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In 2014, I attended two rather large book-related events: Loncon 3, the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention, and INSPIRE! Toronto International Book Fair, the inaugural Toronto International Book Fair. Very different events in very different locations, each with its own peculiar sort of magnificence and its own peculiar set of flaws. I'm not about to critique their peculiarities: instead, I want to talk about a contrast I noticed between the cultures of the two different events.

If events can be said to have a "culture," and if any reliance may be placed upon my perceptions. There is, after all, no such thing as an objective observer: perception is always a subjective thing.

Loncon 3 was a giant five-day event featuring more simultaneous tracks than the average attendee could shake a stick at: an unapologetic glorification of science fiction and fantasy as the broad church it is. Confusingly vast, attended by thousands, and with any number of really quite famous and respected names among its guests, it dwarfed any other convention I had previously attended.

INSPIRE! was less confusingly large, but as an event with a more general focus, it was in many ways more varied. With seven simultaneous tracks featuring writers from across a wide spectrum of genres and nationalities (included one track wholly dedicated to First Nations, Inuit and Métis writing), a line-up that included names like Margaret Atwood, Kathy Reichs, and Anne Rice, and as much space dedicated to selling books as there was to talking about them, it proved a very interesting experience.

It was a much more relaxing event for me than Loncon 3.

Despite the amount of time I spend writing about science fiction and fantasy, reading it, viewing it, and interacting with people who have a significant personal or professional investment in genre spaces, I never feel that science fiction conventions are for me. The culture of a science fiction convention, even one as large, vibrant, and outward-looking as Loncon 3 managed to be, nonetheless retains something of the clannish. It bears to a degree the atmosphere of a closed shop or a private club, with preoccupations and traditions that are opaque to the casual glance. And because science fiction conventions arise from a continuum that has three-quarters of a century of history, it is difficult for them to escape the pull of the past. They look inwards, and they look back.

That's part of their purpose. They arose to serve the needs of particular sets of individuals. Over time the kinds of individuals who look to science fiction conventions to serve a need or set of needs have . . . expanded, as the internet has encouraged people from a much more disparate array of backgrounds and geographical regions to participate in conversations that were once limited to narrower circles, but the conversation of a science fiction convention still looks in towards itself, not out towards the world.

Perhaps it has to? Perhaps this is what makes a science fiction convention what it is, much as science fiction and fantasy makes itself a genre conversation on the basis of shared sets of assumptions and concretisations of metaphor? It's impossible, after all, to make sense of some science fiction and fantasy stories without having read others first, without being in some sense acculturated to the genre, or able to translate from its language.

But with the book fair, there was no need to translate. Now, maybe that's because it was a far more commercial event, with the focus split equally between professionals talking about books, and professionals selling books, but it seemed to me to look outward in a way that science fiction conventions do not. Perhaps the variety of literatures involved, and the variety of nationalities represented, had something to do with it. And perhaps it's got a little something to do with the way in which the book fair presented one with a smorgasbord of options from which the visitor might chose, and might chose to be entertained, rather than focusing on itself as a locus for community.

It's not that I'm saying one (type of) event is intrinsically better or worse than the other. That needs to be clear (I did, after all, enjoy myself exceedingly well at Loncon 3, despite not really feeling that it was exactly For Me.) But sometimes I feel that a science fiction convention insists that one be part of the community—and like any village or small town, it's not always comfortable with visitors setting boundaries, or interacting with that community on their own terms.

Terms like: "Don't make assumptions about my relationship with this community."

Or: "Don't be a sexist/racist asshole."

And the science fiction convention is often home to a community with an investment in its own unique specialness. That leaves it prey to a certain insularity and resistance to change. And it is this pervasive sense of closed self-definition, of a community that insists visitors must conform to its ways of doing things (because these ways are naturally superior) that's left me feeling deeply out of place at every science fiction convention I've ever attended.

Not that I've attended many: feeling like that at them, why would I?

The difference between the science fiction conventions and the book fair I've attended is not, in the end, really a difference of degree. It's that the science fiction convention holds out a promise of belonging and community—but a contingent one, a promise whose fulfilment relies on the visitor having either pre-existing social capital or the willingness to conform—while generally seeing itself as welcoming to all.

The book fair offers no such promise. Instead it trades access to entertainment for cold hard cash. Its promises to a visitor are less complex, and more easily fulfilled.

This isn't the essay I intended to write. I've broken most of the rules of the form: I'm not sure I have an argument, much less a conclusion. Even so, it can be fruitful to consider the nature of things, and their purpose.

What is the point of community, in the end?




Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, is published by Aqueduct Press. Find her at her blog, where she's been known to talk about even more books thanks to her Patreon supporters. Or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council and the Abortion Rights Campaign.
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