Friday, August 22, 2014

London and LonCon

Well, here I am, back from London and Loncon, with much to tell.  I combined my third foray to Worldcon (and my first as a Hugo nominee) with a family vacation, both of which were delightful if a little tiring--a classic "I need a vacation after this vacation" situation.  The experiences of both convention and city are already swirling in my head, so I'd better get them down while it's still possible to make sense of them.
  • The City - I've been to London many times, but the last time I toured it, rather than simply stopping on my way from one place to another for a bit of shopping or theater, was in 2001.  And this trip was also the first time my family and I had vacationed together since 2008 (longer if you include my aunt, who joined us for the first weekend as an early birthday celebration for her and my mother).  We ended up doing a lot of the tourist standards, many of which have changed substantially since I last visited them--the whole area surrounding the Tate Modern, for example, has been built up into a river walk that I hadn't seen before (plus the Millennium Bridge, which I found both ridiculous and delightful).  And, of course, the city is constantly rebuilding itself, with new buildings going up all the time--my aunt, who is an architect, would have been thrilled to spend her entire time in London looking at them.


    I really appreciate that so many of the London museums are open free of charge, but on this trip it was the temporary (and thus ticketed) exhibits that linger in my memory: the Matisse cutouts at the Tate Modern (open until September 7th) were lovely and, to me, a little more accessible than some of the other work there (though I was also very taken by the surreal, and rather clearly slipstream-y, drawings of Louise Bourgeois); Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK at the British Library (closed on August 19th) was as insightful and eye-opening as advertized, offering a counterpoint to the familiar, US-based narrative of the medium's emergence and growth into political engagement (though I would have appreciated it if the exhibit did not take its dark tone so literally--at times I found it difficult to read some of the explanatory texts).  At the V&A, we saw two very different exhibits--Disobedient Objects, about the material culture of protest movements (open until February 1st), and Wedding Dresses (open until March 15th), whose title is self-explanatory, and where I was amused by the gender (im)balance of the crowds.


    Other highlights of our time as tourists include lunch at Nopi, one of Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi's restaurants.  You might recognize those names from their recent blockbuster cookbook Jerusalem, and though the book is truly excellent, I was a little bemused by the idea of going all the way to London to eat Israeli/Palestinian food.  I shouldn't have been concerned.  Though the flavors at Nopi were familiar, the dishes were their own creation, and expertly prepared.  Highly recommended--and be sure to check out what is probably the most ridiculous ladies' bathroom in London.  I'm a little more dubious about our theater excursion, Book of Mormon, which was funny and very well done, but not really to my taste.  The skewering of Mormonism was more thoughtful than I was expecting, but the conclusion the show reaches is more than a little trite, and I'd be curious to know how the show's handling of race has been received by more knowledgeable critics.  And though I'm loathe to complain about this from my living room outside Tel Aviv where the air conditioner is just barely keeping the 83% humidity at bay, the weather left something to be desired--we'd planned for temperatures in the mid-20s with occasional showers, and got high teens with frequent downpours.  Still, on the whole this was a very successful vacation.


  • Accessibility - When my family and I planned this vacation a year ago, it was in the belief that my mother, who had recently undergone a double knee replacement, would be back to normal by the time we traveled.  Flash forward a year, and my mother's knees are still giving her trouble, so we ended up traveling and touring with a mobility scooter.  This afforded us some unexpected privileges--as the able-bodied companions of a disabled person, my brother and I benefited whenever our mother was waved through lines (this was particularly helpful when a public transport snafu brought us to the theater two minutes before curtain time)--but also some challenges.  The underground was out of consideration, and although we were able to get around with the help of buses and copious wheelchair ramps on sidewalks, my sense is that London accessibility was designed with the assumption that disabled people always have someone able-bodied traveling with them.  From the fact that most buses don't have Oyster card swipe points at their back door, to the number of times that my brother and I had to lift our mother's scooter those few steps to get into a building (fortunately, she's able to walk short distances with a cane), it quickly became clear that she'd be having a very different trip if she were traveling alone--though, I should be clear, still a better time than she would have had in Israel, where the assumption seems to be that disabled people all have cars, or stay home.  (For some further thoughts on accessibility in London, check out the recent LJ posts by Mari Ness, who was clearly attempting the London-while-disabled thing on a higher difficulty setting than us.)

  • The Convention - LonCon 3 was held in ExCel, the gigantic convention center in the redeveloped Docklands area.  The size of the venue dwarfed even what turned out to be the second-largest Worldcon ever, but this was far from a bad thing.  I never found myself short of a place to sit at any of the panels I went to (though I understand that people who attended program items with big-ticket participants like George R.R. Martin or Patrick Rothfuss tell a different story); there were rarely any lines in the bathroom; and there was always a free table in the long food gallery.  The convention itself seemed to acclimatize itself to this space quite well, and was in general very well-run (one exception and personal peeve: I didn't receive my Hugo nominee packet, with certificates and pins, when I registered, and later when I went to program ops to ask about it was given a Hugo nominee ribbon and not even told that I was supposed to receive anything else; by the time I realized this, no one seemed to know where the Hugo materials had gone).  The sheer number of attending members meant that I was constantly hurrying past people I desperately wanted to stop and talk to who were themselves hurrying somewhere else, but nevertheless I was able to meet and talk with a large number of people, including many I'd previously only known online.

