The Joy of Orbital

I spent last weekend at Orbital, the Eastercon held at the Radisson Edwardian hotel near Heathrow, and I already have nostalgia for such packed experience. Five days is long enough for an event to feel like a lifestyle, so now I feel like I’ve moved to a different country, where things are more dull, but marginally less drunken. It was the best of times… no, that’s it. I arrived on the Thursday night, before the real ale bar was open, and when usually one’s life consists of only holiday relief at reading in a bar and not having to do anything else, but just for once people showed up, and I was entertained by the company of (agent and editor) John Jarrold, (guest of honour) Charlie Stross and (admirable Doctor Who fan) Calapine.

The layout went something like this: big atrium reception area with (critic) Roz Kaveney on a sofa, behind which was dealer’s room, aside from which was the sort of dark and classy saloon bar with enormous prices where (new weird author) China Mieville is to be found, and at a vast intricate distance from which was the furthest tiny panel room, where the media panels were kept to prevent contamination, down the maze behind the cupboard with the leopard. In the middle of the lobby was a double helix of stairwells, with statues of panthers on their mezzanine (I’m not making this up), which led up, past a never glimpsed second floor, to the third floor, which consisted of an enormous open expanse of water feature and vaulted ceiling, with scattered chairs, a desultory cheap bar and expensive cheap food outlet, and corners and railings for swift takings aside and cabal encounters. On one side of this was the main programme room, with enormous searchlights in the face of the panel and a temperature dial from a shower, which went from frosty to baking and nothing in between. On the other side of this was more broken up programming rooms, and down one side a corridor led to the real ale bar (selling Old Hooky!), aptly past an alley with piles of old fanzines.

So that’s the ideal board game, really, with a place for everything that might happen. The game’s initial conditions included a nice amount of literary scandal (why isn’t Brasyl on the Clarke Award shortlist?), emotional connection and personal collision. And amongst that heady mix, one is assigned panels, so one’s opinions are demanded as one is called upon to entertain. I honestly think all humanity would benefit from having a convention to go to. It’s organised games, but with high seriousness and consequences always waiting in the wings. I was on four panels. ‘The Hovercraft of Disbelief’ was about suspending one’s disbelief, and had all the other panelists humbly declaring they didn’t know why they were on this panel, and then me yelling that I had a great deal to say, and doing five minutes at Just A Minute velocity, because I always think that diving in and thwacking the ball everywhere is preferable and more fun. I got a little hysterical, I think. ‘The Doctor: Saviour or Trickster God’ was cool, with the panel covering a lot of mythological ground and only mentioning religion in the closing seconds (phew, I got away with it). ‘Comics As Collaboration’ was perhaps the most serious panel I did, with (artist) Matt Brooker and (artist and writer) Bryan Talbot getting to talk a lot about the process and the craft: very satisfying. It was especially useful that Matt and I had worked together, so we could talk about the same pages. (Then Matt and I plonked ourselves down in the back row for Mitch Benn’s terrific stand up and musical comedy set, which was attended by a stadium full of people that had all been in different places before. Mitch obviously regarded it as a homecoming gig. ‘Try doing a joke about Orson Scott Card at Jongleurs on a Friday night!’ and his enthusiasm enthused the crowd in return.) Finally, I had my most fun alongside Calapine, in a (very) late night panel about Martha Jones, which descended several times into several different sinks of inaptness and then finally stayed in the gutter where it set up a small business talking about arses. My agent put his hand up to ask a question, which turned out to be ‘would you like another pint?’

In terms of other panels, amongst many, I saw Neil Gaiman surrounded by beautiful women (who were accomplished authors and critics in their own right, ding, I still pass fit for purpose on LiveJournal, just about) on ‘The Use of Mythology in Fantasy’, which was fun, with the audience chucking in some great stuff. ‘Not the Clarke Awards’, where former judges rate this year’s choices, was actually more restrained than one might have expected, though Sleight Minor showed some signs repressed fury. The panel chose Stephen Baxter’s The H-Bomb Girl as their favourite this year. If that wins the actual award, I can at least say there’s a Clarke Award winner with my name on the cover… because, you see, there’s a quote from me on the… yeah, you got there.

I think the two funniest panel titles were probably ‘Coping With Rejection’ (imagine saying you were a participant on that: ‘oh, I only did the one panel, “Coping With Rejection”’) and ‘Why Is Blake’s 7 Still Popular?’ (Italics my own.)

