Nineworlds is, this year, one of the most major convenions in the UK, what with taking place a week before WorldCon in London, and therefore sharing a reasonable proportion of guests and attendees. It’s also a very special convention, especially in a year where the venerable feminist science fiction convention WisCon is being rocked by serious problems around harassment and how to deal with it: Nineworlds is an actively inclusive, progressive, social-justice-oriented convention. With (separate) tracks on Geek Feminism, Race & Culture, and LBGTQAI Fandom on top of the more traditional tracks like All The Books, Doctor Who, Podcasting, Fanfic, Cosplay, Knitting, and Food Geekery (that’s not an exhaustive list of all the tracks on offer), Nineworlds isn’t just a matter of having something for everyone, it’s also looking to have something to *welcome* everyone.
So, my Nineworlds experience.
I went into Nineworlds with a plan for the panels I wanted to see, largely more than one at any one time; my plan didn’t survive contact with the convention, of course, but there was a lot of spontaneous socialisation, which helped! Panels started at 9am on Friday, and I was in one by quarter past after registration; “Archaeological Exploration of Fantasy Worlds”, a fascinating topic, led by H Grünefeld. Unfortunately, Grünefeld’s talk was less about the idea of how archaeology can help us approach fantasy worlds generally, or how the techniques of archaeology can be applied in our reading and writing for a deeper understanding of these worlds, and more about the ideal dig in a series of fantasy worlds including Middle Earth and Westeros; while moderately interesting, I had hoped for a more analytical approach. The Geek Feminism track’s “Geek Culture Needs Feminism Because…” open session was rather glorious; the modified slogan was, of course, on a number of whiteboards for completion and photographing. It was also here that I first ran into Laurie Penny, whose feminist writing I am rather a fan of; I got to shake the (truly diminutive) intellectual powerhouse by the hand. “Suffering Sappho: Queer representations in superhero comics” followed; while an interesting discussion in some respects, and which undoubtedly came out with some great recommendations and fascinating thoughts about why queerness is more commonly found in villains than heroes, the panel largely wandered far and wide without any real moderation or serious engagement with the topic; instead fanfic ideas were more heavily featured than any discussion of existing queer characters and their presentation (for instance, Batwoman or Young Avengers). The “Superheroes and Superhuman: exploding the myth of the superwhathaveyou” panel, featuring among others Stephanie Saulter and Nick Harkaway, was one of the best discursive panels of the weekend; the panellists moved from discussing comic book heroes to the idea of normality, through posthumanism, discussion of what makes a hero (and indeed what makes one super), and the impact of the absolutely out of the ordinary on the everyday. The discussion was brilliantly moderated by Jenni Hill, and it moved from point to point with such a level of intellectual debate and fascinating ideas that it was a real highlight of the con. The evening’s entertainment, by contrast, was less so; “Only A Moment” (or “Just A Minute But The BBC Says We Can’t Call It That”) only works when the participants are all confident, know what they’re doing, and are very up for the silliness of the game. As it was, while Laurie Penny got into the swing of it over the course of the session, the rest of the panelists really didn’t seem terribly up for it, unfortunately. On the other hand, seeing the Bear-and-Lynch show in the bar afterwards was fantastic, the first of a number of times that weekend; both are warm, friendly, funny and interesting people, and excellent conversationalists, with Lynch’s particular strength being his raconteurship.
