Tuesday, 19 September 2017

SmartYellow - more than a book review

This isn’t strictly a book review but I feel compelled to about this book, SmartYellow by J. A. Christy. [contains mild spoilers]

This book has been haunting me since I finished reading it over a month ago. Book hangovers aren’t uncommon but the extent to which this has got in to my brain is something different and I feel compelled to explore this further. As much as this explores the book this post is a commentary on the current welfare state in the UK.

I’m not unaccustomed to enjoying books that can best be described as “a bit grim”: dystopian AUs and contemporary noir are my jam. SmartYellow definitely fits in to that category. 

A brief synopsis: SmartYellow is set in a recognisable Britain, the part of Britain that never really makes it in to books or on TV. SmartYellow is primarily set in a council estate. It follows the life and struggles of a single mother who find herself far out of her middle class comfort zone and struggling to survive on a notorious estate. When an Olive branch is offered to her she takes it and does her best to make the best out of what is increasingly clear to be and terrible situation. Getting to grips with government surveillance and finding out that her tasks are part of something far deeper and more sinister than she first thought.

The science of SmartYellow is subtle and not described in great detail only alluded to in layman’s terms. The source and real power of the technology isn’t explored in depth rather focussing on the impact of how it is used in the real world. It isn’t a lot but it is just enough to push SmartYellow in to the realms of sci-fi and an uncanny valley alternative universe where control of “undesirables” is far more insidious than we would like to believe.
This is a book about choices. It is about hard decisions and what you do when you are caught between a rock and hard place. It’s about Us and Them, our prejudices, our boundaries and how far we will go to save ourselves. And it is brutal.

Perhaps you are starting to get an inkling of why this book affected me so deeply. To start with the setting is meticulously describes and painfully familiar to many of us. An ordinary unassuming town it has its posh bits, its comfortable middle class suburbs, a bustling centre, some working class streets and then, pushed to one side, the council estates. Run down clusters of maisonettes and blocks of flats segregated from the rest of the city. The people who live there are marked as different. They are outcasts from the town. They are considered by everybody off the estates to have failed in some way, to be lesser, to be beyond help and in some cases deserving of all that they have to suffer.

 J. A. Christy’s descriptions are raw, clear and without shame. You feel every ounce of the grey and pastel prison that surrounds you. You feel the fear and desperation. What Christy has done is make us face head on and eye to eye the reality of these estates and how some people are cut off from society. It’s a difficult lesson if you’ve never been forced to think about it and for those who have had to think about it, have experienced it or come close its painful reminder.

Outside of the book this country has a problem with poverty and with the working poor. Though we have a benefit system it is clear to almost everybody that it is brutally unfair and often sets people up to fail. You have to be able to apply in the first place, you have to be able to jump through hoops of bureaucracy to even be accepted and in many cases you then have to continue with these circus trips to attend meeting, fill our form after form and behave in a way which is defined by an anonymous body. This would be difficult for people even in ideal circumstances, but in reality most of the people who have to apply are far from in ideal circumstances. They are already poor, already struggling. They often have substance abuse to deal with. Many come from abusive and broken homes and do not have a support network around them. Some of us are ill and disabled. Others have young children or family members who need care. Often there is a lack of education or literacy that holds people back. But there is no support. All are expected to jump through the hoops and perform the arcane rights necessary to get enough money that they can eat but that keeps them firmly under the poverty line.

Some of us are lucky, we find ourselves in these situations after we have had a chance to thrive. I cannot work and apply for PIP but I am “lucky” in that I have a support network of good people around me who can and will help. I am “lucky” in that I have a middleclass-ish background and have that to draw from. I am “lucky” in that I had the time and means to go to school, do my A-levels and go to university. It makes it easier. Not so easy that I don’t end up in tears and have panic attacks having to deal with the DWP. Not so easy that I can live comfortably and don’t have to worry about money. Not so easy that there haven’t been periods where I would eat less and less so my money would stretch further, that I would lower the thermostat to 14.5 degrees in the winter and just pile on sweaters and scarves to keep warm to save precious energy. But I am still, relatively speaking lucky.

One such element of my “luck” is that I have never had to apply for social housing. Because with that instantly comes stigma. It shouldn’t do. So many people find themselves in a situation where finding a house to rent with their budget is impossible as private landlords buy up home after home and inflate prices. As old buildings are refurbished into “luxury apartments” that house only a few but charge more than many can afford. As inflation and house prices push more and more people into previously undesirable neighbourhoods and who can afford to rent and buy when the people who already live there can’t and have to move out. Social housing is important. It helps people: people who are working full time on minimum wage; families with dependants who struggle to make ends meet; single parent families; disabled adults. They all need somewhere they can call home and they can live safely without fear of becoming homeless or anything else bad happening to them.

However, instead of seeing council housing and council estates as good places for people who need them, in our society council estates and other social housing is maligned. They are treated as the place where the lesser dregs of society are swept off to fester. The stigma is such that even ex-council estates, those which have been bought up in the right-to-buy rush of the 80s and early 90s and are now largely privately owned or privately rented, are scorned, have less market value, are avoided, treated as trouble spots, and bad areas. Sometimes of course they are. I can’t deny that places like The Noctorum estate on the Wirral were violent and rife with crime. When I said I was moving to the satellite town I now live in people sucked in their breath and warned me away from an estate that had a history of crime ranging from gang fights to burglary. There is often the question though of do these places have these problems because the residents are in need of social housing, or do these things happen because of how broader society treats the people who live there.

Perhaps it’s a bit of both. The language used is telling and difficult. Them versus us. Them and not me. They are other. These are the struggles and difficulties that Christy picks up on wonderfully in SmartYellow and she uses the language of They and Us to great effect putting up barriers both metaphorical and more sinister between the in group, the safe space of The Town, and the out group, the squalor and fear of the estate. This is the first way that this book grips you and gets under your skin: the uncomfortable notion that quite probably you can’t help yourself from thinking in terms of us and them; that try as you might you have placed yourself in “us” and talked about “them”. Even if your words have been compassionate there is always the barrier. The realisation or recognition that we are a part of this horrible dystopia that we are reading about is sickening but difficult to pull away from, because now you aren’t reading a story, you are reading something that is achingly familiar and a part of your own world.

This dichotomy between “us” and “them” is a repeated motif throughout the book and something you can’t escape from. It forces you to examine your own prejudice and your own feelings on the subject again and again from every perspective asking yourself “who am I?” and “where do I draw my line?”. It is a brutal test of your own ethics and morality.

I had a further struggle reading this, a struggle that is far more personal and that not every reader may come up against. I am on benefits. I am on (well sort of I’m in the middle of the appeals process) PIP. Previously I was on DSL and ESA[i] and in receipt of housing benefit. I was with a private landlord but my housing was supported by local government. I was one of them. I am one of them. As I described above, I have felt many of the associated struggled. Furthermore I can’t work due to disability. At least not any sort of regular work that is valued and recognised as employment by our government or vast swathes of our country. I am not seen to contribute value. I am not productive. I am a dead weight who does not contribute. I am a burden on society. This is a rhetoric I can barely escape as it appears in new stories, parliamentary debates, TV chat shows and overheard snippets of general conversation on a nearly daily basis. The paperwork I endure to be allowed a meagre sum that amounts to £3.03 a day is full of questions and statements meant to remind me and test that I really deserve. I have literally been judged, and judged negatively I may add, for being “well presented”. I must perform a pantomime that shows that I am in desperate need but also that I am grateful and trying hard enough. I must be perky happy and wanting, but also in difficulties to the point of no basic hygiene. I am supposed to stay within an ill-fitting cage that I may be rewarded with my £3 a day. Do too well and your money is stopped. Save up a little, just enough to feel safe, and your money is stopped. Manage to find a few hours irregular work, far from a manner able to support yourself and your money is stopped. Fail to attend a meeting because you are sick, starving or, god-forbid have a job interview and your support is taken away.

