Tag Archives: Eastercon

Becalmed in the storm’s eye

It’s been a busy couple of months. I hope regular readers will forgive this recap of the past two months or so, which is as much for my own benefit as anyone else’s; I transcribe it here in what I suspect is the hope that I’ll be able to convince myself it all actually happened.

The corollary of getting my contract extended mid-March was that a lot of theretofore speculative deadlines became concrete things, which made for a whole lot of heads-down keyboard-mashing; this was complicated somewhat by my first encounter with true physical burn-out, which, it turns out, feels a lot like being in the lingering run-down phase of a nasty cold for something close to six weeks. Still, it’s good to know your limits, and to have a precedent for the signs that you’re about to hit them.

Chronology is a suitable framework, so: My last post here followed directly after Weird Shi(f)t Con UK, a gathering of some of the more peripatetic irregulars of the Institute for Atemporal Studies and allied forces which took place in in the endearingly cobwebbed decay of Limehouse Town Hall (whose chilliness may well have contributed toward the aforementioned burn-out); many profound matters were discussed, and the post-it notes were plentiful.

London: Weird Shit Con

Afterwards we went to Wilton’s Music Hall, which was full of people attending a stage version of The Great Gatsby; not perhaps an ideal aftervenue given the circumstances, but apropos in an atemporal kind of way. (Wilton’s is ace, though; recommended to all and sundry as one of LDN’s most characterful places to hang out, especially on nights when there’s no show on.)

That Sunday I went to see the legendary Damo Suzuki perform with a Sheffield noise/drone/kraut band in the cellar bar beneath a former picture-house. (Stuffed-animal venues are a definite theme of my life these days.)

Monday following was the final internal meeting for one of the projects I’ve been working on with the PWG; the website for the project is currently offline (nothing to do with me, I might add), but should hold various documents and presentations for public edification. One of the larger papers to come out of the All-in-One project with my name in the author list is now in press at the journal Futures, by the way; drop me a line if you’d like a copy but don’t have institutional access to Elsevi*r’s rentier knowledge-silo.

After the dissemination bash, it was back to Sheffield to see Gojira and Ghost at the Academy. Gojira were good enough, if a little lost on a too-large stage; Ghost were laughably bad, all (obvious and done-to-death) gimmick and no substance. Utterly at a loss to understand why they’re so popular right now. Kids these days.

March 21st saw me pop over the Pennines for the first day of the FutureEverthing conference in Manchester; a chance to catch up on interesting ideas in digital urbanism, reassert my believe that marketing is the only profession with a higher shysters-per-capita than futurism, and hang out with Justin Pickard and Scott Smith, co-conspirators in contraPanglossian gonzo foresight. (Usman Haque dropped Borgesian bombs, which made me want to marry him.) Regrettably, the physical symptoms of burn-out were digging in hard by this point, and I skipped the next day of the conference due to exhaustion and the promise of snow. (Productivity took a serious nosedive around about his point of the proceedings.)

Week after that I fielded a call from a journalist for the Boston Globe; apparently she couldn’t find anyone else willing to argue against the transhumanist narrative that animal uplift is obligatory. So I did.

That weekend, thinking I was over the worst of the exhaustion, I went over to Bradford for the Saturday of EightSquaredCon, the 2013 Eastercon. It was a decent day — what I can remember of it, anyway. I was drafted onto a panel within twenty minutes of arriving; spent some time chatting to various people, but probably making little sense, including an addled attempt to explain to Cory Doctorow what I’d been up to recently (sorry, Cory; I really shouldn’t have been out of bed at that point). My booked train home was cancelled, which shunted me onto a slower and longer route, with the last leg an all-stations stopping service on an old diesel train with no heating or window seals.

I expect that frigid transit contributed to rebooting the exhaustion, which hit me like Chicxulub in the days to follow, and sent me into a serious emotional slump on the side; the black dog bites hardest when my immune system is low, but that’s a knowledge I’m slowly internalising — or so I hope, at any rate. The week following was an agony blended from anxiety over a massive workload and the utter inability to give more than three hours of coherent attention a day to anything at all. Somehow I still managed to go to Lincoln on the Friday and give a paper at the New Genre Army conference in celebration of Edam Rarebits…

… or rather, I gave a methodological manifesto for an as-yet incomplete prototype of the genre of Cut-up Critique; the moral of this story is that if one decides to try trolling the academy, one should be prepared to have one’s bluff called. Luckily for me, the general tone of the day — unsurprisingly, given its object — was one of irreverence blended with seriousness, and I got away with it. (It’s my native medium, after all.) Whether I got away with another cold train-ride home is an open question, however. Maybe my mum’s right, and I just need to buy a new coat.

