Friday, 1 April 2016

Mancunicon on Sunday

This was a time-travelling Con - since the clocks changed overnight - so the first panel we went to see had a few bleary looking people on it.
Russell Smith was the moderator of the panel on Manchester in Speculative Fiction. I first became aware of him at LonCon, where he was on several panels, and then at EasterCon last year I saw him on several more panels, where he always had interesting things to say (and he's a Tudor re-enactor!), and we got to have a chat with him in the audience of a panel on swordplay in fiction, with real weaponry on display. This year, we finally tracked down his books - the Grenshall Manor Chronicles - and chatted about Aly Fell's new comic Shadowglass on the way to the lifts (Aly Fell is another Mancunian, and we all know him). The Young Man and I had already read it, and Russell said he was looking forward to getting it.
So there we were, talking about Manchester in fiction, and wondering why more authors don't set their work there. As Russell said, we were sitting in one of the iconic buildings of Manchester - the Hilton tower; "and it looks like a USB drive, plugged into the city. What's it downloading? There's a Doctor Who episode right there!"
Manchester is also the home of scientific breakthroughs like splitting the atom, at Manchester University by Professor Rutherford, and more recently breakthroughs with graphene. Turing has a statue here, on Sackville Street, and Anne Charnock also mentioned the thriving arts scene, with small theatre groups performing in pubs, and cheap warehouse space for artists in Ancoats. There's political history too, with the suffragette movement (Mrs Pankhurst is about to get a statue in the town centre), and the Peterloo Massacre (recently the subject of a Doctor Who episode from Big Finish which was highly recommended). It made me think of the old Manchester Guardian strap line "What Manchester thinks today, the world thinks tomorrow!"

We followed that with If You Don't Scream You'll Laugh, a look at comedy and horror and combining the two, which was another opportunity to see Charlie Stross's evil genius in action. Sarah Pinborough, one of the Guests of Honour, was also on this panel, and she was very funny.
Later there was a panel about the future of superhero movies, Are We Diving into a Superhero Crash? Daredevil fan Lilian Edwards was on this one, and so was Jacq Applebee, proclaiming her love for Stephen Universe as an example of diversity in superhero fiction done right. Nobody had much love for DC!

As we went down to the ground floor for lunch, one of the hotel staff stopped us and asked about our costumes. The Young Man was a Time Agent, with a Babel Fish badge, which the chap said would be really useful in his job - several languages are spoken by the hotel staff, including Russian. He was really enthusiastic about the Con, and said that all the staff were enjoying it.
Later we overheard another member of staff behind the Real Ale Bar. He was saying that he'd actually done two previous EasterCons, at another hotel he'd worked at. "I came here thinking I'd never have to do another one," he said, laughing, "but you're following me about!"

The discussion with Guest of Honour Aliette de Bodard, who had also just won two BSFA Awards, for The House of Shattered Wings and a short story, was very much like the setup for Hay Festival interviews - which I'm very familiar with, since I live in Hay-on-Wye. Actually, when people ask me what SF Cons are like, I tend to describe them as being like Hay Festival only for SF. And slightly smaller. And not in tents.
I got The House of Shattered Wings at the Con, too, and I'm looking forward to reading it.

Aliette de Bodard went on to do a cookery demonstration.
I went on to the Author Reading Open Mic. I just happened to have the fragmentary first draft of the story I'm writing at the moment with me, to pass on to the Young Man so he could suggest improvements. Otherwise I wouldn't have been able to do it. And part of the story is set in Steampunk Victorian Manchester, in a Chinatown that wasn't actually there then, but I thought "The Hell with it - my Manchester has a Chinatown in 1895!" So I felt I really had to stand up and do it - my first time reading my own stuff in front of people I'd never met before! I have, of course, the best boyfriend in the world, who supported me through it all. I was also thinking of the acoustic evenings I go to locally, where I sing and recite - so I thought of Bob, who runs the acoustic evenings, sitting in the corner and encouraging new singers by saying "You're among friends here."
It was still terrifying, but I got a quite respectable 40 points from the judges in the audience. The 5 winners tied with 54 points, including the chap who had suggested the panel, who read his story about a haunted Christmas tree. I also liked the one about the Goddess of Draughts who was living in a cupboard on the main character's landing. Jacq Applebee was there too, with an interesting story set in a world which I'd like to know more about. She was sitting in the audience near us, and confided that, as a library assistant, she had sometimes pretended to mend the photocopier with a sonic screwdriver, and at least one person had believed her!

After that, I needed beer, and dinner, and then we went to Steampunk as a Force for Good, which was a bit more serious than I expected. David Wake was the moderator of the panel, and the one who thought of the panel, and he started off by saying that the police in Lincoln, where Steampunk Asylum is now held yearly, are always keen for the Steampunks to come back. Usually, when large events are held, local crime goes up by 10%, but for Asylum, crime goes down 10% - so how could the Steampunk movement help to make society at large more Splendid?
The conversation ranged widely, pointing out that the Victorian era was the first time of mass production, bringing consumer goods and better food (mass produced bread vs. artisan bread) to the masses, but Steampunk emphasises the hand made and individual crafting skills.
Jacq Applebee (we weren't following her around!) made the point that all this dressing up in colonial uniforms was problematic from the point of view of the people whose ancestors had been oppressed by the British Empire. If you're white and English it's all a bit of fun, but it can be a nasty shock for someone black.
We also talked about the Triangle shirt-waister fire and industrialisation - are Steampunks just picking out the nice bits of Victorian history without thinking about the seamier side of Victorian life, or is it a way of engaging with the real history behind the corsets and goggles? I'm not sure we came to any firm conclusions, but it certainly made us all think!

And that, for us, was where the Con ended. It would have been lovely to stay for some of the events on Monday, but it would have made it very awkward to catch our trains. At least we also had a chance to sample the delights of the Piccadilly Tap - including Adnams beer, which I never expected to see that far from Suffolk!

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