My situation may be more comfortable than the life of the central characters of SmartYellow but I am far, far too conscious of the constant scrutiny from those who have control. So a world that is crafted to have even more control, more surveillance, to subtly infiltrate your lives and not only make sure you are playing by the rules that allow you to eat but also making sure you never stray from your allotted place is all to easy to believe.

The advanced technology of SmartYellow may not exist (probably) but that does not mean we can’t imagine more mundane methods for creating Zones and ensuring that people stay in their place. We already know that it is more difficult for people with a social housing address to get a job, for those who are out of work for long periods to find employment. We know that people with prison records, no credit and disrupted housing continue to struggle for employment, housing and even healthcare as people judge and weigh the elements of a person’s past. It’s not so hard to imagine that there may be a list of blacklisted addresses and postcodes hanging in an HR office or letting agency. It’s not hard to imagine that police respond differently to calls made in certain areas. It’s not out of the realms of possibly that on some desk in some forgotten about council office there are a series of maps with lurid yellow lines traced around the boundaries of the areas where They live. We can’t pretend, also that eugenics has never been discussed and researched[ii][iii], even carried out in places as a method of population control for those deemed undesirable[iv].

I finished reading the book with a sense of acute paranoia. I knew intellectually that the scenario created by Christy was, though based in reality, fiction. I knew it was speculation and not fact. And yet, the very real sense of always being judged by some governing body or other was inflamed and made a magnitude worse. If they are treating us like this now, think what else they can do if the technology and opportunity ever arises? What of failed experiments and pilot schemes? Would we ever actually be told about them? What if the eugenicists never went away? What if things really are getting worse. Will I be able to satisfy the criteria that keep me from being labelled an “undesirable”? Really do I want to be on that side of the divide? How do I see myself, who am I and how do they see me?

So many questions and so few answers, at last none that I was satisfied with.
The real thing that left me shaken and melancholy from reading SmartYellow was a real, deep and darkly certain feeling not that this could happen, but that it already is happening.

Christy created world where choice is everything, where lack of choice and desperation is what sets us apart. A world where we can shut up and accept the status quo, fight for the scraps we have and be satisfied or push against them and risk losing it all. Is that not the world we live in?

I desperately want to recommend this book to people but it comes with a warning: it might leave you feeling like shit.

[i] PIP (Personal Independence Payment), DSA (Disability Support Allowance) and ESA (Employment Support Allowance) are all UK benefits/social security. PIP is being introduced to replace DSA. It is administered by the DWP – The Department of Work and Pensions, which is a department of the UK Government.
[ii] For example Lee Kwan Yeu in the 1960s http://www.blynkt.com/issue-1/eugenics-in-postcolonial-singapore,
[iii] Exceprt from Richard Dawkins http://www.heraldscotland.com/news/12760676.From_the_Afterword/
[iv] Short article detailing some of the forced sterilisation and euthanasia of “undesirables” in the USAnhttp://www.sfgate.com/opinion/article/Eugenics-and-the-Nazis-the-California-2549771.php

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

But really, those costume choices

Part two of my costumes-in-sci-fi-and-Valerian rant

If you have read my earlier post “Limitless clothing choices and you pick that” you may have noticed I have some opinions about clothing in scifi and was set off on this instance by my viewing of Valerian. I promise you this post no my earlier post contain spoilers for Valerian if you are still holding out hope of seeing it. Nothing you won’t have seen in trailers or posters anyway.

Last time, I looked at military uniform and the gender disparity which was at least 30yrs out of date and could have taken a lesson or two from Star Trek: The Next Generation’s somewhat sarcastic approach1.
Front Star TrekTNG season one. They didn't always wear leggings either. Sadly they ditched this in season 2.
I also questioned how we approach the design of alien clothing, being mindful of real world censorship without enforcing Western morality on an alien culture. Valerian while not the only perpetrator of such fallacies did prove itself to be almost a step by step guide to the worst tropes.
This week I’m examining two more of those tropes: female armour and a strange fascination with antique clothing.

Do boobs give you extra hitpoints

I briefly hit upon the issues with female armour in last weeks post and noted in the footnote that the issues of “boobplate” and ridiculously gendered body armour are superbly handled by BikiniArmorBattleDamage on tumblr. That still stands and I urge you to check out their blog, look at the examples and read their commentary for a far fuller picture. I don’t think I could really let the armour choices in Valerian go by uncommented on, not when it is such a blatant example of the trope and does so without any apparent self awareness.

Before we go any further I should point out that yes, there are far worse examples of female armour out there and yes, I suppose we are ‘lucky’ that she has trousers. But I can’t help but notice one major feature of the female armour design that makes me think that the costume designer (or executive decision maker) was thinking less about how armour works and more about the old fallacy that sex sells2. Boob plate: solid, separate cups that sit over the boobs leaving you as to no doubt of the anatomy of the wearer. In contrast, male identified characters get a breast plate, which may have some definition over the pectorals but is rarely molded or as distinct as that on female armour. The arguments for boob plate are that it provides support and space for the breasts. The arguments against boob plate largely come down to “that’s not how armour or boobs work”.

In some contexts it may be appropriate for the breast plate of a character with breasts to have distinct cups. If there’s is a society in which bared breasts are a sign of strength and virility, as for example a well sculpted male chest is often treated, then having formed boob plate may be appropriate. If the society is one in which women are seen as strong and revered, the body is treated with respect and is neither over sexualised or considered inferior, then again, moulded cups may be the preference of some soldiers and may not stand out as odd. In our world, that’s not the case, and in the world of many sci-fi films,including Valerian, we aren’t given any context of that nature. Instead, the moulded cups are merely there as a visual cue in case we forget which one is female.

The costumes are form-fitting for all characters that’s true, so some shaping is necessary for a good fit and movement, especially if the material is rigid. But it’s this rigidity that poses another argument against boob plate: if the armour is curved steeply inward toward the body, as boob plate is around the sternum, then a) you create a pressure point where those hard edges and joins dig into the body, potentially harmfully and b) you also create an angle that literally guides projectiles and other hard items toward the body. That’s two things that armour absolutely should not be doing.

I don’t expect fantasy and sci-fi armour to be completely realistic plus many sci-fi franchises use lasers which overcomes the directional problem which means we should be allowed some artistic allowance and not be restrained by physics and material science at all times. Additionally, actual real historic armour worn into battle and in tournament was often heavily decorated with elements that could prove to be dangerous to the wearer. The difference though is that that decoration was very much a personal preference and display of strength and personality3,4. Boob plate is not, it is the repetition of a tired trope by a production team. It isn’t a creative icon of a fantasy world, it is the same old thing we have seen everywhere else and it serves very little purpose.

The antique clothing fetish

This particular point is much more directly linked to Valerian, though there are other films which fall foul, and it’s how much of the clothing is not just inspired by, but directly taken from human history. Valerian is set 500 years in the future and is mostly set on “The City of a Thousand Planets”, a universe spanning multicultural. We know that fashion is somewhat cyclic, that magazines will tell us how “the 90s are back!” how similar patterns of silhouettes repeat and for some, the 70s never really ended. But for a citizen in The City ... to wear clothes not just inspired by but lifted almost directly out of the 2000s would be like people routinely wearing doublets and hose or stiff fronted gowns and ruffs. Are we to suppose that in 500 years clothing hasn’t changed at all, or does this film just happen to focus on a group of highly dedicated reenactors who dress in costume at all times and are considered a little odd?

People (well me at least) had high hopes for Valerian with it coming from Luc Besson, writer of cult and blockbuster classic Fifth Element. Fifth Element has aged phenomenally well, key amongst its success the visual aesthetic and the costuming provided by Jean-Paul Gaultier. Though the influences are apparent, and any fans of Gaultier could clearly see his hand at work, the costume created a society and culture that was different, clearly influenced by the new and novel worlds and technologies of the setting to say nothing of the creative entertainment and celebrity industry. Valerian instead had Miami beachwear and faux Victoriana. It was lackluster. Even without the dazzling highs of Fifth Element to live up to it would have been markedly lacking in creativity.

