I attended my first Eastercon last weekend, this being the UK’s national science fiction convention. Eastercons take place at Easter, but each one seems also to have an individual name, and this year’s was ConFusion. It was meant to have taken place as an in-person event in Birmingham, but because of the Unpleasantness it was taking place online. That makes it the third online science fiction convention I have attended, after last year’s Worldcon (AKA CoNZealand) and Octocon (I am not counting the various Rural Gothic events I made it to as they are not science fiction and are possibly not really cons either).
The fundamental problem with online events of this kind is that most of us have spent far too long sitting in front of screens over the last while, so the prospect of sitting in front of some more screens even for fun fills many with dread. There is also the problem of how you replicate the social side of the normal science fiction convention. Others have attempted by having text chat channels in the likes of Discord. ConFusion’s approach was more ambitious. They created a virtual environment using the platform Gather Town, in which little 8-bit representations of the con-goers could wander around and bump into each other and have chats and stuff, as might happen at a real con. And the effect was quite appealing, making for a fun environment where your little avatar could explore the environment and look for various hidden bits and bobs. Whether it delivered on the social aspect I am not so sure – as a socially awkward person, whenever I saw someone I kind of knew knocking around I was never sure whether I should rock over and say hello or leave them to their own devices (though let’s face it the same thing would have happened at an in-person con). I also heard reports that some found the Gather Town interface to be non-ideal in terms of accessibility.
It was a bit unfortunate that the tech for streaming the programme items (the usual SF con panels and presentations) seemed basically to not work on the late Friday afternoon when the con was kicking off, only really starting to work reliably on Saturday afternoon. Even when it was up and reliably running, there was a bit of a suspicion that the tech setup was somewhat overcomplicated. I was struck by how you had to go to one webpage for a list of programme items and where they were taking place, another to actually access the programme item (you could choose between Gather Town and a streaming site), another website again (Discord) to find out how to ask a question at a panel, and then a fourth website to actually ask the question.
But please do not take that as me griping. Although my own involvement in the running of science fiction conventions has been pretty derisory, my sympathies are entirely with conrunners. If anything seems non-ideal at any convention I will always assume that they were acting in good faith and doing their best in difficult circumstances Maybe the tech stuff could have been better at ConFusion but you learn things by trying.
But what of the con’s programme items? My discussion of these might go on a bit as I present you not so much with summaries of programme items I attended but with thoughts that came to me in reaction to them (a series of comments rather than questions, as it were). Stop reading now if you were only really interested in discussion of ConFusion’s technical setup.
ConFusion had an academic track and I made sure to catch some of its sessions as I have always found these to be a rewarding option at Worldcon. The format works well for me – someone who knows something about a subject presents on it and then takes questions, which means you should get a more coherent presentation of an argument than at panels, which can be more hit and miss.
At ConFusion, many of the academic presenters at ConFusion seemed to be from creative writing rather than literary criticism programmes, which changed the focus somewhat: when they were examining a particular theme within science fiction, it was with a view to ultimately creating something in that area themselves, with several then presenting us with some of their own creative work in progress.
I enjoyed Hester Parr’s presentation on fanfic, though at times it did tend towards more of a stirring defence of fan fiction than an academic analysis of it. Particularly interesting was the discussion of how some fanfic writers use their writing to work out things about themselves and the revelation that the My Fair Lady musical is closer to the original Pygmalion myth than the George Bernard Shaw play it is adapted from. I did find myself thinking about whether there is a difference between something like Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad and other retellings of myths or sequels to others’ work by novelists on the one hand and fan fiction proper on the other hand. Part of Parr’s argument seemed to be that there is not really a difference, with the human tendency to retell and adapt stories meaning that fanfic is a universal thing with its origins in the mists of time. I have the nagging sense though that there is something different between a novel written by a professional writer and something a hobbyist has posted to an online fanfic platform. To me the fannishness of fanfic is what distinguishes it from non-fan writing drawing on pre-existing stories, though further investigation may be required here.
