I recently attended the Small Press Expo in Bethesda, MD, and felt that I should revive this blog to report my observations. The book is still on hold. I am currently unemployed and in that place where I’m thinking wow, I’m probably going to have to take a terrible minimum wage job just to make ends meet.
Anyway, this isn’t about me and my life, save in a tangential manner — it’s about conventions, and going to them, and what they’re like.
So! The Small Press Expo.
First off, the good things:
This was BY FAR one of the most diverse conventions I’ve ever been to. There was a sizable population of people who were neither white nor male, both among the exhibitors and attendees. There was also the largest openly trans*/genderqueer presence I’ve seen at pretty much any convention. Obviously I cannot quote numbers because hey, it’s impossible to tell sometimes, but in many other cases there were people who were openly proclaiming their status as trans* persons, which I’ve… actually never seen at a geek convention before. Meaning: I have met trans* people at conventions, but they generally didn’t proclaim their identity loudly and in fact took great pains to be invisible (PAX was an especial case in which an individual I had met had to be constantly re-assured that everything was okay and we were here to help him).
On top of that, there was a great diversity in the materials being offered. The comics at SPX ran the gamut from goofy weirdness like the one about the boy who turns into a boat, to quite deeply serious autobiographical pieces, to hand-painted children’s comics, to straight up porn.
The Ignatz awards were what I feel the Hugo awards SHOULD be like. The Hugos used to be (as far as I can tell) a fan-run award, with the idea being that the fans of science fiction and fantasy would choose the awards. I feel quite strongly that this is no longer the case; the Hugos are chosen now by the few who can 1. afford to go to the convention in the first place (which locks out people under the age of 40, people who aren’t white, and many LGBTQ persons), 2. who actually remember to bloody vote and 3. have the time to read up on the nominees / watch the shows / whatever (which locks out people with day jobs). SPX, meanwhile, has a much lower barrier of entry, being cheap to attend and, as I said, already drawing a huge variety of different individuals.
Ballot gathering was a good deal more egalitarian as well. My own method was this:
I walked around the floor with that box on my head telling people to cast their ballots. It worked pretty darn well! It got people’s attention and got them excited about voting, even if they might not have otherwise voted. Efficient? No, not really. Fun? Heck yes!
The award ceremony itself was mercifully short and free of too much pomp and circumstance. ALL the presenters were women, which, again, in an industry that at times seems so very male focused was a breath of fresh air.
The not so good things:
There were a number of big problems with organization. I was volunteering, and first off, there was no real effort made to properly coordinate volunteers or make sure volunteers were fed to the appropriate areas. I was never really told what to do, and though I’d signed up for line management I ended up just kind of hovering around the front desk, waiting to be told what to do. I did get to collect ballots, but other than that it all felt much too ad-hoc, and I really didn’t know what to expect. I wish there’d at least been a small pamphlet explaining what to do, or more volunteer coordinators on the floor, as well as a more official meeting place for volunteers to go to get assigned than “I guess… over there? or something?”
While panel times were listed in the program, there was no hotel map indicating where those panels were located, so we had a lot of guests going “Where are the panels?” The show floor map was confusing and difficult to read. There was no schedule for official book signings, and we had a lot of questions about that too, but no schedule to give anyone to indicate when those signings were.
The main afterparty was MUCH MUCH MUCH MUCH too crowded for the space it was being held in, and how / where people got drink tickets was entirely unclear. I managed to escape the party to go hang out with friends elsewhere, but the party was seriously less a party and more a mad mob descending upon chocolate fountains. I think a party suite system like what most SF cons I go to use might be a better way to spread people out, but that’d require people on the floor to figure things out rather than the con comm, which might go badly…
Overall, I think SPX is a wonderful small to mid-sized con, and a true celebration of comic arts and the people who make them. I hope it continues to be so even as it grows larger. I wish I could have bought everything in the exhibit hall, curse my lack of funds! And the best thing about that, though, is that I felt as though every dollar I spent was going to supporting a fellow creative artist who genuinely needed it, rather than some faceless megacorp, as is the case at some of the larger conventions.
