Saturday, July 14, 2012

'TFFCon' the Coach & Horses Pub, 13th July 2012

In the Coach and Horses last night I was a stranger in a strange land.  TFFCon was a meeting  set up by 'The Future Fire', who publish new writing in "Speculative, Cyberpunk and Dark fiction".  The room was packed with the authors and fans, and worryingly, everyone except me seemed to know everybody else.  When I was invited, I figured it sounded like a neat change of pace and was attracted by the fact that they profess to promote fiction with a socio-political, queer, feminist or ecological focus.  At the very least I thought it'd be a fun thing to write about after the fact.

It's a bit ironic that with this focus on social inclusiveness that I felt like an interloper.  There were conversations where names or references would be dropped, and I would have no idea what was being talked about.  Everybody there was nice and friendly, but at the same time I felt like I was interacting with people with a totally different set of cultural reference points to me.  

The meat of the night was people reading excerpts from their long-form work, short stories or poems.  These varied in quality.  There seems to be some difficulty in finding the sweet spot between good writing and good oration.   You can have a fantastic bit of writing, but if you mumble through it then it's all for naught.  Conversely, you can speak as clear as day, but if what you're reading is terrible, then it's just easy to understand terribleness.

I think one of the main problems with these short readings is that science fiction or fantasy writing focuses on world-building more than pretty much every other genre of writing.  Indeed, it seems at times that the world is the focus, and the characters and plot are an afterthought.  So how do you pick an excerpt to read?  If you leap right into the action then you're throwing the audience into something they cannot possibly hope to understand.  This is a perfectly effective literary device in book form, where the reader can trust that all of these out there concepts will be explained further down the line, but in short form it tends to lead to confusion.  On the other hand, if you do a reading that's more focussed on the nitty gritty of your fictional space then you run the risk of it being overly dry and technical.  Without some kind of emotional connection why should we care about your fictional universe?  Is it enough to just admire someone's imagination in setting it up?

The objectives of 'The Future Fire' in providing inclusive and socially conscious fiction are laudable, but on some level seem to me to run counter to the genres they promote. Part of the allure of science fiction and fantasy writing has to be a sense of escapism, to spend a few hours in worlds where good and evil are clearly defined and the individual can empower themselves or realise they're a 'chosen one'.  I think the type of fiction that 'The Future Fire' publishes is a reaction against cliche on some level, but with mixed results.  Naturally, a talented author can (and should, I think) make fiction in any setting relatable to the life of the reader, but the further away from a recognisable reality we travel, the harder it becomes to explore social issues in a concrete way.   

That's why I think the best things I heard last night were those which took absurd concepts and wrapped them up in the mundane.  Tori Truslow's work in progress piece about a gay royal wedding in 2030s London was both thoughtful, considerate and, importantly, funny.  It successfully reframed the contemporary debate about gay marriage through the lens of the future, a tactic which exposes modern arguments against it as regressive and shortsighted.  There were also some hilarious and creepy extrapolations of how social media and surveillance technology might combine.  My favourite was the notion of a sentient Boris Bike (now in the future referred to simply as a 'Boris') implying that someone might need to lose a bit of weight, or that they should ride in order to gain 'Oyster Points'.   I find myself more impressed with someone that can twist recognisable aspects of the modern world into a believable nightmare than with some of the other readings which seemed to recombine existing fictional devices in a different order rather than to innovate.

The success of this piece also underlines the effectiveness of humour in conveying a message.  There is a rich British tradition of satirising the modern world through logically extending trends into the future, the most notable example being Judge Dredd's Mega-City One, or Warren Ellis' Transmetropolitan, both of which Truslow's reading reminded me of.  Along similar lines, another reading I enjoyed was Paul Graham Raven's surreal story about an editor being a badger (incidentally, small woodland creatures popped up alarmingly frequently in various stories throughout the night).  I'm a fan of stories which rely on one very surreal aspect in an otherwise realistic universe and explore the consequences and effects of this one change.  Again, the author grounded the fantastic in something we can identify with, both in the behaviour of the characters and the world they inhabit, while also keeping a somewhat ironic and detached viewpoint on events.  A great recipe for success.

At one point in the night there was an experiment where authors read stories in their native languages of Portuguese and Polish.  The Brazilian author, Fabio Fernandes, seemed to have taken the time to pick something that worked lyrically without necessarily having to understand the content.  Even so, there were handholds for the English-speaking audience to cling to. Names like Orville and Wilbur Wright, or Henry Ford were easily comprehensible, giving us an (extremely) vague idea of what Fernandes was talking about.  Being able to understand just a few words is almost like having a Rosetta Stone, and rightly or wrongly we feel we might have a chance of working out some kind of meaning from it.  

Unfortunately, the reading in Polish was less successful.  The author chose to read a seemingly random page from his diary.  Telling us this this lowers our expectations dramatically, as does telling the audience that this is a mere example of what the Polish language sounds like.  That's all well and good, but I'd at least like to think I'm missing out on something wonderful rather than not being able to understand his personal record of a dinner in Islington.

It's telling that throughout the night there was no real criticism of any piece of work.  There were a few really bad readings, but you wouldn't be able to tell from hearing or seeing the audience.  With a few small exceptions, everyone politely and quietly paid attention to the person speaking, even if what they were reading out wasn't very good.  At times like this the atmosphere seems to transform into that of a self-help group; a place where anyone can present their work and get validation from their peers.  A telling moment was at the end when an author got a response from their publisher about their book and read out the praise and criticism to the group.  It had a mild tinge of the confessional to it, of self-flagellation, and at that moment I fully appreciated the sense of community and mutual support in the room.  I still have my suspicions that events like this function as a kind of echo-chamber of praise, but if the worst case scenario is that someone writing godawful fiction gets a boost to their confidence then how harmful can that be?


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2 Responses to “'TFFCon' the Coach & Horses Pub, 13th July 2012”

Keith Lawrence said...
July 14, 2012 at 7:07 PM

"At times like this the atmosphere seems to transform into that of a self-help group"

It's a common problem with writing groups - written work often being a very personal thing it can be extremely hard to find the correct way to comment on something without falling into simple destructive criticism, so people take the easy way out.

That said, TFFCon did not (unless I missed something in Djibril's introduction) set out to be a writer's circle. The intent was to have people read things, not to give feedback to improve on their work. I suspect most people, as I did, were spurred to polish things by the prospect of reading them anyway, so it may have had that side-effect in practise, but an evening in which serious discussion of readings took place would have to be limited, surely, to at most three pieces.

(TL;DR: Nice write-up, but it seems a little harsh to knock TFFCon for not being something it wasn't intending to be.)

londoncitynights said...
July 15, 2012 at 12:14 AM

Glad you enjoyed the write-up. I was trying to criticise very gently by saying it was like a self-help group (maybe I should have said 'support group'). I've never seen a roomful of friendlier writers!

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