As I said at the start of my first post, costume isn’t just about dressing your characters but about bringing to life an entire culture and setting which we only get to see a limited snapshot of. If your costume is recreations of vaudeville and your average uni-campus but it’s set in space, what are we learning? Well nothing much. The only conclusion I could draw from the Rhianna showpiece as Bubbles, shape-shifting supposedly to match the desires of her “client”, is that Valerian (the name of the main character from which the film takes it’s name) has a deep and abiding fetish for antique costume. Because if it’s odd that a film 500 years in the future includes items that are common now in 2017, it is even more bizarre that it would showcase and dress its characters in facsimiles of Victorian showgirls, 18th Century gowns and 50s pinup. It makes no sense either in the setting or for a sci-fi film: this isn’t Captain Janeway in her Victorian holonovel, this is supposedly people living their everyday lives.

To put that little care and thought into the creation of the world is evidence that too much attention was given to exciting space battles and sweeping vistas and little, if any, was given to the actual world that these characters inhabit and want to save. And if the world is poorly developed then it is no surprise that the characters are less than fully formed and floundering through the plot.
Not only that but it’s a disservice to the audience. It assumes that the only thing we would be content with or accept are the same visuals that are trotted out time and again. Additionally these are styles and visuals that are commonly linked to sex work and titillation in the here and now - we haven’t lost our fascination with the allure of a 50s pinup or Victorian brothel. Of course if we really think about it we know that these are rose-tinted images and that a myriad of social problems from misogyny to poverty are intertwined with these vintage pastiches of sex. To tie them to sex work in Valerian then is to divorce these pretty ideals even more from their roots and to, as with the clothing of aliens, force some very 21st century western morals on to what should be a far more exotic and different place indeed.

To reiterate what I said at the start of the last post on this topic, costume actually matters in film and TV. It is one of the devises that should be used to tell us about the setting and society. When it is done well it can be seamless and we can be transported to another culture. When it is done badly it instead tells us about the culture of the producers and directors. Often instead of our sci-fi being exciting new realms of possibility, we are reminded that the film is just a part of the status quo, nothing new and exciting, just a sad reflection of the world we are already living in.

Valerian got it very wrong, though I doubt it will be the last to do so. 

1Not that TNG got costumes perfect or dealt with sexism particularly well, but that was thirty years ago and I’d like to think we’d moved on

2The idea that sex sells is not as cut and dried an issue or a truism as you may think

3It has to be a very well crafted and clearly shown story for “it’s the character’s choice to have armour like this.” an argument which falls apart even more quickly once you consider this is a military uniform,not personal clothing.

4For some excellent examples of discussion of how LARPers might chose to wear armour which curves around breasts, read this article from LARPHacks

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

On vulnerability

NB: this post was first written several weeks ago but not published due to tech issues. It remains relevant though some of the specific things referenced may have moved on.

This is a difficult topic to write on but I think it’s time I took a stab at it.
This is more personal than many of my posts, but it’s important.

What or who do you think about when you hear the phrase “vulnerable adult”? An elderly person, frail and memory failing? Somebody with severe learning disabilities, or a developmental disorder that leaves them cognitively impaired? Well yes, those assessments aren’t wrong. But that’s not the whole picture either. Because, it turns out, you can be a 32 yr old with a high level of education, who has been able to hold down a good full time job and you can be or can become a vulnerable adult.

Over the past couple of months we have been moving house and carrying out some minor renovation on the new house. This has meant that for the most part I have been sat in the house by myself letting in and dealing with a succession of builders and contractors, energy salesmen and council representatives. Plastering, roof, flooring, internet, energy, water ... The list is endless.

Moving house is of course exhausting for anybody. It’s a big job and it’s stressful. When, like me, you have a chronic illness it becomes a ridiculous feat. I have been in a state of exhaustion or weeks, struggling to stay awake, in screaming agony on some days, vertiginous and migrainous, woozy and with a brain fog which deserves its own slot in the shipping forecast. It’s a slog to get anything done as every little bit of exertion needs to be quickly balanced out with rest. Needless to say, this isn’t the best state to be dealing with strange people and negotiating business.

Crashed out on the sofa with fatigue and pain

It took me a couple of weeks of rising anxiety to realise that it was because, for all intents and purposes even if it was not an official diagnosis, I was in the position of a vulnerable adult. My anxiety was the fear that I was in a position of powerlessness, that I could be taken advantage of (financially if nothing else) and wouldn’t have the wits or wherewithal to do anything about it. I have had to open my door to strangers, invite them in to my house and hand over money and trust that I will be safe and that they will be honest and kind. That’s a tremendous ask. We would like to think we live in a world where this trust is inevitable but instead we live in a world in which we know that scams happen. We know that people are ripped off. We know that some contractors can swindle and cheat. We know that inviting a strange man in to your home is a risk. These are calculated risks that any adult takes.

But as an adult who is struggling with cognition, who is struggling to have an alert and bright mind, an adult who is fighting to speak through a migraine and a head like cotton wool, an adult who has used up a huge amount of their energy just to answer the door to you, it’s a very different calculation. The risks are higher.

I have come away from several interactions now not being entirely sure what was said, if the pay was accurate or was the work really completed as requested. Because I didn’t know, I couldn’t remember, I couldn’t make clear judgement. I just had to plod along and follow the script, say “yes thank you” fumble for the money and hand it over and trust that all was well. It’s a risk.
I may not look like a vulnerable adult on the outside. There is no tell-tale ramp and hand rail on the house, I don’t have a “classic” look to my face but it doesn’t mean that I am not in a vulnerable position.

At the same time that this has been going on I have been considering the worth of buying a wheelchair or a scooter. Friends I have in a similar position health wise are opting for motorised wheelchairs. Aside from the usual stress and mental gymnastics involved in considering if I am disabled “enough” for a scooter or chair or if I am faking or being dramatic, there are concerns about vulnerability. Even though I almost always use a walking stick these days there is a definite step up in how visible disabled you are when you start using a chair or scooter. The internationally regarded symbol for disability is a person in a wheelchair. Our society still regards people in a wheelchair and disabled people as more vulnerable, regardless of their actual capability. And if you are seen as more vulnerable you are often treated as such, both good and bad (and really the good isn’t all that good).

For some reason, I am struggling most with the concept of using an electric chair. I have friends who use them and I don’t consider them to be more vulnerable or to be weaker. Yet when I try and picture myself using one I experience a sense of rising panic. The thought of me in a motorised chair just doesn’t fit. I imagine it and instantly see an increased vulnerability and an increased lack of agency that is more than I can cope with. In part it is a perceived passivity: you sit in the chair and the chair moves. In reality it is no more passive than a scooter: you are in control of the speed and movement, you are a not the passenger but are actively in control. But I can’t shake this feeling than in a chair I will be vulnerable.

What can be done about this then? Is there a solution to the issue of vulnerability. Clearly there is some need for us to assign he label of vulnerable adult to some people. There are those who need extra protection and help that can’t be denied. But we also need to consider that vulnerability is not an absolute state. It can develop in a person or can vary day by day. Vulnerability is also something that very much varies by perception. In some cases it is self perception: I would feel more vulnerable in a motorised wheelchair than in a scooter; I feel vulnerable when I am fatigued and dealing with contractors. When this is so then the individual can work on altering their own perceptions, breaking down the exact why and what of that vulnerability with the ultimate goal of feeling less vulnerable.

The issue is of course that that doesn’t change other people’s perceptions nor does it change and physical attributes. I may train myself to feel less vulnerable but I will still have that fatigue and difficulty concentrating that puts me in a vulnerable position. Additionally other people’s perceptions, whether formed of good intentions or with the intention to harm are difficult if not impossible to change. When you appear as visibly disabled, there is a likelihood that various people will automatically perceive you as vulnerable regardless of any other evidence to the contrary. This of course can inform their actions and how they treat you, in some cases increasing the risk or vulnerability in the process.

