Another year, another Con: SFContario 5

I’d been looking forward to Toronto’s SFContario 5 for months, and then a few days ago I read Michael Matheson’s disturbing blog post on why he wasn’t going to attend. My spirits plummeted. I almost did not go myself. In the end I did go – my crit group buddy Ariella was going to be on a couple of panels on Medieval Weaponry, and I wanted to support her. Plus this is the only sf/f convention in Toronto and I have found it both interesting and useful in the past.

So, the good stuff first. The Science Guest of Honour was Dan Falk, a well-known science journalist. I’d missed his ‘Science of Shakespeare’ talk at another venue, and I wanted to hear him. I was not disappointed. The Author Guest of Honour was fantasy writer Robin Hobb, a lucid and gracious speaker it was a delight to listen to.

Here are some of the highlights of the con, IMHO:

* Ariella and Igal’s marvellous demonstration of medieval fighting, using swords, daggers and bucklers. Ariella is definitely the swordswoman I want beside me in a fight. (Make that in front of me.) For those interested, I recommend checking out AEMMA, the Academy of European Medieval Martial Arts.

* Readings by local writers Karl Schroeder, Derwin Mak, Robert Sawyer, Peter Watts, Madeline Ashby and many more. I only wish I could have attended more of them. Unfortunately they were scheduled at the same time as panels. It would be better to have half-hour readings between panels.

* Some excellent panels on science-y stuff with Peter Watts, Dan Falk and Eric Choi. Wide-ranging discussions on the big bang, Galileo, alien biochemistries, climate change, and quantum weirdness.

* A talk on Evolution, Race, and War in Early Canadian SF by Alan Weiss. I will never be able to sing the national anthem in quite the same way again, and for that I blame Professor Weiss!

Okay, now for the not-good stuff. The convention was scheduled on the same weekend as the Toronto International Book Fair. Yep. Of all the weekends to choose. I’m guessing a lot of the folk who may otherwise have attended the convention ended up at the Book Fair instead. I know, because I went to the Book Fair first on Friday. It was a vibrant place! Loads of publishers and writers. SFWA, Chizine, and the Horror Writers Association all had their stalls.

Then I went to the Con and there were like five people. Seriously. Okay, maybe I’m exaggerating a little bit, but there were only two panels scheduled for Friday, and one of those (the one I wanted to attend) was cancelled. ‘Coming soon’, a panel on innovation and ideas, was not coming soon. Stumped, Ariella and I peeked into the only other panel, a discussion on fanzines. There were 4 panelists, and 1 solitary audience member. So we wandered in and thereby tripled the audience numbers. The panelists looked glad to see us, until I raised my hand and disrupted proceedings by asking them to talk about anything except fanzines. Sorry, folks. I was frustrated.

Things perked up on Saturday and Sunday. But I noticed there were hardly any panels on the art and craft of writing and selling your stories. In the past couple of SFCons I’ve attended, these were the sessions I found most useful as a writer. What makes a great beginning? How do you hook readers to your story, and make them stay with you? What’s the difference between YA, middle-grade and adult in terms of both content and marketing? How do you self-edit? What are the current markets for your work?

These panels were absent, because the people who make these panels so great were absent. The editors and publishers stayed away. As to why they stayed away, I’m not going to comment on that. The Book Fair may have been a part of it.

And now for the other people who stayed away, namely local readers, writers and fans of colour. Oddly enough, there was a roundtable discussion on Diversity in SF/F hosted by The Friends of the Merrill Collection just a couple of months ago. At the time, I’d asked why more of us don’t show up at events like the Con, and the sense I got was that there just isn’t enough outreach to the community. Note to organizers: If you want to make an event inclusive and representative of the city you live in, then it takes effort and outreach. It perhaps requires stepping out of a comfort zone.

Meanwhile, I’ve heard only good things about Ottawa’s CAN-CON 2014. Makes you think…

About Rati Mehrotra

Science fiction and fantasy writer. I blog at: ratiwrites.com Thanks for dropping by!
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10 Responses to Another year, another Con: SFContario 5

  1. Ariella says:

    It was great to catch up with you this weekend, Rati!

    I have to agree that the convention seems to be on a downward trajectory, despite a handful of good sessions. I, for one, found it quite disturbing when I discovered I needed to do my own back-channel research to find out which of the attendees should not be in a seminar on How to Do Violence. Fortunately, I didn’t need to bounce anyone unilaterally, although I was prepared to do so. My attendance next year is going to be dependent on SFContario having a real, grown-up harassment policy and the willingness to enforce it.

  2. Alex says:

    I’m glad you enjoyed the convention program. We had excellent guests, panelists, and readers, as you say.

    Attendance was down, probably because of the Book Fair. That event was announced after we had our dates, so we had to deal with the situation. We will be the following weekend next year. I’ve heard conrunning colleagues in Edmonton, Vancouver, and Ottawa recently talk about how they’d really like more people to attend their conventions lately; Barb Galler-Smith had an eloquent plea on the subject recently. These things go in cycles. To some extent, outreach depends on people to do it; if someone has ideas or time to contribute, we’d be happy for the help. In 2015 we will be hosting Canvention, Canada’s national science fiction convention, where the Aurora Awards are presented; this should bring in a wider range of attendees and program participants.

