Welcome back to the British Genre Fiction Focus, Tor.com’s regular round-up of book news from the United Kingdom’s thriving speculative fiction industry.
This past Saturday, we heard that Jonathan Ross had volunteered his time to take on the responsibilities of Toastmaster at LonCon3 later in the year. The news was—to put it politely—not well received by the community. What followed was a day of debate that ended as surprisingly as it began.
Later on, Joe Abercrombie fills us in on the future of The First Law, Nick Harkaway considers the Kitschies, Damien Walter wonders whether we’re already living in a sort of singularity, and the better to top Odds and Sods off with something pretty, Orbit have hosted a cover art extravaganza of their own.
The Lon Con
Cast your minds back to the weekend, when it was announced that “leading TV personality and cultural commentator Jonathan Ross will be the Master of Ceremonies for the 2014 Hugo Awards Ceremony,” to take place at the 72nd Worldcon in London this August.
Ross, in case you weren’t aware, “has had a long career as a TV and radio host and is also a film critic, comics writer, and video game developer. He has been a champion of science fiction and fantasy in all its forms throughout his career, and is one of the genre’s most vocal enthusiasts.”
The briefing I received was full of this sort of exuberance, and to be sure, securing such a popular personality was as good as guaranteed to put the forthcoming con in the spotlight. We had Neil Gaiman to thank for that, apparently.
Predictably absent from the press release, however, was any acknowledgement of Ross’ spectacular fall from grace in 2008, when he and Russell Brand had to bid goodbye to the BBC after leaving offensive—not to mention sexist and insensitive—messages on the answerphone of the actor Andrew Sachs.
Ross has appeared here and there in the six years since, putting out a fair few folks in the process, and though he’s a long way away even today from regaining his mega-celebrity status, his taking on the tasks of Toastmaster at the coming con certainly would have drawn attention to the ceremony.
The question was, what sort of attention? And would it be good for the genre Worldcon is meant to celebrate?
Several British Genre Fiction Focus favourites played a part in what became a raging debate. Christopher Priest, to begin with, didn’t mince words whilst talking about his thoughts on Ross. Their paths had crossed in the course of a roadshow ringing in the release of The Prestige. Ross was to attend the launch event:
He burst sensationally through the main door of the restaurant, ran through the waiting crowd and leapt on top of a table. He started shouting. He was sorry he was late, but hey, something funny had happened that day! He told the story, which was funny about someone else and didn’t involve Simon & Schuster’s books, or their writers, or their autumn list. Everyone laughed politely. Getting into his stride, Mr Ross told more jokes: about his wife (who had written a book based on The X-Files for S&S), about his television programme, about his own lamentable lack of time for reading. Most of his fun was made at other people’s expense. He barely paused for breath. His voice filled the room. He went on for ages.
He came over as someone who was clearly sharp-witted and intelligent, but his manner was sleazy, tacky, uninterested in anyone but himself. His interest in books in general was token, and seemed to exist only as an opportunity to make more jokes.
Charles Stross took a different tack. His objections to Ross’ appointment were more about the possible fallout resulting from his involvement than that latter’s questionable character. As The Laundry Files writer wrote on Antipope:
Regardless of Mr. Ross’s personality and track record, it is clearly the case that he has a history of scrapping with tabloid journalists, then being quoted out of context.
The problem I see is that while fandom is in the process of cleaning house, inviting him—or anyone with a controversial media profile—to be Hugo toastmaster is like rolling out a welcome mat at the Worldcon front door that says “muck-rakers welcome.” There’s a lot of muck to be raked, even before we get into Daily Mail photographers stalking cosplayers.
Worldcon should be safe space for fans, and inviting a high profile media personality who has been targeted by the tabloids is going to cause collateral damage, even if nothing happens, simply by making many fans feel less safe.
Authors also. See this series of incensed tweets by Mira Grant’s not-so-secret identity Seanan McGuire:
Wait. WAIT. They’re letting JONATHAN ROSS present the Hugos? WHAT THE FUCKING FUCK.
