The Beast of Times – The Year in Review

It was the beast of times, it was the worst of times. It was timeless, yet it’s gone on forever. How do you describe 2020?

Ernie’s Beach, the South Bank

Walking out of the FP office for the last time, laptop under my arm so I could work from home, waving breezily at my colleagues as we all thought this would be over in a couple of weeks… walking the empty South Bank and then across a silent Victoria station with the virus warning echoing from the tannoy. 2020, suitably enough, was the year our dystopian future finally broke through from fiction, and manifest as full reality.

The Dark Future

I confess, though: at the beginning, I was enjoying it. My life was utterly hectic – working commuting, writing, raising a teen – and the sudden slowing of pace let me see how tired I really was, gave me space to expand and think. The creatives of Twitter rallied round to make stuff up and share it out; we all shaved our heads and became bakers overnight. We clapped the NHS, meaning every strike of it, admiring those key workers who put their lives on the front line.

Pixie

But the year congealed. The monochrome fingers of ‘come down’ began to keep in.The FP van came to get the laptop; the dread and isolation began to grow. The clapping became empty, farcial in the face of Government hypocrisy and incompetence; I lost my job, and crashed and burned.

Handiwork Office, photo by Jon Hodgson

Against a backdrop of increasing darkness, though, I’ve been fortunate. With huge thanks to Andrew Girdwood, and to Jon at the team at Handiwork, I had another job within a week (and counted my blessings, seriously). I’ve written more wordcount in a single year, this year, than I’ve done… well, probably since I finished Ecko Burning and that must be eight or nine years ago. And I’ve just finished the longest single MS I’ve written since I completed Artifice in 2016.

Funny – FP, the store, South Bank… now, they seem like another world.

Sophie Aldred

I’ve ended the year with (what looks like) a physical injury that’s making focusing difficult – but still counting my blessings, y’know? However we’ve got through this, whatever we achieved – even if it’s only to keep our heads down and reach the year’s end it’s enough. And to all those who have been on the front lines, who have lost family, or struggled through the disease themselves, or who’s been plagued by the dog (you know the one), my heart goes out to you.

Books – Sanity in a Crazy World

I’d wish everyone a better 2021, but I fear the darkness is going to get worse before it gets better. So spoil yourselves, love those close, appreciate the good things, take escapism where you can, and remember to look round at beauty. And cuddle your pets, because now more than ever, it’s the little things that matter. 

Redundant

As you may have seen, after seventeen years at Forbidden Planet, the company has made me redundant.

It’s completely knocked the wind out of me, bowled me absolutely flat. Don’t get me wrong, it’s been done by the book – they’ve been two weeks considering my position, my length of service, my marketing skill base and all of the things – but, at the end of the day, my role no longer exists. So there we are.

It could be one hell of a lot worse – I have a solid redundancy package and no need to immediately panic – but seventeen years is one HELL of a long time. After that long, as some of you have already commented, it isn’t ‘just a job’ any more. I was there at the launch of the London Megastore, and of forbiddenplanet.com. I built the company’s social media Identity from the ground up (though the Insta-genius, isn’t me, sadly!). I’ve run the company blog and its client advertising locations. And I’ve set up and run hundreds, probably thousands, of store events. Big ones, little ones, group ones, solo ones, authors, artists, creators, directors, celebrities, personalities, film crews… it’s all been one hell of a ride. And even those events that I didn’t or couldn’t attend, I was always there in the wings, making them happen.

When you’re a single parent, you don’t get much of a social life. And those events, plus the dozens of conventions where you’ve seen me at the FP stall… they’ve always made up for that. They’ve been my outlet, my family, my community. And giving that up, I think will be the single hardest thing about all of this.

And my son – he’s known the company since before he was born. When he was a four-month bump, he attended a signing with Pegg and Frost, who were trying to make name my unborn child ‘Simon Nick’ or ‘Nick Simon’. He’s met his greatest YouTube and Doctor Who heroes, got to share MCM and all the big stuff… He’s absolutely devastated, bless him.

