I wandered about Nottingham castle and market place, a village, a house. I met some excellent and spirited production horses, had lunch with a gang that included Sam Troughton, and met Dom’s family. I wondered how he could work in an office next to an editing machine upon which swordfights and hearty cries were being stamped out over and over. I got that sweet taste of showbusiness, of a show up and running, of delicious creative energy against the clock. Jenny, the script editor onsite, is committed like a berserker now, unthinking of a time far in the future where she may have the luxury of falling over. She is one of the two best such I have ever worked with. ‘I love this architecture,’ she says, showing me along another corridor that’s another reason why the Sheriff feels this time more Joe Stalin than Basil Rathbone. I think she’s learnt to love it.
I got to see some rushes set (as a guide track only, an atmospheric thing to hint to the composer) to that Black Eyed Peas Pulp Fiction single. It does the show in thirty seconds: Keith Allen being magnificently disdaining and hard as the Sheriff; Jonas Armstrong being the Robin of every ten year old’s game in the woods and quite a few thirty year old’s games in the woods too, brave and bold and cheeky and righteous. The outlaws do something daring and extreme and get away with it with a flourish that’s carefully undercut by grime and squalor and economic reality.
Trust me, you have a mental picture of this show now, right? Triple it. Realise you’re going to feel personally involved with every member of the cast. And slash fiction writers: count the cheekbones, feel the passion of all those relationships. Wait until you see and hear Marian and Guy.
I went on my way feeling galvanized, and well pleased that I’d found myself part of that circus, which is missing only a fandom that should be waiting expectantly for the show to happen.
I think that for that I’m only going to have to wait until the day after broadcast.
The day after Hungary I was on a train to Glasgow for this year’s Eastercon, which this time round was called Concussion. Not really apt, in that most of it happened just before the end of Lent, so I was doing it without benefit of alcohol. Caroline, meanwhile, had Easter’s ecclesiastical duties to deal with, so I was on my own.
The most interesting thing about SF conventions (and also about the Gallifrey conventions in L.A.) is how much, unlike Doctor Who events, they’re forums for ongoing discussion, a series of highly structured conversations not confined to the bar, but shaped by panels and author meetings that aim to interrogate. With a big convention, this conversation tends to spread out to encompass the host city too. I found myself walking into Glasgow for a launch party at Borders (behind the police box in the street), where I hung out with old muckers like Juliet McKenna, and new acquaintances like Gail Nina Anderson of Fortean Times. Any potential buyers who might have wandered into the SF section that night, wondering perhaps if science fiction was a cliquey genre, would have found a cocktail party in progress.
I also ventured in to have lunch at an elderly Glasgow tea house with comic writer Mark Millar, SFX editor Dave Bradley and Angus Lamont, a mate of Mark’s who runs a local indie film production company. Mark’s been having some serious health problems lately, and has faced them with an offhand humour that I think would be beyond me. (He’s also become active in raising money in support of the search for a cure for his condition, the details of which can be found here: http://www.danceguernsey.co.uk/crohnscure.jpg the paypal address of the Professor mentioned being: firstname.lastname@example.org should you recoil in horror and wish to donate.) And all this at the time of his greatest success, the forthcoming Marvel Universe-wide event, Civil War. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Civil_War_(comics)) Dave and Mark, and a couple of others I’ll mention as we come to them, share a quality I prize above all others: kindness. Mark, for instance, recently apologised to some DC editors he felt he’d slighted. That forms a theme for both this blog (hey, there is one!) and my perspective on the conversation that was the convention: unexpected kindness amongst conflict.
My own convention panels began with a Kaffeeklatsch (a small room one to one between attendees and authors) shared with Charlie Stross and John Clute. Charlie and I know each other of old from Dublin (where I regularly beat him at Just A Minute), but grand SF critic John Clute I was eager to meet. He was charming, continually seeming to run two programs in his head, each of which is always ironically commenting on the other, resulting in sudden outbursts of sheer spleen (against, for instance, self-published authors) that are both precise and true and at the same time lumps of self-mocking panto charm. I also took part in a highly unsuccessful Future of Green Politics panel (I knew nothing about the subject, but agreed to be on the panel because I’ve always loved going to the tutorial without having read the book). When it became obvious that the audience knew much more than I did, and one of them had left in disgust, I did manage to pursue said audience member and put her on the panel instead. Why that doesn’t happen more often I don’t know. Certainly, I don’t think authors should be on panels just to find them something to do, especially when there are advocates in the audience who could do the job. So it was a relief when I managed to moderate a successful Philosophy and SF panel, thanks in no small part to charming Hard SF mavens Justina Robson and Liz Williams, who brought a big audience including several erudite voices, notably that of Geoff Ryman, the Kindest Man in SF, who sat in the aisle like an award winning Enoch Root and chucked wise jokes.
My big turn was, of course, the Current Golden Age Of British Telefantasy panel, held immediately before the wall was pulled away, like we were all part of a musical, to create a space big enough to fit everyone who wanted to see the first episode of the new Doctor Who. Which was, basically, everybody. At least I knew something about that one.
