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Hugo nominations

The Hugo nominees were announced live at Eastercon (as they were last year, and hopefully will be again). Vince Doherty started the announcements with some graphs and stats, and showed that this year, more people nominated in the Hugos than ever before. He followed it up with the announcement of the fan Hugo categories, and after I had finished applauding for all my friends who were nominated, I realised that the Best Fanzine slate was basically the same as last year. Best Fan Writer has at least one new name and a second-time nominee, and Best Fan Artist has some new nominees (notably Randall Munroe), but the record nomination numbers have failed to have much impact at all. After StarShipSofa’s win last year, I was expecting a flood of podcasts on the ballot, but then I’ve been expecting a flood of blogs to replace fanzines for the past few years, and that hasn’t happened.

Aidan Moher at A Dribble of Ink comments further on the fan Hugos: “Maybe I’m exposing my ignorance here, but beyond StarShipSofa, I haven’t heard of a damn one, nor am I familiar with any of the writers.” Three of the best fan writer nominees have already popped up in comments, so I’m not sure that the fan-writing pool really is largely composed of “older fans whose interaction with the SFF blogosphere is limited”, but wherever their fan writing is taking place, be it in fanzines paper or electronic or on blogs, it seems to be invisible to a large amount of the blogosphere. I know who all the best fan writer nominees are and I am neither old nor ignorant of the blogosphere, but I seem to be in a minority. Do all the blog readers who nominate in the Hugos just not nominate blogs, or do they fail to nominate at all?

It’s not just the fan Hugos which have remained static: Semiprozine has one difference from last year, as Lightspeed knocks off Ansible, in Best Editor Short Form John Joseph Adams bumps Ellen Datlow, and the slate for Best Pro Artist is exactly the same as 2010.

N. K. Jemisin tweeted she was “contemplating what it means that this year’s Hugo noms came fom a record-breaking number of ballots”. And actually, we have some statistics for this year’s nominations already, and those for previous years are (mostly) available, so I have indulged in my favourite nerd hobby and made us some graphs to see what we can tell. (Raw data is in this spreadsheet.)

Here’s a graph showing the total nominations in each category for the last nine years[1]:

Graph of total nomination numbers

From which we can conclude that while there may be more people nominating that ever before, a lot of them only nominate novels. There’s a general upward trend, and it’s more pronounced in some categories (short story is up a bit, and it’s nice to see an increase in nominations for graphic story), but best novel is racing ahead.

It may not be a huge increase in the number of nominators, but there’s still a bump for most categories. Take best fanzine, which has gone from 157 nominators in 2008 to 340 in 2011. Does that mean it it harder to get on the ballot? The answer is yes, but not by much.

Here’s a graph showing the number of nominations the lowest-placed nominee received in each category over the past nine years:

Graph of lowest-placed nominee numbers

From which we can conclude that 2010 was an absolutely stonking year for genre film. Outside the wild oscillations of BDP-LF, there’s not a lot of change in many of the other categories. Making the best fanzine ballot required 43 nominations this year, one less that way back in 2003. Best Graphic Story had 30% more nominations this year, but you only needed 2 more nominations than last year to get on the ballot. (For me, it only underlines the madness of Best Graphic Story that Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour couldn’t muster 21 nominations.) More nominating ballots just means more diversity in what gets nominated – witness Best Short Story, which got more nominating ballots than any year I have data for, and yet there are 4 nominees because no other story got the required 5% of nominations. It’s good to have a large voting pool and a large amount of nominees to vote for, but the consensus still forms around the same nominees as before.

And meanwhile the debate on what fanwriting is and isn’t, and what constitutes a fanzine, and whether we’re too insular and unwelcoming or just upholding fine fannish tradition is already ongoing on the internet, as I expect it to continue breaking out every year about this time until there’s a successful motion to change the rules or we get the heat death of the universe. I don’t have any good answers. I’d like to see more variety in many categories – there are certainly blogs I’d like to see in best fanzine – but I don’t want variety for variety’s sake. I recognise, as Moher mentions, that there is excellent writing in online venues, but I wouldn’t want to see blogs with a greater audience knock fan writing as fine as the writing in Banana Wings off the ballot.

