10-12 November 2000, Britannia Hotel, Birmingham
GoHs: Christopher Priest,
(special guest) Rog Peyton, (artist) David
Rog Peyton: Special Guest interview
- The early days of selling SF
- Andromeda Bookshop may have to close next year: a big development is
resulting in increased rents.
- On auctioneering: "Who'll given me 2p for this 1p? Okay, now
who'll give me 5p for this 2p? Got up to £20! People are very
generous when it's for charity.
Panel -- What's Hot and What's Not
Del Cotter, Chris O'Shea, Yvonne Rowse, Jennifer Swift, Paul Kincaid
Each panelist names one book you absolutely must read -- and one to
avoid like the plague
- CO'S: hot: Neal Stephenson's Cryptomonicon
-- I got to page 350 and thought "it's great, and there's still two
thirds to go!" Nice characterisation, and a good blending of the
1940s and the modern stories.
- JS: It's everything an SF fan wants to read about, without
technically being SF.
- CO'S: if it's SF, then so is Personal Computer World!
- YR: hot: Lois McMaster Bujold's A
Civil Campaign -- Actually, most of what I've been reading
are old books, in the Yellow Gollancz and Masterworks series. The
Vorkosigan series is "soppy romance marketed as military SF".
I reread ACC for the panel, yet still had to stay up til 3am to
finish it. Oh, and the cover is fiction, okay?
- DC: it's SF all the way through, especially the reproductive
technology, and the butterbugs.
- YR: I found the dinner scene appalling -- I could imagine it actually
happening, so it wasn't funny for me. The characters are great.
- CO'S: It's Dawsons Creek with spaceships. But the characters
are not "reset" at the end of each book.
- JS: hot: Philip Pullman's The
Amber Spyglass [The long awaited 3rd book in His Dark
Materials trilogy, marketed as a juvenile] -- it's so hot it [the
hardback] doesn't even have the title on the front cover! It's
metaphysical SF, and a very exciting adventure story, but not just
relentless action. It has a variety of interests, settings and
characters. It has great imaginary creatures, artifacts and races. It's
a rewrite of Paradise Lost where the Devil wins because he's the
good guy. The last third is a bit of a disappointment, because it gets
preachy, loses its hard edge, and gets soft.
- Farah: I found it a bit preachy all the way through -- the best
reason to buy it is to knock Harry
Potter off number 1. I got fed up with being preached at about how
important the little girl is, yet she does nothing -- but it is
- All that physics in the 3rd book -- how did he get that in without
someone saying "too complicated"? The first 2 books are also
- YR: I'm tempted to recommend Ann Halam's Don't Open Your Eyes
-- it's stunningly good. But it ought to be an adult book, despite the
teenage protagonists. Death is too "real" in this book.
- DC: hot: Jo Walton's The
King's Peace -- it's about British mythology, set in a
country "the same shape as Britain". It's the story of Arthur
six centuries after the Romans leave. It has Arthur and Mordred -- it
also has someone we don't recognise -- Sulien -- and there's magic. It's
a first novel, and the first couple of chapters are a bit uneven, but it
soon really takes off. There is to be a sequel, but it's not going to be
a trilogy, which is great, because I hate middle books.
- PK: hot: Mark Z Danielewski's House
of Leaves -- the story of a filmmaker who makes a
documentary of his family life, and strange things start happening.
There is a corridor in a wardrobe, the house
is a quarter of an inch wider inside than out, a doorway in the lounge
leads to miles of blank corridors. The book is an essay about the film,
plus editorial comments by a drug addict who found the script. It has
many levels. Concrete: one chapter is about a maze, and the text takes
the pattern of the maze. 700 pages -- and the only novel with a full and
- PK: hot: John Crowley's Dæmonomania -- sequel
to Ægypt, and Love and Sleep -- the third of a
series of 4, but it concludes the story. Crowley can present two sides
of an argument, and convince you of each side as he presents it. It is
- CO'S: not: series books. Some, like
Terry Pratchett and Robert
Rankin, can churn out books in a style, where each book is different,
and each particular joke is funny -- they can keep up the quality. But
some series, like those of Alan Dean Foster and Piers Anthony, just get
worse and worse.
- YR: I don't ever get rid of books -- I still have Tides of Lust
-- but I took Piers Anthony to Oxfam.
