Yes, I missed a Friday panel off my notes yesterday! Doh!!
Problematic Aspects of Historical Fiction: What Do We Do About It? (Douglas Kohler, Olwen Lachowicz, Jeanette Ng, Ginger Lee Thomason)
Be it Margaret Cavendish or Mary Shelley who started modern SF Genre it is often startling to realise how few women are seen in the older ‘canon’ that so many in the field like to highlight. This panel examined the way we now interpret the classics. Dracula gets praised for being the first vampire story, but it raises questions of xenophobia and the treatment of women – the happily married quiet woman gets to live. With Lovecraft the panel highlighted his very blatant racism that used the primal fear of the other to promote his own views which was highlighted is still used today by right wing groups against immigrants. A disturbing proposal was that such groups now used the tools of horror stories to promote their racism to make their message more effective.
The panel challenged the idea that to fully understand a genre we must always go back to it. We are so many years now past Lovecraft that the idea of cosmic horror is so prevalent a new reader doesn’t need to go to go back to read him to understand it. It was clearly made that the onus is not purely on marginalised writers to take the lead in showing a better easy – that should be on all. A good point was made by Jeannette Ng on gatekeeping that certain people set the template for the stories that got seen and read the most widely a powerful editor like Joseph Campbell who even friends called a crypto fascist made editorial decisions that set the template for future stories that would be submitted to be read in his magazines. Rather than see the past as a giant monolith if we can better understand that certain people and their biases/prejudices influences the shape of things then it’s easier to fight against their narratives. In a moment of joy as the panel summed up the need for us to move on to a better inclusive future the rather loud Disney Singalong next door went into Let It Go – this felt very very appropriate.
So Last Day of a con is like the last bit of the marathon – you’re running on lack of sleep, vegetables and if you’re an introvert like me an unusual amount of people engagement that can mean you’re tired out so Day 3 of the convention is usually quite quieter and you start to notice as they day carries on people start to leave – it can be like Return of the King by the end of the day waving people off into the underground and then watch as the hotel moves from Geek Mode to the corporate convention starting the Monday.
Having last year not managing my spoons and work life balance I remembered this time not to do it all and managed well across the day
Fiction About Fiction (Tanya Brown, Aliette de Bodard, Roz Kaverney, Jeanette Ng, Claire Rousseau)
This story talked about how the novels of the past influenced the novels of the future. Really interesting debates flowed, and topics ranged from how certain aspects of western culture can appear strange to those born outside of the UK to how the love of period 19th century dramas often focused on technical innovation but overlooked the rampant colonialism and appalling treatment of people of colour. There is a danger of romanticism that current writers sometimes need to tackle to remind us the past is not a fondly loved time for many people who did not get the privileges of those wealthy or in charge. The panel also noted how the structure of the 19th century novel still lives to an extent today but perhaps we now see less focus on fleshing out secondary characters in large casts and meandering narratives but increasingly when writers mine the past using ill served secondary characters can now be an opportunity to give a voice to highlight their inequalities and provide a much-needed counterbalance.
Folklore and Liking It Weird (Malcolm Devlin, Verity Holloway, David Southall)
There appears to finally be a revival in folklore which was last seen in the 70’s when people got very interested in occult stories. This panel went into a great discussion about its roots and uses. My sense from what I heard is that folklore is a very key part of our society – it connects the urban population to their rural roots; it increasingly has its urban stories such as the albino pigs on the London Underground. Its very much focused on a sense of place or potentially isolation. That could be very simple such as the monsters in the lake who will eat the unwary kids to a fascinating example of the Luddites building their movement around a potentially mythical character who by 1810 was rumoured to live in Sherwood Forest (some stories will always be reinvested).
A great take on it was that while some see Folklore as cosy horror if you read the real thing you could argue it’s a reaction against the past. Rather than a beautiful idyll it’s a place of intolerance that demands blood and sacrifice – perhaps now Folklore should be a way to warn people from returning to a time that never actually existed. A thoughtful discussion
The Future of Nineworlds
Nineworlds like to end with an update on how the weekend went and what’s next. I suspect this was originally going to end on a very uncertain note however I think moved into a greater and worrying discussion about some of the convention’s failings and asks some hard questions about what is to come.
The main and last original founder of the core Kickstarter group announced that this would be his last in charge and he was seeking new ownership in some new form. Nineworlds very nearly went under in 2016 having made some decisions that probably were premature in terms of ideas such as an expo hall. Over the last few years those losses have been near eliminated but its also clear that a UK con even on this scale won’t be a substantial profit-making entity for a long time if at all. New owners with new ideas were being sought and this raised the idea that perhaps moving to a formal non-profit/charity status may help secure other funding/support that it needs. At this point various members of the existing Nineworlds team got up in unison to make a surprise announcement that they were trying to become the new team. To give them credit I think they were going for rather than a convention that may not be here next year they were trying to say enough people familiar with running the con were trying to be involved in the future.
