By the time you read this, I will be in Albuquerque, attending a science fiction convention.
Just about every weekend of the year there’s a science fiction convention taking place in some city across this broad land. These conventions are put on by the fans, out of love of the field. They invite professional writers, artists, and editors to attend. I don’t go to many, but I always have a good time when I do go.
Science fiction conventions began more than half a century ago, when science fiction was a tiny part of the publishing industry, and science fiction fans were spread thinly across the land. The conventions were, originally, a chance for a few dozen fans to meet each other, to spend a weekend hobnobbing with writers and other “big-time pros,” to stay up all night talking, singing, breathing the rarified air of science fiction.
Today, a typical science fiction convention will draw at least several hundred fans. Each year there is a World Convention that can draw five thousand attendees or more. The WorldCon this year was in Reno, a couple of weeks ago. I was the guest of honor the last time the WorldCon was in Chicago, in 2000.
A convention’s program usually includes lots of panels, in which the “pro” guests are invited to participate. Subject matter might be anything from how to write publishable fiction to the politics and technology of ballistic missile defense. Since many of the writers have backgrounds in science — and many scientists and engineers are science fiction fans — these discussions are often quite learned and educational.
There are also less serious aspects to a science fiction convention. Most cons feature a costume competition, and the costumes can be quite elaborate. There are almost always fans dressed up in fantastic costumes wandering through the halls and meeting rooms all weekend long.
The news media is inevitably attracted to the elaborate costumes, and news coverage of a convention usually stresses the people in Wookie suits or dressed like barbarian swordsmen.
This leads the general public to think that science fiction fans are a bit kooky. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most of the “fen” (the plural of “fan”) are hard-working, sober men and women during the rest of the year. Many of them are bookish intellectuals, the kind of people who were known as nerds in school. These ugly ducklings flock to science fiction conventions where, for a weekend, they can be swans.
One hotel in a Midwestern city made the mistake of thinking the fen were useless vagabonds, and treated the convention-goers like dirt. Among those maltreated fen were executives from the insurance and aerospace industries. Once they got home, they made a few phone calls. Several national conventions canceled their plans to use that hotel, and its insurance carrier tripled its rates.
Don’t mess with science fiction fans.
Each convention has a stylized name. The annual Minneapolis convention, for example, is called Minicon. Philadelphia’s is Philcon. The convention in Albuquerque is Bubonicon, in honor of the fact that New Mexico is the bubonic plague capital of North America.
There are also wonderful art displays at most conventions, where the faithful can buy original artworks by the top illustrators in the field, as well as work by aspiring amateurs. “Huckster rooms” sell books, old magazines, CDs, toys and memorabilia of all kinds. I have a Samurai sword hanging in my office, a gift from my dearest friend, purchased at a science fiction convention.
“Fandom,” say the fen, “is a way of life.”
And so it is. For many fen, conventions are a social event, like the gathering of a primitive clan or the meeting of a corporation’s board of directors.
For decades, I have maintained friendships with fellow writers mainly by meeting them at conventions. I met my late wife at a science fiction convention, and now my dearest friend accompanies me to them whenever she can.
Of course, to a professional writer, conventions are an opportunity to meet the readers. We give talks to the fen, discuss our work, sign books.
Science fiction conventions are a chance to appear brilliant in front of your customers.
They’re also a lot of fun.
Ben Bova’s latest science fiction novel is “Leviathans of Jupiter.” His website address is www.benbova.com.