    We had a number of persons of color participating in the convention program, some of whom you have mentioned. We got a couple other suggestions fairly late of people we will likely end up inviting for next year. Certainly if you have any names to suggest, please send us your ideas. People really like our program, so we do over-program a little; this is a subject of ongoing discussion in the committee. Unfortunately a few program participants were sick or had last-minute schedule changes, so we had to cancel a program item, and we were a panelist or two short on a few other things; this happens with every convention, and overall we had better participation on panels than at many other conventions I’ve attended over the years. We were very pleased to have Toronto Arts Council sponsor our reading series this year; however, their approval came very late so we couldn’t do as much publicity as we would have liked. It would not be practical to just do one thing at a time; there are just too many interesting speakers, and a diverse range of interests in the audiences, to do things that way. Conrunning isn’t easy as it involves balancing competing priorities and demands with finite resources of people and money, but we do welcome input. I’d much rather be taking suggestions and answering direct questions than having people just make up their own speculations about how or why certain things happen, if people are really interested. Some people take for granted that cons just happen, but it takes a lot of work and we can always use suggestions and offers of time and effort.

    I heard the swordfighting demonstration was awesome. I’m sorry I missed it. Probably we wouldn’t do the exact same thing in consecutive years, but we’d love to hear other ideas. My opinion is that kind of demonstration would have worked better (for the members) later in the day; morning items tend to be lightly attended and are better for more talky things, in my opinion. Though scheduling in the afternoon hours gets into conflicts of who is doing what when, so it’s easier to schedule some presentations during less conflicted times. Something to consider for the future.

    As to the unfortunate incident in which Derek Newman-Stile subjected Marah Searle-Kovacevic to unprovoked verbal harassment at Ad Astra last April, Mr. Matheson’s description of the incident is substantially not factually correct; I do not believe he witnessed the incident. In the past we’ve seen people delete blog posts or restrict comments so as to avoid having their version contradicted, so broadly speaking we are not hunting down every blog comment various people make, but we are happy to respond to direct questions. There are some personality conflicts in the science fiction community and it’s a challenge to stick-handle these issues, but we make every effort to offer a welcoming and inclusive setting with the people and resources we have available. I did not hear a complaint this year about anything that could have been covered under our behavior policy.

    A convention is a gathering of people of shared interests. SFContario has always been about the program and the parties, and those were great this year, so the convention was a success in this regard. Like our fellow convention organizers elsewhere, we’d love to share the event with more people, and we’re happy for specific suggestions on how to do that.

    • Charlotte says:

      I do hope next year improves! I hear Catherine Crockett will be chairing, and I like and trust her very much.

      With re: to the diversity panels: I was pleased to see Marah Searle-Kovacevic attended the Merril Collection’s diversity panel (that Rati mentions above), but I was a little confused when that didn’t result in invitations to the panel’s members to participate in SFContario content. That strikes me as having been the ideal time to reach out, and it was fully 6 weeks in advance of the con – Hydra’s Hearth was put together in less time. Additionally, this issue was brought up *at least year’s panel* and it didn’t result in any additional outreach.

      I remain a little concerned.

      • Alex says:

        Marah did attend the panel at the Merril. I would have gone with her but I was sick that weekend. You have it slightly backwards; the short notice we got on the Toronto Arts Council grant left us scrambling to put things together on very short notice in time to print the program book. We did reach out, but some people weren’t available and some suggestions came back to us too late to be included in the program. We kind of had to go with the first twelve who accepted our ivitations. Tonya Liburd gave me four suggestions and we were able to invite three of them. We decided to focus on novelists this year. Some of the people who did come only confirmed very late or had previously said they were unavailable. I’m glad we were able to invite Eric Choi as our editor guest of honour. It’s possible our program director, Debra Yeung, got a bit behind on the volume of email; Diane Lacey stepped in to help late in the process. The feedback we got on our program was very positive; I attended most program items (I photographed them) and I saw active and interesting discussion in every room. We may decide to change the format and invite some short fiction writers to the Hydra’s Hearth reading series (it’s not up to me), and as I mentioned, we also got some good suggestions too late for us to invite this year that we can include next year.

        I won’t say that suggesting we invite other authors isn’t valid feedback, but the issue of diversity was certainly discussed at our committee meetings. It’s not like there is an amorphous blob that we can just pick people from. If there are local authors we should be inviting, please suggest names to us.

  3. Annette says:

    Just wanted to mention that SFContario is not “the only sf/f convention in Toronto” – conventions such as Ad Astra (http://www.ad-astra.org) have been taking place in Toronto for many years. There are lots of others with different emphasis on media, Trek, anime, steampunk, etc. 🙂

    • Charlotte says:

      I hope to make Ad Astra this year! In the past I’ve been forced to miss it because it’s harder to reach if you don’t have a car and can’t stay the night. SFContario is valuable in the it is the only con in Toronto-proper – reachable by TTC.

      Unless you offer childcare, in which case we will totally all come stay in the hotel. : D

  4. Thank you for the Horror Writers Association shout-out. We enjoyed INSPIRE. I wanted to comment that I don’t consider Ad Astra to be in Toronto any more either. I’ve only attended AA once since it was moved out of Toronto because it’s much too far and I can’t afford a hotel for a local convention. I’ve never been to SFContario, namely because of various conflicts in my schedule but agree we need more downtown Toronto conventions. And not all on the same day/weekend which also was the same day as the Santa Claus parade…

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