  • The Program - I'm far from the first person to say this, but the program at LonCon was fantastic.  There was rarely a slot in which I didn't find three or four panels I desperately wanted to go to--and that's accounting for the fact that my interest lay primarily in the literature and media tracks (my brother, who was more interested in the space and science panels, seemed to have an equally fascinating time).  Some highlights: Occupy SF: Inequality on Screen (Thursday, 15:00-16:30; Martin McGrath (m), Carrie Vaughn, Roz Kaveney, Laurie Penny, and Takayuki Tatsumi), which discussed the presentation of class issues in SF film and TV.  The panel began with moderator McGrath offering the thesis that present-day SF is afraid of poor people, and went on to discuss whether this had changed from the past (when more SF authors were at least fellow travelers if not outright Communists), and whether the dominant forms of popular SF--the superhero story, the dystopia--are capable of addressing class and inequality.  Content and Form: Writing SF/F in Non-Western Modes (Friday, 13:30-15:00; Amal El-Mohtar (m), Aliette de Bodard, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, JY Yang, and Nick Wood) was a fascinating discussion by genre writers from non-Western cultures of whether and to what extent they find themselves boxed in by Western storytelling modes--by the expectation, for example, of three-act structures, or stories focused on individuals rather than communities, or big heroic endings--and how they can incorporate the modes of their own culture into their work.

    I also had the strange and humbling experience of attending a panel that kicked off from something I'd written: You Don't Like Me When I'm Angry (Sunday, 15:00-16:30, Mary Anne Mohanraj (m), Martin McGrath, Stephanie Saulter, Tansy Rayner Roberts, Nin Harris) built on a passage from my review of X-Men: First Class to discuss how anger is perceived in popular culture, and what its value is.  The participants discussed their own personal experiences of injustice and oppression (and the anger that resulted) in a way that I could never have done, and also wondered whether genre fiction, with its fixation on the heroic narrative, could ever be capable of dealing with the reality of impotent, damaging anger, or whether it would always vilify it.  And on Friday at 21:00, I was dragged into a panel that I never would have looked into myself but which turned out to be one of the con's most unexpected delights.  You Write Pretty (Frances Hardinge, Christopher Priest, E.J. Swift, Greer Gilman) charged its participants to each pick a sentence they found beautiful and talk about why.  I was expecting a writing seminar, but instead all four participants approached the assignment as readers--albeit thoughtful and talented ones--and talked about the different ways of achieving affect, and the ways in which each genre and mode worked its magic on the reader in different ways.

  • My Panels - Unfortunately, I'm terrible at taking notes in my own panels, so I can only offer the vague impression that they all seemed to go over fairly well.  Happily, some of them have been written up elsewhere.  Kate Nepveu wrote up my Sunday panel The Gendered AI, moderated by Charlie Jane Anders and with Nic Clarke, Michael Morelli, and Jed Hartman, which I thought went particularly well, and Ana S. has a nice long summary of The Review is Political (moderated by Kev McVeigh and with Tansy Rayner Roberts, Elias Combarro, and Alisa Krasnostein).

    This convention was the first time I'd been asked to moderate panels, and both times I was anxious, for different reasons.  At Saturday Morning Cartoons: The Next Generation, the other participants (Amal El-Mohtar, Abi Sutherland and Andrew Ferguson) and I discovered that we were each familiar with different shows, and I was concerned that the panel would turn into the spoken equivalent of a wall of text.  But we were able to find commonalities between the shows, and ended up discussing whether the brand of silliness that is thriving in genre cartoons, for kids and adults, could ever make its way back to live-action TV (this panel also benefited from having the best sort of audience, clearly familiar with the shows we were talking about, and more interested in discussing them than squeeing over them).  For my second panel as moderator, The World at Worldcon: Israeli SF/F, I was concerned that the topic would only be of interest to fellow Israelis, but though these made up a good half of the audience (and, like proper Israelis, frequently interrupted the panel discussion to add their own input), I was surprised by the number of interested foreigners.  The other panelists (Lili Daie, Noa Manheim, Einat Citron, and Liat Shahar-Kashtan) and I discussed Israeli fandom (which tends to be younger and more female than the Worldcon crowd), fiction, media, and (of course) politics.

  • The Hugos - At which I lost.  Twice.  This was, obviously, a disappointment, but I feel that in both categories I (or the group with which I was nominated) made a good showing.  Strange Horizons came within sixteen votes (!!!) of winning the Best Semiprozine Hugo, which is a result that none of us were expecting and which leaves us feeling extremely energized.  And while my second place to Kameron Hurley in the Best Fan Writer category isn't nearly as close--she beat me by a handy 250 votes--it was a category in which hundreds of people put me in second place to what was clearly a juggernaut (Hurley also won the Best Related Work for her essay "We Have Always Fought," and in his acceptance speech for Best Fanzine, Aidan Moher gave partial credit for his win to the fact that it was published on that blog).  And it helps that in both categories I feel that we lost to worthy opponents, to whom it is no shame to come second.