Apart from the panels, there are the meals. On the Friday night, (programme organiser) Liz Batty led Third Row Fandom in a long march out of the hotel, through Middlesex and across the Cotswolds to an Indian restaurant. Not all of us made it. Even now, a week later, there are still reports of stragglers collapsing in the hotel lobby, asking what time the filk panel is. Perhaps the long march was to find somewhere where pulling your blazer over your head and giving your verdict on the Clarke shortlist as the Emperor from Star Wars is acceptable. On the Saturday, me and Neil Gaiman and his charming daughter Holly went out for dinner at a (much nearer, see, there was one!) gastropub. It’s the first time I’ve talked to Neil at length, and what a lovely, down to earth chap he turns out to be. And Doctor Who geek, mind you. Obviously, the two of us were riveting on the topic of the qualities of ‘The Mind Robber’. It wasn’t Holly’s fault she fell asleep, it had been a long day. And on the Sunday, the very funny and wise (editor) Patrick Nielsen Hayden and I had lunch and talked mostly about the new world of free at the point of delivery everything, joined by China, who was everywhere that weekend, doing everything, with witty doctor in training partner usually alongside.

I spent loads of the weekend with my Agent, who has friends from all across the convention, chosen, in a very non badda bing way, it seems, on the content of their character rather than on the basis of business advantage. We danced a bit at the disco, with SFX editor Dave Bradley, who dances like me when he’s had a few. But then, who doesn’t? My Agent being around made the convention, rather, because between him and Third Row and Calapine’s fangirls and Ian McDonald and his wife and Stephen Jones’ gang I always had a group to crash back down into the middle of. We formed a swathe in the back row of the BSFA Awards (all done in twenty minutes, there’s a good awards ceremony for you), and my Agent managed to text Ken MacLeod about his Short Fiction award and get a reply while the event was still going on. Ken was in Aussie for SwanCon, where I was meant to be until my wife’s work made going there for any reasonable length of time impossible. I still regret not going, but I hope to make up for that, perhaps as early as next year. It’s the small conversations, slumped close with someone in groups of chairs, or forming a little angle of opinion in a stairwell, or cluttering up a lobby late at night, or marching together towards or away from something that make an event like this. Liz and Nic and Graham and Simon and Roz and Calapine and many others and I, just for five minutes, just the intimacy of an enormous culture that’s here to celebrate itself. I’ve talked before of the packed nature of experience at a convention, bigger on the inside than the outside, so much in so little time, which can come as a shock to a writer, used to isolation. So much so in my case that I dropped out of my Monday panel (‘Sex and the Singularity’, and I’d only have sat there saying ‘bollocks’ every five minutes) and drove home instead in a kind of exhausted trance.

The best thing of all was the moment when the Hugo Award nominees were announced, and suddenly, because we’re living in the future, everyone knew at once and was shaking my hand.

So there we are. Such condensed experience, with my people. My favourite thing. I await Denver with a nervousness about the awards ceremony that I can hardly describe, but at least I know there’ll be a big convention around it, and, win or lose, I’ll be kept on my feet by and take comfort in my peers. I hope I’ll see some of you on Saturday, in Darwen, but until I do, Cheerio.

Hugo Award Nomination!

I've literally just run back to my hotel room from the registration queue at Eastercon to tell you: I'm honoured to say this year's Hugo Award nominees have just been announced, and 'Human Nature' is on the ballot!

Nomination List

It's also a pleasure to see so many friends nominated. Thank you so much all who nominated me, I do appreciate it, the Hugo is the award I've been dreaming about since I was eight years old. More on all this later! Off to leap about whooping now! Cheerio!

Lots of News and Links

On World Book Day, March 6th, I was very pleased to open a new library at the Thomas Reade School in Abingdon. To perplex future generations, a plaque with my name on it now offends the wall there. I was tremendously enthused by the school itself, which seems vibrant and forward-looking, and now the children there have hundreds of entirely new, and entirely apt, books to choose from. Very satisfying to do that.

And last Thursday, I was pleased to have been a guest at a BBC Faith and Broadcasting seminar in Cardiff. Actually, honoured to have just been asked, but on the day I managed to speak up about, you know, stuff, and I think represent the twin faith communities of Anglican and Geek pretty well, as well as get to thank St. Menna Richards, Controller BBC Wales, for Doctor Who.