Now, there are advantages, obviously. Not commuting anymore is going to be a huge relief – trying to endlessly spin the plates of job and events and commute and child and school and publishers’ deadlines has all been incredibly stressful. (I hadn’t realised quite how much until lockdown started). I’m looking forward to getting some serious writing done (though I will have to find other work, obviously), and to not being so utterly frantic.

But – and forgive the marketing speak – I’ve been Brand champion for FP for a very long time. It’s a company that represents everything I’ve been passionate about, all my life. Being there to watching it grow, to watch it crest and ride that huge wave that’s brought geekdom into the mainstream, being a part of that wave… that’s been amazing.

I know this isn’t their fault. It’s only Covid, and it’s only numbers, and my redundancy is fair, and they’ve been nothing but supportive through the whole process…

But right now, I feel kinda lost.

On Gatekeepers

As you may have seen on Twitter this week, some of our stores are putting in a display of genuine Dark Crystal puppets, straight from Thra and from the BFI. And, having taken Isaac to see the BFI display over the summer holidays and been suitably struck with wonder and magic, it got me thinking… 

Skeksis Banquet, BFI

The Dark Crystal was one of those movies that introduced me to everything I loved. I was still in my teens, and I fell head over heels, transfixed by its beauty and by the sheer skill and artistry that had gone into putting it together. Thirty (cough) years later, being able to interact with it for real, and help to bring it to others… it’s everything I could ever have dreamed of doing.

On Twitter, @jaygooby then commented that he knew of many people in film and sfx who’d been introduced to their careers because of their love of the movie.

And so, I was thinking about gatekeepers.

Baffi the Fizzgig

What starts you on the path of loving genre? Which images, books, comics, films, characters, experiences opened that door for the first time? Maybe it was Discworld, or Harry Potter. Maybe it was Terminator, or The Matrix. When I was ten, my cousin lent me The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, (and I spent a whole summer lost in the sodding maze). And I know so many men and women, who not only loved the book as kids, but who are now introducing their own kids, in turn, to the same experience. 

Whatever those keys may be, they remain special. And much as some part of me is exasperated by the constant remakes that plague our every news outlet, somewhere, there’s still that teen who sat in the cinema – and who shivered when the urRu lifted their chant. 

2018: A Year of Unexpected Changes

In many ways, 2018 has been a fantastic year.

Seeing Artifice published has been truly magical, plus having the opportunity to write for both the Black Library and for Rebellion/Judge Anderson has been a huge amount of fun. After a very long, fallow stretch, it’s been SO GOOD to be creative again.

I’ve gone away twice, caught up with long-unseen family, and taken my Mother back home. 2018 was the year I finally reached the Top of the Mountain, the End of the Quest, and was able to put the very last steps of the journey behind me….

For the first time in many years, I’m happy. I have no worries. I have a secure roof over my head. I have growing teen of whom I’m very proud. I have a good job, and we’ve had some fantastic events at the store. My writing is gathering pace, and going really well. And I’ve made a point, this year, of overcoming the inevitable (and slightly foolish) social reluctance and of going out – getting to the events, and the Cons. I’ve even started playing D&D again, after fifteen years.

But the year ended on a sour note, and one I’m still trying to understand.

I came down with a significant anxiety relapse in May, and it took me while to pick myself back up again – it was just so unexpected. (And seemed so utterly unfair). And as a part of trying to understand what had caused it, I took all sorts of tests – an MOT, more than anything else.

As we reach 50, we’re all getting to the point where we have to pay the piper, when those youthful excesses come back and catch us up. And I guess I was trying to brace myself for the worst. 

But the results were not what I expected – at the last, the year has thrown me a curveball. I don’t know where it’s come from – it may even be genetic – but I have an underactive (yes, underactive, that surprised me too) thyroid. I guess it explains why I’m so fucking TIRED all the time, why I get days of brain-fog so think that I can barely remember my name, and why – just sometimes – I find it almost impossible to get everything done. And it’s come with a couple of other complications, too, but I’m still working the kinks out of those.

