Roundtable: Conventions Part IV, Finding Your Tribe

Paul Graham Raven

Convention anecdotes, eh? Hmmm. Most folk here have a hell of a head-start on me, as I only discovered conventions – and, indeed, fandom itself – somewhat by accident back in 2006, when I started buying Interzone.

(Well, technically speaking I already knew that cons existed, thanks to the popular media clichés — people in Spock ears and home-made Klingon battlearmour, that sort of stuff — and through one of the chapters in Julian May’s Intervention, neither of which resemble any of the conventions I’ve been to since. This is, on balance, A Good Thing.)

A bunch of us from the Iain M Banks fan forum decided to go to Concussion, the 2006 Eastercon, because we’d heard rumour from Dave Haddock (editor of The Banksoniain fanzine) the The Man Himself might be breaking his long fast from public appearances. I’d been toying with the idea of going anyway, but Glasgow was a long trek from my home on the south coast; the prospect of meeting an idol (plus the fact that a friend from the forum offered me somewhere to crash, obviating the need for a hotel stay I couldn’t afford) was the enticement that led me to the door of meatspace fandom.

For the sake of context, it’s perhaps worth bearing in mind that I spent a lot of years working in or around the more skeevy end of the music industry – what we in the UK refer to, not entirely euphemistically, as the “toilet venue circuit”. It’s changing a lot now, but less than a decade ago the music industry still relied on the rigid policing of the boundary between fan and creator; even the most minor bands were kept separate from “the kids” at every opportunity, an evolved method for maintaining the mystique and majesty of rockstardom… and a necessary one, as the mystique of many rockstars vanishes instantly when one meets them outside the context of their performances or scheduled meet’n’greets.

(Ironically enough, you see, the charm business employs a surprising number of extraordinarily charmless people.)

I assumed that fandom would operate in a similar way, keeping its literary superstars well lubricated in the Green Room between their moments in the spotlight, and keeping we plebeian readers from bothering them overmuch. As such, I was greatly surprised to find that the wry-humoured fellow with the soft Scots drawl with whom I spent twenty minutes chatting over cigarettes was none other than Ken MacLeod. (Fortunate for both of us, I suspect; had I known who he was from the outset, I’d have doubtless engineered a mutually embarrassing “fanboy moment”.)

I was still more surprised later that evening, when Iain Banks not only came and sat with we fan-forum monkeys, but also bought us all a round of drinks and played jovial raconteur for an hour and a half, joined at different moments by assorted members of the Scots SF mafia. This was all wonderful stuff.

But more wonderful still was the discovery of conventions as bookgeekery aggregation points; before then, I’d never really had many meatspace opportunities to discuss sf and reading with folk whose obsession levels were similar to my own, and I think I was probably sold on conventions by that alone. As Ellen put it so neatly further up the email-trail: I’d found my tribe.

Since then I’ve done a fair few panels as both talking head and moderator, and none was more worrying than the wryly-named “Sex and the Singularity” panel at Orbital, the 2008 Eastercon. My job as moderator was looking fraught for days in advance of the panel itself, as one of my esteemed panellists was Charlie Stross, who by this point had – with some justification – started to push back against his acquired label of “the Singularity guy”. The grapevine had it that he wasn’t best pleased to be on the panel at all; having seen Charlie in action before, I had no wish to be a target for his withering snark-lasers.

Sunday morning brought further news of impending farce: Jaine Fenn, another panelist, had completely lost her voice. By this point I was panicked, and sought solace in the amber confidence of overpriced hotel lager while I decided that the best thing I could do was make light of absolutely everything and hope no one got too upset.

It was a lucky choice, and one that the panelists seemed to have reached independently: Jaine had scrawled out a series of ten off-the-wall standard replies on sheets of paper which she deployed with great comic timing; Jetse de Vries ably filled moments of silence before they got awkward (much as he ably fills a hotel bar merely my stepping into it); and Charlie, once he’d realised we weren’t going to ask him daft questions about whether Ray Kurzweil is the one true prophet of our silicon future, settled into the sort of wildly digressional tangents that are his hallmark both on the page and on the stage.

There is a picture of me from near the end of that panel floating around on the intertubes: my eyes are squinched shut against the glare of the stage lights, and there’s a drunken half-smirk on my face as Charlie recounts an aspect of the excretory process of hippos which their intestinal parasites have found most fortuitous in terms of evolutionary advantage. That’s pretty much the only moment of the panel I remember in any detail at all, as I spent the whole thing totally wired on adrenaline and terror.

All the more odd, then, that people have buttonholed me at conventions since to tell me how much fun it had been to watch. Schadenfreude: it really does work!

As to the utility of cons, I’ve both learned a huge amount from them and partied hard at them, as well as meeting some great friends and fine colleagues. All cons are different, of course, and – fandom being fandom – there’s always something to kvetch about (where would we be without our internecine politics, after all?). But cons are our tribal gatherings, the social cement of a geographically-scattered subculture… and though it may not always seem so, I suspect that’s their most important function of all.

Karen Joy Fowler

I think that my first convention was a Westercon in Sacramento in the late 80’s.  I have a bunch of memories — a jumble of several early conventions I went to and I’d have a hard time sifting out the ones from Sacramento.  But here is something I remember for sure.  I was going because Shawna McCarthy had invited me to lunch.  She’d just moved from Asimov’s to Bantam and we were going to discuss my publishing future.  Heady stuff, as you can imagine, and my mother and I had spent many hours on the phone figuring out what I should wear to a professional lunch, because I’d never been to one before and, anyway, I never know what to wear to anything.
When I entered the lobby of the hotel, the first thing I saw was people in costume.  I knew nothing about cons or about science fiction as a social activity, so I was taken by surprise.  There was a man in chain mail, very little mail, lot of chain.  There was a woman dressed as a cat.  There was a Klingon and a woman who appeared to be wearing her nightgown.  I was surprised, but I was also charmed.  I had a sense of what high school might have been like if the geeks had ruled the school and how much more fun would that have been.  The con world seemed like a tolerant place, a place where people could be themselves.  I cannot say that I felt I’d found my tribe — that came later for me, when I first went to the Sycamore Hill workshop.  But I felt there was a continuum here into which I could comfortably fit.  I felt this was maybe a place where I, too, could be myself.  And also that my days of worrying about what to wear were over.

I went to a lot of conventions in the early years of my career and I loved them.  I loved the programming, I loved meeting the people I met.  I never laughed so hard as when I could be around Tim Powers or Connie or Gardner.  But I’m not good at chitchat.  I hate large parties where I can’t actually hear anyone I’m talking to.  The programming began to repeat itself.  (Like others here, I’ve come to love the readings best.)  Plus I got old and I needed my sleep.
I still love Wiscon and Readercon.  I’d go to ICFA if it weren’t so expensive.   I recently attended the SFRA convention and had a great time.  I love World Fantasy.  I think these are the great cons, but the truth is that they’re the cons where my friends tend to be.  Because they’re the great cons.  It’s a self-fulfilling kind of thing.

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