I went on and on recently at the request of the chaps from the Geek Syndicate Podcast:


I talk about the craft a bit as well as loads of comics, Who and SF geekiness.

And hey, I'm guesting at Chicago Tardis in November!

Chicago Tardis.

I did like these internet icons, especially since they include a couple of Bernice Summerfield ones:


And if you haven't seen this, I really like this chap's cartooning skills in his ongoing 'Ten Doctors' online strip:

Ten Doctors.

And Pete Wisdom shows up, with a rather groovy looking five of spades card, as one of the Skrull targets for their upcoming invasion:


That's what happens when I save up links for a few days. I'm hoping to blog from Orbital this year, so until I see you there, Cheerio.

Black Knight Profile

And here's a bit about the last member of our Captain Britain and MI-13 team, for now, the Black Knight:

The Black Knight

He's been a favourite of mine since I first glimpsed him during the Avengers/Defenders war. And then he was just a statue. Cheerio!

Pete and Faisa Profiles

Two more Captain Britain and MI-13 character profiles, leaving just one more to present tomorrow...

Pete Wisdom

Faisa Hussain

Check out that Bryan Hitch art on the second piece! Typical Pete, there. Cheerio!

John the Skrull and Spitfire Profiles

Our second and third Captain Britain and MI-13 team members now have their own preview pieces, once more with some lovely Leonard Kirk art:

John the Skrull


And, everyone at the school I visited this week, don't fret, I'll be talking about the visit later on this week. And thank you all for such a warm welcome. Until tomorrow, Cheerio!

Captain Britain Profile

The first of six back-to-back interviews has gone up at Comic Book Resources, each one concentrating on one of the lead characters of Captain Britain and MI-13. This time it's Cap himself, complete with some lovely designs from Leonard Kirk, our awesome artist:

We'll have two more character profiles going up tomorrow, and daily after that. Isn't this exciting? Cheerio!

Fast Forward, Gallifrey, Picocon

The first thing I should mention is an announcement I’m proud of. Editor Lou Anders has chosen my short story, ‘Catherine Drewe’, the first in a series of SF/spy/alternate world stories featuring my lead character Jonathan Hamilton, as the opening story in his next anthology, Fast Forward 2, coming out from Pyr Books in October 2009. Yes, that far ahead! So I’ll be talking more about the Hamilton stories nearer the time. I’ve already placed the second story, subject to contract, and I’m in the process of sorting out the third. It’s great to have a series up and running, especially in such prestigious anthologies, the first Fast Forward having gained Lou much justified praise:

Now, I give up, I’m not going to be able to write a proper convention report about Gallifrey in Los Angeles a couple of weekends ago. As always, it felt like the most delightful holiday, with the Green Room (where there is home baking and an ice box full of cans) as an odd room of one’s house, that one only has access to for a few days every year, into which friends one doesn’t see in any other circumstances wander. It was certainly the best of these wonderful events as far as I was concerned, and after over a decade of them, the bar’s been set pretty high on that. There was just a great atmosphere, almost of renewal. You know how Lost, in season four, suddenly seems like the most vital thing again? American Who fandom, at least in terms of who comes to Galley, is now like that. When the very first panel on the first day is packed out, it’s obvious something is going on. I think Torchwood has something to do with it. It’s hit big in America in a way we over here haven’t really understood thus far. At times this felt like a Torchwood convention with a bit of Who attached. I would not bet against a Torchwood Hugo nomination this time round. (But you know my record on entertainment betting. Though I did make some money on the Oscars this year: thank you, Tilda.)

But okay, I should try and summarise events. Basically, each day: wake up way early, brain altered by jet lag; enormous and luxurious breakfast; alter brain with good coffee; start encountering a variety of interesting folk, with ongoing subplots of their own, many of whom want to hug you; perk up brain enough to do a panel about something, at which the audience will play an interactive part, and a part of what the audience is thinking will be mulled over, worked through, examined in detail; sign autographs and thus meet the audience directly in quick bursts, and they’re lovely; enormous and luxurious dinner with different set of mates every night; alter brain with beer; get to bed in the early hours, body now resigned to trauma at this time every year, of which jet lag is such a small part that it hardly matters. Repeat for three days. And on Monday, collapse into moodily trudging around in search of anything in L.A. Wonder when autograph panel is.

