (and, probably introduced me to people who weren’t paying attention even though they were in ZZ9).

That event was, in case you weren’t there, <plokta.con> π: The Dangercon. It was a very good one-day convention at which I went to two programme items and spent the other nine or ten hours in the bar – one must always start as one means to continue, we are told. Now, if you weren’t there, you might not know that it was held at the Horseshoe Inn, a rather nice pub (which has since, I gather, gone downhill) which is nearest to London Bridge tube station. And if you’ve never been to London Bridge, you might not know that they extremely carefully modelled the place on a labyrinth and so I very easily got lost.

So, there I am, I’m in London, I’m sixteen, the only other Peterborough fans likely to be attending (Max and Tobes) were otherwise occupied with something-or-other and I am totally and completely lost. And I see two people who look like fans crossing a bridge, so I catch up with them and ask, nervously, “Excuse me, but are you SF fans?”

Those two people who ‘looked like fans’ were Claire and Mark, and, as it turned out, they were fans (I was extremely pleased) and so I followed them to the convention. When we arrived, I got out some copies of Procrastinations One and I gave them one, thus putting me on the Banana Wings mailing list. I promptly gave everyone in the con ever a fanzine (people who were within ten metres of me at Contemplation may remember this sort of behaviour) and got very drunk (if you don’t believe me, I think Bug will be able to recall…) and very loud and was on the stage twice and had a very good time.

But yes, that was my first one-day con, and the first time I’d met people like Bug and Mark and Claire, who are (obviously) well-known in British fandom and also happen to be thoroughly lovely people.

So. That was my first fannish London experience. For seconds, I could talk about the London ZZ9 events I’ve been to, or describe the two Picocons I’ve attended, but instead I’m going to talk about something that happened just before the aforementioned event – a performance, in the Lyric Hammersmith, of The Wolves in the Walls, a play adapted from the book by Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean. It was a good play, although I must confess that I personally felt that I was a little too old for it. This did not stop me buying a T-shirt (see Procrastinations One).

However, the play wasn’t really the highlight of the day for me. Four people were going to London – myself, my mother, my brother and my then girlfriend, Jessica. We had to co-ordinate with her as to which days were suitable and then we cross-referenced that with which days were good for us whilst bearing the days on which the cheap performances were available in mind. And then, after we’d decided on a day to go and see it and a time on that day which would be a good plan, Neil announced that that show would be the one he chose to do a Q&A at.

So, naturally, I was excited. I’d read, at that point, American Gods, Neverwhere and the first three or four volumes of the Sandman graphic novels and I’d thought they were all genius (well, this is partly because they are, I suppose) and so I wanted to get his opinion on the new Neverwhere comic that, at that point, was still being released, written by Mike Carey.

Anyway, so the day comes, and I watch the play and enjoy it, and then the Q&A comes. The audience is roughly 50-50 kids to SF fans, I’d have guessed, and so the variety of questions was really interesting, but I didn’t get to ask my question, so at the signing (at which I got the programme signed, having spectacularly failed to bring my copy of Neverwhere) I asked him what he thought, and he said it wasn’t the way he’d have done it but he was still pleased with the result, and I walked away very happy.

And then, fifteen minutes later, I queued up again, because I’d forgotten to get a picture taken with him. That’s how cool I am. The picture is genuinely awesome, though.

And finally, the last London event that I went to that really stands out in my mind so far wasn’t really an event. During August, I got bored. I’d had a lot of summer holiday, and I was feeling restless. Recombination had finished and so the convention season was over until Orbital for me, and the First Thursday meeting was coming up, so I expressed on my LiveJournal that I might turn up and distribute Procrastinations Four to people there. James, being ever excellent, commented saying, “Well, if I got the day off, we could go comics shopping and hit some bookstores and have a couple of drinks and stuff.”

Well, I’m not the sort of chap to turn that down, you know. So I get into London fairly quickly and James and I quickly hit around fifty bazillion comic and book stores, all of which were really awesome. We hit several stores and I wound up coming home with about ten new books, including one by Tanith Lee, since I wanted to read something she’d written before Orbital and, at the time of writing, have still completely failed to do so (uni involves work, who knew?).

James will, undoubtedly, write a short paragraph to supplement this to tell you all the book and comic stores we went to – there were many, many shops and all were excellent and I can’t remember the names of any of them. However, there were other really cool places we visited. For instance, there was the Gate bar in Notting Hill, as I recall, that had done the whole place up as a beach over summer and so we had fun sitting in the deckchair and drawing our names in the sand and having a glass of some foreign lager.

The second place we visited was a café near Kim Newman’s apartment, and (as you might have gathered by my way of referring to it) we met Kim Newman there. Now, Kim is a chap who writes reviews for SFX magazine, has written a couple of Warhammer 40,000 novels for Games Workshop and also wrote some books such as Anno Dracula and The Night Mayor, the latter of which I had read on the train that morning.

One of the main characters of The Night Mayor is an actor who is sent into a virtual world to combat a dangerous criminal who has hacked the computer of a prison and turned it into a Sin City-esque world. As it turned out, the chap who Kim had based the character on (and had named the character after) was with him at the time and so I got both of them to sign my copy. Which was, as you could probably guess, genius.

And then, after meeting him, James and I strolled down a street and saw a branch of Hotblack Desiato, which was the inspiration for the name of the dead rock star in the Douglas Adams novel, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. I got my photograph taken outside, grinning inanely.

Eventually, after some more comic stores and a meal at a very nice Italian place, we actually went to the pub and did the First Thursday thing. This was the first pub meeting after the Japanese Worldcon and so there were plenty of fans (well, Flick…) sharing stories of Japan and showing off kimonos and the like, which was very cool, also. Eventually I went home with Max – she’ll tell you a funny story about me catching London buses, if you ask her…