Variety is the Spice of Life

I’m still not sure what I think about this article. It came about as a result of me having severe writer’s block and not wanting to do a retread of what I’d already written before, and so I thought I’d write something about a tweet that I’d seen fairly recently. It’s fair to say that arguments about programme at SF cons have been happening since the dawn of time so it’s entirely possible that nothing set out here is new, original or even interesting; but it’s what I think on the matter, so I’m glad I’ve put it into writing!

ESA's Kepler spacecraft as seen from the ISS.
ESA's Kepler spacecraft as seen from the ISS.

Variety is the Spice of Life (February 2011)
Published in The Drink Tank #273 (ed. Chris Garcia & Steve Green), p6; available on eFanzines.com

I recently saw an argument brewing on Twitter, and it motivated me to think about the conventions I’ve been to in the context of the argument. Since the argument took place more than a day ago and Twitter is horrendous at letting one read tweets that occurred in the past, I can’t provide copious quotations from the argument, but suffice to say that @niallharrison tweeted, “@davecl42 @Paul_Cornell @pornokitsch I would be in favour of an sf convention where every item was about sf. Too radical?”

Before I go into that statement and my thoughts on it, I want to try to provide some context by describing the three conventions I went to in my first year of convention-going and what they offered that drew me into SF conventions as opposed to online fandom. I’ve been going to conventions since my first Eastercon in 2007, and since then I’ve been to a bewildering array of one-day events and weekend conventions that have entertained and engaged me in a variety of different ways. So, on with the cons!

The Eastercon that marked my first was Contemplation, held in Chester. It was a rescue con, having taken over from Convoy, which would have been held in Liverpool (and lead to the delay of the TAFF race that year, incidentally). As such, it was a bit different to your usual Easter event — most notably, there was no Guest of Honour, and the attendance that year was notably smaller than the other three Eastercons I’ve attended since. But, on the other side, I remember going to some interesting panels and I remember having a damn good time, so that worked!

Year of the Teledu marked the second convention I attended, in Leicester later that year, and it was almost a completely different kettle of fish. The first difference was the way in which the convention was organised, which was via Wiki. Anyone could edit or add to it, and this produced a real community feel to the con’s promotion and programming, amongst other aspects. I produced the readme for the convention, which was extremely good fun!

Recombination was yet another totally unique experience, being a science fiction convention, games convention and filk convention rolled into a package and held at a university! The crowd of people there was very different to my two previous conventions and the programme was also distinct from the other events I’d attended. I was on panels, I played (and bought!) games, I helped out with Green Room and a bunch of other stuff.

So, back to the argument, and I’m hopeful that you’re beginning to see my point. The three conventions above were all totally different conventions. By percentage, I’d actually say that Recombination had the highest proportion of panels and items directly related to what it had set out to do (although, given that any panel mentioning SF, gaming or filk came under that description, it could be described as having cheated!). Contemplation also had a sizable chunk of SF programming and Year of the Teledu wasn’t really designed to be a serious convention in the same way, but had space-hoppers.

These three conventions are all examples of totally distinct and unique conventions, and they all had their own programming and their own hotels and their own feel, their own style. Most of the programming was about SF, and some wasn’t. Certainly, I think that if one goes to an SF convention, there’s an expectation that SF will, at some point, occur; but I don’t think that it’s necessary for a convention to have a programme fully consisting of SF, especially given how difficult a definition that could prove to be!

As an aside, the question of whether Alastair Reynolds talking about his research would count as SF was posed. @niallharrison responded with a tweet. The first part read: ‘”Al Reynolds discusses his research background” is out.’ But, that’s something relevant to my interests as a fan of his work, and to me, that means it should qualify for inclusion at a convention at which he’s a guest. Is it SF? Well, I think there are pretty good arguments on both sides for that. I’d say it is, since his books are about space and tend to incorporate physics, both of which I’d say are probably facts that are directly linked to his research background.

A talk by Alastair Reynolds that was about his research background and how it had influenced his writing would, it was suggested, be alright. This seems like a slightly arbitrary distinction to me, since the two talks would likely have a significant amount of common ground and I’m sure that both would be well-received by the people in attendance!

This leads me to the second part of @niallharrison’s tweet: ‘This is not complicated, surely?’ I think it is. In fact, I would go so far to say that I think having a rigid limit on what can and cannot be a programme item at a convention is a bad idea because of its complexity! Surely, it’s a far better idea just to hold lots of conventions all with different ways of tackling the problem, and let the problem sort itself out as people work out which conventions they like best and go to them. However, even this idea runs into trouble when considering the large conventions such as Eastercons (and, I imagine, Worldcons, although since I have never attended one, perhaps I’m not qualified to talk about those!), at which a series of committees have to try to keep a very diverse and very vocal membership happy with similarly styled convention programming.

Maybe I, like @niallharrison suggested in that first tweet, am also being too radical.