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On Novacon 39
Greg Pickersgill

There was a moment on the Friday night when I came out of the toilet and had no idea where I was. I opened the door and I was standing in a room I didn't recognize and had no expectation of being in. I was for a few seconds utterly confused. Then I realized that all the shapeless lumps occupying the space were actually fans and the peculiar din was the happy chatter of science fiction enthusiasts and suddenly I knew I was where I always wanted to be.

In fact the whole Novacon was like that, something of a surprise and revealed joy at the same time. Some have said – though certainly not me – that Novacon was an old and tired thing clinging to halflife in a dismal hotel, and that going to it was something they may once have done but definitely not any more. Well, time to rethink that then for a start. The convention was Big Fun, the programme very good indeed, and the new Nottingham hotel a remarkable treasure that should be fostered as a fannish resource for as long as possible.

OK, the hotel was not perfect. One can have a bit of a shock to discover that typically there was only one clothes hanger in a room, bad enough for singles but hopelessly inadequate for two sharing. (Roger Peyton of course had seven, but then also he had eleven pillows as well ...). Some of the furniture in the bar areas were those unfashionably low bench seats that make sitting on the floor the preferable option. And some queried the colour of the bathroom doors. Hold on, I'm making that last one up, but simply to show that there was actually so little wrong with this hotel that it was a wonderment in itself. The staff were universally helpful for a start. The bar staff, on both first and second glance an apparently sullen and unsmiling bunch, were actually fantastically efficient and extremely able, even when it was quite obvious late in the evenings that they'd have been much happier doing almost anything else. They laid about their tasks with brisk efficiency and no complaint and were thus a pleasure to deal with. And they got a decent – though to my mind insufficient – collection at the end too. The hotel food was at the very least good and arguably (for a convention anyway) excellent. The chips in particular were quite fabulous and even such a humble object as a pasty – often a sickening and inedible disappointment – was a tasty and pleasing thing. And some would have it that the roast pork rolls were something they'd go a long way for. I hope you're getting the drift here – the Park Inn is a very good convention hotel indeed.

As regards the programme it really was a superb old-fashioned single track (more or less) joy; for Catherine and I there was more we wanted to see than time we had to see it. I missed both of the science items set for Saturday and Sunday mornings as I simply can't pay proper heed to such things at that time at a convention. The more alert of us went and came back sparkly-eyed with joy and proceeded to act out – with grand gestures – newly revealed secrets of Darwinism and black holes, and made those who'd waddled aimlessly around the bookroom instead feel their lives peculiarly impoverished. I also failed to attend an item on the hows and whys of the cancellation of apparently popular sf television series; not from choice but because I was otherwise committed to the single instance of programme clash, and perhaps as expected found myself being told 'You should have been there' and 'You'd have loved it'. And I probably would have too, as the thing I was doing turned out to be not much more than two hours of largely unproductive waffle about the whys and wherefores of bookrooms at conventions. In which I accidentally managed to offend an otherwise quite charming fantasy author by stating in no uncertain terms that I'd never so much as heard of her. I did apologize afterwards, but I resolutely remain not one of her readers, being an old-fashioned science fiction fan by determination.

I'd have to say though that the programme, good as it was, did have its clothes-hanger moments. The Saturday night quiz has been a bit of a thing at Novacons for some years. Yes, great idea, fans love quizzes, and it is arguably a good idea to try and engage as many people as possible rather than just competing teams on the platform, but somehow it always seems to engender more a feeling of frustration than excitement. This year it was focused entirely on cinema and tv sf, not my thing at all (unless you count British movies pre-1970 with a side-order of Czech sf, a niche speciality if ever there was one), and our team was appropriately named 'Country of the Blind'. And indeed, despite having both Steve Green and Dave Lally on board we actually came last with a rather feeble score. There's a surprise then. To illustrate our lack of touch, the only question that we instantly and unequivocally knew the answer to was something derived from Damon Knight's short 'To Serve Man', a possibly accidental intrusion of the literary into the agenda. Mind you it wasn't helped by the fact that the mechanics of the quiz descended with startling rapidity into the chaotic and more than one team (OK, especially ours ...) completely lost track of which number question they were answering at any given time. Which made for a bit of a problem come marking. It was all very Powerpoint and all that, but I can't help feeling there's a better way of doing this, and I am certainly going to suggest it.

The GoH was (as you know, professor) one Justina Robson, of whom I know little other than she's an English woman and a writer. Her appearances on both a 'Room 101' with Steve Green and her GoH interview were both entertaining and engaging and congratulations are due to Steve for the first and Pauline Dungate for the latter, both steering the items with great skill. Ms Robson came across as possessed of a fine dry humour and the ability to make an account of her writing career interesting. I was left feeling that although I didn't want to read her books I rather wished I wanted to. Catherine however was confirmed in her fannishness. Ms Robson didn't seem much at ease at large in the convention though, and more than one person reported her as difficult to engage in conversation.

There was of course lots of other good programme stuff. My enthusiasm for TAFF is long dimmed but Steve Green is a great performer so it should have been no surprise that his TAFF report, built around photographs taken on his trip, was lots of fun. So charming was it that by the end I was seriously wondering if I could get away with the same trick regarding my 1986 TAFF trip, which I had similarly intended to report around photos taken every step of the way; it may have been the drink thinking, so I had another one to blot it out, but the nagging thought and vague guilt remains. But how much of the truth can be told?

