Have you ever checked out The SF Conventional Calendar at the back of this magazine? Compiled by the indefatigable Erwin S. Strauss, also known as "Filthy Pierre," it has been a regular feature of Asimovs for more than twenty years. If you consult these listings, you will discover that cons happen somewhere just about every weekend of the year, and on most dates, they happen in more than one place!
Now I know that many of you have been to at least one science fiction convention and that some are regular con-goers. But I suspect that a substantial fraction of you has never had the con experience. I myself was a readerand later a writerof this stuff long before I lost my con virginity. So as a supplement to Filthy Pierres inventory, lets take a web-powered look at the ubiquitous SF con.
How to describe a typical science fiction convention to someone who has never been? A con is a kind of organized party, run by fans for fans. They might make a little money, they might lose a little, but their lifeblood is not the big bucks but rather goodwill and volunteerism. A small regional might have a hundred to a hundred and fifty attendees, while 4,592 folks showed up for last years Millennium Philcon <http://www.netaxs.com/~phil2001/>.
Con programming reflects the diversity of interests in fandom. Typically there will be an art show, in which works by members of the Association of Science Fiction and Fantasy Artists <http://www.asfa-art.org/> and others hang.
You will sometimes attend a convention where the advertised attendance seems vastly exaggerated. Thats because as much as a third of the con is tucked away in rooms devoted to role-playing games and card games and board games and computer games. Would-be gamers searching for a good listing of online resources might start at The Science Fiction Resource Guide to Role Playing and other SF Related Games <http://www.sflovers.org/SFRG/sfrgv.htm>.
Then there are the filkers. Filkers? Filk is the mutant spawn of folk music and science fiction. For an introduction, try Filk FAQS <http://home.earthlink.net/~kayshapero/filkfaq.htm>.
For me, the one must-see of a con is the dealers room. Here merchants sell all things science fictional: books, magazines, toys, swords, chain mail, trading cards, games, posters, prints, CDs, DVDs, instruments, figurines, buttons, jewelry, cloaks, and T-shirts. The dealers room is where the different subgroups of fandom come together to shop. It is also an invaluable repository of expertise, since dealers are nothing more than devoted fans who sell stuff. They usually understand whats happening in the genre long before the rest of us do.
No doubt the most colorful fans are the costumers. Their big event is the masquerade, although there is also a long tradition of fans in costume wandering the halls of the convention hotel to display for their friends and to freak the mundanes. Find out more about costuming at The Costume Network <http://www.costumenetwork.com/> or The Costume Page <http://members.aol.com/nebula5/costume.html>. Closely related to the costuming but by no means the same are the doings of the Society for Creative Anachronism <http://www.sca.org/>.
But the two biggest subgroups of fandom are the media fans and the literary fans.
Fans love to
argue about discuss their favorite TV shows and movies. Was The Fellowship of the Ring <http://www.lordoftherings.net/> a sacrilege or a triumph? Have you seen The Phantom Edit <http://members.onecenter.com/hollywood/phantomedit/>, the Jar Jar Binks-less version of The Phantom Menace <http://www.starwars.com/episode-i/>? Was Buffy <http://www.buffy.com/> better alive than dead? Most cons have multiple media tracks featuring non-stop screenings of new and old movies and videotapes of anime series and this years flavor of TV shows. Of course, as faithful readers, you might not choose to sit in a folding chair in a dark room when you could be putting faces to the names that you see on Asimovs table of contents.
Most cons have a writer guest of honor, an artist guest of honor and a fan guest of honor. Some will also have a media GoH or a filk GoH or even an editor GoH. These worthies, their friends, family, and assorted other professionals and SF wannabes mingle with the fans at various venues, the most popular of which is the panel.
So heres the deal. Two, three, five, probably not more than seven people with opinions sit at a long table facing an audience. They have gathered to talk about some specific topic, say "Religion in Science Fiction" or "Worldbuilding" or "Breaking Into Print" or "Mars in Fact and Fiction." The purported topic may or may not be what the panel ends up discussing, which may or may not be a good thing. A moderator attempts to control the flow of chat. The panelists introduce themselves and then it starts. At some point they might take questions from the audience. An hour or so later, the moderator thanks everyone and the audience claps and goes away.
Some say that you should never meet your favorite author. Not bad advice, sez Jim. Seeing a writer you really like on a panel can easily plunge you into a slough of despond. Lots of us get nervous, which may mean either that we go catatonic or we blather. Some of us stack eighteen of our current books on the table in front of us and hijack the panel in order to flog them. Some of us are painfully shy and some of us are jerks. A few of us arent quite as sharp as bowling balls.
On the other hand, Ive watched panels soar. Ive gotten story ideas at panels and Ive taken notes at panels and many, many times Ive nearly fallen out of my seat laughing at panels. And it is always enlightening to watch a civilized writer deal with an obstreperous microphone hog.
