Tag Archives: con report

Virtual congoing

Last weekend was a bank holiday in the UK and Memorial Day in the States. Once upon a time would have that meant Baycon, Fanime, Clockwork Alchemy, and more would all be running at the same time, and I’d be popping between at least two of them and hearing rumours and news from the rest. Obviously that ended once I moved to the UK, but the muscle memory is still there, and I still had the vicarious enjoyment from social media and the occasional text.

This year, all of the above have been postponed anyway. But a few cons elsewhere decided to move online, including Baltic-on. They aren’t the first events to go virtual, but they do seem to be among the first sff cons to deploy a true multi-platform attempt to replicate as much of the convention experience as possible.

I’ve never been to Baltimore, but a couple of friends alerted me to the Virtual Balticon Facebook page and it looked interesting, especially with CoNZealand on the horizon.

I went to the website and found it well laid out, with all the relevant information front and center, a good starting sign. So I made a nominal donation, enough that I didn’t feel like a total ghost but not so much I’d feel ripped off if it was all a bit of a fizzle.

The basics;

The big events like opening ceremonies and masquerade were on Twitch and Youtube, as was the Film Festival. The Zoom panels were recorded and I believe at least some broadcast too, the convention is working on getting the rest up once the captioning is tidied up. I had vague plans to stay up for the masquerade, which was at 1am my time, but decided against it. It turned out to be less than 15 minutes long so that was the right choice. I am glad they did one, but it seems like an area that might need some developing for the current conditions.

Panels, readings, and similar were on Zoom, with advance audience sign up. They had two separate text chats; Q&A and general chatter. I mainly signed up for literary ones and found them overall good. As with any con the quality of panelists and moderators was variable, but I learned later that both panelists and moderators had to do a run through in advance, to make sure they were comfortable with the basics and that their technology would stand up to the task. I wonder if this also helped everyone focus a bit as well and weed out the “I don’t know why I am on this panel/I forgot I was on this panel and did zero prep” tendencies. Technical issues were minimal, there were spirited after-panel discussions (more on which later). I was also amused to see the “wall of books” panelist trick replicated in the form of a Zoom background.

The heart of any convention, the socialising, was mostly on Discord. This is where I spent the bulk of my time. The advantages being that it is primarily text-chat, so you can dip in and out and access it on all devices. The convention had set it up such that after joining their Discord server you were funnelled through some welcome channels that explained both Discord itself and the Balticon set up. The absolute first step was to read and agree to the Code of Conduct, with relevant links and contacts, and only then were you allowed onto the rest of the channels.

The next section let you select the areas of interest, so your list wasn’t cluttered with irrelevant stuff. So for example the gaming room did not exist for me, just like at a regular con! This section also included information specific to vendors, artists, and fan tables, plus a link to the info desk.

Done with all that, you could see the full set up, divided into sections;

General Discord: Announcements, Discord Help, a Virtual Map the local discord server, of all the convention resources and platforms, plus useful things like timezones. The info desk was well staffed but I found this very useful to refer back to.

General Balticon 54 channels; consuite, bar, filking, info desk, volunteers, watch parties, and a couple of other areas of specific interest like a Second Life change;

Below that the rest of the sections as chosen, so mine included the Dealers, Artist Alley, Fan Tables, and After Panel Discussions.

The dealers and artists sections replicated the big room with individual booths experience by having a general chat for each section and then individual ones for each vendor/artist. This allowed for general socialising and announcements, while also letting booths post without getting lost to the scroll. It also meant you could pop by a booth and leave a question even if the vendor was away at the moment.

The fan tables seemed to be one of the busiest sections, probably because they usually had someone staffing the room and eager to talk most of the day. Second to them were the after-panel discussions, they had one channel per track (gaming, literary, fan interest, etc) and therefore doubled as general chat rooms after the panel-specific conversations died down.

Finally, each text channel had a voice chat equivalent. The voice icons are easy to miss so this was a bit confusing at first, I wish Discord did colour coding or something, but it ended up being a really nice option, I had some nice chats in the Glasgow and Discon III rooms. These spaces were much quieter though, aside from technical constraints, text is asynchronous, so it’s obviously much easier to have a text channel open in case anyone wanders in. Paying attention to an empty voice channel is less fun. I wonder if this is a place it would be useful to deploy volunteers, just send out pairs of extroverts to bounce around having conversations until rooms were self-sustaining, then flit off to the next place. Hmmm.