I was somewhat apprehensive about the Nova Award debate, partly because I expected James Bacon to pop up with some contrived plan redolent with Pollyannaish optimism to make the award Relevant or somesuch, but to my genuine surprise there wasn't a lot of huffing and groaning from the audience at all and the new groove seems to have been established comparatively smoothly. Actually I was indeed rather surprised that when challenged with such things as 'What are the Novas for then?' and 'If we were starting this now would we start it at all?' there was little or nothing contentious offered up to impede progress. Anyway, the new plan will be fully revealed between now and then as soon as some tweaks have been applied. It's presently something of a conflict between democracy and the other thing. Suffice to say that the important part, the effective decoupling of the Nova awards from fanzine activity in specific, has been achieved without many dead or even observable collateral damage. Oh happy day.

The panel on the form and function of the bookroom that followed on from the workshop item mentioned earlier wasn't any more illuminating than the diffuse and lengthy discussion that had preceded it, but it did give the opportunity to pass on some of the few insights gained; like for example all the present Big Players (if we may so extravagantly use such a term) in the book room are dealers who have been fans, or more accurately perhaps are dealers because they have been fans. And there is a general lack of newly published material available. And dealers do not necessarily adjust their stock to reflect the authors attending or the concepts intended to be discussed in the programme. All these things can and should be addressed, but there is a strong element of horse and water involved. My feeling though is that the convention dealers should in the first instance establish their unique selling point as stocking the sort of stuff that makes you go Ooooh! and reach immediately for your money; by this I mean good but uncommon back-stock, small-press material, things that you either can't find on Amazon or won't even know about until you see them laid out in front of you. The audience was questioned and whilst everyone had been into the bookroom at least once (most of them multiple times though perhaps not the obsessive hanging-about practised by some of us hem hem) and most had bought, some them handing over significant sums, a goodly number actually said they had bought less than they were prepared to, simply because what was on offer was less desirable than hoped for. As someone who believes in the old phrase 'the bookroom is the secret heart of the convention' it seems deeply important to me that this is something that just can't be allowed to run down the drain without the intervention of someone's finger, and I remain deeply unhappy about the 2010 Eastercon's crackpot idea that dealers' tables allocated to booksellers could be limited, to allow space for all the plastic tat and craft-fair stuff that many of us avoid in normal circumstances. However, it does depend to an extent on the dealers being receptive to suggestion. Andy ColdTonnage, for example, sometimes seems to see cons as just a way of disposing of all the bookstock he'd forgotten he had, and perhaps he should be reminded that a significant proportion of the take on his tables was from the sale of the Good Stuff, the full price and recently published (often small-press) books.

Regarding the event in total I think back now with wonderment at the fact that at no point did I feel bored, disconnected, alienated or in anything other than in a state of genuine pleasure at everything that was going on. Good programme, excellent and very entertaining conversations with so many people (step forward in particular ... no, it would be invidious to name names), and a real sense of well-being towards all fen generally.

What I'm getting at here, at the death, is that there are a tract of people who when triggered will whinge on about the good old days of human-scale single-programme conventions where they could meet all their fannish friends and have a really good really good really good time. Look, hold the phone, here we are, it's right there, it may have had a few difficult years (and haven't we all) but Novacon is the old pal you're waiting to be reunited with, and who doesn't turn out to have become a middle-aged bore. Here's the plan – join next year's Novacon, it's the 40th so do it for that sake if nothing else, and make sure you organize yourself to stay over the Sunday as well, it's so disappointing to see so many people leave well before the end, they miss some fun and we miss them, and we can all link arms and contact the living.

I could go on but I won't. I could say that having been flattered into a minor programme post on next year I have a vested interest in whipping up enthusiasm, but in reality I enjoyed this convention so much, and can so easily see that the next one (even without my assistance) could be at least as good or better, that I do most strongly advise anyone who has an affection for conventions of the good old days to get up stand up join up and book early.

Greg Pickersgill

2009 Nova Awards: Full Results

Best fanzine: 1, Banana Wings (30 points); 2, Journey Planet (24); 3, Head (20); 4, Prolapse / Relapse (18); 5=, Plokta, Quasiquote (11); 7, No Sin But Ignorance (7); 8, The Descent of Fan (6); 9, Lost in Space (3); 10=, Ansible, Procrastinations (2), 12=, The Banksoniain, Critical Wave (1).

Best fan writer: 1, Claire Brialey (26 points); 2, James Bacon (15); 3, Doug Bell (14); 4, Mark Plummer (11); 5, Dave Langford (9); 6, Christina Lake (8); 7=, Sandra Bond, Peter Weston (7); 9, Max (5); 10, Greg Pickersgill (4); 11, John Nielsen Hall (3); 12=, John Coxon, Alison Scott, Nicholas Whyte (2); 15=, Caroline Mullan, Yvonne Rowse, Alan Sullivan, Ian Williams (1).

Best fan artist: 1, Sue Mason (13 points*); 2, Alison Scott (13*);  3, John Toon (12); 4, Steve Jeffrey (8); 5, Steve Green (7); 6, D West (6); 7, ATom (5); 8, Clarrie O_Callaghan (4); 9, Dave Hicks (3). [*Although Sue Mason and Alison Scott tied both for points and first-place votes, Sue received more second-place votes.]

Steve Green