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Nine Worlds 2014 - John C. Kirk

Aug. 17th, 2014

11:58 pm - Nine Worlds 2014

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Last year I went to the Nine Worlds Geekfest, and I was back there again last weekend. I enjoyed it, and I've already bought my ticket for 2015, so I'd recommend it to anyone with similar interests.

General



Last year, the event ran from Friday afternoon to Sunday evening, although I didn't get there until Friday evening and missed the first few sessions. This year, my original plan was to stay at the hotel on Thursday evening, i.e. go straight there from work, then I'd be on-site first thing on Friday. In fact, they extended the timetable this year so that the first events were on Thursday evening. However, I then booked a ticket for Secret Cinema's "Back to the Future" screening on Thursday evening, and that wasn't due to finish until after the last tube, so I wound up arriving on Friday instead. Like last year, I missed the start, mainly due to oversleeping/faffing. I regret that now, because there were some interesting sessions that I missed. Ah well, live and learn.

When I signed in, I got a bag with various bits and pieces. They also gave me a name badge and directed me to an area round the corner that had pens: this makes sense, so that people won't hold up the queue by writing their name on the badge. When I got to the pen area, I noticed some other things on display: pronoun badges and communication clips.

Badges

This all fits in with the general ethos of the convention: the organisers are going out of their way to be as inclusive as possible. For instance, they have an anti-harassment policy, and a communication preferences system to explain the clips. They also teamed up with Con or Bust, offering some free tickets to non-white fans. I must admit, my immediate reaction has been to roll my eyes at some of their ideas, but I can't argue with results: there's a lot more diversity at Nine Worlds than some other cons I've been to. In particular, I went to a few panel discussions on the Comics track, and I think that at least half of the audience was female every time.

I didn't actually notice anyone using the pronoun badges or communication clips, but I'm reliably informed that there were a few people wearing them. I wasn't sure whether I'd be able to remember all the colour codes, and I figured that the simplest method would be to err on the side of caution by not approaching anyone with a clip. I belatedly realised that it's a traffic light system, although they use blue rather than green for "please come and talk to me".

I'll talk more about the individual sessions later, but one of them was significant because I saw one of the audience members call out a panellist for a (perceived) inappropriate comment: the panellist referred to snoo snoo in Futurama, which the audience member felt was trivialising rape. Personally, I didn't think the comment was that bad, but the panellist apologised, and again I think it fits in with the ethos of the convention that people are encouraged to speak up and challenge things like this rather than accepting them. (I'm deliberately not identifying the panellist or the session.)

Almost all of the toilets were marked as unisex for the duration of the con; I assume that this was mainly for the benefit of trans people. However, they also had separate labels to identify whether they contained sanitary towel bins or urinals. It's unusual to have a bunch of men peeing against a wall while a woman walks past to get to a cubical, but you wouldn't see any details unless you make an effort to be nosy. There are similar situations at LARP events, when people will choose to "water" a tree after dark rather than risking the path to the toilet block.

Cosplay



My pack also included five plastic tokens: "cosplay coins". Apparently this idea comes from Eastercon: if you like someone's costume, you can give them one of your coins. If someone had accrued 15 coins by Sunday afternoon, they could trade them in for a prize (which turned out to be a metal badge). If you got more than 15, presumably you could give the surplus coins away to other people; similarly, if you knew that you weren't going to reach 15 (e.g. because you only wore a costume on the first day) then you could give out the coins that you'd received. I don't think it would really be in the spirit of the event to hoard your first 5 coins for yourself, though! I think this is similar to clicking "Like" on Facebook, except that you have to be selective rather than just giving the coins out to everyone you meet. There's probably some kind of economic principle in there, about scarcity creating value.

I saw a few costumes last year, and a lot more this year. Over on Twitter, someone posted this:



Reading the replies to that tweet, the theory is that a lot of people/conventions are trying to avoid a stigma. If it's a slow news day, newspapers or TV stations might send their cameras along to a Star Trek convention to mock the people wearing Spock ears, so one reaction is to say "No, we're not all like that, they're just a fringe group. We are serious people having important academic discussions about literary themes."

