Ben Bova: Science-fiction conventions are nothing to laugh at

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I’ve gone to several science-fiction conventions recently. They’re fun.

There’s hardly a weekend throughout the year when there isn’t a science-fiction convention going on in some city across this wide land. Most of them draw a few hundred participants, although some are quite larger and the annual World Science Fiction Convention can bring in upwards of 5,000 attendees.

Science-fiction conventions are put on by the fans, the readers and filmgoers and gaming enthusiasts who love science fiction and fantasy in all its forms. They invite professional writers and artists to participate on panel discussions, give lectures, autograph books.

The fans say, “Science fiction is a way of life,” and it’s true. I met my late wife Barbara at a science-fiction convention. Most of my friends are writers, and we live all over the map. Conventions draw us together for a weekend of camaraderie and good fun.

In the “mundane” world outside of the science-fiction community, most science-fiction fans are sort of ugly ducklings. Often they’re the bookish kids who are regarded as nerds by their peers. But for the weekend of a convention these ugly ducklings all turn into swans. They form a beautiful, caring extended family who look after each other. Every child brought to a science-fiction convention has a couple of hundred adults watching out for him or her.

The World Science Fiction Convention is usually held in the United States, although every fourth year it goes overseas. This year it will be in Melbourne, Australia, in August. When the WorldCon is in the U.S., it’s usually held over the Labor Day weekend.

I used a bit of fannish jargon there: WorldCon. Every convention has its own shorthand name. The annual convention in Philadelphia (granddaddy of the SF cons) is called PhilCon. Minneapolis has MiniCon. Albuquerque stages Bubonicon every year, based on the fact that New Mexico is the bubonic plague capital of the United States.

The Orlando Area Science Fiction Society puts on OASIS every Memorial Day weekend. This year was Oasis 23 and, as they say, a good time was had by all.

There’s usually a costume competition, and you can see fans dressed up in anything from Wookie suits and Star Wars imperial marine armor to medieval gowns and Harry Potter outfits.

It’s easy for “mundanes” to dismiss the fans as kooks or overgrown kids. But don’t let the costumes or the jargon-filled conversations fool you. Among the people attending these conventions are leading scientists, business executives, teachers and entrepreneurs.

For example, some years ago in a hotel far, far away (it was in St. Louis, actually) the hotel staff took one look at the fans arriving for their convention and decided to treat them like scum. Service was worse than dismal. The hotel even shut down the elevators at midnight, which stranded late-night revelers in the lobby. I was among them and got into a fist fight (mild mannered me!) with a young elevator operator who refused to take a group of us to the floors where our rooms were located.

Within a week after that convention closed, several national aerospace organizations canceled their plans to hold meetings at that hotel; the hotel’s insurance carrier tripled the hotel’s rates, and a few other inconveniences were rained upon the hotel’s management and staff.

Don’t mess with science-fiction fans!

Usually, though, the fans are gentle and easy-going. They come together to meet others who share their interest in science fiction and fantasy. They arrange panel discussions on topics as diverse as the bikini-clad babes seen on paperback book covers and the impact that energy weapons (lasers and such) are beginning to have on military tactics and strategy.

Sadly, as I age, conventions are more and more events where we mourn our dead. Many of the writers and artists I have known have passed away; last year death claimed my beautiful, beloved Barbara.

But a science-fiction convention is a good place to make new friends, to renew acquaintances with old ones, to share in the excitement and enthusiasm of the younger fans.

It’s a great way to spend a weekend.

Bova is the author of nearly 125 books, including “The Return,” part of his Grand Tour science-fiction series. Bova’s website address is www.benbova.com

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