- PK: Some publishers keep sending me books, especially Pier Anthony's
-- every 2 or 3 months another PA hardback appears. Also, there's a
problem with L Ron's magnum opus -- they float! It's not that easy to
get rid of bad books.
- YR: not: Jack McDevitt's Slow
Lightning. I've reached that age where I don't see any
point in reading books that are crap. This was the only reading matter I
had on a plane, so I read it. I got it as a review copy, and it was
worth every penny. It's not badly written, and it has lots of good
ideas. But the main character is vile and stupid and idiotic and out to
destroy the whole world out of personal stupidity. I thought "nobody
this stupid could survive" -- then I read Dynasty, the
story of the Stuart kings, and they were as stupid -- but much
more likeable. It's not badly written, but it's a book you would only
read on a long-haul flight.
- "It's a book you would stand on to reach other books."
- DC: Yes, I don't like to read crap any more. I read Eddings'
Belgariad -- why did he write it twice? "Only the names have been
changed, to protect the unimaginative."
- PK: I hate it if I have to review a bad book -- I feel duty bound to
read it all.
- JS: not: Doris Lessing's Shikasta and the rest of the
series -- how could such a talented writer write such bad books? The
basic idea of the whole series: violence and depravity exists because we
are out of touch with cosmic powers -- good aliens intervene, to help --
bad aliens also intervene. Lessing seemed to think this was an original
SF idea. Also, there is no continuous story, just a heap of fragments.
Lessing has a talent for getting into the minds of her characters, but
not for creating anything new and fantastic.
- DC: not: Steven Baxter's Mammoth
-- Watership Down with mammoths. It's just not very good. If it
didn't have mammoth sex, it might be suitable for children -- it's
written in a very childish manner. It's not mythic. In the end the
mammoths take flight in spaceships and settle a terraformed Mars!
- Books of courage for any age let people die. Baxter can't let anyone
die. He even has to save the mammoths in the end!
- PK: Baxter has a problem with characters. When that's a 500 foot
spaceship, it's not a real problem. But when it's humans in mammoth
skins -- it doesn't work. I couldn't distinguish any of the names. I
couldn't believe anything like this could ever have lived.
- PK: not: Joe Haldeman's Forever
Free -- The Forever War is a fairly decent
anti-Vietnam war novel disguised as SF -- Forever Peace is wooly
liberal anti-corporation, but nice enough. Forever Free is a
direct sequel to The Forever War -- I'm okay with a deus ex
machina, but when characters are talking to actual God on Earth at
the end, it doesn't work. He's not very good at characterising God. I
kept reading because I couldn't believe it would get worse. I kept
waiting for a saving twist. But each revelation does get worse.
- I found it curiously morally old fashioned. In the 60s and 70s he was
a liberal -- did he get Heinlein's
brain transplanted? This is structured around the virtues of
Individuality, and Family Life -- but individuality nearly kills him,
and the family life is dire. I kept waiting for it to become ironic
-- but it didn't!
- Straw poll of the audience -- the good books, many other people had
read -- the bad books few others had read. This is a Good Thing.
- PK: some of the good books are by first authors -- all of the
bad books are by established writers.
Christopher Priest: GoH talk
(I missed the first part of this)
- There's a dumbing down of my titles in US editions:
Then came The Affirmation -- I was asked for suggestions. "How
about Yes?" They went away for a while, then came back and
said "it wouldn't work". "No?" "But
that wouldn't mean 'yes', would it?" In the end, it stayed The
Affirmation. Then The Glamour even managed to keep its 'u'.
I decided simple declarative titles work better in the US.
- Feud for a Darkening Isle --> Darkening Isle
- Inverted World --> The Inverted World
- A Dream of Wessex --> The Perfect Lover
- The writing process is constantly being interrupted. That's a good
thing, because books are read with constant interruptions.
- The best distractors are publishers. An editor once nagged me to
death to reduce a book by 30,000 words, for economic reasons. She never
used the one argument that would have worked -- that it would have made
the book better, more interesting. She admitted it was artistically the
right length. Instead she kept on about the price, of ink, of paper,
even of glue. I resisted. She even questions the dedication To H.G.
Wells. "Didn't you realise he's dead? You have to say
To the memory of..." [I was surprised Priest didn't use the
come-back "but that would use more ink, and so cost more!"]
