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…