Friday, 22 November 2013

Stuck Outside the TARDIS

It's interesting to me how, in the last few years, nerd culture has become a unified movement, out in the public eye and steering the immense cruise ship that is popular culture. As Chris Hardwick, one of the figureheads of the movement, puts it in his book, the Nerdist Way, "Nerds: once a tormented subrace of humans... Now, captains of industry!"

Just as interesting is the concurrent rise in popularity of Doctor Who. Hardwick himself has been important in popularizing the show, although I think that the show's moment would have come even without the Nerdist's relentless championing. The two main home-grown SF franchises, Star Wars and Star Trek, have been pretty much dormant for the last few years - there's a reason JJ Abrams decided to reboot Trek, rather than going for a new Next Generation. And despite good showings from Firefly and the rebooted Battlestar Galactica, there haven't been many proper sci-fi shows that take place in space.

But I don't want to imply that Doctor Who's gotten popular just because there isn't anything else on. Some of my friends growing up loved the show long before Russell T Davies rebooted it - and in fact, I think that a lot of long-time fans have been kind of turned off by Steven Moffat's tenure (at least, this is what I can tell from reading comment threads).

I've never been a fan myself, though. Not sure why - I was a hell of an Anglophile growing up, so you'd think that a British SF show would have pushed my buttons. And I actually enjoyed reading about the history of the characters; there's something intriguing about the litany of planets and times and aliens that the Doctor and his companions have traveled to.

And I love the hell out of that theme, especially the original version from 1963. It's such a perfect example of electronic music, strange and otherworldly and beautiful, that I can't stop listening to it on YouTube. In fact, at work today I listened to the collection of all of the versions of the theme tune. Twice.

True story.

What this all boils down to is that I kind of feel left out with all the festivities going on, celebrating the Doctor's fiftieth anniversary. I was even tempted to go to the movies to catch the new adventure starring David Tennant (as the 10th Doctor), Matt Smith (as the 11th) and John Hurt (as... I dunno, but he looks promisingly awesome).

It doesn't help that I've hobnobbed in recent months with former Doctor Who writers and long-time fans, like my old flatmate Jay. Hearing their stories about the show's fandom in the 70s and 80s makes it sound like a club, much more than with my friends in the US who liked Star Wars or Star Trek. The experiences are very different, of course - in the US you had to go deep into the Nerd World to be into Doctor Who, whereas here in the UK it was on the BBC.

Even if it seems that Doctor Who hasn't permeated the cultural lexicon the same way as Han Solo or Captain Kirk have, you can make the case that it's a bigger part of British culture than the American franchises are back home. After all, there was never a special Christmas episode of Star Trek every year, to be watched after the Queen's Speech. Star Wars tried the Christmas thing, of course, but that went so badly that it's almost impossible to find even now.

Maybe that's the difference. Even if you aren't British, as a Whovian you're part of this bigger thing that's been going on for 50 years now, that's so charmingly ramshackle that you're forced to focus on the stories and the relationships between the Doctor and his companions. The American experience is so varied that there are few points of contact, whereas the British experience is much more uniform (even if the Brits do like creating barriers between themselves and their neighbors).

In any case, perhaps I'm doomed never to quite get into Doctor Who. But at least, as my Whovian friends celebrate the 50th anniversary, I can congratulate them on their hero's longevity. And I look forward to continuing to be mystified by the arguments and theories on all the nerdy message boards and comment threads I frequent.

Sunday, 17 November 2013

Gravity: SF or not SF?

As I've mentioned recently on Twitter, back at the World Fantasy Convention in Brighton I had a conversation with SF author Mitch Benn about the new movie Gravity. I'm not sure how we got onto the topic, but he asked the question of whether Gravity was science fiction or not.

Now, I haven't seen it myself, and I don't know if he had, so any discussion here will naturally be a little limited by that. But I think it's a worthwhile topic here, since we've gotten to a point in our culture where a lot of things we take for granted could be considered science fictional.