And it’s worth being reminded that even as we have these discussions in the SF bit of the blogosphere about fanzines and fanwriting, there are whole other swathes of fandom out there wondering why we picked “Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury” instead of a million other fanvids.

[1] Stats note: I can’t find the total nomination figures for 2007, only the figures for each nominee. Also, the figures for 2010 may not be exact, as they were calculated from the percentages and number who nominated the top nominee in each category, so they’re probably off by one or two.

And for once it wasn’t Sean Bean who got his shirt off

Those who read my previous posts might be interested in these thoughtful reviews and discussion of elf-shagging Dragon Age 2 and Don’t Take it Personally, Babe, It Just Ain’t Your Story, respectively. And then you could read Dan Hemmens’ review of The Wise Man’s Fear and the discussion of it over at Asking the Wrong Questions, and actually you may as well just go and read all of Ferretbrain and Asking the Wrong Questions. It’s ok, I’ll wait.

I watched Game of Thrones the other day with a mixed group of both book fans, and those who’d never read any of them. I fall into the former group, and I think it’s unsurprising that I loved it, because this is a show, and the first few episodes in particular, where the experience is going to be so different between the different groups of fans that it’s hard to compare them.

(Here be spoilers, by the way.)

Trying to look at it objectively, I think it did the best job it could with the difficult task of introducing a whole new world and set of characters in one hour. Westeros is recognisable as a vaguely medieval world, a setting we’re familiar with, but you have to introduce the big things, like the seven kingdoms and the lands across the sea, and the long seasons turning to winter, not to mention the Wall and what it represents. Certain aspects were barely touched, but they got over the main points, helped by the way that Pentos and Kings Landing really do look different from the chill of the Wall and the grim greyness of Winterfell. Characters I’m not sure they managed as well. There was some debate as to whether they could have left the whole strand in Pentos until the second episode, and focus on the Starks and Lannisters and Baratheons, and there’s some merit to that – more time to dwell on Robert and Ned and how they are friends wouldn’t go amiss, and when they talk about the five Stark children it’s pretty tricky to work out which of the half-dozen children hanging around are actually Starks. I’m not sure that matters, though – what they needed to convey they did, and while it led to occasionally clumsy bits of dialogue about bastards and siblings, it gets across.

But were I coming to the show cold, I don’t think it would have won me over based on this episode. Watching Daenerys be so utterly passive is painful unless you know it’s going to contrast against her actions for the rest of the season; watching Sansa be a typical teenager isn’t as interesting unless you know what it’s setting up (and there’s a hint of it in Cersei’s cool attitude and blunt questions about whether she menstruates). There’s lots of sex, and you couldn’t do without Daenerys and Drogo’s wedding night, or Jaime and Cersei’s tryst in the tower, but it’s a shame that Tyrion’s introduction doesn’t bring out his cleverness as much as his lustiness. And I’m not sure the scene with the young men of Winterfell really needed to stand around chatting while stripped to the waist.

There’s another argument, though – should a show be judged based on a single episode? Yes, it’s important to try and hook your viewers, but especially on the cable television model of short seasons, are viewers more prepared to invest a few more hours before they get the payoff? Alan Sepinwall admits he occasionally uses Wikipedia to keep track of the characters and their relationships (although not for the pilot episode, which he still liked). I’ve done the same, when I was trying to keep track of who was who in Frank Sobotka’s union, or the Barksdale crew. I can think of a whole bunch of recent, really excellent shows where I haven’t been hooked immediately – Mad Men‘s first episode is deeply unsubtle, after the first hour of Treme I could name maybe three characters and one of those was “John Goodman”, and I still don’t know who all the interchangeable gangsters are in Boardwalk Empire. If what it takes to get TV which doesn’t stick to a tried and tested formula of police procedural or plucky lawyer is that I have to be willing to give it a little more time and spend some of it being confused, then I think it’s worth giving it a shot.

Digital Love Stories

I spent a couple of hours this evening playing through don’t take it personally babe, it just ain’t your story. It’s billed as a “visual novel”, and by the end I was wondering whether I wouldn’t have been better off just reading a novel instead.