Some of the fan tables held Zoom parties in the evenings too, I only found out on Sunday and of course timezones are tricky, but I managed a couple of hours in the Discon III one on Sunday at 8pm EST. It was nice and chill, but I get the impression that the prime ones were jumpin’.

Beyond all this there was filking, watch parties, gaming using Tabletop Simulator and Roll20, and Balticon Station in Second Life.

It’s obviously not the same as the real thing, but it’s also actually pretty great. I wouldn’t have been attending a convention this weekend otherwise, so my perspective is skewed by that. But it’s made me very hopeful for what CoNZealand can achieve.

Ytterbium – Eastercon 2019

This year, Eastercon was at the Park Inn Heathrow, right by the airport. My very first Eastercon was also at Heathrow, just down the road at a different hotel. That year I was incredibly jet lagged, which seriously affected my enjoyment of the con (and let’s be honest, the con’s enjoyment of me). I’m happy to report that the Park Inn experience was vastly superior!

John and I arrived early afternoon on Friday and as soon as we stepped of the bus we ran into Hanna Hakkarainen, also on her way to the con, always a good way to start a convention. As we crossed the road to our hotel, I noticed a few people in badges wandering past.

Choosing to not be at the main hotel is always a bit of a risk, but it worked out nicely; the Renaissance was nice and the ten-minute walk entirely reasonable.  What really made it work, though, was that there was a small group of us staying there, so we had an excuse to start each day with breakfast together, which is not only fun but a good incentive to start the day promptly at 9am (gosh).

We unpacked, tidied up, and hustled over to pick up our badges. The Fishlifters were staffing the reg desk and soon we were chatting and perusing the Readme. The con provided pretty rainbow lanyards with no specific branding, which I rather liked, but we’d brought our lightsabre lanyards from Star Wars Celebration. (I’m happy to report convention made a point of collecting their lanyards at the end of the weekend to donate to another con). There was also a table of buttons for pronouns, invisible disabilities, and approachability levels (green, yellow, red – the green ones ran out almost immediately). 

A good UK fannish tradition is having the souvenir book and the Readme as separate documents. The Readme has all the relevant information; hours, maps, code of conduct, etc. We skimmed that, checking for nearby restaurant options and trying to puzzle out the hotel floorplan. 

Like many UK con hotels, the Park Inn is a warren of corridors splitting off at angles. Entering the lobby from the street, the hotel bar is to the right; tall tables, some couches, and lots of good nooks and crannies for a quiet chat, but this space is ignorable for all other purposes. All the con space is on the right, in what the floorplan calls the Orbiter Center; just past the hotel restaurant a short corridor leads to a widened hallway containing Info, Registration, and Fan Tables – toilets conveniently located right there on one side. This little hub is nicely placed to spill into as long as people keep it moving (and everyone mostly did). A few steps further on; Art Show, Dealer’s Snug (more on this later) on the left and on the right the Fan Bar. 

The excellent Eastercon fan bar is a selection of real ale (plus a handful of ciders) brought in by the convention with the help of the hotel. In this case the beer boxes lined half a wall of the large room while another side was occupied by a basic hotel bar to purchase drink tickets and get a pint glass from (plus sodas, snacks, etc). As mentioned above, the main programme room/ballroom doors open out onto this space – so if you attended any of the main events, or if you wanted beer (most British fans do), or just a place to chill, you would eventually find yourself here. For me conventions work best this way, when there is one spot where if you wait long enough eventually you encounter every member of the con (except perhaps some hardy souls toiling away in Ops).

Finally, between the lobby and the main con space one long corridor heads deep into the interior of the hotel to the Aviator Centre. Along the corridor are rooms containing a one to three dealers each, a clever supplement to the smallish Dealer’s “Snug”. At the end of the corridor, past all the dealers you can find Ops and the Green Room, and then to the right it widens into a space surrounded by additional programming rooms.

One cool thing about the Park Inn is the aerospace theme, as you may have sussed out from the names mentioned so far. The Orbiter Centre rooms are all named for shuttles; the Dealers Room is in Endeavour, the Art Show in Altantis, and the big programming room Discovery. Meanwhile in the Aviator Centre the space theme continues with Armstrong and Johnson, but also includes early aviation; Wright, Earhart, and others are represented not just by room names but by colourful murals – which sadly I failed to photograph.

Our first order of business was Opening Ceremonies, where the guests were presented with very snazzy bedazzled tee shirts of the Ytterbium logo. The other highlight was the UK in 2024 Worldcon bid announcing Glasgow as its venue, and a very cool new logo.