It’s been a good year, and there will be many more. But the necessary sacrifices have been – and will be – very tough. ‘Fight Like A Girl’ is all very well on a battlefield.

This, though, may be a battle of a slightly different nature.

Nine Worlds – A Second-Hand Blog

Matt BlakstadNine Worlds? Honestly, I didn’t see that much of it.

There was a fun combat panel first thing Friday morning and a sneaky couple of G&Ts in the bar on Saturday night – but I’ve never <ever> been that quiet (or that sober) at a Con before. Maybe age is catching me, who knows. Anyway.

So – this is a second-hand blog. A blog that tells of happy people buying lots of books (and I mean LOTS of books) which always makes the weekend go well. A blog that tells of happy people in every kind of cosplay; a blog that tells of an excellent venue and hotel, where the staff were sincere and helpful (and the bloke behind the bar mixing a Mai Tai (not for me) was an absolute God, a Dionysus for the modern age). Where was I? Yes – happy. From our nailed-by-our knees vantage, everybody had a very happy Con.

Now, that may not seem like a big deal – but getting this shit right is bloody difficult. Over the years, we’ve seen so many events die, or suffer from falling attendance, or become plagued with industry hamster-fighting… but with four years’ experience, Nine Worlds has absolutely got it right. People feel welcome and confident, they can dress in anything the bloody hell they want, they can attend a whole wealth of panels across every kind of format and topic. and learn about every aspect of this ever-expanding business of ours. Props to committee and program organisers for a top effort all round.

NPC Quest GuyMan of the match, though, goes to the Side-Quest Guy, handing out little Quest booklets for people to follow – I didn’t get time to follow mine sadly (missed my Gold, there) but the work and through that had gone into his costume and supporting story were amazing.

Above all, this is a blog to thank all of the lovely people that came to sign for us at our table – and those who also came to have a natter and sign their stock.

We had a bloody fabulous Con. More like this one please!

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Nine Worlds – Where I’ll Be

Nine Worlds Nine Worlds this weekend, which means you’ll find me, as ever, nailed by my knees to the trading table with a big piles o’ books, a full schedule of signings and (hopefully) a lot of tea.

I shall be on the Getting Fighting Wrong panel (not advisable, if you’ve ever tried it) alongside a suitable line-up of worthies: James Barclay, Liz de Jager, Sebastien de Castell, Oliver Langmead and Lucy Hounsom. The fur flies (or not) at 11:45am on Friday morning.

I’m also (so I’m told) on the LGBT Characters panel at 10:00am on Sunday morning – so I’d better not overdo it at the Cabaret the night before, I guess…

Signings ScheduleYou’ll also find me in the bar, as ever. And possibly dancing, but that depends upon my intake of gin.

Ah, but I shall miss the Radisson with its mad glass fish and its smell of air fuel and its…erm… character…

TomSka and the Heroes of YouTube

IMG_4826My son is addicted to YouTube – or he would be, if I didn’t ration the little bugger.

It’s a generational thing, I know that, and it mystifies me. Watching someone else play a game for hours at a time… why would you do such a thing? It’s not even like they’re in the room with you and you can share the experience by helping them solve puzzles, or by taking over the controller when they fail to beat the end-of-level Nasty and throw a wobbler.

Nope, seriously – I don’t have a clue.

Joe SuggIn the last year, we’ve had three of the big-name YouTube sensation come into the store – Joe Sugg, Stuart Ashen aka Ashens, and most recently Tom Ridgewell, aka TomSka. Joe’s signing wasn’t public, but without exception, the response to all three of them has been phenomenal.

Last Saturday, TomSka put in a three-hour shift in a somewhat overheated book store (the air-conditioning had broken down). His queue was easily two hundred people, most of them my son’s age. Isaac, of course, was there too, having his first full-on fanboy attack as he met one of his genuine heroes – he spent most of the time glued to his phone showing off to his schoolmates. And hey – he’s allowed. If he can’t nerd out in Forbidden Planet, then I’m in the wrong job. Where was I? Right – two hundred people, maybe more.

