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Eastercon 2010

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I spent last weekend at Odyssey 2010, this year's Eastercon. And in the tradition of previous trip reports, I thought I'd write it up. So here it is.

What is Eastercon? Well there's the obvious answer: it's a convention held every Easter. There's the slightly more informative, but still straightforward answer: it's the British national science fiction convention, held at a different venue each year by a team who bid to host it in much the same way as with the Olympics.

Or there's the real answer.

It's a place where fans to go to meet fans. And that's the key for me. This is my third Eastercon, and one thing that's become very apparent to me is that an Eastercon is not like a theatre, with the players on one side and the audience on the other. This year and last, I was on panels (three last year, one this). But that doesn't make me special. Because just as I spent the rest of my time attending panels as a watcher, so half1 the people in the audience at my panel were probably panellists on some other panel.

Whether it be fans talking informally to each other in the bar, or more formally to each other in a discussion panel, Eastercon is a two-way conversation not a one-way broadcast. (I think most of the pros, and certainly all the ones I spent time talking with, get this completely. But I have a suspicion that perhaps some of them don't.)

Anyhow, enough with the philosophy, what happened?

To reflect each con's different location and organising team, each instance of Eastercon has a different name. My first Eastercon was Orbital 2008, held two years ago at the Radisson Edwardian Hotel near Heathrow. A year later we were at the Cedar Court hotel near Bradford for LX 2009, so named to reflect its status as the 60th Eastercon2. This year, we were back at the Radisson with Odyssey. I procrastinated until January before booking by which time the Radisson was full, so I ended up in one of the overflow hotels, the Renaissance (which was only two or three minutes walk away, so it was no real hassle).

A lot happened, so rather than give a 15,000 word chronological account, I'll just break this report up into random sections.

The Hotel

The Radisson is strange. I'd say that the architect was clearly on acid when he designed it, but that would then beg the question of what the owners were on when they signed off on his design. It's a charming, mad and confusing space in which a man can lose his bearing and disappear for days.

Perfect for a science-fiction convention in other words.

I think it was best summed up by a floor plan of the convention I saw tacked up to a wall somewhere that declared: "Warning: This is a 2D representation of a non-Euclidian space."

There is no ground floor, as the hotel is numbered American style, starting with floor one. Entering the lobby on the aforementioned first floor, you'll see no lifts, just a rather magnificent set of stairs leading away and up. Follow them, and you'll find yourself in a corridor next to the Atrium bar.

You are now on the third floor.

What happened to the second floor? Well my initial understanding that there was no second floor lasted until sometime into Sunday when I was informed that there was actually a residential-only second floor, tacked onto the side and back of the building, and accessible only by a moderately hidden pair of lifts and an even more hidden staircase. (If you were there, and this is all new to you, you had to go left at the lobby and then straight on, past the two Newbury rooms, and that's where you'd find the semi-secret entrance to the second floor).

My panel was in room 41, which is on the fourth floor, which is where it gets really interesting, because the stairs that take you straight from the lobby to the third floor without making any intervening stop on the second floor, stop there, and don't go any further.

I actually had to consult the map on this one. Eventually - after a winding journey that took me out of the atrium bar, along a corridor, back into that atrium bar, back into the corridor (after taking a second look at the map) with me this time successfully spotting the doors that led to a concealed staircase - I made it up to the fourth floor.

Except that I was on the wrong bit of the fourth floor. The staircase I'd gone up was the one you wanted for rooms 40 and 42, but while it did have a door to room 41, it took you into the end of the room where the panellists' table was. (i.e. If you opened the door and poked your head through you'd find a roomful of people looking straight at you).

To get into room 41 without making a show of yourself, you had to go back down to the third floor, go left out of the Atrium bar and then away, and get to the same lifts and stairs set that you'd use to get to the second floor, but take them to the fourth.

i.e. The fourth floor is split into two totally separate portions, with the only connecting route being through room 41, which has doors at either end.

And I haven't even mentioned that the hotel's largest room, the Commonwealth Room, is not the standard oblong shape you'd expect, but a weird slab sided trapezium.

It's a very strange building. Cthulhuesque, even.

Themed Days

One of the weird things about this con was that I seemed to find my days being themed according to who I met, something that was pointed out to me by John Coxon (@johncoxon) when we bumped into each other in the toilet on day four (which was John Coxon day) and he remarked: "I didn't see you at all for the first three days and now I keep on bumping into you!"

