Convention Review

The Virtues of Paragon 2

The Annual British Eastercon 2005

25th - 28th March, Hinckley Island Hotel, Hinckley, Leics.
A conrep of sorts by Tony Chester


So there I was, quietly minding my own business, having just moved to Leicester, when someone goes and dumps an Eastercon practically on my new doorstep. Seemed churlish not to go since I could commute, and therefore save the cost of a hotel room, so I signed up... What you have to understand, though, is that at this point I had not been to an Eastercon, indeed any con, since 2Kon, Easter 2000. That convention was appalling, but wasn't the sole reason I'd stayed away. Really I was just gafiating a bit (a word which should have made it into the dictionary by now, certainly before Delia, but for those who don't know gafiating is Getting Away From It All). But now that I'd decided to stick my toe back in the water, I started to wonder what the Eastercon was like these days. Certainly some who knew I was going were curious to know if it was still "the gathering of the SF clans" or not, presumably accepting that it had been in the past based on their own experience. If the Eastercon is not that, then what is it? And if the Eastercon is not that, should it (still) aspire to be?

The Friday commute to the hotel involved splitting two cab fares between eight unrelated fans, identifying each other with Slan-like eeriness, all very usual to the seasoned con-goer, but it felt kinda weird turning up at the hotel and not having to join the queue at the registration desk for a room. So I picked up my con registration pack and was just about to head off in search of coffee and find a place to peruse the programme when, blammo, there's Fan Guests John and Eve Harvey, who I haven't seen in blur-years, saying, "Hello, Tony" and stuffing a fanzine into my hands. We chat briefly then part; I make another attempt at coffee, four paces, blammo, Ian Sorensen (Conrunner), COA fanzine, brief chat, part, new attempt, three paces, blammo, Kate Atkin-Wright (City Illiterates), husband and child, Tim Broadribb and fiance Michelle (veteran Film and Tech Ops, also Discworlders), buggers! - they've got coffee, pot's empty, brief chat, and a final breakaway. I'm making pretty good progress toward where I'm told there's coffee available, when I make the mistake of detouring into the dealers' room to dump a load of fanzines I've been carrying for the Resyk table. There's a few more blammo's before I get even that far, before I blam into fannish iconoclast Greg Pickersgill, who I haven't seen in blurdy-blur years, and a good natured argument starts as to which of the fanzines I'm carrying should go on top of the 'recommended' pile; Mike Christie and Sherry Coldsmith's A Free Lunch, or the Hanson-Carol-Clarke Pulps, perhaps some of Owen Whiteoak's. When I'm asked why I'm parting with these, I confess that, even having moved to a larger house, there comes a time in every fan's life when they have to ask themselves, "How much shelf-space am I going to let this stuff have?" At least this way they might end up in good homes. A few blammo's later I exit the dealers' room, gasping for a caffeine fix, when it occurs to me that on the clan-gathering front at least I can confirm that the fanzine-tribes are alive and well and in attendance.

The hotel coffee fails to take me to caffeine-Nirvana, so I do the only responsible thing and head for the bar (where at least I can satisfy my nicotine craving). But, on the way, another flurry of blammo's: the Westhead clan (BECCON/City Illiterates), last seen by me in 1999 boarding my flight to Romania to see the eclipse, are suddenly there, greyer and hairier (to be fair, a description which equally fits me) with grown kids, and then Bridget Wilkinson (Fans Across the World), part-time Concat international correspondent, and writer and broadcaster, not to mention past Concat contributor, Jane Killick, who I quiz briefly about a 20-minute movie she's just made - with the usual problems as regards actually getting it shown (she'd contacted Paragon twice, but never even got a reply) and selling it viably. I finally make the bar, get a pint of Tetley's, and am about to make the acquaintance of the programme, when I'm rejoined by Tim Broadribb for a catch-up chat that covers some ground.

Tim and co. are on Tech Ops and there's some doubt as to whether we'll be able to get BBC1 off the hotel's feed for tomorrow's showing of the first episode of the new Dr. Who. It doesn't help that none of the Tech Ops crew have even seen the equipment they're working with until that morning; despite there being understandable budgetary reasons for that, it's still unhelpful. Tim is, at least, familiar with the hotel, not least because of all the Discworld conventions that have been there. This is the first con that I've attended in Hinckley and I enjoyed the hotel (as far as it goes - I wasn't staying, so couldn't comment on the rooms, and never ate there, so ditto the restaurant) that put me in mind of the Shepperton Moat House Hotel, which housed a number of conventions in the eighties and nineties. The conversation turns to the 'gathering of the clans' topic and the fact that there appears to be only one film showing the entire weekend - Space Cadets made by Image Productions and starring local kids, with director Martin Tempest, shown in the tiny Conference 14 room (I wasn't there, but presume this was from DVD or similar). Tim feels that perhaps because of video and DVD, conventions can assume that attendees have probably already seen, indeed probably own a copy of, most films, but readily admits that half the films on his own shelves are probably only there because Kim (Anno Dracula) Newman, way back when, insisted they be shown at conventions. I comment that there is also an expense issue (if you think about the relative costs of mediacon registrations), but Tim feels that that's just down to budgeting and I agree. We certainly don't feel that there's any deliberate attempt to exclude film fans, and David Lally (another past Conact contributor) will be running Lally-vision all weekend as has become usual (attendance was good so, arguably, the media-tribes can be said to have attended. Hell, you couldn't move five feet before falling over someone from the ZZ9-crowd!), but Tim and I also agree that the Eastercon really should have a film programme, as does committee member John Richards, who was outvoted apparently... Oh, well.

