The Fantasy-Hive does BristolCon 2023: Convention Report
As the nights drew in and October drew to a close, the clans gathered once more for the Annual BristolCon Sci-fi and fantasy convention. The committee, led by Meg and Bav, had put together a fascinating programme of events. The intriguing discussion panels and tempting demonstrations balanced the lure of BarCon and the opportunity it offered to catch up in real life with so many people known only through the fast fracturing milieu of social media platforms. (Indeed there may come a time when the perils of navigating the fractious menagerie of X, Bluesky, Threads, Instagram, Facebook, Mastodon, Tribel, becomes so arduous that face-to-face meetups regain their pre-eminence.)
Beth: You forgot Discord Theo!
Theo: lol – there is that!!
While BristolCon has settled into a slightly more stable calendar slot than the endlessly migrating Christian festival of Easter has, this year did mark a minor deviation from the established Halloween weekend. Staging BristolCon a week earlier did mean that some family orientated delegates (eg Sammy H K Smith and our own Beth) were able to attend without compromising their commitment to trick or treating adventures and parties with various rugrats.
This meant we could add another partial Hive team photo to our collection, with Hive Queen Bee Beth taking a group selfie with me and Julia, to add to the partial team photo of me, Lucy and Jonathan from CRSF 2022. (We will have to descend on Nils for a group photo next year!)
BristolCon attendance builds and fades like a bell curve, which – for the non-statistically minded – means some of us arrived as early as Thursday (or earlier) for a convention that wouldn’t start until Saturday morning.
That allowed for small group meals out – a table of seven enjoying the excellent Mediterranean cuisine of The Sousta – just around the corner from the Hilton Doubletree convention hotel. The Friday morning walk to the iconic Clifton Suspension Bridge turned into a whole day exploration of Bristol’s magnificent sights – including the terribly misnamed Giant’s Cave , the Victorian magic of the Camera Obscura and the vertiginous views from Cabot Tower .
The explorers returned to a much more crowded bar and preparations for the larger scale meal out at The Spitfire brilliantly organised by Jon Burbidge.
In a convivial meal there was a chance to meet and chat with Mark Lawrence and a number of SPFBO contenders and including Agnes Mezaros (aka Mitriel Faywood), Jacob Sannox, Norbert Zsivicz and finalist Wend Raven who had flown in especially from America with her sister – making them the furthest travelled delegates of 2023.
Back at the hotel registration had opened early so we could collect our name badges, printed programmes and even a lovely BristolCon souvenir – a 3D printed model of Speedbird the BristolCon mascot aka Concord re-imagined as a spaceship.
The bar stayed open until late with some delegates enjoying it so well that it was lucky their panels and workshops had been scheduled for late on Saturday afternoon.
Saturday dawned with just enough time for those staying at the hotel to squeeze in a convivial breakfast before the convention’s opening ceremony with the two guests of honour Ida Keogh and GR (Geoff) Matthews in attendance.
With two rooms offering panels and two more offering workshops, along with the pull of the very sociable BarCon, it was impossible to see everything, so what follows is a sample of the BristolCon experience, rather than an exhaustive review.
Beth: I drove down for the Saturday morning and was fortunate to arrive in time, however it wasn’t the case for many others as storms and floods had disrupted travel quite badly! There was a little chaos during the morning as people were roped in last minute to fill in for absentees, but there was no shortage of willing panellists.
Theo: The weather was definitely conspiring against us – but BristolCon delegates are made of stern stuff – and arriving on Thursday really helped!
The first panel I got to was Why did it have to go political with Bav moderating contributions from Jo Hall, Emily Inkpen, GR Matthews and Josie Jeffrey. The discussion focussed on how and if we should use science fiction and fantasy stories to bring about change, or should we just enjoy a ripping yarn for its own sake. Bav’s hope of generating some controversy was somewhat undermined by the panel’s unanimous opinion that fiction should address political issues and indeed could hardly avoid doing so.
