Dispatches from Chicon 7
If you happen to wander into the lobby of the Hyatt Regency in Chicago this weekend, the first thing you’re likely to notice is an abundance of Indiana Jones hats. From time to time, you’ll also see a few Yoda ears and Starfleet uniforms. You’ll also encounter a lot of guys who look startlingly like George R.R. Martin—including George R.R. Martin himself. But most of all, you’ll find a large crowd of rather peculiar people, superficially ordinary at first glance, who nonetheless seem somehow different from those you generally encounter around the Chicago Loop. It’s hard to pin down what sets fans apart, or why, as I approached the hotel, I kept noticing people, otherwise nondescript, who I just knew were going to the same place that I was. But if you spend enough time at the World Science Fiction Convention, you start to develop a sixth sense—or, in this crowd, maybe a seventh or eighth sense—for this kind of thing. And the overall feeling is exhilarating.
You could sense the diversity of the convention just by looking around the table at the New Writers panel I attended. There was moderator S.J. Chambers, who went from an editorial job at Strange Horizons to a Hugo nomination for The Steampunk Bible; Thomas Olde Heuvelt, a wunderkind who once found himself, to his chagrin, being billed at a convention as “the Horror Hunk”; Emma Newman, who got into Oxford with the help of a science-fiction story and then took a break from writing for ten years, only to return with a vengeance; Hanna Martine, a Chicago-area mom who switched from epic fantasy to paranormal romance after growing tired of the former’s lack of sex; and yours truly, who did his best to explain why he was attending a science-fiction convention with a book like The Icon Thief. (Later, one of the attendees advised me that, with this crowd, I was better off leading with my appearance in The Year’s Best Science Fiction and leaving my novels out of it.)
One of the things I love about Chicon so far is how funky it is. This isn’t a slick event like Comic-Con with a ton of media coverage, but an event for fans by fans. The big celebrities aren’t movie stars or directors, but the likes of Robert Silverberg—although I hear that Dan Harmon might make an appearance at the Hugo Awards on Sunday. This is a convention whose earliest incarnations were attended by the likes of Heinlein, Asimov, and Bradbury, whose names are still invoked with awe and affection. And that sense of continuity is everywhere you look. Its spirit might best be expressed by the appearance at the opening ceremony of Erle Korshak, who, at the age of seventeen, was the secretary at the very first Chicon, held on September 1, 1940. When asked how it felt to be at this year’s convention, Korshak replied: “It makes me glad that I’m still alive.”
And while the convention itself has grown much larger over time—about five thousand people are scheduled to attend this year—it still feels charmingly old-fashioned. One of my favorite things about literary science fiction is how low-tech it tends to be: it’s no accident that its most venerable magazine is called Analog, which just began accepting electronic submissions last year, and whose editor only recently stopped sending out typewritten acceptance letters. Fandom was built on mimeographed fanzines, electronic bulletin boards, and Geocities pages, and despite a well-designed convention app, the Chicon website itself has a pleasingly dated feel. The great thing about science fiction is that its finest practitioners didn’t need access to the technology of the future in order to write about it. They just needed a pencil and a dream—and when you look around this convention, it’s hard not to conclude that their dreams were larger as a result.
Note: Today at Chicon at 3:00 pm, I’ll be appearing on the panel “Turning Ideas Into Stories,” also featuring authors Tim Akers, Roland Green, Louise Marley, and Jamie Todd Rubin. This is going to be a good one!