If I recall correctly, my initial position was that Gravity was, in fact, science fiction, while Mitch was arguing that it isn't. Just being set in space, he suggested, isn't enough to turn it into speculative fiction, and I've come around to that position - unless there's something else involved in the movie, then it's simply an adventure movie set in space, and is speculative only to the extent that all fiction is speculative.

It wouldn't always have been, of course. If it had come out in the 1930s or 1940s, it would have been purely speculative, simply because nobody had gone into space before. But by now, space travel is pretty commonplace, if not as universal as we would have expected back then. If you count Gravity as SF, then you would probably have to count Apollo 13 as SF, too, except for one thing: Apollo 13 really happened.

On the other hand, when I brought this up on Twitter, somebody suggested we were getting into Margaret Atwood territory (ie, "I don't write sci-fi, because sci-fi is talking squids and lasers"). I don't think this is strictly true, because I'm not trying to distance myself from the genre, or to pigeonhole the movie into any specific box. But it's an interesting comment, because it plays up just how difficult SF is to define.

Some definitions suggest that it has to have an element of "prophetic extrapolation from the known"; others state that it requires a "human problem, with a human solution, which would not have happened at all without its scientific content".

The former works better for me, although I'm not 100% convinced by the term "prophetic", as something like Predator isn't actually prophetic, given that it takes place in the present day, but has an alien. The latter definition is much more problematic, because we come back to the problem of whether or not Apollo 13 would be SF; if you want to get really obnoxious, that second definition implies that, say, Jane Austen wrote SF, because even if unbeknownst to her, science underlies every experience she wrote about, down to the photons hitting Elizabeth Bennet's eyes when she gazes on Mr Darcy.

Sorry - I know that's taking things a little too far. To bring it back to a reasonable level, that second definition immediately turns all medical dramas into SF, which probably comes as a surprise to the creators of House. And, frankly, the Wikipedia page I just linked to contains so many definitions and explanations that cancel each other out, while also all being correct, that I'm tempted to just give up and go home.

As a final point, I'll just mention the suggestion that science fiction is a "mode", rather than a genre, as genre implies a certain amount of formula. This may be a problematic definition, too, as crime fiction encompasses a number of subgenres that each contain different tropes; but it shows that, as with Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's comment on obscenity in 1964, you can't define SF, but you know it when you see it.

Sunday, 10 November 2013

And the Bad: What WFC Could Have Done Better

So, last week I wrote about how much I enjoyed World Fantasy Con in Brighton, but today I want to go over some of the things that I didn't like, or thought they could have done better. And the big one - the elephant in the room, as the cliche goes - is female participation on panels.

Because I'm a nerd, and obsessive, I just went through the whole list of panels that took place, counting how many had at least gender parity compared with how many featured more men than women. What I came up with is, over half of the panels were majority or exclusively male (although there were very few that didn't have any women, whether as panelists or moderators). The only panel that had no men participating was the one entitled "Broads with Swords", which looked at books with female protagonists donning chain mail and kicking ass.

WFC has no policy in place to ensure gender parity; they say that they try to "match the best people available to us to the most appropriate panel topics". In fairness, you can't always get who you want, and for certain topics - like the 1950s SF magazines - it's probably difficult to get that many women to make the trip anyway (age, illness and money would be factors; Robert Silverberg was due to attend, but had to cancel because of a heart attack just a couple days before, although luckily he survived and was able to fly back to the US after a few days).

But in practice, it led, at least in the panels I attended, to a bunch of male authors talking while the lone female author was stranded out on the end, kind of hard to hear (although that was because of the bad acoustics more than anything else). It happened in the comics panel, and in the "Elvish Has Left the Building" panel, talking about whether fantasy is still relevant. It even happened in the panel about literary agents - apart from the moderator, Meg Davis, the only female participant was Juliet Mushens, although I was pleased to note that she was seated right in the middle, and offered her fair share of comments.