    In general, in fact, the Hugo results are solid.  Most categories have respectable winners, though in some cases I would have (and did) choose differently, and in some categories--XKCD's "Time" winning Best Graphic Story; Sarah Webb winning Best Fan Artist; most of all, Sofia Samatar winning the Campbell--the results are extremely gratifying.  Unlike a lot of people, I never thought that Larry Correia's Sad Puppy ballot had a real chance at a good showing--the Hugo tends to be susceptible to manipulation at the nominating stage, but once the larger voting population gets a look at the nominees, a course-correction usually occurs.  So that fact that Vox Day, for example, lost to No Award in the Best Novelette category, while amusing, didn't come as a surprise.  Which is not to say that I wasn't surprised when the voting and nominating statistics were published (within seconds of the ceremony's end; we were reading them on our phones on our way to the Hugo Losers' Party), with revelations like that fact that The Wheel of Time never even came close to winning the Best Novel category, or that the Doctor Who voting block finally appears to be splintering, reminding all us Hugo commentators of how little we really understand this award.  The most interesting discovery, to me, came in the nominations breakdown, where I discovered that, if it hadn't been for Correia and for the Wheel of Time campaign, this year's Best Novel ballot would have had four women on it, with Lauren Beukes's The Shining Girls and Sofia Samatar's A Stranger in Olondria only a few votes short of a nomination each.  I'm sure that Correia and his cronies will be only too thrilled to know that they had this effect, but for the rest of us, it should be a reminder that the Hugo should be about rewarding today's excellence and promoting tomorrow's diversity, not pandering to a nostalgia for yesterday.

    The ceremony itself, meanwhile, was nicely done, but I'm afraid I wasn't in a state to appreciate it.  I think I enjoyed myself a lot more when I attended the Hugos as a member of the audience, wearing jeans and comfortable shoes and making snarky jokes with my friends when stuff I didn't like won, than sitting in the front row waiting for my name to be called out (or not).  One definite upside, though, is that I found myself sitting several meters away from Peter Davison and David Tennant, who came to support The Five(ish) Doctors Reboot, though I sadly didn't get the chance to speak to either one.

  • The Future - I'm extremely unlikely to attend next year's Worldcon at Spokane, and though Kansas City in 2016 is more plausible (in that I have a lot of family in St. Louis that I haven't seen in years), the thought of Missouri in August doesn't exactly appeal.  I think that Jonathan McCalmont has a point when he argues that it's time for North American dominance of the Worldcon to end, and for the convention to start living up to its name.  It's impossible to look at the size and vibrancy of LonCon 3 and not feel that it represents--or should represent--the convention's future, and though Worldcon doesn't always have to be enormous, I would like to see it leave the US more often.  So I very much hope to be able to announce, this time next year, that I will be attending Worldcon in 2017 in Helsinki (and to that end, it's worth noting that supporting members of a Worldcon can vote for site selection, albeit for an additional fee).  Whichever Worldcon I end up attending next, however, it will have a lot to live up to.

5 comments:

martin-wisse said...

Having voluntered an ungodly number of hours at registration, as far as I know it never had the Hugo nominees/programme participants materials (nor I think any way of knowning if you were other than knowing it already) and you should've been sent to the green room/programme ops for that stuff.

Adam Roberts said...

Commiserations on the Hugo. But at least you've got something to work towards next year!

Rich Horton said...

I am happy that the convention will be in Kansas City in 2016 for purely selfish reasons -- it is in easy range for me to travel there, and indeed Kansas City is sort of my "second home" in fandom.

And of course I'd be delighted to see you in KC!

Otherwise I have no argument with the notion the the convention should often be outside the US -- but that does seem to happening a lot more often these days, doesn't it? (Or am I simply already assuming Helsinki will win and coming up with the 50% outside the US stat based on that ... but of course it has recently been in Japan and in Canada ... and Texas is almost another country anyway. [grin]) I would have loved to have been in London this year, but I just could not afford it ... not that I expect (or deserve!) sympathy from people who routinely have to travel halfway across the world to get to Worldcon!

I am of course thrilled that we won at Lightspeed -- and I noticed how close the vote was and certainly Strange Horizons would have been a highly worthy winner!

Also thrilled to see Ann Leckie win her Hugo, especially after I ran across her at my local grocery store a couple of days before she went to London.

--
Rich Horton

Sebastian said...

I can testify that spending time in Missouri in August is the same as attending a month-long masochists convention.

smofbabe said...

The Hugo packets were with the programme participant packets both when there was a separate Programme Participant Check-in desk near Registration and later in the convention when check-in was moved to Programme Operations. Sorry you were not told. If you have not been contacted about getting your Hugo materials, please let me know (at smofbabe@gmail.com) and I can look into it for you. (You might remember me from the Israeli SF/F panel as someone who brought the ticket from the first-ever Israeli SF con in 1981 - not sure who ended up with it!)

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