Coronavirus – Day #149

It is still warm. I still have lots of work to do. But there is cricket (albeit with a lot of rain delays).

The big news item is to do with exams. Today high school students across the country got the results of their final exams, known as A Levels. Because of the pandemic, no one could actually sit exams this year, so the government said that grades would be based on teacher reports instead. Now, however, they have decided that teacher reports are unreliable, and they have concocted a secret algorithm to “correct” the grades. To no one’s surprise, the result of this is that pupils at fee-paying schools have had their grades raised on average, while pupils at state schools, especially those in poorer areas, have had their grades reduced on average, sometimes drastically. This is what happens when the Cabinet is made up of upper class snobs.

Needless to say, this is a disaster for universities who are having to cope with large numbers of promising students failing to make the grades they needed for admission, and a bunch of posh twits whose parents can afford expensive lawyers demanding those places instead.

Meanwhile there has been an announcement that a number of classic works of fiction by women writers are to be re-issued under those women’s “real names”. While it is likely that some of the women concerned adopted male pen names in order to help their careers, some of them very obviously used their male names in everyday life, dressed in masculine clothing and generally behaved in a gender-variant way.

For a long time the anti-trans movement in the UK has solely targeted trans women. They seem to think that war has been won with the scrapping of reforms to the Gender Recognition Act and leaked promises by Liz Truss that existing trans rights will be repealed. Trans men, and butch lesbians, mostly flew under the radar, until recently when there has been a spate of attacks. We’ve had butch lesbians who are assaulted in toilets after being mistaken for trans women decribed as unavoidable collateral damage. We’ve had a Labour MP say that only people who identify as women should be allowed healthcare such as cervical screening, even though many trans men still need it. This new set of books is very clearly in the same vein. I don’t think that the people behind it care two hoots about women who genuinely adopted a male pen name just for the money. What they want to do is come down hard on anyone who dared display any degree of gender variance. The only thing they forgot was to make all of the covers pink.

Coronavirus – Day #148

It is still rather warm and muggy in the UK, but I have purchased a fan and am now able to put in a decent work day without feeling like the need for a nap every hour or so.

Talking of work, eARCs for The Green Man’s Silence are now available on request. And I’ve made good progress with the layouts for the paper versions so I should be able to get those into the distributor’s catalogue (and thence into stores) fairly soon.

While everyone in England appears to be desperate for rain, Scotland has too much of it. There was a nasty train crash up near Aberdeen today that appears to have been the result of a landslide caused by heavy rain.

In other news, the UK’s GDP in the period April-June was 20.4% lower than in January-March. That’s the biggest economic slump on record, and is on top of a 2.2% drop from the previous quarter. The fall is much worse than other major Western economies such as the USA, Germany and France. There are already signs of recovery thanks to the easing of Lockdown in June, but with the number of COVID-19 cases continuing to rise steadily again it seems unlikely that will be maintained. The really scary thing is that we are likely to already be facing a major economic disaster when Brexit finally starts to bite in January. I have never been so glad to be old, and largely dependent on foreign income.

Ill Met by Moonlight

Via my friend Stephanie Budin I have discovered a rather interesting conference scheduled for next April. ‘Ill met by moonlight’: Gothic encounters with enchantment and the Faerie realm in literature and culture, is part of a project on Gothic Literature by a group of academics based at the University of Hertfordshire. How I have not heard of them before, I do now know. They’ve been going since 2010, and running annual conferences on all things creepy and going bump in the night. I mean, how can you not love a literary project called, Open Graves, Open Minds.

Anyway, the 2021 conference is about Fairies. Sadly I am scheduled to be in Sweden then, so even though I suspect that in-person events will still be impossible by then, I can’t in good conscience submit a paper on War for the Oaks, even though I want to.

However, you good people are hopefully not so constrained, and therefore might want to get involved. The full CFP is here. If Emma Bull doesn’t appeal to you, they also specifically mention works by Neil Gaiman, Liz Hand and Jeanette Ng. (Sorry Jeanette, you are canon now!). Hie thee to a word processor, and cast thy Puckish imaginings to the aether.

