In January of this year, there were four SFF conventions/events I was tentatively planning to attend, namely CoNZealand, the 2020 Worldcon, in Wellington, New Zealand, Futuricon, the 2020 Eurocon in Rijeka, Croatia, Hinterm Mond in Leer, East Frisia, and Namenlose Tage, a gaming con in Syke that takes place only 13 kilometres from where I live, i.e. practically next door. Two of these cons have since gone virtual, one that was scheduled for March has been cancelled and one has been postponed until 2021.
Like pretty much everybody, I miss in person cons. I miss meeting old and new friends, I miss listening to panels, I miss strolling through the dealer’s room and most of all, I miss the many great people you meet at every con.
However, there is also a silver lining to the fact that the ongoing COVID pandemic has forced every SFF con that wasn’t cancelled outright to go virtual. Because it means that I can virtually attend cons I would never have attended in person, mostly because they happen on another continent.
One con I would very likely never have attended in person is NASFiC, the North American Science Fiction Convention, which only takes place when Worldcon is outside North America. And if Worldcon is outside North America, I’m more likely to attend Worldcon than any North American convention.
Unlike Worldcon, I wasn’t on programming at NASFiC, so I just watched whatever program items interested me (and took place at a time that worked for me) and chatted a little on Discord, while going about my ordinary weekend.
The first panel I watched was “Fantasy for YA vs. Adults”, featuring Alma Alexander, Farah Mendlesohn, Sherwood Smith and Kathryn Sullivan. I picked this panel over the horror panel going on at the same time, because I knew and liked the panelists. There was some concern in the chat that the panelists were all white. And indeed, more diversity would have been nice, especially considering what a diverse field fantasy in general and YA in particular is.
Talking of the chat, unlike other recent virtual conventions, NASFiC opted not to use the Zoom chat, but have the Discord chat side by side with the panel. From the POV of an audience member, this was a lot better than having to switch between Discord and Zoom in different tabs/windows. Though I’m not sure how it was from the POV of a panelist, since panelists and moderators can more easily see questions, when they are asked in the Zoom chat. There were also several “pure” Discon channels for fan tables, dealers, Worldcon bids, etc…
The “Fantasy for YA vs. Adults” panel also dropped out towards the end due to a technical glitch. When the panel did not come back, I switched to one of the other program rooms. In fact, another feature that I enjoyed about the 2020 NASFiC is that it was easy to switch between the different program rooms, since you didn’t have to enter a whole new Zoom room, but could just switch between tabs on the con homepage. And so I caught the tail end of a reading by Phoebe Barton, an author I briefly met at the Dublin Worldcon last year.
Another panel I attended was the “Fanzine” panel, largely as a point of comparison to the fanzine panel I moderated at CoNZealand. The panelists were Chris M. Barkley, Steven H. Silver and Joel Zakem, the moderator was Anne Gray. Compared to the CoNZealand panel, the NASFiC fanzine panel was more focussed on traditional print zines and transitional zines like File 770 or Journey Planet, which bridge the gap between the traditional print zines and the various digital projects like blogs, newsletters, fancasts and YouTube channels. Meanwhile, in my panel at CoNZealand, we tried to cover both print zines and online zines, while the CoNZealand Fringe fanzine panel focussed almost exclusively on online publications. All these approaches are valid and unlike some others, I think the difference between the print and online zines lies mainly in the medium and not so much in the content. Cause if I look at some old fanzines from the 1930s or 1940s on fanac.org, I find that the topics and content aren’t all that different from what you can find in today’s blogs, newletters, etc…, even if the names and slang are unfamiliar.
ETA: Chris Garcia of Journey Planet and The Drink Tank, who was one of the panelists at the CoNZealand fanzine panel, and his family need help, because they have been evacuated from their home because of the California wildfires and don’t know when and if they can return.
Talking of fanzines, all fanzines, whether print or online, could use some more attention. Because Best Fanzine is inevitably the category which gets the least votes at the Hugo Awards, sometimes barely clearing the 25% No Award hurdle. I find this a pity, because fanzines are doing great work, regardless of medium, and there doing it purely for the love of the genre. I’m not sure why fanzines and fansites aren’t getting more attention, though I suspect that part of the problem may be that the big corporate sites like Tor.com, iO9, The Daily Dot, SyFy Wire, Digital Spy, etc… are sucking attention away from smaller blogs and sites. I also think we should shine more of a spotlight on fanzines and fansites in the run-up to the 2021 Hugos, but that’s a subject for another post.
Another panel I attended was the NASFiC special edition of “The Journey Show”, Galactic Journey‘s regular series of online events. The subjects of the “Journey Show” vary and the subject of this show was art, albeit with a twist. Because the audience gives prompts, which would then be drawn live by a panel of artists and cartoonists. Gideon Marcus was the moderator – the artists were Cathleen Abalos, Lorelei Marcus, Jimmy Purcell and Hugo finalist Alyssa Winans.
This panel was a lot of fun and I enjoyed seeing how the different artists interpreted the prompts – prompty like “lady pirates”, “mermaids with rayguns”, “Nnedi Okorafor creating” (okay, so she wasn’t even born in 1965, but who cares?), “school in space”, “Gideon Marcus as Conan the Barbarian”, etc… I think this is an idea that can also be done very well at a physical con with the resulting drawings subsequently exhibited in the art show.
In general, I find that virtual cons manage to replicate the experience of panels and readings remarkably well. The Discord chats aren’t really a replacement for in person conversations, but they do fulfill their purpose. And while I didn’t attend any parties at NASFiC, I did enjoy the Zoom parties I attended at CoNZealand.
So let’s talk about things that don’t really work at virtual conventions. The dealers’ hall is one of them. Because even though virtual conventions are making efforts to replicate the dealers’ hall experience, scrolling through some online stores just doesn’t offer the same browsing and discovery experience as a physical dealers’ hall. Case in point: If I’m at a physical con, I usually buy something in the dealers’ hall – a t-shirt, a piece of jewellery, books. I have yet to buy something at a virtual convention.
Another thing that just doesn’t work online in cosplay. Because costumes are meant to be seen in person and photos just don’t capture the magic. And indeed, NASFiC had to cancel its masquerade for lack of entries.
Of course, physical conventions won’t be possible again until 2021 at the earliest, because right now stuffing hundreds or even thousands of people into a convention centre, hotel or other venue is just too risky. There is a reason that con crud is a thing. And until we can have physical cons again, virtual cons are a nice replacement.
There also are a lot of virtual cons happening in the next few months and most of them are fairly cheap or even free, so I’m planning to attend others. It’s not just SFF cons either – many crime fiction cons and festivals are going online as well. And while I read and write crime fiction, I rarely attend crime fiction festivals except for Prime Time Crime Time, Bremen’s local crime fiction festival (which won’t take place in 2020). But there are a couple of virtual crime fiction festivals coming up like Bloody Scotland, so why not check them out?
Normally, my con reports are photo heavy, because there are usually a lot of interesting things to see at conventions. But if the con takes place online, there is nothing really to photograph except for my desk, which isn’t very interesting.
So enjoy Oculus and Ophthalmos, the friendly eyeball monsters I made for the CoNZealand yarnbombing project. Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to finish Ophthalmos in time for CoNZealand, so he and his brother Oculus get to brighten up this NASFiC report instead: