Tuesday 30 August 2011


So I'm still in the States, although our trip is nearly at an end, and in a few days we'll be packing for the long flight back to London. I enjoyed Renovation, the 2011 worldcon, a great deal. Reno was ... well, Reno. I sort of knew what to expect and on that basis I can't say I was disappointed or surprised to any great degree. Las Vegas has never appealed to me (I absolutely don't get the gambling thing, on any level) so the idea of spending time in a downsized Vegas didn't exactly rock my world. But, the worldcon is only ever partly about the physical location. It's the meeting of a community, or a number of marginally overlapping communities, and in my experience the quality of the event spaces and hotels, and ease of transit between them, counts for at least as much as the charms of the host city. In that respect Reno wasn't too bad. I, like most of my colleagues, ended up in the Peppermill, a vast, warren-like resort hotel stuffed with slot machines and bad-taste decor. But, my room was excellent and spacious, it was a manageable walk to the convention center, and I didn't find the heat nearly as oppressive as it had been in LA before my departure. A shuttle bus ran throughout the day, although it mostly managed not to be there when I needed it, but if there wasn't time to walk the taxis were quick and relatively affordable.

Conventions are odd things, and I can easily understand why people either never give them a go, or are put off after one or two bad dealings. My first convention, 1991's Mexicon in Harrogate, was not a particularly joyous experience. I did not know many people and while I'd been published, my handful of stories hadn't yet earned me any kind of name recognition, and certainly not the very minor level of "celebrity" which comes from being an SF pro. Although I met many friendly people, including a number who have remained good friends (and was driven there and back thanks to the kindness of Paul McAuley, who happened to be living near me in St Andrews at the time - we were both writing for Interzone) I still left the convention feeling like an outsider knocking on the door, rather than feeling part of the scene.

I did not return to an SF convention until 2001, by which point I had sold many more stories and had a novel under my belt. It was a vastly different experience. Although still relatively new to the big grown up world of novel publishing, I'd already made enough contacts that it was hard not to walk into a room and spot someone I knew well enough to cadge a pint off. That's been my experience ever since, certainly in the english-speaking world. I've been to foreign conventions where I didn't know anyone at the start, but since I'm usually there as a guest, and therefore being chaperoned, it's not an issue. My wife has often accompanied me to conventions, and still does on occasion, but it's been a while since it was just the two of us, talking to ourselves in one corner of a room.

By the time Reno rolled around - my fifth worldcon - I already had tentative meet-up plans scheduled before I arrived. Before very long I was sitting down with a pint before me, chatting to old and new friends, and not long after that I was into the swing of my program schedule, making sure I was where I needed to be for panels, readings and so on. Since I wasn't attending Renovation as a "guest" writer, my workload was fairly stress-free. As a guest, I often end up delivering talks and these can and do require a large measure of preparation, often weeks in advance. I moderated one panel (the moderator is the one who keeps the panel on track, makes sure everyone has time to talk, takes questions and so on) but that isn't usually too onerous - I normally sit down some time beforehand and scribble some bullet points for discussion in case the conversation flags, but as often as not they aren't needed.

The only part of the con I wasn't looking forward to, in fact, was the Hugo award ceremony. It's a long, long evening and it starts early enough that it's difficult (for me at least) to eat beforehand. There are nibbles at various points in the evening, but also a lot of alcohol, so it's easy to over do it if you're not careful. This time, as well, I had a horse in the race. It was my first Hugo nomination, and a big enough personal deal that it was essentially the reason I was in Reno. I was surprised, in fact, at the number of times I was asked how many of these things I'd lost, as if I had some extensive history of Hugo nominations. Well, no. That was my first, and as far as I was concerned I was going to assume it was just as likely to be my last as well. Now, I didn't think it likely that I was going to walk away with the award. People had liked Troika well enough to nominate it, and there were even some who liked it best of all out of all the novellas, but it was by no means the favorite in what was generally perceived to be a decent set of stories. But, but. We've all seen awards go to stories that were not the favorites, or even the next-best favorites. So - for myself, at least - while you try to chill out and convince yourself that you can't possibly win and therefore need not get nervous as the winning announcement draws near, there's always that small voice at the back of your head that says, but it could still happen. So for me, award ceremonies are a combination of anticipation, discomfort, terror, and (generally speaking) the quiet let-down as the moment passes and it becomes clear that, no, you haven't won. There's an element of disappointment, but it doesn't last too long and I can't say I've ever lost an award to a writer or work I genuinely disliked. Losing the novella category was perhaps more of a let-down that it would normally have been, given that it was the last of three awards that Troika had been shortlisted for (it had lost the Locus and Sturgeon awards earlier in the summer). But, you know, no biggie. The whole shebang - the ceremony, the party afterwards, the treatment of the nominated writers - was faultless, in my experience. Hell, I even got a nice laminated certificate and a neat brushed-steel kaleidoscope to take home. So, no complaints from me.