I hosted Just A Minute onstage again. Sophie Aldred defeated three writers this time. Sophie wants a kind of Champions League playoff, with the previous winners: Colin Baker and Gary Russell, pitted against her. We need one more, I feel. And possibly some transatlantic sponsorship. Asking Rob Shearman to talk for a minute about anything is probably a bad idea. His categories of things to avoid really should include Bitterness and Sly Irony. My wife did karaoke, belting out ‘Son of a Preacher Man’ in her professional style. I then failed at ‘Cabaret’. Actually, it’s more accurate to say I stood there muttering at the screen. I’m trying to put it behind me.

I really enjoyed the Squee and Gender and Sexuality panels, because, alongside a lot of laughs, we worked through some really interesting stuff. And hearing assembled fangirls (so many girls this year, that demographic finally starting to swing round) all going ‘squee’ at once was music to my ears. That’s what a writer wants an audience to do in reaction to his work. Never mind picking it apart like a dead chicken, give me Beatles screams!

I was pleased to haul myself onstage and guest on a live edition of Doctor Who: Podshock. Audio being my ideal medium at that time in the morning. It was weird to meet two of the hosts of that show in person. Ken and Louis look nothing like their voices. Ken especially should have a little bushy beard.

As always, the convention is also a chance to hang around with my gangs. It was a pleasure to induct James Moran into the league of Who writers…

By the way, James has done an interview with the Geek Syndicate podcast here:

Moffat and I spent a great deal of time lounging around together, beer (sometimes Apricot flavoured beer) in hand. He was feted wherever he went, obviously. I believe he healed the sick and cured the lame. Seriously, it’s good to see how much this fandom has embraced him. And how often. Rob gets hugged a lot as well. Despite the bitterness. And James is always talking about how surprising it is to be so hugged. I just get a lot of firm handshakes.

Some people I should mention: Tara O’Shea, who’s always our companion at these conventions, and just the most delightfully sunny and sociable person. She’s a fan salonist, in that she brings together groups of interesting people and forms them into gangs. I wish she lived next door. In this town, she’d start managing bands. Handsome Timmy D hauled crates of beer into the hotel lobby and donated them to the company. He’s also one of the most regular posters on the Down Among the Dead Men mailing list (for Bernice fans), and always good value in the bar. Graeme Burke, Mike Doran and my old friends in their orbit always give me a gang to go back to and a good dinner.

And on the Sunday night, we went across town, slightly wobbly, to have dinner with fellow comics and TV writers Allan Heinberg, Mark Waid, Javier Grillo- Marxuach and Doselle Young. Javier and Mark had already popped in to the convention, and, as happens at Galley, ended up on panels. Javier, excitingly, is in the process of preparing the TV version of his Middleman comic, which I await with great anticipation. It’s a joy to have friends in that town one can talk snappy dialogue with. Doselle was kind enough to take us back to the venue, and we sat up for a while amongst the ongoing party, talking about, erm, boxing and stuff.

All in all, we had an amazing time. It’s a shame the magic door that leads from my lounge to the Green Room will be locked for so many more months.

Picocon, the other weekend at Imperial College, was good fun. But it’s actually bigger than Microcon, in Exeter, so how does that work? I was guesting with (novelist) Liz Williams and (new Dad) Cory Doctorow. I got there with two minutes to spare before my panel, and delivered a bit of a wandering rant about everything I could think of, managing to insult whole continents on the way (I can’t remember how I came to pick on the Legion of Super Heroes, no not the comic, the actual Legion). Then I joined the other two for a serious discussion on the subject of ‘Futurism Sucks’ which became a collective wandering rant about global warming. ‘Which is better, humbly accepting our fate as greenhouse gas sinners and living in medieval wetness, or trying to solve the problem? There’s only one way to settle this: fight!’ The Picocon organisers also presented fun entertainments such as dunking crap merchandise in liquid nitrogen and then smashing it (I ducked from a flying fragment of Quentin Tarantino) and fighting with your actual fish (‘I’m using a sardine as a main gauche’). And me and Third Row Fandom won the pub quiz! Again! But for many the highlight of the weekend was meeting the girls who did the freaking out in front of the end of Doctor Who season three in that YouTube video which, for many, has defined and represented squee for our time. ‘It’s… you, isn’t it?!’ gasped one stunned admirer.

And hey, there’s a full-on Torchwood convention in London this Spring! This is going to sell out in minutes, isn’t it?

Ah, the times we live in. Until I see you next, which should be very swiftly, depending on Captain Britain interview news that’s imminent, Cheerio!