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AltFiction 2012

One of my favourite UK conventions is AltFiction, a relatively small event based in the East Midlands and focusing more than most on writing and writers. I first attended last year, when it took place in Derby, but this year it moved to what I understand will be its regular venue in future, the Phoenix Arts Centre in Leicester. The convention is a day and a half long (all day Saturday, plus Sunday morning), with a packed programme of events.

My first day at the convention was pretty quiet – I had no panels or other appearances booked for Saturday – so I was free to mooch around, attend a couple of talks, and most importantly, catch up with a bunch of friends I had missed at Eastercon. In fact it was surprising how many Eastercon attendees managed to make it to another convention only a week later, especially given that many of them had been adamant a few weeks before that they couldn’t possibly do two conventions in a row! I think it’s a testament to the affection in which AltFiction is held that people turn up when they could be have a well-earned weekend at home.

The first panel I attended was “Not another f*cking elf!”, in which Paul Cornell, Emma Newman, Adrian Tchaikovsky and Jenni Hill debated the well-worn fantasy races and how attitudes to them had changed over the years. It was entertaining and occasionally quite erudite, and the only downside was that many people had to be turned away as it was held in a tiny room with only about two dozen chairs. This turned out to be a significant problem of the venue – the huge size difference in rooms meant that the large one might be sparsely populated whilst the small one was overflowing. I’m sure the organisers tried to predict which panels would be most popular, but people can be contrary!

The afternoon panels were less successful. I went to one on genre TV which mostly discussed one-off mini-series that I’d never seen, pretty much ignoring all the big-name shows. Whilst I appreciate that shows like Doctor Who may have been discussed to death in other conventions, a panel that focused on British SFF shows and their mainstream appeal, and then totally ignored the success of Life on Mars and Being Human in favour of obscure titles, failed in my opinion to entertain – and I have to say that I blame the moderator, Steve Volk, for the narrow focus of the discussion. The other panel, writing as a day-job, was equally off-topic, in that none of the panelists earned a living as a writer, they simply didn’t have a day-job (for various reasons, such as unemployment). Anyone hoping to quit their day-job would have been better off going to Mark Chadbourn’s “workshop” (really a talk) on the business of writing, but numbers were limited and you had to sign up for it.

The evening passed in usual convention style, i.e. a bit of milling around whilst you and your friends sort out which restaurant you’re going to for dinner, followed by dinner itself (in our case, a good but unremarkable curry) and then back to the hotel bar. Most of us were staying at the Ramada Encore, only a few minutes’ walk from the venue – it was modern, clean and not too expensive, although the tea (at breakfast and in the bedrooms) was as terrible as one usually expects from a three-star hotel. Much better tea – and very reasonably-priced, good quality food – was available at the venue itself.

Although there were few book stalls, and none selling The Alchemist of Souls, I was asked to sign a few copies that had been brought along by friends. It was great to finally get to meet people I’d previously only known online, including book blogger Erik Lundqvist and my newest beta reader, Fatihah Iman.

The convention resumed late on Sunday morning, and I had a panel at noon on diversity in fantasy, with Mark Charan Newton, Adrian Tchaikovsky and Sarah Cawkwell. Mark was our moderator and came well-prepared with a long list of notes and questions on his iPad, and under his guidance our discussion covered a whole gamut of topics – gender, sexuality and race – with regard to the books themselves, the authors and the fans. The panel was well-attended and seemed to go down well with the audience, and for me made a satisfying end to a short but sweet convention.

Next year, thankfully, AltFiction will be in late May, thus avoiding butting up against Eastercon, which will make it even more of a must-do convention. See you there?

As an aside, the Discover Festival that was due to take place in Coalville in May has been cancelled by the organiser, so I won’t be in the Midlands again until Edge-Lit in Derby, in July.

Here Be No Dragons

When I was much younger, I loved dragons. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy  and of course The Hobbit were amongst my favourite books. As a teenager I devoured all of Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books. When I got a job as an ecologist-cum-illustrator and had access to an art studio and free batik supplies, one of my first spare-time projects was a huge Chinese dragon that still hangs on my bedroom wall.