I eventually tried seeing some of the programme, but barely caught the end of 'Forget 1984... here comes Brave New World' with guests Ken (The Stone Canal) MacLeod and Richard (Market Forces) Morgan, a discussion about dystopias. Obviously there's plenty of fodder about to chew over, what with illegal wars, tagging, CCTV, ID cards and rights being eroded, but the panel and audience seemed content to turn the item into a round-robin bitching session. Cathartic, I'm sure. Despite attempts to see other programme items, I was blammed a few more times (my fault for going back to the dealers' room to buy things I didn't think I could count on still being there when the prices dropped for the last day) by Roger Robinson (Beccon Publications), Ken Slater (Fantast Medway) and Brian Ameringen (Porcupine Books, purveyors of Essential SF: A Concise Guide). Had I been able to attend I certainly would have dropped in on David (Future 50 Years in Space) Hardy's 'SFX in Space' talk and would probably have wandered into 'Victorian Crime and Curiosities' with Linda Stratmann and Graham Hill, but somehow ended up back in the bar for more chats, remembering to pick up copies of the convention newsletters and, before I knew it, it was time for me to leave.

By Saturday, having become more familiar with the convention literature at home the previous evening, I was coming to grips with the fact that I had an alter ego, Clyde Barrow (as in "Bonnie and..."), though I was never quite sure why. I did a comprehensive tour of the convention, even dropping in on a costume workshop, ticking off the tribes still - costumers, tick; filkers, tick; gamers, tick - all present and correct, catered for and happy in their own little rooms. Good-o! Not my cup of tea, but happy to see them all the same. But then I did a silly thing and walked into the bar. Honest I was just stocking up to go attend some programme items (one on Pulp Heroes, followed by the War of the Worlds part of the 'Remake' programme stream - an examination of remakes, of course) when I was multiply blammed by Simon Spanton and Jon Weir from Gollancz, catching up after my move, Richard (Market Forces) Morgan and Ian (River of Gods) McDonald, talking about Poul Anderson and why we think he's really triffic, Justina (Mappa Mundi) Robson, who I'd never met before, and Ken (Dark Light) MacLeod, who seemed somewhat bemused by his own GoH status. As the drinks set in and people came and went I ended up talking to Charles (Singularity Sky) Stross (and an assorted ser-con ('serious and conscientious SF fan') crowd. Tick) about why he should read comics and why I shouldn't stop writing fiction just because there are writers who I admire so much that it makes me depressed to read their wonderful books. Said Charles, "I always accepted that there were writers out there who did certain things better than I did, but I also accepted that there was a good chance that there was at least one thing I could do better than them..." So we started talking about the fact that I wanted to destroy the World, kill eleven billion people, and have a war at the End of Time, during which we were joined by Alastair (Diamond Dogs: Turqoise Days) Reynolds, who I suddenly recalled was also a medical doctor who'd given a George Hay memorial lecture a couple of years previously (which I hadn't seen for reasons of gafiation), which in turn reminded me to go to this year's lecture...