I'd ordered some bits and pieces to make a Ghostbusters costume, so I was hoping that they'd arrive in time for the con. Sadly, I didn't get them until this week: they actually arrived last Thursday, but I needed to pay a customs fee and USPS/Parcelforce didn't tell me, so I only found out about it when I checked the tracking info on their website and phoned them. Ah well, never mind; at least I'll be ready for the 30th anniversary. According to The Metro (and various other websites), UK cinemas will be re-showing the film for 1 day only, on Tuesday 28th October. However, I haven't seen any confirmation of that on other websites (e.g. Vue), and I know that the Prince Charles Cinema are screening it on Thursday 30th October, so that's where I'm planning to go.

Coming back to Nine Worlds, there was quite a variety of costumes there, and very little duplication. Some of them were "standard" (for want of a better word), e.g. the various incarnations of the Doctor. Others were more obscure, e.g. Mazikeen from the Lucifer comic. There were also some interpretations of characters, e.g. a couple who went as a gender-flipped version of the Joker and Harley Quinn: he wore a suit (jacket and trousers) rather than Harley's normal costume, but I could easily recognise it because it was split up into red and black sections. That's not something you could buy off the rack; I think a lot of costumes were either handmade or assembled by shopping around to collect the individual pieces.

Since I had a limited supply of coins, I was concerned that I didn't want to give them all out right away and then spot some even better costumes later. So, I waited until Saturday morning to give out my first three, then held on to the other two until Sunday. In hindsight, this was a mistake. One snag is that people didn't necessarily wear the same costume every day: in particular, a lot of people switched back to normal clothing on Sunday, presumably because they'd checked out of their hotel room and didn't have anywhere convenient to change before they travelled home. Also, the timings of sessions meant that there were only a few opportunities to give out my final tokens before the deadline to redeem them. I offered my final coins to two people on Sunday who both turned me down because they'd already got 15.

So, it would have been better just to give them out whenever I saw a costume and thought "Wow!" It might not be entirely objective (i.e. my top five costumes out of the entire con), but that's better than letting the tokens go to waste. Similarly, if people turn me down early on (because they've already got plenty of coins) then I've got more time to find someone else and I've still been able to compliment the original people.

Hotel



Last year the con was split across two hotels: I stayed at the Renaissance, and never made it to the Radisson. This year, all the events were at the Radisson, and I stayed there instead. It turns out that they've remodelled it since my last visit (back in 1998); in particular, I was sorry to see that they've got rid of the swimming pool. Walking along the road, the Renaissance looks a bit shabby, whereas the Radisson is more shiny. One advantage of the Radisson is that they offer free wireless internet access, whereas I had to pay extra for that at the Renaissance.

I think it would be a good idea if hotel rooms came with instructions. I'm sure there are lots of aspects which seem obvious if you travel a lot, but are less obvious for first timers. For instance, I spent a few minutes trying to unlock my door with the keycard: it turns out that you have to push it in, then pull it out again immediately and wait for a green light. Even when someone else had explained that, it still took me a few attempts each time I needed to get back in. Maybe they'll move to a contactless system (like Oyster cards) at some point. Once I got inside, I needed to put my card into a wall socket to activate the lights; I remembered that from Disneyland Paris, but another guest had to explain it to me there. In the bathroom, I only discovered how to use the shower and plugs by accident: you turn the tap anti-clockwise for the bath or clockwise for the shower, and you push the plug to pivot it so that it's open/closed. (In my case, I stood on the plug and then thought "Hmm, that's odd.")

On Friday evening, I went along to the Trunk restaurant (on the ground floor) for dinner at about 20:00. They said that I'd have to wait at least 30 minutes for a table, so I should come back later, and I decided to go to the next session instead. I went back at 22:30 but they'd finished doing food. The member of staff on duty couldn't actually tell me what time they close each day (she said that she was new there), and that info wasn't in the con booklet. The booklet did say that the lobby café would be open from 21:00 to midnight on Friday and Saturday, but that turned out not to be the case. On the plus side, I was able to get the same food (pizza) in the bar, and I could also have ordered room service (at the same price).

I overslept on Saturday morning so I missed breakfast there, but I heard from other people that it was full up at 09:15, so you'd need to be in earlier than that if you wanted to eat before a 10:00 session.

I went back to Trunk on Saturday afternoon for lunch, and they still seemed to be struggling. I don't mind paying £10 for a pizza, but it was a bit hard/burnt; it looked like a frozen pizza which had been left in the oven for too long, rather than being freshly made. The drinks were very expensive there: £5.85 for a 330ml bottle of cider, and £13 for a 250ml glass of wine. There were three people behind the bar, but once I got to the front of the queue, it literally took five minutes for two of them to pour that wine and take payment. Thinking back to my days as a barman (during my undergrad degree), I would have handled a queue like that single handed, and done it quicker. I don't blame the staff on duty for this, because it's not their fault if they haven't been trained, but if the hotel are charging such high prices then they ought to be managing the situation better to justify those prices.

