We writers are notoriously shy. For that matter, so are many readers and pop culture consumers. But fresh from my first experience of an SFF Convention, the incredible Continuum 2017 held last weekend down here in Australia, I’m going to share with you 5 reasons you should go to an SFF convention. Stat.
1. Learn Something New
This one is a no-brainer. A standard feature of conventions is panels, where a bunch of smart and varied people get together to discuss fascinating topics. I can assure you that even when you know the subject matter well, you’ll always learn something new at a good panel. And that’s important. If the most popular piece of writing advice is to keep reading, I’d add that it’s also important go beyond what you study yourself. After all, other professions do it. If you’re a doctor or a lawyer, you’re expected to attend seminars every year to keep your certification. If you’re a scientist, you’re expected to go to conferences. So if you’re an SFF writer and/or a reader, I think you should try to attend an SFF Convention at least once. Here’s just a few examples of what I learned at Continuum 2017:
- In a fascinating panel on Asian SFFH, I learned that fantasy, science fiction and horror are not separate genres in the Phillipines, Malaysia and Singapore. They’re all mixed into the general fiction melting pot. For example, two of the current popular Filipina TV series are hardcore fantasy. On top of this, I learned of three new awesome Asian writers/artists to follow: their Twitter tags are @likhain, @devinjeyathurai, and @yiduiqie.
- I stayed until 10:30pm just to see a panel tackle The Problem of Susan. It was both thought-provoking and challenging to see the different perspectives of the panel. For the two Christian members, even though they had different views of CS Lewis, they both saw it as Susan’s choice to turn away from Narnia. In contrast, the others saw her as being unceremoniously and unfairly booted out. As you can imagine, it was a heated and interesting panel.
- At a To Be Continued Panel on Serials, I learned that if you study the emotional highs and lows of most serials, you’ll find that even the hardest science fiction serials will have patterns that look very similar to daytime soap operas. This one blew my mind. It makes sense though, because the reason that we come back to series is that we form deep and abiding bonds with the characters. So serial writers, naturally, will amp up the emotional ups and downs to feed our addiction.
So if you value learning more about science fiction and fantasy, whether as a writer or a reader, I can’t think of anywhere better to go than an SFF convention. It’s a good blend of both academic and popular discussion, and you’ll be sure to learn something new.
2. Challenge Your Perspectives
Following on from number 1, I think this one is just as vital. I’ve written about the importance of different perspectives before in The March for Science and the Unconquered Mountain, and I stand by it. When you’re consuming or creating art by yourself, or even with a group of like-minded friends, you can start to form fixed views.
As an example, I went along to a panel on Mental Illness and Creativity, fully prepared to listen to people chat about how mental illness is genetically linked to creativity. Instead, I got a raw, honest, open discussion of how goddamn hard it is to create when you’re mentally ill. There was also a shared grief about how the ‘mad creator’ stereotype actually makes people only value and see the art created, instead of the struggling creator behind it. It was a humbling and fantastic learning experience.
Takeaway: support artists and creators, everyone. Buy their art. And if you can’t buy their art, comment or review and send them encouraging messages. Mental illness can be a lonely, awful struggle, and every little bit of help counts.
3. Find New Art to Consume
SFF Conventions are a fantastic way to come across new stories and art that you otherwise might never heard of. Many of them have stalls you can browse, and panellists are often full of recommendations as to the art that inspires them.
I’ll write up a full list of the recommendations I collected from Continuum 2017 at some point, but for now I’ll just point out the obvious ones I discovered – the Continuum 2017 guests of honour Mia (artist name Likhain) and Seanan McGuire:
- Likhain is a Phillipino artist who does absolutely gorgeous speculative artwork, and is an absolute master of blending beauty and monstrosity. Also, the way she wields colour has to be seen.
- Seanan McGuire is a sidesplittingly hilarious lover of Overwatch and prolific author of urban fantasy (under the name Seanan McGuire) and biomedical science fiction (under the name Mira Grant).
Follow the links to their stuff. The only thing you’ll regret is that you didn’t find them sooner.
4. Meet Awesome People
This is one is two-fold. First, it’s great to meet your heroes. Not only is it awesome to be ohmygosh that epic author I love just smiled at me!!!, it’s also a great experience to see them as fellow human beings. I remember the first time I ever attended a pop concert. It was back in 2015, when the Backstreet Boys joined forces again and came down to Australia. Now, for context, I grew up with the Backstreet Boys. I bop my head and smile like an idiot when their songs come on. And over the years, in my mind they had taken on mythic dimensions. They weren’t normal people. They were the Backstreet Boys. They were those people on TV, on my CD. They were magical beings in the strange world of music videos. They were rare and exotic animals in the zoo of fame.
So imagine my surprise when I went to the concert and saw them in the flesh. If I’m honest, I was gobsmacked by how small and human-sized they were. It was both reassuring and awe-inspiring. They’re normal people, and they can do that?! That means… that means I can create. Whoah.
Second, SFF Conventions are great for meeting fellow readers and writers and just nice people interested in the same thing that you are. As I mentioned earlier, it’s very easy to consume and create art in solitude. But it’s so much fun, and you learn so much, joining a conversation with people who love the same things you love. You find yourself delving into pockets you’ve never explored before. It’s easier to map out the caverns of a fandom with someone trusty at your side who also has a map. And it’s easier to survive in a difficult world when you find your tribe.
Which leads me to my final point.
5. Build a Battery Pack
Being a writer is lonely. Sometimes being a reader is lonely too. I don’t want to count how many times people have either sneered at me openly for saying I love science fiction or fantasy, or offered me a polite smile to that same effect. It seems odd in an age when Star Wars continues to be a massive franchise, comic books keep coming to life (even ones that really shouldn’t), and science and technology inspired by science fiction is making our lives a safer and healthier place. But it’s unfortunately true. Fantasy is seen as a childish escape. As for science fiction, I particularly identify with Kurt Vonnegut’s take on it here:
“I have been a soreheaded occupant of a file drawer labeled “science fiction” … and I would like out, particularly since so many serious critics regularly mistake the drawer for a urinal.”
But going to an SFF convention like Continuum is an absolute balm for the soul. For one of the first times in my life, outside my small circle of awesome nerdy friends, I was in a crowded space where I didn’t feel alone or looked down on. I felt like I was with my people. My tribe. We were white and people of colour. We were women, men, and non-binary. We were rich and poor (although let’s be honest, we were probably mostly on the poorer starving artist side). We were all drawn together by the love of science fiction and fantasy, and I will carry this memory like a charm for the rest of my life, ready to deploy the next time the world makes me feel small and alone.
So go sign up for an SFF convention. If you’re in Melbourne, Australia, you can keep an eye out for Continuum 2018. If you can’t wait that long, you should absolutely come to Science for Science Fiction in September, run by the Royal Society of Victoria. If you’re elsewhere, Google [your state/country] and ‘SFF convention’ and find something. Learn. Challenge yourself. Have fun. Meet new people. Build a Battery Pack. Good luck.
And may the force be ever in your favour, Harry Potter.