Dr. Armand Leroi of Imperial College, London, was the speaker and the subject, of course, was mutants (and/or teratology for us older folk). I say "of course", but for those of you who don't know, he won the Guardian First Book Prize for Mutants: On the Form, Varieties and Errors of the Human Body and had a three-part series called Human Mutants on Channel 4. The talk itself really only covered the same ground as the book and TV show, but the fun came at the end when Dr. Leroi explained that he'd been working, with others, on a new BBC TV series about extraterrestrial life and the forms it might take, then treated us to a lengthy clip (that was still in post-production, so not all of the CGI had been sorted out). Looks good, and would probably appeal to people who watch shows like The Future is Wild. Earlier in the day I'd missed a talk on 'The Science of James Bond', but was reliably informed that the room was packed to overflowing (con sci-fact programmers please note!) so had to conclude that the sci-fact tribe was in attendance. Tick. Back in the bar, more blams: Jo Fletcher from Gollancz, Geoff (Was) Ryman, editor John Jarrold, and Ian (Oracle) Watson, resplendent in the garb of his alter ego, Inigo Montoya, complete with duelling scar make-up ("My snot" as Ian called it), Alastair Reynolds and Richard Morgan again, and also dark fantasy author Freda Warrington. All blur and catching up, then onto Richard's talk on Blade Runner which was a bit boring (sorry), so back to the bar until seven pm and the best attended programme item of the weekend, Christopher Eccleston's debut as Dr. Who. A packed house roared with pleasure at the overdue return of Britain's favourite Time Lord, in that endearing kids-of-all-ages way that fans have about them - embracing rather than enduring the crapness (like the disembodied arm). Then briefly back to the bar for a chat with Brian Ameringen and Caroline Mullen (BECCON/City Illiterates), about printed porn and breast enhancement, before having to head home once again, thereby missing the Hugo nominations and BSFA Awards. The BSFA winners were Best Novel: River of Gods by Ian McDonald (which is also up for a Hugo), Best Short Fiction: Mayflower II by Stephen Baxter, and Best Artwork: Stephan Mastiniere for his cover to the US (Tor) edition of Ken MacLeod's Newton's Wake. The only other Hugo Nominee I heard was Charles Stross for Iron Sunrise, but I'm sure you can pick the info up from elsewhere on this website.

Public transport being what it is on Sundays (and with rumours of a strike and/or engineering works), I didn't get to the con until about midday, which meant I'd missed the bidding session for the 2007 Eastercon. So I asked what had happened and was stunned to be told that there had been no bids! Not one. Zip. So at the 2006 con there will (hopefully) be bids for both 2007 and 2008. Slightly shocked, I checked out the art show and was again astonished at just how many talented people show their lovely work at Eastercons (and at very reasonable prices for those interested), and ticked art-fans off the clans list. I wandered into the dealers' room because I knew some of the prices would already have dropped and gleefully picked up about nine books from my 'wants list' (I never leave home without it...), as well as another four just for the hell of it, and quizzed people as to what they thought about the lack of any bidders for 2007, including the likes of Rog Peyton (Andromeda Books) and Richard & Marion van der Voort (late of At the Sign of the Dragon bookshop). Back in the bar I got talking to all the Tech Ops people who weren't on duty just then and quizzed further. What it pretty much boils down to, according to all these people (and my own observations), is that we're all getting older (grey was the predominant haircolour throughout the con) and the new blood doesn't seem to be flowing into Eastercon fandom. There are those who breed, of course, Westheads and Atkin-Wright, Brian and Caroline and others, but this wasn't exactly a con full of young people. A lot of older folk (myself included) gafiate or just become less active, but what youngsters there are arguably spend most of their effort in organising media-related events. And the reason for this, so the argument goes, is that where once fandom was small, marginalised and poorly catered for, we have now won our point, inserted SF into the mainstream and had a profusion of products, film, TV series and media tie-ins, which themselves engender a dedicated fandom in such numbers that many mediacons at once can be supported (with a bit of a further sideways split into the likes of Buffy and Angel fandom and cons). So, more of us, but spread more thinly. Could some of these other fans be lured back by, say, making sure we have a film programme at the Eastercon? And by making sure that David Lally isn't a one-man-show on the media front? I'm not sure. But do we necessarily want to?

One answer is that if we really do want the Eastercon to continue to be 'the gathering of the SF clans', then yes, we probably should. But there is a caveat to that, and that's to do with the size and personality of these annual events. During the weekend I'm not sure that Paragon 2 had more than 450 members actually attending, maybe 500 (or very close) at the absolute height, but that was fine by me (one of the reasons I was put in mind of the Shepperton Moat House is that, like Hinckley Island, it was a medium-sized hotel that we used to pretty much fill with just 300-350 members). This is not surprising from the point of view that this is a Worldcon year for Britain (with Interaction) so, just as in 1979, 1987, etc., attendance was down (similarly, when the Eastercon is combined with a Eurocon attendance goes up). However, I like cons like this. But I also remember old Eastercons with high attendance rates, and the whole debates over split site cons and dual hotel cons, etc., etc., (oddly enough just at the time of the film/TV explosion), and if we moved back to these high attendance cons, wouldn't running them be even more off-putting than it already is? I don't propose here to rehash all the old arguments but, in light of our (fandom's) aging population and lack of bids for Eastercons, it's certainly something we have to address sooner rather than later. All this yakking made me miss the Art Auction! Damn! And I'd had my eye on a couple of pieces too...

I was just about to go hear Richard Morgan speak when I had a late blam from Mike (MJ) Simpson who, despite living in Leicester, was only attending the con for the one day. He was on the 'Remake' panel discussing The Hitch-Hikers' Guide to the Galaxy, topical with the then imminent release of the movie. By the time I'd attended that, and bearing in mind my transport difficulties, I decided to leave an hour earlier than I otherwise would. Had I been able to stay I would have noticed that there was an 'Alter Ego Masked Ball' that evening (and possibly even attended), finally explaining why I was Clyde Barrow...