Fanboy CubAnd Tom greeted every one of them with a hug, a question, an energy that was absolutely genuine every time. He was inexhaustible, funny, human… and it made me understand something.

Celebrities signing at FP – certainly the actors – don a particular personality when they meet their fans. It’s another role, and while they’re always charming and approachable, you can see the subtle shift from the person who chats in the office to the personality that walks out into the store.

But not Tom. Not Stuart, and I’m guessing Joe would have been the same. Tom was the same person throughout, the same to every fan. Every one of them greeted him like they knew him, and he responded in kind.

One of the Mums in the department (waiting for her small people) absolutely hit the nail on the head. ‘He’s not a personality,’ she said, ‘He’s their friend’.

And, of course, that’s exactly what he is. Perhaps I understand the whole thing a bit better now.

STUFF

Art Toy Addiction Stuff.

Stuff is sacred, collected stuff, hoarded stuff. Stuff signed by artists, authors, actors, musicians… stuff that commemorates creators no longer with us, and stuff that was so special when I brought it home, but that has sat in a drawer (with similar stuff) ever since.

Stuff that you find, as you pack your house.

I have stuff. I have the stuff that was signed wrong, the graphic novel that was printed upside down, the book that the author signed with someone else’s signature (Ben Aaronovitch) for a momentary laugh. I have stuff signed by guests that were drunk, guests that were sober, guests that had fans crying as they came into the building, and, just sometimes, guests that had almost no-one there at all.

Fat Freddy's CatSo much stuff.

And stuff occupies a strange space-time law of its own – when you pack it, it goes through a long period of never getting any smaller. It’s like the sofa in Dirk Gently, ever spinning in a pattern of impossibility, and never ever going to get out of the house.

Endless stuff.

Signed Langley Original - SlaineMy Mum had stuff. Images and treasures and memories, some of which I could identify, many of which were a mystery. She had pieces of my childhood, things that bought back floods of memory. She had letters from my father, memories of him that I’d never seen. She had photographs for days – family pictures, modelling shots, one amazing shot of a handsome bad boy on a motorcycle that no-one could identify but that had us all raising our eyebrows…

Magic stuff.

As You Wish - Cary ElwesAnd yet, it had to go. All that treasure, a dragon’s hoard worth, given to friends and family, and to the cancer charities of Oxted High Street. And then there was a flat, all sad and empty of stuff.

No stuff left.

It’s made me look at all my own memories, so many things all so treasured – my Vike kit, now unused in fifteen years, my gaming dice and books, all gathering dust – and I wonder why I keep it, if it’s only going to be abandoned in the end.

Perhaps the Vikings had the right idea, in fact – take all your stuff with you.

SO much Lego!As I pack, though, I find the magic is too strong, the hope always there – and I can’t give either of them up. I like my quirky collection of art toys and geek paraphernalia, I like the memories that those old weapons and folders carry with them. I know my son will be there one day, turning them over in his hands and wondering what to do with them…

…but for now, I want to keep it all, and tell its stories, and share it with him.

Because that’s the stuff that matters.

Nine Worlds

Staypuft Marshmallow LadyIt’s always hard to write a review of a Con when you’re trading from behind a table piled creakily high with ALL THE BOOKS – and this one was sans dealers room, our usual partners in crime replaced by a lot of Gundam Mech building and some highly amusing-looking D&D (not envious, honest). Trading table or no, however, Nine Worlds continues with its own particular achievement – to bring new people into fandom with the confidence to be themselves.

Gundam Mech MasterAnd this means that, from a traders’ point of view, we see more people buying books, and reading books, and picking up new things to try… and as we cautiously stray from behind our table, we see more people able to dress and express themselves however they wish, to meet their tribe and make new friends. And lots and LOTS of wonderful Cosplay, this AoT salute one of my favourites – unsurprisingly!

