Picocon (so named because it is fairly small) is a science fiction and fantasy convention run annually by the Imperial College Science Fiction and Fantasy and Gothic Horror Society (ICSF). It’s designed to be handy for students and fans based in the London area, but in practice quite a few people seem to travel long distances in order to attend, and come back year after year.
I was the first act on the Saturday, and since the theme of this year’s con was ‘duality’ I decided to focus upon Cuckoo Song, and held forth about doppelgangers, doubles and changelings.
I was followed by the fearsomely eloquent Cory Doctorow, who talked about digital securiy, cryptography, surveillance and ways that one might lose personal control in a world based upon the Internet of Things. It was a fascinating talk and very entertaining.
Picocon’s fearless agents had hunted down some particularly reprehensible examples of tawdry merchandise. Such items were then paraded before the attendees, who could bid to save or condemn them (all money to charity). Those objects deemed irredeemably ugly or tacky were ceremonially frozen using liquid nitrogen and then smashed with a sledgehammer. Very satisfying.
In the afternoon I appeared on a panel with Cory, discussing dystopias, the benefits or dangers of writing groups, audience avatars, writing YA and how to be a subversive aunt/uncle.
On the Sunday, the guests of honour were Kari Sperring and Ian McDonald. As it happened, their speeches worked well as a pair (which fitted the theme of duality). Kari’s talk was about new ways of regarding history, challenging the accounts written by the ‘winners’, and avoiding mindless repetition of the dominant narrative when writing historical fiction. Ian’s speech was about new ways of regarding the future, the Long Now Foundation, and their desire to move away from mankind’s disastrous short-termism.
Both talks were very interesting, and their panel in the afternoon covered a lot of ground, including gender and the emergence of fictional futures shaped by cultures that weren’t American or European.
All in all, Picocon is a warm, friendly, welcoming convention, and they look after their Guests of Honour very well. Many thanks to Stephen Ingram and the other organisers. Thanks in particular to Noor Mulheron for chaperoning me throughout the con, and making sure that I was fed and watered and didn’t fall down any holes.
It’s been a rather wonderful couple of weeks.
Over the last few months, I’ve been so caught up in helping judge the Kitschies Awards that I virtually forgot that there were other prizes out there. I was reminded in the best possible way, by the discovery that Cuckoo Song had reached several shortlists and longlists!
Furthermore, Cuckoo Song is on the shortlist for the brand new James Herbert Horror Award. It’s in excellent and sinister company, alongside books by MR Carey, Nick Cutter, Andrew Michael Hurley, Josh Malerman and Kim Newman.
The book has also been longlisted for the Secondary Award of the Oxfordshire Book Award. This is really rather lovely, since it’s an award voted for entirely by children, who nominate their favourite books.
And just as I was recovering from the news of these, I heard that Cuckoo Song had also been shortlisted for the British Science Fiction Association Award for Best Novel! The rest of the list is dripping with brilliance, and includes works by Ann Leckie, Dave Hutchinson, Simon Ings, Nina Allan, Claire North, Nnedi Okorafor and Neil Williamson.
All of this is frankly pretty staggering. If anybody wants me, I’ll be over here celebrating with a giant pile of pancakes…
As winter draws in, the wild Frances moults its cool summer coat, and grows a new (indistinguishably similar) winter coat. Although shy, it can still sometimes be sighted in urban areas by the diligent Frances-spotter.
On December 10th, I visited Goldsmiths College, London University in order to give a guest seminar for the students of the Creative Writing MA course.
The subject was “strange fictions”, a very broad topic, so I focussed upon a few pitfalls and thoughts for the fantasy writer, with reference to my own work and the books that had inspired me. Many thanks to Maura Dooley for inviting me, and to the students for asking such erudite and well-considered questions!
Swanshurst School‘s second Year 7 Literary Festival was held on 15th December. (It’s apparently the largest girls’ school in Europe, and has a rather splendid model of the solar system spread out across the grounds.)
