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Month: April 2012

Four days of SF at Eastercon, Part 2

This blog post is a follow up to part 1, where my general attitude to the con is explained. This one covers the various con events that I went to…

Friday

George R R Martin Reading

I missed the Death of the internet (tweets at 11) panel, so milled about in the atrium for a while until the reading began and then ducked in for a George R R Martin reading. What I expected to be an oscure short story reading (saving the good stuff for later in the con) turned out to be two chapters from “The Winds of Winter”, the upcoming next book in “A Song of Ice and Fire”.

So I stayed glued to my seat for the whole time, listening intently. He has a remarkably mobile face, too… which is awesome when it comes to reading expressions to help separate a voice from background noise. It really helped!

Pushing the boundaries of genre

Next up was a panel on pushing the boundaries of Genre. This one was a bit dominated by one panelist – Sophia McDougall, but I didn’t mind… she was clearly nervous but managed to be eloquent and clear all the same. The panel held my attention for the duration, but I must confess that I can now recall very little of the actual content! That should be put down to my ailing brainpan rather than the lack of anything worth remembering.

I do recall an inclination to try out Ms. McDougall’s work at some point when my reading mojo has returned, though. The author’s managed to sell me on it where the marketing had failed to do so.

Archery in fantasy TV and film

Next, I planned to go to “How mobile phone technology can enhance the con going experience”, but decided against it in the end. I thought it was too likely to be a case of “teaching eggwhite to suck eggs”… all too icky and incestuous for me. So I went to an archery talk instead.

This was an interesting one, and explained something I’d never been entirely clear about before – how the fletchings get past the bow when an arrow is loosed. Now I know, and (as demonstrated by a video clip) so does a certain CGI animation studio. My desire to see one of their upcoming films has grown even more.

Opening Ceremony

This actually kept things surprisingly brief, which was nice. I have a recollection of it taking longer and being a bit dull in the past, but went along in case of any interesting announcements. It turned out to be quite quick, introduced everyone and then turfed us all out to the atrium.

It Came From the 1970s

Alas, this panel was slightly spoiled for me by the moderator needing moderation himself. Whilst he was clearly knowledgeable, he didn’t seem overly keen on letting anybody else get a word in edgewise… when the moderator keeps cutting off the panelists and audience questions, that’s not a good sign. I’ll probably avoid panels he’s moderating in future, but will still attend ones where he’s a panelist because he clearly knows his stuff.

What is “I”?

Since I have a professional and personal interest in what “identity” means to people and how it gets represented, this one was quite interesting for me. Unfortunately, it stayed on the fairly metaphysical and neurological angles about where the “self” resides before I had to duck out early due to a room-mate having key issues and needing to get into our room. They’d said they’d touch on “identity” later, but if they did, it was after I’d had to flee into the night. Or the corridor, anyway.

Geoengineering to save the planet

I wasn’t sure what to make of this panel. There was interesting stuff in there, but it was too focussed on the “yay/boo” side of “we could try things but we might fuck it up” and the associated politics. The “should we?” and “political reasons not to” dominated. There was a lot of “what should we do?” rather than “what could we do?”. That holds less interest to me.

The SF video game canon

Or “Fans shouting out the names of games they like”. Actually, there was more to it than that, and the panel were consistently interesting, but when I look back at it, that’s how I’d have to characterise it. Naturally, I seconded a mention of the System Shock series – they thoroughly deserve to be in there.

Where have all the hippies gone?

The description for this panel made it sound like it was going to be quite a fun one, but it got derailed into deadly serious stuff about class struggle and disenfranchisement before the moderator had even arrived and never quite recovered. Which was a shame. The discussion was interesting and worthy (if argumentative) but I’d actually been quite looking forward to a light-hearted take on it. This actually happened on a lot of the lighter-sounding panels I went to… things that sounded fun got dragged down into deadly serious politics. That they can be dragged down like that means they’re relevant, but the fact that all of them seemed to be was actually a bit of a downer.

