Comics and Sci-Fi fun at the Edinburgh Book Festival
Over the last week and a bit I’ve been enjoying some time off and my annual sojourn at the Edinburgh International Book Festival, the largest public literary event on the planet – this year boasting an incredible thousand events. Of course I wasn’t at even a fraction of that number, but I did manage to catch some of the guest selector strand top Scottish science fiction scribe Ken MacLeod had this year, where Ken had several events with a great collection of excellent science fiction and fantasy writers, and some of the regular Stripped segment which takes in the comics (including chairing one of the events, which is always fun and interesting).
The first of Ken’s guest series I managed to catch included Charlie Stross and Jo Walton chatting with Ken about the “End Times, Crazy Years”. Which as you may well guess was looking at both science fiction dystopias and ruined futures and comparing them with the incredibly turbulent times we are living in today. Rich pickings as you can imagine – it often feels like at some point in recent years we have all slipped through some dimensional portal into a parallel reality, oft-theorised by by both SF&F (think Moorcock’s multiverse and many others) and actual theoretical physics. And that the parallel world we’ve slipped into, our Earth-2, is one of those were everything is screwed up…
Certainly SF has had plenty to say on the troubled future for many years, but for current writers, as Charlie Stross wryly observed, it offers as many problems as it does possible writing subjects – one of his recent novels dealt with a parallel dimension and a very satirical take on a messed up USA in that reality. And then real world got in the way and his satirical elements were superceded by the actual world seemingly hell-bent on becoming a satirical parody of itself. As he added, for the next books he is thinking on running back to the safe and welcoming arms of space opera, half a million years in the future and on the other side of the galaxy, where current events won’t overtake forward looking fiction. I can hardly blame him.
The other of Ken’s strands which I managed to get along to was a quartet – Ken himself, with SF academic and historian Farah Mendlesohn, academic and SF&F writer Adam Roberts, and author Jo Walton, all names I’d imagine are pretty well-known to SF&F fans. The theme this time was “What Makes SF So Great?” and it lived up to its name, with the four writers engaging in a discussion of what it was about our beloved genre that made it so compelling, such a wide and diverse church that takes in so many different voices, subjects and approaches. Given the composition of the panel it came as no surprise that the talk started off with some questions posed by Ken, but rapidly turned into more of a natural conversation and discussion, taking in both personal examples and referencing academic literary studies of the genre and related fields.
(Above: From right to left: Farah Mendelsohn, Adam Roberts, Jo Walton and Ken MacLeod at the Edinburgh International Book Festival; below: Jo Walton and Ken MacLeod; bottom pic, Adam Roberts, Ken MacLeod and Jo Walton signing after their talk)
In fact it became more like the panel discussion at a science fiction convention, which of course is no bad thing for an audience full of SF readers! I spoke to Ken later and he confirmed that he was hoping to reproduce something of the SF convention panel debate at the book festival. The discussions and even arguments (friendly arguments, I must add, and well-reasoned) were compelling and quite often it felt like being at a literary celebrity version of my own long-running SF book group as people agreed or disagreed on points, raised references and examples and generally gave the audience a lot to think about. A terrific evening’s discussions for any reader of SF.
Among the Stripped events at this year’s book fest there was a special one to mark forty years of Britain’s most famous comic, 2000 AD, with two former editors, David Bishop and Steve McManus discussing the history of the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic and their own personal perspectives from their time time as Tharg. McManus must get the award for slickest book plug – as the chairman mentioned Steve’s own recent book about his time as editor of early 2000 AD, The Mighty One, he casually parted his shirt to reveal his T-shirt emblazoned with the book’s cover (“available in the festival’s bookstore now!”), which drew a good laugh, and David’s own excellent history of 2000 AD (originally published for the 35th anniversary, recently updated and republished for this year’s 40th).
Most of the talk was pretty positive – despite a string of uncaring corporate owners there was a lot of fondness for the comic and their time guiding it, the authors and artists they worked with (often giving some now well-known names their break) and the stories and characters that came out of those years, such as the legendary Alan Moore series Halo Jones (sadly never completed). Steve modestly declined much credit for commissioning this now iconic work, it was just Alan with a good pitch and Ian Gibson on board for art, so he knew there was a safe pair of hands working with Moore. Bishop was coerced into talking a little about some conflict, notably with Brit comics godfather Pat Mills, but he was also at pains to note that he tells one version of this, Pat another. Both were more than satisfied that the comic not only still continues, but has been in the stable home of Rebellion, an owner who actually cares for and loves the comic.
