What To Do at an sf Convention

As noted earlier, conventions now vary in their emphasis, but all sf conventions have panels by day and parties by night. Most sf cons have several streams of programming, which means you have a choice of panels, workshops, speeches, or author readings going on at any one time, and you can usually find something of interest throughout the day. If there is absolutely nothing on in the next hour you want to see, there is always the video program, the artshow, or the dealer's room (i.e., sf related goods for sale) to keep you busy until the next batch of interesting topics.

Of course, Murphy's laws ensure that the two panels you most want to attend are scheduled opposite each other, and all your friends will insist that the one panel you missed was the best one of the weekend. Knowing this in advance, however, should help you accept this inevitability with philosophical grace. In other words, relax, enjoy what is happening here and now, and don't worry too much about what you might be missing somewhere else. It is impossible to take it all in, and there's always next year.

If the convention has an art show, there is usually an art auction Sunday afternoon. Pieces in the artshow will have bid sheets nearby which indicate (1) the title of the piece (2) the name of the artist; (3) whether the piece is for sale, or only on display; (4) the medium in which it's painted, drawn, sculpted, etc.; (5) whether the purchaser has the right to publish the picture in a fanzine (some works on display will have been published already); (6) the minimum bid (i.e., the minimum amount of money for which it may be auctioned); (7) and two or three blank lines for you to enter your bid on the piece. Obviously, any bid you enter has to be at least as much as the minimum bid, or higher. If a painting receives only one or two written bids on the bid sheet, it sells to the highest bidder, and that's that. If the bidding on the bid sheet overflows the space available, thus indicating sufficient interest in the item to warrant it going to auction, it is entered into the live auction Sunday afternoon, and the bidding really heats up.

Since any auction involves a good deal of psychological warfare (little bids to wear out the opponent, or big ones to scare him off?) the art auction is a popular spectator sport even for those not buying. Be warned, however, that the auction atmosphere is contagious and many non-buyers have found themselves reaching for their wallets, especially if their favourite pieces start to go for ridiculously low prices. Think out your maximum bidding limit before you go in, and stick to it. (Aside to artists: Don't worry that such warnings will discourage irresponsible bidding and thus cut into your paychecks; no one ever listens to this advice.)

Two other warnings are important here: If this is your first convention artshow, you may be so relieved at finally finding something other than the usual mountain scenes or Elvis on black velvet that turn up at your local mall, that you go a bit overboard. I've known many fans who've paid top dollar for their first rocketship painting, only to find 10 more like it (only better) the next year. Try to keep things in perspective.

Second, many conventions allow artists to exhibit and auction litho and photoprints. Signed and numbered, these may be worth slightly more than mimimum bid (particularly if it's a line that isn't selling well and the artist is auctioning at a discount) but the bottom line is that if someone else outbids you, you can always order another copy, at a fixed cost, direct from the artist. These are not one-of-a-kind works.

The dealer (or huckster) room is another temptation to the pocketbook, particularly if you're into pocketbooks. (Sorry.) Most huckster rooms feature rare and current books; magazines; posters; buttons; gamer and media materials; cyrstals, cermaic dragons, and anything else that's likely to sell to fans.

Conventions used to have film rooms where fans could watch their favourite or rare movies. These have generally been replaced by video rooms, which are considerably easier and cheaper to organize, but somewhat less satisfying than the big screen. On the other hand, cable equipped hotels can pipe the video program directly to your hotel room, so you can escape the crowds for a couple of hours while still watching a movie. Since many of the popular sf movies are now readily available on video cassette, many convention video programs specialize in Japanimation, British TV, or very old movies, which attendees are less likely to have seen. Other conventions have simply dropped the movie program as redundant.

So much for daytime progamming. Many first time con-goers make the mistake of going home at suppertime, secure in the knowledge that there are no more panels until 9:00 AM the next morning. This is a mistake for two reasons: First, no convention actually restarts its programming at 9:00 AM on Saturday and Sunday, no matter what the program book says. Panelists and audience alike are still sleeping off the previous night's parties, and neither will show up at the advertised time. Second, if you go home now, you'll miss said parties.

The most accessible party is of course the consuite. The consuite is a hotel room rented by the convention committee and open until the wee hours of the morning. Any con member can drop in, buy a drink, perhaps meet one of the Guests of Honour, or just talk for hours. The consuite is almost a convention within the convention, since many fans spend almost all their time there. Many conventions build their reputations on the quality of the conversation in the consuite.