A+ would attend again.
This project is on hold, for a number of reasons. The biggest is… actually, okay, not even going to lie, it’s depression.
Depression’s a serious thing, if you didn’t know; it sucks out all your motivation to do and be and exist and live. And I have it. I have it bad. I can still function, day to day, but keeping my mind focused on large projects like this is pretty much impossible. I’m stuck, that’s the long and short of it, I’ve lost track of my research and how I’m organizing this thing and… everything.
I won’t be able to finish this in time for my thesis, that’s for sure. I’m not abandoning it entirely, of course—I’ve come too far for that. But I do know that I can’t continue at the pace that I was, not if I want to keep a day job (which I kind of have to. This project doesn’t exactly pay the bills)
I completely dropped the ball on writing about PhilCon, which is truly unfortunate, because I learned a lot there and had a lot of my suspicions about SF fan culture re-confirmed. I also failed to write about Arisia, but that’s mostly because Arisia hit when my depression was at its worst: I could barely get out of bed in the morning, and I spent most of the con in a barely functional haze, feeling like someone else was doing the smiling and talking.
* Probably going to skip out on Boskone. I really can’t handle it right now, I feel sick and angry at myself. I may show up one or two days, but mostly I think I may spend this weekend sleeping. Sorry.
* PAXEast. I’m an Enforcer. This is intimidating.
* Gamefest! This is a tiny, brand-new event run by the Smithsonian. It’s probably only happening once. You should go!
* SanDiego Comic Con. I still haven’t bought a plane ticket…
* Chicon 7
And… that may be it, for a very long time. My life becomes increasingly complicated year by year. I have no idea where I’m going to be in 2013, if I’ll even have a job, if I’ll even have graduated. I’ll keep fighting, though, and I still love this subject, even when it hurts me. Cons are such vibrant, strange, impossible places, regardless of genre, and the more I look at them the more I can see that gossamer thread connecting them all… and, at the same time, the more I start to feel that many cons are going to need to go through some drastic changes if they’re going to survive the coming century. But I think as a cultural phenomenon they will survive, and grow. Science fiction and fantasy have gone mainstream, even if the fandom hasn’t, this is an ingraned, integral part of our culture now. As long as that’s true, people will want to gather and talk about it.
Anyway. Got a headache and a pile of writing to do for grad school (NOT about conventions, sadly), so, signing off.
I’ve been quietly lately because I’ve been extremely busy. School is taking its toll on me, and I haven’t had much time to write anything that isn’t for class. I know, I still (STILL) need to do those last Kickstarter essays, but they will happen, I just need a little more free time to research them properly.
I’m getting super burned out, actually. It’s frustrating. I’m trying to find some way to keep this all fresh and immediate, but the truth is there’s only so many fanzines and memoirs I can slog through before I want to put my head through a wall. That, and it’s hard to figure out which fanzines I need to read, and even harder to get access to them (I can’t exactly fly out to California to see that collection at… I forget which school, even. I know it’s there.) And MIT’s collection is in a closet, badly organized, and only goes back through the 70s.
I really need to think about reorganizing the book. I don’t think a straight chronological treatment is working. I still need to research this way, I think, in order to build my foundation and get a sense of the full scope, but it doesn’t read well. Not sure what my structure should ultimately comprise, though. I’m debating if I should focus on cons by type, do chapters by anatomy (ie, a chapter on logistics, on hotel stuff, etc), or to focus on the really big cons and trace back the history of how they came into being. The latter means I’d end up talking less about the really cool local cons, but it’d be easier to research and I think more marketable.
I don’t know. It’s tough, man, writing a nonfiction book.
In a few weeks, I’ll be attending Philcon. I hope to see some of you regular readers there; I know it’ll be a good time. If you want to meet up and talk, just drop me a line. If there’s also anything you think I should report on in particular, let me know and I’ll do my best to see it. I will sadly not be able to be at the con for long, as my bus arrives at 1:30 PM on Friday and I leave at 4:30 PM on Sunday. Still, I think it’ll be enough.
