We’re now four weeks away from Contact 2016 and – if you’re an SF fan in the Brisbane area who is on the fence about going – I’d encourage you to go register sooner rather than later. Why? Well, as a guy who has run a few con-like events and attended many more, let me expound on some of the major reasons.
ONE: THE GUESTS ARE PEACHY-KEEN
I mean, seriously, peachy-fucking-keen. I mean, you’ve got Ben “Rivers of London” Aaronovitch; you’ve got Jill “ex-editor of the Mary Sue” Pantozzi (and if you’re not hitting The Mary Sue at least once a week, then we probably can’t be friends any more); you’ve got Keri “more novels than you’ve got fingers and toes” Arthur, who is one of those people I leap at the chance to program every GenreCon; you’ve got Maria “Whose Afraid?” Lewis, who has been building some incredible momentum with her debut novel.
Getting your guests right is a huge part of putting conventions together. It’s not just a matter of getting big names, it’s a matter of getting people who understand the community-driven nature of a fan convention and being willing to throw themselves into that experience. Unlike a big, exposition style event like Supanova which are driven by large crowds and signing tables, the experience of fan convention involves a good deal more talking to people and being accessible to attendees. The best guests are the ones who relish the idea of holding an ongoing conversation with a hundred or so people, over the course of four days.
More importantly, you want a guest-list that contains a frission of interest when you put them together. Strong points of view that has the potential to generate interesting, engaging discussion.
In this respect, Contact is knocking shit out of the park with its guest list.
TWO: THE AWESOME CONVERSATION
In some respects Contact is fighting an uphill battle – its the first fan convention to be held in Brisbane for a decade, which means our fan culture is skewed towards the exposition model of Supanova. It’s an attempt to bring together disparate groups of fans who don’t ordinarily see each other (It’s telling, when I first started going to conventions, that I would run into folks like Kathleen Jennings and assume they weren’t from Brisbane).
The flip-side of this: Brisbane SF folks are awesome. And, unlike the big exposition model were everything is about the shock and awe of a big experience, a con like Contact is built on the model of fierce, passionate engagement among a smaller community, giving you the chance to meet new people, sit down with folks and have a beer/coffee, and generally figure out what you’ve got in common.
If Supanova is a place where you primarily wander around and look at cool things, fan conventions like Contact are a place where you wander around and talk to cool people.
THREE: ITS THE IDEAL PLACE TO NETWORK IF YOUR AN INTROVERTED WRITER-TYPE
A large portion of my writing network was built on the back of cons. In fact, they’re ideal if you’re a reclusive introvert type, because it allows you to play to your strengths.
Again, we come back to Supanova, which draws a similar kind of demographic but is nowhere near as useful to me for networking purposes.
Every time I go to Supanova I’m daunted by the crowds and the bustle, frustrated by my inability to get anywhere without having to constantly predict when the human traffic-flow will stop or change direction without notice. The fact that the guests are frequently penned behind a signing table between sessions, and there’s never a chance to sit down and talk to other attendees. It’s an even that requires the processing of a lot of information about the world around me at high speed, and I dislike that sensation.
Cons have that – gather a couple of hundred fans together and there is a lot of commotion – but they also have quiet, small pockets of conversation in the bar; they have sitting down to lunch with a writer you’ve just met; they have that conversation you started during a break, with another attendee, that you continue over the course of the weekend. If you’re a fan of small-scale networking, it’s an easier path in, and the smaller crowd means actually getting a chance to meet the people you really want to meet. Even setting aside the guests, the number of kick-ass Australian writers and SF types attending Contact covers a fair gamut of genres and experience levels.
FOUR: IT’S NEW & NOT YET DEFINED
Having sung the praises of fan conventions, let me talk about the dark side: many will have built-in communities that have occasionally developed a tendency to be…well, let’s say insular. Not intentionally, perhaps, but in that way where you’re walking into a party where everyone has been friends for years, and you realise that you don’t know all the in-jokes and common experiences. With the national science fiction convention having a history dating back to the fifties, that’s a whole lot of in-jokes and common experiences.
That insularity is often a thing that I dislike about fan conventions. At its best, it makes it harder for a new attendee to get their feet under them, particularly if they’re shy or uncertain. At it’s worst, it leads to a kind of active hostility towards new voices, some terrifying bad behaviour, and accusations that “you’re being a fan wrong.”
The latter is relatively rare – and, thanks to the internet, increasingly being met with a chorus of more sensible people suggesting the folks who engage in such behaviour are being a mite wrong-headed about things – but it does make me appreciate the newness of Contact.
It’s a con that has to be open to suggestions about what fan culture looks like in Brisbane, because there’s no clear community to work with, and they’ve been actively trying to draw in voices and attendees who are under-represented or not normally inclined to attend a convention.
Having kicked off a new contention or two, I can tell you from experience: the culture that forms in your first event matters, and it forms out of the people who show up and engage.
FIVE: USE IT OR LOSE IT
Fan conventions are run by volunteers and they pay an incredible toll in time and stress in order to create an event for the communities and fan-cultures they love. It’s a thankless job, even if half the people at the con take the time to say thank-you, because the goodwill is all too often overshadowed by the challenges and occasional grumpy bastard.
On top of that, every convention has a magic number – a number of tickets sold and people through the door that make it feasible to do another one, even with the effort that goes into it. Those magic numbers are rarely hit, which is one of the reasons those entrenched communities I mentioned above are valuable to a con; once you know how many people will show up, year to year, it gives you a baseline to work with.
When I run GenreCon, I do it with the backing of Queensland Writers Centre and the team there. Its an incredible safety net in many respects, but it doesn’t eliminate the need for the magic number.
For the folks running Contact, there is no safety net. There is no team. I don’t envy the organisers, because running a con is an incredibly hard gig, and it’s even harder when you consider that the appeal of fan conventions often feel like you’re trying to sell people on the Matrix, all “you don’t really know why a convention is valuable until you’ve seen it.” The month leading into a con are basically like trying to squeeze twelve kilograms of stress and panic into a toothpaste tube. The chance of burn-out is high.
None of which is your problem, as someone who may be interested in attending, but it does bring up the fundamental instability of cons: use ’em, or they go away. If there’s no bodies coming through the door, there’s no chance of another conference coming around some day.
I like the idea of Contact. I’d like it to succeed. I’d particularly like the idea of there being another con in Brisbane without waiting another decade.
Use it or lose it, peeps. Those are your choices.