I downloaded it in the first place because I’d previously played Digital: A Love Story, a game by the same author, and while it did not quite live up to the hype, it had a lot to recommend it. You’re surfing around bulletin boards on your circa-1988 computer, uncovering the story as you go, along with a lot of incidental but amusing side-plots and details. It had a clever concept, some puzzles which were just difficult enough, and the brilliant idea that whenever you hit “reply” to one of these bulletin board messages, you never see what you write – you only see the response, and have to imply what you wrote. Where it fell down was on the story – maybe it was an intentional nod to the 1980s and cyberpunk, but there was no surprise in finding out that the mystery girl I was corresponding with was an AI, and then it went on to do some standard stuff with self-aware AIs and uploading and I’d have to help them in some way, and then there was the ending, and judging by the reviews, nearly everyone found that more affecting than I did.

don’t take it personally, babe, is another game about love and sex and relationships and the internet and how they all interact, although we’ve jumped forward to 2027. You play a high-school teacher in an exclusive private high school, and play through several months with your class, watching their relationships evolve and change, through the uncomfortably voyeuristic mechanism of being able to view all their public and private messages on Amie (the Facebook-equivalent of 2027). It’s much less interactive than Digital – you run through scenes, simultaneously keeping an eye on the main plot and on the conversations the students are having on Amie, until you reach a decision point and have to make a choice. I’ve only played it once, so I don’t know how much influence you can actually have on the story, but while my character was clearly a bit of a dick and a loser, I decided he was not quite enough of a dick to sleep with one of his students. It’s very much playing with the metatextuality – alongside the anime influences, you can check out “12channels”, a version of 4chan which comments on the story like a Greek chorus, and the sections between each chapter are foreshadowing what will happen next. It’s all entertaining enough, and there are some sweet moments – there’s a nicely-handled coming out story, and I felt like my decisions did prod some students towards a happy ending however ineffectual I was.

At the end, it all seemed to be coming to a head. I was about to be rumbled for reading all the kid’s private messages, which seemed a little unfair, since it was part of the game mechanic that I read their messages, and while I might have been able to play the whole game avoiding them, why should I deliberately avoid the interesting parts of the game only to have my character punished for it at the end? Of course, that doesn’t happen – I make a pre-emptive confession of my snooping, which there’s no way to avert, and find the kids knew all along I was reading. It’s trying to say something interesting about privacy and the concepts of public and private lives in the age of ubiquitous social networking, but it didn’t manage to say anything new or unexpected, and it fell flat. I couldn’t help thinking of The Quantum Thief, which I wasn’t completely sold on as a novel but delves into the same ideas of privacy and shared knowledge and different levels of public and private life, and does it in a much more interesting fashion.

The game title is true in some ways – this one ain’t my story. Digital won me over from the start with happy nostalgic memories of usenet and modem connection noises and replying to trolls about spaceship fights, but don’t take it personally is about a future I haven’t grown up in, and doesn’t resonate in the same way. It suffers from lack of interactivity, being a more straightforward story-with-decision-branches, rather than having puzzles to solve. Good and engaging gameplay can compensate for an unoriginal story, or you can get me invested in the protagonist and eager to see what effect my choices have, but when it comes to playing a mostly-fixed character in a mostly-fixed story, it has to be better than just reading a good book instead, and sadly neither of these games have quite reached that level.

Dragon Age 2

Note: Spoilers through the endgame. I wouldn’t normally warn, but given that knowing what might happen can affect your choices in a way that book spoilers do not, I thought it best to give a heads-up.

I liked Dragon Age: Origins an awful lot. I’ve played it twice through, and given it takes about 80 hours to play, that’s quite a time sink. And while I liked it a lot, it’s not without its flaws, so I was excited by the prospect of a sequel, which would hopefully be more of the same but with a chance to fix what never worked so well. Does it succeed? Unfortunately, the answer is a resounding “sort of”.

You play as Hawke, a refugee from the Blight your last player-character defeated in Origins. Over the course of seven years in the city of Kirkwall you gather a whole bunch companions, fight hundreds of enemies, pick up and sell everything that isn’t nailed down, and eventually rise to be the Champion of Kirkwall, the person everyone turns to when it’s all going wrong. It’s all framed as one of your longtime companions narrating your story, a nice framing device which is used for some mild foreshadowing and some good gags, including one where the unreliable narrator is not only exaggerating your badassery, but your sister’s cup size.