I believe there was video taken of the papers at New Genre Army, but I haven’t seen them yet, and there’s no sign of them on YouBoob. I’ve been meaning to post the script and slides of my paper here, but… yeah. *adds another thing to the to-do list*

Then followed a week of frantic paper-writing, as deadlines were looming like limits to growth. The week after that, at the final dissemination event for All-in-One, I got to try explaining design fiction to infrastructure engineers and risk analysts for the first time, which involved first explaining it a bit more thoroughly to myself; the former was slightly more successful than the former. (Attempts toward codifying a theory of design fiction in the infrastructural context are ongoing; watch this space.)

I then went to Darlington to talk to a roomful of young water industry professionals about the postmodern crisis of infrastructure management; Borges, Latour, scientific hyperreality, the model is not the system, path dependency and progressive incrementalism, integral futures, that sort of thing. Got a much more positive reception than I’d hoped for, actually, but the other presentations were pretty dry, so I may have benefitted from delivering a shake-up at the end of the day; selah.

Day after Darlington was the annual PWG conference, which was more of a social cohesion operation than a proper conference; got to find out what else goes on in the further, more soc-sci orientated corners of the group, which is valuable knowledge to a generalist/synthesist like yours truly. We went for a nice meal afterwards. Lovely.

The last few weeks have been a little easier, although there were still a fair amount of deskjockey targets to be met, including editing a collaborative paper which has been accepted by (but is not yet in press at) Energy, and writing another paper on choice architecture, social media and gamification as applied to water use behaviour (which has just entered the reviewing process). Also wrote one of my increasingly editorial-esque book reviews for ARC (Jaron Lanier’s Who Owns the Future?, as yet not posted), and a deeply tangential rant about some halfway-passable psyche-rock album that the Demon Pigeon lads threw at me.

This Wednesday just gone, I got to talk as part of a panel at the WriteTheFuture conference, which was an excellent bolt-on gig connected to the Clarke Award. Not many folk at this stage of their careers can say they’ve spoken on stage at the Royal Society. What was I speaking about? These tweets capture the gist of it:

 

There’s a Storify of the whole day, courtesy the tireless (and triumphant) Tom Hunter. As for the Clarke itself, it went to Chris Beckett for Dark Eden; I don’t care much for awards as a reader and a critic, but it’s always nice to see them go to an author whose work you admire, especially when you consider them a friend as well. For the same reasons, I’d have been happy to see it go to Ken MacLeod, as well. Having read none of the shortlisted titles, however, that’s as far as my opinionating goes.

Friday just gone I went to see Owen Hatherley talk about Pulp, Sheffield and failed urbanism. It was interesting stuff, and naturally I bought the book (Uncommon) on which it was based (as it promises to provide another thematic spoke for the vague “secret history of the 1990s” novel idea I’m kicking around in spare moments), but — like many excellent writers of non-fiction — Hatherley’s not at his best behind a podium. To be fair, he may have been more than a little intimidated by the audience, which had to be close to 300 strong. Glad I went, though.

And now, here am eye, becalmed in the I of the storm, collecting my thoughts and task-lists before the madness starts up again in a new form, mutatis mutandis (and with, dare I say it, my earthly husk finally recovered from the burn-out). This Thursday coming I’m off to Brighton to talk conferences, drone art, infrastructure fiction and gonzo futurism with assorted colleagues, old and new, and around this time next week I’ll be heading off toward Heathrow, so as to catch an early Monday plane to Colombia via Madrid. In fair Medellin, I’m honoured to be an invited guest of Hernán and Vivi for Fractal’13, a design fiction conference with a difference (in that the audience does the fictioning, and the guests merely facilitate said fictioning). In effect, I think this is the closest thing I’m going to get to a holiday this year, and so I’m intending to enjoy it to the fullest.

I’m very much looking forward to seeing Medellin. I’m very much not looking forward to two long transits through the geopolitical unspaces of airport security theatre, but you gotta take the rough with the smooth, I suppose. If nothing else, I should take it as an opportunity to reread Ursula LeGuin’s Changing Planes

Having unlocked my phone and demothballed my Flickr account, I’m planning to share my adventures in Medellin here at VCTB, and indeed to start sharing interesting in general from time to time. Chairman Bruce may claim (with justification) that blogging is dead, but even he’s got a Tumblr these days; having always had my own domain, I can’t see the point of tumblring on a service that claims the results as their own when my own site can do just the same job with me keeping control*. So it lacks the social features of Tumblr, sure; I’m increasingly unconvinced that’s a drawback and not a bonus. Besides, everything that happens here gets tweeted. Selah.

