This time last year, I got my first experience of Nine Worlds, a ‘geekfest’—AKA, a SF/F, film, TV, gaming, comic, book, cosplay, fandom, and all-sorts-of-other-things extravaganza that takes place yearly in London. It left me simultaneously invigorated and knackered, and naturally, I couldn’t wait to do it all again. One of the reasons 9W stands head and shoulders above the crowd is its inclusiveness, and they do what they can to extend this to affordability by having a monthly payment plan, which I signed up to as soon as I heard about it.
This year’s fest took place from 4-6 August, and Thursday morning saw me on the Megabus bright and early, though I decided to forego the evening’s Cheese and Cheese and intro quiz events in favour of catching up with an old friend and taking advantage of the ginormous veggie burgers at Mildred’s in Camden.
Anyway. On to the panels.
I started the day with Katherine Hubbard’s paper on The Goddamned Queers of Watchmen. As a huge fan of both Ozymandias (best villain? best villain) and the Silhouette, I wasn’t entirely convinced by the idea of a paper on queerness in Watchmen centring on Rorschach, but Hubbard drew out the longstanding entanglements of psychology and the pathologizing of queer identities, and the whole thing made for a fascinating hour. There’s a more detailed writeup here on Bleeding Cool, if you’re interested. (You should be.)
Next up I headed to the very popular panel on Police and the Supernatural: Law Enforcement Professionals’ View of Urban Fantasy. Despite laying to rest some of my cherished illusions about Rivers of London (*sob*), there was some sensible advice for those of us trying to combine crime with the supernatural—essentially, police forces have press departments: use them—along with a warning that policing changes so fast that however hard you try to get it right, you’ll probably be at least a bit wrong by the time your book makes it to print. An audience member brought up the issue of tensions between the police and the communities they exist to serve, and the panel seemed to agree that this was something they’d like to see represented more often.
A hurried lunch, and then it was time for An Introduction to the Queen of Cyberpunk (I mean, I knew Pat Cadigan was awesome, but damn, she’s awesome), and Toxicity in Fandom, which may not have said anything particularly new, but articulated some of the issues with present-day media fandom pretty succinctly. Fans whose entitlement leads them to lash out at creators and other fans can also be some of the most engaged consumers, so trying to leverage their passion leaves creators walking a difficult line. Most fandom toxicity comes from a place of privilege, but there was also an acknowledgement that some bullying appropriates the rhetoric of social justice and uses it to attack fans who are themselves marginalised.
I took a break to hide in my room and scream into a pillow get over my nerves before putting on my academic hat for the Twisted Tales: The Darker Side of Fairytales panel, organised by Karen Graham, and featuring Chris Wooding, Charlie Oughton, Sandie Mills, and yours truly. There was a lot to get through—I’m sure we could have talked for another hour—and I got to briefly ramble about one my pet subjects, the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, but Charlie’s storytelling was undoubtedly the highlight.
After breathing a giant sigh of relief, I decided to head to one more panel before calling it a day, and Nine at Nine Worlds: Nine Tropes on the fanworks track was just the absurdist fun the doctor ordered. Maybe all fanworks should have puppets?
My first port of call was Melissa F. Olson’s session on How to Write a Location You Can’t Go To, for future reference rather than because of anything I’m writing right now. It was a smart, funny, accessible talk, and I picked up one of Melissa’s books at the bookshop afterwards. Even if she did call the UK ‘England’ *chippy Welsh grumbling*.
Next came From Fanfic to Book Contract and Beyond! Like panellist Penny Armstrong, my experience of fandom is mostly from the LiveJournal/Tumblr/AO3 side of things, where the first rule of Fan Club is you do not talk about Fan Club. I never knew that WattPad was such a big thing—or that there are publishers who actively encourage fan writers to capitalise on their followings, as Taran Matharu mentioned. Roz Kaveney spoke about her fairly idiosyncratic experience of navigating the two worlds, and how writing Buffy femslash reinvigorated her original fic. And really, who can argue with that?
I took a break before heading back for Creating Original Dystopia in a Somewhat Dystopian World—because when one looks at the news these days, it’s difficult to imagine anything scarier. (Pat Cadigan: “I ever promised you flying cars, I promised you a technological dystopia. How d’you like it?”) There aren’t many real answers to the problem, and the panel ended up being a space for discussing how dystopian fiction can be as much escapist fantasy as social commentary, as well as plenty of general lamenting.
Ageism in Fanworks Fandom came next, something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately, given the prevalence of comments about ‘gross old women’ in some segments of fandom. The notion that women should become invisible at a certain age—one which gets continually lower—is, like most prejudices, just as pervasive in geek circles as the rest of society, and when it combines with misogyny and sex-shaming, it can lead to some very nasty behaviour.
Lastly, I headed off to The Shoggoth in the Room: Problematic Aspects in Historical Media, about which I expected to have some strong opinions, given the title. Actually, the panel ended up mostly discussing fairly recent media, which was fine, but left the Lovecraft scholar in me itching for some meatier discussion of how the prejudices in historical works often continue to shape the SF/F and horror we see today.
First up was Why Whedon Matters, an enjoyable hour of fangirl- and -boying, though one that didn’t really acknowledge any of the more problematic aspects of his work, and then Promiscuous Unicorns – Depictions of Bisexuality in SFF. I’ll admit that I cringed a little when one of the panellists came out with the ‘everyone’s a little bit bisexual’ line. It’s fine—no, it’s awesome—to default to writing one’s characters as bi, but as a general statement, that both erases hard fought-for gay and lesbian identities, and diminishes the identities of bi people as a distinct group who face distinct prejudices. There also seemed to be a distinct split along age and gender lines around terminology, with the older panellists preferring not to label characters’ sexualities explicitly, while the two younger speakers wanted to hear characters identify clearly as bi. The issue of labelling sexuality in settings where present-day vocab came up, and yes, it may be a bit of challenge—but I’m still pretty sure it’s possible to make a character explicitly bi without vague waffling about how it’s all just love anyway if one really wants to.
Before getting ready to head home, I headed to one last event, the roundtable on A Study in Redemption: Character Arcs in our Fandoms. Apparently, this was a companion to the earlier Redemption in Science Fiction panel, which I didn’t go to, but which a number of the other attendees had found disappointing. I was a little dubious about what I was going to find here. Personally, I love a good redemption arc, but there’s nothing more disappointing than a half-arsed one. At the same time, there’s a near-evangelical drive in some circles of modern media fandom to reject characters who’ve done bad things as utterly irredeemable, and to suggest that anyone who’d like to see them improve themselves is an apologist for the bad things they’ve done. Luckily, there was none of the latter on display here—just thoughtful discussion of when redemption works (short answer, when the characters work for it); when it doesn’t; and the ways in which characters of colour can be failed by narratives and audiences that don’t offer them opportunities for vulnerability and redemption. I’m sure this one could have continued for another hour, too, and it was a real high note on which to leave.
Of course, the panels aren’t the only thing to love about 9W. There’s a real feeling of community and excitement about the fest, and a sense that the organisers work hard to be the change they want to see, both in geekdom and in the wider world. And that’s without mentioning the shopping, and the cosplayer dressed as a TARDIS full of bras…
It looks as though 9W may be moving to Birmingham next year, which might put it out of my budget, travel-wise—but in any case, here’s hoping for many more years to come.