The Panel That Wouldn’t Die

Last week I blogged about my most excruciating panel at a con – the one where I had no idea what the panel was about but no one believed me and kept asking me questions. This week it’s time for ‘the panel that wouldn’t die’ – my first and only appearance as a moderator.

Yes, it’s Westercon again. My first appearance at a US con, and my plan to volunteer for everything is backfiring spectacularly. Looking back at the Westercon 2007 program, I see that the two panels I’m blogging about were actually back to back – which goes a long way to explaining why I ended up channelling Jodie Foster, as Nell the feral child, in the second panel. That and shell shock.

But at least I understood what this earlier panel was about

Our Future Military: tactics, strategy and weapons. And I had an idea what a moderator did – I’d watched a few in action and had taken notes. I decided I’d be more of a laissez faire moderator. After all, we were all adults.

My first inkling that this panel was going to be different came when I saw people arrive. There were lots of them and many were in uniform – or wearing military caps or T-shirts. Not a furry in sight. On my last panel I’d had an elderly man, dressed as a caveman and sporting a bone through his nose, in the front row. This time I had a wall of former soldiers.

And I was the lone Englishman in the room. The one who’d flown over from cheese-eating surrender monkeyland. I took a deep breath and made a mental note not to annoy anyone – don’t mention the 1776 Insurgency, 1812, the burning down of the White House or anything remotely to do with the IRA.

It started well. I did the introduction. The panel introduced themselves. I nudged the topic onto future warfare…

…and somehow we catapulted back to Vietnam. Where we stayed for long periods. I tried to nudge the conversation into the future, but people really wanted to talk about Vietnam. And it wasn’t just the panel – it was the audience. In fact the audience were initiating as much of the dicussion as the panel. This was moderator fail of epic proportions. It’s not that I didn’t try. It’s just that nothing stuck. One hint of a future weapon and suddenly we’re back to Vietnam. For one moment I thought we were making progress – we made it all the way to Iraq and post 9-11 conflict. But then someone started talking about the Patriot Act and nuking various Middle Eastern countries.

As moderator I intervened, and before I knew it I was doing exactly what I said I wouldn’t – talking about the IRA – and internment and how in the 70s the hard-liners had convinced the British government that they knew who all the terrorists were and that locking them all up without trial would stop the troubles.

Except that intelligence is never as good as the lobbyists say it is. Innocent people are arrested by mistake. Guilty people are missed. And for every innocent person you arrest you enrage many more, shifting opinion against the government, and radicalising the young. Internment was the best recruiting sergeant the IRA ever had.

Once back in the 70s we never made it back out. Except for a swift sojourn in WWII and WWI.

By this time we’d used up our allotted hour and the discussion showed no signs of easing up. There was barely a gap to get a word in edgeways and when I did – people would listen politely, nod, then resume where they left off. Personally I think moderators should be armed. A shotgun kept under the table so you could take it out and blast a couple of shots into the ceiling when things got out of hand.

At the 75-minute mark I tried to end the panel. Luckily the organisers had allowed an extra 30 minutes for over-run and to let people have a coffee before the next panel. But no one wanted to leave. The only positive I can take from the experience is that there were no embarrassing silences. This was a panel of shock and awe, where every second was filled with discussion and no past conflict was left unturned.

But it wouldn’t end. I held up my watch. I held up my hands. On 80 minutes, the first panellist gave up and ran for the door. I thought of joining him but moderators, like ship’s captains, go down with their panel.

When the second panellist fled on 85 minutes, a few in the audience joined them. But others started walking up to our table to continue the discussion at close quarters.

The panel was now a bar discussion without drinks. People milled around the front of the room, holding half a dozen conversations.

I crept out. And walked straight into a panel on experimental physics and psychology that I had no idea of what it was about, or why I was on it. But at least it finished on time.


Chris Dolley is an English author living in France with a frightening number of animals. His novelette, What Ho, Automaton! has just been announced as a finalist for the WSFA Small Press Award for short fiction. More information about his other work can be found on his BVC bookshelf .
An Unsafe Pair of Handsa quirky murder mystery set in rural England charting the descent and rise of a detective on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Which will break first? The case, or DCI Shand?
Medium Dead – a fun urban fantasy chronicling the crime fighting adventures of Brenda – a reluctant medium – and Brian – a Vigilante Demon with an impish sense of humour. Think Stephanie Plum with magic and a dash of Carl Hiaasen.
What Ho, Automaton! – Wodehouse Steampunk. Follow the adventures of Reggie Worcester, consulting detective, and his gentleman’s personal gentle-automaton, Reeves. It’s set in an alternative 1903 where an augmented Queen Victoria is still on the throne and automata are a common sight below stairs. Humour, Mystery, Aunts and Zeppelins!
French Fried true crime, animals behaving badly and other people’s misfortunes. Imagine A Year in Provence with Miss Marple and Gerald Durrell.
International Kittens of Mystery. If you like a laugh and looking at cute kitten pictures this is the book for you. It’s a glance inside the International Kittens of Mystery – the only organisation on the planet with a plan to deal with a giant ball of wool on a collision course with Earth.

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The Panel That Wouldn’t Die — 4 Comments

  1. It sounds like the people in the room had a great time.

    For future reference, my suggestion would be, at the “Time’s Up” mark, to simply say “We can continue this panel in the bar…” and get up from the table. Audiences are often like ducklings, and will follow a moderator anywhere.

  2. At least, when you were moderator, you didn’t treat us all to a monologue that all the technical details on *exactly* how Enron hosed the state of California. Terrifyingly enough, your panel was still better than that one. Honest.