New Column: Armchair Anarchist on SF Conventions

I have been a science fiction reader from the age of nine. It eventually became my staple literary diet over the years, after a teenage phase of reading RPG spin-off novels. But it was only comparatively recently that I discovered the science fiction community – the world of ‘fandom’. Once I started reading SF magazines, and writing articles for SF publications (such as this esteemed website) I realised there was a lot more to it than just reading novels in the isolation of my flat. Late last year, I decided that it was time I attended my first convention.

I had heard about Worldcon, the international SF gathering which last year was held here in the UK, but it was way out of my financial reach. Eastercon however, the annual UK literary SF convention, was this year to be held in the same location (Glasgow), and offered a more budget-conscious opportunity (enhanced by the fact that a fellow fan lived nearby, and was willing to lend me some floor-space for the duration of the long weekend). And here began the learning curve.

First of all, one does not pay for admission to a convention; one purchases a membership thereof. £55 bought me an attending membership, good for the entire event (April 14th to 17th). It was at this point I realised I had very little idea what to expect of a convention, having never met an attendee. The average person has a conception of them that involves a lot of clichés; everyone I mentioned it to made the inevitable jokes about hundreds of people with prosthetic pointy ears or Klingon outfits. Granted, there are conventions like that, but Eastercon is a more book-orientated event. Plus it is more ‘fannish’ – less a commercial festival than a democratic gathering of the UK SF community.

My friend-with-a-floor, a fellow member of the Iain M. Banks online forum who attended the con with me on the Friday, lives about 35km outside Glasgow, so I was not right in the thick of the action for the whole weekend like the people who stayed in the convention hotels. Luckily Scottish public transport is a lot more affordable and efficient than it is down here on the South coast, so I was able to commute in each day by train. I had arranged with the other staff of Interzone magazine (for whom I write novel reviews) to be a volunteer on their dealer table. This was a chance to meet people whom I had only ever communicated with electronically ‘in the flesh’, and to meet other members of the community by osmosis, thanks to Interzone’s pervasive influence in the UK SF scene.

However, the Interzone team weren’t able to make it until the Saturday morning, so my friend and I were very much ‘noobs’ for the whole of the Friday. This perturbed us not at all. We rapidly discovered the atmosphere at the event was very convivial and inclusive, lacking the social barriers that normal life often throws in the way of meeting new people. United by the common interest of the convention, people quite cheerfully started up conversations apropos of nothing at all. This situation was no doubt aided by the presence of a well stocked real ale bar in the lobby of the con hotel.

(Note for non-UK citizens – ‘real ale’ is a bizarre sub-culture that revolves around the manufacture and consumption of ale made by traditional methods; many SF fans are real ale fans as well, though the converse is not the case. ‘Real ale’ is unlike regular draught beers in a number of ways, most notably in that it is less gassy. The same is not necessarily true of its aficionados…)

The biggest surprise for me, coming from a background working in the music industry where ‘the artist’ and ‘the punter’ are usually kept apart as a matter of principle, was the lack of barriers between the fans and the authors. Indeed, many of the authors were con attendees before achieving their success and tend to mingle with their readers as equals at these events. This was illustrated quite sharply when my friend and I went outside for a cigarette break, and ended up having a chat with Ken Macleod, who (flatteringly) remembered a review of one of his books that I wrote on my blog a while back. We were also privileged later that night, after meeting up with a few other members of the Iain M. Banks forum, to encounter the object of our mutual obsession. The editor of The Banksoniain (an IMB fanzine) had informed Mr. Banks by email that a bunch of his fans would be attending the con, and invited him to join us for a drink. To our intense surprise and gratification, he did so – he even bought us all a round of drinks and chatted with us for a good hour or so. A great writer and a good man as well. (A more detailed account of this meeting will be available in the next issue of The Banksoniain.)

Of course, there are plenty of more formal goings-on at the convention, such as ‘panel’ discussions and small ‘kaffeklatsch’ discussion groups. In these, the fans get to hear authors and other representatives of the industry (critics, publishers, illustrators etc) expound upon subjects that may or may not be directly connected to their field of expertise. The panel discussions cover a range of topics, from the serious SF-nal stuff (‘The New Calvinism: does posthumanism mean uploaded salvation for the few?’) to the lighter tongue-in-cheek arenas (‘Orbital Cleavage: the practicalities of SF costumes and the way illustrators draw the female physique’ – a very well-attended panel indeed). The audience usually can (and inevitably does) chip in with its own views and opinions, to a greater or lesser degree. Sometimes the panels stay ‘on-topic’ and sometimes they veer off wildly. Some attendees go to loads of panels, while some avoid them almost entirely. There are no hard-and-fast rules.