Still though, the issue of actually having traits and difficulties which render me vulnerable exist. Is the problem then simply that I am vulnerable I am correctly perceived as vulnerable by our culture and simply can not and do not want to admit to this level of vulnerability. I do not want to be a vulnerable adult. I do not want to be somebody in need of cosseting, care, talking down to and gentle explanation. And yet, I do not want to be hurt, swindled, taken advantage of or otherwise mistreated as a result of my difficulties. I do need help. I do need reassurance. I do at times need people to talk me through complex decisions, forms and calculation. I do need to sit down and rest and I do need help with mobility.

It comes down to trying to express to people that vulnerability leads to a need for help but that help does not need to come at the cost of a person’s dignity.

I hired a scooter for Nine Worlds. Using it on public transport was an experience.

Monday, 14 August 2017

Limitless clothing choices and you pick that

This post is largely triggered by the film Valerian, which at the time of writing is still in cinemas and I had seen earlier in the week. It is not limited to Valerian though, or a full critique or review of the film[1], it is merely using it as a recent example of a common problem in SciFi.

Clothing. What your characters are wearing. You may think it’s trivial but really it’s not, especially in film and television where the visual image you create should be telling us as much about the story and setting as dialogue and and action sequences. Throughout history our clothing has told a story about how our culture functions, what is important to us, how we work, the economy, the tastes and ethos and of course the morals. To take a non-scifi example think about a period drama set in the early 1920s. Whilst most of the characters are still fairly conservatively dressed a female character that shows up wearing a knee length skirt will stand out. The skirt tells us as much about her character as do her actions and the reactions of supporting cast. Think also how in this period drama, we can instantly tell the difference between a servant, a working class character and an upper class character merely by how they are dressed: the cut and shape of the clothes, the fashions they pick, the fabrics and colours are all visual cues that tell us about the characters and the setting.

So how does that relate to scifi in general and to Valerian in particular? Well there were two areas that it stood out to me and we can tackle them individually. Firstly, gendered uniforms and armour and secondly, how you dress your aliens.

In the future our uniforms are old fashioned

In Valerian, there was a clear difference between the uniforms of male coded and female coded military/police/security personnel: trousers and smart jackets for the men and skirts and tailored jackets for the women. Short skirts at that. Very short. Now one of the nice things about the uniforms was how they varied them for rank, but due to the quite frankly ridiculous lack of female background characters there was no opportunity to compare like with like.

Screencap from Valerian City and of a Thousand Planets. The representation of female personnel is so rubbish this is the only still I could find that showed the uniforms

There are two arguments I anticipate here: that this is a film adapted from a comic and draws its design from the original art; that real female soldiers wear skirts so it’s not an issue. I’ll tackle them separately.

The first argument that it is staying faithful to the comic art can and should be dismissed easily. While the film does take a lot of influence and direction from the comic there are many, many things it has changed and redesigned. This is by no means a faithful and painstaking reproduction of the comic in film. The uniforms are almost entirely created from scratch for the film, as the comic’s chaotic style and strong colour washes mean that they rarely appear clearly or consistently in order to be reproduced. With that amount of creative freedom the only reason to create a starkly gendered uniform is the whims and desires of the creative directors.

The second argument, that real world female soldiers wear skirts is also, I would hope you can agree, just as easy to dismiss. Real world dress uniforms in many armed forces including the UK, the USA and France (the comic was originally French) are indeed often gendered with female personnel being required to wear skirts with their tunics. These skirts or generally knee length or there about. There are also specifically the dress uniforms, those worn on parade and for formal occasions. They are not their everyday uniform even when they are operational on[2] base or in “office jobs”. Even if there was some reason that a scifi film should be copying contemporary real world uniforms, this gender division would be incorrect. But it is a scifi film, a world that yes is a theory of future human civilisation, but it is not actually trying to represent the here and now of western earth life. 
The design of uniforms for men and women has changed considerably throughout the 20th and in to the 21st century, largely removing gender differences and better reflecting the status and roles of women in the military. In Valarian then, the creators have decided that the natural development and progress is that female presenting human cadets and officers should wear mini-skirts. They have an entire fictional universe to play with, they can choose literally anything and they chose miniskirts. The most stereotypically gendered uniform item available. Perhaps it was a deliberate choice to hark back to the comic’s 1960s origins, but if that was the case then they missed the mark entirely by deciding to go with something that is such a tired trope instead of reflecting the exciting visionary appeal of the early comics.

Valerian is definitely not the sole perpetrator of the “traditionally gendered uniforms in scifi” trope, but they are the most recent. There is just no fathomable reason why a future society would choose an archaic dress form for their uniforms that isn’t a decision based in real world sexism and lack of vision.

Now on to the second recurring problem:

Your aliens are dressed according to Western Earth morals

This is an issue that rises again and again in multiple scifi films and television shows. The carefully crafted humanoid alien race is encountered for the first time. They are new and strange their ways different to ours, their understanding of the world and how we live novel and ripe for study. Their men wear trousers and shirts and their women wear dresses. Or for variation, their men wear loin cloths and go bare chested while the women wear complicated bikini like garments that hide their surprisingly human like breasts and nipples.

Still from Valerian: City of a Thousand Planets. Alien landscape, very human modesty
Now I know there is a frustratingly mundane reason for this – we have some ridiculously strict regulations about exactly how much flesh, especially female flesh certain cinema ratings allow. If you want your film to have a 12 Certificate in the UK (suitable for persons aged 12 and over), essential if you want that big summer hit while all the kids are off school, then you need to abide by the regulations and keep female nipples and anything deemed titillating to a minimum and that means bikini tops at the very least. It’s frustrating but it is something that film makers have to keep in mind. It’s barely an excuse though and definitely not for those that are content with a higher certificate or for adult audiences on TV.

And why is it such a flimsy excuse? Because there are so many ways you can deal with that issue without resorting to familiar Western Human Civilisation standards and methods of dress. We can’t deny that fashion in most of the human world, especially those “western” societies is shaped by morals (often religiously derived), norms and prejudice. We have, over centuries decided that women’s breasts should always be covered (though not so that we can’t tell that there are breasts at all), that women do not wear trousers and if they do they must look suitably feminine and that men definitely don’t wear skirts except perhaps for certain “traditional dress” occasions. Of course there is far more to it than that, but they are the very basic rules that we can observe and see in the world around us. Crucially they have come out of our human early culture. It is of course possible that other cultures will develop in that way, but there is no reason for it. If you are truly wanting to create a new, mysterious, intriguing alien culture that is so different to ours, why would you then decide to dress them in a way that adheres to our cultural norms and morals.

In the issue of men having bare chests and women covering their breasts, let’s consider some solutions. Firstly, does your humanoid alien actually have to have breasts which are so human and sexually dimorphic as to risk the wrath of censors. Make them a different shape. Make them all flat chested. Reposition them. Do away with a gender and sex binary in your alien characters and randomise features. Don’t sexualise them with the same features as human breasts.
If for some reason you must have female human shaped breasts on your aliens then do they have to be dressed in the same way as human females? Fine, you have to bend to the will of the certification authority and cover any pesky female flesh but there are other garments available than just bikini tops. Have all your aliens regardless of gender wear the top. Have them wear tunics. Have them loose and draped. Have them incidental, garments that just happen to cover the breast and are as likely found on a male character as on a female or any other gender. Wrap all your aliens in bands of cloth from chest to hips.

Again, in the whole galaxy of human imagination and options available to us in scifi, even if we adhere to the concept of scifi as metaphors for human social issues we should be able to conceptualise our aliens as, well, alien. In an era of advanced CGI, animation and costuming to see Valerian create beautiful and enigmatic aliens[3] with wondrous skin and empathic reactivity and then dress them in fanciful reproductions of bikinis and loin clothes was just sad. It’s an inability to break the bonds with human morals and ideals even when at liberty to be as free and creative as you please. I know that there are a whole host of constraints on a costume designer: what the producer want, what the director wants, what will sell, what the animator likes to draw. My argument isn’t specifically directed at the costume designer but at productions teams as a whole that have an opportunity to create aliens and instead create humans with blue skin.