It should also be noted that most conventions now have separate smoking and non-smoking consuites, and if things slow down in one, you can always check out the other.

The consuite will also have posters announcing the location of other "open" parties. These room parties are usually sponsored by individuals or groups promoting other conventions, lobbying for your vote in upcoming elections, or otherwise demonstrating that they throw better parties than their competitors down the hall. These are a good way to meet people, since the organizers will generally take the initiative in introducing you around.

There are likely to be several "closed" parties in the hotel as well. If the hotel room door remains closed, chances are that it is a private function. A group of fans will often prearrange to get together at a convention to discuss private matters, and outsiders would simply be bored or lost by the conversation. A typical example would be a reunion of apa members.

Depending on hotel security, it can sometimes be difficult to distinguish between open and closed room parties. If the hotel management insists that all the room parties keep their doors closed to cut down on the noise, you will have to rely on posters in the consuite to identify those that are open. When in doubt, however, it's simple enough to knock and ask if it's a closed party.

It is important to remember, however, that in all cases "party" refers to a lot of talking and (at most) moderate drinking. If your idea of a great party is one you can't remember the next morning, you're probably in the wrong place. Fandom has never tolerated drunkenness, and the surest way to be declared persona non grata is to drink more than your limit.

Parties are the lifeblood of any convention, and many fans will provide detailed reviews of the con while happily admitting that they didn't attend any of the scheduled programming. Experienced fans often find that by their 20th convention all the panels tend to blur together anyway--that when you've seen one slide show on 1930s sf you've seen them all. (The first one's really a humdinger though.)

This attitude also explains the otherwise strange behaviour of local fans who, in spite of living within walking distance of the hotel, rent hotel rooms for the weekend. Even if not hosting a party, a hotel room guarantees one the best chance of seeing everything there is to see.

Another thing to note about hotel rooms is the "four on the floor" syndrome. Fans, being perpetually broke, often buffer the cost of convention-going by sleeping 4, 6, or more to a room, sometimes with (but usually without) the hotel's approval. Thus if someone offers you "crash space" at a convention, you would do well to find out if this means sharing a room with two double beds, or a room with two beds, a hideaway, a rollaway, and four sleeping bags. These are also often coed arrangements, which can be a bit disconcerting if you weren't expecting it. Similarly, don't jump to hasty conclusions if a member of the opposite sex suggests going halfers on the cost of a room.

It is a truism in fandom that no two fans ever attend the same convention. How much you enjoyed the con depends on which panels you attended, which parties you went to, which friends you met, and how many of the books you wanted turned up in the huckster room this year. Someone making different choices might have had a completely different experience. Once you've been to a few cons, you quickly discover that you can custom make your own as you go, particularly if you're involved in other aspects of fandom as well. Many fans, for example, find the highlight of a convention is finally getting to meet the fanzine or apa fan with whom they have been corresponding for years, or discovering four other people from their hometown and forming a club on the spot. If you're sufficiently involved with the whole of fandom, then the specifics of a particular convention begin to recede into the background as you look forward to the con for other reasons.

Similarly, the best way to cure post-con depression--the awful realization that the con is over and you have to go back to school or work on Monday--is to join a club or an apa, or subscribe to a fanzine.

Elsewhere I've talked about fandom as something ones does, rather than a service or commodity one buys. Partly that means involving yourself in the convention by asking questions at panels, visiting in the consuite, and perhaps eventually hosting your own parties. At some point, however, you may also wish to become involved in the convention organization itself. This need not mean running for president at your first con, but could be something as simple as a two hour stint as a gopher, or at the registration desk. Volunteers are always needed, especially if the convention organizers are to have a chance to attend any of their own programming.

After a few cons where you've helped out as a volunteer, you may find yourself being roped into more responsible positions. These have their own rewards, both socially and as a learning experience. (Many skills learned in fandom are transferrable to other situations.) It's strongly recommended, however, that you work on a few established cons before trying to set up your own. (Don't laugh, I've known people to try mounting their own convention without ever having been to one.) Like anything else in fandom, what you get out of a convention depends in large part on what you put into it.

[This article on sf conventions is part of a larger article on sf fandom. To read about another component of sf fandom, the fanzine, use the "next" button in the navigation bar below.]

"What To Do At An sf Convention" is part of an article on sf Fandom by Robert Runté, but may be read independently. If you wish to begin at the beginning, back click the back button.

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This page last updated:
March, 2003

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