Convention Review

Ytterbium 2019

The 70th British Eastercon and National Science Fiction Convention
Park Inn, Heathrow, London
19th – 22nd April, 2019.  Arthur Chappell reports.


This was a lovely convention though they failed to really celebrate and shout about the 70th landmark achievement of the British Eastercon.

As ever programming was very diverse, with some over-emphasis on panel presentations over individual talks and workshops. There were even training events on how to be a better moderator for panel events (this can feel like the art of herding cats for some inexperienced moderators).  Given most events last 50 minutes - ten minutes introducing panellists, opening remarks, mics not working, summing up, thanking one another, etc., less gets said and there are barely any questions and answers.

Overall, the panels I attended went very well. The panel celebrating The Moomins even found time to share imported Moomin biscuits and sweets with the audience.

There were excellent quizzes, open mic poetry and comedy shows, (plus guest comedian Mitch Benn headlining the Saturday night entertainments).

A major highlight was the all fans welcome wedding of Robin Stevenson and Kylie Ding, which was a magnificent occasion: congratulations and best wishes for the future to the happy couple.

The Ytterbium newsletter announced a special card has been prepared to allow fans to send their best wishes to the biologist, non-fiction SF writer and past regular Eastercon programme contributor with items of biological exotica, Jack Cohen who has just moved to a care home and, even though he cannot get in touch himself, would love to hear from his many dear friends and well-wishers. (Sadly Jack passed away in the summer.)  More details in the Ytterbium newsletters on the Ytterbium website.

There were some science items on the programme but not among the choices of events I attended. My selections tend to be the creative writing events, publishers and agents rather than the main writers present, poetry circles, performance opportunities and the offbeat stuff. Nicholas Jackson ran a maths workshop, Emily Drabek-Maunder talked how women were used as living computers in the early history of astronomy. She later gave a talk for children on the uses of computers in science. Dr Hamied Haroon and Graham Sleight gave the Hay Lecture, on advances in Medical Imaging. Thomas Briggs and Nicholas Jackson discussed the work at Bletchley Park, (where Briggs works), and both later joined a panel on mechanical computing. Jackson presented a talk on Untangling DNA

This was a tough Convention for the committee. Serious health issues meant that chair, Judi Hodgkin, had to step down from her role, which meant much more responsibility for the other team members.  Judi was able to attend the convention and received a much deserved and very moving tribute from the rest of the committee and a standing ovation from the audience. Many of us were moved to tears.

In a big convention with multiple event streams going on at once, clashes and tough choices are always inevitable. Like buses, nothing for ages then everything comes at once. This seemed to happen more than ever this year where book signing and publisher promotion events were sometimes pitched at the same time as one another.

The dealer’s room was broken up into smaller cell rooms along the ‘Syndicate Room’ corridor of the hotel, rather than the tried and tested approach of having all the dealers together in one large hall space.  This was met with mixed reactions from dealers and fans alike. When dealers share a hall, customers going to one stall may be drawn by curiosity to look at the other stalls they might not otherwise intend to look in on, but isolating the traders reduced this possibility.   Casual browsing and being able to just walk away from traders you don’t wish to buy from is harder when they see you and in some cases start making a direct pitch for their wares in a more restricted space.   The layout also slowed down the browsing experience with customers trying to take in what they can in the gaps between programmes they want to attend.   It was in interesting experiment, inspired by the Park Hotel layout and floor plan but perhaps not one I would personally like to see repeated.

The real ale bar is becoming a staple of the cons, virtually a real ale festival within the science fiction convention.   The only problem is the double queuing system.   To pay for the beer you have to go to the main hotel bar (in the same room) where you get a plastic glass and a voucher you then queue again with at the beer barrels to exchange the voucher for the beer of choice (from a wide selection, here perhaps over-favouring very strong ales, with one clocking in a 7% ABV).  It was soon decided to reduce queuing by encouraging drinkers to buy multiple vouchers (good for the weekend) rather than just one, but then they still had everyone queue at the hotel bar anyway to collect the glasses needed to contain the ales of choice, defeating the purpose of the exercise.

Hotel food was pricy and limited in choice, driving many attendees to exploit local cafés, bars and even a garage shop café nearby that served some surprisingly tasty tubs of curry.

Though I mainly attended fringe events and saw little of the main guests of honour – Frances Hardinge, Sydney Padua, John Scalzi and DC – they were all very well received and appreciated.

A friendly happy convention, and roll on the 71st Eastercon, Birmingham bound Concentric.

Arthur Chappell


Details of the forthcoming Eastercon and this year's other natcons can be found on SF² Concatenation's convention diary page.



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