Editorial 2002

Jonathan Cowie

What is Concatentation?

The Science Fact and Fiction Concatenation began as part of the BECCON* 87 UK National SF Eastercon celebration marking the 50th anniversary of the first SF convention ever. BECCON 87 (Birmingham) marked the 50th anniversary in a number of ways, and Concatenation was just one. It first appeared as a it has to be said somewhat crudely produced freebie fanzine distributed mid-convention with articles and reviews on topics of interest to science fiction fans. This hotpotch mix bemused some (check out the review on the Ansible site) and outraged others (well just two (then leading stalwarts of the British SF Association no less!)) but to the enthusiasm of many. Then, much to our surprise, we started receiving SF books for review from publishers and invitations to attend press showings of new SF films. In muttering our amazement at SF gatherings, our amazement turned to astonishment when some SF notables offered to write articles and the organisers of, then, both the following year's two UK national SF conventions organisers (the Eastercon and Elydore) offered to transport copies to their respective events for distribution... And so we found ourselves working on a second, slightly more professional zine.

Concatenation soon acquired somewhat of a mission. It always was intended to include the principal topics that 'science fiction' fans are interested in, and this includes science and exotic science. Above all the Concatenation team began to be a focus for the inclusion of a solid element of science within the UK Eastercon as well as helping to promote the event. And so we found ourselves advising Eastercon organisers as to possible programme participants and a number of the team regularly gave presentations on aspects of astronomy, physics, biology and environmental science. We even provided scientific information to a few authors. The team also ran the actual press liaison operation for a number of conventions including the UK-hosted 1984 and 1993 European SF conventions securing good coverage on radio and in the press from local to international level (and not "look-at-the-geeks" reportage SF has been known to attract). Meanwhile Eastercon organisers were beginning to the science part of their events seriously and the 1990 and 1993 both had a solid body of science events, as did the 1995 UK hosted World SF Convention (Glasgow). Concatenation's role began to look superfluous...

Of course there is a cost to producing what became a typeset, glossy zine with a four-figure print run. A couple of profitable Eastercons kindly provided some initial sponsorship, as did a couple of other conventions, and publishers took out advertising. We were fortunate that this, together with the donation of resources (such as transport) enabled us to cover our costs. For this we are most grateful.

The 1993 Eastercon cum Eurocon began a new chapter. The Iron Curtain that had separated the former communist Europe from the West had fallen in 1989/90. We had already received letters from former Iron Curtain fans who had read about Concatenation from reviews in other fanzines. Consequently we were already open to the idea of meeting Eastern Europeans so when a delegation of 50 from Romania turned up at the 1993 Eurocon the Concat team simply had to do something. That 'something' was the simple decision to take a different Romanian out for dinner each of the convention's five nights as well as to invite half a dozen or so to the Concat' room party. Soon all 50 of the delegation had heard of the Concat' team and we were told (note the 'told') "you will come to the Eurocon in Romania next year and bring your zine...!" And so we did. And this began our relationship with Romania that continued to involve a joint annual project each year for the rest of the decade.

Having produced a Eurocon Award-winning edition (our second) of the zine in 1997, we found hard copy production getting a little much for us. Three of us had lost half our Christmas break each year we produced the paper magazine and this was not something we wanted to continue. Furthermore computer technology made desktop publishing so easy that many others were producing publications as glossy as ours if not, dare it be said, to a higher standard. It was time to bow out. Fortunately though, the internet came along enabling us to continue, albeit at a more leisurely pace.

These days were are more active on the European-wide SF scene than the UK Eastercon, but members of the team can regularly be found at a number of events as well as involved in various esoteric SF-related projects. Meanwhile, with this site you can delve into our take and science fiction and science.

* BECCON stands for the 'Beccon EasterCon CONvention'. BECCON 87 was the fourth BECCON, the other three being biennial London region summer conventions where BECCON stood for the Basildon Essex Centre CONvention.