Aliens don’t need to care if 21st century humans find female breasts too risqué to be seen they don’t even need to know what a human breast looks like. They can be humanoid and have very different genitals and very different attitudes to if they are left covered or not. They can create their wardrobes, fashions and conventions based on their culture, on their society and their world. There is no need to imagine something free, new and exciting and then to bind it in human standards.

When it comes to Valerian, as noted, there were other issues with the film, and indeed other issues with the costume and wardrobe choices. We could talk more about why erotic fashions 500 years in the future are still centred on pseudo-Victorian corsets and 20thCentury show girls or speculate that some people in The City of a Thousand Planets simply have an antique clothing kink and quietly and politely decline from judging. But that won’t stop me raising more than an eyebrow at the dismal and tired state of scifi costuming.

[1] A full critique of the film is deserving though, as it is a film with so much potential and so many problems.
[2] You notice I don't even mention the body armour here. I don't want this post getting too long and that's a topic better covered by BikiniArmourBattleDamage on tumblr.
[3] There were additional problems with the aliens, beautiful as they were, regarding racial coding and the trope of “the noble savage” that I do not feel suitably qualified to talk about

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Nine Worlds Part two

Part two of my mega write up of my Nine Worlds 2017 experience. Part one can be found here.

Saturday, Sunday, The RPG and The Panel

Saturday began with a leisurely breakfast and then settling in to "Representations of the City in SFF". This made my inner architect nerd sing. While at times I felt they strayed a little too far into architectural debate and theory and could have related it to SFF a little tighter, it was still a fascinating discussion about how cities are built and the impact city and building design can have on the tone and feeling of a book. The authors on the panel, Verity Holloway and Al Robertson, gave some great insight in to how the small details of city design are incorporated in to their writing – the city design informing character actions and the character actions describing city design – whilst editor and marketing bod Jared Shurin introduced interesting elements of how things like advertising and corporate ownership may fit in and change a city dweller’s (or reader’s) experience.

The panellists: (l-r) Amy Butt, Al Robertson, Verity Holloway and Jared Shurin

The RPG session

Then it was time to run Days of Future Craft, our beast of an RPG one-shot:
Twelve players, three characters, three time periods, three GMs, four NPCs, plus robots, crochet, poison and for some reason, Romans. 

First off, let me explain how this came to be. The person running workshops and craft related things had an idea for some sort of craft related RPG but she wasn’t able to write and run it. Somehow Nathan and me ended up taking this on board and quickly roped in Carlos. We weren’t sure quite how we ended up running a 12 person, three hour, one off, craft related game with three GMs but there we were. We fit in as many Skype plot writing meetings as we could in the weeks leading up to Nine Worlds and hoped that the rough notes accumulated actually added up to something playable. What we had come up with was an ambitious game of time travel and crafting gone wrong, in which three groups of players would take on the same group of characters split in to their past present and future selves and try and stop the end of the world. The big bad was known as The Crafter and we were pretty sure that crochet had something to do with it. Oh and there were robots.

I was nervous going in to it and also aware that this was taking up a big chunk of my con. If it didn’t work not only would I worry about letting down our players, I felt I would have given up a chunk of my time for something rubbish. It’s pretty safe to say that this game was giving me a little anxiety. However, as the players turned up and got on with the bizarre task of creating their past present and future selves it started to look like it might work. I was heading up The Past and though things were a little slow to start off, we soon picked up the pace with poison and the unexpected appearance or four Roman Soldier NPCs thanks of course, to player action. It was good. 
As expected we ran over time, rushing to fit the final mega encounter when past, present and future came together for one last showdown. Ideally we would have had more time to finish off properly, as it was the final encounter didn’t feel quite right, but we had to end somewhere. Nevertheless the players seemed satisfied and pleased with the outcome and, I think, had fun wielding their craft skills against The Crafter.

It was with relief then that I walked away from the RPG and to a well deserved sit down and cup of tea, relaxing and raiding the trader’s stalls for books and lovely art (a book haul post may come later, but suffice to say, I love the book buying opportunities of Nine Worlds).  I could have sworn I went to another panel that evening but I can’t for the life of me remember what. I think my head was still scrambled from too many timelines and dinner.

AMereKat opening the cabaret accomanied by Creature. pic credit: Zooterkin

Whatever happened in that fuzzy period, we made it back in time for the BiFrost caberet. The BiFrost Caberet is a strange beast. It really is a cabaret: numerous individual acts performing in short bursts and everything from comedy filk (from the likes of the lovely A Merekat), to poetry, balloon based magic and superb songs about feminism (from Alice Nicholls). It fell flat once or twice – though the poetry was excellent and by no means should a cabaret be entirely comic, poetry is a difficult one to fit in, in terms of tone and mood. Sadly the final act was a let-down with little substance and leaving most people uncomfortable and confused – a bizarre combination of drag act and a Butlins-esque insistence on people joining in. I know that getting acts for the cabaret is difficult and there is a need for diversity and variety, but the selection process could do with being a little more vigorous.

Sadly, even with my now much loved scooter, I was just too tired to stay for the BiFrost Disco even though I knew the music would be good and the dancefloor welcoming. That sort of socialising just took more mental energy than I had for the evening and so it was off to bed for a well needed sleep.


Sunday started with grand plans of attending Nick Bradbeer’s talk on spaceship design, and I was looking forward to his enthusiasm and specialist knowledge in the field of naval engineering. Unfortunately for us, and good for him, it seemed everybody else had the same idea and we were just too late to get a space. Instead I nipped off to BookTubing to learn more about this mysterious niche of YouTube while my partner decided what he needed was some inflatable shark Olympics. (I think that paragraph sums up the content spectrum of Nine Worlds pretty well).

I really wasn’t sure what to expect from the BookTubing panel – it wasn’t something I had heard of and I wasn’t sure what shape the discussion would take. It turned out to be interesting and a lovely, lively and friendly talk. BookTube it turns out is a niche corner of YouTube in which people review books and produce literary vlogs. I would have liked a bit more discussion about how YouTube fits in to the changing world of reviews and media as people move away from the traditional press, but it remained, but the technical talk about how it all worked, who produced and who watched still filled the hour well. At the very least I’ve come out of it with several new YouTube channels to follow and a reassurance that being a slow reader is legitimate and audiobooks are absolutely as valid as printed texts.

Split Worlds cosplay 

After that session I changed in to my only real cosplay of the con, my Irene Peonia Retincula gown from the Split World’s novels by Emma Newman. It’s a lovely gown and one I have not much reason to wear. It’s the sort of gown that looks elegant even on a scooter, and definitely when stood up, swooshing the long train behind me. Nine Worlds has a lovely system for rewarding cosplay. Unlike other cons which may have a parade or contest for cosplayers, which can cause stress and anxiety and disproportionaly awards those with more money or professional costume makers, Nine Worlds issues every attendee with five tokens. People can wear cosplay throughout the weekend and other attendees can hand over a token as a show of appreciation. What this means is that the stunning and pro-made costumes get rewarded alongside those that are thrown together out of a wardrobe but perfectly recreate or capture the spirit of a character. You can reward people for those rare and obscure characters that only you and the wearer seem to know as well as the character you don’t recognise but whose magnificent mask and paint job leave you staring. Once you have collected 15 tokens you can collect a small prize and badge from the info desk. No fanfare, just appreciation. It’s a democratic and friendly system that I adore. So you can imagine how pleased I was that in the few short hours I wore my Split Worlds gown I was given a handful of tokens. Not enough for a badge but that quiet show of appreciation from friends and strangers was enough to leave me with a warm glow.

Next up in proceedings (and still gowned) was a choice between bisexuality in SFF and 3D Printing Gets Smart. I opted for Promiscuous Unicorns since it’s a topic close to home (and I had seen an excellent talk on the possibilities of 3D printing earlier in the year at Eastercon). I’m still not sure that was the right decision.

