On Another Planet

If you’ve never been to a science fiction or fantasy convention, you probably have an image of one as a mixture of some Addams Family gathering and a multitude of Comic Book Guy characters from The Simpsons. And if that’s what you think, then you’re very wrong.

Well . . . okay, you’re half right.

Before I got published, I had never attended a fantasy or science fiction event, but I have since been to a lot of different types of arts and literary festivals, and I’ve done hundreds of events in all types of venues. And I continue to be surprised at how, in the publishing world, the different genres glare suspiciously over the hedges at each other, wondering at the activities of their neighbours.

And no group is treated with more suspicion and misunderstanding than the geeks on the Other Side – that category that includes sci-fi, fantasy, comics, alternative history, supernatural romance, horror and various other mutated little branches of entertainment. To its fans, it’s known as ‘Genre’ fiction. That is how I shall refer to it from here on, partly because it’s shorter, and . . . well, partly because I’m little bit scared of those hardcore fans.

So, for the sake of those who have never been to one, here are my Top Ten Tips for attending a genre convention, or ‘con’ as they’re known to the initiated:

  1. Leave your bloody Star Trek uniform at home. Contrary to popular belief, very few people at cons wear ‘character’ costumes. That’s more of an American thing. That said, the Genre crowd are a very liberal bunch and tend to let their weirdness and alternative fashions show in a friendly crowd, so wearing a costume, or brandishing a medieval weapon, falls into the same category as other funny habits, like being a smoker or a vegan.
  2. Have FUN. Cons are places where imagination, intelligence, expression and especially humour are the currency. You go there to have a laugh. People at cons are funny . . . and a lot of the time it’s deliberate. And if it’s not, be kind and laugh in another direction.
  3. Get involved in bizarre conversations. I have taken part in panels on, or discussions about, among other things: censorship in young adult books; the different types of apple; daft uses for the web; fan fiction; ranges of alcoholic drinks; online computer games; mankind’s constant need for fear of disaster; the gruesome details of medieval history; evolution; comic illustration and the mad world of quantum mechanics.
  4. Learn the difference between cyberpunk and steampunk. You could think of cyberpunk as ‘high-tech and low-lifes’. It’s a highly popular, funky, gritty, grotty type of science fiction with guerilla hackers and ruthless corporations. In contrast to this is steampunk, a type of Victorian or Steam Age sci-fi, which is all the rage at the moment. Think mechanical machinery rather than electronics. Victorian civility and opium drug dens. It is also affecting fashions at cons. Costumes aren’t really my thing, but I am a fan of steampunk and am more than happy for women to go round dressed in high boots and corsets if they so desire.
  5. Big sharp teeth and pale skin are sexy, and black is the new black. Supernatural romance is huge, and again, while there are no set costumes, it does affect fashion. The most popular female trends tend to be towards girly goth – pale-skinned, red lips, black everything else . . . but in a cheerful way. If you think girls swooning over the undead is a bit sad, bear in mind that half the reason lads watch vampire films is for the hot busty vamps with fangs. I know they do it for me.
  6. If you go down to the cons today, look out for the Beeblebears. A bit further out on the oddity spectrum are the proud owners of these two-headed, three-armed teddy bears. They held a picnic at the last Eastercon, where they all sat round and conversed through their cuddly companions. Even at a Genre convention, this was considered a bit strange.
  7. If you see any transvestites, don’t stare. Nobody else does. In a convention where you might see Victorian adventurers, vampire-like Goths, mutant teddy bears and all sorts of other uninhibited characters, a guy in women’s clothes just isn’t that weird.
  8. Don’t promote your work. In some arenas, discussing your work is almost considered bad form, as is bringing books to sell. This is a frustrating feature if you’re trying to publicize your latest release, which is the reason most creators are there in the first place.
  9. If you think everybody else is strange, that makes you the strange one.
  10. Find your inner geek. If you don’t think you have one, consider this: according to IMDb, only three of the Top Twenty grossing films of all time don’t fall into sci-fi, fantasy or comic genres. In the BBC’s The Big Read, voted for by people across the UK, six of the Top Ten books fell into these categories, including the winner, The Lord of the Rings. Face it, there’s a little bit of geek in all of us.