Attack On Titan Survey CorpsShifting away from the demographic, I always do a certain amount of hat-swapping at Conventions. This time, much hilarity ensued from me swearing four minutes into the first panel of Friday morning (in strict disobedience of the five o’clock watershed. (In my defence, I have no recollection of seeing an email about the ban… either that or I get possessed by Ecko at critical moments, (and I know which of those worries me more)). The panel was great though, and it’s always good to not only share, but to learn from the authors with you, and the questions from the audience. Special mentions to Al Robertson and Sebastien de Castell for their wonderful senses of humour.

The Endgame ComethThere was some excitement for the publication of Ecko Endgame (hurrah!), and for the forthcoming Fight Like A Girl anthology. There was much tea (thank you Em and Cara) and much wine (no changes there) and a great fun Saturday night that ended with the sun rising at the end of the Heathrow roadway – and a reminder that I can, apparently, still get up and go to work on two hours’ sleep… it just takes me longer to recover.

Su as Tiny TinaAn overall thank you to Paul and Nazia for all their help and support, Program is a horrible job (and we all know it) and they came through it with flying colours. Thank you to Erich for his tireless help and patience, and to all the authors who signed for and with us – a huge list of mighty talent which, frankly, leaves me exhausted.

Joanne HarrisAnd finally, a particular mention to the lovely Laurell K Hamilton and her crew – a perfect fusion of charm and efficiency!

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LonCon 3: Madhouse!!

Hula DalekThere are some unwritten rules to bring a bookseller at a Con. For example: you’ll hear the following phrases many times over the course of a weekend: ‘I’ve got too many books at home, I can’t buy any more’, ‘I can’t buy books, there’s no space in my luggage’, or the slightly more extreme, ‘If I buy any more books, I’ll need a new house!’

Apparently, there are a lot of SF/F readers with money to burn, not only on books and luggage space, but on the inevitable new house when they try to squeeze one more Kingkiller Chronicle into their already bulbous bookshelves.

IMG_2485Seriously, I’ve never seen anything like it. Not the bulbous shelves, (though our stall was buckling under the weight of fantastical literature), but the willingness of people to buy books. Those from over the water must’ve come with empty flightcases, because there were no concerned comments about luggage space. People were picking up five and ten and fifteen books at a time, hardcovers and signed books, books to enable them to meet their favourite authors, books to take home to friends, books that just looked interesting…  In a world where bookshops close faster than you can list them, something in me was jumping with childish glee at so much pleasure taken in the printed page.

Titan Books!One American fan commented that you only get a 20% – 30% crossover of SF/F books between the UK and the US. It hadn’t occurred to me before – but of course that’s why. If you go to a WorldCon, then the opportunity to broaden your horizons (and collection) is tremendous. Not only books, but authors and friends – no wonder you travel with only a clean pants and a Visa.

Slenderman Vs. MarkAnyway. More unwritten rules: usually, at Cons, we have time to escape our shackles and explore. Not this time! The sheer mass of fans might have been deceptively diluted by the size of ExCel – but all of them came to see us, sooner or later. I escaped for my couple of panels, and a slightly leftfield 40-minute session in the basement with the cleaning team, going through bin bags and looking for my wallet (thrown away earlier in the day, and fortunately retrieved). Even from behind the stall, though, the whole experience was intense, exhilarating, exhausting and wondrous, all in equal measure.

My Sigismund SistersMore than anything, it was fantastic to see so many people, so many friends, all together in one place. Friends from my twitter days, met in the flesh for the first time; friends from my Norwich past, back in the present as our lives rotate towards each other, friends from fandom, all over the world.

@ksonney and @ursulavAll-in-all, it was quite overwhelming. And after Nine Worlds and the Week of Madness between, its no wonder everyone came home saying, ‘Look, I love you all. But leave me the fuck alone ’til at least next Thursday.’

Free Universe!Well done, LonCon. That was tremendous!