Saturday

Cory Doctorow reading

I’d planned on going to “The Ethics of AI”, but I decided I wasn’t awake enough for anything with “ethics” in the title… and I’d probably have just got annoyed by it anyway. As somebody who used to do R&D in an artificial intelligence field, that kind of thing happens a lot. To my mind, most of what leaps into people’s heads when they think of AI is what I’d just call “Intelligence”.

How pseudo do you like your medieval?

I’ll be honest… I have no recollection of this panel whatsoever. The only clues thatI was there at all are that a) I remember skipping out of it to sign up for the Masquerade and b) I have a photo from it.

Masquerade Signup

We were a bit 11th hour with this one, as there was some holdup or another that delayed Beth getting to the signup. She arrived just as the signup session was finishing. But then, so did about four other people… one of whom turned out to be somebody she kind-of knew… which lead to us chatting for a while. Having done that, we went and got the rest of the costume bits from the car and got them all sorted… then grabbed some food before returning to the con.

Mainstream Published SF

This was an interesting one. I grabbed a couple of book recommendations, not least of which was “The Gone Away World”, which seemed to come up in every other sentence. This continued referencing seemed to be the cause of growing embarrassment to the author (Nick Harkaway – http://www.nickharkaway.com/). I also heard the phrase “SF cooties” often enough that it seems to have become a thing.

Shorts from Sci-Fi London

I was in the mood for some video, and at a previous eastercon I’d been introduced to the wonderful “Le Menace Vient De L’Espace”… so I thought I’d go along for the shorts programme. I was very glad I did, and will be trying to catch some of them at Sci-Fi London at the BFI later in the year. In particular, I need to make sure certain friends see “Doctor Glamour”.

Masquerade-y bits & off into the evening

After the shorts, I took a break a very brief rest before heading over to the masquerade rehearsal. The rehearsal itself took a while to get going, and like most tech rehearsals, it was basically “you wait here until your turn, then you go on stage here, do your thing, then leave the stage here.”

There was a bit of a faff about a few bits and bobs whilst the rehearsal was going on, but otherwise it was uneventful except for letting us see who the other masquerade participants were. Most of the rehearsal was focussed on dealing with the chap who eventually won… because his costume was huge and slightly less than mobile. But it was also awesome, which made it entirely forgivable.

In general, I enjoyed the masquerade as a way to meet folks and found it a lot less stressful than I had expected. With hinds
ight, we probably should have spent 10-15 minutes in the atrium in costume afterwards, but after a couple of hours in those things we were both keen to get changed. I spent the rest of the evening hanging around in the atrium with a pint and a burger, chatting to Peter Westhead (who came 3rd, having made his own peascod breastplate!), Tim and Severine M. As a general shout-out, whilst we were backstage I spent a bit of time chatting with sacha (who, as GLADoS, had similarly restricted peripheral vision) and Nicky Barnard and the assorted workmanship judges.

The judges were keen to talk to us afterwards to congratulate us about our use of “mixed media” as well… Which struck me as a little odd, as I don’t think of things in that way… I just make stuff! Doesn’t matter what it’s made of. In my brain, a sewing machine is as much as power tool as a pillar drill and a soldering iron as much a precision tool as a paintbrush or needle and thread. The idea of treating them differently just doesn’t really occur to me.

Sunday

Occupy the metaverse

This panel bugged me a little, as it didn’t seem to really match the description in the program. Also, given the subject matter that dominated the first 15 minutes, I felt that the panel really needed a younger voice on it… but that’s not the fault of the panelists. There’s not a lot they can do about their age and social circumstances. Having said that, those first 15 minutes really did come across as “Young people! You’re doing it wrong!”, and I’d have liked to hear a bit more from the moderator himself on that one.

George RR Martin Interview

I lurked about being social for a while, and then went back into the main hall for the George R R Martin Guest of Honour Interview… which I found thoroughly enjoyable. As with his reading, he speaks well… and I quite like the interview format for guest of honour talks as it gives them a bit of structure.