Day one, Friday, I met a nice vegan lady called Christine and her son. I was at the cafeteria getting a jacket potato and beans (I had that meal on days one, two and three, and only failed to have it on day four because they'd ran out of beans, which resulted in my having a jacket potato and ketchup instead) and I heard her from two places back in the queue asking what was vegan. You don't meet that many vegans out and about (although I understand there were at least a good handful at the con) so I introduced myself and we had a nice chat over dinner. They'd come down for all four days and were really looking forward to it.

I bumped into them repeatedly through that day and had some quite long chats, and then never saw them again except for one brief flash on Sunday when I passed them on the corridor in a real hurry to get somewhere and with no time to do anything other than smile and say hi.

Day three, Sunday, was the day I kept on bumping into the two Chrises, who are the brilliant pair I met at Orbital two years ago and who loved Game Night so much that they were responsible for probably half the sales I made at the Discworld Con by press-ganging people into buying it (with Brian Nisbet being responsible for the other half). Along with Chris's other half Dave, they've been a great source of support and encouragement and it was really good to catch up with them again.

I actually spent a lot of time with them throughout the con, but I seem to recall Sunday was the day where I really kept on bumping into them, including the time where I'd just had my eyeballs surgically removed by a girl apparently wearing nothing more than a corset, a thong, and some fishnets, and the two Chrises karmically appeared just as I was in the process of trying to shove my eyeballs back into their sockets.

"We're going to tell Jules what you were looking at!" they told me, laughing at my transfixed stare. Apparently, my reply was that I was faithful, not blind.

Meeting People (The Atrium Bar)

I met and chatted with a lot of nice people, and apologies for the many people I fail to mention. In no particular order:

I talked with Darren Nash (@thenashmeister) and @ktabic (whose name I do remember, but which I won't mention because he hasn't put it on his Twitter account) for a lot of Thursday night. Friday night I had a really good conversation with Danie Ware (@danacea) from Forbidden Planet and Jim Swallow (writer of novels, tie-in novels, audio plays and computer games).

At the book signing on Saturday afternoon, I had a really nice chat with Chaz Brenchley, who was sitting to my left, and then - when he had finished signing a lot of book - a somewhat shorter but equally satisfying chat with Iain M Banks, who was sitting to my right.

(Strictly speaking, with one book sale - to @ktabic, who I'd been talking to on Thursday night - I outsold Iain, but this was of course only because he's at the stage of his career where he's merely signing the books and not selling them).

I spent quite a while on a few occasions chatting with the guys behind the Glasgow con Satellite 3, which will be held in February 2012, and which sounds pretty good. Monday night I bumped into Piers Buckley, who's a friend of my publisher James Wallis, and who I met two years previously with his other half at Orbital.

I spent quite a bit of time on Saturday and Monday with my Brighton writer friend Mark Barrowcliffe (a.k.a. the fantasy writer M. D. Lachlan - @mdlachlan), who was down for those two days. (On Saturday he did a particularly good, and particularly well-attended, presentation on the sort of Victorian Martial arts that Sherlock Holmes would have used. Doing this sort of presentation is a lot more work than simply doing a panel, so it was really good to see how many people turned up and how much they enjoyed it.)

And I also managed to catch up with the very nice, funny and just plain damn cheerful Paul Cornell (@Paul_Cornell). (He's the sort of guy who's entertaining enough that if he's on a panel, you'll go it, regardless of what it might be about).

Any that's just the people I can remember now. Unlike the two previous Eastercons, when I'd had Jules with me, I was there on my own, so I pretty much had to poke my nose into people's conversations and say hi. If you were one of those people who took time to talk to me, whether I've mentioned you here or not, thank you.

The Panel

I only had one panel this year, on "Humour in SF and Fantasy", but I think it turned out to be a good one. The panellists were John Coxon (the moderator), writer Raven Dane, two times Nebula award winner Esther Friesner, and comedian Donna Scott. Other than John, who I know from previous Eastercons when he'd been on the ZZ9 (the official Hitch-Hikers fan club) stand next to us, I hadn't met any of the other panellists. But we met up in the Green Room before the talk and got on really well.

We had a very good crowd, and I think we managed to both have a good discussion as well as provide a few laughs (which is always good when you're up there as people who are allegedly funny at a professional level).

We did have one massively unanswerable question. Raven had explained that some publishers have told her that they won't do humorous fantasy or SF because Terry Pratchett owns 90% of that market leaving everyone else to scrap over the remaining 10%. (Personally, I think that those publishers are missing one vital point, which is that it's not a fixed size pie - if a load of really funny books come out, then the number of humour books sold will increase).

But regardless of that, it did then provoke a question whose precise wording I can't recall but which was something like:

"Regarding the point about publishers refusing to publish humour because Terry Pratchett has 90% of the market, and given that his illness means that at some point, he won't be able to write any more books, do you think that will result in more opportunities for writers of fantasy humour?"