My agent appeared at the convention in a spangly blue cowboy hat, his hands behind his back, and asked me to make a wish.
‘World peace,’ I said. Ironically.
He produced a battery-operated wand from behind his back, and spun it in a Disney circle. It made a ‘blllllling!’ noise.
We waited, and realised that my wish probably hadn’t been granted. Or there was no way for us to tell.
At half past midnight on Easter Sunday morning, I walked back to the convention from the Gollancz dinner party (to which dear old Jo Fletcher still invites me, despite me not having been a Gollancz author for years), desperately hoping that someone would still be up for me to drink, post-Lent, with.
Everyone was. Particularly my agent. He had formed a sort of vast stumbly mobile party with a number of his clients, the wonderful editor Peter Lavery (who shares with John Clute that great kindness of pretending to be harsher than he really is and enjoying what other people do and say in reaction to that), his fellow editor Rebecca, and a student television team from Glasgow University. I admired, while drinking five swift pints of assorted real ales, the way my agent moved nimbly from blooming life and soul of the party, to vulnerable and heartfelt man, to cunning and occasionally ruthless professional, depending on what the moment needed, not on his or the room’s state of drunkenness. This, I thought, is a little like being drunk with a camp Captain Kirk. I should like my agent to be in charge of a starship and find himself obliged to cleverly battle the Klingon Empire. ‘It’s not “a good day to die”, Kang sweetheart,’ he’d say. ‘Look, here’s how you can get out of this a millionaire. And here’s a picture of a tribble I found on the internet.’
Anyway, then I woke up, and it was five minutes to the Philosophy panel mentioned above, so I’m glad and amazed I did well there.
The next night, we did much the same thing. I met Iain Banks, who at some point just happened to be there, and got into a competition about who had the best jacket (he did). During two Japanese meals back to back I got a fortune cookie that said ‘someone you meet today will play a big part in your destiny’. I waved it in front of that charming man from Solaris books. And everyone else. ‘We got back to the room last night, and we spent most of the next three hours trying to find the fridge,’ says my agent. He and I were amongst the last six people in that convention bar. I hope I told him, at some point, that he’s now my agent for life.
Terms and conditions apply.
Anyway, I woke up and it was noon, and I had to get a train before the hotel charged me for another night. Amongst all the above, from being welcomed with a first soft drink by the kind organiser Farah Mendleson to being bought a last devastating drink by my kind agent, I’d also worked on the new novel, sorted it, made sense of where it was going. It’s about bullying, and a marginal life that would be familiar to a lot of SF fans.
Other peoples’ panels rocked. You want to hear about current NASA plans, you want to hear it from Stephen Baxter and Mat Irvine. You want to hear about critics who are also writers, you want to hear about it from Clute, Fletcher and Colin Greenland (he and Susannah being two more people I really should have spent more time with).
I hung out with John Toon and his fan family, Baxter, McKenna, Courtenay Grimwood and Lovely Beardy Man From The Door Of Phoenixcon (me and names!) I met many new and lovely folk.
One panel that had a big effect on me was ‘Is Fandom a Safe Space?’ And here’s where I’ll talk about the other side of this community, the conflict in which all the many small kindnesses above are so important. The panel started by delighting in the many ways that fandom is indeed a safe space away from the mainstream world, but then explored to what extent the opposite was true, and found many stories of how, when one is living in a determinedly alternative world, bad things happen because conformity is also what stops sexual harassment. I said that my local bar, in the mainstream world, was my safe space away from the highly competitive and vicious world of Doctor Who fandom. (I really don’t like the use of the word ‘mundanes’ for non-fan folk, or the idea behind that, that because we don’t regard ourselves as (entirely) part of the mainstream world, we are better than it. That was at the heart of one (misunderstood on my part, as it turned out) row I had on that Green panel. But it was only, let me emphasise, a subtext of the panel above.)
There’s an undercurrent of shock in SF culture that’s as roaring as the undertow must be in Democrat culture in the States, and it produces monsters, orthodoxies, dogma, cant. The fact that there could possibly be a panel about whether or not Green politics were still viable in a world heading for the Singularity (the ‘rapture of the nerds’, invented by Charlie Stross, and misunderstood by everyone ever since until now in SF it is, basically, The Rapture Anyway) boggles the mind. And boggled also, I have to underline, every author I talked to about it. To my mind The Singularity means four things: bollocks; why when the secular world grabs a bit of religion do they always grab a bad bit and punish themselves with it; what a tremendous rout from reality recent politics has foisted on this genre and, once more, bollocks.
I found myself in my usual Iraq War row at that Gollancz dinner. Shouted down again. Geoff Ryman maintained a civilised dispute with me, as did a couple of the others, but I walked back through Glasgow, prostitutes and fights, feeling an outsider again from this outsider culture. That’s why I was desperate.
So it was doubly good that I had kindness and magic wands waiting there for me.
After the Philosophy and SF panel, I approached Geoff and apologised for spoiling a dinner that was, in part, celebrating a richly deserved BSFA Award win for him. He replied that he wanted to make sure I was okay too.
Despite the conflict, SF continues to welcome me with kindness.