A brief summary of why the World Science Fiction Convention is important to readers, and a joy for all true fans...
Going to the World Science Fiction Convention is like going to Mecca: Once a year the truly faithful gather for a few short days, celebrating what makes us unique in the world. There are items of interest for anxious authors, gaming gurus, and media mavens.
But more than anything else, this journey is really for the reader.
Millennium PhilCon(tm) was like any WorldCon -- a gathering of fans (or fen, if you prefer) from all around the world, anxious to cram as much as they could into the four or five days that they would be there. Many come a day early and stay a day late because this is not just a convention where one goes to see what's new in the genre world. This is a place where friends who only get to see each other once a year gather, and after the day's official meetings are over there will be dinners, parties, and pitting (groups gathering in hotel lobbies). We are a community that is spread throughout the world, and has very few days in which to meet face-to-face. The Internet is our lifeline, in most respects, but there's nothing quite like those few days when we sit down to meals, or just to talk. It makes the people on the other side of that screen far more real again.
I have attended several Science Fiction WorldCons. It's always a bit of culture shock for someone coming in from a small Midwestern town to be suddenly among all these people. Not only are there a lot fans gathered in one place (more than in one of the small towns where I once lived), but these are people who actually have the same interests as me. Nor are we limited in our range of subjects to whether vampires have become blasé in books, or if there is water on Mars. Jane Austin is a favorite subject for discussion; so is Buffy. Panel subjects range from pulp classics to current bestsellers, and from Grand Masters to young tyros. We are not limited by our genre: we grow with it, just as the SF and Fantasy genres have grown in the last century.
I was pleased, in fact, to find a less hostile reception to ebooks at this convention. While there is still resistance to epublishing as a whole, at least one of the panels proved open to the subject, and there were even some positive statements toward the new medium. WorldCon, however, is a very staid convention in some respects. This is where the largest number of SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) members is apt to gather, and they are (rightly) worried about e-piracy of books. Though, to be honest, some people don't always seem to make the distinction between the illegal scanning and OCR-duplicated copies of print books, and the legitimate publication of ebooks by authors who have decided to try this new medium.
I have discovered one really nice aspect of going to conventions, especially big ones, with many pro writers in attendance. I go to author readings, both of people whom I already enjoy reading, and new people who look interesting. If you want to have a better understanding of an author's work, there is nothing like going to a reading and hearing their voice as they present a story. Later, when you read their work yourself, you can often hear the cadence of their speech, and the way they pattern individual characters. I have found that stories seem more alive after I have heard an author read any of their works.
And there is an undeniable draw to being able to ask questions of authors. Why did you do this? What would you have done differently? What happened to the rest of the series? When is your next book coming out? What do you plan to write in the future?
Getting favorite books autographed is fun, and most authors are more than happy to do this. With some very rare exceptions, authors like to know that there are real readers out there, happy with their books. Authors who come to conventions are remarkably accessible, and willing to speak with people. That is at least part of what they have come to the convention for, after all. WorldCon absolutely overflows with authors, many of whom are not even on the official listing. I had conversation of varying lengths with at least a dozen at MilPhilCon.
Readers can experience another joy at WorldCon. This is the place to go if you are trying to find older books that are no longer in print. While some of the titles are available on the Internet these days, there is sill a visceral pleasure in being able to sort through the rows of books and come across just that one title that you never thought you would find. Or, even more fun is looking through a row of books by a favorite writer and finding a title you didn't even know existed. I managed, with a great deal of trouble, to restrain my book buying this time to three hard bounds, four trade paperbacks, and three mass market paperbacks -- and I did pick up a couple electronic samplers from Eggplant Productions and Atlantic Bridge. But I also have a good list of other titles I should be able to buy locally, as well as several catalogues listing upcoming books so that I can keep my eyes open for them.
And, of course, there's the joy of finding a new author. There is nothing better for this than a party for several thousand sf/f readers, all of them anxious to share and discuss their favorite works. Sit in on readings, go to panels, and find people with like interests. And, if that's not enough -- there's that dealer's room just a few steps away, with THOUSANDS of books.
While I'm mostly singing the praises of WorldCon, let me add that smaller regional conventions are often great resources, and have the added advantage that you might find locals with like interests as well.
There's another part of the convention that perhaps people should take more seriously. Any convention -- but WorldCon in particular-- is the one place where you can be among people who speak the same language and share the same visions. No one is going to look at you oddly if you say you read fantasy books. No one will ask you why you don't read 'real' books instead of SF, or say that they would never read that Star Trek stuff, with no understanding that SF is far more than the few shows they may have seen on television.
I was going to write an article that gave a day-by-day account of the convention, listing panels, recounting conversations, and dropping names from the parties I attended. But that is only the mechanical side of WorldCon, and the real depth of the convention can only be described in trying to explain the feeling of fellowship that comes from attending. We are a unique community, but it isn't until a gathering like this that you can really experience the depth of what we are and how much we have to offer.
I first noticed something at last year's WorldCon in Chicago, but it held up as true this year in Philadelphia. One afternoon I looked at the people in the main hall of the convention center: Goth teens in somber blacks, gray haired men in suits and ties, laughing women of all ages in tie-dyed dresses, Jedi Knights and Regency Ladies. If I took them outside and lined them up on the street in front of the Convention Center and asked people driving by to tell you what these people have in common, they'd never guess.
The power of the Science Fiction and Fantasy community is that it ignores the boundaries of generations, genders, religious beliefs and personal convictions. That, and a hunger to look beyond the mundane world is our real strength. I can assure you, after four far-too-short days at the WorldCon, that the genre is very much alive. Our visions are still vibrant, and our people are ready to imagine an even more amazing future than those who not only imagined, but also helped shape, the world that we have today -- whether that is in real world science or the fantastic reaches of the imagination.