So here we are in the opening years of a new millennium and human progress is continuing faster than ever. Hubble is bringing back pictures of far away galaxies and closer to home has (appropriate for 2001) spectrally determined the atmosphere of an extra solar planet (the importance of which was predicted in Concatenation's 1995 hard copy edition), and more probes are on their way to Mars and Europa. Meanwhile on Earth the great strides have been made mainly in biology, particularly biomedicine; though there has been concern too, for example with genetically modified crops. However surely the greatest landmark of recent times has been the rough draft sequencing of the human genome by the HUGO project; would Gernsback have been pleased?

Would that this progress had been mirrored outside of science. Inequality between the developed and developing nations has grown. Ecosystems, such as the World's fisheries, are being over-exploited beyond their sustainability limits and the World grain harvest carry-over period is now down to just a few days. AIDS continues to increase its toll, especially in Africa. And the number of displaced persons due to environmental change, political upheaval and war has increased.

Clearly, as a species we have demonstrated incredible ingenuity, but equally have shown a lack of sensitivity and ability to apply our knowledge. Nonetheless we can aspire to greater heights and to dream. This is the stuff of science fiction and here at Concatenation we are continuing to walk the science-SF tightrope, but please don't ask us to look down.

Science Fiction

Recent years have been good for SF. Contrary to some belief, the SF book business in the west is holding its own in terms of both new titles and numbers sold; any decline is as a proportion of the total market and that is because in the UK at least the overall book market has grown. The prospect for SF films and TV has never been better. The success of fantastic films in the 1990s has meant that producers now do not shy away from the genre, and improvements in both the quality and lower cost of special effects means that portraying fantastical elements has never been easier. Of course things could be better. Meanwhile SF in the form of computer games has simply exploded (maybe this is an area we should develop in Concatenation?).

There is, though, an argument that there has been a dumbing-down of SF as media elements have crept into book publishing. But while there is undoubtedly a case for this, equally some new writers of considerable talent are emerging. Either way, you can be assured that we will continue to cover the latest book releases and to survey the top video releases to help you continue to update your collections.

Current developments at Concatenation

You may notice that we have created SF collectors' core checklists for books and films. These have been systematically compiled using SF fan and buff criteria as to what is 'best'. For example, we have included Hugo novel and film winners, the winners of the Locus annual poll and the most popular all-time films viewed at the Festival of Fantastic Films. These are each based on the views of literally thousands of fans and enthusiasts. We have not included nebula winners or winners of SF awards such as the Clarke prize as these are determined by either specialist groups (US SF writers in the former and a panel of half a dozen in the latter). In short, you can be assured that these core checklists do represent what reasonably experienced SF enthusiasts consider to be good or the best. We hope you find this check lists useful in developing your book and film collections. We should though point out that these lists are only nearly complete. New titles are continually coming out and we are still finding one or two gaps so we will be updating both the checklists from time to time.

We have also created a convention diary for you to plan forthcoming events. Of course there are a number of excellent convention diaries already on the web. Ansible's is ideal for UK conventions as is the more TV orientatedSFX's, while the Locus diary is exceptional for book orientated conventions. (Please forgive us if we have not mentioned your favourite diary page.) Our take for an SF diary is to focus on mainly literary and cinematic events as well as mainly on national, or conventions of at least regional importance. These tend (though by no means always tend) to be run to a reasonable standard. Nonetheless we would caution all prospective convention attendees to be aware of varying organisational ability and to judge from the convention organisers' ability to respond to queries with information on both the convention's domestic arrangements and their programme plans. Unfortunately enthusiasm is not synonymous with organisational ability. If the convention is unable to reply to you with appropriate detail within a few weeks, then clearly they do not deserve your custom. Fortunately while some will not, many do. Anyway, we hope this diary will be of use.

Response to Concatentation

In the decade up to 1997 our hard copy days we had a number of indicators as to how well we were (or were not) doing. We did receive some letters to each issue, but invariably these were not detailed comment or points of information on content, rather appreciation that we were actually producing the zine and the mix of science and SF. Consequently we never ran a letter column even though there would have been ego-boo for us. We also received postal requests for copies by those not attending the Euro and UK Eastercons or the staff of some 50 specialist UK SF retail outlets but who had read reviews of us in other publications. Consequently we slowly accumulated a postal distribution of 250 a the time of peak print run (5,000 copies). However we were scrupulous in checking for any discarded copies at the conventions at which we distributed, and can confidently say that the pick-up rate over several Eastercons was invariably in excess of 85%.

