A Fan’s History – Conventions (Part 2)

Blog 2 Photo 1 Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm at Westercon 28

Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm in writers’ workshop at Westercon 28 (1975)

This blog is not a fan history, although I will cite some fan history. There are actual fanhistorians who guard our culture. If you want to read about early fan history, see the following books: The Futurians by Damon Knight, The Way the Future Was by Frederik Pohl, All Our Yesterdays by Harry Warner, Jr., and The Immortal Storm: A History of Science Fiction Fandom by Sam Moskowitz. In the early days of fandom there was a thin line between fan and pro. (Of those fanhistorians, sadly, only Fred Pohl is still with us.) There is also a current fan history project at http://www.fanac.org. (“Fanac” is fanspeak for “fan activity.”) No, this blog is going to be more an idiosyncratic memoir about the parts of fandom I’ve been fortunate enough to be involved in, coupled with information—some or most new to the new fan (“neofan”) about conventions, reviews of books, films and fanzines and opinions. I’ve heard it said that if you put two fans together you’ll get three opinions about a subject.

It’s true; we are an opinionated bunch. And for many years, if you asked the average fan, he or she would say that we were “smarter than the average bear.” I don’t know if that’s true; opinion on that is still sharply divided. It has been a truism for a long time, though, that fans are intelligent and often socially awkward compared to their non-fan compatriots. In some ways it’s a chicken-and-egg situation: given that we may, on the whole, have a lot of less-than-socially-gifted members and are often more well-read and sometimes more intelligent, which came first? Ostracism or fandom? Well, here’s the funny thing about living in the 21st century: people don’t care so much any more! That’s right; because the social conformity of the fifties gave way to the hippies and nonconformists of the sixties, up to and including Goth, SCA, Steampunk, Trekkers, costumers, Furries, so on and so on—we’re all “out of the closet!”

The ostracized fan, except in a very few backward communities, doesn’t exist any more.

We are free to do our own thing, and we no longer have to do it off in a corner; from being small gatherings where a few hundred “freaks and oddballs”gathered with their own kind, we have come into our own, and there are now specialized conventions for every facet of fandom you can imagine. Gaming? Sure, there’re cons for that. Comics? You bet—even Hollywood’s moguls pay attention to the ComiCon! Steampunk? Costuming? Star Trek? Dr. Who? You name it, we’ve got a con for it!

We’ve come a long way from what someone—a non-fan woman I used to know very well—told me in all seriousness back in the ‘70s: “The great thing about SF cons is that they give people like that someplace to go!” And by “like that,” she meant gamers, filkers, costumers, comic/graphic novel readers, film fans, Trekkers, and just about everyone she didn’t view as “normal.” And you know what? Cons aren’t necessary for us to find people of our own kind these days, but we enjoy gathering with like-minded friends and celebrating the things we enjoy together.

I’m going to describe conventions in some very general terms; mostly relating them to my own experiences—because I don’t belong to any specific fandoms such as mentioned above—for those of you who’ve never been to one. But first, let me point out in no uncertain terms that I’m not talking about any commercial convention where you have to pay for TV and movie stars’ autographs, or to hear them talk! The cons I’m talking about are run by fans for the benefit of fans, and are done for the love of the genre. Yes, you may have to pay an entrance fee; but those are not there so the convention can profit, they’re to help pay for the Guests of Honours’ room(s), food and transportation as well as facilities fees for the hotel and other expenses related to the con. The guests at a real con usually don’t get a speaking fee; they’re invited so that we may honour them, and they realize and appreciate that. The organizers also donate their time—hundreds of hours—and often money to keep the con alive.

A general SF con is usually named after a city or region with “con” or some variation after it; i.e., Boskone (which honours both Boston and the evil organization in E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series), Philacon (Philadelphia), Deep South Con, Norwescon (Seattle’s “northwest” convention), VCON (Vancouver, BC), and so on. There are variations, of course, but that’s how it generally runs. A con can run from two to four days (sometimes more, sometimes only one day), and is divided into several different areas. Cons generally have one or more Guests of Honour (GOHs), which can be from the worlds of writing, music, film, comics/graphics/art, TV—these are usually notables in their field—and fans plus “special guests.” The GOH at the first con I attended (in 1975) was David Gerrold who, at the time, was probably best known for Star Trek (“The Trouble With Tribbles”), as well as his novels like When Harlie Was One and The Flying Sorcerers (co-written with Larry Niven). Fan GOHs were Charles and Dena Brown from Locus, the “newspaper of the Science Fiction field,” and special guests were Ian and Betty Ballantine, publishers of Ballantine Books.

 Laser Book #0 — Seeds of Change

Laser Book #0 — Seeds of Change

I was a “neofan,” and had no idea what to do at a con; I knew nothing of room parties—which alas! are no longer what they used to be—or how to meet people; I was there with four friends from the college town of Pullman, Washington (Washington State University) who were also attending their first con. We walked into the Hotel Leamington in Oakland, California—a long drive—and were gobsmacked to see people in person who we previously had known only as names on books! Poul and Karen Anderson, Gordon Dickson, Avram Davidson, Roger Elwood, Tom Scortia, Bill Rotsler; heck, I probably didn’t know half the pros there! I quickly found out the best way to meet them (since I didn’t know about room parties) was in the bar. And they gave us a free book with our packet—the very first Laser paperback (Seeds of Change by Tom Monteleone)! Photo 2 Caption Laser Book #0 — Seeds of Change

Well, Westercon 28 (“OakLaCon”—for Oakland/LA Con; Westercon is a trademark of, and was sponsored by, the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society, or LASFS) provided what most cons do. At least double-track panels, where writers, fans and knowledgeable people spoke on subjects like “Sex and Sexism in SF” or “How to Build a World”; a writers’ workshop, where published authors critique beginning authors’ stories; an artshow (Westercon 28 is where Michael Whelan first exhibited his art, and where I bought an original b/w Whelan); a dealers’ room (“hucksters”), where you could buy almost anything pertaining to SF, fantasy or other fannish interests; a banquet, where you could hear the GOH speeches and some awards; a film room, showing SF films—at this time there were no VCRs and/or DVDs, so films had to actually be shown on film; and room parties. But I was young(er) and naïve and didn’t know about room parties. (“What the heck is this sign? LA in 1977? Room 1442?”)

