Despite the amount of grumbling what went on beforehand, this year’s Eastercon went off fairly well. There was not a mass boycott by fans outraged at the convention’s Military SF theme. Nor was the convention deserted due to the high room rates in the NEC Hilton. There was, of course, a lot of frantic paddling under the surface including, I understand, tech getting the television feed up and running only 30 seconds before Doctor Who was due to start. But things did not fall apart the way they did in Blackpool, and for that we should all be very grateful.
As a convention hotel, the NEC Hilton has a lot to recommend it. There is plenty of space for an Eastercon. Membership probably wasn’t as high as it was last year, but it felt nowhere near as crowded. There was a problem with air conditioning in some rooms, but I think an Eastercon committee cannot reasonably be expected to have planned for the prospect of the con taking place during a heat wave. The staff, with one horrible exception which I have made an official complaint about, were very friendly.
The big problem was prices. The hotel restaurant was out of the reach of most members, and the bar prices were so high that authors were complaining that their publishers were not buying them drinks. I understand that quite a few barrels of real ale were left un-drunk. This would not have been too much of a problem if the con was not so isolated. However, there is nothing on in the NEC during Easter, so most of the fast food outlets there are closed. The smart thing to do turned out to be to take the train into Birmingham (only £2) and eat there, but various evening program items conspired to keep Kevin and I in the hotel most days.
And talking of program, this is where the event mainly fell down. Everything ran more or less smoothly, thanks to the cunning plan of scheduling a half hour break in between each item. But the actual program has to be planned in advance, and for various reasons this didn’t happen. Normally a con will send potential participants a list of suggested items, with a request to indicate interest and availability. I saw nothing. I understand that Liam Proven took over programming at a fairly late date, and he sent me a list of items I had been assigned to without any input from me. Half of these then got cut, and I got put on one at 10:30pm which I normally avoid like the plague. Liam in turn had to drop out, so it was all a bit chaotic.
The net result of this appeared to be a program full of poorly thought-out panels staffed as often as not by people because they were known to (or on) the con committee rather than because they knew anything about the subject. High profile writers such as Liz Williams and Trisha Sullivan were not used. Discussion of ebooks was considered such a minority interest that it was relegated to the aforementioned 10:30pm slot, and ended up being mainly a panel about what you could get online for free. Roz’s GoH status appeared to be very much an afterthought a lot of the time.
I don’t want to get into the whole feminist programming debate again because the “Women Invisible” panel was so horribly derailed there doesn’t seem to be any point. Reaction on Twitter to the “Women in SF & F” panel also suggested a train wreck. I am starting to get the impression that, with a few honorable exceptions, UK fandom regards feminism and something that loud-mouthed Americans do and should therefore be ridiculed here.
I did enjoy quite a lot of the convention. Some of the highlights were the morning walks around the lake with Kevin, dinner in Birmingham with Charlie and Feòrag, BSFA Awards for The Dervish House and the cover of Zoo City, watching the Australian awards news come in on Twitter, getting to be a Hugo nominee again, and the British Nuclear Industry panel which went surprisingly well.
On the other hand, much of the con was uninspiring. Saturday was so depressing I pretty much gave up on panels. One of the lowlights occurred on the Culture War panel where someone called Anne Wilson (a late replacement for Roz) opined that SF wasn’t respected by literary critics because there was an issue of quality and everyone knows SF writers can’t do characterization. Jon Courtenay Grimwood, also on the panel, refrained from hitting her, and opted instead for politely noting that his experience as a Clarke judge suggested otherwise.
Kevin tells me that he had a great time, for which I am very relieved. And from my point of view the con did have one very useful function. It reminded me that UK fandom has very little interest in me or anything I do, and consequently it is easy to remove Eastercon from the list of cons worth attending.