Coronavirus – Day #146

Yeah, I haven’t been posting much. It was pleasantly warm all weekend, and when cats are warm they go to sleep. It has been a pleasure to have a nice, relaxed weekend.

Not that it was entirely work-free. I do have books to get out. But a fair amount of sleeping has been done, and there was entertaining cricket and motor racing to be watched.

Out in the world, the UK’s 7-day rolling average of new COVID-19 cases is over 850. It hasn’t been that high since March 21st when we were just starting Lockdown and the number of new cases was about to rise dramatically. As I understand it, much of the problem is still very localised, and the government is hoping to contain outbreaks by local lockdowns. I have no idea if this will work. However, aside from getting food (which I need to do tomorrow) I don’t need to go out, so I’m happy not adding to the problem.

Coronavirus – Day #143

I have done some interesting things today, but they are mostly things that I can’t talk about yet. Fortunately there is one that I can mention.

This evening I tried my first receipe from Mary Anne Mohanraj’s cookbook, A Feast of Serendib. It was the garlic & ginger chicken curry. I was very pleased with the results. It’s also a very fast cook if you found count the time spent marinating the chicken. I’ll definitely be making this one again. Thanks Mary Anne!

In other news, corruption in the government has got so bad that one story even found its way into the Daily Malice. That’s another £150m of taxpayers’ money gone to friends of ministers.

Interestingly the BBC is not reporting this. I see that Twitter has started labeling accounts run by state propaganda networks as such. They should probably do the same with BBC News.

Coronavirus – Day #142

Worldcon is gradually fading into the distance, though I do have at least one more piece I need to write. In the meantime I have been asked to be on programme for two more online conventions. It is nice to be wanted.

Because people are commenting on last week, I have found myself having to read File 770. When did Mike Glyer become so sad and bitchy? I was shocked.

The number of reported new cases of COVID-19 in the UK continues to rise day-on-day. The death numbers haven’t started to follow yet, but it is inevitable that they will.

Meanwhile the papers continue to be full of stories of incompetence and corruption on the part of the government. And the opinion polls show that 40% of people would vote them back in if there was an election next week. Which is enough to give them a majority again, given the stupid electoral system we have.

Thankfully there is cricket. And Formula E is back (as crazy as ever).

Coronavirus – Day #141

We interrupt your Worldcon programming to bring you this scheduled reminder from the global pandemic.

Yes, Worldcon is over, and I am back at work. Part of that did involve doing the Wizard’s Tower accounts, but I’ve also had a couple of work-related Zoom meetings and have lots of other work stuff to do this week.

I have also caught up with goings on in the outside world. The rate of new COVID-19 infections in the UK is now showing a clear upward trend. It hasn’t gone into full outbreak mode yet, but it could very easily. I understand that this is very patchy, and concentrated in major urban centres, so I’m not too worried, but equally I don’t think we’ll be getting out of lockdown any time soon.

The Green Man’s Silence on B&N

I’m delighted to report that The Green Man’s Silence is now available for pre-order on Barnes & Noble. Here’s the full list of options.

At the party at Worldcon I was asked if the book would be available for pre-order from the Wizard’s Tower store. The answer is no. There are two main reasons for this. Firstly the additionl e-commerce software needed to do pre-orders is quite expensive, and we are unlikely to do enough business to justify buying it. Secondly sales through the Wizard’s Tower store do not register in publishing industry sales reports. Pre-orders are apparently really important to the bean counters at big publishers who decide which authors they will allow editors to buy from. So to keep Juliet’s name in front of people who can sell far more books for her than I can I want all of the Green Man pre-orders to go through major stores.

Talking of selling large numbers of books, Amazon has decided to put The Green Man’s Foe on sale in the UK for the whole of August. So if you haven’t read book #2 in the series yet, you can pick it up early and get it read before the new one drops.

And given that all this is going on, we have put The Green Man’s Heir on sale in the UK at £1.77 (which is the new £1.99 since VAT on ebooks was zero-rated), just in case there’s anyone out there who doesn’t have a copy.

Matter of Record

One of the great social disasters of recent years is that service industries have discovered that providing a good service is not profitable, but tricking customers is. Always within the law, of course, but.