I did get to breakfast on Sunday and Monday, and that was ok. It worked as a buffet, and I felt full afterwards, but I don't think it was worth £17. The Renaissance handled this a lot better: they had a much bigger area, so I never had to queue for breakfast and they had a wider selection available.

On Sunday, I went up the road to a local Italian restaurant (Basilica) for dinner. That cost £25 (starter, main, and two glasses of wine), so it's better value and better quality. The trade-off is that it took me about 1h30m for the round trip, whereas I was able to fit lunch at the Trunk into the 30 minute gap between sessions.

Thinking back to the Wrap Party (1998), they had a good solution: one of the conference rooms was set up as a separate restaurant for the con, and they had a "trough" system for lunch/dinner (like a canteen), i.e. you'd line up and someone would ladle out a portion of food onto your plate from a large container. That meant that they had a much more limited selection, but it was an effective way to get everyone fed quickly.

As for the sessions, the hotel favour dividers over permanent walls. I can see the benefit to them, so that they can be flexible about the space and easily convert a big room into smaller rooms. However, these dividers aren't soundproof, so a quiet session could get drowned out by the cheering/laughter from the session next door. I also noticed that one of the rooms was only about half-filled with chairs, which led to a lot of people sitting on the floor during popular sessions. (The same thing happened last year at the Renaissance.) I realise that the organisers don't know in advance how popular each session will be, so they just have to guess at what size of room they'll need; if they underestimate and I have to stand, I don't mind. However, if the room is big enough to have extra people sitting on chairs and there simply aren't enough chairs to go around, that's a different matter, and I'd say that it's the hotel's responsibility to use that space more effectively.

Like last year, I booked a hotel room for Sunday night. As it turned out, "my" con effectively finished at 19:30; I skipped the final event so that I could get something to eat. That's earlier than last year, so I could have got home after that. I spoke to the hotel staff when I checked out on Monday, and they said that I'd be welcome to use their luggage storage room if I'd checked out the day before: that's useful to know, because I wouldn't want to drag a big bag around with me all day.

I'm not sure which hotel(s) Nine Worlds will be using for events next year, but on balance I think I'd rather stay at the Renaissance.

Friday sessions



* "Sex and Violence" (Comics)

This was an interesting discussion, asking what it's ok to show in comics. Mind you, as one of the panellists commented, these discussions tend to end up looking at general issues in society rather than being restricted to comics.

* "Speed Friending" (Evening ents)

I've never tried speed dating, but I'm familiar with the basic concept (from films like Hitch): people chat to a stranger for a couple of minutes, then a bell rings and they swap places to talk to someone else. If both people tick the appropriate box on their form, the organisers will release contact info at the end of the evening. I assumed that speed friending would work the same way, except that nobody would be looking for a romantic partner; instead, the idea would be to compare notes on your interests, then you might like to attend some of the other sessions together.

It actually turned out to be more like a pub quiz with rotating teams. We all picked up a quiz sheet on our way in, with spaces to write answers, then we split up amongst the various tables in the room. Each table had four questions on it, and we had about five minutes to look at those questions and work out our answers. When the bell rang, we'd all go to a different table, but the idea was for the group on each table to split up rather than all moving to the next table together. That way, by the time you'd got round all the tables, you'd probably met most of the other people.

The organiser said at the start that we could use strategy: our answer sheets would be marked individually, with prizes for the highest scores. So, it was up to us whether we wanted to confer on the questions, or just write down the ones that we knew, or offer to swap answers with other people. I think that everyone opted to confer and swap answers freely; as time passed, the organiser said: "Look, this isn't going to work if you all do that, because everyone will get the same score!" She repeated that a couple of times, but we all just carried on as before. Since this was a "speed friending" event, I think we all preferred to actually be friendly to each other rather than going for cut-throat competition.

I enjoyed this, even if it wasn't quite what the organiser intended. There were more seats than people at each table, and initially we were following public transport etiquette, i.e. "leave an empty seat between you and a stranger if possible". By the end of the session, everyone was bunching in together and leaning over the question papers. I saw a couple of people swapping contact details, so they'd obviously hit it off.