There are also a fair number of ceremonies over the course of a convention. Eastercon is the traditional venue for the presentation of the BSFA awards; Geoff Ryman’s ‘Air’ scooped Best Novel at the ceremony on Saturday night (other results available here).

There are also other awards and contests, many of which are concerned with the close-knit community of long-time convention attendees and organisers (known in the argot as ‘smofs’, or ‘secret masters of fandom’). An explanation of these strangely political but light-hearted goings-on will have to be left to someone who has been to more than one con – I asked a lot of questions, but still feel somewhat mystified by it all. True knowledge, it seems, comes only from experience! The mysteries extend to the organisation of future cons as well, with cryptic promotional gambits and politicking occurring all weekend long.

More easily understood by the beginner is the dealer’s room, which is fairly self-explanatory. Here, various booksellers, fan-clubs and organisations set up their wares for sale. For any book-junky such as myself, it is a lethal honey-trap that consumes not only the money in your wallet but the remaining space in your baggage – here is the stack of books that I returned home with: some bought, some gifted, some won on the BSFA tombola. The really frightening thing is that the stack only stayed that small due to lack of money…

So much occurs at a convention that attempting to cram it all into an article like this is akin to stuffing all the books one has purchased into an already-full rucksack for the journey home – no matter how hard you squeeze, there just won’t be enough space. But highlights that shine in memory or stand out in my notebook include: a lecture on the intersection of science and literature in the Victorian era; Charles Stross explaining the mysteries of the ‘slush pile’; plastic-wrapped blocks of David Eddings paperbacks being used as stand-ins for stage steps; browsing the artworks on display; watching the ‘Masquerade’, a costume competition replete with young fanlings, and other fans old enough to know better; cajoling people to subscribe to Interzone, only to find out they were either already regular readers or (more embarrassingly) contributors; briefly attending the Finnish contingent’s room-party (whisky and Scandinavian conversations) before having to leave early to get the last train out of town; a massed paper-airplane battle in the foyer area on Friday night; young volunteers (aka ‘gophers’) distributing the convention newsletter; plugging Futurismic relentlessly; and discussing the arrest-risk of live role-playing in public places.

Suffice to say, I enjoyed myself thoroughly. I am informed that ‘all cons are not created equal’, and so am therefore hesitant to make any sweeping statements about them in general. But I can safely say that Eastercon appears to be a brilliant weekend for anyone who loves science fiction media, especially books, and that I shall definitely be attending next year’s event in Liverpool. I have already started saving money for my membership, and towards a larger bag for my luggage…

This article is dedicated to:

Reg (aka Coercri); thanks for the crash-space and hospitality, brother!

Dave H (editor of The Banksoniain), Conscious Bob, and Paul (aka ‘Numbers’), fellow IMB forum regulars; excellent to meet you all, as well as The Man Himself!

Iain Banks, Ken Macleod, Charles Stross, Geoff Ryman, Chris Beckett, Tony Ballantyne, Stephen Baxter and the other authors who were tolerant (if not indulgent) of a somewhat wide-eyed convention newbie.

Roy Gray, Jetse de Vries and Sandy Auden, fellow Interzone employees; thanks for making me feel part of the team.

The organisers and other attendees of Eastercon 2006; thanks for likewise allowing me to feel like part of the team. Until next year!

3 thoughts on “New Column: Armchair Anarchist on SF Conventions”

  1. Glad you enjoyed your time with us Paul.

    You missed “Success…and How to Avoid it” from your stack.

  2. On the contrary, Roy! It’s there, just sandwiched between the Chris Beckett signed copy and the Robert Jordan freebie; that’s exactly as they came out of the rucksack at this end of the journey! Who knows, I may get the spare time to read it some time this year…

  3. What a nice, informative and amusing con report – well done! I love con reports, though I’m terrible at doing mine. I’ve only attended a very very tiny Con (WillyCon, at Wayne State College in Wayne, Nebraska, USA – 8 times now) and a very very medium-largish Con (BayCon, San Jose, California – twice) and I love reading reports from others. Con-goers – in my experience – are *great* folks!

    Thanks for the report!

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