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. 

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