Today for complicated reasons I had to stop automatic renewal of a car insurance policy that I didn’t realise was on auto-renewal. There was no way to do this through the insurance company’s website. After much time in a phone queue I finally got to talk to someone, who promised me that the renewal would be cancelled. However, she also told me that it was their policy not to send out confirmations of renewal cancellations. That means that I have no proof that I cancelled the renewal (only proof that a phone call was made). My apologies for being suspicious, but I am writing this public blog post to explain what took place.

Endsleigh, this is for you. I’m sure that what you are doing is strictly within the law, but that means we need better regulation of your industry.

Why Worldcons Go Wrong

There are lots of people on social media currently saying things like, “Worldcon is broken, it must be fixed” or “Worldcon is irredeemably broken, we must replace it with something new.” These are all entirely understandable sentiments, but in order to fix Worldcon, or to build a replacement, it helps to know how and why it goes wrong. In this post I want to talk about a couple of specific examples from CoNZealand.

I should start by noting that much of the problem here stems from the fact that fans all over the world, even if they have Worldcon memberships, have no sense of ownership of WSFS or the convention. They see WSFS as a nebulous “Them” rather than as “Us”. And if something goes wrong, “They” must be at fault. But who exactly “They” are, and what “They” could they have done better, is unclear.

In one sense it is absolutely true that the buck stops at the top. When you agree to chair a Worldcon you know this. There is a reason why “Friends Don’t Let Friend’s Run Worldcon” is a common fannish saying. So Kelly Buehler and Norm Cates have been spending a lot of time taking it on the chin and accepting responsibility. Sometimes they did indeed do things wrong, but knowing what to do right is not always easy.

Take the George Martin situation, for example. CoNZealand was selected as a site in 2018, and George was announced as Toastmaster at that time. The Game of Thrones TV series was hugely popular then, and George had a stellar reputation among Worldcon regulars because, unlike many famous authors, he always attended the convention, and put a lot of his own money into it. His work establishing alternative awards, The Alfies, in the midst of the Sad Puppy affair was widely praised. Few people thought CoNZealand’s choice was a mistake at the time.

Warning signs started to appear last year with the fiasco around Hugo Finalists being barred from the Hugo Losers’ Party because it was full, and being asked to stand out in the rain until there was room. George has done most of the work funding and organising these parties since the Puppy affair, and his response to what happened in Dublin was very disappointing.

There may well have been additional warning signs in the months that followed. I’m not privy to the internal discussions of the CoNZealand committee so I don’t know. So there may have been multiple points at which CoNZealand might have been tempted to disinvite George. I would certainly have considered pushing back on Robert Silverberg having any involvement in the Hugo Ceremony.

But what would have happened if they did push back? George might well have been very angry. He might have withdrawn from the convention entirely, which might have resulted in a number of people demanding membership refunds. He might have gone to the newspapers, which would have resulted in the convention being dragged through the mud all over the world. And George’s legion of fans would certainly have waged war against the convention on social media.

If you want an example of how much damage an author with a very high profile can do, take a look at what another successful fantasy author is currently doing to the trans community in the UK.

So as a con committee, what do you do if one of your Guests of Honour turns out to be a problem? If, like George, he is very high profile, you will probably keep him and hope that he won’t do anything too awful. And, if he does, that your staff can keep things under control. That’s easier said than done.

Yesterday Mary Robinette Kowal wrote a Twitter thread about her own part in the Hugo Ceremony. She’s President of SFWA, and the winner of last year’s Best Novel Hugo, so she’s not without power and prestige in the industry. She’d been asked to present the Best Novella category. This was all pre-recorded, and Mary says she’d noticed from the way George introduced her that something was up. In particular he had expanded SFWA as “The Science Fiction Writers of America” rather than “The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America”. That might have been a genuine mistake, but it is also a common Old Guard dog whistle. (There’s a whole complicated reason why SFWA is not called SFFWA). She says that she could have asked George to re-do the intro, but she didn’t want to seem difficult.

The point here is that if the President of SFWA didn’t feel confident enough to tell George he was getting it wrong, what chance did younger writers, or volunteers on the CoNZealand committee have? If I might be permitted a Railroad joke, there’s a train in motion here and it is very hard to stop. From a convention management point of view, the only thing you can do is to trust that your high profile Toastmaster does not behave too badly. In CoNZealand’s case that trust was badly betrayed.

