At the most basic level a science fiction convention is a weekend party for people who enjoy science fiction, horror and fantasy. At least that's how they started. Today they include lovers of anime, comics, costuming gaming or simply just dressing up and making the scene. It’s a party, and if you’re interested in alternate universes you’re invited.
Cons began in the forties when SF was maturing. Writers like Robert Heinlein, Fritz Leiber, L. Sprague De Camp and Hal Clement were coming out, but SF still had an impression as a pulp enterprise unworthy of serious merit. But the fans loved it and began to contact each other, first in letters, then mimeographed fanzines. They discovered writers would come to speak when asked, provided someone paid their expenses. The easiest way to do that was share the costs. So people rented a hotel room and put out flyers. Somebody paid the up front money, and committees were formed to handle the details. At first it was very casual,. My friend Bob became the co-chair of Marcon 2 when he rented the room next door to the meeting room. They needed a hospitality room and so Bob became co-chair in return for the use of his room, where he did a lot of drinking with Roger Zelazny. Fifty years later he’s still at it.
In the beginning cons were just an informal weekend with ar favorite writer and/or editor. Their would be a party, a reading, a formal meet and greet, and perhaps some organized discussions, which helped bring the smart but shy out of their shells. Of course back then all they had were books and pulps like Amazing Stories and Aboriginal Science Fiction plus a few movies. The contacts were informal as submissions to various amateur webzines. Many of the publishers and editors began as fans. A writer would come to promote his latest book and enjoy a weekend of adulation they didn’t receive in daily life. Fans got to meet their favorite author, engage in a weekend’s worth of drunken debauchery. The publishers realized their customers congregated at these ‘cons’ and started contributing. People who had been contributing to the various fanzines got to meet each other face to face.
Of course it grew from there as television and film became more prominent in the genre, particularly after Star Trek inspired legions of fans. Other media outlets inspired their own followings, such as clubs dedicated to Highlander and Star Wars. People started dressing up as their favorite characters to get into the spirit. That led to masquerades, costuming contests and more. People who loved Middle Earth started playing Dungeons and Dragons, and they wanted to play with others. Space was found for them, and soon the wargamers of other stripe moved in. People with a musical bent started re-writing the lyrics of familiar songs and filksinging was born. Artists wanted to exhibit their works. Each little sub-species developed its own following, until the largest regular cons may have thousands of attendees with a wide variety of interests.
People often dress up at science fiction conventions. Nobody is going to say anything to you if you walk around in a leather loincloth carrying a broadsword. Or you could choose to dress as a hobbit, imperial stormtrooper, tavern wench, dominatrix or the Thought Police. Anything goes, though nudity is discouraged in public areas. But it happens, particularly late at night when the room parties are at full swing.
Cons may offer the following events or attractions
There will be a dealer’s room where books, games, swords, jewelry, t-shirts and almost everything else can be purchased.
The Art Show exhibits all submitted works by artists from the best pros to rank amateurs. Most pieces are available for purchase and professionals usually offer lithographs or photo prints. The work can be very good, and not all the art is visual. Purchases are made by writing your name and a ‘bid’ on a sheet attached near the coveted piece. If multiple bids are received the art is auctioned off on Saturday night. The Art Show at Marcon takes up almost 5,000 square feet and the dealer’s room is just as large.
A costuming contest with celebrity judges with three or four categories, professional (and Hollywood types do compete), amateur, rookie and child being common. The finalists will approach the stage announced, with theme music of their choice. Some really outstanding work is done here.
Often a dinner is held for the Guest of Honor, which congoers may attend by purchasing at space at the table (meal included) . The Guest of Honor will say a few words, and the Toastmaster will lead a few appropriate toasts.
The Guest of Honor is expected to make a speech on Saturday night that will be well attended. He or she gets to say pretty much what they want to. These have been quite colorful, but the GoH usually does not try to anger his fans.
A dance where fen of the appropriate age, gender and species may congregate and socialize.
A gaming room for gamers
Autograph sessions and book signings.
reading. Writers read from their latest works.
A series of organized discussion panels on all available topics.