Also in the new Bosco Theatre (a lovely looking venue, like an Edwardian Spiegeltent crossed with a mini circus big top – only drawback was the bench seating was very, very hard on delicate bottoms) on George Street (the festival had expanded beyond Charlotte Square this year across the road into the west end of George Street) was another Stripped event, this time with David Baillie making his debut at the festival, and Rob Davis making his third appearance. David was talking about his recent DC/Vertigo series Red Thorn, which mixed Scots myth with fantasy, much of it set in modern day Glasgow, and how he got to this point in his career, from small-press, self-published work to 2000 AD scripts, novel, televisual scripts and getting to pitch to DC Comics, and it was an interesting history (also nice to see the indy to 2000 AD to DC route pioneered back in the early 80s still works for some creators).
Rob was here two years to discuss the first in his current trilogy, the remarkable Motherless Oven (I had the pleasure of chairing that event myself and we had a great talk in company with Karrie Fransman). This year he had the second volume, the even more intriguing Can Opener’s Daughter (reviewed here). This was a chance to hear more about this unusual series Rob’s been crafting, which mixes the very mundane, recognisable, everyday world with some delightfully bizarre fantasy. I was also personally pleased to see Rob having to try to explain to the audience what they books were about, as I’ve reviewed the first two myself, thought they were superb, but also that they were extremely hard to try and sum up for articles or reviews, which he acknowledged himself as he had to try to explain them.
I was on chairing duty again this year, always enjoyable to do, and this year I was chatting to Blighty’s own Hannah Berry and New Zealand novelist and comicker Sarah Laing. Sarah had a graphic memoir, Mansfield and Me, which I hadn’t seen until the festival sent me a copy prior to the event, for the simple reason that it hasn’t been published here (yet, fingers crossed, publishers, it’s fascinating and well worth considering for a UK edition, hint, hint). Sarah splits the biography between the life and work of Kiwi author Katherine Mansfield, and her own life, from childhood (her gran’s house being just along from Mansfield’s old home) through to adulthood and how Mansfield’s life and work inspired her as she realised she wanted to be a writer, then the struggle to actually get published, the problems, like Mansfield, with being so geographically distant in New Zealand. Sarah was also good enough to tell us a little about the scene back home.
Hannah was returning to the book festival with her latest work, Livestock (reviewed here), which is a work that could easily have slotted into the Ken MacLeod event on dystopian futures I described at the start of this report. Livestock is described by Paul Mason as a “parable for the Trump era”, but I know it takes Hannah around three years to work on her fully-painted graphic novels and when she started the political earthquakes of Brexit and Trump didn’t exist, so we discussed how it felt to see some of the aspects of modern life she was satirising coming into reality as she completed her book (we decided again the idea that we had all slipped into a parallel reality where everything was a bit screwed up was quite likely, and Hannah apologised in case her work had somehow opened the portal).
We also discussed gender in comics, both for their characters and for the authors themselves working in publishing, routes into becoming a published author and how to actually make a living – famously Hannah recently revealed in an interview that she was not returning to full-length graphic work any time soon as the amount of time compared to the reward was simply not sustainable, Sarah, like many writers, also earns a crust teaching, editing or doing graphic work in addition to her writing. I know that’s similar to a lot of creators (unless you are lucky enough to have some serious bestsellers or movie option money), even when you struggle all the way to being published and getting some good critical acclaim it’s often not enough to live on so there are other jobs to pay for the daily bread.
Both Saran and Hannah also talked a bit about their own working process and approach to writing, which was fascinating, and given it’s a book festival crowd you can be sure there are others in the audience who also do some writing themselves, and they too usually find some insights into an author’s working practices to be interesting and helpful. It was a very enjoyable evening and a pleasure to chair two women comickers who had very different but equally fascinating books to discuss.
And sadly that’s it all over for another year, festival time concludes and Edinburgh quiets down a bit… Till next August….