This event was partly acting as a promotion for the Geek Chic social group. I actually signed up to that last year, but I've never made it along to any of their events; ditto for the Haberdashery Collective, who run the social gaming at Nine Worlds. This ties into item #4 from David Wong's recent article: "everybody takes on a project and expresses it as a pure addition to their life." I'd like to do these extra things, but I have a lot of other things going on already, and so far I haven't been willing to sacrifice anything else to make time for these.

* "The Nine Worlds Party", "80s Disco - All-Cheese Disco Party" (Evening ents)

I was intrigued by the theme of "Flash Gordon vs Highlander" (with a Queen tribute band), but I stuck my head around the door and it was just too darn loud for me.

* "The Duke Mitchell All-Nighter" (Film Festival)

I've seen some other cons where they have a video room set up for the whole event: anyone who's at a loose end can just drop in, watch TV for a while, then wander off and do something else. For instance, I re-watched the "Captain Proton" episode of Voyager that way. This session was similar, but they were using shorter films (e.g. music videos): that seems like a good idea, because it means that if you come in and you've missed the start of the current item, you'll only have to wait a few minutes before you're in time for the next item. Similarly, if you don't like the current item, it will be over soon.

Duke Mitchell is an existing film club; as far as I can tell, their goal is simply to find obscure films. I don't want to put words in their mouth, but the theme of this session seemed to be "so bad it's good". I must admit, when they mentioned the rap version of Monster Mash, I had to stay and watch it, but it didn't really add anything to the original version.

The organisers noticed that we weren't saying much between videos: they wanted to pick stuff that we'd like, and they said that there's not much point in someone staying there for 10 hours then going online to say "That was all rubbish." That's a fair point, so I left after about 10 minutes.

I can enjoy films that are lacking in artistic merit, e.g. the aforementioned Flash Gordon, but that's because there's something about it which I genuinely like; I'm not just liking them "ironically". Humour is subjective, and if other people enjoyed laughing at the faults in those videos then that's fine, but it wasn't really my thing. On the other hand, it wouldn't be fair for me to say "Get rid of your entire video library and put on the 'top 50 kids TV themes from the 1980s' YouTube playlist instead."

Saturday sessions



* "Dragons vs Werewolves vs Vampires vs Warlocks" (All of the Books)

This was a bit like a balloon debate, with each panellist trying to persuade us that their species was the best overall. This was also one of the sessions with insufficient chairs, so I was sitting on the floor and I couldn't actually see any of the panellists. Fortunately there wasn't really a visual component to this session, so it was similar to listening to a Radio 4 comedy (e.g. The Now Show). Anyway, I enjoyed it, and I ended up voting for warlocks.

* "Dis/Continuity" (Comics)

I was on my way to this session when I overheard someone else talking about the room it was in. Someone else was giving him directions; since I was going that way myself, I offered to guide him. Unfortunately, it then turned out that I'd got confused, so we were going the wrong way. We made it there just in time, at which point the other guy headed up to the front: I then realised that he was Kieron Gillan, one of the panellists! D'oh. I wasn't trying to sabotage that session, honest...

The room was full up, so standing room only. It was interesting, and I liked the comment about the mental gymnastics that readers have to perform in order to reconcile opposing facts, e.g. the Marvel Universe has only been around for 11 years, so Presidents are apparently elected for 3 month terms of office.

* "Social Gaming with the Haberdashery Collective" (Social Gaming)

This was similar to the session that they ran last year, although I think they suffered from being in a smaller room this time around. The first two games were the same (lemon jousting and blindfold Nerf), then we did a couple of new games: tower building (one person per team uses blocks to build a tower while their teammates use Nerf guns to knock down other teams' towers) and "Stratego-go-go" (a live action version of Stratego where people walk around carrying folders to represent their rank).

* "Creators on Comics" (Comics)

This was basically a two part session: Si Spurrier (who I mainly recognise from Extermination) talked about comics in general, then Kieron Gillan talked about "Watchmen". Both parts were interesting, and they made effective use of the projector; in a situation like this, it's much better to keep the laptop screen independent, and just show the pictures you want, rather than showing the audience everything as you hunt around for the next image. I certainly learnt some new things in this session; in particular, the "Raw shark" comment has stuck in my head ever since I first read that comic, and I'd always assumed that it was just a pronunciation guide, but I now see the connection to the pirate story.