At this point when it became time for audience feedback a member of the audience highlighted that the group on stage were overwhelmingly white and that several longstanding issues with people of colour had once again been raised and not really answered. I think the following blog gives a much better idea of what a) was going on int the lead through to this event and b) how the Nineworlds team responded to this feedback appallingly
Another blog that I think highlights some other adjacent issues in this space as to how sensitive content was being managed that I would also recommend
The tone of the discussions I witnessed and have heard about suggests that something has gone now seriously wrong within the Nineworlds organisation and whoever takes over needs to fix this very soon. It is a place that has done good work for many groups, but it also clearly is making some people feel unwanted and unsafe; that I saw someone senior in the organisation try to argue this point was No Platforming made very little sense. I can now totally understand the reactions people of colour and other minorities may have to a purely law enforcement panel based on the explanations above (I’m going to confirm I know two of the panel from other fandoms and they are lovely but that is not the issue at stake). Neither does bolting people onto a controversial panel serve any purpose – I do not come to Nineworlds but vigorous artificial debates I come for people to have discussions on subjects they all care about. I don’t think the content management in place at Nineworlds was clued up on those sensitivities and they themselves admitted this is a weakness that has been going on for quite some time. If there are people feeling Nineworlds is unsafe then this convention needs to now work on making the changes and getting the right people involved MUCH earlier in the process. There are socio-economic reasons why many from minorities can ill afford the time to contribute to a very large con – I think Nineworlds may need to consider if that if they cannot find that help voluntarily then it may need to make payment for that assistance and that may be part of running such a convention cost congoers need to continue towards in the ticket price - and as they are potentially seeking a non-profit charity status then this may reap many benefits in the long run.
Having thought about these discussions and several panels that highlighted the racism within the genre and lack of representation SF needs to do better. I don’t think the representation of people of colour in conventions such as this has been great and that now is an area to focus on and should be clearly and formally built into the ethos and governance structure of what the next version of Nineworlds becomes. It is in some ways reassuring that many of the old team want to be involved but it now needs to be wider and better on these issues very soon.
later on 19/8 I found this blog post from one of the Nineworlds team
To put it bluntly until I read this I'd assumed Nineworlds organisers had been clumsily insensitive but good hearted but this is ongoing wilful neglect. If the organisers have been aware of this since 2016; promised to do better and yet manage to forget this for the last two years then that organisation is failing. A full apology to those impacted by these events is needed and Nineworlds is going to have to work very hard to show that it is a new organisation willing to face up to its weaknesses. A con that preaches inclusivity and diversity needs to actually deliver on it.
Taking that issue to one side I did have a few other thoughts on the convention
- I think this year was the worst for communication to the public about what was going on in the run-up to the convention. The schedule and guest list were pretty much released a very short while before the convention. A few competing events such as on LARPs and children were run against each other in relatively small tracks. If I add in the above issues it does feel like a convention team trying to do an awful lot of stuff at the last minute with scant resources/time to think rationally. That it ran so smoothly on the day itself is important to stress but it could easily had much more gone wrong if not for the work on the teams on the ground often working a lot of hours. I appreciate this con is run on a low budget but especially as ticket sales start early a bit more dialogue about the content would be appreciated. It may also have allowed the team to shout out where additional support on some matters could be needed.
- I heard that feedback won’t be gathered this year as that is more suitable to be on what the new team want to offer. I feel this is disappointing as when it first began Nineworlds was refreshingly honest about what works and does not. In recent years that seems to be less frequent or communicated and for a fandom focused convention and again with the above issues that feels like a barrier to getting problems recognised and fixed.
- The Books panels I went to and the guests selected were all great, but I did feel this year was the smallest Books track in all the years I’ve attended. For a major event without many UK competitors at the time of year it was weirdly quiet on the usual publishers and guests. I don’t know if that was a deliberate decision to freshen the wider content up, but it didn’t feel that way. The Big Green Bookshop had much less books than I’ve seen for sale at any Nineworlds but shout outs to Rebellion and Unsung for some lovely stalls.
- The Novotel staff were once again very friendly and approachable. The facilities were very good. I could completely understand if the con finally leaves London (especially on cost grounds) but it highlights the facilities needed must be large, accessible and a safe environment
- The Access team have continued to provide a great environment and work so hard to make the con work. They deserve a lot of credit
- Finally, the congoers themselves. It was lovely to see people I know from many places; some I met for the first time in actual reality and some new people for the first time. There is a lot be said for sitting with friend and working out the Hogwarts house for the MCU; the plot of weird Hammer Horrors and oh yes BOOKS. Being silly is great and knowing your friends will conspire to create French Revolution should you ever get too big for your boots is life-affirming. I know the BEST people.
So overall Nineworlds is in an interesting state. The con was good but clearly not for everyone attending and therefore must change. Those changes I think will embolden the original aim of Nineworlds as a place that people can come together and as of, yet I’ve not heard of any alternatives that match its approach in the UK just yet. Next year I am seriously looking at the adjacent Dublin Worldcon so can’t yet confirm if I can make all of Nineworlds next year, but I would like to at least manage one day. I come back from each one physically very very tired but also refreshed as to how great geeks are and get ideas for lots of other things. I want future conventions where everyone can do that the same way and as a lot of the panels highlighted we get to create the set-up for the future and make it fairer for everyone and if that means we stop doing certain traditional things that UK cons do then so be it.