Promiscuous Unicorns: Representations of bisexuals in SFF AKA: That Panel

This panel was, sadly, the low point of the weekend for me. It just didn’t work. Some people have described it as “hissing bisexuals” and other such terms which would imply that is was deeply problematic and offensive. I don’t entirely agree with that view but there is no denying that it was not the insightful, creative and radical talk it could be. So what were the problems?

Firstly we need to acknowledge that all content at Nine Worlds is provided on a volunteers and amateur basis – people suggest and volunteer to run sessions and do so with support from the also volunteer (but often experienced) content runners. Running a panel isn’t an easy task – it requires preparing your subject and working with a group of other people, some of whom you may not know well if at all. It takes preparation, confidence and people skills. If any of that is lacking, your panel can fall apart. Additionally you need to make sure you have the right people on your panel, balancing experience, knowledge, diversity and voice carefully: while you don’t need everybody to have academic qualifications or be working in the field, you do need to make sure that whatever qualifications they do have are suitable and work well with everybody else.

This panel was let down on several of those points: the chair was lacking in the confidence to direct the discussion and curtail overzealous panellists, the contribution of some of the panellists wasn’t clear and, some voices were apt to drown out others. This resulted in a panel that was short of nuance, was repetitive, and often strayed in to personal territory without reference back to the topic at hand, specifically bisexuality as represented in SFF.

The problem with talking about problematic tropes is you have to talk about those problematic tropes. It means talking about how bisexuality is often linked to promiscuity, to a lack of morality, to a lack of fidelity. Bisexuals are sex workers, playboys and wildcards. Or at least they are in much of the media we are presented with. A nuanced discussion is able to talk about why these depictions are problematic whilst acknowledging that those behaviours themselves are not wrong or immoral (well, perhaps with the exception of the immorality). Furthermore we are dealing with a topic that is not static. The language of LGBTQAI has changed and continues to change over the decades. The goals, ambitions, acceptance and face of bisexual politics and lifestyle has shifted and changed and of course is not a homogenous mass that has been uniformly agreed upon but changes with the individual.  It’s important to understand the history in order to understand how these tropes have developed and why they have become problems. But it is also important to balance that history with the many varied opinions and voices of now. Sadly that fine path wasn’t well negotiated in the panel – too much time was spent focusing on the issue of promiscuity and sex work and how that was bad in terms of tropes and representation, when it is often the only representation of bisexual people. And though the panellists did state that there was nothing inherently wrong with a polyamorous or promiscuous bisexual person and that it is merely the ever present trope that is a problem, the repetition of these arguments and the panellists constantly returning to undesirable examples meant that nuance was lost.

There was some contentious statements about the nature of bisexuality, the idea that maybe we are all a little bit bisexual, a concept that is ripe for discussion and has neither been declared discredited or valid, an impossibility considering there is no over-riding Council of Bisexuality to judge and declare on the matter. However it is contentious and raises a lot of questions not just about sexuality but gender theory. It can and does make a lot of people, me included uncomfortable and can be argued to contribute to the erasure of bisexuality. If everybody who isn’t Definitely Straight or Definitely Gay is “a little bit bi” then it undermines the idea of bisexuality as a distinct concept. It can also undermine other sexualities – those people who have fought for the right to call themselves gay or lesbian being told that maybe they are actually a little bit bi like everybody else.
But, as in this blog, it is an issue that grows and meanders easily taking us off track and away from the original discussion. When the notion comes up repeatedly in a talk on the representation of bisexuality it is bound to cause ripples.

There were a number of smaller sticking points too, largely the language used and personal opinions on what is difficult to say and what people want to see. All panels will have small things you disagree with, after all we are generally dealing with subjects that don't have hard fast rules, but along side the other issues discussed, those small points make a big hill. 

Ultimately the panel didn’t go well. Was it a room full of hissing bisexuals and problematic statements deserving of metaphorical stoning? No. But was it a good panel? Far from. It is fair that people came out with feathers ruffled and a sense of disappointment. We could have had a nuanced and educated critique of bisexual representation in media with choice examples and discussion of what is done badly and how we can improve. Instead we had the same tired old statements delivered without care and littered with opportunities to upset and annoy. There was no advancement of thought, no sense of progress or learning, just stale irritation and the sense that the female author on the left should have been allowed to speak more.

The final foray

We only had time left for one panel and sadly the contentious bisexuality panel had left me feeling flat and lacking in enthusiasm. A final raid on the traders to gather yet more books and art helped lift my spirits as well as the unending joy of being in a bubble of like minded people who really understood what it was like to be the odd one out back in the real world but here treated each other as equals, friends and with respect. The general atmosphere of Nine Worlds really is special. It is refreshing and restorative, a place where many people feel they can truly be themselves and can express themselves, and merely exist in safety and without the risk of ridicule, attack or harm from outsiders. The effort they go to not just make it a safe space for geeks and nerds but for different ethnicities, skin colours, genders, sexualities, ages and disabilities is a marvellous thing and not to be dismissed lightly. Whatever my grievances with the bisexuality panel, being in that wholesome environment made it better. Also books. All the books.

Some successful retail therapy and demonstrating the carry capacity of the scooter.

The final panel for me this event was “Robots AI and the Labour Market”. If I am honest this is my jam, this is exactly the sort of panel I adore and love that I get the opportunity to go to. I love the hard science and the hard facts that can be found in speculative fiction and I love how we can examine that from a real world perspective. The panel was chaired by Sarah Groenwegen, who had earlier chaired the Policing in Urban fantasy panel, so I was encouraged that this would be a well moderated and technical panel. This woman knows her stuff. The rest of the panel was made up of a combination of authors, physicists, computer programmers, mathematicians and engineers. This was a heavyweight panel for a heavy subject. 
It was fascinating and especially relevant considering recent stories breaking from Google and Microsoft, to say nothing of the UKs current economic situation. They talked in realistic terms about how AI and robotics were actually already changing the way we work and live and how integrated these systems are. It makes for extrapolation to speculative fiction and tricky task, managing to keep things interesting but not ignoring the very mundane way we already live with such technology. They talked of the pitfalls inherent in the tech, especially that fact that any AI or robot is only as clever or clued up as the programmers or data it has to learn from. As we are learning, if the data you feed to an AI is steeped in systemic racism, the results the AI gives you will be just as prejudice – there is no inherent impartiality in AI and robots as long as humans are involved. There was interesting talk then about the creation of utopias and dystopias, how AI could be used in different political and social models and the impact that would have on our lives: more time for creativity and arts? Would we be wealthier or poorer? How would the crumbling class system be impacted and who would be the new underclass? What of the “lives” of the AI’s themselves?

It was, for me an AI and speculative fiction enthusiast, a superb way to round out the convention.

A quick change in to “normal” clothes once more, some hugs and good byes and my Nine Worlds came to an end as we checked out of the hotel for another year.

All in all it is a wonderful experience. The accessibility is fabulous and the effort people go to to make sure everybody can join in is marvellous. Hiring the scooter for the event is what, metaphorically kept me on my feet. Being able to park up and walk in to some panels or roll up and reverse into a designated space was a great feeling as, unlike in the outside world, I was never a bother or an exception. The range of topics being discussed and the level of interaction is marvellous and there is more or less something for all tastes. Splitting my time between running content and purely attending did dampen my experience somewhat and there are some panels I regret missing. Of course there are high spots and low spots when it comes to the quality of a panel, that is almost inevitable but honestly it’s something I can live with and at the very least it gives us something to talk about.

I love this con. I’ll be going back. You should think about going too. I’ll see you there. 

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

Nine Worlds part one

Nine Worlds part one - Thursday to Friday

This week sees me recovering in Dorset after the excellent 2017 Nine Worlds Geekfest in London.