So, yeah; that’s what I’ve been up to. Who knows what’ll happen next, eh?


[ * – I still maintain that a social network with Twitter-, Tumblr- and Facebork-like characteristics could be built as a plug-in based interstitial peer-to-peer protocol for individual CMS-based websites; all the sharing and social, none of the centralised data collection and huckster leverage advertising attempts. Problem being that, by definition, such a service would be impossible to monetise externally, meaning it’d only get done by a team of FOSS nerds with a lot of time on their hands and no eye toward a lucrative IPO. So not something to hold your breath for at present, I’d guess. ]

Descending Olympus

So, that was Eastercon. My [stops to count old badges on lanyard] fifth, and my favourite so far. Well-organised, good fun; a great balance of the familiar and the new; old friends and fresh acquaintances…

… and some dramatic props. [Thanks to Chad Dixon for the photo.]

Iron Throne

I often compare Eastercon to my experiences of Glastonbury back in my twenties: it costs me a fortune, I overindulge in my usual vices, I see less than a third of the stuff I vaguely planned to see, but yet I roll away with a warm glow that comes from sharing a highly specific chunk of space-time with a community of people who share one of the greatest passions of my life, inspired to do new things.

Granted, I’ve never left Eastercon coated in mud, wrapped in a space blanket and trying to chew my own left ear, so the analogy isn’t perfect. I’m pretty sure I never came back from Glasto carrying approximately a third of my own bodyweight in books, either. But hey, I need the exercise… and my Bruce Sterling collection draws nearer to Stage One completion[1].

Eastercon book acquisitions

Olympus was not utterly devoid of controversy and upset, however, and I find myself wanting to talk about that. After the initial heat-of-the-moment furore, what would really have helped would have been a good solid apology and admission of error from the primary source, but… well, this ain’t one.

So, look: you can watch what actually happened right here, and whatever side you take I think that’s gotta be the absolute entry level for having an opinion on this, unless you were actually at the BSFA Awards ceremony. And here’s a record of the Twitter backchannel as it happened.

I was in the audience. Things went from cringeworthy to worse; it was the sort of thing the “trainwreck” metaphor was made for. I was sat a few seats from Lavie Tidhar at the time. That was a very uncomfortable moment for me, as a straight white male British person who just happens to be Lavie’s friend. I can’t imagine how he felt… especially given that early in the day an audience member from the Non-Anglophone SF panel had breezed up to inform him that, despite English being Lavie’s second language, he spoke it very well indeed. Condescending, much?

The common factor here is that both cases of offence were not intended to offend – quite the opposite, in fact. But that doesn’t negate the offence.

The sad thing about this, for me at least, is that Olympus felt very diverse and inclusive with respect to its roster of guests, panel topics and panel composition; a real step forward, even within the short timeframe of my own involvement with fandom. The con committee and the BSFA worked damned hard to make that happen, and as much as I believe it’s important that the failures are acknowledged, I think the good stuff needs to be remembered, too; the sheer scale of effort and passion needed to make these things happen is staggering, and to overlook that energy and commitment would be grossly unfair, no matter what may have gone wrong along the way. So, for the record, let me congratulate the BSFA and the Olypus con committee, the gophers and techs and the folk behind the scenes: I wouldn’t even know where to start, and there was oodles of great stuff over the weekend for which praise is rightly due. There’s a tendency for the baby to go the same way as the bathwater in these situations, and in terms of the grand project – making fandom a space where everyone can feel safe, valued and included, regardless of gender, nationality, skin colour, sexuality or anything else – I feel that it would help to acknowledge that, as a community, we’re “working on our shit”, as the saying goes.

But that’s my privilege speaking, and I know it. It’s easy for me to sit here and hand-wring, rehearse weak or global versions of a The Tone Argument, and recruit for the Cult Of Nice. I’m a white able-bodied just-about-heterosexual cis-male British person, and as such it’s incredibly rare that anyone gets a platform to give my culture a proper kicking, deserved or otherwise. (And hell knows it’s deserved more often than not.)

It’s never pleasurable to have worked damned hard on something, only to have someone pull out the flaws and wave them in your face. But in the context of, say, writing fiction and subbing it to editors for publication, it’s widely acknowledged that that’s how you get better. Yeah, it hurts. Emotional growth, at least in my experience, always does. If the choice is pain or stasis, though, then pain it has to be.