The other issue I would like to look at is the case of panellist Edmund Schluessel who was twice asked to change his Zoom background because it was deemed “too political”. The full story, complete with an image of said background, is available on File 770 here (item 3) and here.

The first time this happened, Kelly Buehler issued an apology on behalf of the committee. She stated: “There is nothing wrong with your Zoom background, and I encourage you to use it as much as you like.” However, the staff member who had tried to censor Schluessel’s background resigned in protest. And the next time Schluessel was on panel he was once again asked to remove his background, for the same reason as before, but by a different person.

Clearly some of the ConZealand staff have gone rogue here, including ignoring a direct instruction from one of the Co-Chairs. There’s little that the convention can do at this point. All Worldcon staff are volunteers. You can’t discipline them in any effective way. If you fire someone you may find yourself with a major gap in your team, and the person that you fire may take several of his friends away with him. Possibly it was a mistake to recruit this person in the first place, but Worldcons are often desperate for staff and have little chance to vet people at lower levels.

There’s a tendency in certain quarters to sneer when people say that running Worldcon is hard, but it is, and unless you have actually done it you probably don’t understand just how hard it is. Which is not to say that people don’t make terrible mistakes, and should not be called to account for them. I can assure you that I have done that often enough in my time (ask people about TorCon 3 if you don’t believe me). However, I have always tried to do so in the hope that we can learn from our mistakes and make Worldcon better. I hope you can see from the above that fixing things, or creating an alternative, is not simply a matter of vowing to “do better”.

CoNZealand – Day 5

Another one bites the dust. Worldcon 78 is dead, long live Worldcon 78, aka DisCon III.

I have made a start on catching up on programming. I particularly want to recommend the Afrofuturism panel, if you haven’t seen it yet, mainly because all of the panelists, despite being Black, insisted that they didn’t write Afrofuturism.

This resonated with me, because similar sorts of issues affect writing by trans people. There seem to be three main stages to the representation project. First you get written about by white people (or in my case cis people). Then you get to write your own stories, but only if they are ghettoised in fiction for Your Kind. And finally you get to just write fiction like the other people do.

One of the panel, I think Brandon O’Brien, said something along the lines of, “No one talks about White Futurism, that is just Futurism.” Exactly.

Oh, and Brandon, mate, if you are reading this, I’d love to have a chat with you at some point about American Gods. I totally take your point about Anansi, but it seems to me that the whole point of that book is that every god in it has been appropriated by America and forced to adapt to American culture.

I was also entertained by the other translation panel. As you probably know, German is a language in which most things are gendered. Tables, cups and bicycles have gender. So the German translator of Ancillary Justice carefully made sure that everything in the book was gendered female. Cora Buhlert said that it was very disorienting to read, but I suspect that’s just the effect that Ann Leckie wanted.

Today I did finally manage to get to the Exhibits area. The Art Show was quite fun, if much smaller than it needed to be for a virtual con. I was particularly taken by the people who made monster head hunting trophies to stick on your wall. Some of the exhibits were interesting too, though I though the 3D rendering was more technically clever than useful.

Sadly the Dealers’ Room was rather dull. To my eyes it was the part of the convention experience that worked least well in a vitual convention. Whether that is because of the facilities available to dealers, or because the concept doesn’t work, I can’t be sure.

Behaving Badly at the Hugos

I would imagine that everyone has now seen the outrage that accompanied the CoNZealand Hugo Award Ceremony. If you haven’t, the short version is that a fabulous list of winners and some really great acceptance speeches were completely overshadowed by a couple of old men grandstanding.

Before I get into the detail, I want to mention one of the acceptance speeches. Neil Gaiman won a Hugo for the television version of Good Omens. In his acceptance speech (Farcebook link) Neil spoke about how he made the series as a favour for his friend, Terry Pratchett. Terry, despite being hugely loved by fans all over the world, never won a Hugo. He was a finalist once, but declined the honour. This was not, as Neil explained, because he didn’t care, but because he cared too much. Terry wanted a Hugo so badly, and was so convinced that he’d never win one, that the mere thought of being a finalist was too much for him. That’s how much Hugos mean to people in our field.