Sci-Fi London sneak preview

I wasn’t feeling very awake, so I decided to go and do something different… and went to a super-sekrit preview screening of one of the films that’s getting a proper international preview at Sci-Fi London. To be honest, whilst I quite enjoyed the film I also found it a bit predictable and a little mawkish… but as a small indie film, I really couldn’t fault the cast or the production. It may have been better if I hadn’t guessed where it was going with it early on.

Cruel deeds and dreadful calamities

This was an annotated slideshow of illustrations and cover artwork from a victorian era (I think) publication called the “Illustrated Police News”, which is famous as basically containing virtually no news that wasn’t made up and being largely unrelated to the police in any way. Essentially, it was the start of tabloid journalism… but it’s character was quite different to what we have now. It was an entertaining slideshow, but I was surprised that it was in the main hall.

Taking Liberties with the Lady of the Lake

This one was a bit of a risk for me, as it had been billed as two things. First was a “Merlin TV Series” vs “Camelot TV series” panel, which held no interest to me. The second thing was a wider discussion around representation of myths in popular entertainment. The second was touched on a little, but alas the Merlin vs Camelot thing dominated.

Tall Technical Tales

I wasn’t sure about this, having stepped away from the science side of my education a long time ago to focus on the engineering and the creative… but I’m thoroughly glad that I went along. Highly entertaining anecdotes from all around, several of which reminded me of a series of blog posts I found a while back – which I’m going to assume that most of the panelists are already aware of, but if they’re not, they should be. There are other categories on the same blog that would be relevant too, but I can’t find them right now.

Multicultural Steampunk

I’d been looking forward to this one, as there have been many things that bug me about steampunk for a while… this touched on some of those, whilst mentioning and stepping past others (colonial india got a mention, as did the boxer rebellion). A couple didn’t come up at all, despite having some current day parallels that could be explored (the assortment of anglo-afghan wars, for example).

Monday

I never really woke up on Monday, alas, despite an early night on Sunday. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that when I’m tired, I’m basically useless, and Monday was like that. I was flagging a bit from the start, and so didn’t do much. However, I did do *some*.

Story arcs

This was a nice idea, but it did seem to devolve into another “shout out TV shows I like” panel. Without a working definition (which people would be free to disagree with, of course) of a story arc to frame the discussion, it rambled and meandered. Lots of times the “it’s got character story arcs” vs “character arcs aren’t story arcs” divide came up.

Coming from a LARP running background, my take is that plot progression and character progression are both aspects of story arc… but that the definition of an arc is that it goes up and then it comes down again. I don’t think you can have a complete story arc without a planned duration (the time axis) and without time spent bringing the threads together. Just throwing in more and more stuff doesn’t make an arc – you need to bring things together and tie them up as well. Oherwise you don’t have a complete arc.

Somebody mentioned that unresolved sexual tension (or “USTing”, as I’ve heard it referred to as) isn’t a story arc, but is instead story statis… and I think they nailed it. That’s adding to the rise of the arc, but by never resolving it, it doesn’t bring the arc back down again… it just leaves it hanging. I think that where the exemplars of story arc (The Shield, The Wire and Babylon 5) really score their points are on their respective downward story trajectories. They all bring things to a close and pull things together. You get payoffs down the line that make it all work out. Shows where they have no planned duration keep adding to the buildup, but always defer the payoffs… and often defer them for too long.

Bloody Provincials! (local fan groups)

I’m in a local fan group, so I felt I had to. Well, sort of in one, anyway… I’m more a sort of lingering carbuncle on the side of a local student SF society, but there’s a few of us carbuncles lingering there. The society doesn’t seem to mind too much… in fact, there were five such carbuncles (although two were still quite fresh) at this con!

I did come away with a few ideas that I’ll suggest to the society, though. I also came away with the idea of trying (once again) to visit The Tun – the london SF pub meet which infamously doesn’t happen in the pub of that name. There’s also another mob, to be found on facebook.

Can video games tell a good story?

Yes. Next question?