Not for the first time in my writing career I retreated behind the table, where I was joined by Donna.

I have to say thanks to John Coxon, for firstly saying some very nice words about Game Night during the panel, and then encouraging me to offer it for sale at the end for anyone who wanted it. (I happened to have three copies in my backpack, and sold all three).

Gophering (And The Red Shirt)

This Eastercon was a quite different experience for me because it was the first at which I didn't have a stand in the Dealers Hall and could thus spend my time enjoying the con. My plans for the con were basically to attend panels and hang out in the bar, but when I saw there were programme items about becoming a gopher I started to think that maybe I should help out a bit as well. I was planning on attending the Thursday night gopher session, but then met people in the bar, and forgot. But at the opening ceremony on Friday evening the organisers reiterated how much they need volunteers to make Eastercon work, so I attended the Friday night gopher session, run by the lovely "Gopher Dad" Rachael Livermore, and signed up for three hour long shifts on door duty outside the Dealers Room.

This involved sitting outside one of the two entrances to the Dealers Room making sure that no-one entered if they weren't wearing a convention badge, and that no-one save dealers took any food or drink inside. This isn't actually as easy as it sounds. The badges come in full weekend and individual day versions but aren't double-sided, which means that when they've flopped round backwards (which in true toast butter-side-down fashion is about 60% of the time) you have to ask people to flip them around.

I tried employing what I thought was a pretty intuitive whirling finger gesture here, but from the confused looks I got I fear it actually just came across as vaguely obscene. Take the flipped over badges, add in the people who've left their badges in their hotel room, season with the people who don't have a dealer tag, but have supposedly been asked by a dealer to get them a drink, and top with the occasional random mundane who's wondered in off the street and well, it's not that easy.

It was about fifteen minutes in that I remembered a Knights of the Dinner Table issue in which they went to GaryCon but found their way into the con stymied by... the Door Nazi. And now that was me. I fear there is now a whole segment of fandom that knows me only as the pernickety bastard on the Dealers Room door. But I was just trying to do my job conscientiously and well.

Good works aside, Gophering isn't entirely without rewards. For each shift you do you get given two pounds worth of the convention's own currency, groats, redeemable on food and drink at the convention bars or on one special item mentioned at the opening ceremony...

Yes. For 10 of groats you could get a special red-shirt version of the convention top, the other versions being those worn by the convention committee (gold) and the convention staff (blue). You couldn't buy the red-shirt with cash; you could only earn it.

I wanted that red-shirt. (If anyone from Illustrious 2011 is reading this, and wondering if you should repeat what is clearly a cheap psychological trick, then my answer is yes, you should do it - because in my case at least it's a cheap psychological trick that worked).

After working an hour on the Saturday (actually an hour and fifteen minutes because no-one came to replace me, requiring a staff guy called - I think - Black Knight to kindly relieve me) I ended up working three hours on the Sunday because someone again didn't turn up and I ended up doing a two hour shift. But I was actually happy to do the extra hour because it meant I was only one hour short of my goal.

So straight after my panel on Monday morning I marched down to the Gopher Hole and asked Rachael if she had any more shifts on offer and she asked if I was free to go down to the Dealers Room straight away. I was, although in my eagerness to get down there I skipped a toilet break which turned out to be rather necessary with the result that by about fifty minutes in I was fit to burst. Luckily however, this was John Coxon day, so when he wondered past me (with a Gopher tag on his badge that showed he was qualified to cover me) I was able to ask him to spell me for just a couple of minutes while I had one of those pisses where you were so desperate to go it's practically better than sex.

And then the red-shirt was mine.

(And if anyone feels like pointing out that I missed a couple of minutes of my shift, I'll point out in return that I'd done fifteen minutes extra on Saturday and about nine minutes extra on Sunday, over and above what I'd been paid for).

I was really chuffed to have the shirt and to spend the rest of the day walking around in it. Panels are fun, and I love doing them, but like I said at the start, Eastercon's a conversation not a performance, and I'd like to think that when people saw me in my red shirt they'd know that I got that.

The closing ceremony was really special. I always try to attend opening and closing ceremonies at cons, not because they're interesting (they're frequently not) but because to me they act as emotional book-ends to the overall experience. As with last year, when they got to the end of the individual thanks they asked everyone who'd helped out as either a panellist or a gopher to stand up - at which point it seemed like nearly a third of the hall stood up.

And then they asked everyone who wasn't a gopher to sit down - at which point most of the people standing up, stood down. Suddenly it was just a hall full of seated people clapping a much smaller number of standing people, most of us wearing our red-shirts.