It’s the same gameplay mechanics in the same engine as Origins, but it’s been streamlined, just as Mass Effect 2 improves upon the same basics as Mass Effect. Sometimes it’s been refined for good: companions all have fixed armour sets, so there’s less inventory juggling than in Origins, and it’s easier to know what to sell rather than carrying twenty sets of armour while I work out how to manage the upgrades. But that goes to extremes: all the rubbish I pick up to sell is marked as trash when you pick it up, and you can sell it all at the push of a button, so why not just cut out the middleman and give me money instead? Having the same city setting is fine, although it would be nice if it changed a little more over the years, but it’s not just the city – every time I go into a warehouse, or underground tunnel, or cave, it is the same warehouse or tunnel or cave except there’s a door somewhere to make it a little bit different. It’s lazy and annoying.

Combat is honestly not something I care about deeply as long as it’s fun, and it is even more flashy and fun than it was in the first game, but they are too fond of having enemies suddenly appear so you’re fighting twice as many as you thought – acceptable when it’s magical creatures that appear from nowhere, perhaps, but when guys in full plate armour pop into existence round a corner, it’s a little annoying. The compensation is that friendly fire is now turned off on everything but nightmare difficulty level, meaning your mages can nuke everything without fear of killing the whole party.

Mages are not only handy people to have in your party, they’re at the centre of the plot. Mages in the Dragon Age universe are dangerous and prone to getting possessed by demons and turning into crazed abominations, and the solution is to keep them all tightly controlled by the Templars, the fighting arm of the world’s dominant religion. A subplot in the first game, the tension between the mages who want to be free and the templars who want to keep everyone safe is present throughout and what drives the final third of the game, and it starts off well. There are mages who are fighting for their freedom and ones who agree they need to be locked up for their own safety, as well as everyone else’s. There are templars who like the power they have, and ones who see themselves as doing only what is best for everyone. There’s even a country where the mages do have their freedom, put themselves in charge, and you only need to ask the forrmer slaves of that country to find out how that is going.

It’s a good story, but it does have some teensy problems. For instance, this is my character:

Mage Hawke

I could only be more obviously a mage if I were wearing a hat that said “WIZZARD” on it, and I regularly run round with my magey friends through the streest of the city casting flashy spells and making people explode. I should have been arrested after ten minutes. I appreciate there’s a balance between story and gameplay, and there will always be some contrivances, but when the whole plot is hinging on this, it’s a bit hard to take.

And there’s the endgame, where having decided that I would take the side of the mages, they start making it really difficult. The leader of the mages not only turns to forbidden magic and becomes a many-armed abomination, he reveals that he researched it with the crazy psychopath who killed my mum a few years earlier, and he doesn’t even have the decency to turn himself into an abomination where it might do any good in the final battle instead of attacking me. Thanks a lot for sabotaging your own cause, guys.

One of the mechanics which does improve on the original game is the system of companions. Instead of having them approve or disapprove of your actions, they have a friendship/rivalry meter, with both ends bringing you benefits. In Origins, it was far too easy to make your companions like you, and counteract their disapproval by giving them endless gifts; in the sequel, there’s no quick fix when you gain their rivalry, but it’s a little too hard to work out when a seemingly innocuous conversation option will lose you serious friendship points.

Part of that is the dialogue system, which has the same system as Mass Effect: you don’t get to choose your exact reply, but an idea of what it might be along with the general sentiment you’re going to express. I like the system as implemented in Mass Effect, but too often the choices seemed to boil down to good, bad, or overly sarcastic and flippant, and I wanted a middle ground. The flirtatious options are helpfully indicated with a big heart icon, which is good because some of them are really cringeworthy. Thanks for your tragic backstory, companion, did you know I find your tortured broodiness extremely sexy?

If you do find tortured broodiness to be sexy, then you’re not alone, as apparently the whole writing staff of this game feel the same way. One of the companions you can choose to befriend and eventually romance is Anders, who appeared in the original game as a snarky, cheery, occasionally flirtatious companion with an adorable pet kitten. By the second game has turned into a broody obsessive who, should you romance him, will go on about how he’s obsessed with you, how he’d die without you, and how he would drown in rivers of blood to keep you safe. Admittedly his inner demons are quite literal, as he’s now possessed by a spirit of Vengeance, but it made me wonder why they bothered carrying the character over only to make him almost unrecognizeable. It doesn’t help that they changed the voice actor to one I don’t like as much, even though his original voice actor is still in the game playing a different minor character. It takes a potentially compelling story of just how far a man will go to achieve his aims, and nearly ruins it by overdosing on the emo tragedy, and I think I’d have enjoyed his story much more if it hadn’t been laden with angsty pronouncements about how he’ll break your heart.