Wheels at the ready for Nine Worlds
The Con ran from Thursday evening (opening with social events such as Cheese and Cheese), the panels, talks, workshops and other sessions running from Friday morning until Sunday evening. It’s a long programme. For those unfamiliar, Nine Worlds focuses on the culture and society of “geekdom and fandom” from sci-fi and fantasy to comics to gaming to the Miss Fisher Fandom, it’s a broad spectrum of interests. But though the net is spread wide there is a common thread – how does it all relate to the people who enjoy it and the world we live in. Alongside technical discussions such as The Mathematics of a Zombie Apocalypse and How to Design a Spaceship (from a real life qualified Naval Engineer) you also find yourself taking part in discussions of how feminism is portrayed in your favourite media, the problems with a lack of diversity in comics or film and, how can we make things more accessible for disabled geeks. There is a trading floor at Nine Worlds and you will see people in cosplay but the emphasis is all on content, talking and thinking about the media we enjoy (and sometimes hate).

This was my second year attending (you can read about my first year experience here) and as well as being an attendee I was also running a workshop in the guise of Access:LARP called “How to write accessible plot for LARP” and, co-GMing a large one of tabletop RPG. Those commitments meant my experience of the event was a little odd, as I was neither wholly Attendee nor Staff.
Since my Access:LARP workshop was on Friday morning I arrived on Thursday evening. As mentioned above, Thursday night is mostly social to allow those early arrivals to settle in and warm up. I didn’t actually attend any of the programmed events but I did enjoy the opportunity to catch up with friends, have some good food and a drink or two in the hotel bar. I choose to stay at a hotel away from the con, as I like having the physical distance from the business and bustle of the con. This is one of the reasons I hired a mobility scooter for the weekend – we tried a manual chair last time but bumped up against London pavements – having to go a bit further to get to and from the Con venue to my hotel takes its toll on my fatigue. I had been a bit nervous about travelling around London with it and also nervous about how I would feel around and me received by other people. Thursday night was my first real test of my social concerns (as I’d already managed to travel to the hotel itself) and I was relieved at how not only my friends but new people at the con just accepted things and treated me no differently. They were helpful when necessary but otherwise my gentle rolling everywhere raised no comment. I was reassured.

The Access:LARP Workshop

The Access:LARP Writing Accessible Plot workshop in full swing

Friday morning I started my day with a leisurely breakfast, packed my scooter and made my way to the Con. Sessions start at 10AM and running one of the first sessions of the con had me nervous – what if people didn’t turn up? What if it was too early on for interested parties (hangovers and travel times can be equally damning)? Plus for some people this would be their first impression of what Nine Worlds had to offer. I was surprised and happy though when, as I set up people began to file n and take their places at the table. By the time 10:00 ticked around I had an almost full house. This was excellent, but oh now the pressure to deliver! I hadn’t run this workshop previously having had to pull out of a “test run” at a smaller event earlier in the year due to, of course, my own chronic illness. I really wasn’t sure how it would go so delivering it at a popular con to a full house was exciting! The group were engaged, got on board with the material and as the plot writing took off, very creative both in their ideas and in their approach to accessibility. I think most people came away having learned something or at least having a better idea of how to approach writing a game with accessibility in mind. As a bonus I think a couple of people came away with games they might actually run.

So that was that hurdle out of the way.

Friday continued with a very good panel on Policing in Urban Fantasy. Though they were using two books I hadn’t read as their main focal point, I found the expertise of the three women on the panel was sufficient to hold my interest. The books were used more as touchstones and examples of various issues and mthods of depiciting police, law and intelligence in urban fantasy (and indeed in other genres) and allowed for a lively discussion from various viewpoints – the police officer, the home office civil servant and the intelligence analyst (each with a number of other hats and specialisations). I’m a big fan of detective stories anyway so hearing their perspective was great for me as a reader giving me common mistakes to look out for and making more appreciative of those things done right. I imagine any authors who have a police or detective thriller in the works would have taken even more from it than me.

Plus, starting my attendeeship with a panel made up of women, and queer women at that who all had expertise, authority and a voice was pretty good going and to be honest just the sort of thing I want and expect from Nine Worlds.

My day was broken up by a long meeting with my fellow GMs finalising the plot and actually how this ridiculous RPG we were going to run would work. It was a good meeting and definitely in the spirit of Nine Worlds – three geeks who get on well crafting a game and playing around with game mechanics – but it was difficult to shake the feeling that it was work. Sadly it also meant I missed out on a couple of interesting panels but, these things happen.

I did manage to catch an interesting talk by a woman called Rafeeat Aliyu who as a historian and blogger, questioned why the stereotypes of African women in speculative fiction tends to fall to “the warrior woman” and “the priestess”. As an argument against and solution to this problem she introduced us to a number of women from African history who had diverse and interesting lives. Princesses, business women, crafters and rulers: real people, ripe for story inspiration and far from obeying the rules of trope. The talk also raised a number of interesting points about the concept of different models of patriarchy, a patriarchy bore of need (for the continuation of legacy), and approaches to gender, in societies where gender was often very performative leading to the creation of female sons and male daughters.

I rounded off day one with (after collecting my partner who had only just arrived) with a talk on wolves in horror and heavy metal music by the excellent academic, Amanda DiGioia. Or at least that’s what I attempted. Due to some reshuffling of rooms and us running a couple of minutes late we actually ended up in “History’s Forgotten Heroes”. After a few minutes of initial confusion when it became clear that these people weren’t talking about wolves at all, it became an interesting panel with all panel members showing obvious enthusiasm as well as knowledge about their chosen heroes. From the real story of Tutankhamun to the extraordinary radical Irene Harand (writer of Sein Kampf a refutation and challenge of Hitler’s infamous book) and Algerian female ruler privateers it was clear there is far more to history that commonly makes school history lessons and TV documentaries. All in all a good way to round off the day.

Wednesday, 31 May 2017

The Price of LARP

Periodically discussion of the cost of LARP comes up. Recently I've heard it mentioned in relation to new comers to the hobby being suprised at the cost of a ticket to a weekend fest event and in relation to an event with a £220 ticket. 

Often this surprise comes from people who are less familiar with event organisation and who may not be aware of what their ticket money is going on. It can also be confusing because LARP doesn't always run to the same "economy of scale" as many other things - that is, bigger doesn't always mean cheaper. 
Rather than talk about exactly what costs a LARP organiser may face I've approached it from another angle, looking at what I would expect as a player with different price LARPs. This reflects some of the outgoings and behind the scenes costs of organising the event but can be a little a little easier to grasp since we are dealing with the finished product. 
I haven't included things like the cost of water and electricity, websites or other advertising, or basic printing as that is often folded in to other areas of the game like venue hire or infrastructure unless otherwise specified. 

Keep in mind that very few things are zero cost. It might seem as if getting uniforms for your NPCs is zero cost if you already own them from a previous game, but they did have to be initially purchased and so isn't always comparable to somebody starting off without the same basics. The experienced LARPer or organiser might have a few things in storage that they can pull out to keep costs down but it is rare to have everything you need and inevitably, money is going to have to be spent.

The £0 game
LARP can be run for £0 ticket cost. All you need for LARP is a bit of a setting, some character, and some players willing to RP at one another. These LARPs usually aren’t advertised and are really games and ideas run between groups of friends. They are generally fairly informal and probably don’t run over night due to accommodation needs. You can run a £0 LARP if you use publically available land or run in your own home. Food is not provided. Costume, props are either not considered necessary either because the setting is modern/suited to the environment or because people are happy and able to just imagine. Alternatively you may expect players to provide their own costume and props or have a ready stock of costume and props available, but this supposes that money has been spent previously.

The £5 game
Many university LARPs run for £5 a go and may be what people are thinking of when they cite this low price point. It usually means that you are using a low cost venue (i.e. a student union room or free hire room of a pub) or are making use of public outdoor space such as a woodland or park. In the case of a university LARP the set dressing and props can vary between basic and “quite good actually” but props, costume and set dressing have usually accumulated over time rather than being bought specifically for an event with the exception of one or two items. The £5 ticket cost usually covers consumables like printed items and any small props or costume items. Usually food isn’t provided and these events usually only last a few hours at a time.  When not supported by an already existing university society set dressing and prop availability may be more limited.
You could also run at this cost if you wanted to run as for the £0 game but have people chip in for food, or to be able to pay for one or two special prop items.

