Monday, August 22, 2016

Nine Worlds 2016

Nine Worlds has only been around for a couple of years (this is it’s third, i think) but it’s made a splash in that time with a reputation of accessibility, inclusivity and taking a different approach to fandom than many traditional cons. It’s aimed at everyone, but feels representative of the younger, more demographically diverse side of modern fandom, an attempt to move away from the gatekeeping and monoculture that the con scene can get a reputation for (fairly or not). This is our first trip to Nine Worlds - a pair of early-forties straight cisgender geeks, coming to see what the fuss is about.
I’m going to start with my first contact with the con, as it reveals a lot about the stances that it takes. When you get there to pick up your passes and welcome pack, you’re pointed to a couple of key things. First is that your pass can be heavily customised with simple markers like, for instance, your preferred gender pronouns. You can also colour your pass to indicate communication preferences, for example you may not want people to talk you, ever, and that can be clearly visible. If you don’t want to be photographed (even in the background) then that’s a different coloured lanyard. I’ll admit I felt a little old and dazed and out of touch. But here is the thing - I very rarely saw many of these options “in the wild” but it did make me check. So straight off everyone coming through the door is reminded to be a little bit mindful of the people around them, and it’s actually a brilliant thing. 

This also ties into the nature of the vast majority of the panels we attended, where audience participation was a key element. Nine Worlds state that they don’t really see a distinction between types of attendee (most of the guests wear the same pass as the rest of the con-goers, for instance) and that social flattening seeps through the fabric of the whole experience. We didn’t know anyone there, but still ended up in a good few random conversations and asides, asked questions and told jokes. I think the large gaps between panels also helps, as no-one is really rushing around so everyone’s stress levels stay low. I’d also say that some of the basic organisational stuff - big, clear maps on every level, for instance - is excellent and a lot of cons of all types could learn from it. 

Another rather wonderfully welcoming idea is that everyone gets five “cosplay tokens” when they register. These are to give out to any cosplayer you see that you think looks really cool, and when they collect a certain amount they got a small prize. I wasn’t dressed up, but Z spend a good chunk of Saturday in costume and it seemed like we couldn’t walk 10 meters without someone stopping us to give her token. Like a lot of the other ideas around Nine Worlds this feels designed to bake new innovations in fan culture into the heart of the experience, but in a controlled and respectful manner.
So that’s the atmosphere, but what about content? Nine Worlds is, in many ways, Con about Geek Culture, celebrating and analysing it, and that is reflected in it’s programming. There is a lot of critical analysis, and a fair bit of academia, and my big take away was that was many more panels that I wanted to see that I could humanly get to, and very few on the list that I felt I’d seen at other cons. I won’t go for the blow-by-blow here, but to call out a couple of favorites I’d say listening to an actual Egyptologist talk about Pyramids of Mars was fascinating, and a Philosophy Professor talking about Time Travel was probably by favorite panel of the  weekend. 

On the more participatory side of the panels, we went to two “Wild Speculation” panels on Game of Thrones and Doctor Who, which were effectively moderated roundtables for a few dozen people. I heard great things about the Bifrost Caberet that ended the Saturday night, but we were just too knackered for it, sitting in the Duke Mitchell Film Party for a bit (they showed a secret thing that was pretty awesome) before sloping off back to the hotel and collapsing. 

I guess it’s also traditional to mention some of the areas that didn’t work quite so well for us, although I’d stress that none of these gave us a bad experience. The “Expo” area was pretty underwhelming - I know this isn’t a retail-focused con but it felt small and a little bland to me. Also some of the panel rooms filled up pretty quick, and ended up turning up away; this was especially true of a bank of four rooms on the First Floor. I don’t think see I saw any panel with much in the way of space but these did seem to be the worst offenders and felt small for some of the scheduled items you’d expect to be popular. Oh and the bar felt horrendously expensive, but we are from “up North” and that’s probably just London prices! 

But these were pretty minor issues, all things considered. Nine Worlds manages to be stuffed with content and atmosphere without feeling crowded, busy without being overrun. It certainly seems to deliver on it’s promise of being an open and diverse environment, friendly and welcoming, and taking a forward looking view on what a Geek Con should be. It really was a fantastic experience, and I’m looking forward to going back next year.