However, the reader response to the writer’s political message was less certain. For example Josie felt her stories featuring an elite ultra-wealthy and privileged vampire minority exploiting and indeed living off the blood of a disempowered majority accurately depicted the toxic inequality that haunts contemporary society. Some readers came away more in awe of how cool it would be to be a vampire (which tbf accurately reflects how contemporary media desensitises us to the abhorrent existence of billionaires by kidding ourselves we too could be that rich with just one lucky twist (bite?!) of fate).
When Bav challenged the audience to come up with a book that didn’t have a political element See Spot Run was nominated, which the panel quickly decided was a tense socio-political examination of migration as Geoff posited the question where was Spot going and why! (Editor’s note – Eric Hill actually didn’t write a book called See Spot Run – which is in fact the title of a comedy film about a drug sniffing dog going awol so definitely political).
Beth: I asked the panel if, having unanimously concurred that it wasn’t possible to write a story without politics, if it was possible to write a story putting personal politics aside and highlighting both sides of a political argument. Most panellists interpreted this by way of well no, as your villains need to have opposing views; thereby providing the answer perhaps that no, they can’t, as they automatically assumed the villain would have the political opinions opposed to their own. There was a certain amount of unconscious bias going on!
Theo: an interesting point there, Beth and a truly subversive way to write political speculative fiction would be to give the protagonist views diametrically opposed to the author’s own and make it a challenge for the reader to like them!
My second panel was focussed on The Self Published Fantasy Blog-Off story with me (T.O.Munro) moderating, our own Julia Kitvaria Sarene on the panel as a SPFBO judge and three SPFBO authors Gregory Kontaxis, Phil Williams and Jacob Sannox. After presenting SPFBO finalist medals to Trudie Skies and Wend Raven, I like to think we had an entertaining discussion lubricated by some rather fine Japanese Whiskey. It may be of use to potential SPFBO entrants to glean a few bits of advice by reviewing the panel which is available on Youtube thanks to the live-streaming of panel room one. (The SPFBO panel started at 3hrs 14 minutes into the stream, but there are nearly 12 hours of fantastic con experience for you to peruse)
Key SPFBO takeaways included
- “don’t be impatient for reviews” – from Gregory. The contest is 11 months long and the blogs work through the books thoroughly but steadily.
- “don’t be impatient to enter” – from Julia. A book cannot be entered twice, so make sure that it is in its best typo-free form rather than rushing it to market a year early
- “don’t be a dick” – from Julia. All the judges in SPFBO volunteer a considerable amount of time to the contest for free and it’s a community where people talk to each other and reputations can spread.
- (Linked to point 3. above) “Develop a thick skin” – from Phil. There can be only one winner (out of 300) so disappointment at some point is almost inevitable (97.7% certain).
- “Enjoy the ride” – from Jacob. The connections that you make with fellow authors and the sense of not being a hermit writing in a silo are the prizes that everyone can get.
Beth: This was an excellent panel, and I was very impressed with Theo’s moderating skills! (Theo: aw shucks, thanks Beth) There was plenty of excellent insight from the panellists and advice for any would-be SPFBOists. And of course, the age-old argument was raised – is it pronounced Spiffbo (yes) or Ess-pee-eff-bee-oh (don’t be ridiculous)
Theo: Grr don’t get me started on that Beth, being in the majority didn’t make the Ess-pee-eff-bee-oh-ers any more right than the Brexit voters!
In parallel with the SPFBO panel, Alicia Wanstall-Burke’s workshop on Archery in Fantasy proved a big draw (hey, I’m making Archery puns now!) with Alicia showing her formidable armour piercing arrows and deep knowledge of the subject.
The convention also featured two dealers room, one more focussed on books, the other on art – including some impressive gemstone jewellery from Diana’s Stellar Works, such as these gemstone embracing evocations of Yggdrasil – the world tree of Norse Mythos (at least that’s what it put me in mind of).