If that doesn’t sound like quite your cup of tea, then don’t worry – there’s another tortured and broody guy for you to romance, who has a dark and tragic past and inner demons to fight and while he does have an extremely sexy voice, he uses it to tell you stories of all the horrible things that were done to him. Luckily, most of the love interests are bisexual, so you can leave them to brood alone and romance either of the ladies instead.

My misguided romance aside, I really do like the way the companions work. They seem to have lives of their own, argue and chatter and flirt among themselves, respond to the events and places you’re visiting, and are generally fun to be with. Isabela, lack of trousers aside, is particularly fun – she’s unapologetically sexual, and has dialogues about magical fisting and what she gets up to in brothels, but will also turn out to be loyal and devoted should you befriend her, and less loyal if you don’t. And there’s Aveline, the female captain of the guard, who will disagree with your less lawful decisions but still give you a hand, and provides some of the lighter moments when you try and help resolve her terrible attempts at wooing.

I sound overly critical of a game where I did, in the end, have tremendous fun. I immersed myself in the world, cheered my friends when they turned out all right, and had serious moments of indecision where I wondered if I was doing the right thing. But it could so easily have been better – less lazy reuse of locations, a little more effort on the dialogue choices, a little more thought put into how the gameplay and the plot would work together. It feels like there’s a really excellent, ambitious game lurking in there that doesn’t quite make it. Still, based on the ending we can expect Dragon Age 3, and if they take the best parts of both games it should be something to look forward to.

A note on the Locus Poll

A couple of tweets I read this morning, referenced by some discussion which took place well before I was awake:

@clarkesworld Have you voted in the Locus Poll this year? http://tinyurl.com/4ajnnst More people that vote = less worry about the subscriber doublevotes

@clarkesworld Besides we really should be supporting the only significant award process in the genre that doesn’t cost you a penny. #locuspoll

This is a sentiment that I fundamentally disagree with, and in a more wordy fashion than will fit into 140 characters. Yes, I can vote in the Locus Poll for free, but everyone who pays gets two votes. I don’t think this makes it a free award, and I don’t want to support the practice by getting lots of people to vote. In fact I would like everyone to stop voting in the poll, so they don’t get to have a large voting base at the same time as treating the opinions of everyone who doesn’t pay them as only 50% as worthy as those who do. (Basically, everything that Abigail said.)

If you want a big, free, popular vote award open to all, how about the SFX Awards? Voting isn’t open right now, so I can’t double-check the rules, but I’m pretty sure anyone can vote on their website without them downweighting your vote based on whether you read the magazine or not.

Women of Ice and Fire

Susan Groppi has been reading A Song of Ice and Fire (contains spoilers through all four books). It’s one of those posts where you read it and sit there nodding, as someone else connects up all the dots you haven’t quite turned into words:

It’s just tiring, is all I’m saying. It takes an emotional toll on me, as a reader, to see these women be threatened in these very gender-specific ways, over and over again, constantly.

I dipped into A Storm of Swords the other day, and reread one of the chapters from Jaime’s point of view. I’m always surprised by just how much I like Jaime’s chapters, and how a character that I loathed through the first two books became so compelling. But I’d forgotten just how wearing it is to spend a chapter watching Brienne through his eyes, a constant stream of comments about her breasts and her hair and how terribly terribly ugly she is. It is absolutely in character and absolutely in keeping with the setting, where beauty and fertility is all that a woman can be judged by, and positioning Brienne as the opposite to Cersei in every way is, I’ll wager, likely to be even more important in whatever Martin does with Jaime’s character arc in the next three books. But sometimes I don’t want to be shown how a character is slightly less of a bastard than he used to be, because he refrains from making the cruelest comment he can.