It really reinforced the point that while appearing on a panel at an Eastercon is a really cool thing to do, especially for presentations that require a lot of preparatory work, in general, you really shouldn't let yourself think it makes you some kind of big shot, because they will be an awful lot of people there who are also on at least one panel.

Last year, I had to sit down at the point when it switched to Gophers only, and become one of those doing the applause. This year I got to stay standing up and receive the applause - right up until the point where they announced that the Gopher Dalek was going to reward the Gophers in the most appropriate way, played a burst of machine-gun fire over the speakers, waited until we all flopped down "dead", and then dimmed the lights.

This might sound really geeky, but standing up their in my red-shirt while all the seated people clapped just felt really cool and was one of my highlights of the con.

If you want to have fun at an Eastercon try and get yourself onto a panel; if you want to feel special, do some Gophering.

Moving On...

What next?

Well for me, my writing career is apparently going to go onward and upward. I know this because at the debrief party for Gophers after the closing ceremony, I had my fortune told my Esther Friesner, who had been on the panel with me. As I said before, Esther is a two-time Nebula award winner, and thus actually is a genuine big-shot; but she nonetheless, like me, had clearly been doing some Gophering because she was at the Gophers' party and wearing a red-shirt. (If you ever get to meet her, she's a really nice lady).

Anyhow, Esther was doing some cheeblemancy in aid of the St Mungos charity for the homeless. What is cheeblemancy? Well it's fortune telling using hamsters. Esther told me that she usually has a full fake hamster in a wheel, but she hadn't fancied the possibly quite interesting conversation she might have had trying to get that through customs, so she was doing a simpler version using a hamster key-ring and a marked up sheet.

I had to hold the hamster, think of the past, present and future (during which my mind basically skipped from childhood, to Jules, and then to some kind of awards ceremony) and then go through a slightly complicated hamster flipping routine which - on only my second attempt - resulted in the hamster landing on the sheet in what was apparently an interesting position.

Esther explained that its positioning indicated that I had been through trials but was now poised to reap the rewards. She said that what was especially crucial was that the key-ring's chain, which she referred to as "the anchor", was lying in the central "balance" area. I pointed out that the hamster's ear was also extending into the central area. (Can't hurt to point these things out, right?)

She looked and agreed that it was. So, bright future then.

Joking aside, I was very pleased with how much really good feedback I got regarding Game Night from a whole load of people at the con. It would be both boring and egotistical to repeat all the anecdotes, so I'll just settle for quoting something that Mark (M. D. Lachlan) said in his Eastercon report.

Met up with Jonny Nexus there who has quite a fan club for his novel Game Night - published by a small press. I keep encouraging him to try with a major publisher because people really do seem to love this book.

As for Eastercon itself, the venues for both next year and the year after that were decided at a voting session on Sunday afternoon. Next year, we're all be heading to the Hilton Metropole at Birmingham's NEC for Illustrious 2011 (@Illustrious2011). Then in 2012, we'll be heading back to the Radisson at Heathrow again for Olympus2012 (@Olympus2012). This is a mostly different committee from Odyssey, but is aiming to build on their experience.

And finally, at an event on the Saturday night, the team that want to bring the Worldcon to the UK in 2014 formally launched their bid, and revealed that they had settled on London's Excel centre as their choice of location. You can find more details at their website or you can follow them on Twitter at @londonin2014. They're offering a 14 pre-membership package that will give you a discount on the final tickets should they win the bid. Simply arranging the bid is a pretty costly exercise, so I'd strongly recommend that as may people as possible buy pre-memberships. (I have).

I also bought my membership for Illustrious immediately after the bid session (nice low badge number for me, next time!). So all Eastercon people reading this - I'll see you next year at Illustrious. (That's if I don't see you at this August's Discworld convention first).

And that was Eastercon.

I can only finish with a quote that would have worked so much better had Jim Lovell and his crew named their Apollo 13 spaceships the other way round3.

Farewell, erm Odyssey, we thank you.

    1This is probably a slight exaggeration for effect, but not by as much as you'd think. With four and a half days of programming from nine in the morning until midnight, and often with several items going on simultaneously, most of which will require four or five people on the panel, an Eastercon devours panellists like Casualty or the Bill devour bit-part actors.

    2Or was it the 61st? There's apparently a long running controversy over an Eastercon that is believed by some to have taken place at (I think) Kettering in 1957, but whose memory is blurred enough that its very existence is questioned. Must have been one hell of a party.

    3I could have gone on about how like its namesake, Odyssey had sustained us safe through four days in a hostile environment. But alas, Odyssey was the command and service module that blew up and died, much as my metaphor did when I remembered which way round the names went.