The theme for last night’s 3.5 hour marathon bore-fest was Hugo history. George Martin and Robert Silverberg regaled us with stories from Worldcons past. In that vein, I would like to take you back to LA Con IV in 2006. That convention too had chosen an aging writer to have an important role in the ceremony. The writer in question was Harlan Ellison, who had a far bigger reputation for shooting his mouth off than either Martin or Silverberg. By the end of the evening, the social media of the time was incandescent with fury over something that came to be known as Gropegate. Here’s what I wrote after the event.

It was clear right from the start that Harlan was planning to behave badly. It was just that no one quite realized that behaving badly would include trying to swallow the microphone and groping one of Connie’s breasts during the ceremony. Harlan, I suspect thought it would be funny.

That would have been Connie Willis, who was the Writer Guest of Honour and was also hosting the ceremony.

Fandom was incandescent with fury. And I went on to say the following:

What I do know for sure, however, is that every time Harlan’s name comes up in a convention committee discussion, any convention committee discussion, in the future, people will remember what he did in Anaheim and, if they have any sense at all, will not want anything to do with him.

At the time I had a fair amount of profile as a fan writer. I had nominations that year in Fan Writer and Semiprozine (I had taken Emerald City out of the Fanzine category). Consequently Harlan heard about what I’d written. We didn’t know each other, but he knew Neil Gaiman and Neil knew me. As a result, I got a phone call. We chatted for quite a long time, and I’m not sure that Harlan ever quite understood why what he had done was wrong. It was the sort of thing that men got away with routinely when he was younger. But one thing was very clear: Harlan, who had won eight Hugos himself, was mortified that his actions had damaged the reputation of the awards.

Contrast that with CoNZealand. What we seemed to have there was a couple of old men conspiring to take over the ceremony, disrespect many of the Finalists, and bore the audience to death, because they don’t like the sort of people, and the sort of works, that are winning Hugos these days. It was, it seemed, a deliberate attempt to cause controversy and drag the awards through the mud. Hosting the Hugo ceremony is an honour, and should be treated as such. Many other people, including high profile names such as Neil Gaiman, John Picacio and Garth Nix, have done the job, and taken it much more seriously.

It doesn’t just stop there either. There was the incident where the introduction to the Best Fancast category concentrated solely on podcasts, despite the fact that one of the Finalists, Claire Rousseau, uses video rather than audio. The CoNZealand Chairs said in their apology that this was an error, and the CNZ staffer responsible has apparently owned up and apologised. But equally I have been in Claire’s position where people were saying that I should have been disqualified because I was using the wrong sort of delivery system. And when people see such obvious disrespecting of Finalists elsewhere, the natural assumption is that every such incident is deliberate. Bad behaviour elsewhere poisons all other interactions, even when a genuine mistake has been made.

Of course people will claim that Hugo winners have taken to making their acceptance speeches political. They are winners; that gives them a lot of licence. And mostly it is their own reputation at risk. Jeannette Ng did so and got a Hugo for it, which I think shows that she hasn’t lost much over it.

But when you are hosting the ceremony, it is not just your reputation that you damage if you misbehave. You sully the reputation of the convention, of all the people who worked so hard to make it happen, and of the country that is hosting the convention. Most of all, you sully the reputation of the awards themselves. Harlan understood that. I’m not sure that Martin and Silverberg do.

ConZealand – Day 4

I have watched some good programming. I can’t remember any of it. The only thing that sticks in my mind is the train wreck of a Hugo Award ceremony last night. As a measure of just how angry I am, I haven’t even looked at the stats yet.

I have been trying to see what future Worldcons and bids are saying about online features. Sadly most of them seem to be taking the line of, “well streaming all of our in-person programming would be impossible so we can’t have any online component.” I hope I don’t have to point out how disingenous that is.

Worldcon needs to change, but hardly anyone involved in running it seems to want it to.

Anyway, time to talk about last night. Separate post.