The£10-20 game. 
These games usually run for around half a day. Most of the ticket cost is going toward either a suitable venue plus some props OR food for players plus some props. You may find overnight games on this budget but the facilities are likely to be pretty basic and it is likely to be self catering. They may be larger games with player numbers in the 35+ category. If only one of food or venue is provided I would expect to see slightly more complex set dressing and props or for the venue to be a little more tailored to the game setting.

Ornithocracy - photo by Tom Garnet. one day games and a setting that worked well with a more basic venue.

The £20 - £40 game.
Normally at this point production values are getting a little higher. You may get a hired venue and some catering, especially at the top end of this price bracket and you would likely start to see a few specially made or bought props for the event and some attempts at set dressing. Generally these are going to be one day events as many would struggle to hire a venue with sleeping accommodation (or tent pitches) and provide catering and props in  this price bracket, though it is possible. An overnight event is likely to be the more basic sort of scout camp or camping only. Events backed by existing societies may be able to provide a little more in this price range due to having a store of existing costume and props that can help fill in the gaps between more specific items. The food may be basic, but should be tasty, expect buffet style meals.

The £40 – £70 game 
This is quite a big category but once we are charging over £40 a ticket there starts to be a lot more options for variation available to us from what type of site or venue to how it looks and what is provided for the players. There is no one thing I would expect a game in this category to look like but there are certain thing I would hope for and I would want these or the absence made clear at the time of booking.
This price group is likely to be made up of overnight or weekend games. It becomes feasible to book a venue with some sort of overnight accommodation or camping space with this budget. Most likely this is going to be for the sole use of the game, though in actuality this doesn’t always pan out due to public rights of way or “misunderstandings” with the site owners about what exactly sole use entails. This allows for a much more involved type of game and people might start to talk about “immersion” more here. (Immersion is definitely possible at the lower price point but it becomes easier when you can be choosier about your sites.)

 For smaller events with fewer than 75 players, I would be expecting some sort of catering though, for a weekend, that is going to be tight and may only be basic, especially at the lower end of the budget. Some self catering options are likely to be available. I would expect that, even if the venue or site doesn’t look quite as you would expect for the in game world for there to be some attempt at set dressing and/or a good level of props and monster/NPC costume sufficient to create a particular feel. Exactly how the money is spent is going to vary a lot depending on genre and setting details. For example, you may just have to accept and “hand wave” the fact that all your high status regency characters sleep in bunk rooms and eat in a shared dining space at canteen style tables but that’s ok or explained by the plot because you also have an actual dragon NPC as well as some highly terrifying and realistic xenomorphs to deal with.

Lager games or “fest style” games may not provide catering for their players but they have to pay for a larger site to support the number of players, may be having to pay extra for a generator, water access and waste disposal or even having to hire in amenities such as toilet blocks. Fest style games usually have a larger infrastructure which grows alongside the number of players and a larger crew who will also need access to the same amenities as players. Many fest systems have also invested in large props, costume and weapons for NPCs/monsters and possibly some larger semi-permanent structures or marquee style tents, in order to help create the game world and also house the larger quantity of items that are needed to run the game.

You occasionally find one day events in this price category but they are usually more “high end and may make use of specialist or exclusive locations that are particularly suited to the setting as well as high quality props or NPC costume and catering.

Split Worlds Ball photo by Tom Garnet, a short game may cost more if a special venue is used.

The £70 to £100 game
These are often much like the games described above but for larger numbers of players; larger venues with sleeping for 75+ people are often more expensive and in shorter supply. In this category, you also find games which are looking for more specific venues – while you can and will see events in scout camps in this price bracket, you will also often see events being held in manor houses and castles. This allows for creating a richer game environment. You are likely to also see higher production value – that is a consistently higher level of set dressing, props and NPC costume. These are usually weekend long fully catered events and you may expect the catering to be more tailored to the occasion.

You may find camping or scout camp style venues in this price point but you are likely to find a higher number of players (thus requiring paying for a larger site plus extra costs for amenities and a larger crew) and/or a higher quality of props, set dressing or NPC costume.

£100-200 games. 
This is a big flexible category and it largely comes down to how good and setting appropriate are the props, venue, costume and dressing and how big is the player base. It is not unusual to start seeing smaller games here – with player numbers bellow 20. The ability to provide a quality setting, with suitable accommodation for a small number of players often pushes the individual ticket price up. It can actually be difficult to find a site for use that accommodates a small number of people and has communal indoor and or outdoor spaces available for sole use without paying larger amounts, or accepting that you will be paying for beds that are not filled.
Indoor sleeping and good or thematically appropriate catering is almost certain at these events and deviations from this are usually for IC reasons. In some cases players may expect to be issued with costume or individual prop items.

Incarceration, Photo by Oliver Facey. Sometimes an immersive setting doesn't mean OC comfort.

£200+ games
Quality is everything here and again we are usually, but not always talking about smaller numbers of players. Whether a large or small game you can expect a fairly high quality of set dressing, props and of course plot to match – though this would be relative for the type of game. For example a high-end fest game may still be camping but you may be camping in organiser provided setting suitable tents or you may expect a very well kitted out dedicated monster crew with their own setting appropriate vehicles. A smaller game may have comfortable sleeping or less luxurious but thematically appropriate accommodation that still meets players OC needs well.  Unique and customised venues may appear here too – a specifically built or refurbished battleship for example or a carefully reconstructed medieval guild hall with all the trappings.

Of course there is a lot of variability in all these categories and the specifics will vary with the game and what is suitable for the players and the setting. £100 may buy you a comfortable bunk in a pretty manor house or it may provide you with a rough pallet in a disused warehouse made to look like the interior of a space station. The cost of a LARP ticket is ultimately paying for three things: setting accuracy, player facilities, and catering. Player facilities can expand to include admin and support crew for larger games as well as food while setting accuracy is everything from the type of building and site to the costume NPCs wear.

the "GOD" tent at Empire photo by Paul Wilder. The bigger the event, the bigger the support crew needed
Budgeting any LARP is a case of balancing these three needs with the money available, the game you want to run and how attractive it all is to your players.  Of course a game is nothing without good plot and writing to say nothing of the players. Price never guarantees a good game or good writing, though you would hope that the higher ticket events can provide a good experience. It is absolutely possible though, with the right group of people and a good setting and plot that you can have a great LARPings experience for free. That isn’t to say that spending money on props and setting is a bad thing, and many people enjoy being able to physically interact with their game world. There is no right and wrong or perfect budget for a LARP. Imagination only is not inherently superior or inferior to creating bespoke settings and many players enjoy the opportunity to play with both styles of LARPing.

Ideally we would like games to be accessible to everybody, not just in terms of disability access, but in terms of financial access too. However, we live in a world where things cost money and that means that the more we want to physically add to a game the more the organisers have to pay and this cost is inevitably reflected in the ticket price. There are few organisers that run LARP games professionally and take a wage and the vast majority of labour, from writing to running around, is undertaken by unpaid volunteers. Of those that do take a wage or make a profit this reflects the amounts of time and effort that is put in to running their games and profit is usually reinvested in the games for future improvements. It’s difficult to begrudge somebody who is spending hours working every day on a project to want to be recompensed for it. There are many who would like to see some sort of recompense built in to LARP pricing in order to value the work done by organisers and staff, yet at the same time we know that that would make the hobby unfeasible for many players on financial grounds. 

It is sad when there are games which sound fabulous that we have to pass on because they cost to much, but we should remember that that upper limit varies a lot and there are some people that £35 for a day’s event is out of their reach. There is no way we can draw a line that says “this is the upper limit of what people should pay for a LARP”. What we can do is continue to run the games we want to play and to continue to have a grassroots style game community which offers a range of different genres, styles and prices of games that people can choose from. We can also make sure that we don’t think of cheaper games as inferior, both as players and as organisers. There are dozens of games out there in the lower price bands that have been successful and satisfied people’s desire for good roleplay. This means that even if you can’t afford the four day immersive space station LARP with bespoke uniforms, you know you are still able to enjoy quality games that are never lesser and are merely different.