After skipping last year – and missing out on the incredibly strange Scarborough experience – it was great to get back to FCon on the home turf of Peterborough, see some familiar faces, encounter totally new ones and, perhaps most importantly, to get to talk properly with people I had only seen fleetingly in previous years.
This year, I was fancy free, too. No panels. No readings. Just wafting from fascinating conversation to fascinating conversation. Obviously there were the usual endless, crazy meanderings with John Garland and Eric Steele – I wouldn’t know I was there without those – but also some excellently random new encounters with Anna Smith-Spark, Irene Soldatos, R B Watkinson, Harriet Goodchild and many more.
As ever, there was plenty going on if you could tear yourself away from the bar. Two panels stood out for me. One was ‘Historical Fiction, Historical Fantasy’ on Friday, deftly moderated by Sandra Unerman and featuring Daniel Godfrey, Peter McLean, Irene Soldatos, Andrew Knighton and David Stokes. Together, these authors (and one editor) represented a huge range of historical periods, either making direct use of them as backdrops for their fiction or plundering threads to weave their own secondary worlds. Obviously this is a topic close to my heart and it was great to get different perspectives on it – but also it led to great discussions afterwards, during which I got to meet the author of Bad Bishop Irene Soldatos (who, it turns out, is also a fellow archer) and to chat in depth with Andrew Knighton, who has written in, about and around a frankly ridiculous range historical periods, subgenres and subsubgenres.
Inspiration is what you come to these things for. I was not left wanting.
As it turned out, Andrew was also moderating the ‘Steampunk’ panel on Saturday, which – though he probably did not realise it – provided this in Brunel patent steamshovels. Despite there being only two other authors on the panel – Anthony Laken and Adam Millard – and a relatively small crowd, it really dug deep into what steampunk is, what it’s not, what makes it tick and what it ought to be doing – but too often isn’t. Anthony Laken in particular – occupying the newbie author slot I found myself just four years ago – provided some wonderfully perceptive and passionate insights into the genre, offering up a plea for steampunk to properly tackle the difficulties, contradictions and social injustices of the Victorian age rather than just allowing our polished wood and brass nostalgia for the period to obscure them. Sure, it can be a fun playground in which to run around (I mean, goggles and corsets – what’s not to like?) but it can be so much more than that. This is fantasy, folks. You can do anything. Build anything. Destroy anything. So, what kind of world are you going to make? And why?
It had been my fermenting next novel that took me to this panel, and thoughts such as those above – inspired not only by the panel itself, but by conversations afterwards with Anna Smith-Spark and Stewart Hotston – really brought it into focus for me in ways that were as welcome as they were unexpected. For some time, I had been aware, in a vague sort of way, that what this new novel was going to to do was ‘steampunkish’. But I had never been quite comfortable simply calling it ‘steampunk’. And now, I understood why. What I was doing here was anti-steampunk. I wasn’t taking an existing Victorian reality as a foundation and building an even more outlandish empire on top. I was taking an existing Victorian reality and then utterly destroying it. Suddenly, the path ahead is an awful lot clearer.
More on that later. But in the meantime, thanks FantasyCon.