For some time on the Help Out page, I’ve talked about adding a PayPal button so you can donate.
Well, now it exists! If you have ever for any reason wanted to send me money to help out with the project, now you can. Observe:
You may click yon button! And then send me money! This will motivate me to keep working, as I will feel I owe you!
I can’t give you anything in return right now save sparse updates and the promise that yes, hell or high water, there will be some sort of book about conventions, eventually. Seriously. But I appreciate any and all help.
I could especially use the money right now. Last month, my phone died, and I’ve had to buy tickets for SDCC and PAXEast, both of which are quite expensive. As it’s November and my day job is at a college, I’m losing out on a lot of work hours due to Thanksgiving, not to mention losing more due to Philcon. Even a little bit helps.
Thanks, everyone. Expect more meaty updates after Philcon. Alternately, if you like, ask me a question in the comments, and I’ll do my best to answer it in a future post.
So first, I’d like to say welcome to all the new visitors to the blog! I’ve read all of your comments, but I’ve been a bit too busy to reply to them all. Either way, welcome, and thank you for your thoughts, every last one of you. I admit I was a bit startled when my hits counter started to go up, but it’s nice to see people interested.
Second, an explanation. As you all know, I am a graduate student, and it is now school time. This means I am often in class for up to six hours at a time (No, seriously. I have one day a week when I have six consecutive hours of class, and another that is four. This is me, quietly screaming inside.) As such, updates will be, ah, limited, as will my responses to your emails and comments. For truly vital emails I will try to respond as soon as I can, but it may be a while, so be patient.
Third, and unrelatedly, I have found an excellent article on another site about the Penny Arcade Expo, my personal favorite convention (I consider myself first and foremost a gamer, primarily of the tabletop variety and secondarily of the PC variety and then occasionally of the console variety; as such I am more than a little biased in my tastes). It’s a really wonderful example of not just why PAX is such a great con, but I think of the general atmosphere of nerd cons in general and why they’re so wonderful. PAX though I find unique as always because despite it being in the same heavyweight category as DragonCon and Otakon, it still feels intimate and friendly. Anyway, the article speaks for itself, so take a look:
Again, thank you all. I will now continue to attempt to detangle myself from the giant pile of homework assignments I seem to have found myself beneath! Hopefully in a few days I will be able to post a small clarification in regards to my Worldcon post (But today is not that day.)
So I just completed my registration to Chicon 7, next year’s Worldcon.
“But Jensen,” you say, “You just said in your LAST post that Worldcon wasn’t really your thing!”
First, that’s more that Renovation wasn’t my thing. Chicon is a different city, a different administrative team, a different thing entirely. Second, well, I have to go, next fall is going to be my big thesis, and while I want to go to DragonCon, Chicon is going to be way more useful for networking than DragonCon will be.
That’s not the important thing, however. The important thing is that I’d like to invite all of you to go.
Yes, you. And you, and also you. All of you!
“Yeah but uh, why?” you ask.
Many of my problems with Renovation were because there was too little representation from my age group, my people, and my interests. If I invite my friends to go, well, that solves that problem, doesn’t it? We can kick in the door, open a dialogue, and cause some real change here. And Worldcon really is a valuable experience, in my opinion. You should go at least once, just for the history, just to see that hey, this is where your culture came from (well, if you’re a nerd, anyway), this is the great granddaddy of all cons.
So what am I offering to entice you?
Thing about Chicon is that they’re offering a con rate of $150 a night… for rooms of up to quads. So here’s the thing. If I get five people to buy tickets and commit to rooming with me by January 1st, I can reduce that cost to $150 per person, total. And there’s still four beds! For con space, that’s pretty awesome. And if we’re willing to squeeze in and get friendly with eight people (2 people per bed, or we can sleep on the floor. It’s con time, come on, you should be used to this kind of thing), I can drop that cost to under $100 a person.