Other feedback indicators included the sponsorship received from a few late 1980 and early 1990 conventions, and the advertising (which covered all our print costs): clearly if advertisers thought we were not a suitable vehicle for promoting their products they could simply pull the plug. Finally there were the awards: a couple of MacIntyre Awards at the UK Eastercon for quality production of quality artwork shared with the artist (Jim Porter), and two Eurocon Awards one for Best European fanzine (1994) and one for the team for promoting SF within the European SF Community (1997). We are most appreciative of the tribute these awards represent. So on to the present. Now we have a new feedback indicator.

An internet publication brings with it the opportunity for hit counts and user visit statistics and we thought you might like to know how we are doing, especially given that we have not made the transition to the internet in any blaze of publicity or promotion. But before discussing the figures lets qualify them first. It is easy to count total site hits, which are large as one visit consists of a number of pages being hit. Consequently we will look at title page hits separately from other page hits. Secondly, some sites have photographs and frames and their hits count each component of the page separately. The Concatenation site has no page frames or pictures (at the moment) so as to facilitate speed of page transference as we believe it is the information you are after and not a spectacle: so one hit equals one page. In these terms the number of site visits started off in late 1998 at quite a low level of under 1,000 a month. However this has slowly risen, in the main as we have developed the site but also as the internet has grown, to now (Christmas 2001) around 5,000 a month. After the title page, where do most people go? Our new (2000) 'what's new' index is the next most popular page clearly this was a good move on our part. The book reviews are by far the most popular with over half the visitors checking that out. The articles (which we recognise we need to develop) individually come to about 100 hits a month, but collectively about a fifth of visitors touch on one or more articles. Add all of this up and we reckon that in the three years this electronic version of Concatenation has been going that we have already easily surpassed the our 5,000 readers from the distribution of an annual paper edition. So where do we go from here?

Possible future developments

First of all we plan to get some of our back catalogue of articles from the 1987-97 paper editions coded up. We have material by and/or interviews with: John Brunner, Neil Gaiman, Colin Greenland, Lisa Tuttle, and Terry Pratchett in paper form. We also plan to develop our launch pad links to other SF sites and include science sites. We would like to develop the film side of things but are not sure what we can usefully do? Then there are the major projects...

We are already a fair way along completing one major project, unfortunately it has taken us 18 months to get this far and will probably take as long to finish it. What we have done, while compiling our collectors' core book and film lists, is to write short reviews on each of the entries together with short articles on authors with more than one bold (essential) entry and have cross-referenced these. However getting this lot coded up is a formidable task. We would far rather publish this as a paperback core guide to SF (and before anyone says anything this would not compete with Clute's guide to all SF or the other non-systematic eclectic guides to the genre that abound). So if there are any reasonably-sized publishers out there who would want to publish a systematically compiled guide to the 'best' of SF as defined by specific criteria, then get in touch.

Finally, we have been thinking of providing a guide to convention organising for a while now in fact we have from time to time been asked to produce one. It is surely clear to all regular convention goers that SF conventions are somewhat of a variable feast. Old timers vanish while new blood lacks experience (which is not their fault but a fact of life) and then there are some of those fans who, for all their fannish cred value, should simply not be allowed anywhere near the organization of a convention and who, if they really knew what the job entailed, might realise this. The Scottish fan Ian Sorensen provided an excellent service in the late 1980s and early 1990s with his biannual zine Conrunner to which one of us regularly contributed (and has largely archived) but which sadly no longer exists. There is solid guidance here that deserves current airing. Then, of course, between us on the Concatenation team we have a broad body of experience relating to: regional conventions, specialist cons, national conventions Euro and Worldcons. Finally, we have our contacts which include some particularly dedicated, inspired and innovative convention organisers. In short we are well placed to provide conrunning guidance, its just a question of getting ourselves sorted out and doing it.

Well there you have it. Past, present and possible futures. Enjoy the site and thanks for the visit.

Jonathan Cowie



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