Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Worldcon - the world SF convention

This particular Worldcon is called Loncon3 as it's the third one to be held in London. On the morning before I went I put a photo of my Star Wars T-shirt on Facebook and commented how it would make me fit in. Not that I needed to fit in. I saw:
  • a large green cat like figure
  • several top hats, some with brass goggles
  • several Terry Pratchett hats
  • a spoon headdress (worn by a space scientist)
  • a Tardis dress
  • a dragon on someone's shoulder
  • just the one fez
The breadth of the programme is amazing. It runs from Thursday to Monday. There are 600 items which means at any given time there are about ten things to choose from. All sorts of types of SF are represented: literary, film, graphic, TV, young adult, music and science too. 

As well as all those items there was an art show, dealers stalls, a games tent, a library and a fan area. What I was looking forward to was seeing some authors I've read or certainly heard of, in the flesh. Like a twitcher I ticked off Cory Doctorow, Kim Stanley Robinson, Paul McAuley, Alastair Reynolds and Chris Foss, the artist. The list of people who I've heard of, or read books by, but didn't see in person, was longer. Headed by Charlie Stross, it included George RR Martin, Brian Aldiss, Ben Bova, Lauren Beukes etc. etc.

One popular format on the programme is the panel. One moderator, four other people, usually authors, and a question to consider. I went to one on ideas vs. story, one looking at Elysium and Gravity, and other space films, and one on that age-old question "what is SF". Or to be more accurate:
SF as a genre is both loaded and contested, bringing with it decades of controversies, assumptions, prejudices, and possibilities. What do the genre's various practitioners and consumers think SF is? Are we speaking the same language, or talking past each other? How do perceptions of SF - in terms of who can write it, who can consume it, and what kinds of stories can find a market - create or reinforce realities? Is 'core' SF still about space exploration and colonisation, or is there room for other types of stories? If SF is 'dying', as we're frequently told, what does that mean and in whose interests are the preparations for its funeral?
Some people who are more fannish than me are probably bored of the question, but I found it interesting.

Moderating a panel is a skill and those that I saw did it well, though there was one famous author who seemed to take over the questioning. There was also a Q&A with Chris Foss, the artist. I enjoyed it, but at the end I thought that he does do quite a lot of spaceships. When a van passes me with diagonal stripes on the back I'm now thinking of him. The art exhibition showed just what a vast breadth of SF&F artists there are.

There was a really good writeup in The Guardian and a picture gallery. I saw the Waggott family in that first picture and a couple of the other people there myself. I went on a Friday. On the Saturday they had the costume show - Masquerade - so there were probably many more people in costume around the place.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

APA, Fanzines and publishing in the 80s

A couple of hours ago I booked a day ticket (or "membership" as it's called) for the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention. I've spent the time since digging around on the internet into my past. Let me explain.

I went to University in York between 1984 and 1988. From my early teens my reading material was almost exclusively SF. When I went to University I joined the British Science Fiction Association. (A while back when I was doing some vanity searching I came across an index of letters to the BSFA journal. Someone dutifully recorded that I written two letters.) I was also invited to join an Amateur Press Association, or APA, called The Organisation. If you're read the article I've linked to you'll understand how they work. What it doesn't do is explain how things were before the internet, for those who haven't experienced it. In the 80s there were three or four TV channels. There were books and magazines. There was Doctor Who and Blakes 7, and Space 1999 and Star Wars. Amateur publishing was a labour of love, and a non-trivial effort. For The Organisation APA I would write something most months, usually discussing things people had brought up in previous months. I would print as many copies as there were members (we were invited, you could be kicked out for non-contribution) and then days or weeks later I would get a copy of everyone else's contribution mailed back to me. I think I chucked all mine out at some point, as there was quite a stack, but I may have retained one issue in the loft. That was a way of getting your thoughts out and hopefully carefully read by a group of people. The other way, writing and copying a fanzine and distributing it at meetings and by post, needed more confidence and work. Each contribution was like a small fanzine though, and mine was called Life in the Gap, referring to what it's like living in the gap between Jesus' death and return.

The reason I'm saying all that, and talking about the internet, is because now the publishing is so much easier. That orange Publish button is up there at the top right of the screen, just waiting for me to push it. Of course there are millions more words and pictures now so you need different ways of getting that careful reading. So being part of that APA felt like a small privilege. I would try and contribute every month. I probably dropped out towards the end of University when finals and then hopefully working life were looming.

I've been trying to see if there was any trace of The Organisation on the internet. Having a generic name hasn't really helped. I found a reference in the Wikipedia article on Birmingham Science Fiction Group, so I'm not just making it up. I also found a history in a fanzine, Prolapse 3, in the article "whatever happened to APA-B?" (the original name of The Organisation). I remember some of the names - Joy Hibbert, who I met at my first SF convention (this year's Worldcon is my second) Lucon at Leeds University, sadly now died, William McCabe, who wrote the article and signed off as WAM, and Kev McVeigh.

Towards the end of the article there's a mention of Charles Stross. I've been reading Charlie's blog for a while now, initially when other people linked to his articles on the publishing industry. I've even read a couple of his books. I suspect I left before Charlie joined, but there's a small point of pride - I was in the same APA as Charlie Stross, a published SF author. I tried to find some other reference for Charlie's membership, but I've only got that one. No mention on Charlie's website. I found a mention of it in Ansible 212, I connection with the death of Ken Lake, but I have to confess I don't remember if he was a member at the same time as me.

What I did find on his website, though, was his autobiography. There are several points of similarity with my own - we both owned an Amstrad PCW (though he used his to much better effect than me) and did Computer Science at University, including learning Pascal. From there the similarities end as his career went from technical authoring to fiction authoring and mine has gone from software development to IT management.