- Each book takes a simple, even cliched, theme, and treats it
- The Affirmation -- immortality
- The Glamour -- invisibility
- The Quiet Woman -- political satire
- The Prestige -- matter transmitter
- The Extreme -- VR
- The Separate -- alternate histories
- All previous definitions of SF have been descriptive, an attempt to
sum up the genre. My definition is prescriptive, a manifesto: "SF
is the literature of visionary realism"
This gets rid of rubbish, media, spoofs, most of fantasy, and all "sci-fi".
It includes all the good stuff.
- visionary -- unfettered imagination, obsessive, challenging
- realism -- the form is a real-seeming, literate, not obscure,
good story, with plausible characters
- Whenever a publisher gives a literary response to a book,
maybe that it starts too slowly, or has a poor character, it can often
be improved in that area.
- There are always two levels: what's going on in the story, and the
fact that you are sitting reading these words on paper.
- The Internet will have a big impact on books. Anyone will be able to "publish"
their novel. For the writer, this will be great, even if no-one ever
reads it. A democracy of literature. Also, there can be a net-base
dialogue discussing the literature. And it will be easier to get hold of
the obscure stuff: will still find the first piece by serendipity, but
then easier to find more.
- The Internet makes more niches for literature. It will speciate into
microcosms, each with relatively few people.
Debate -- The role of SF conventions
Eastercons no longer have competing bids -- some barely scrape a bid
at all. Have conventions had their day?
- There was no bid for the 2003 Eastercon, and no real contests over
the past few years.
- Novacon is not attracting new people, despite being quite vibrant.
[Hey, it was my first Novacon!]
- People want to attend cons, but membership has plateaued. Are new,
younger people coming in? Straw poll -- about half the room was under
35. [Is that really fandom's definition of 'young'?]
- CUSFS (Cambridge University Science Fiction Society) usually gets
5-10 members to each Eastercon -- but they tend not be students. You
need money for travel/hotel bill, etc
- University SF societies used to be a serious route into fandom, but
most are now moribund.
- Societies run by volunteers are dying everywhere. From SF, to
horticulture, to charities.
- There are nowadays many more potential opportunities, including ones
in SF fandom: media, anime, gaming, etc. In media fandom, the audience
is a lot more passive, and some are commercially run.
- Last year alone there were 5 academic conferences on SF in the UK.
- Many young fans are disapproved of, because they behave like young
fans -- drink, throw up, be obnoxious, etc. Are we being hypocritical?
- Conventions used to be the way into SF. This is no longer necessary
-- SF is now mainstream. And they used to be the main source of fannish
conversation -- but you can now get that on the net all the time.
- Philip Pullman was on Start the Week -- maybe we've won the
war? Well, almost -- they were a wee bit sniffy.
- Maybe the problem is the Eastercon? Is it too big, too much
commitment to run? And there are too few different venues that can host
it. The Adelphi is close to the limit. If there's enough
function space, often the hotel is then too big, and there are other
guests, too. Or it's too expensive.
- But there are things you can do at an Eastercon with its bigger
budget. And the diversity of people is part of the fun. And it acts as
an "ecological corridor", linking the smaller diverse
- Room rates are going up. There are no longer any large shabby hotels
that need our business. Large Victorian city centre hotels, suitable for
Eastercons, are now premium hotels. Fans don't like ring-road
- 25 years ago, 1000 people needed 300 bed spaces. Now it's more like
800 bed spaces -- we are no longer sleeping on the floor!
- Fans also get fed up with the same site. So, although the Adelphi
is a good site, fans are bored with it -- they already know all the good
Panel -- Judging a book by its cover
Brian Amerigen, Dave Hardy, Rog Peyton, Julian Headlong
What makes us pick up a book in the first place -- title, author
cover art, blurb, quotes, reviews?
- DH: if I'm doing cover art, I do like to read the book first, to get
an idea of characters, vehicles,... Sometimes I'm given only a short
blurb -- then I do a composite, non-specific picture.
- BA: Mary Gentle is peeved at the cover of Ash, a character
with ash-blond hair, depicted with red hair.
- RP: Most specialist customers know what they want. If it's piled
high, they will notice it. Last year, there was a double issue of The
Time Machine and War of the Worlds with a picture of Big Ben
and a Martian -- a great depiction of both themes.
- Josh Kirby started in 1953 doing James Bond covers.
- BA: the words on the spine catch your eye first. Or the yellow jacket
-- but that needs a sophisticated reader.
