Stay at home book fest: Cymera 2020

Like its mythical namesake, who with various fire-breathing heads and snake-tail is nothing if not adaptable, Cymera Festival made the switch to digital-only this year with speed and aplomb.

Running over three days (5th – 7th June), panels, workshops, quizzes, and readings were attended through YouTube channels and live Zoom conferences, featuring an amazing array of UK authors from the worlds of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror.

I had the privilege of taking part in this year’s festival by filling one of its Brave New Words slots. I read at a live event called What If? featuring M.R. Carey, Kit Power, and Tim Lebbon (chaired by Phil Sloman). Like a support band you have to sit through before the main act, I kicked off the panel discussion with my reading – a piece from my forthcoming fantasy noir novel, Burying the Dragon. (All events were recorded and are now online, you can check this one out here.)

It’s a strange experience reading to a mostly invisible audience and the fact that the only faces I could see were those of three highly respected authors didn’t reduce the feeling of stage fright. I’d only a day or two before finished reading Tim Lebbon’s excellent new novel Eden and I’m a fan of M.R. Carey’s post-apocalyptic The Girl with All the Gifts series, so it was funny to find myself waving hello to them over the web cam.

The discussion that followed ranged from the authors’ latest works to climate change and, inevitably, pandemic and politics. Both the Coronavirus and the astonishing scenes of protest and police brutality in the US were unavoidable topics.

Horror writer Kit Power put it well: “We are all, at the moment, potential victims of forces that are completely beyond our control, whether that’s climate change or police brutality… Politics comes in [to my writing], it has to.”

Lebbon – whose latest novel, Eden, imagines large swathes of the Earth have been given back to nature, with humans banned from entering these ‘Virgin Zones’ as a way of trying to mitigate climate change – concurred: “Everything influences you. It all bleeds into what you produce… Subconsciously, you’ll write about it [the pandemic] anyway.”

“I don’t set out to write about contemporary issues,” Carey added, “but your worldview leads into that whether you like it or not… Post-apocalyptic literature is inherently political.”

While Carey’s prediction for the human race in his work is grim, the conversation closes with the maybe (?) more upbeat idea that at least the Earth will be fine, quickly forgetting all about the human race, as Lebbon’s Virgin Zones have in Eden.

Climate change and apocalypse also featured in the next event I attended – Global Warnings with Vicki Jarrett and Chris Beckett.

“Dystopias get a bad rap for being unrelentingly grim,” Jarrett said, “but it’s about finding the light. Digging for the hope.”

I really loved Jarrett’s cli-fi novel Always North when I reviewed it for Shoreline of Infinity last year, and having now heard more about Beckett’s latest novel, Beneath the World, A Sea, I’m keen to get hold of his book too.

Interestingly, Beckett’s story also features a mysterious ‘zone’ which has become separated or alienated from Earth. In this case, anything you do within the zone, you won’t remember when you leave – a wonderfully spooky and sinister idea. This has become a recurring theme in modern sci-fi – as well as Beckett and Lebbon, I’m also thinking of Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer and Infinite Ground by Martin McInnes. Each features a protagonist journeying into a kind of deep nature reserve, where the isolation of the landscape has given rise to something weird that alters the character.

Even Jarrett’s story sees main character Isabel journeying into the Arctic circle – the constant daylight and vast ice flows creating something seemingly both natural and unnatural – and being stalked across the ice by a vicious and unrelenting polar bear. (There’s so much more to this novel but it’s hard to talk about without spoilers, something Jarrett and chairperson Cat Hellisen – a wonderful SFF author herself – managed well.)

Politics is, of course, important to Always North and cli-fi in general: “How much responsibility do we bear as individuals?” Jarrett said. “How much is it down to corporate greed? People do things they don’t agree with because ‘That’s the way the world is’.” Isabel represents this in the book, doing a survey for an oil company she knows has bad intentions because needs the work. “Rampant individualism started as a good thing but has been pushed to extremes by capitalism. It blinds us to being a collective.”

“We all oscillate between looking after ourselves and looking after other people,” Beckett agreed.