One final thing: I am not holding myself up as an exemplar, here. I owe what personal politicisation I’ve achieved over the last decade to fandom – to debates and discussions (yes, and slapfights) just like this one. Hell knows that I’ve said countless dumb or offensive things over the years, secure and comfortable in my ignorance and privilege, and my unwarranted opinion of myself as a pretty progressive liberal kinda guy, thankyouverymuch. You could probably trawl through the archives right here at VCTB and find enough material to throw me right into the same sin-bin as Meaney, in fact, if not even a deeper one with sharper spikes. Perhaps you could even say that my invisibility was an added layer of privilege; it’s easy to get away with being thoughtless when thoughtlessness is ubiquitous, just one more voice in the crowd.

It is not for me to stand in judgement atop the mountain of the gods.

But this is my community, too, so nor is it for me to ignore or dismiss the hurt I see expressed by others less privileged than I, especially when some of them are people I count as good friends… and there’s a significant amount of it floating around on the intertubes today. (If you’ve not seen any, then perhaps it’s time for you to go look for it.)

I honestly believe the vast majority of us want fandom to be inclusive and welcoming to everyone, even if we aren’t quite as far along with that project as we’d like to think we are. So if I could have one wish, it’s that we keep to the inclusive spirit with which Olympus was put together and executed, and listen to those who are telling us that the story we tell each other (and ourselves) about our community has flaws that still need editing out.

Redrafting sucks. But it’s the only way to make the story better.


[ 1 – Stage One completion involves acquiring one copy of all extant titles, in or out of print; Stage Two will involve trading up all titles to the best editions available, preferably signed hardback firsts. I did a lot of collecting of various things as a kid, and nowadays I realise the best way to get lasting value from assembling a collection is to delimit the set and pick a completion goal with very low likelihood; non-set-limited collections soon lose their appeal for me (because how will you ever know when you’re done?), and completion means you have to find a new thing to collect. Think of it as a sort of vice management strategy; accept the inevitability of the vice, then steer it as safely and cheaply as possible into a cul-de-sac that you think you could live in for a good long time.

Yes, this is how I think about my hobbies. No, I don’t know why. It works for me. Selah. ]

Moveable feast

So, Easter rolls around once more.

In recent years, Easter has become the pivot point of my annual circuit around the sun; Eastercon has a little to do with that, as does the standard 12-month rented housing contract. It’s probably amplified by the fact that I don’t celebrate Xmas or my birthday, too. Which isn’t to say I celebrate Easter, as such; I just tend to find myself looking around – in varying states of wonder and confusion – at the state of my life at this time of year.

Last Easter, for instance, I was making the move back to Velcro City from Stockport. The Easter before… well, we won’t rake over that again, though I made it to Eastercon that year, which probably went a fair way to helping me avoid some sort of full-scale nervous breakdown. (Not something Eastercon is regularly accused of, I’m willing to bet.)

So, what do I see from this year’s fulcrum? Looking backwards, I can make out the first half of my Masters: six hectic months of hard but thrilling work, running in parallel with me learning the ropes of my Research Assistant post. Before that, a long and lazy spring’n’summer in Velcro City, which took me back to its fractious bosom without so much as a “where you been, brah?” It was good, and just what I needed – a proper reboot, a return to familiarity and comfort after my long sabbatical on the banks of the Styx.

But I also feel like it cured me of something. By going back, I was able to leave again on my own terms, and for the right reasons. Stockport was grim because it felt like penance for my naivete and failure, and P-Town came to represent a normalisation point, a load-from-saved-game-and-start-again. I like to think I’m blitzing the level this time through, if only by comparison to last time.

Looking ahead (and ignoring, for the sake of convenience, the hand-in date for my spring semester assignments the week after next), it’s five months of dissertation, plus more infrastructure research for my patient employers at the Pennine Water Group. Come September or so, once I’ve handed my dissertation in, it’ll be time to move out of London. Where will I go? I’m not sure yet, to be honest, but I’ll need to start thinking about it sooner rather than later.

I also need to think about what comes next. If I do well enough in my Masters (and I have some hope that I might), then I might well apply to do a PhD. But in what, and with whom, and where? I have some ideas, but it’s all very nebulous at this point. I need to learn more about the upper echelons of academia before trying to make those decisions, I suspect. And I need to finish these assignments.

But first, it’s Eastercon – a long weekend of hanging out with friends, talking about books and writing, and boozy fun-times.

After that? Well, we’ll have to wait and see.