- RP: I've never bought a Gollancz book, I've never liked them. Also,
cover art work attracts me.
- Josh Kirby is branding "funny SF". Tom Holt objects to JK
covers, because he doesn't want this brand.
- DH: publisher often still don't credit the cover artist who is
selling their work.
- Modern artists use computers. But older artists used the available
tech: pinholes, projectors, photos, ...
- Good covers can be used on several books
- There was lots of red in the past, because that red didn't fade,
whereas blue faded in days. How come present day reds fade?
- Joan Vinge's The Snow Queen carried a cover quote by
Arthur C Clarke -- "it has the
weight and texture of Dune". What does that mean: that it's
thick and made of paper?
- One blurb said something like "he was taunted by her sexy wiles"
-- the book was 1984!
- BA: Some publishers' blurbs are crass, ungrammatical, and
- "I bought this book despite the cover!"
- Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy have good wraparounds, a
uniform design, and all three together form a single picture.
- It's annoying when publishers change a logo or style in a series.
Philip Pullman's trilogy: the first and second were UK first editions,
the third is a US first edition -- so can't have a uniform series of
- A problem with a uniform series image -- you may not notice a new
- Shelving matters: face front books sell better than spine front.
- Embossing is getting more popular. As are holes in dust jackets --
but these tend to tear.
- The Harry Potter series is also
available with an "adult" cover -- which costs more!
- Some books are published with six different covers.
Panel -- Yesterday's tomorrows
Claire Brialey, Kev McVeigh, Farah Mendlesohn
The panelists choose their favourite fictional tomorrow -- and say
whether they want to live in it
The book and art auction overran -- surprise -- so this panel was held
in the bar, with the audience snuggled up to hear the unamplified panel --
- Ian McDonald's Necroville -- nanotech immortality by
resurrection, which leads to a teenage culture
- Kim Stanley Robinson's Pacific Edge
- Samuel R Delany's Triton
-- a statist anarchy utopia, where you are allowed to be miserable if
you want to
- Necroville: the dead do the grotty jobs -- indentured to the
resurrectors. Indenturing can be a form of mortgage/apprenticeship -- a
route to social mobility that takes you out of your class (and
necessarily out of your society of friends and family) -- it doesn't
need to be slavery. The resurrection starts a completely new life -- it
doesn't continue the old one.
- How to get from here to the world in Triton? We confuse
privacy with aloneness.
- Our society can't seem to move beyond conventional family structures.
Triton is based around a close circle of friends. But we have
friends only until the get married, change jobs, etc.
- We need a culture that values friends. (The change to the UK mortgage
tax relief laws in the late 80s -- so that only one person rather than
all co-owners got tax relief -- removed an incentive for friends to live
together in a shared house.) We need to remove kinship and sex from the
idea of family.
- The protagonist Sam has three homes: weekend, family, girlfriend.
- Parenthood is a very important relationship. But two-parent families
are depicted as highly dysfunctional. It's either one parent supported
by a commune, or multi-parent.
- In Triton, there are loads of relationships, and lots of
renegotiation. Permanent marriage is illegal. This requires a great deal
of honesty, especially to oneself.
- In today's Britain, it is regarded as more scandalous to have an open
relationship with a person one's spouse approves of, than to
deceive/betray that spouse.
- Pacific Edge is a very rural utopia. People can walk away.
That needs space -- which is available between settlements, if not
within them -- the plot revolves around planning permission for the last
piece of land.
- It seems to be compulsory to play baseball! But it's just a metaphor
for teams/community, etc
- Also, the main character cheats, undermining the entire planning
- London's Docklands at night look like the SFnal future.
- None of the panelists have gone for primitivism -- all the chosen
futures are high tech. Communitarianism lightens primitive drudgery --
when the Shakers were the only ones with washing machines, they
recruited huge numbers of women. When we can live alone with no
drudgery, we choose to live alone.
- Triton is fairly egalitarian, but there is still a rich/poor
- There is Welfare -- nearly everyone is on it at some stage -- no-one
is on it too long -- evens out the gap.
- The Triton protagonist does good manners for social status,
not to be nice to people.
- Ken MacLeod's The Sky
Road is not a good utopia -- it's smug and self-satisfied,
mostly homogenised, with a marginalised class -- sounds like a recipe
for a pogrom.
- A usual utopian mistake: that is you have like-minded people you will
want to be with all of them all of the time.