Come on guys. We can Make This Happen. And I assure you, it really is a good time. Not my favorite con, sure. But it is an extremely educational con, a piece of history, and something you have to see at least once in your lifetime.
Tickets to Chicon will stay at $170 (ie, semi-reasonable; for comparison this is about the same as SDCC’s cost) until September 30th. So get them while they last.
In other news! The next con I am absolutely attending is Philcon, which just so happens to be the oldest SF convention in the world (founded in 1936, ladies and gents). Looking forward to it! If you’re going, drop me a line.
So at long last, I’m going to sit here and talk about my overall feelings about Renovation, my first impression of WorldCon, and some general thoughts on the state of SF conventions as a whole.
But before I do that I’m going to talk about the phat lewt I got at the con.
The Philip K Dick, Philip Jose Farmer, and Elizabeth Bear books were a lucky grab from somebody who just yelled FREE HARDCOVERS near the free stuff table, and also make it so I had to check my luggage. Completely worth it though.
Hounded, as it turns out, isn’t actually a very good book; the author spends the entire first chapter on an infodump, which instantly turned me off. I prefer implicit narration to explicit narration when it comes to fantasy, and I do not want you to just tell me how awesome your ten thousand year old druid is. Indeed, I’d have been more drawn in if the character’s age were never stated, just implied to be really, really old. I haven’t started reading the steampunk book yet.
The Song of Ice and Fire buttons in the upper right corner I found randomly on Sunday; they were originally handed out at the ASOIAF fan club meeting. I have… way too many of them, so I’m going to be giving them away as soon as I have the free time to actually arrange mailing them out.
Finally, the towel everything is resting on is the only souvenir I bought at the con, and well worth every penny. I mean. Look at that towel, guys. I will never leave home without it again.
Alright, now onto the meat of this post: my feelings about WorldCon in general.
Overall? Yes, it was an interesting and excellent con. It has a very long history, and I had some excellent networking opportunities. The panels were, for the most part, interesting and engaging, and the parties provided wonderful ways to socialize. The Hugo Awards were fantastic to see and one of the highlights of the event.
But. And there are a lot of “buts.” Keep in mind when reading this that I approach this con not as an old-school SF fan but as someone who met fandom first through anime and second through media fandom and videogames. I am an outsider, I am a new-generation fan used to an entirely different convention scene. But I still think that my opinions and observations are entirely valid, and I’ll enumerate them here. Also: I still have two more SF cons to go to before I feel I’ll be able to safely say I have an idea of the spread of different types of SF cons, so my opinions may change from that as well.
First of all, the way I was hyped up for Worldcon did not live up to what I actually experienced. Everyone talked about it being the largest SF con, several oldfen warned me that I would be totally overwhelmed by all there was to do, reinforced by the program booklet and otherwise. Old stories of Worldcon talked about young starry-eyed fen’s lives being changed by this event, of them being lost and confused and ultimately welcomed into the fold as they rubbed shoulders with the greats.
The experience I had at the con itself was nothing like this.
First of all, Worldcon is not a large con at all. I was continually struck on the convention floor by how empty the place seemed, by how the convention occupied a space about five times larger than it needed to be in. Worldcon is 4000 people; I believe you could have fit 20,000 in the Reno-Sparks Convention Center (do NOT quote me on that, I don’t actually know the full capacity of the space, and I also don’t think you could do that comfortably… I just think you could do it), which in turn made me wonder why the hell the con committee had seen fit to rent such an egregiously oversized space. How much money was wasted on a convention center of that size? I saw many panel and meeting rooms go almost entirely unused at certain parts of the con, which again felt like a terrible waste of time, money, and resources.