And I think part of the reason I didn’t enjoy A Feast for Crows as much as the previous three books is an extension of this. Cersei is still treacherous and dangerous, but increasingly desperate and paranoid and making foolish decisions, when previously she was working with what power she had in the society she lives in. I miss the old Catelyn Stark, who may not have made the right decisions but was always trying to do the best for her children. I did find the end of A Storm of Swords to be awesome and dramatic, and I absolutely cannot wait to see Aiden Gillen play that moment on screen, but it leaves Sansa older and wiser than the naive child she was but still trapped in a remote castle with a creepy, creepy guy. I feel sorry for Lollys Stokeworth, a minor character who gets to be ugly and dull, then ugly, dull, raped, pregnant, and a pawn in someone else’s political scheme.

It’s just uncomfortable to read. And it’s not just A Song of Ice and Fire, it’s tiring how hard it is to find a book without “the tired old trope of a female character suffering sexual violence largely to give her menfolk something more to angst about”. I wish it weren’t necessary to make a list of books which don’t do this, but I’ll be consulting it next time I want some epic fantasy to read which isn’t going to be exhausting.

Frankenstein

Trip to London yesterday for some culture, in the form of a preview of the new production of Frankenstein at the National Theatre, directed by Danny Boyle and starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller as some combination of the Creature and Victor Frankenstein.

First, some caveats: I don’t go to the theatre that often, the show is still in previews for another week (they have apparently chopped quite a bit out since the first previews and will undoubtedly tweak it further), and I haven’t read the novel. All that aside, it was entertaining enough but not as good as I hoped. By the way I’m going to spoil the hell out of it so I would advise not reading any further if you plan to go and see it.

There’s a creepy organic womb sitting on the stage from the start, with a body visible inside it, writhing around as the audience files in, which bursts open at the start for the Creature to be born. As it was a preview, it was a mystery as to which actor would be taking which role, and after a few seconds I figure out that the actor who is convulsing around the stage is Jonny Lee Miller and also that he is stark bollock naked. The Creture proceeds to jerk and writhe around for a good few minutes, while he works out how arms and legs work and what the hell is going on, and I confess I found it a bit silly.

Then the steampunk train comes on, complete with cheery peasants in goggles, and they do a dance. I think this is supposed to represet the industrial revolution.

After a couple of scenes to establish that the Creature is hideous and scares everyone, he finds some trousers and we get on with things, and it all gets better. The slow burn of the opening and the Creature’s transformation into a speaking, rational being builds up to his first confrontation with Frankenstein, and Frankenstein’s joy at seeing what his creation has become is all rather good. It’s a shame that Frankenstein has been almost entirely off-stage for the first third of the production, because I don’t think the role ever really recovers from being overshadowed by the Creature at the start. We progress through Frankenstein making a bride, coming home to be married and widowed, and then the final denouement in the arctic.

It’s all enjoyable enough, but somehow a bit lacking.The production is spectacular, with a grid of thousands of lightbulbs used to good effect, and nice use of the rotating stage parts, but I was expecting it to be technically great. I never got much a sense of time and place, nor does it play up the gothic horror, and the Creature may be hideous up close but from halfway up the theatre all you can see are some stiches on Miller’s head. (Which got me wondering how exactly they do it: has Miller shaved his head and wears a wig to be Frankenstein, while Cumberbatch keeps his natural hair for Frankenstein and puts on a bald cap to be the Creature?)

In the end it is all about Frankenstein and the Creature, who put in good performances but can’t make me excited about the play. And while both actors were excellent, the role-swapping gimmick just leaves wonder if they wouldn’t have been more interesting the other way round – Frankenstein is cold and arrogant and convinced of his own genius, and I’ve already seen Cumberbatch do that on screen. The Guardian asks, “The challenge for the audience, perhaps, is the question of which character we should feel more kindly towards. Maker or murderer? Father or son?” Despite the Creature’s monstrous nature, it’s never really a question in this production – it is the Creature’s show.

SFX Weekender Roundup

SFX Weekender 2

SFX Sci-Fi Awards 2010

I managed to score free tickets to the SFX Weekender this year; not a difficult feat as there seemed to be hundreds of them, owing to a business model which involved giving me the tickets for free and hoping I would take the opportunity to book cut-price accomodation. I chose to pass on staying at Stalag Camber Sands, seemingly a wise choice as the nicest thing I heard about the accomodation was that it was clean, and instead I booked a cottage and persuaded Niall and Nic to join me in an expedition to see what the SFX cons are like these days.