The part of this panel that stood a chance of keeping me awake in a dim, stuffy room was about that long. After that I decided I needed more light to remain conscious, so headed out to the atrium to talk to my sibling before he departed. The panel wasn’t bad, by the way – I was just fighting against fatigue.

Epic Legends of the Hierarchs (Writing a long series)

Interesting, but marred by not actually being able to see the speakers from the back of the room. It was my inability to stay focussed on this panel that lead to me fleeing to the atrium again for more daylight.

Fleeing!

The increased natural light helped, and woke me up enough that I felt safe enough to drive home. After a bit of family interaction with Gav, Cal and the ki
ds, it was time to call it a day. I waited in the bright and airy atrium for Chris and (eventually) Beth to reappear, and that was that. There were panels I’d have liked to go to later, but my brain was gone and I needed to go home and crash.

Thus ended this year’s Eastercon for me. Next time I go to an eastercon (or another con of similar size) I should finally be back to firing on all physical and mental cylinders, which will be good. I’m alredy looking forward to it!

Four days of SF at Eastercon, Part 1

Pre-Convention Decisions

I’d decided, before attending this con, that I was going to do some things a bit differently this time around. I’d also decided that there was stuff I wasn’t going to let bother me. As it panned out, I did do some things a bit differently, but not all that I’d planned. I also, for the most part, managed to avoid being bothered by the potentially bothersome things.

On the “things to do differently” side of the fence, I’d planned on the following:

  • Be less of a slave to programme items.
  • Play it by ear instead of scheduling all of my time.
  • Get involved with more fannish things.
  • Don’t do tech.
  • Volunteer as a gopher or for the green room.

On the “things to avoid being bothered by” front:

  • Attending and sharing a room with my ex-girlfriend, and the assumptions that would lead to from other congoers.
  • Nerves, shyness and introversion.
  • The inevitable mood-crashes as a result of lingering recovery issues (I’ll explain briefly later, for the uninitiated).
  • The inevitable brain-failures as a result of lingering recovery issues (See above).
  • My regrettable “out of touch-ness” with current SF literature (brief explanation later, etc…)

But just listing these doesn’t quite cut it, so I’ll explain in a bit more detail

Be less of a slave to programme items

Every time I’ve been to an Eastercon, I’ve seen all the awesome and on the programme and have ended up bouncing from one program item to the next. Which is all good, but it does have downsides. Everyone I know who’s been to a lot of cons says that it’s not the programme that makes the con, but the socialising that goes on around it and the catching up with folks you know from previous cons. If you’re in panels the whole time, you don’t get the chance to meet with anybody new or make the connections that everyone says the cons are about.

This is one that I managed, just about. I spent more time out of panels and chatting with folks, but still didn’t get much by way of an “I’ll speak to these people again” vibe, except for a few folks around the masquerade… more of which later!

Play it by ear instead of scheduling all of my time

I absolutely managed this one. I started out planning which programme items I’d be interested in, but in the end I made my decisions a lot based on where I was and what I felt like at the time. Did I miss some good panels? Absolutely. But did I go to some that I might not otherwise have thought of, and learn new things as a result? Certainly. I have developed a bit of a liking for a fairly random approach to these things as a result of going to a couple of BarCamps over the past few years. I’d like to go to more… in fact, I’d love it if there was an SF unconference I could go to, although I have no idea what I’d speak about. Then again, that’s half the fun of unconferences – nobody knows what to speak about and everybody’s winging it.

If I can stand up and hold a room’s attention for 20 minutes with some doodles and a stream of consciousness ramble about a topic I know passably well, then anybody can do it.

Get involved in more fannish things

First, I’d better explain what I mean by “fannish things”. There are a bunch of arcane conventions that SF fandom has built up over the years, and (as far as I can tell) the only way to get to grips with them is to throw yourself in. So I went to a few more panels where the people at the front were just other fans, talking about being fans or about topics they knew and understood. I’ve always been able to listen to people talking about things they know and are passionate about, and it usually doesn’t matter what the thing is – I just like seeing the passion and enthusiasm that comes with it.