The rest of my weekend was entirely open, but John was scheduled to be on multiple panels each day, including one Friday afternoon. We had a nice little wander through the art show and dealers, and then I left him in the Green room and I headed off attended a talk by Val Nolan about director Neil Jordan. Turns out Jordan is also a novelist; I was entirely unaware of this part of his career and look forward to checking out his novels.

I popped back to the room for quick nap and changed for the evening, then after some confusion joined the Renaissance gang back to the hotel for a pretty decent burger and a beer. Some folks stayed for dessert, but I was eager to head back for the first night of the con. The primary danger of a second hotel is lingering comfortably and letting the convention slip by without you.

There was a DJ dance, and as usual I popped between dancing and chatting. Apparently, the Dublin and DC 2021 Wordlcon bids took over the real ale bar and Discovery ballroom, though to be honest it was a bit hard to tell that was what was happening unless you were paying attention, which I wasn’t. 

Around 1am I packed it in for the night, drunk-hungry as I walked back to the hotel. I texted John on the topic and he suggested kebab… I was already back at the hotel by this point, but that word made me u-turn right back to the Park Inn. I met him and Tobes there and we determined the closest kebab was closed. I shamefacedly admitted that, actually, I was tempted by McDonalds. John has never been happier as in that moment, he’s been waiting close to a decade to hear me say that. It didn’t change my mind on the topic of their food quality, but it was a nice bonding experience all the same.


Saturday morning we tried and failed to get to the Science in Movies panel by Rachael Livermore, I caught the end of it, and maybe even learned something, even if it was just that the good science isn’t always where you expect it (but the bad science mostly is). John got roped into staffing the Glasgow table for a bit and had some gaming panels after that, I went to the one about collectible card games and it was a lot of fun.

We both went to see Scalzi be interviewed by Emma Bull. Bull’s approach is a good fit to the loose charming Scalzi interview style. He’s always a good guest, consciously approachable, not humble in the traditional sense but self-effacing in that his confidence is also self-aware – and with an interesting breath of knowledge from his years as a film critic and later as president of SFWA. 

We saw him again shortly afterwards for the Paranoid Politics and Fantasy panel, which was good, but as I kind of expected it was much more about the politics and a lot less about the fiction. 

At 7pm it was time for the FAAAN FUND AUCTION, the highlight of Eastercon (probably). This year it was in an odd little nook, the Tereshkova room; right at the end of the corridor just past the main reg/art show/fan bar section. It worked out really well though, with just enough seating, a layout that permitted a bit of moving around, and a door-less space so folks could drift in and out without commitment. The auction was a lot of fun and raised over a grand for the various fan funds. I took home a Croatian SF Con tee shirt and a pavlova making kit. John got a whole bunch of Star Wars swag.

We met up with Tobes again and ventured offsite for dinner, aiming for fish and chips but landing on a pub called The Pheasant, which was very good indeed. I had a rack of lamb while John enjoyed a luscious pie the size of his head.

After the dance slowed down I decided to pop over to the film programme, I had meant to go earlier and wish I had now, but I did catch a decent low budget Nigerian zombie movie called OJUJU –  it started a bit slower and talkier that I would have liked, but once it got going I enjoyed it. The director, CJ Obasi, also has a newer short film called Hello, Rain which is based on a Nnedi Okorafor short story and an upcoming project about a water spirit, so definitely someone to keep an eye on genre-wise.


Sunday’s first panel was Sydney Padua’s GOH interview by Tade Thompson. Padua is another delightful guest, full of anecdotes, and ebullient when speaking on topics she is enthusiastic about. I was vaguely aware that she worked in animation but not that it is her main career, or that she started out on The Iron Giant. 

The next panel I saw was about African/Afro-Caribbean SFF, Geoff Ryman moderating with Sharon Lewis, director of the Nalo Hopkinson adaptation Brown Girl Begins, and author Ezeiyoke Chukwunonso. It was interesting in general and specifically touched on an aspect of breaking into English-speaking (and other language generally) markets for translations that I had not considered; even if an author writes in English or has a work translated, you still ideally want editor familiar with the origin language/culture to spot typos or errors. Zen Cho later made the same point on a different panel later, mentioning a typo she made in a Malaysian word which of course her English editor couldn’t spot before publication.

I was back in the room shortly after for a talk; ‘A Brief History of the Ancient Worlds of Greece and Rome in the Cinema’ by Dr Tony Keen., which was the BSFA lecture. The original lecturer had been unable to make it, no official reason that I can find but apparently, enragingly, something to do with the hostile environment policy.