Aside from myself, the guests included Sally Nicholls, Katrice Horsley, Spoz, Leila Rasheed, Bali Rai, Tony de Saulles, Jodi Anne Bickley and Helen Monks. There were creative writing workshops, storytelling sessions, art classes that produced gleeful pictures of dead cartoon dogs and elephant poo, chocolate-themed rapping, author talks and poetry.
I gave two author presentations and one creative writing workshop. There were some fine character ideas, including a Medusa whose dearly loved family had been killed by humans, and who managed to get her revenge after achieving world domination. (Always nice to see old stories turned around and seen from a new perspective.)
Congratulations to Gareth Beniston, Tracy and the other school librarians on organising such an exciting and varied event. A big thank you also to Ella and Mia for looking after me during my visit!
This was my third Kids Lit Quiz National Final, and as usual I had the easy, cushy job of mascot. This year I was mascot-author to two teams. One was King Edward VI Grammar School (as luck would have it I was wearing red and black, and thus was colour-coordinated with their uniforms). The other was Hexham Middle School, who were looking surprisingly chipper despite having got up before 5am in order to travel down for the event. Both teams scored well, and I hope they’re thoroughly proud of themselves.
Here is the winning team from Litcham School, with guest of honour Anthony Horowitz, and quizmaster Wayne Mills in his very fine hat.
Erymsted School came second, an impressive feat given that they arrived late and missed the first round.
Third place went to Comberton School, after a tense ‘sudden death’ round to resolve a three-way tie.
Afterwards there was cake.
Many thanks to everybody who organised the event, and congratulations to all the teams!
After the impressive vastness of Loncon3 and the London Film and Comic Con, FantasyCon proved to be smaller and more relaxed, with a friendly, approachable atmosphere. It was held in the rather attractive Royal York Hotel, next to York’s railway station.
My first panel was “Gentlemen Thieves, Lovable Pirates and Sexy Tricksters”, wittily moderated by James Barclay, and my co-panelists were Joanne Harris, Kim Lakin-Smith, Libby McGuigan and David Tallerman. We discussed the glorification of criminals, whether they were a gender slant in their depiction, the appeal of subversion and rebellion, and whether sympathic crooks needed to have potential for redemption. A good, thorough description of the panel can be found here.
Later that day, I appeared with Gollancz editor Gillian Redfearn, Tom Pollock, James Oswald, and Joanne Hall in the panel “The Chosen One”. Personally, I’m wildly allergic to Chosen Ones in fiction, and said so at some length. The conversation touched on the inspirational effect of such characters, the class implications of notions of ‘birthright’, the question of who the Chosen One was chosen by, and the fact that quite a lot of ‘Chosen Ones’ seemed to be white males. Joanne Hall has a description of the panel here.
(I realised afterwards that I had neglected to embarrass Tom Pollock by mentioning Filius Viae from Tom’s excellent The City’s Son – both a ‘ Chosen One’ and a really interesting subversion of the trope.)
In the evening, I competed in a live, SF-and-books-themed game of ‘Just a Minute’, skilfully compered by Paul Cornell. Scores were read out by Tea and Jeopardy‘s butler extraordinaire, Latimer (AKA Pete Newman). My fellow contestants were Gillian Redfearn, Kate Elliot and Stephen Gallagher, and we had proper buzzers that buzzed and lit up.
I’d never played it before, and hadn’t predicted how much fun it would be. Several times contestants fell prey to ‘hesitation’ because they or the audience were laughing too much. I learnt two other things as well. 1) I am capable of prescient challenges. 2) Audiences like it if you offer to kill them all.
Stephen Gallagher was victorious, and I came second (with Gillian Redfearn barely a step behind).
Altogether, a lovely convention. On the Sunday I even had time to scamper all over York, like a history-obsessed squirrel…
This weekend (September 5-7th) I shall be in York attending The British Fantasy Convention, and the organisers are inexplicably allowing me to appear on things and talk at people.