Second, it was absolutely not worth the price in any way shape or form. Renovation’s tickets were around $200 at the door; for around a quarter of that price I could go to the Penny Arcade Expo and get a far, far better experience. “Yes,” you say, “But this is WORLDCON, not PAX! It’s DIFFERENT!!!” But what I’m saying is that the cost is prohibitive and I didn’t feel as though I was given my money’s worth at all. This event was not worth $200. Given that Worldcon moves around every year and is constantly in different locations, I could maybe see justifying $150 at-door, but as it stands the cost is absurd. You can argue the point all you like, but cost is absolutely a restrictive gateway for attendees, and doesn’t provide a particularly good return on the investment unless you are a pro. As a casual fan? This is not a con I would ever recommend.
Which in turn brings me to the social scene and a problem both myself and my friend Kevin encountered, in that we both felt terribly alienated here. It wasn’t quite as bad as my first Otakon (nothing will be that bad) but I still felt a genuine sense of displacement and, in some cases, like I wasn’t even wanted. In my case, if I mentioned my work on this blog, I would catch the interest of a few older fen, but this felt like they were only interested because they were flattered, and because they found they idea of a young fan researching fandom history almost exotic (the number of times I heard “but you’re so young!”…)
While I did make a few interesting connections at parties, these were largely with other younger fans who felt the same way — alienated and sometimes even ostracized by the larger fandom. In some ways, Worldcon felt like an old country club, full of people with their own rituals who had no interest in outsiders. I sometimes heard conversations where in the same breath as someone complaining about the “greying” of fandom they’d then complain about how the young people just didn’t get it, and were all too caught up in their animes and mangas to care about real fandom. Kevin elaborates on the feeling and his point on his own blog a bit better than I’m doing here.
SF fandom has fallen behind other fandoms. Where once Worldcon really was a giant of the con scene, the be all and end all, now it’s barely a footnote in comparison to other cons. You can go on and on about how the traveling nature makes it so much more expensive, about how the history makes it worth it, but that doesn’t change the fact that the young people aren’t coming to the con anymore, that we feel alienated and sometimes even ostracized, that the discussion isn’t as vibrant or interesting as it used to be. Frankly, I wasn’t impressed, and if it wasn’t for the fact that I need to keep going to Worldcon for my research, I wouldn’t go to Chicon next year.
This isn’t okay. For a culture to survive, it needs new blood, and Worldcon should find a way to make itself more inviting and palatable to people of my generation. Everywhere, people complain about the greying of fandom, but nothing is really done about this, nothing concrete anyway, and I get the feeling that nobody wants to do anything about it.
Now, on the flip side? It’s not like I didn’t have fun. I did. I got a lot of research done, I had some fascinating conversations, and yeah, I got to see the Hugos. I just don’t think that experience was worth the time, effort, and expense of the trip. Like I said, I’ll be doing Chicon next year, and in another two years I might do Worldcon if Orlando wins the bid (long story as to why), but that’s all the way in 2015, so who knows what I’ll be doing or feeling then.
And maybe it was just this particular con. After all, each Worldcon is very, very different from the rest, given the way they move around and are chaired by different people. Perhaps Chicon will be different, more welcoming, and more accessible. Who knows?
To conclude… to me, Worldcon feels like a fallen giant. I can see how back in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and even the early 90s it might have been a giant of fandom, the mainstay of the geek scene and the heart of all conventions, but now it feels like a fallen monarch, ousted from its glory by a combination of bigger, better, friendlier cons. I still think it’s worth going at least once, just to say you did, but it will not be a mainstay of my con stable.
(Also again, I’m sorry if this comes off as excessively bitter: I really did have a great time and really did get a lot of research done! The people who I did interact with were great. But I still had a lot of problems with the con I felt I needed to get off my chest.)
First, a little background: Tim Powers is, of course, an SF writer. His first novel, The Skies Discrowned, was published in 1976. His breakout hit was The Anubis Gates, a tale of time travel, magic, and madness; it won the Philip K. Dick award and was nominated for the Locus Fantasy Award and the British Science Fiction Association award. As of this writing, he’s published about thirteen novels and five short story collections.
