Back when I was even newer to the scene than I am now (and that’s saying something!), I was fresh off the buzz of the most excellent Swancon36 and desperate for another convention fix. I’d already decided I was going to Continuum, but I wanted to be involved as well simply attending. I sent off an email to the organisers, volunteering to help out if I could, and asking if there was any chance I could be on a panel of some sort. I’d been on a grand total of one panel before, so I honestly expected that I would get a polite no, but instead the wonderful programming coordinators managed to find room for me on some great panels. But, more than that, they went out of their way to make me feel welcome and included, not just on panels but throughout the convention, a convention where I knew very few people. So, it is very apt that today I welcome Hespa (One half of that programming committee – and I do hope the other half will be doing a post here at some point *hint hint*) to talk about her experience of the community aspect of conventions, and what it has meant to her. I am sure that, like me, many of you will find yourself nodding your head in agreement as you read this most excellent post.
Why I Get Excited About Conventions
Thank you to David for inviting me to write something here. I have a confession to make: I’m not really a writer. At best, I’d call myself an inexperienced dabbler in the writerly arts. I am therefore both honoured and terrified to be included among the august ranks of the Wednesday Writers. Here goes…
A couple of weeks ago 200 fantasy, science-fiction, horror, steampunk, anime, Doctor Who, Star Trek, Neil Gaiman, graphic novel, computer game, boardgame fans and I were hanging around the corridors of the Rydges Hotel, Carlton. It was the eighth Continuum, Melbourne’s annual fan-run SF convention.
I’ve been to Continuum since it began, but this year was different. I experienced the con through the fresh eyes of a number of friends from uni – geeks I’ve known for many years, who have finally decided to try out these convention things I keep raving about and see what it is that gets me so excited about them.
Here’s the thing: fandom is a community. It’s a cliche because it’s true. I’m sure there are fans who’ve had happy, well-adjusted upbringings surrounded by kindred spirits, but many of us grew up feeling like outsiders, teased or rejected or just plain lonely. For us, fandom can provide a sense of community that’s sorely needed. More accurately, though, fandom is a series of communities, connected by shared interests but sometimes oblivious to one another.
University was my first fan community. I was lucky enough to go to Melbourne Uni, which had (and, I believe, still has) such a thriving fan community that it spawned five separate fan clubs, including one devoted solely to the Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (OK, that and drinking). Uni fandom was a revelation: for the first time I wasn’t the weird loner lurking in the library, I was part of a loud and raucously proud fellowship.
But uni fandom is strongly generational. I entered it as part of the 2002 wave that quickly became known as ‘The Scary First-years’. The older members who called us that viewed askance the sudden influx of bouncy, exciteable teenagers with no interest in the club’s traditions. Mind you, the old guard and their “traditions” had only been around for half a dozen years themselves, dating back to the last significant influx. Most of their peers had now graduated and were rarely seen any more, leaving a small core group to show up to meetings, sticking together, talking about shows no one had seen (“What’s Babylon 5?“) and making in-jokes no one else understood. Soon we had replaced them on the club committees; gradually, they disappeared from view.
A few years later, the cycle repeated. The Scary First-years graduated and moved on. Our time in fandom gave us confidence in ourselves and a network of strong friendships, but as we moved on out into the world, the old fan clubs ceased being the easiest way to keep in touch with one another. We left MU and its fandom behind. I’ve been back on campus a couple of times over the years and it gives me a kind of nostalgic delight to stick my head into a room and see a Fantasy And Science Fiction Appreciation Society event in progress, but the faces are all unfamiliar (and so young!). I’m now the old guard; the next generation is busy building its own community.
Conventions (the fan-run kind, at least) are fundamentally different. Their members run the gamut from wide-eyed newcomers to seasoned elders of fandom, all intermingled. I went alone to my first convention, since no one I knew was interested in cons, and the number of people willing to make friendly conversation with a random eighteen-year-old was astonishing. Sure, it’s always awkward to be the newcomer in a gathering of people who already know each other, but at conventions many of the old guard go out of their way to reduce that awkwardness. “Where did you get that great t-shirt?” they ask, or, “Hey, can you tell me more about that book you mentioned?”
If university fandom is a home occupied by successive, distinct families, oblivious to one another, convention fandom is home to a great big, multi-generational family, parents and kids and grandparents and interstate relatives all living together under one roof. And that gives it a sense of history and geography, of a much bigger picture. If it wasn’t for conventions and the people I have met through them, I might still not know about worldcons, ‘zines, Blake’s 7, Community, fan funds or the works of a whole range of Australian small-press authors. I would remain blithely unaware of the issues surrounding women and people of colour in speculative fiction (and, indeed, in fandom). I probably wouldn’t be catching up with half the world on Twitter. I certainly wouldn’t have joined the Continuum committee and learned how to run one of these things. My world, in short, would be a whole lot narrower.
I know the convention community is far from perfect. For one of my uni friends, the recent con (her second) included her first direct experience of gamer sexism. She laughed it off, but knowing that she will always have that association with Continuum fills me with rage. So no, we’re surely not perfect. But set against that one negative experience from the weekend were dozens and dozens of positive ones: joining in on panel discussions, dressing up for the maskerade, being inspired to intense hallway conversations on topics that would never normally come up. Not to mention chatting with people they’d never met – from fellow first-timers to old hands to published authors.
A few days after Continuum, my uni friends were on Twitter organising to attend a New Melbourne Browncoats outing they had heard about at the con. And that, right there? That’s why I get so excited about fan-run conventions. Because they connect people and fandoms; because they open our eyes and broaden our horizons; because they help turn a collection of disparate groups into one big community.
Hespa is a firm believer that the best way to get the most out of life is to live several lives simultaneously. When not working her day job as a park ranger, she helps organise conventions; writes; crafts; cycles; cooks; photographs; learns; reads; games; and occasionally wonders why she never seems to have any free time. If you like, you can follow her non-daily Daily Writing Project at hespa.livejournal.com and her sporadic musings and squeeings at twitter.com/hespas_hats