Last weekend, W and I took a trip to the ExCeL Centre in London for LonCon 3, the 72nd World Science Fiction Convention. I was wary, but very excited indeed – previous experiences of conventions had sometimes involved me not talking very much and feeling socially awkward amongst a bunch of people who I felt knew vastly more than I did, and were immeasurably more intelligent. But I knew that I’d be able to buy books there, and that there were lots of talks on in which I was interested. As it happened, for various reasons, this past weekend was fantastic, and I miss it already. I felt much more confident, able to talk to people about my opinions and joys (my now well established habit of collecting Women’s Press SF books, and my love unbound of pulp and neglected fiction might have had something to do with that). I spent almost all the money I had in the dealer room, my prize possession being a genuine commemorative pin badge from the Soyuz-Apollo Test Project in 1975. And I had a fantastic time attending presentations and panel discussions about a vast variety of topics, from cities, to the Cold War, the Singularity, the representation of indigenous cultures, the music of the future, alien languages, queer SF, and botany.
Why am I telling you about what was effectively my summer holiday? Because this Convention-Conference taught me a lot, about how academic conferences are run, what academic conferences could be, and how more intellectual credibility should be given to people outside academia than it often is.
First, though, let’s get this out of the way. Conventions, at least this one and others I have been to, are not all about fandom. Fandom can be really great: the effort and obsession which some people put into learning and writing and thinking about their favourite books or tv shows or films or games is in no way dissimilar to that which is required to write a PhD. The joyous thing about fandom, however, is precisely that – the joy. Fans study things because they love them, and this passion might ebb and flow, but it is always there, and they are always aware that their attention to their favoured object (for the most part, at least), is both a choice and a privilege. It might do PhD students some good to remember that, sometimes.
But LonCon was not all about fandom. Yes, many of those attending (including myself*) are big SF fans, but they have other rich lives as critics, authors, academics, practitioners in various fields such as design and architecture, scientists and mathematicians. Many of the papers were presented by academics and PhD students, and revealed the growing critical credence and attention paid to something which I grew up feeling slightly like a freak for loving. The weekend was filled with intelligent discussion and debate, not just within the panels themselves, but within the social breaks I managed to grab in-between. I met some wonderful and smart people, who’s commitment, creativity and capabilities I envy deeply, and I got to look at subjects in which I do not have a direct career-based stake, but which I can enjoy for their sheer existence: and perhaps, as a consequence, view with more openness.
What was joyous about LonCon is that the groups of fans and critics and intellectuals co-mingled, and that made for an event with genuine passion behind it: I’ve seen very few academic conferences which display that level of devotion and spirit, and I think that’s depressing. It is sad, I think, when the thing we love, or loved, becomes a job to the extent that it becomes a mundanity, and we forget to play. I’ll probably write something at at later date about how much of a proponent I am of ludic academia: thought as play.
So what can academic conferences learn from the SF Convention? Quite a lot, I think.
1. Programming: create some variety in your presentational style. Have papers presented, yes, but also have well mediated panel discussions and more experimental sessions. At LonCon, I found myself an experimental subject of the linguist Bettina Beinhoff from Angela Ruskin University, who was looking at how constructed languages (such as Klingon), can help us understand natural languages (such as English).
2. Sociability: I usually find the programmed breaks at conferences awkward. Now, I’m not exactly the most outgoing person in the world, admittedly, so I’m somewhat biased about this. But I do think it behoves the conference organisers to make sure that their attendees have comfortable places and times and opportunities to socialise with whomever they want. I’m aware that many try to make their events social, but I will always continue to emphasise the necessity of doing so. Allow some time in the schedule for interaction, and also help to extend that sociability after the con is over. Social media can be a great help in this regard: I met a lot of great people at LonCon, found them on twitter and followed them. This willingness to engage outside the convention itself is how a community grows: academics, be willing to seed a dispersed neighbourhood of thinkers.
3. Surrounding activities: Academic conferences are often restricted to the presentations (though I did go to one wonderful conference in Sweden which took its attendees on a daytrip to an island populated by artists), and I am aware that the reasons are often fairly pragmatic ones of time and money. But it would be so wonderful if we could take some inspiration from what might be termed the ‘extra-curricular’ events at LonCon – the art show, the dealer room, the fan village with breakout tents, games and a bar. Obviously, not all of these are appropriate or achievable all the time, but I do think that perhaps thinking creatively about the environment we put our attendees in, and giving them a chance for a break from presentations, would be great – and I think it would offer yet another chance for random interpersonal contact.
I enjoy events, including conferences, which take risks, even if they don’t quite work. Because there is always something to learn from them. And I don’t think there’s any harm in thinking big, knowing that the things you’re taking inspiration from are not likely to be the things you’re going to achieve. Academia and its events, like SF, are, or can be, speculative: and by that I mean not just taking impossible flights of fantasy, but being willing to ask ‘What if?’, and take the risk of imagining possible futures.
I think what I am ultimately trying to say is that you can learn from the things you think of as hobbies, and that when you realise the richness that lies within any culture or sub-culture, and value it in an egalitarian way, your universe becomes so much bigger. Academia makes it so very easy to be insular, to focus so deeply on your own field that you fail to see what others can teach you. I also feel, at the moment at least, like the sector in general is loosing its joy, and that makes me very sad indeed. You can’t know everything, of course, and you can’t be happy all the time, but if you cannot see the stars in your sky, you’ll live only a limited existence on the earth.
I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking,
I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.
‘Sea Fever’, by John Masefeild.
*As if you’d not realised that already by my choice of titles for this blog – though this one is a bit obscure, I’ll admit.