You know, I’ve really enjoyed knowing that, were I to be nominated for a Hugo, the host wouldn’t see me and make fat jokes.
Thanks, @loncon3, for taking that small bit of comfort and reassurance away from me.
One of the organisers of the event, Farah Mendlesohn, went so far as to tender her resignation specifically because of the Chairs’ decision:
I spent all of this week arguing with the Chairs. It was made clear to me that this was not for the Committee to decide. It was further made clear to me, as the conversation progressed, that the Chairs knew in advance that I would be unhappy, and that one of the Chairs was not even prepared to discuss the issues of Jonathan Ross’s public abuse of women (that issue specifically: that Chair was prepared to discuss and excuse other issues).
In the interests of balance, there were a few folks out there in Ross’ corner. Sarah Pinborough “watched in disbelief as the genre [ate] itself,” whilst screenwriter Tony Lee tweeted that it’s “great to see that genre folk hate rudeness but are fine with cyber bullying.”
There’s some truth to their comments, too. You should see some of the tweets Ross received. That said, he didn’t do his case any favours by responding to them with accusations of slander.
Long story slightly less long, by the end of the day his appointment was announced on, Ross tweeted that he’d been defeated:
I have decided to withdraw from hosting the Hugo’s @loncon3 in response to some who would rather I weren’t there. Have a lovely convention.
The organisers immediately accepted his “gracious [...] resignation, with regret.”
So. Jonathan Ross will no longer be involved in Worldcon. A win for genre fiction?
It’s hard to tell. But probably, yes. Ross is, I feel, mostly well-meaning, however his brand of humour is hardly harmless. And I’m inclined to agree with Stross’ comments that anything he does is destined to attract attention from all the wrong quarters—attention that could do more harm than good given the many and various problems we face as a community today.
But could it be that finally shining a spotlight on these issues would toughen us up some—making the knowledge that something really does need to be done more pressing, perhaps?
I... can’t quite decide. Thoughts from the peanut gallery, please!
Odds and Sods
- Orbit hosted a cover art extravaganza of their own late last week, revealing the look of some of the year’s most exciting new books, including Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie, Symbiont by Mira Grant, and the first volume of The Custard Protocol by Gail Carriger.
- In this week’s Weird Thing, Damien Walter wonders whether we’re already living in the technological singularity. Short answer: only if we suppose we’ve “been living in it since early humans first wielded tools and made fire.” So no. The piece is well worth a read, though.
- Over at Orbit, commissioning editor Jenni Hill of late saved a book called Battlemage from the slush pile, before signing its author, a British marketing man called Stephen Aryan, for a trilogy based on his apparently “polished” debut.
- The Managing Director of Waterstones, James Daunt, recent went on record to say the website of Britain’s biggest bookseller is “pathetic” and “unacceptable.” In other news, there’ll be a new one soon.
- Great to see Helen Oyeyemi dismiss claims that her books are, at bottom, all about race and migration. Instead, she says “White is for Witching was my haunted-house/vampire story. But people get a bit excited if there’s a black person and say, ‘Oh this is about that thing’ when actually it’s about expanding the genre.” Read the rest of the lively interview here.
- Orion plan to publish a new Kate Mosse novel this very September. “The Taxidermist’s Daughter is described as ‘a Gothic psychological thriller’ which deals with a series of grisly murders which rock a flood-beset village in West Sussex in 1912.” I’m in, I think. I really did like The Mistletoe Bride...
- Joe Abercrombie has been keeping busy recently. His latest progress report includes confirmation of a forthcoming short story collection, to be released in early 2016, and a return to the world of the First Law once he’s done with his current Half a King trilogy.
- Whilst packing up the 234 books he had to consider for the Kitschies, Nick Harkaway reflects on the particulars of the process and the “slippery” definition of what is and isn’t progressive.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He’s been known to tweet, twoo.