The Mother of All Cons is, of course, the World Science Fiction convention, or WorldCon, traditionally held over the Labor Day weekend. Although it usually takes place somewhere in the United States, it went offshore to Melbourne, Australia in 1999 for Aussiecon 3 <http://www.aussiecon3.worldcon.org/> and will head north next year to Toronto, Canada for Torcon 3 <http://www.torcon3.on.ca/>. This year San José, California hosts ConJosé <http://www.conjose.org/> from August 29 to September 2. The Guests of Honor are writer Vernor Vinge <http://www.ugcs.caltech.edu/~phoenix/vinge/>, artist David Cherry <http://www.davidcherryart.com/>, fans John and Bjo Trimble and Toastmaster Tad Williams <http://www.tadwilliams.com/>. Worldcons are twenty-four-hours-a-day, twelve-ring circuses and can be an overwhelming experience for a first timer. But they do draw an enormous number of professionals, not only writers but also almost all the print editors in the genre, not to mention a gaggle of agents. One of the highlights of any Worldcon is the Hugo Awards ceremony.
The World Fantasy Convention is a kinder, gentler version of the Worldcon. World Fantasy Convention 2002 <http://2002.worldfantasy.org/> will be held in Minneapolis, Minnesota from October 31 to November 3. Guests of Honor include writers Jonathan Carroll <http://www.jonathancarroll.com/>, Dennis Etchison <http://www.sfsite.com/isfdb-bin/exact_author.cgi?Dennis_Etchison>, and Kathe Koja <http://www.darkecho.com/darkecho/archives/koja.html>, editor Stephen Jones <http://www.herebedragons.co.uk/jones/> and artist Dave McKean <http://www.mckean-art.co.uk/>. The secret masters of World Fantasy have deliberately chosen to keep it small by limiting admissions; its the only con I know that can "sell out." This is a con focused on the print incarnations of fantasy and horror, so dont expect a media track or a masquerade or gaming rooms or a panel on the future of artificial intelligence. And yet it attracts an extraordinary number of professionals, almost as many as attend the WorldCon. The World Fantasy Awards are presented at a Sunday afternoon banquet.
Its getting late, but theres still time to plan for Readercon 14 <http://www.readercon.org/>, which will open July 12-14 in Burlington, Massachusetts, with Guests of Honor writers Octavia E. Butler <http://www.feministsf.org/femsf/authors/butler.html/> and Gwyneth Jones <http://www.homeusers.prestel.co.uk/dreamer/>. Readercon also has a tradition of honoring a memorial Guest of Honor and this year the career of the late John Brunner <http://members.tripod.com/~gwillick/brunner.html> will be remembered. The reason I love Readercon is that its all about the words. The people who read them mix effortlessly with the people who write them. Not only that, but this is the one convention where the short form contends on an (almost) equal basis with the novel. The panels are lively and unusual, the panelists ardent and articulate. And this year, Readercon will host the James Tiptree, Jr., Awards.
The first convention I ever went to was Boskone <http://www.nesfa.org/boskone/> in Boston, Massachusetts. It was 1975 and I had sold one story, which had not yet been published, and I was determined to discover what this con thing was all about. The problem was that I didnt know a soul at the convention. I arrived, wandered around for a couple of hours, sat in on a few panels, goggled at the costumes, maybe caught the end of a flick and then shrugged and went home. Of course there was a mid-February blizzard going on and I had at least an hours skid back to New Hampshire, so I had good reason to beat a hasty retreat. But I just couldnt figure out where I fit in and I didnt go to another convention for three years. (I should say here that I have since found my niche at Boskone and attend pretty much every year.)
So if you have never been to a convention and are now tempted to try one, let me direct you to the excellent SF Con Survival Kit for Neofans <http://www.locksley.com/neofans/index2.htm>, an invaluable compendium of explanation, etiquette, and practical advice for con-goers. These pages originated from S. J. Dudley at WesterCon <http://www.westercon.org/> in Spokane in 1999.In particular, might I suggest that you peruse How to Talk to the Pros <http://www.locksley.com/neofans/pros.htm>, which offers sensible strategies for chatting up your faves without assaulting or insulting them.
But if youre not quite ready to plunk down a couple of hundred bucks to spend a weekend eating hotel food and staying up too late, the web offers a con-like experience that you can enjoy right in the comfort of your own home. If you havent already discovered The Asimovs Readers Forum <http://www.asimovs.com/discus/> perhaps you should give it a click. As I type this in January, your fellow readers are arguing eloquently about The Lord of the Rings and Dean Kamens Segway transporter. Hot topics include "What are some of the dumber SF ideas you can remember?" "Solar Flares," "Popular books you didnt like" and "Short science fiction of the nineteenth century." I read this board every day, and although I mostly lurk, I do post from time to time. So do at least a dozen other pros. Your Chestertonian editor Gardner Dozois is one of the most active postersfan or pro. If you have something youve just got to say to him, this is the place. Its the next best thing to meeting him at a con.
Just tell him Jim sent you.