Bank Holiday Monday transport was even worse than on Sunday. Consequently I arrived too late to attend 'Hard Boiled Dicks' with Richard Morgan. I was barely through the door when John Richards breathlessly asks what I'm doing. "Well, I was going to go hear Ken MacLeod's GoH speech..." "Ah, well I've got a panel with no moderator and no panel. I'll be the moderator if you'll be the panel..." It's funny how none of this seems strange to me, despite a five year absence. Hell, I've been on two panels at Eastercons I've only ever gatecrashed! Con committees just seem to know my weakness: I'm too stupid to say no. "Yeah OK," I said, "er... what is it?" Which is how I ended up on 'Horror Without Humour: Is It Possible?' with Robert (The Brightonomicon) Rankin, and an enthusiastic audience. I'd never met Robert before and figured he must be the 'Humour' part of the panel, which makes me... Anyway, by the time I started trotting out descriptions of some of the more disgusting films in my collection, I noticed Robert writing them down and, by the time the panel ended, it seemed the only thing to do was to go to the bar and carry on the discussion. Which was nice. But that meant I missed 'Vendetta Against the Marvellous Watchmen', a panel on the work of the wonderful Alan (Tom Strong) Moore, and 'The Rules', a panel about genre assumptions. I did make it to the closing ceremony where David Lally deservedly won the Doc Weir Award for his tireless international and media-related services, and I even got to attend a bonus panel on 'The Science of Science Fiction Weaponry'. Blake's 7 and Babylon 5 scored high on plausibility (must be something to do with having a numeral in the title), whereas Star Trek and others were less impressive. I watched with amusement until a member of the audience pointed out that the mass drivers and/or rail guns that the Centauri used against the Narn in B5 were difficult to aim. "If you can't hit a planet from orbit," I opined, "I think you've got more problems than just your aim..."

I liked Paragon 2. It managed to completely wash the bad taste from my mouth left by 2Kon ( see the E. European fan visit report) and, when I had to leave every night, I was sorry to have to do so (and if I ever end up attending a con in Hinckley again, I'll probably get a hotel room). Despite not managing to attend a lot of the programme, I was at least content that there was a well thought-out programme there to attend. I particularly appreciated the simple things: themed streams (as we used to call them) like the 'Remake' panels, 'Collecting 101' and the 'Kaffeeklatsches'. I was pleased to see science panels beyond the George Hay Lecture. I was content that, despite lack of films, all clans were catered for (and that all clans attended). I really do think that the Eastercon should have a film programme, though not necessarily a dedicated film stream. Even if we accepted the arguments about DVD mentioned above there is still plenty of uncopyrighted material that might be worth showing (blockbuster film previews and amateur shorts, like Jane Killick's, for instance), obscure films that could use an airing, old classics that not necessarily everyone has seen, and so on. Also media guests needn't be expensive. If, as in the old days, SF conventions supported charities, then many media types who might otherwise charge a ridiculous fee would be willing to come along for travel, accommodation and a few drinks. As for those who believe that Paragon 2 had "drifted away from the core-values of Eastercon" and had become a media-convention, I really don't know what con they were attending! Even the 'Remake' programme items were generally about works that had started life as books and were all mediated by authors, not actors or directors. The "core-values" of Eastercon is/are, first and foremost, that this is the annual national gathering of the clans. All the clans. Celebrating SF in all its forms. Including film and TV and comics, or whatever medium you care to name. I don't care to re-hash the history of the period when there were two Eastercons per year, one 'literary' and the other 'media' - it's just not helpful - but it does show that when schisms are created it can very often be a long period (in this case over two decades!) before 're-unification' can occur. This re-unification is long overdue in SF fandom and the obvious way to 'paper over the cracks' would be to return Eastercon to its true core values by celebrating the diversity of types and forms of our favourite past-time. An' such.

Over all then, I think a welcome thumbs up to Paragon, who narrowly avoid a slapped wrist for the lack of a souvenir book which turned up on July 25th, four months after the con (not that I'm especially fond of them but, for this event at least, I think there should be one. As for arguments that they're not often read, at least at the con itself, my answer is the same as it's always been: make it more bloody interesting!). There are obvious problems with budgeting for a post-con souvenir book, but I actually do think they make better sense, so long as they actually appear. I do think the Eastercon should have a film aspect to its programming and I can only hope that one day it will return. I'm not sure when next I'll attend an Eastercon, but at least I'm now thinking about it, which is a change from after 2Kon in 2000.

Tony Chester

For details of future major SF conventions check out the diary page which is updated each New Year.

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