And yet somewhere between then and now, my love died. Maybe I just read too many fantasy novels with dragons in them and grew jaded, the way other readers do with elves and dwarves. All I know is, I now avoid books with dragons in them like the plague.

There are two downsides to this. Firstly, I have friends who write books about dragons; Stephen Deas, for example, whom I’ve known since he was a fellow struggling writer. I’d love to be able to say “I’ve read all your books, mate, and they’re brilliant!” — but that would mean reading about d– d– those big mythological reptiles. And there are, to be honest, far too many books in my TBR pile already.

Secondly, and worse, are the books that don’t even mention dragons on the cover but manage to sneak them in nonetheless, often as some kind of draco ex machina (which is maybe the source of my phobia in the first place). One may even be several dragon-free books into a series before the beasts raise their ugly, scaly heads.

To me it feels like the author has run out of cool ideas for the books, or is trying to prop up flagging sales by introducing a popular trope. Maybe that’s a mistaken assumption on my part and the dragons were being kept hidden to increase the impact of their revelation, but there’s often zero foreshadowing, which makes me think not.

I’m currently in two minds about reading the rest of A Song of Ice and Fire, since the “dragon eggs” given to Daenerys in the first book are looking suspiciously real and ripe to hatch. About the only “dragon book” I can still read is Terry Pratchett’s Guards! Guards!, probably because anyone who can come up with a tiny fire-farting dragon named after the father of jet propulsion* deserves my admiration for sheer pun-tastic inventiveness.

So, whilst many of my own projects are still no more than vague glimmerings of inspiration, there is one thing I can guarantee: there will be no living dragons in them. If you find any, you have my permission to have me committed, as I will clearly have lost it.

* in the Discworld, “whittle” is the term for the runt of a dragon litter

Fantasy Noir – a genre for the new millennium?

It’s traditional to begin the New Year with a retrospective post about the previous one, but I thought – why stop there? Why not look back on the whole decade? So, here are my thoughts on what I see as the big fantasy trend of the new millennium.

Over the past ten years, a new sub-genre of fantasy has been gaining ground. Fantasy noir has been aptly described by SF&F website io9 as “magical cities in decay”, a phrase that sums up the combination of urban grime and sleazy glamour perfectly. From Scott Lynch’s Venice-alike Camorre, with its ancient, alien glass bridges over stinking, all-too-mundane canals, to an Elizabethan London haunted by implacable mind-raping fae in Mark Chadbourn’s new series The Swords of Albion, fantasy noir has brought a realistic and deliciously nasty flavour to a genre many outsiders see as a realm of idealised escapism.

Maybe it’s not an entirely new sub-genre – there were fantasy novels set in run-down imaginary cities before now (e.g. the sublime In Viriconium by M John Harrison) but, I think, never so many of them as in the noughties. So what is it that has made noir so popular with editors and readers alike?

One possibility is that modern readers just don’t click with the rural landscapes that dominate much of fantasy. We live in an increasingly technological world, and whilst some may long for the good old days of villages dotted across a wilderness, others may simply find such worlds irrelevant or even “sappy”. Also, describing a wild landscape well takes a lot of writing skill and more importantly, familiarity with the subject. As writers we are always being told “write about what you know” – and what most people know is cities.

Or perhaps it’s simply that, more than half a century after Tolkien, we have just had enough of mountains, forests and castles, of quests, noble knights and dark lords. Yes, there are readers aplenty who still flock to epic fantasy, as the continued success of Robert Jordan/Brandon Sanderson and George R R Martin prove. But for the rest of us, we seek new wonders, new ways to explore the fantastic. And when it comes to TV, we don’t just watch Buffy and Supernatural; we watch CSI, Battlestar Galactica, Deadwood and all the other genres.

To my mind, that’s a defining element of fantasy noir. It’s not just about the rundown cities or the magic, but the introduction of tropes from other genres. The Lies of Locke Lamora is a heist caper; The Sword of Albion is a James-Bond-esque spy thriller. Noir is practically defined by its “mashup” nature, and that’s what our magpie culture loves. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? Why the hell not?

Is genre dead, or at least dying? If it is, fantasy noir is right there in the vanguard. And I for one will be cheering it on and throwing flowers in its path. Vive la revolution!