The conversation moved to short stories, with both authors’ books beginning life as shorts. I love short stories myself – they can be quite divisive among readers – and Beckett described their appeal brilliantly: “There’s something gem-like about a short story… You can almost make something perfect.”

The next event I watched was a pre-recorded conversation between SFF legends Ken McLeod and Paul McAuley. Both gave a magnificent rundown of their extensive and prolific careers (McAuley, referencing that his latest novels have all been stand-alone works, joked “Is one too old to pull off a trilogy?”), their introduction to science fiction as youngsters, their first forays into writing and the convention scene in the 80s, and the ways the genre has changed and grown over the decades since. “All the young punks!” McAuley quipped about the ever-growing number of subgenres with the ‘punk’ suffix.

It was wonderful to hear how enthusiastic both authors still are about the genre – it’s massive popularity and the way it is becoming more inclusive to different cultural voices, each bringing unique points of view. “It’s no longer so monocultural, so monochrome…” McAuley said.

Again, these ‘unprecedented times’ (ugh, we’ll all be glad when things become precedented again, if they ever will) made their appearance, with both authors talking about the impossibility of writing near-future sci-fi at the moment, when it seems the story you’ve been working on can at moment be destroyed by some new curveball from our turbulent present. (McAuley has given himself a billion or so years of breathing space with his new novel, War of the Maps, set in the far-flung future.)  It reminded me of William Gibson having to go back to the drawing board with his latest work, Agency, in 2016 after the shock voting results in the US presidential election and the Brexit referendum.

The final event of the weekend for me was the 2000 AD panel with Michael Carroll, Joseph Elliott-Coleman, and Maura McHugh.

Although I’ve yet to read the comics, I’m familiar with Judge Dredd through the terrible 90s Sly Stallone film adaptation and the vastly better 2012 one starring Karl Urban as the taciturn, no-nonsense Dredd, and thought this would be a lively discussion. I wasn’t wrong!

The three authors have all recently written a book for the new series of Judge Dredd novellas, called Judges, which delves into the past of the Judging system, beginning around the 2040s, with each story moving forward in time towards to Dredd’s days in the latter decades of the century.

Series editor Carroll, who also penned one of the stories himself, has brought together some diverse voices to provide fresh takes on 2000 AD’s longest running series, which began back in 1977, created by writer John Wagner and artist Carlos Ezquerra.

Despite the moaning of certain corners of the comics fandom, comics have always been political, and none more so than Judge Dredd (I mean, come on, he’s a military-trained lawyer with the power to summarily execute people on the spot!). Elliott-Coleman – whose novella, The Patriots, sees fledgling Judges face a terrorist group the author described as “radicalised youth that believe only violence can affect change” and view the new Judging system as a totalitarian regime – put it bluntly: “If you sit down with one of my books and you’re just entertained, then I have failed.”

His colleagues were quick to point out that his story is, in fact, also very entertaining. I can vouch for this, having downloaded the book almost immediately after the event, as I found myself really intrigued by what Elliott-Coleman had to say about his work and had to check it out. The action is thick and fast and the body-count high, but as indicated by the above quote, Elliott-Coleman isn’t afraid to dive into the ethical quandaries of the Judging system and draw parallels with our own world.

Although mostly in agreement, series editor Carroll’s view is more restrained: “The politics shouldn’t crash in through the window, it should seep up from the floorboards and the crack under the door.”

Chairperson, Joe Gordon, pointed out the prescience of some of the events in McHugh and Elliott-Coleman’s work, considering the protests (and the violent reaction to these protests from the US police) following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of a white police officer. “With Trump and the far-right, I could see how there would be a point it would kick off,” Elliott-Coleman said. “I’m not surprised, I’m disappointed.”

All things considered, this was actually a great second year for Cymera – victory snatched from the fire-breathing jaws of disaster. Massive kudos must go to festival director Ann Landmann and her team for pulling it off and I myself owe her a huge thanks for involving me in Brave New Words, which was an excellent experience.

The announcement for next year’s festival has gone out already, which will hopefully see everyone able to attend in person once again at The Pleasence in Edinburgh. Although the digital format has worked so well it would be nice for some of this to carry over, giving those who can’t get to Edinburgh physically for whatever reason a chance to get involved.

Here’s looking to 2021!


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