One of the things I most like from science fiction conventions is pointers to new things to read or see. So I loved the presentation by Sophie Squire on Lily Brooks-Dalton’s 2016 novel Good Morning, Midnight and the 2020 film The Midnight Sky adapted from it by George Clooney. These are set after some kind of unspecified global catastrophe and Squire’s discussion highlighted their intriguing focus on isolation and regret. The discussion of how science fiction usually features metaphorical rather than actual hauntings had me yearning to check out these works.
Beyond the academic track there were the usual types of con programming – panels, kaffeeklatsches, readings, and so on. There were even musical performances, with the synthpop of Suzie Geeforce making me long for the days of actual live concerts again. The readings were unusual in Eastercon programme terms, as they were the only things I went to where the presenters can see you (as I discovered when greeted by a “Hello Ian!” from guest of honour Dan Abnett when wandering late into his reading). Abnett’s reading was particularly intriguing, with the samples of text and his discussion of his trilogy of linked but independent trilogies exciting my interest in what is basically boardgame tie-in fiction to an extent I had not previously thought possible. Describing his characters as inhabiting a galactic Gormenghast pushed all the right buttons for me.
A panel on the science of planets discovered outside our solar system and its implications for writers challenged some of the standard preoccupations of science fiction. Interstellar travel will always be extremely difficult, if not impossible, and the probability of finding colonisable worlds is very low. So the old science fiction staple of interstellar colonisation is hopelessly unlikely to ever occur, with our solar system and the Earth itself the only place that will ever support human life. So where does that leave fiction about interstellar travel? Do we stick with it as an enjoyable fantasy, in the same way that people read The Lord of the Rings without thinking it a true representation of our world in the past? Some of the panelists leaned more to the idea that we should just give up on the interstellar travel fiction, seeing it as intrinsically wedded to dodgy ideas of imperialist expansion that in the past have blighted our own world. That might be a bit extreme but I think there is something for the idea that our own world has more than enough that could happen in its future to keep writers busy.
I should also mention fan guest of honour Dave Lally, as I made it to a couple of his programme items – a presentation on some of his favourite TV and films, and an interview with him by Serena Culfeather. Lally is the guy who does those wall mounted posters at cons showing people how to get to various future cons. I think also that every con I have ever been to has featured his posters about The Prisoner, the popular 1960s TV programme. There was a degree of repetition between interview and presentation, but it was all fascinating as Lally’s tastes overlap considerably with mine, so anything he talked about that I was unfamiliar with has gone onto my list for further investigation. His discussion of the 1960s The Avengers was intriguing, making a case for a programme I have always dismissed as a bit light and you-had-to-be-there; particularly striking was an excerpt from an episode where Diana Rigg’s Mrs Peel wanders around a house that seems to have both leaped from the world of 1920s German expressionist cinema and to have inspired the sets for Suspiria. Lally also had me thinking that it really is time that I systematically worked my way through all episodes of The Prisoner. The completely new-to-me thing of his that most fascinated was the film Figures in a Landscape, in which two men (escaped PoWs or something) are hunted across a parched landscape by soldiers and helicopters; it sounds like a classic of weirdo 1970s cinema.
I may have gone on for long enough, so I will spare you my reactions to panels on science fiction in the first 20 years of this century (broadly speaking: triumph of spandex, but also invasion of the lit writers and lots of weird) or on whether science fiction is too attached to the suffix -punk (perhap it is, but maybe some of the less obviously punk things are actually a bit more punk than you might think).
So, overall despite glitches the convention was fun and interesting. Next year’s Eastercon is going to be called Reclamation and will be happening at a secret location somewhere in the south of England, hopefully as an in-person event. Perhaps I will see you there.
Other people have also reported on ConFusion:
The House that Jack Built (Islands of Terror – The Avengers: The House That Jack Built)
Poster photographs my own.