However, I was still a little surprised that they couldn't find just one more female agent for that panel, or that they couldn't get Robin Hobb (for instance) to sit on "Elvish Has Left the Building". Because frankly, the makeup of the con was pretty gender-balanced, and I think it would have been appropriate for the programming to reflect this better.

That leads into the other point that kind of rubbed me the wrong way, namely harassment. I didn't see any incidents of it myself, apart from a drunk lady (who wasn't participating in the con) who behaved toward me in a manner that would have been roundly frowned upon had our genders been reversed, and who later made an even more inappropriate advance toward someone else that I know. However, I did see something on Twitter on the Sunday morning about "WFC and the hotel" investigating an incident the previous night, and later some comments from one of the people who had seen it. And yet, the last morning the update at the hotel said specifically, "And nobody's been harassed!"

I don't know if this was a particularly good or bad con for harassment, but that statement seemed either really clueless or really disingenuous. Given how much the issue has been discussed, particularly this year, I'm hoping it was simple cluelessness, because it's not something to sweep under the rug.

And finally, as far as the redcoats, who were herding people in and out of panels, setting up, making sure things started and ended on time, and generally being helpful, I have the sense that they were run a little ragged by the organizers - I've heard stuff about them not being able to take breaks, which is a shame. I hope that they weren't being exploited as volunteers, because the possibility of it happening has left a bad taste in my mouth.

Turning to less serious issues, though, I thought there was one key thing missing from the programming, which is foreign-language fantasy being translated into English. John Ajvide Lindqvist, who wrote Let the Right One In, was on a few panels, and Adrian Stone, a Dutch fantasy writer, also sat in on the "Elvish Has Left the Building" panel. But given the recent popularity of authors like Markus Heitz (The Dwarves series) and Andrzej Sapkowski (the Witcher series), it would have been interesting to have more perspectives outside of the Anglo-American ones we usually get - whenever I visit a bookstore in Italy, for example, I find a lot of fiction, both Italian and foreign, that never gets translated into English. Seeing how the convention is usually in North America, this would have been the perfect opportunity to shine some light on the rest of Europe.

Monday, 4 November 2013

My First Con: World Fantasy Con 2013 in Brighton

This weekend, like a great many SF/F fans and writers (both aspiring and inspiring, if that doesn't sound corny), I made my way down to Brighton for the World Fantasy Convention. Given that I've newly discovered fandom, and that it's usually held in North America, I knew I couldn't miss it. This was doubly true given that I'm moving back to the Bay Area at the end of the year, and wanted to meet a few more British-based writers before my departure.

On that score, I wasn't disappointed - and even better, I discovered a super-nice community of writers, agents, editors and fans. Frankly, after four days of being around people who are pretty roundly interested in the same things as me, it's been kind of a disappointment going back to work and my normal life.

In any case, it was held over four days in the Hilton Metropole, right on Brighton's seafront. The nice thing about the event being in Brighton was the fact that the town's pretty compact, and it's easy to orient yourself - the sea's down, the train station's up, and the pier's a useful landmark for getting around. On the downside, Brighton's also a party town, hosting regular stag and hen parties and a couple of universities, so walking home at night was always kind of an adventure.

Brighton Pier: acid-throwing thugs luckily thin on the ground.

Inside the hotel, of course, it was a different world - there were panels going on pretty much all day from Thursday afternoon to Sunday, and publisher parties just about every night, but even if you weren't attending one of the events, there was always someone in the bar to chat to.

That said, at the very start I was a little intimidated, because I was there on my own and because I'm naturally something of a shy and retiring individual. So a person I'd like to thank is Paul Cornell, who I've chatted to a few times at BSFA events, and was kind enough to introduce me to pretty much everybody. And in repayment, I took a picture of him with my friend Paul Carnell, a meeting I've been hoping to engineer since about June.

Both doing the eyebrow thing (yes, I asked them to).