Here is my schedule:
Saturday 6th, 12:00 noon
Panel: Gentlemen Thieves, Loveable Pirates and Sexy Tricksters
Panellists: James Barclay, Joanne Harris, Kim Lakin-Smith, Frances Hardinge, Libby McGuigan
Why are untrustworthy characters and criminals among SFF’s most beloved characters? Does sympathy for the underdog shade into idealising predators?
Saturday 6th, 3.00pm
Panel: The Chosen One
Panellists: Gillian Redfearn, Tom Pollock, James Oswald, Joanne Hall, Frances Hardinge, Helen Marshall
From Neo to Barack Obama. Many works of SFF place the fate of the world on the shoulders of a single, pre-ordained hero, who often possesses some magical trait. The panellists discuss ideas and subversions of the One in SFF and beyond. Are there echoes in real world politics? Is the concept stale and regressive, or can it be redeemed by a more diverse range of Chosen Ones in pop culture?
Saturday 6th, 5.00-5.20pm
Reading – extracts from Cuckoo Song
Saturday 6th, 8.00pm
Just A Minute
FantasyCon’s resident quizmaster, Paul Cornell, hosts this classic panel gameshow.
Paul Cornell, Kate Elliott, Stephen Gallagher, Gillian Redfearn, Frances Hardinge
Hope to see some of you there!
The World Science Fiction Convention is nomadic, descending each year upon a different unsuspecting city like a benign but unpredictable mothership. This year it was London that found itself overshadowed by the con’s intergalactic bulk, and bathed in an eerie, blu-ish glow.
Well, it took over the ExCel centre in London Docklands anyway.
Over five days, the convention featured over a thousand programme items – panels, workshops, interviews, lectures, plays, games, parties, concerts, film and TV screenings, dances, science talks and a great costume competition on the Saturday evening.
I was on four panels, the first of which was Fallen London: Recreating London in Games, moderated by Christi Scarborough and featuring Jonathan Green and Kate Nepveu. We talked about London’s rich history, and the fact that so many London-themed games were set in the Victorian period. (A good writeup of the panel by Kate Nepveu can be found here.)
My second panel was You Write Pretty, in which we each chose a sentence from a fantastical work, and had to convince the audience that our choice was the best of the bunch. Greer Gilman chose a quote from Andrew Marvel’s The Garden, EJ Swift picked a sentence from Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad and Christopher Priest took a line from Robert Sheckley’s The Specialist. The audience ultimately voted in favour of my quote from Jabberwocky, but I suspect that had more to do with Lewis Carroll than my arguments.
Where is the YA Humour was my third panel, with co-panelists Gail Carriger, John Hemry and Jody Lynn Nye, and moderator Suzanne McLeod. Our answer to the title question: ‘There’s quite a lot of YA humour actually, you just have to look further than The Hunger Games.’ (In other news, Gail Carriger wears excellent hats, and John Hemry owns a tribble.)
My last panel, The Education and Training of a Young Protagonist, featured Zen Cho, John Hemry and Gail Carriger, with David Luckett as moderator. We discussed virtual schools, boarding schools for “gifted” children, combat training, tailoring education to the metaphysic and whether classrooms and teachers would still have a place in the schools of the future.
I also gave a reading of extracts from Cuckoo Song and A Face Like Glass, and hosted a Kaffeeklatsch, which roughly translates to “hour-long natter over tea”. And in this case, biscuits. Lots of biscuits.
My spare time was spent roaming around and admiring people’s costumes and the displays in the Exhibit Hall.
Here’s “Jolie” the robot dog, who can speak Japanese, Spanish and English, and who sulks if she’s carried in a holdall or not given her bone toy.
Pigeon Simulator! It detects your motions, and by flapping your arms you can soar, swoop and bank, while the big screen gives you your pigeon’s-eye-view.
