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Emerald City carries a lot of reviews of science fiction conventions. However, it is quite difficult to write a con review that is both succint and entertaining for convention regulars and wholly understandable by newcommers. It would be like having to explain what SF is in every book review. Therefore I have created this page to help those of you who have never been to a convention before get up to speed with the idea.
What are conventions?
Basically there are two types of conventions: those run by commercial organisations, and those run by fans. Generally the commercial ones are pretty poor value for money, unless your intention in going is to get within drooling distance of your favourite TV star. Fannish conventions tend to be harder work, but a lot more fun once you get into the swing of things. The rest of this FAQ will be devoted to fannish conventions.
What do you mean, fannish?
Literally of course it just means "of and by fans". Practically the term has acquired all sorts of connotations regarding good fannish behaviour. In general you will find that fannish conventions aim to break even rather than make a profit, and they are run by volunteers. To a certain extent they also expect you to make your own entertainment by participating in the convention rather than sitting back and expecting everything to be given to you on a plate. Exactly what this means will hopefully become clear as you read on.
Where and when?
Typically conventions take place at a weekend in a hotel or convention centre. Long weekends resulting from public holidays are favourite times for conventions, both because it gives you more time for the con, and because hotels that cater for the business trade tend to be desperate for custom at those times. Smaller cons may make use of university accomodation and other cheaper venues.
And you all go round in Star Trek costumes, right?
Attendees at conventions are perfectly welcome to dress up as Mr. Spock, Gandalf, Xena, Spiderman, Harry Potter, Kenny from South Park or whoever else takes their fancy. Some conventions even give prizes for the best costumes. Most people, however, wear jeans and a t-shirt.
Please note that most big conventions do not allow the use of realistic weapons except during formal costumne competitions. This is partly to discourage over-enthusiastic folks from swinging a broadsword in a crowded corridor, but mainly because hotel secuity guards trend to panic and call the police if they see something they think is dangerous. If your costume has a wepaon you may be asked to have it inspected and visibly labelled to show that it is not dangerous.
So what does happen?
The tone of an individual convention is very much up to the individual organisers. There is no set pattern, but there are a number of things that are very common. In general the bigger the convention, the more of these things you are likely to find.
The backbone of almost all conventions is a series of dicsussion panels on various topics, most of which will hopefully be something to do with SF. At a big convention you may well find many different panels taking place at the same time. Generally the idea is that a panel of supposed experts discuss the panel topic amongst themselves for about half the scheduled time, then they take questions and contributions from the audience. Don't be shy, particpate. When you get home you will be able to say, "I asked xxx about his book and he told me...".
Most conventions have one or more guests. These tend to be famous authors, editors, artists and so on. Conventions also like to honour famous fans who have done a lot of good work for the community by having a special fan guest. Being a guest means that you have to work hard. You have to give a speech, and be on lots of panels.
Will I get to meet Patrick Stewart or Gillian Anderson?
Probably not. Most fannish conventions cannot afford the appearance fees that actors charge. Besides, many actors who appear in SF shows have very little interest in SF itself. Their job is to act, and tomorrow they may be doing a police show or a medical drama. If you want to talk about SF, you are generally better off talking to writers.
Does anyone famous come?
Obviously not anyone famous enough to command a fat attendance fee. But most conventions will have at least one well known author in attendance, and a Worldcon may easily have 100 published authors as members, most of them having paid for their membership just like you did. There are some authors who prefer not to mix with fans, but the majority seem only too pleased to have the opportunity to discuss their work with their readers.
Another regular feature of conventions is a big room full of stalls selling all sorts of stuff. The type of stuff depends a bit on the nature of the convention. Some major primarily on books, others on TV show merchandise. Then there are jewelry and games and toys and costumes and new age supplies and goodness knows what else. Go shop, shopping is fun.
Larger conventions often have an art exhibition at which artists can display and sell their work. If you have artistic talents yourself, this may be a very good way to get known and make some money.
Another feature of big conventions is a formal costume competition. This is generally in the form of a catwalk show in which the contestants come on stage and display their ensembles, sometimes with a short act. For the costumers this is a generally a terrifying experience, for most of the rest of us it is the main piece of entertainment for the weekend.
Years ago conventions were often one of the few ways that you could get to see SF films. Nowadays with the advent of video, DVD and TV screenings of movies there is less demand for films at conventions. However, there may be showings of rare or very old films, or maybe the con will have access to a big movie screen allowing you to see all of your old favourites again for free.
Reading SF and playing games seem to go together. Conventions therefore often set a room aside for people to play games. Sometimes equipment is provided and tournaments are organised. Yes, you can spend all weekend playing one big role-playing adventure. Please remember to eat and sleep occasionally.
In the US it is common for big cons to provide a room in which various nibbles and sodas are available for free. This is much less common in other countries, often because of food hygiene regulations that make make hotels responsible for all food consumed on their premises (which in turn makes hotels ban supply of food unless they have provided it, at their usual exhorbitant rates).
The official program for a convention generally runs from around 9 or 10 in the morning to about 6 in the evening. Big events such as a masquerade may be in the evening, and games and films will still be running, but most people go out to dinner and then gather together in their rooms to talk. Clubs, people promoting other conventions, and generous souls who just love having friends round, will often provide food and drink in their rooms. You may find that you are still chatting away at 3 in the morning. Try not to snore during panels the next day.
How much will this cost?
That depends a lot on the size of the convention and when you buy. A weekend convention may only cost $30-$40 per member, which pays for the venue plus travel and accomodation costs for the guests. If you buy a Worldcon membership at the last minute it may cost $200, but actually that isn't bad for 5 days, and you can get the membership much more cheaply if you buy well in advance.
You should also bear in mind the cost of travel and accomodation. If the con is in your home town this won't be much; if it is another country it will be a lot. However, because the con will have block-booked hotel rooms, you can get to stay in some very nice places for a lot less than the usual rate. Remember also that you don't have to stay in the con hotel. There may be a cheap motel or hostel not far away.
Oh, and don't forget that you may well be going out to dinner with new friends and spending a fortune in the dealers' room.
What is WSFS?
WSFS is the World Science Fiction Society. It is the governing body for the World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon). People used to hierarchical organisations sometimes think that WSFS somehow "controls" science fiction fandom. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most cons are run independently by autonomous clubs and organisations. Even running the Worldcon is delegated each year to an organisation that had bid for and won the privilege. In fact, fans run WSFS, because everyone who is a member of a Worldcon is also a member of WSFS for that year and entitled to vote in its annual meeting.
Isn't it all a bit cliquey?
Attending your first convention can be a bit daunting. Everyone seems to know everyone else, and you don't. You seem to be expected to participate, but you don't feel that you yet belong. Hopefully the convention will have people looking out for confused newcomers, or will have a special "my first con" panel. If they don't, just be brave and get involved. Most people are very friendly.
Apropos the above, convention runners please read this and take note: The Neofan Manifesto.
What is all this about volunteering?
When you join a convention you will often be asked to volunteer. Remember I said that fannish conventions were all run by volunteers? That means us, you included. Now it may seem a bit poor to be asking you to help run a convention that you have paid to attend, but remember that you paid very little because no one doing the work is on a salary. Ever been to a business convention? $1000 for 2 days perhaps? SF cons are cheap because fans work to keep them so, and the more of us that help the easier it is for everyone. Besides, volunteering is a great way to get to know people.