On a happier note, the substitute talk was quite fun; aside from a fun overview of an aspect of film history it did illustrate an interesting point by the lecturer; cinema goes to the Romans for history and the Greeks for Myth. I suspect there are many reasons, but he suggests one in particular which I kind of agree with; the fashion. That is, most ancient men in this climate region wore skirts, and to the modern Western eye that doesn’t quite look right. With Romans we make up for it by being over-the-top masculine, focusing on the warlike and sexually aggressive gritty historical. For the Greeks we have to go full fantasy.

A wander through the Dealer’s Snug yielded another two used paperbacks; Geoff Ryman’s The Warrior Who Carried Life and a replacement copy of Richard Adam’s Shardik – a book I used to re-read every few years, and was recently reminded of after seeing some wonderful Tehani illustrations inspired by it.

I met up with John and we headed to the Mechanical Computing, with Padua, Susan Stepney, Tom Briggs, and moderated by Nicholas Jackson. It touched on the Antikythera mechanism, the Colossus machine, and of coyrse Babbage’s Anatlytical Engine. Padua has some fascinating Maia illustrations of the machine, which she pointed out is actually the good one – the Difference Engine being much simpler but having the cooler sounding name.

By the end our brains were full but our stomachs were empty so we met up with the Fishlifters and a couple of friends, and headed across the road for a pub dinner at the Three Magpies.

The pub is notorious for consistently underestimating fannish crowds and running out of things. This year was no exception, plus the poor chef came down with something, so we were the last order to get served before he had to go to the hospital! We took our chances but to my knowledge it wasn’t contagious. Dinner was decent, not as good as the Pheasant but better than McDonalds, for whatever that’s worth.

Afterwards the gang headed back to the Park Inn while John and I popped back to the hotel to freshen up for the night, the big event being Robin and Kylie’s Wedding & Disco. I took longer than John, as always, and got back in time to see the first dance, which was lovely – the couple looked radiantly happy.

I danced on and off for the next few hours, popping in and out to chat with folks, and generally had a good ol’ time.


Monday we woke up for our last 9am breakfast buffet with the gang and planned our day. All of the 11:30 panels looked good, so I picked the Chrononauts, primarily because Zen Cho was on it, and her Sorcerer to the Crown was one of my favourite books of last year. It was fun, aptly moderatd by Virginia and with a nice selection of panellists with different perspectives and approaches – from the more serious minded Stewart Hotston to Cho’s thoughtful but fun-loving approach and Patrick Samphire focusing on the younger set. 

John joined me for the Future of Space Opera, with Scalzi, Aliette de Bodard, Zoe Sumra, moderated by Mel Mercer. It was good, though it didn’t delve much into the actual future. 

We grabbed curry at Sovereign, a corner market cunningly hidden behind a billboard, so despite it’s proximity and inclusion in the restaurant guide I had entirely missed it. Which is a shame, because they had a deli counter with sandwiches and excellent cheap curries, plus a few tables should you want to eat in. This on top of the actual grocery selection (and obligatory wall of London souvenirs)

We hurried back for Closing Ceremonies, which was packed. The guests were thanked, the Doc Weir award for excellence in volunteering given to Jamie Scott, and the festivities culminated in a standing ovation for Judi Hodgkin, who was the original chair of the convention before life circumstances changed everything and who is moving to Australia. It was very emotional.

We all filed out and started the traditional slow round of farewells. We found most, but not all, of the people we wanted to say bye to, made promises to see folks at Novacon/Satellite/Eastercon/Worldcon and then stepped out into the sun.

Novacon 47

his was my first Novacon, and I didn’t really know what to expect. John had warned me it was small with a single track of programming, and it was that, but it was also well designed for the space it occupies so despite being around 200 people it never felt constricted or claustrophobic.

The Park Inn has seen better days but still manages to be friendly and comfortable, and has the advantage of being on a street with multiple pubs and restaurants in reasonable walking distance for most folks. I didn’t get to see a lot of Nottingham on this trip but there are some gaming and comics shops also a short distance away and the city looked worth adding a day to next year’s trip for some exploration.

We arrived at around 4:30pm, a couple of hours before Opening Ceremonies. This gave us time to unpack and hang art, John had brought TAFF donated art and I had some new flat pieces as well as a few folding fans. The show was larger than I expected for the convention size and I ended up selling a fan and two pieces, so that was a pleasant surprise.