Powers is best known for his “secret histories,” that is, the way that he merges fiction and fact in his books. Many of his novels involve real historical figures and events, set against a speculative fiction backdrop of magic, weird science, and otherworldly powers. Even the magic he writes, however, tends to be well-researched and grounded in mythology — the voodoo in On Stranger Tides, for instance, is all based on traditional voodoo rituals, even if it takes a purely fantastic twist at the end.
I hadn’t known who Tim Powers was until Patrick asked me to write this article (a fact true of many of the attendees at Worldcon — I’ve been out of the SF literature scene for so long that many names are unfamiliar to me, to my eternal shame). Interestingly enough, at the same time as I’d asked Pat about what subject he wished me to write on, I had also asked my friends to recommend fiction about 18th century piracy, and one of the top recommendations was Powers’ On Stranger Tides. It is in fact an excellent book, but sadly I did not have enough time to read Powers’ other works before arriving at Worldcon.
I went to two events involving Powers — the first was a panel entitled “Consistent Magic Systems in Fantasy,” which concerned exactly what the title implies, that is, how to construct a magic system that feels believable and organic in a fantasy universe. The second was his Guest of Honor speech. I attempted to go to his Kaffeeklatsch, but unbeknownst to me it had been rescheduled from Sunday at 10:00 AM to Wednesday at the same time, so I had missed it by two days (much to my sorrow — I adore Kaffeeklatsches, and feel that they’re one of the best traditions of the SF con, and something that other media conventions might want to think about adopting).
In “Consistent Magic Systems in Fantasy,” Powers talked about his own personal methodology in making sure that the magic in his works feels simultaneously believable but also magical. While he agreed with the other panelists that the key to this was setting up rules and limitations on the way magic works, he cautioned against telling the reader too many of those rules outright, or defining them too rigidly. According to Powers, if you define the rules explicitly rather than implicitly, and magic just becomes another kind of technology and loses the quality that makes it magic. In his case, many of his books are based on real history, so he attempts to find magic that fits the time and place — ancient Egyptian rituals, Arabian mythology, Caribbean voodoo, so forth and so on, he researches these myths and legends and then adapts them into magical systems that work for his stories.
Powers and the other panelists also discussed acknowledging the effects magic has on the world you’ve created. In a universe where everyone knows you can talk to the dead, the legal system would be quite different than the one we have in our world, by simple virtue of the fact that in murders the victim could easily be interviewed. In addition, Powers mentioned his reluctance to blatantly defy all laws of science and physics: “I always worry, even though I have supernatural stuff going on. I don’t want to accidentally posit something that is absolutely impossible. I would never have an invisible man who could see by visible light. I might have two little retinas floating in the air. If I had a four inch tall man, I’d want to know can he talk? How much does he have to eat, how much space does he have for his brain? If you recognize these challenges and talk your way around them, it makes them look more real.”
Powers’ Guest of Honor speech was mostly about his philosophy in regards to science fiction and fantasy, peppered with anecdotes from his life. He talked a little about the general attitudes towards science fiction and how the field has expanded. When he went to his first convention, it was still possible to have read everyone in the field; now, it would take a lifetime. In addition, science fiction has mainstreamed — now more and more people have at least read one fantasy or science fiction novel. Yet when Powers talks about his work to his neighbors, they still say “Oh, that Buck Rogers stuff?”
When discussing his attitudes on the place of the fantasy and science fiction genres in our lives, he said that “Fantasy at its core is bogus.” There’s a sleight of hand, a trick, a bit of smoke and mirrors involved in making the reader temporarily forget that what they’re reading is fantasy and transporting them into another world. Powers fully believes that fantasy is pure escapism: while it’s perfectly valid for it to have deeper meanings or relevance, at its heart it should be designed to take the reader out of the mundane and into another world. Fantasy and SF that tries too hard to have a “point” or “purpose” falls flat for him — in the end, it needs to be truly fantastic for it to be fantasy.
As I said, I wasn’t able to get to his Kaffeeklatsch, but after those two panels, I really would like to read more of his work. Now, if only I can get the time…
Hope you enjoyed, Pat!