It’s possible that I now own more steampunk goggles than I did…
The World Science Fiction Convention, otherwise known as Loncon 3, is now less than a week away. I shall be at large, and may be spotted at these times and places:
Thursday 14th August: 20:30-21:00, London Suite 1 (ExCeL)
Frances will be reading an extract from her latest book, Cuckoo Song
Friday 15th August: 10:00-11:00, London Suite 3 (ExCeL)
Panel event: Fallen London – Recreating London in Games
Panellists: Frances Hardinge, Jonathan Green, Kate Nepveu, David Cheval, Christi Scarborough
This panel celebrates some of the ways that London has been represented in games; including LARP, tabletop, point-and-click and videogames. We also explore some of the darker aspects of seeing London with a player’s eye.
Friday 15th August: 18:00 – 19:00, London Suite 4 (ExCeL)
An hour of coffee and conversation with Frances.
Friday 15th August: 21:00-22:00, Capital Suite 7+12 (ExCeL)
Panel event: You Write Pretty
Panellists: Geoff Ryman, Greer Gilman, Frances Hardinge, Christopher Priest, E. J. Swift
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, they say, so let us behold some fine fantastical sentences. Our panel have each picked a sentence, and will have a chance to make their case for why theirs is the fairest of them all — but it will be up to the audience to decide.
Saturday 16th August: 12:00-13:30, Capital Suite 13 (ExCeL)
Panel event: Where is the YA Humour?
Panellists: Gail Carriger, Frances Hardinge, Jack Campbell, Jody Lynn Nye, Suzanne McLeod
Much of what we see in the YA shelves is dour, grimy and deadly. Why is that? Where can we find the lighter side of young adult fiction? Which authors should we look to for a satisfying happy ending or a good belly laugh?
Saturday 16th August: 19:00-20:00, Capital Suite 10 (ExCeL)
The Education and Training of a Young Protagonist
Panellists: Zen Cho, Gail Carriger, Jack Campbell, Dave Luckett, Frances Hardinge
Kids have to go to school, whether it’s a modern day educational institution or the school of hard knocks in a futuristic dystopia. How is education treated in SF? What might a futuristic classroom look like? What are some great examples of how education and training have been used by other authors?
Hope to see you there!
On 12th and 13th July, the first Young Adult Literature Convention (YALC) spread its wings and took to the summer sky. And it was glorious.
It was also very, very popular.
YALC took place as a part of the much larger London Film and Comic Con (LFCC). I first had an inkling that there might be more than a couple of people turning up to the combined conventions when I arrived outside the Earls Court Exhibition centre, and found that the huge forecourt was completely filled by one enormous, snaking queue.
I felt a little guilty as I bypassed the queue, using my special guest pass. (Though I also felt a bit like a member of the a secret society as I was shown in through a back door, which made me feel better.)
Within the halls, LFCC was crowded, hot as a pressure cooker, spectacular and beautifully distracting.
The YALC events took place in the Book Zone, the slightly cooler end of Earls Court 2.
I was on “Bring Me My Dragons! Writing Fantasy Today”, a panel discussing YA Fantasy. My co-panelists were Jonathan Stroud (The Bartimaeus Trilogy, Lockwood & Co.) , Amy McCullogh (Oathbreaker’s Shadow) and Ruth Warburton (The Winter Trilogy), and the panel was ably chaired by Marc Aplin of Fantasy Faction.
We discussed the characteristics of YA heroes, and Jonathan came up with a particularly interesting answer, defining them by their smallness, lightness, perception and quickness of motion and wit – advantages they need against those who are larger, stronger and ostensibly more powerful. Discussing whether darker elements should be excluded from YA fantasy, Ruth pointed out that our notions of what is ‘safe for children’ are specific to our own place and time. Throughout history very young children have been forced to work, fight or die, and in many countries this is still the case. Fantasy is an opportunity to portray this honestly.
The question of ‘moral messages’ was raised, and in different ways we all said that we didn’t feel a need to thump our readers over the head with an ideology. As Amy said, you can explore issues without telling the reader what to think.
