Steer for the deep waters only

Robert Day's thoughts on his photography, his writing and his business

“They drink like a rugby club, but they’re as much trouble as a chess club.”

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The Week of Holidays is drawing to a close. Britain has been almost closed down; first there was Easter, which I’ll come back to later: then there was That Wedding; and tomorrow is May Day – well, today was actually May Day, but in Britain we always move our relevant holidays to the nearest convenient day so as to make a long weekend out of it. Doubtless the British Chambers of Commerce, the CBI and the Institute of Directors have moaned, but I suspect they took the time off as well.

Of The Wedding, all I’ll say is that it shared its date – 29th April – with another notable wedding. On that day in 1945, Adolf Hitler married Eva Braun in the festive surroundings of the Führerbunker. Draw your own conclusions. And as for May Day, it’s a holiday currently under threat from the Government who believe that it’s a day for socialists to dance around maypoles, and so not in line with Modern Thinking. They overlook the fact that May Day as a holiday has a much older pedigree, going back to our pagan roots – which I suppose causes opposition from other quarters. It does amuse me that people who moan about the “degradation of our culture” normally seem to be the people who know the least about what that culture really involves.

But I’m going to talk about an event I went to last weekend – the 62nd national Easter Science Fiction Convention (or “Eastercon”).

At this point, I suspect that many people have switched off, with an image of people wearing Spock ears or emoting about talking squid in outer space. Well, I suppose that these things could be found, if you looked hard enough. But the Eastercon is also an opportunity for people to socialise and to do business. There were talks by authors (don’t forget, it’s only a couple of years since science fiction author Alastair Reynolds had a £1 million advance for his next ten books, and that’s serious money in anyone’s books), presentations on the latest findings from the Herschel space telescope and an interesting presentation on Skylon 2, the British proposal for a commercial spaceplane, which has reached the stage of engine tests. Skylon draws on the development work that British Aerospace did for their commercial spaceplane project, HOTOL, back in the 1980s, and which Margaret Thatcher personally cancelled because she refused to allow a (then) nationalised company another £250,000 to complete development and start cutting metal on a prototype. The experience and knowledge that was in that project dissipated, and it’s taken thirty years to get it back together again. A more blatant example of political ignorance and stupidity cannot be imagined. For the sake of a quarter of a million pounds – pretty small beer even then – the UK lost a major lead on the Earth orbit launch market. had HOTOL been allowed to run to completion, we would have been ideally placed to exploit NASA’s current embarrassment over launching low Earth orbit (LEO) payloads.

As it is, Skylon is at the proof-of-concept stage, although it now has competition from other launch providers. Full development would take about ten years. The launch system also has a second stage booster under development to capture the market in geosynchronous orbit payloads (communications and broadcasting satellites); and the developers are also working on a pressurised man-rated passenger module capable of taking twenty people into orbit in a shirtsleeve environment. You can see more details here: http://www.reactionengines.co.uk/index.html .

One of the less well-known themes in science fiction is where would we be now in space had Apollo continued; a number of writers (notably Stephen Baxter with his novel Voyage) have explored this theme. The Skylon presentation was very professional and very optimistic; their business plan and income stream projections look no less unrealistic than those I used to come across in the old Day Job…

We also attended a number of talks from noted authors, listened to some panel discussions (including one where a certain Noted Author demonstrated his ignorance of Mars and an astrophysicist only agreed to participate on the understanding that he normally considered planets to be merely troublesome dust on his lens cap, though his knowledge was better than the author’s..) and chatted to friends old and new.

The Hilton Metropole Hotel at the Birmingham NEC was quite a good venue; the surroundings were remarkably pleasant (especially compared with last year’s offering, the Radisson at Heathrow airport) and surrounded by mature trees. You would hardly think there was a major exhibition centre three minutes away. I was particularly intrigued by the hotel’s claim to have a “Living Well” on site, though I didn’t see any sacrifices being thrown into it over the weekend…

Yes, this is the NEC!

We didn’t stay on site (especially as I only live ten minutes away), but the conference facilities looked perfectly adequate, and the staff were almost without exception pleasant, efficient and helpful. The only issue was the cost of food – definitely Hilton prices, but the quality made up for this. Part of this could be put down to the attitude of the convention organisers; Eastercon administration is about the only example I can think of, of a functioning anarchy, although there is now a large corpus of knowledge and experience available in running a weekend event for up to a thousand attendees. The title of this post is a direct quote from a friend who has run conventions of this sort in the past, and it sums up the experience of both convention committees and hotel managements.

Of course, I took my camera…

In other news, still no progress on the insurance front. On the other hand, I’ve had a couple of approaches to supply pictures, and I may have some news soon about a project that’s been slow-burning for a while.

Peter F. Hamilton in interview

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Written by robertday154

May 1, 2011 at 10:21 pm

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