Blog 2 Photo 3 Rotsler Nametag

Personalized Con Nametag by Bill Rotsler © Steve Fahnestalk

That was the convention model for years, and then time, technology, economics and social change caught up to fandom. Once you could practically go from weekend to weekend with a different SF con in a different city in North America; now there are fewer general SF cons. Some of the smaller ones have disappeared; some of the larger ones cater to different congoers. And many have just changed to reflect the changing interests of congoers. Let me explain just a few of the specific types of con you might find if you look.

The comics convention is the oldest spinoff convention, I think. It’s a cross between a commercial and a fan convention with leanings toward the commercial; ever since comics gained mainstream respectability and old comics became worth big bucks, we’ve had comic cons in major cities, like New York, San Diego, Seattle—even in Australia. I haven’t been to one myself, but they generally combine comics with other print, video and film media. Guests come from all ends of the media spectrum, and you generally have to pay for autographs. They’re also often the best place to find out about upcoming films, TV shows and comics. Many attend in costume, and the dealers’ room(s) is/are to die for if you want collectibles.

The gaming conventions: At every SF con you will usually find a room full of people who are sitting around tables filled with gaming boards, figurines, cards, dice and the other accoutrements of modern gaming. (Video gamers are off in a different room if there are video gamers at a con. There are also video game cons, but we won’t go into that now.) These are usually serious gamers; they often don’t attend any other functions of an SF con except, perhaps, the dealers’ room. To find out what their games are like, since I don’t game myself, you should watch The Big Bang Theory. Some of them are true reflections of Sheldon, Leonard, Howard and Raj, who sometimes play real games on the show. This is not true for all gamers, so don’t jump all over me.

The costume conventions: Since the first World SF convention in 1939, fans have been wearing costumes to conventions; they fall into two categories. The first is the costume competition, or masquerade; costumes can be inspired by books, movies, comics, real history, or the imaginations of the costumers. Many costumers work for a year—or more—on a single costume or group of costumes. The second category is “hall costumes,” the kind you just wear around the halls of the con. The main purpose is to be noticed and get compliments by other con-goers. Sometimes, for some of the younger hall costumers, it’s a way to hook up. To put yourself out there saying “Hey, I’m young, I’m sexy and I’m cool.” This may be one reason that serious costumers started holding their own cons. There are categories for serious costumers, ranging from novice to master, and people who work hard on their costumes take these very seriously indeed. By the way, if you have the impression from this that you are required to wear a costume, you’re not. Many people have never worn a costume to a convention. An offshoot of the costumers is…

Blog 2 Photo 4 MisCon Furry

Unknown Furry at MisCon 2012

The furries! The proper name for furry fandom is (or was at one time) anthropomorphic fandom. There have been “funny animal” comics as long as there have been “superhero” comics; even Frank Frazetta drew them. In the ‘70s there were artists like Tim Kirk, and Ken Macklin, for example, who drew funny anthropomorphic cartoons; and then came the black-and-white comics in the ‘80s, like Steve Gallacci’s Albedo, Reed Waller and Kate Worley’s Omaha the Cat Dancer, and Steve Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo (first appearing in Albedo #2). There were many other anthropomorphic animal cartoons, ranging from good and funny to sexy to atrociously drawn and thought out; one thing they mostly had in common was that the females were usually very sexily and attractively drawn. In fact, a lot of people were drawn to the furry comics because of the sexual interest. In the mid-‘90s there were so many indie b/w comics that the market imploded, and most of these titles disappeared, along with that segment of the furry population.

Enter the internet, and MUDs/MUCKs; a MUD is or was a multi-user domain (or dungeon), used mainly for gaming—it was text-based, and has been supplanted by the MMORPG, or Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game, which is graphically superior. The MUCK was a MUD (To quote Terry Pratchett, “It’s a pune, or play on words.”) where you could take the role of an anthropomorphic character; it was basically a sort of an erotic chatroom for some people. Then someone put on a convention solely for people of the furry persuasion and now, it has been said, there may be as many furry cons as strictly SF cons. Furry cons attract the costumers, the role players and the MUCKers. Every furry has a “fursona,” with which they interact with other furries online; if they don’t have the skill to make their own fursona come alive, they can pay an amateur artist $20 to do a drawing of their fursona! For most furries today, the internet is their main, if not only form of fanac—except for furry cons. (Thanks to Taral Wayne, a talented fanartist, for this information.)

This may be a bit overwhelming for those who have barely scratched the surface of cons; maybe we’ll go into some other “spinoff” cons in the next blog entry. For more information on how to find a local con, you can go to http://www.upcomingcons.com/science-fiction-conventions for more info. You can also use Google or your favourite search engine; I believe Analog and/or Asimov’s, plus Locus Online, have information on upcoming cons.

Till next time, “Clear ether!”

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