Speaking of which… but before we get to that, the first panel of Saturday, on “Rule 63: Gender and subversion in history, popular culture and fandom”. Moderated by Alex Dally MacFarlane, who of course has interesting thoughts related to this subject for Tor.com, the discussion felt a little stilted but still interesting, largely looking at the way the idea of Rule 63 reinforces the binary in ugly ways and how that could be fought back against, including the raising of a reworded version replacing “opposite gender” with “different gender”. There was also fascinating discussion of how Rule 63 allows fans to explore gender experiences outside their own that otherwise they might be unable to experience; that tied in brilliantly with personal anecdotes from the panellists themselves. The panel that followed rather threw it into the shade and was the most purely entertaining part of the weekend; “Dragons vs Werewolves vs Vampires vs Warlocks: the ultimate deathmatch smackdown”, with Elizabeth Bear representing dragons, Gail Carriger representing werewolves, Joanne Harris representing vampires, and the effusive Scott Lynch representing (or possibly being one of?) warlocks. In this panel we learned that dragons are the baddest motherfuckers in the valley, werewolves are great if you’re into kinky sex or beastiality, vampires are responsible for all culture ever including the Kardashians, and that warlocks will claim responsibility for everything ever. The panellists were brilliant, and really played off each other, in the most wonderful ways; the joyfulness of the panel really permeated the room brilliantly. After a break from formal conventioning for a few hours, I followed it up with the most impassioned of the panels I attended, “Monsterclass: Post-Colonialism”, led by Fabio Fernandes. The small room when I first arrived was sparsely populated, leading to a little worry on my part; but by the time we started, it was packed to the point of people sitting on the floor, and Geoff Ryman reclining on a sideboard and half-concealed by the whiteboard. Fernandes opened with a brief-ish introduction to the issues, before we had an excellent discussion around the idea of “post-colonial literature”, and the problems with it; Tade Thomson and Rochita Ruiz were particularly fascinating on this point, and Stephanie Saulter’s thoughts about the problems of the monolithic nature of the term given widely varying experiences of colonialism were brilliant. The whole panel made me think in a new, better way about literature from the global South and how we should understand it. Inevitably we then decamped again to the bar, where I continued the discussion with Rochita and Anne Lyle; the beauty of cons is of course that this is possible, and the passionate discussion that ensued (I’m afraid I may have spoken rather too much) was notable for its nuances, especially going on as it did until nearly midnight.
Sunday opened with that most enjoyable of topics… rape. Specifically, a panel titled “Assaulting the Narrative: rape as character motivation”, with panellists who had either written or written about rape; Sophia McDougall, for instance, stated she thought she was there because of her Rape of James Bond post. Mind you, that didn’t mean she had nothing to say, if anything the opposite; McDougall and Cara Ellison, a games writer, dominated much of the discussion which was fantastic, infused with feminism and brilliantly sensitive on the topic. Den Patrick and Tom Pollock, the other participants, also pulled their weight; they let the women speak, but also had points of their own to make, largely about sensitivity and necessity; both acknowledged their limitations in writing about rape, derived in no small part – as McDougall highlighted – from their lack of fear of it. The pace of discussion was brilliant and the thoughts exchanged really give me hope for the death of rape as thoughtless, easy character trope. There was a degree of crossover in the discussion of historical figures in my next panel, too; “Writing Historical Fiction and Fanfic: Is RPF okay when the person is dead?” discussed sensitivity to the individual, to those related to them, but also more broadly to cultural harm. Aliette de Bodard’s raising of the issue of the harm that RPF, historical fiction and similar things can do to other cultures, especially those not largely represented in the mainstream narratives, was powerfully expressed and heartily picked up by the rest of the panel. It was a good, nuanced, thoughtful discussion, and the different media and genre the panellists represented really brought an extra something to the panel. Unfortunately, the same could not be said of “X-Punk: punk as suffix, genre and state of mind”, whose panellists were perhaps rather too inexpert on cyberpunk and steampunk, either in their origins or their current forms, to really discuss anything but the broad-stroke categorisations and the theoretical ideas they held of these. The discussion was rather quotidian, unfortunately, and more about trying to understand what the suffix “punk” does without really looking at how it is used. The last panel of the day provided a good contrast; as a fantasy reader, “Epic Fantasy: the panel of prophecy!” was always appealling, and with Bear, Lynch and Gaie Sebold among the panellists, it also promised significant amusement. And so it delivered; Den Patrick’s moderation, focused heavily on discussion of the tropes of epic fantasy and how the panellists engaged with and used them, meant that the panellists built up an idea of the ur-form of bad epic fantasy, and demolished it utterly. The discussion of tropes was brilliant, and their various dissections by especially Scott Lynch, who has a lot to say on the topic, were hilarious.
And that was my weekend; exhilerating, enjoyable, educational, friendly, and bloody brilliant. Bring on Nineworlds 2015!!!