One of the advantages of a smaller event is you get to actually spend time with just about everyone you want to. By the evening I had at least said hello to everyone I already knew who was there, but as I am still a newcomer to local fandom there were plenty of folks to meet for the first time, or to have my first proper conversation with.

John and I braved the cold to get supplies from the Co-op down the street, then enjoyed some wine at the book launch party for Dogs of War, the new book by GOH Adrian Taichovsky. We stood around, chatted, and drank wine until we got peckish, then popped down the street to a place called The Cod’s Scallops. It’s a very cute upmarket fish & chips place decorated in a retro English seaside resort theme, all striped cushions and saucy postcards. They had a table service section but the prices are higher there so we chose to head back to the hotel with a ridiculous amount of battered fish (monkfish for me, seabass for John), a huge portion of chips, plus some extras like scallops, cockles, and fried black pudding. Our little hotel room smelled of fish for the rest of the night but it was worth it and we were well fortified for the ensuing night of drinking.

We chatted with the usual suspects in the bar till around eleven thirty when we started to fade and seriously considered going up to bed, but we ran into Jo Playford who helped us rally a bit longer so we eventually got to bed at a sensible but not embarrassing hour with our dignity intact.

Our first hotel breakfast on Saturday was pretty good despite truly terrible coffee, bad enough I didn’t finish my first cup. Like many hotels the Park Inn has installed those little coffee machines that produce bad coffee and do it slowly, inconveniencing both the customers who have to stand in line and the staff who has to manoeuvre around the people blocking the floor, and maintain the stations as well as take care of tables. (I dislike them, in case you can’t tell)

Still, it was a good breakfast and we got in some quality chat time with Fran Dowd as well before heading off to check out the art show and the dealer’s room. The former had a few tempting pieces and a lot of artists I am not personally familiar with, which is always nice. The later was mostly books and convention tables, plus a cool jewerly vendor.

At noon there was an excursion to a nearby pub called The Lincolnshire Poacher, which was warm and cozy with a nice beer selection. We spent an hour or so there and then left folks to their pub lunches while we took advantage of the hotel pool and sauna.

Then it was time for the first programming item I was excited about; The Rise of African SFF

Moderated by Geoff Ryman, editor of 100 African Writers of SFF it had three authors on it; Ezeiyoke ChukwunonsoMasimba Musodza, and Nick WoodTosin Coker was also listed but did not appear, sadly making it an all-male panel. But it was a good one all the same, Chukwunonso in particular had some interesting points to make about afrofuturism, African SFF, African diaspora SFF, and how they relate to each other – there was a lot to chew over there and some points I had not considered. There was a handy printed reading/resource list provided by the African Speculative Fiction Society, and after the discussion ended the authors all did short readings.

The next stop was the bar for conversation and beer, of course. We chatted till dinnertime, then found Claire and Mark and attempted to find Tobes – who ironically turned out to be on a panel about food! He promised to join us once that wrapped up so the four of us headed over to Royal Thai down the street, it was the only place that had a table for five available but fortunately it also turned out to be really good. Tobes joined us eventually and we had a nice relaxed meal.

Back at the hotel I got changed and made it back down just in time to take advantage of the free bar generously provided by some mysterious anonymous fan. Then it was time for the Pub Quiz, which was a lot of fun, though by the end of the two hours it had gotten rather chaotic and I had stopped remembering little things like book titles, author names, my own name. We eventually spilled out into the bar and spent the rest of the night chatting. I switched to wine until the bottle ran out and then as the bar was long since closed, the resourceful Ellie Winpenny provided vodka. At around three am I left the remaining souls and staggered off to bed.

In the morning John literally dragged me out of bed for breakfast, which I put down to the inferior quality of the duvets at this hotel and their inability to really get a grip on when you need it. Still, breakfast was necessary and I eventually forgave him. We vaguely considered attending programming but ended up at the pool instead for another lovely soak and swim.

Thus refreshed we packed our suitcases and left them at reception so we could enjoy the last few hours of our convention. Follycon hosted a tea party, with biscuits and muffins as well as far superior coffee to what the hotel had provided so far. Afterwards we picked up our remaining art and the cash for our sales, one of the things I love about UK conventions is the fact that they pay up on the spot rather than after the convention.

The last hurrah before we left was Doug Spencer’s Recycling The Redshirts talk. It was about ST:TOS, its unfortunate death count, and also cannibalism. It was both informative and odd, and a pretty good way to end the convention for us.

We said what goodbyes we could and then disappeared into the chilly Nottingham night.

(Old post recovered from Dreamwidth)