A con suite where drinks and munchies are provided for all con attendees. Quality varies a great deal between conventions. Context is noted for an excellent con suite with some gourmet foods provided, for other cons chips and pop may be it with all points in between.
Larger cons have a green room where Guests of Honor and panelists can meet and enjoy munchies without interacting with the attendees. The room is supposed to be used to give them a break and a place to prepare for upcoming panels, but often the food is just better.
Room parties may be put on by fans (fen in fannish vocabulary), fan groups like Barfleet, publishers, other conventions seeking attendees or people who just want to have a good time. Here’s where the serious drinking takes place, and the debauchery. Panelists and Guests of Honor do drop in. But not all parties are ‘wet’. Some feature chocolate and soda, both important fannish food groups.
Filksinging performers give concerts. Often the audience is invited to sing along. Although this may sound cheesy some of the people involved are well trained and very entertaining. A Tom Smith performance is well worth seeing and full of laughs. Filkers like to go until late in the night.
Science fiction conventions come in several different varieties. The largest are Megacons with Wiscon, Torcon and Marcon being among the better known. These cons cater to everyone. Attendees are in the thousands, panelists number over a hundred and they have a dozen specialized Guests of Honor who are given a free ride. If you attend a megacon you will find a room that shows SF and fantasy films 24/7. The gaming rooms never close and even computers with net access may be provided . Panel presentations .can include demonstrations of body painting or costuming techniques, scientific presentations, book discussions , how to’s or pun contests. Basically, they try to be everything to everyone and often do an outstanding job of it. They are often more successful than smaller cons at getting Big Name Pros and media celebs because their size gives them money and clout. For example one year Marcon hosted Babylon 5 creator J. Michael Straczinsky as well as three prominent cast members.
The largest of all is the World Science Fiction convention, which as the name suggests, moves around the world. Almost everyone in the industry who can attends a worldcon, and a lot of business and business connections are made there, particularly in publishing. While a regular con lasts a weekend a worldcon lasts all week.
Relaxicons have none of that. They’re all about the party. Deconpression is a good example. They don’t have a guest of honor, they have a ‘Ghost of Honor’ who somehow never materializes. The only panel items were an erotica reading and a BDSM demonstration. The rest of the weekend was just party down.
Sericons tend to focus heavily on programming. Readercon and the Context Science Fiction convention are good examples. Both offer extensive programming and the opportunity to really meet the writers and scientists. You can spend a very busy weekend at both even if you know no one. Not that there"s no partying or other stuff, but it’s less formal.
Specialty cons tend to cater to niches. Gamers, fans of comics, anime, filksinging and more tend to host them. They usually have a large dealer presence but the level of programming varies.
How to find your first con
If attending a con sounds appealing to you good. Science fiction conventions are very friendly places and fen as a whole are very tolerant folk (except intellectually) . If you have something interesting to say, and can listen well, you will make friends easily. Many fen were geeky outcasts in high school and haven’t forgotten what that’s like. Disabled people often participate fully and nobody avoids them. You do get some fairly strange people as well, but they are generally avoidable and the con committee will remove anyone truly disturbing.
There are several ways to find a convention near you. Locus and Science Fiction Chronicles publish con lists several months in advance. Local conventions often place flyers at local bookstores, and comic book shops. Web searches are very useful, but can also prove frustrating as many cons do not turn up early on a Google search. Most con web sites contain links to other cons, so you follow the link trail until you find something near you. Local SF or anime lovers may know about their local cons.
If you do attend a con it is advisable to get a room at the hotel. Cramming people in a single room is okay. At least four hours of sleep is recommended per earth rotation, and at least one square meal per day as con suite calories tend to be low on nutrition and long on sugar and fat. The famous author will be happy to sign your books but she will not wish to read your great new manuscript, But he might let you buy dinner.
In short a science fiction convention is nothing more than a weekend party for the fans of speculative fiction. They vary in size and focus, but they are all fun, and a place where it is easy to meet people. Friendships formed at cons often continue for many years, and long-distance friendships are often maintained at such conventions. At the end of a con many people look forward to the next one.
For an entertaining take on science fiction conventions read Sharyn McCrumb’s novel Bimbos of the Death Sun.
for A Quest in Honor of Jessica Pierce