Dave Hardy -- GoH live painting
- Lots of things can be wrong in Space Art -- a star in the crescent
moon, a moon bigger than the sun, dark side of moon darker than
(intervening) sky, wrong phases, etc.
- It's easy to remember which crescent is new -- add a vertical to a )
to get a p, French premier, first -- and which is old -- add a
vertical to a ( to get a d, French dernier, last.
- It's Dave Hardy, or David A Hardy -- never David Hardy. "Arthur
only got a C, at least I got an A"
- In the 50s and 60s, calculated loads of planetary sizes/distances,
etc -- still uses them
- Dave's Rolf Harris impersonation -- an animated
painting of a view of Neptune from Triton. What seemed like a
fairly simple spray-paint and chalk drawing yielded an amazingly
effective result. Rog Peyton leapt up and auctioned it. We all wanted to
bid -- but we couldn't work out how to transport it. Then we discovered
the ecstatic purchaser had no idea how he was going to transport
it -- to Maryland!
Panel -- The future of SF
Andrew Butler, Steve Jeffery, John Meaney, Christopher Priest, Caroline
At the dawn of a new century, does SF have a future, and what shape
might it take?
- When talking about commercial SF, it depends on what we mean by SF.
For books with SF on the over, the position is fairly secure. It's an
established part of publishing. 10% of all fiction sold is SF ("and
90% of that is Terry Pratchett!")
- Last year, 1999, books sold over the counter increased by 10% --
books as physical objects are still selling.
- When SF tries to broaden it's appeal to a wider audience, from our
perspective it gets diluted.
- Ebooks are going to happen. Barnes & Noble are selling them.
MS-Reader is free to download (MS gets a share of each ebook sold). SF
is probably the major product for ebook readers. "I spend my day
looking into a glass tank. When I get home I want a book on paper!"
- There have been lots of classic SF reprint lines this last year.
- Originally, the publishing world didn't know about SF, so "non-commercial"
writers could get published -- Dick, Sladek, Ballard, ... It's getting
harder to take on "difficult" writers.
- For people who don't read SF, they think a movie like The
Matrix raises deep questions about the nature of reality, even
though the rest of us think it's facile.
- At the turn of the century, there was an SF book that had some
technology to automatically raise a hat -- it was set in 1980, but was
obviously about the mores of its own time.
- How is literature adapting to SF? Margaret Atwood's The
Handmaid's Tale -- she didn't appreciate getting an SF award. Also,
she's won the Booker Prize, for The Blind Assassin, a novel that
contains extracts of the SF novel being written by one of the
- Chris Priest won the 1995 James
Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction for The Prestige.
Was asked if he would like to know why he won. A judge said "I read
The Affirmation in 1980, then you disappeared. I thought you
were dead!" (No, being published by Faber, which is the same
thing.) "Then I saw your new one, and decided then that it would
- "Safety first" is a silly idea. Driving, cycling, we'd
never do anything. It should be "safety second" -- after
whatever it is we are actually doing. Similarly, with SF, it should be "science
second", and literary things first. In SF, we tend to tar with the "literary"
- Geoff Ryman, Kim Newman, and others have been moved from SF to
mainstream -- mainly due to celebrity.
- Meaney: There is no separate SF imprint with my publisher. There is
nothing on the cover that says SF -- except the Jim Burns artwork, of
- There is no limit to the prejudice the literary world has against SF.
We need another manifesto like Joanna Russ', called "How to
Suppress SF writing"
- Joanna Russ' 1972 essay "The Wearing Out of Genre Materials".
It would be very difficult now to write a spaceship story without
invoking all the Star Trek
and Star Wars
resonances. "When I started SF, I didn't know what an alien was,
now they are everywhere." In the 50s, we looked at Buck Rogers
and said, SF isn't about that. What will the world pretend we
are in 30 years time, so they can despise us then?
- The Crime genre has a limited number of concepts -- it should have
died ages ago, but it's still going on -- there is some spill into
mainstream. John Sandford -- his main character, Lucas Davenport, is a
hard bitten cop who writes Role Playing Games in his spare time -- yet
these books are classed as mainstream.
- There is still plenty of SF being published in the classic mould.
The panel was beginning to wind up -- when the fire alarm went. We all
evacuated in an orderly manner from the 9th floor programme room. Fire
engines arrived -- but fortunately it was just "a fault on the panel"
(the fire panel, not the con panel!)