As to the bigger question - was the whole Reno trip worth it? That's no easier to answer than it ever is. As mentioned, I've been to five worldcons now. Four were on different continents, and the one that took place in Europe was also in a different country to me. Like most of the people who show up, I'm there on my own ticket. That's a long-haul plane flight, hotel accommodation before and after the con (as a jetlag sufferer, I'm not going to the States, particularly not the west coast, for anything less than a couple of weeks) as well as the basic cost of membership and accommodation at the con itself. That's a lot of money. Is it worth it? I'm attending the worldcon because I enjoy the immersion in that community, the discussions, the meetings with old and new friends. But that's only part of it. I'm also there to promote myself as a writer, to (hopefully) reach a few new readers, booksellers and other industry insiders. Speaking for myself, it's much harder to judge whether or not that investment is really cost-effective. Because, aside from the purely monetary side of it, which is not small beer by any means, there's also the fact that I'll be lucky to get any writing done while I'm on the road. Yes, there are writers who can work anywhere, anytime. I don't think I'm particularly precious about my working habits but I'm not one of those. Give me a day in a hotel and I might get something done, but the odd hour here and there just doesn't cut it. Not when I'm also trying to get the gym, fight jetlag, deal with the hundred and one minor complications of being abroad (In my case this included forgetting to pack my driving license). But it's not just the lost time while I'm away - it's the time spent preparing for the trip, the time spent recovering. The last phase of productive writing for me was early August, and I doubt that I'll get back into the swing of things until a good week into September, given that I'll be hit just as thoroughly with jetlag on the return leg. So: it's a big, gaping hole out of my year, and last year I did two big conventions, both of which needed intercontinental travel. Yeah, pity poor me, forced to endure the glamorous jetset lifestyle of the internationally published novelist. Honestly, there are elements of it that I never stop enjoying, and I'm grateful for what SF has given me. Realistically, though, I'm still not at all sure that the time and effort of attending the big cons are justified in terms of maintaining or expanding my profile. That doesn't mean I'd stop going - there's still the friends and community side of the equation, the mere fact of being able to talk SF with people who care as deeply about it as I do - but it does give one pause for thought. That said, I suspect that I go through these contortions every time I come back from a big con, and I don't doubt that I'll be going through them again, this time next year, after Chicago. I hope to be there.


  1. Well I'm certainly glad you go to this effort. I still think about Aussiecon where I was able to steal a few minutes of your time. I managed this feat also with the incomparable Robert Silverberg, China Mieville, Cory Doctorow, Sean McMullen and Greg Benford (I was chatting to his missus first unbeknownst when he just rocked up). It was all very cool stuff and has had a lasting impression on me nearly a year later. Plus, you also got to meet me! Ha, ha!
    But more importantly, you guys give a first hand insight into SF and other related subjects, you get to flex your grey matter and show your fans the human side of a writer which may then translate in other people 'getting the bug' to write. I started writing again after Aussiecon and haven't looked back!
    Dave from downunder

  2. Christopher Moag31 August 2011 at 00:54

    Oh man, Chicago next year!

    After roughly 5 years in Chicago, I am moving to Edinburgh in 7 days to study for the next ten months. The Worldcon is the only thing not depressing about possibly having to return!

  3. Dave: meeting readers is always a delight, especially given the solitary habits of the typical writer. I enjoyed chatting, too.

    Christopher: I'm a huge fan of Chicago (although not sure what I'll make of it in August) but Edinburgh is a wonderful city. Enjoy your stay...

  4. Youre one of the best out there and I've read a few! Awards and baubles are fine and well but I can see it's the craft that drives you. I worked at a couple of world cons back in the day for Glasgow Tourist office and get when you mean about the atmosphere. It's always great to meet your heroes. Though take a leaf from Harry Harrisons book and don't sell the film rights to a book to the wrong person! He told me he's still smarting at what they did to "make room make room" ( aka Soylent Green) even 40 years later. No surprise he ever gave yp the "stainless steel rat " then... Keep up the sterling output,