(By the way, I am still not used to being live-tweeted. It’s a little like making an offhand remark, and then realising that not only is the nearby microphone on, but it has just transmitted your words to every speaker in the world.)
One thing most of us YALC authors hadn’t realised was that we would be sharing the Green Room with the celebrities of LFCC. Over the weekend I spotted Princess Leia, R2D2, William and Lee Adama, Faramir and Cersei Lannister, not to mention the 8th doctor having his photo taken by Giles from Buffy. (Yes, I am aware that all of these people have real world names, but it’s very hard to remember that when you catch sight of them across the room, munching a sandwich.)
Throughout the weekend, YALC had an enthusiastic, buzzy, sugar-rush atmosphere that has left most of us a bit giddy even now. I think this was partly due to sharing space with LFCC, and the alchemy the occurs when you pour related fandoms into the same flask and stir vigorously. Co-habiting with LFCC also meant that there was a high cosplay count, and our audiences were liberally sprinkled with resplendent Khaleesis, Captains America, anime characters and Doctor Octopuses. (Doctor Octopi? Doctors Octopus?)
Many thanks to Children’s Laureate Malorie Blackman, Booktrust and everybody else responsible for organising such a fantastic event!
Just because I can, I will end this post with a few examples of the wonderful costumes at LFCC/YALC.
On the 7th July, the mighty forces of the British Science Fiction Association and the Science Fiction Foundation did unite, for a day of AGMs, panels, interviews and discussions of matters speculative and fantastical. The BSFA was kind enough to invite me as their guest of honour.
The weather was less kind, to the point of being downright unsporting. My walk to the venue was considerably more aquatic than expected. Fortunately my little paper map held out, and only collapsed into a papier mâché tatter just as I reached my destination.
I did at least manage to catch part of the first panel, featuring the SFF’s guest of honour, Jo Fletcher of Jo Fletcher Books. It was a cross between a literary discussion and a balloon debate, the other panellists ‘pitching’ different books to Jo, who used her formidable editorial instincts to decide which ones she would ‘publish’.
Next it was my turn to be interviewed by Tom Pollock (The Skyscraper Throne trilogy). Tom was a generous, insightful and skillful interviewer, and managed to give some shape to my ramblings and digressions.
We discussed children’s fiction with a bodycount, ‘neat’ resolutions versus ‘messy’ complex endings, dead parents, questionable surrogate parents, hats, geese, whether romance in YA fiction can push out depictions of other relationships, and whether my worlds were dystopias.
Tom was also very modest, and did not mention
a) that his second book The Glass Republic had just been shortlisted for a British Fantasy Award,
b) that the very next morning he was throwing himself off the Broadgate Tower and abseiling 165m to raise money for St Mungo’s Broadway.
(It’s OK, he survived.)
After lunch, Sophia McDougall (Mars Evacuees, the Romanitas trilogy) interviewed Jo Fletcher, who described the journalistic and publishing career that has led to her running her own imprint. She also talked about the rise of internet vitriol, working with legends such as Ursula le Guin, and running a convention with a broken neck. When asked what sort of manuscripts authors should avoid sending her, she mentioned vampires (she’s seen enough of them for a lifetime) and dystopias (soon to be out of vogue).
The last item on the schedule was my panel with Farah Mendlesohn, Niall Harrison and Virginia Preston. My fellow panelists scared me beforehand by asking whether I would mind a “frank and free discussion of my work”. Since they are all terrifyingly intelligent, I had visions of my books being meticulously dissected while I hid quivering under the table.
In the event, my fellow panel members were actually fairly gentle with me, and no hiding was required. We discussed what constituted a ‘good’ character in my books, Farah suggesting that it was one who “would open doors that everybody else had told them should remain closed”. We also talked about rebels and rule-breakers, mentor-figures and ways that gaming has affected my writing.
Many thanks to everyone at the British Science Fiction Association and the Science Fiction Foundation for a very enjoyable day!