Skip to content
Home of the world's leading Science Fiction magazine

On The Net

by James Patrick Kelly 

your con my con

I was slow to warm up to science fiction conventions. I attended my first, Boskone, many years ago as a new and very lightly published writer (one story sold, but not yet in print) and stayed only for a few hours. Too much bustle, too many strangers and I was (then) painfully shy. Oh, and there was that snowstorm! Several years later my friend Eileen Gunn promised to introduce me around and share her con-going skills. This was my second Boskone, and since then I have never looked back. I’ve attended cons around the US and the world and have learned to appreciate their unique place in the writing and reading community of our genre.

I recently went back to one of my favorites: the first in-person Readercon since the dark days of COVID. In perhaps an excess of caution, the con organizers insisted that everyone attending an official con function wear masks. Despite a weekend of sometimes muffled panels and readings, it was a great success. There were over a hundred and fifty editors, agents, and published writers on the program and many more in attendance. Among the Asimov’s stalwarts I was happy to hang with were Alex Jablokov, Susanne Palmer, Rick Wilber, Sarah Pinsker, Michael Swanwick, and Stephanie Feldman Our peerless leader Sheila was there, too, scouting for new writers.

While I’m sure that many ’Mov’s readers have attended cons, I know that many, many more of you have yet to enjoy an SF or fantasy convention. Clearly you can have the complete science fiction experience lounging on your favorite armchair while perusing this fine publication. But these far-flung gatherings of fans and readers and SF professionals can be a way to deepen your appreciation of the stories you read here. Alas, while I can’t serve as your wingman as Eileen did for me, I can share some of the opportunities and pleasures that cons offer.

*   *   *

con tour

Before there were SF cons, there were SF fans. Back in the early 1930s, readers of magazines like Amazing Stories and Astounding Stories found ways to get together and talk about the stories that had so astounded and amazed them. How? If you click the links above you can actually browse some of these classic early magazines. Do so and you’ll find that they all featured lively letters columns from readers. Signed and with addresses! Their readers soon decided to write to one another.

(Historical note: Asimov’s continued this tradition of running letters from readers back in the early days, with Isaac Asimov himself commenting on them. We closed the letter department after his untimely death.)

Credit for organizing the first con is in dispute. While British fans began planning for a large assembly to take place in 1937, late in 1936 a handful of New York fans hopped a train to Philadelphia to meet up with some fans there. Although this was a smallish group gathered in a private home, American fandom claims October 22, 1936, as the date of the first SF con. By 1939, with cons happening in both sides of the Atlantic, New York fandom organized the first World Science Fiction Convention, now often referred to as the Worldcon, to coincide with the New York World’s Fair. As I write this, the 81st World Science Fiction Convention in Chendu, China, is on track for an October 2023 opening, but if you missed it, you can still sign up for Glasgow 2024—A Worldcon for Our Futures, which is happening August 8-12, 2024.

In the U.S., you can attend a genre convention pretty much every weekend of the year—often more than one if you’re ambitious! Lest you think this an overstatement, flip the very last page of this issue. The SF Conventional Calendar, compiled by superfan Erwin S. Strauss, has been a regular ’Mov’s feature for as long as I’ve been publishing here. His list includes dates, guests of honor, and sometimes capsule descriptions of next month’s cons. You can thank him in person for his efforts should you spot a gentleman wearing a Filthy Pierre name badge at your next con. Alternatively, you can check out the listings on FanCons, which not only lists upcoming cons but also attempts to serve as an archive of cons past. Clicking around this site reveals the global reach of con culture: for instance, this map of upcoming cons points to over thirty different countries.

Scanning these lists, it becomes clear that there are all kinds of conventions. Small and midsized cities will host local cons that can attract from 100-500 attendees. If you travel to some of the long established cons like Philadelphia’s Philcon or England’s Eastercon, you might meet a thousand like-minded fans. Regional cons like Norwescon, in the Pacific Northwest, or Eurocon, in Europe, might draw as many as a couple of thousand. Depending on where the Worldcon lands in any given year, attendance might range from 4000-8000. The biggest genre convention is the San Diego Comic Con International which most recently exceeded 150,000!

