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Eastercon 66: Fun and Friction in Science Fiction

Wednesday, April 8th, 2015 | Posted by Sean McLachlan

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Last weekend I had the good fortune to attend Dysprosium, the 66th Eastercon, in London. It was only my second big convention and I was impressed by the number of people, dealers, panels, and events. Big cons are definitely my thing!

The convention was held at The Park Inn at Heathrow Airport, which is appropriately decorated with images of aviation and space pioneers. The elevators have glowing plastic panels that change colors and made me feel like I was in an Italian science fiction movie from the 1960s. The con was stretched out. Two large common rooms were connected by a long corridor. This meant that there was no main dealers room. Instead, each dealer had their own room and they took advantage of this by hosting their own events. Elsewhen Press gets my vote for friendliest dealer for offering plenty of friendly chatter, UFO-shaped candies, and several readings. Another dealer hosted a fascinating talk on Malaysian folklore. This worked out well for the guests but I heard more than one dealer complain they felt isolated from other dealers.

Like last year’s Worldcon, which I reported on here, diversity and inclusion was a central theme. Several of the panels reflected this, such as one on Fencing for Writers, in which two women demonstrated various ways to slash and skewer your opponent. They gave several anecdotes about female swashbucklers in the Renaissance. One French lesbian fought numerous duels with men over women and even saved her lover from a nunnery by burning the place down! That’s just begging to be made into a novel. The presenters made the telling point that, “Historians have dismissed these women as exceptions, but when you look at the sources, there are an awful lots of exceptions.”

Another field with an awful lot of exceptions is science. A presentation by TrowelBlazers covered the long history of female participation in archaeology, geology, and palaeontology. Their website has a large and growing database of biographies. Considering how much sexism exists in the sciences today, I can’t imagine what these people had to go through a hundred years ago.

More discussions about diversity were carried on over the con’s #dy66 Twitter hashtag. One black woman complained that there were too many all-white panels. We got to chatting and I suggested we have a meeting in the con’s well-attended Real Ale bar. It’s hard to have an in-depth conversation with 140 characters or less! She said that she didn’t have the energy to address a group of white people about things they need to teach themselves and recommended some places to find more information. One was the excellent People of Color in European Art History, a site I’ve been a long-time fan of for its thorough debunking of the myth of an all-white premodern Europe. The other two were new to me — Media Diversified and Gradient Lair. Useful information, but I still urged her to come since I didn’t want the meeting to be a bunch of white people talking about “the other”.

At this point several people dove into the conversation tweeting to me personally, both on and off the hashtag, saying things like “Read a book.” “Take responsibility for educating yourself.” “Amazingly Black writers have written many books and blog posts.” Apparently having seen a dozen of my tweets had given them an encyclopedic knowledge of my last forty years of reading and the right to judge me. None actually offered any sources. As far as I could tell from their profiles, all of these tweeters were white, adding the disturbing subtext of a group of white people speaking for a black person who was already intelligently (and politely) speaking for herself.

The tweets began to rise in pitch and rudeness. I’ve been cyberbullied before and I’ve found the best way to stop it is to disengage, so I disengaged. I never thought I’d have to deal with this in fandom, though. It soured my Eastercon experience somewhat. We did end up having that meeting, but as far as I know none of the haters bothered to come. The woman I was originally having a conversation with also didn’t come. So yeah, it was a bunch of mostly white people drinking beer and talking about inclusion. That’s better than nothing, I suppose.

This experience was overshadowed by a much larger issue that dominated the last two days of Eastercon. Two groups of conservative fans, the Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies, had voted as a block to get their slates of candidates onto the Hugo ballot. I don’t know nearly enough about this to speak intelligently on the politics involved, and there are already 1,267,984 posts about this issue on the Internet. A good place to start is right here at Black Gate with John O’Neill’s post about his mixed feelings about Black Gate getting nominated, plus a followup post, and Matthew David Surridge’s explanation about why he’s stepping down from his nomination.

At a special meeting, numerous responses were suggested, ranging from the silly (cancel the Hugos) to the workable (educate people about what’s going on) to the wicked (Rabid Puppy slash fiction!). There was much hating on Rabid Puppy leader Vox Day, who I only knew as being the weakest link on last year’s Hugo ballot. Any time a large group of people start hating on someone, I go look them up to see if the hating is justified. And it’s justified. Oh my, is it justified! Just Google the name for an endless supply of appalling statements, or simply go to his website. You’ll find the classic cocktail — equal parts arrogance and ignorance with a dash of unrecognized privilege.

All in all, there was a lot more negativity at this con than I was prepared for, but sometimes negativity is the only way to break through to the positive.

And sometimes the positive comes out of nowhere. Early in the con I talked with a woman who mentioned some YA books that had impressed her. One especially caught my attention as something my son might like. I wrote down the title. She must have noticed me doing that because a couple of days later she came up to me and handed me a copy of the book, saying, “This is for your son.”

That, my friends, is what fandom is all about.


Sean McLachlan is a freelance travel and history writer. He is the author of the historical fantasy novel A Fine Likeness, set in Civil War Missouri, and the post-apocalyptic thriller Radio Hope. His historical fantasy novella The Quintessence of Absence, was published by Black Gate. Find out more about him on his blog and Amazon author’s page.

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