The convention is a curious hybrid of literary and media convention (in the sense of convention styles, if not subject matter). I’d never been to a media convention, and I’m not sure I ever will go to a purely media event, as based on a weekend of dipping my toes in, it’s not for me. I went along to the Keeley Hawes Q&A, and it cemented my suspicion that while Keeley Hawes is a lovely person, and I am in awe of anyone who could keep their hairstyle so neat in gale-force winds, none of the questions or answers were that interesting. I learned that she did her Ashes to Ashes audition with a scratched cornea, and that she’s got her DI Drake nameplate on her desk at home, and that she likes Spandau Ballet more than Duran Duran. There were frustrating hints of something a bit deeper – she mentioned not watching Life on Mars, having thought it would be overly blokey, but the question of how Alex Drake really changed that was never asked, and instead they moved on to how sexy Gene Hunt was and how we all like a bit of “unreconstructed rough”.

I didn’t pay my £20 for a signing pass, either, as I was content to look at George Takei from afar rather than queueing up for his autograph, but a lot of attendees obviously did, and as the signings took place at the side of the main hall, the noise from the queues and the bar teamed up to make some of the Q&As nearly inaudible. Probably a limitation of the space, and they’re not going back to the venue next year, but it didn’t entice me to hang around in the main room, especially as it reached furnace-like temperatures on Saturday afternoon.

If the media side was a little disappointing, then there was an impressive roster of literary guests to make up for it. Saturday morning I saw the Q&A session for China Mieville, who was as interesting and thoughtful about his work as you might have though, and also can do a good impression of a TIE fighter. Joe Abercrombie, understandably excited by his presence on the bestseller lists, was entertaining and funny and seemed to be in the author-as-performer mode much more than Mieville. In between the two I caught the “Dual Britannia” panel about writing alternate Britains, which was an excellent 25 minutes before it had to stop to get the schedule back on track, and made me want to search out some of Kate Griffin’s novels. Probably the best panel was the one I caught almost by accident while looking for a quiet spot for lunch – the panel on comics outside the UK, with Tony Lee, Bryan Talbot, Pat Mills, and a couple of others whose names I missed, and while it was a little unfocused it was a fascinating discussion on how UK and US comics are going wrong and where the European scene is going right, and some recommendations for what’s good in the UK scene at the moment. All the participants seemed clued-up and refreshingly aware of just how much the superhero comic scene is failing to appeal to anyone outside their core demographics.

So I had fun, despite the windswept nature of Camber Sands and the general ambient tacky awfulness of Pontins. And it seemed like the hundreds and thousands of excited nerds were having fun too, and they skewed fairly young and female. With my Eastercon hat on, what I can’t quite figure out is whether the appeal is all for the media side of things, and the literary events are a pleasant sideshow that attract reasonable crowds taking a break from the main hall, or whether there is really a large group of fans wanting both. Part of the appeal of the weekender is presumably that it is dirt cheap – cram 5 people into your chalet and it’s under £100 per person for entrance and accomodation, which Eastercons are never going to compete with given the scale and venues they use, but some of the people asking smart questions of China Mieville on a Saturday morning must be potential traditional lit con attendees.

But it didn’t feel quite right, in some ways. The cabaret on Friday night was pretty spectacular and had a cool robot, but also failed to feature women as anything but scantily clad dancing girls and volunteers for the contortionist to sexually harass*. I was going to do the quiz instead, but all the tickets were gone before I even arrived in Camber Sands. The lack of name badges made it hard to know who anyone was, but maybe that was the point – it may have been just me, but I felt far more of a divide between invited pros and the everyday fans, partly because there were no panelists who weren’t industry professionals, and partly because the authors were more carefully herded and looked after by their editors than at other conventions. Probably so they didn’t have to eat the Pontins food, but it was different than I was used to.

I’m not going to race back for next year’s con (it’s twice as far away for a start) but I wouldn’t rule out a future trip.

* I left shortly before the end, so there might have been a surprise female act, but it didn’t look like it was going to happen.