*   *   *

variety show

But size is not all that matters, because things have changed since that handful of fans got together in 1936. The early conventions focused primarily on the written word, and, for the most part, on short fiction, since science fiction novels had not yet come to dominate genre publishing. In addition to discussing the magazines, creative con goers began to dress up as their favorite characters and wear these costumes to cons. Andrew Liptak points to that first Worldcon as the origin of the hall costume, where costumers attend all con functions in full character dress. The second Worldcon saw a costume party, a judged event with multiple contestants; this evolved into organized masquerades over the years, now part of programming for many cons. There are even cons entirely dedicated to costuming Artists also were eager to join the convention community. In the early years art auctions used as fund-raisers were common, but by the 1960s, art shows began to spring up, with aspiring artists hanging their work next to that of established professionals.

While early conventions focused on fiction, fans also loved to get together to talk about their favorite movies (and, later, television shows). Indeed, the costumes that made their debut at the first Worldcon paid homage to the movie adaption of H.G. Wells’s Things To Come Because SF fans have traditionally been early adopters of the latest tech, con programmers began to find ways to screen their favorite movies and shows at conventions. While almost all print fans are also media fans, the reverse is not necessarily true. Over time media-only conventions blossomed, most famously those devoted to Star Trek, and anime Interest in SF&F games has alway run high at conventions and many still have programming tailored for board game and role-playing fans. However, many gamers prefer to attend the myriad game-centric conventions While this splintering of big tent SF&F conventions into special interest conventions has accelerated over the past decade, there are still many cons that offer a range of wonders for every taste.

Just about all conventions offer multiple chances to meet and talk to your favorite writers, artists, editors, teachers, and scientists. You can attend panels where four or five worthies engage in a lively discussion followed by (sometimes obstreperous) questions from the audience. There will be kaffeeklatsches or literary beers where a small group (up to ten) gets an hour with professionals with no agenda other than to get to know one another. Readers and book collectors will want to line up for a quick chat at scheduled autograph sessions. If you forget your favorite author’s book at home, or discover that they have a new one, there’s a hucksters’ room, where friendly fans will sell you SF&F flavored books, magazines, comics, T-shirts, games, jewelry, swords, wands, and some otherworldly merch that you’ll find nowhere else! There will probably be an art show, as well as rooms dedicated to games and a video track. If there’s a masquerade (and even if there isn’t), you will run into people in elaborate costumes. There may be an awards ceremony—our genre loves its awards! Fans will throw room parties open to all, often to advertise an upcoming convention or to display their special interests. And look for the con suite offering free drinks and snacks, where any member is welcome.

*   *   *


When you go to your next (or first) SF convention, take a moment to think about the good people who make it happen. Because every convention is a gift from a dedicated group of conrunners, volunteers who spend months planning and frantic days mounting these SF&F extravaganzas. Their unselfish commitment to come together to put on a show for the rest of us speaks to a community spirit that is all too rare in these insular times. Yes, sometimes their abilities are stretched to the limit or mishaps might occur. If microphones fail, computers glitch, panelists forget their schedules or the program chair takes sick, we make do and struggle through. There was a Saturday night snowstorm at Boskone three or four years ago that shut Boston’s entire subway system down so that no commuters could make it to the con hotel for Sunday programming. When only one of my fellow panelists showed up, I invited a couple of people from the audience to join us at the podium, and it was one of the best discussions of the weekend.

Of course the disaster that has sent the convention community into a tailspin is COVID. Not only were most conventions canceled in the plague years, but planning for future cons came to a standstill. The conrunners managed to put on some virtual programs, but staring at talking postage stamps on a computer screen does not compare to watching Connie Willis crack up a panel live or bumping into a pal in the huckster room and heading out for an impromptu lunch. In the aftermath of the pandemic, some cons folded and others have gone on hiatus. But I’m here to say that con fandom is bouncing back.

And we want you!

Copyright © 2024 James Patrick Kelly

Back To Top
    Your Cart
    Your cart is emptyReturn to Shop