As well as that, there are con staples that have been going on for years that I’ve generally not got involved with as they were “not my thing”. This time, though, I was there with my ex-girlfriend. We’d booked two years previously, whilst still together, and are still friends.

Beth is a bit of a costume nut, and I wanted to make sure she still enjoyed the con, despite any awkwardness. We’d agreed before that we’d take some costume that had originally been made for a LARP, but which had barely been used due to players killing the NPCs the costumes were for from a distance. For the few days before, Beth had been basically recreating most of the cloth parts of the costumes, and I’d been reworking a lot of the non-cloth bits and the electronics.

The plan was to wear it for an hour or two as “hall costume” on saturday night, which basically means wandering around in the costume… but it wasn’t exactly “walking around & socialising” gear. I can hardly breathe in mine. Neither of us can talk, and I can’t hear as it covers my ears with neoprene. Neither of us can sit down sensibly either. So we decided, at the eleventh hour, to do the masquerade instead. It was a bit panicky, as part of Beth’s costume kept breaking and I wasn’t sure if the batteries in mine would survive. Because we decided to enter at the last minute, we also didn’t have any “presentation” planned, and that’s one of the categories you get graded on if you’re going for prizes. I wasn’t actually after prizes, though, so I didn’t mind. We were well recieved all the same.

But, getting involved in the masquerade did lead to me actually meeting a few folks (helped by the fact that Beth kind of knew one of the other participants anyway) and having a few folks around to chat to when we bumped into them later on in the con.

I’m actually vaguely inclined to do such things again at future cons. In a fit of ignoring traditional gender roles, I can actually use a sewing machine pretty well and know a bit about how to put a costume together… as well as knowing my way around the use of workshop tools and electronics. The masquerade seems like it’s actually a pretty decent way to meet folks. If for no other reason than having to spend an hour or two backstage in an enclosed space with the rest of the participants!

Don’t do tech

This one isn’t actually a new one. I took this approach two years ago as well, and it served me pretty well. The first eastercon I went to, I was a tech volunteer. Because I actually know a fair bit about stage lighting, I ended up getting stuck in tech and spent a lot of time on the top of the tower at the back of the main hall. First, I find that kind of thing to be both fun and stressful. I was trying to avoid stress, so I had to avoid tech. Second, I found that whilst a tech volunteer, I missed too much of the rest of the con… and because everyone doing tech is so busy, I didn’t really get to know anybody else who was doing it.

Volunteer as a gopher / in the green room

I failed utterly at this one. No excuses – I just didn’t find the time. I didn’t let that failure bother me too much, though. Next time, maybe.

Things to not be bothered by…

I mostly managed these. Sharing a room with Beth turned out to not be too awkward, although I do get the feeling we were getting tarred with the “couple” brush a fair bit. Still, it’s not like I was there to pull (“going on the pull” is alien to me – it’s not how my brain works).

As for nerves, shyness and introversion… well, they were out in full force, but I think I did okay with them. I dealt with introversion by taking quiet time every once in a while to recharge and recover before I broke myself. I dealt with shyness by occasionally just deciding to go for it and talk to people anyway. I didnt do that very often, but I did do it… which is progress. As for nerves? Well, I’m not sure how I dealt with those… but I seem to have managed it. I even spoke up in a panel item or two.

The rest of the “things not to be bothered by” all go hand in hand, and re
late to my not being in a very good state at this time last year, and still only being about 80% recovered. To cut a long story short, about a year and a half ago, I suffered very badly from stress and an extreme case of chronic insomnia. Coupled with pre-existing (and finally diagnosed) Seasonal Affective Disorder and a particularly stressful time in my life, my body and brain basically declared “Enough! You are stopping now!” by effectively killing my ability to function as a human being for a couple of months. I’m mostly recovered, but a couple of symptoms remain:

First, I have no reserves. I go straight from wide awake and active to falling over and unable to string a sentence together. I do not pass go. I do not collect

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