Silliness aside, I think that helped me to come out of my shell a little bit later on, and just go and introduce myself to people. Scary as it was to actually meet some of my heroes, whom I've been reading for years and years now, I realized this was my chance to meet folks, so I made sure to say hi to as many of them as I could find. In addition to folks like Pat Rothfuss and Joe Abercrombie, I introduced myself to literary agent Juliet Mushens and author Lou Morgan (who was also one of the redcoats, or staff members helping to facilitate events and herd the authors and fans in and out of panels, among many other duties; big thanks to all of them, btw!).

It may sound a little dorky, but "Hi, I follow you on Twitter and wanted to say hi" seems to be enough of an ice-breaker at these events. And it was gratifyingly common to have them reply, "Oh, right! Nice to meet you too!"

Of course, in case I'm giving off the impression of having been completely unfazed by all of the writers around me, I should relate what happened at my first interaction with Neil Gaiman. He'd just finished a panel on comics, and was desperately trying to get to his next commitment, while also trying to be nice to fans (like me) who wanted to take pictures or get his autograph or whatever. I managed to get his autograph in my notebook, but also wanted to thank him for having retweeted my post about his reading of Fortunately the Milk.

So I ended up scurrying after him as he tried to exit, calling out, "Thanks for Fortunately the Milk!" while he hurried out of the room. I spent the next 24 hours mortified, and trying to persuade myself that this is just what happens when you meet the person who, effectively, inspired you to write. The story has a happy ending, in that the next night I ran into him again at the Gollancz party and apologized for having chased him out of the comics panel; he graciously forgave me, and bore my thanks for the retweet with excellent humor.

And the take-away of that story is, I can keep my cool to varying degrees around most of the best and brightest of fantasy literature, but my fanboy-threshold is Neil Gaiman. This is a useful thing to know.

The rest of my interactions went much better, apart from when I got locked into a conversational death spiral with Joe Abercrombie and James Barclay about my umbrella; and yet even they were nothing but friendly to me for the rest of the con. I even made friends with a few folks I met in the bar on the Friday, and joined them for dinner at an American diner not too far from the Metropole; one was an artist specializing in steampunk, Vincent Shaw-Morton, whose work was on display in the art room upstairs, while the others, Kit Cox and Jonathan Green, are authors. All of them super-nice, and I hung out a bit with them again at points on the Saturday and the Sunday.

The Dealers' Room

Another nice feature of the con was the so-called Kaffeeklatsches and Book Clubs. I signed up for the Kaffeeklatsch with Tad Williams, where the conversation (there were about 20 of us chatting with him) ranged from his books to the future of communications and the physical book. My one Book Club experience was with Robin Hobb, to discuss Assassin's Apprentice, the first in her Farseer series. I think I earned everybody's annoyance by having only read that book, which meant they couldn't talk about the sequels (thereby becoming That Guy when it came to spoilers), but it was still fascinating to hear how she came up with the series, and how it evolved in the writing.

Because it was Halloween, and the 150th anniversary of Arthur Machen's birth, there was a lot of programming around those two themes. Machen, in particular, was the subject of a stream of panels, but the con organizers also had a performance of two short stories by MR James on the Saturday night. One of the rooms was decked out like an Edwardian antiquarian's sitting room, and Robert Lloyd Parry played the part of MR James himself, recounting and partially acting out the stories "The Ash Tree" and "Oh, Whistle, And I'll Come to You, My Lad".

Lit only by a few candles, both stories were wonderfully creepy - MR James was known for reading his stories to his circle every Christmas, so it was nice to pretend we were listening in on one of those long-ago nights.

There were, of course, other parties, and readings, and conversations in the bar, but there's not really time to relate all of them. But it was great meeting a bunch of people I know only through their books, or through Twitter, or who I didn't know at all until I met them there. It makes me a little sad that I won't be able to see them at the next British con, but it also makes me even more determined to get to more of these events in the Bay Area.

After all, it's not always that you find yourself so well in your element. More than anything else, that's what I'll take away from the weekend - no matter where they came from, or how many books they've sold, or even if they haven't sold a single short story, the folks who came to the event were mostly into the same things as me, and it felt great to finally be with my tribe.