Green Man News

I’m delighted to report that The Green Man’s Silence is now available for pre-order on Amazon and Kobo. Barnes & Noble should follow suit very soon. Here are some links:

But that’s not all. Amazon has decided to put The Green Man’s Foe on sale in the UK for the whole of August. So if you haven’t read book #2 in the series yet, you can pick it up early and get it read before the new one drops.

And given that all this is going on, we have put The Green Man’s Heir on sale in the UK at £1.77 (which is the new £1.99 since VAT on ebooks was zero-rated), just in case there’s anyone out there who doesn’t have a copy.

CoNZealand – Day 3

Yesterday morning I was up early for a translations panel because I’d promised the moderator, Kalin from Bulgaria, that I’d be available. I went straight back to bed afterwards.

Much of the rest of the day was taken up with fannish drama, and trans drama. I’m not sure which is worse.

The big event of the day was the Site Selection results announcement. To the suprise of no one who knows anything about Worldcon, Chicago beat Jeddah by 517 votes to 33. Yasser Bahjatt has been taking the whole thing remarkably well, all things considered. He’s also announced that he’s rolling the bid forward to 2026. Currently that’s unopposed, but I don’t expect it to be for long. Yasser seems to think that a large part of the value of the bid is to draw attention to Arabic SF&F in translation, which is surely a good thing.

In other bid news Nice has formally postponed their bid. While their statement in the Question Time session this morning talked only about COVID-19, I understand that they have also lost their venue because the newly elected Mayor of Nice has vowed to demolish it and build a new convention centre.

But, as one bid vanishes, new ones take their place. A group of Australian fans has launched a bid for Brisbane in 2025 (opposing Seattle). I’m really sad for the Seattle folks, because I seem to end up opposing their bids all the time, but I can travel to Brisbane and I can’t go to Seattle so I know who I am supporting.

Recordings of panels are now starting to turn up on the CoNZealand website. I watched the Masquerade over breakfast (it is quite short) and the Modern Criticism panel over lunch. Those were both on the big screen TV (giant Gary Wolfe with giant wine glass). However, I have discovered a very easy way to watch panels. If you have an iPad, download the app for The Fantasy Network. Log in with your CoNZealand email address, and everything is there.

Well, not quite everything, because panels are slow appearing. I gather that the automatic system for saving and uploading panel recordings doesn’t work, and CoNZealand staff are having to do it manually, which is slow and labour-intensive. Much sympathy to them.

New Salon Futura

Here we go again. The new issue of Salon Futura went live on Wednesday night. Here’s what I have on review:

  • The Sunken Land Begins to Rise Again by M John Harrison
  • Mordew by Alex Pheby
  • The Empress of Salt and Fortune by from Nghi Vo
  • Scarlet Odyssey by CT Rwizi
  • Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders by Aliette de Bodard
  • Exhalation by Ted Chiang
  • Season one of Doom Patrol

I have also written a length article about how WSFS might change to become more responsive to fans, and to help fans feel more part of the organisation. It seems to have been well-received thus far, but writing means nothing if it isn’t followed up by action.

CoNZealand – Day 2

First up, we had a very successful party. Huge thanks to all who attended, and to Kristen and her team running the CoNZealand parties.

A lot of yesterday was taken up with preparing for the party, but I did get some time to see programme. The Representing the Other panel was very good, and led to some very lively discussion on Discord afterwards. I also watched the Conventions in the Age of COVID-19 panel, and the The Future is Female panel.

The big event last night was the Retro Hugo and Sir Julius Vogel Awards panel. Unfortunately there were major bandwidth issues with the stream and I bailed early on so as to reduce the load. Kevin stuck with it so as to be able to tweet from the official Hugo Awards feed.

This year’s Retro Hugo Award trophy is gorgeous. You can find out more about it here.

The results of the 1945 Retros can be found here. I was very pleased with the recognition for Margaret Brundage and Leigh Brackett. There has been anger expressed about the awards going to Campbell and Lovecraft, but results like this are inevitable with the Retros because most people don’t take an interest in them. According to the official statistics, only 120 people participated at the Nominations stage, and only 521 in the final ballot. If Worldcons can’t drum up more interest in the Retros then they should stop doing them (they are optional, after all).