* "Received fan wisdom is wrong" (Doctor Who)

The basic idea here was to look at things which were commonly believed to be true, then re-evaluate them. However, it turns out that I wasn't really in the right target audience for this, because I've never really been active in Doctor Who fandom so I wasn't exposed to these views in the first place (e.g. from fanzines). Also, I haven't seen every episode, and I don't remember the titles for the episodes I have seen, so when people just referred to "The Gunslingers" as being good or bad I didn't have any context to follow along. Equally, when it comes to "New Who", I've written blog posts about a few episodes and I might discuss them with friends on Facebook, but I'm not really part of any larger communities.

I've had this problem before with Doctor Who: I bought some novels in 2009, then I looked at BigFinish (with their 28 relevant ranges!) in 2013. I've resolved the audiobook problem by following a friend's advice, but I think I'll avoid this track at Nine Worlds next year.

* Oculus Rift

After the Doctor Who panel finished (at 20:00), I went back to my room for a while. Checking on Twitter, I saw that they'd added an extra item: someone would be demonstrating Oculus Rift (a virtual reality headset), so I headed back out to give that a go. I've heard about this technology before, but this is the first time I've actually seen it, and I was impressed. The initial environment mirrored the real world, i.e. a chair in front of a desk. However, it was a bit odd to look down towards my lap and see that the chair was empty! When I noticed something else, I pointed at it, then I remembered that other real world objects would be invisible too. Fortunately I didn't actually smack anyone in the face, but I can see this being an occupational hazard at home, similar to people smashing things with the Wii remote.

* "Rock Club London" (Entertainment)

I missed out on this last year, so I wanted to try it this time. As I understand it, it's basically the four player version of Guitar Hero, a bit like karaoke. They had a list of songs for us to choose from, then we lined up to give them our choices and take a number (raffle ticket) similar to a delicatessen counter. They said that they'd get a band for us, so I just took a number on my own.

This was supposed to start at 22:00 but the previous event overran. The revised time was 23:15, but at 23:30 we were still waiting outside. I was #49 in the queue, so I figured that I wouldn't get my turn until at least 02:00; at that point I gave up and went to bed. The Rock Club organisers apologised, but I don't blame them; it's not their fault that the room wasn't available earlier.

Sunday sessions



* "Writing Historical Fiction and Fanfic" (Fanfic)

This was a panel discussion to talk about the ethics of writing fictional stories about real people. It was interesting, although I didn't really learn much: the panel all basically agreed that you should be more careful if the person is still alive or if anyone who actually met them (friends/relatives) is still alive.

* "How To Invent The Wheel: Why You Should Write Sci-Fi About Existing Technology" (Creative Writing)

The blurb said: "We'll look at why 'Singing in the Rain' is science fiction", which intrigued me. In fact, that didn't take long, and the organiser covered it right at the start of the session: the story dealt with the introduction of a new technology, i.e. "the talkies" taking over from silent movies.

This was a workshop, so I had to actually do some work rather than just sitting and listening to other people. The organiser came up with some exercises, then gave us some time to write stuff down, and a few people read out their efforts. I struggled with the time constraints, but I was very impressed at what some of the others came up with.

* "More-Than-Mild Peril" (Comics)

I think this is the biggest panel I've ever seen at a con: there were nine people sitting up at the front, so the moderator had to sit in the audience because there wasn't any more room behind the desk! This was talking about comics for children (e.g. "The Beano") and comics which feature young adults (e.g. "Young Avengers"). It was interesting, and I was amused to see that there were four people dressed as Hawkeye (Kate Bishop), including one of the panellists:



* "Psychics and pseudoscience" (Skepticism)

This was preaching to the choir a bit, since I think that everyone who went to that talk was already inclined to be sceptical about mediums and homeopathy. I'd already heard a lot of that information in a South Park episode, which is a more effective way to get the message to a wider audience, but I learnt a few things. I have to say that I'm not entirely comfortable with the group's tactics: if they're trying to stand up for the truth then I think it's a bit iffy to go around lying to people (e.g. claiming to be a fan so that the psychics will talk to them).

* "Helen Keen: Robot Woman of Tomorrow" (Entertainment)

I enjoyed her stand-up comedy routine last year, and she had new material this year. I won't give examples, but it was funny, and I recommend going to see her perform if you get the chance.

She finished a bit early, so we had a general discussion about some of the issues surrounding robotics, e.g. the ethics of sexbots and the possibility of giving them free will. If you're interested in that topic, I recommend the comic
Alex + Ada; issue #1 is free (in digital form).