The 2023 British Eastercon
A well delivered Eastercon with quite a pleasant relaxed programming up to 8 parallel programme streams structure built mostly around hour long presentations set over a 90 minute period, avoiding a distracting audience closing minute scramble to leave events early to get to another one, and some presenters happily over ran for a few minutes here and there. Having 8 parallel streams inevitably meant having to choose between clashing options but this was better than having too few alternatives. Attendees but not the general public could catch up on missed videoed programme events up to the end of April.
There were some 900 adult registrants together with around 30 under-18s. 80 of the adult registrants were either online/supporting only: there were 939 total registrants. A few Attending members didn't amend their membership but showed up only online, while many Attending members who showed up in person also made or were making use of the online Discord and programme streaming and catch-up facilities. Just under 800 physically attended.
The Hilton Birmingham Metropole
There remains an unfortunate and irritating over-dependence on panel presentations over solo presentations and as I saw from experience, most panellists don’t meet up to prepare how to share their time and go over their respective approaches until meeting in the Green Room a few minutes before going on the panels: this is not sufficient. While the two lovely panels I was on coped reasonably OK with this, things would have certainly been better with more preparation and planning time. The thing about panels is that too many are simply thrown together and have panellists who may not actually be experts on the topic at hand, even if they are an SF professional or a big name fan, and moderator capability is variable, a pot-luck affair with some panels losing balance of participant contribution and drift off topic. Conversely, talks are invariably prepared in advance and delivered by those knowledgeable on the subject.
There was no general film screening stream, which was sad given how popular film screening rooms have proved at past conventions of yore. However, there was just one film, The Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954, trailer here), combined with a discussion moderated by Tony Keen. Gone are the days in the 1970s to 1990s where you could see multiple films at Eastercon. Sadly, in a new golden age of independent cinema, not all worthy SF offerings are taken up by streaming platforms, nor do all make it to the British DVD market.
The virtual streaming really came into its own in this very hybrid convention, with questions and comments coming in from signed up fans around the World, and from some who were trapped in their hotel rooms through self-isolating as the CoVID outbreak among the fans took its temporary toll on many (I myself succumbed to the symptoms and popping up in a positive test only two days after returning home - a test I made right after the con still declared me clear). Zoom style screens might have let us see, hear and interact with the fans outside the event rooms more directly but the hybrid approach was really coming into its own over the weekend: the tech-crew for this con were particularly exceptional! All that was missing were some publicly available YouTube videos to provide heritage value and possibly attract new blood to Eastercon. It would be worth saving some for posterity and promotion of the cons. Also it saddens me that I can't copy and download permanent copies even of the events I was in, and also they will shut down at the end of the month following the convention: they would have been handy to help see how to improve my own styles and approaches for future presentations and performances at cons and beyond. (EDITORIAL STOP PRESS: A panel has been uploaded to YouTube on Third Row Fandom by the wonderful folks at Fanac.org but in heritage value terms this panel was probably a little parochially niche and of zero interest for a broader, SF aficionado, audience.)
The hotel proved expensive, with beers retailing at £7 (US$8.50) and even a fish-finger butty retailing at £19 (US$23), but salvation came from kebab and Korean salad food vans setting up outside the hotel, (though being drained of their entire stock quickly on each visit).
Programme diversity was high and with my interest in creative, reading and performance activities I was spoilt for choice. There were fewer hard science events than usual. One exception was the Friday panel on Fearlessly Spineless: Invertebrates In SFFH featuring T. J. Berg (Moderator), Dr Bob, Marcus Rowland, Danna Staaf and Adrian Tchaikovsky. It was the live onscreen remote input from marine biologist Danna Staaf, who brought along several plastic toy tentacles, that lifted this presentation over the scale.
Among much learned by me through the panel - More than 90% of life on Earth is invertebrate, though the bulk of the presentation centred on ants and octopi. (This sort of relates to other news just covered elsewhere on SF² Concatenation on the planetary mass of terrestrial wildlife species.) Daana pleaded passionately for us to all give more love to parasites. Lobsters appear to never stop growing so a lobster aged 50 years would be huge, and a 1,000 year old one would be monstrous. Most (uncaptured for cooking), live for around 30 years.
In films octopi and squids are invariably seen hunting by waving huge sucker pad tentacles around often blindly while many actually hunt with viscous barbed hooks which sounds genuinely much more nightmarish.
There was praise for the giant ant movie Them (1954, trailer here), but less so for films about armies of the relentless soldier ant armies consuming all in their path, such as 1954’s Charlton Heston vehicle, The Naked Jungle (trailer here). Danna pointed out that far from being panicked by such invasive migrations going through their villages many native peoples welcome them as the ants will clear away much decay and disease as they go through.
Literary invertebrate races praised included The Affront, in Iain M. Banks’ 1996 Culture novel, Excession, a multi-tentacled species who are seen as equally aberrant and fascinating, Also, there are the benevolent and helpful Mesklinites in Hal Clement's novel Mission of Gravity (1954), making much use of their invertebrate nature to help the humans rescue a downed satellite from an area of extremely intense gravity that would crush a vertebrate life form easily.
No mention of some of my favourite invertebrate related SF entities; The Matmos (Barbarella, 1968, trailer here), The ants of Phase IV (1974, novelised by Barry N. Malzburg the previous year trailer here) and The Blob (1958 trailer here & 1988 trailer here).
The BSFA Awards presentation was terrific, with big wins for (among others), Adrian Tchaikovsky (best novel: City of Last Chances), Aliette de Bodard (short fiction: 'Of Charms, Ghosts And Grievances', and Rob Wilkins (Non-Fiction: Terry Pratchett: A Life With Footnotes). Rob noted in his acceptance speech that the award compensated for the reader who gave him a one-star review on Amazon for the solitary reason that the courier delivering the package had left it on the doorstep in the rain causing the book to get a bit wet.
Another highlight was an 80th birthday celebration for SF legend Ian Watson, and Newcon Press’s timely launch of a collected edition of his finest works. There was free wine and a sinking sense of despair that Ian looks better at 80 than I do at 61.
The guests of honour, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Zen Cho, Niall Harrison, Jennell Jaquays (virtual), Kari Sperring, and Ursula Vernon (T. Kingfisher) (virtual), all contributed above and beyond the call of duty,. Zen, who read from Black Water Sister handed out free signed copies of some of her books, and I was delighted to add her 2021 short story collection Spirits Abroad to my reading stash too.
The closing ceremony was poignant in: a) Marking the end of a great weekend. b) the number of absentees given that many had left early or gone into room isolation as CoVID took its toll; and c). the moving, two-minute silence for fans who have sadly died since the last Eastercon, including my dear friend Charles (Chuck) Partington.
Next year’s, Levitation, Eastercon in Telford took up the reigns and they have a tough act to follow. Their con may well build on the success of the hybrid virtual-live participation success of Conversation, and may well bring some more stringency to the CoVID regulations.
Conversation are not to blame for the outbreak this year. Their masking policy was practical. The hotel was also housing guests for the much bigger (40,000 in total) National Exhibition Centre Insomnia gaming convention, who were rarely masked and whose residential attenders shared much hotel bar and dining space with our Eastercon, and the virus itself is proving horribly persistent generally, even to those of us fully vaccinated, adhering to masking rules, etc.
A huge thanks to the committee and all the volunteers at Conversation, fellow panellists and readers at events I took part in, including everyone who turned out at 9am on the Monday morning which would have meant getting up at 7.30am at least to be sure of taking in breakfast too. For all its expense, this was a lovely convention.