Both Guests of Honour submitted themselves to interrogation by interview with Adrian Selby putting GR (Geoff) Matthews under the spotlight. Having worked with Geoff and encouraged/incited each other in our fantasy blogging and writing, it was no surprise to hear that Geoff was a Geography teacher and that the realities of Geography drove and informed his writing – for example the unexplored undersea of the deep oceans, as alien to us as many a distant star system – which formed the setting for his Corin Hayes noir science fiction.
Beth: One of the last panels of the day ended up being a huge highlight; a Desert Island Mars panel led by Anna Stephens featuring Piotr Swietlik, S Naomi Scott, and Richard Gadz. Whatever the panel was supposed to be, Anna McGyvered it into a panel game with sweet-throwing and audience participation. Each author was facing abandonment on Mars, and had to argue the case for which person or item they would take with them as per Anna’s categories, who in turn would dish out points in a Qi-reminiscent entertainment-based method. For each category (person from real life, fictional character, food, pet, etc etc) a sweet was launched into the audience, and the person who caught it decided on the winner of that round. S Naomi Scott ended up our overall winner, with Henry Cavil in a bath and a red panda possibly having a lot to do with it.
Theo: see, there was so much panel excellence that one person would struggle to get to it all!
Once the dust finally settled on the panels and the delegates renewed their acquaintance with the bar, the committee set about reshaping panel room one for the evening ‘entertainment’ – which thankfully wasn’t live streamed.
It can be tricky – well impossible actually – to pitch the closing entertainment to everyone’s satisfaction. The barnstorming string quartet of BristolCon 2019 – capturing the whole bar for an hour of talented improvised fun – will live on in the memory (reminiscent of the steerage class party that Jack took Rose to party in the film Titanic). Nonetheless, entertaining without obstructing people’s desire to talk to friends and neighbours, is a difficult circle to square (or square to circle) and putting on a Karaoke event seemed to be what Sir Humphrey Appleby might have called a “brave decision.”
However, separating the entertainment from the bar meant those who wanted to opt out could and actually the vast majority opted in. Bav opened with an almost intimidating display of vocal talent but the expertise ranged sufficiently that no-one could be embarrassed at joining in with what was good natured fun. Both guests of honour were obliged to perform – with Ida the more gifted while Geoff was perhaps the more innovative – who would have expected a West Country Ken for I’m a Barbie Girl?! Quite possibly BristolCon have found their permanent entertainment feature.
Sunday was a morning, indeed a day of many partings as delegates left by plane, train or automobile. As the afternoon drifted by the BarCon gathering gradually dwindled to a single table of stalwarts sipping tea and waiting for transport connections, yet still generating fresh conversations and new connections on all things fantasy.
Part of the talk was around Glasgow WorldCon in August 2024 which Barbara James had been promoting in the Dealer’s Room and which almost everyone from BristolCon seemed determined to attend.
Comparisons were drawn with Dublin WorldCon of 2019 and the interlocking schedules of other fantasy conventions – like World FantasyCon and EasterCon.
There is a veritable menagerie of convention opportunities for determined con-goers, but each convention has its own distinctive character, venue opportunities/constraints and group dynamics. For example WorldCon – for those in publishing – is definitely a working convention with meetings to be scheduled and authors to be entertained, where BristolCon offers a more relaxed holiday experience.
Of course most of us are limited in how many ‘events’ we can attend in a year – alongside commitments to family holidays or children’s Halloween demands or the coldly financial expectations of whatever AI interface has taken the place of a bank manager these days.
For me BristolCon is a fixture in the convention firmament, as locked in as the pole star, with the chance for maybe one other excursion – maybe two – in any given year. If you are looking for a fun and friendly convention then this is a good place to start, but any convention can be a bit daunting for a tyro/newbie so my advice is work those social media connections in advance so you come with some potential con-buddies/connections lined up. Meanwhile, I’m off to practice my Karaoke – I’m sure BristolCon 2024 will welcome The Sound of Silence!