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A Newbie’s First SFF Con: AKA BristolCon Confidential

BristolCon (logo)I didn’t intend to write this article.

I didn’t prepare for it, make any notes for it or believe that I was going to be submitting anything but reviews to Fantasy-Faction for the next few months.

It all started when a fellow Factioner, the author and editor Steven Poore, asked me a question. At the time (despite not having met before that day) we were standing together in a pitch-black, back-alley space somewhere in the hidden depths of the Hilton Double-Tree Hotel in Bristol and loading metal poles into a trailer belonging to a man that I’d never met.

The question was simple enough.

“Are you going to write a report about this convention?”

“No,” I said. “Hadn’t even thought about it.”

A couple of pints and a couple of hours later I found myself drunkenly assuring GR Matthews (another author, on top of being a staff writer and the Bureau Chief of Fantasy-Faction and someone else who I hadn’t met before that day) that I was totally going to write an article about BristolCon.

Turns out you can’t break a promise to a member of the Fantasy-Faction staff team. If you do then Overlord Marc Aplin gets to set Dragon (his pet dragon) on you. And so, this article was frantically written into being.

Let’s back up a little.

Double-TreeDespite a life-long love affair with fantasy fiction and general geekery I’d never attended an SFF convention in my life until BristolCon. So, with just the slightest bit of encouragement from the other Factioners (I’m doing it, I’m doing it, stop burning things!) I thought I’d share my experiences with the world. If only for the benefit of all those fellow geeks thinking of taking the plunge themselves. (And for the amusement of all the con veterans who can smile knowingly at this bright-eyed ingenue talking about SFF conventions when they’ve waded through more alien costume-parties, genre panels and book-signings than he’s had microwave meals.)

I chose BristolCon as my first ever con because it was relatively easy for me to get to and because it came recommended by several other Factioners. It helps that Bristol is a good city for SFF fans. It has great museums, quirky shops and a horde of fashionable pubs and bars tucked away inside such odd places as boats, basements and giant storage sheds. And with its vast bridges and rich yet often dark industrial history Bristol is basically a steampunk fan’s wet-dream. As befits Banksy’s hometown, Bristol is a haven for fantastical graffiti too, I even found a dragon of my own on my way down the hill to the con!

BristolCon itself is a small, volunteer-run convention which had about 300 participants this year. So yes, there was the odd mistake on the programme and some events weren’t actually fixed in place until the day itself. But then, this isn’t a slick commercial production. No one is getting rich off this con, it’s all about the love of SFF and related genres and the joy of swapping stories with other fans and that really shines through.

It’s also a convention that goes out of its way to be friendly. They have a pre-convention drinks meet-up the night before and all are welcome. They also start the day with an introductory session specifically for con virgins like me, with the stated aim of welcoming them and teaching them how to get the best out of the day. There are a number of workshops called Kaffeeklatsches, that let you talk or learn about a particular topic in small and informal groups. This year there was even a workshop for introverts who wanted to learn to socialise better!

I have to say that I singularly failed to take advantage of the initial welcomes. For a number of not very interesting reasons I didn’t make it to the convention until all of those sessions were over. (Apart from the Introverts Kaffeeklatsch but I was way too introverted to put myself down for that.) I had to leave before the everyone’s-invited after-con brunch on Sunday morning as well.

But I still had a good time.

There’s just a generally laid-back feeling to the convention. People will hang out in their own groups of course but its remarkably easy to strike up conversations with random strangers. (Bear in mind that this is England, where speaking to someone you haven’t been introduced to could lead to a wide variety of extreme reactions up to and including someone spitting out their tea or dying of embarrassment.) One very pleasant older couple chatted to me at lunch-time and were delighted to see me again in the evening, on the way out they promised to look out for me at future conventions.

Let’s go through the day itself.

Dreamwalker (cover)When I did finally arrive at the con I was given a little goodies bag (mostly leaflets for Bristol attractions and other SFF cons, but it did include a commemorative badge and a copy of Dreamwalker by J. D. Oswald). Then I explored the Art Room, marvelling at brooding portraits, adrenaline-fuelled comic book prints and a beautiful collection of 3D-printed model starships. I also wandered around the many tempting displays of books on offer from local booksellers and small presses. It was here that I learned of the existence of Grimbold Books, an awesome indie press which you should totally check out. Also Gabriel Cushing Versus the Zombie Vampires, an intriguing web-series which I’m hoping to get around to reviewing at some point. There was exotic tea for sale as well, which is always a plus in my book.

I made a key mistake at this point – I confidently assured the sellers that I was going to look round every stall and decide what I wanted to buy and could afford, then come back later and actually buy it all.

Foolish mortal.

I very soon got swept up in the need to dash off to the next panel or workshop before it was too late and by the time I found a gap in my timetable all the stalls had packed up. My advice is to buy the books you like when you see them, don’t assume they’ll still be there when you come back! (Though I did snag one gorgeous black and white art print of a fantastical bird with a neck made of koalas, and one book – a collection of short stories by authors from North Bristol, courtesy of Tangent Press.)

Aside from the stalls and Art Room there were two ‘programme rooms’ for panels, readings and special events such as book launches and a smaller room for kaffeeklatsches, with the odd extra event or workshop squeezed in here and there.

To finish off the morning I attended a very useful workshop by veteran fantasy author Juliet E. McKenna and learned about the way that a few altered words here and there can completely transform a scene, even when the core dialogue remains exactly the same. She gave very clear and helpful advice and I’d recommend her workshops to any aspiring writers who get the chance to attend them.

The afternoon, for me, was all about panels.

GR Matthews and Steven PooreThere was one which included GR and Stephen and was all about guilty pleasures – the SFF books that you love even though they might not stand up as objectively good books to a modern reader. The panel concluded that there were no guilty pleasures when it came to reading. Lovecraft’s writing might be hugely problematic but it’s still possible to enjoy it or to read it against the grain, as an indictment of a society which feared and criminalised the other. Even shonky 70s sci-fi or sword-and-planet novels which had women in space bikinis on the front cover were fine, as long as you enjoyed reading the story. (Though it does sound like some of those book covers were taking the mick, one cover apparently featured a naked woman in a giant test-tube being studied by two aliens, even though that had nothing at all to do with the plot of the book itself.)

The highlight for me was a panel called: Here Be Dragons. And Yokai. And Tokoloshe. And Kupua. (Yokai are, more or less, Japanese demons or fey. Tokoloshe are malevolent dwarf-like spirits from Zulu mythology and related folklore, they can turn invisible and kill people in their sleep. Kupua are Hawaiian demi-gods or heroes or actual gods or monsters, depending on who you ask.) This panel explored how writers can approach the folklore and mythology of other cultures with respect and understanding. With the proviso that it’s sometimes better to just leave such stories for representatives of the culture itself to tell, the two main conclusions were:

1. Do your research and don’t just ignore or dismiss things that don’t fit in with your ideas.
2. Don’t be a dick.

The Girl from the Other Side (cover)That panel included a couple of anime experts who ran a workshop afterwards where they talked about the latest and best horror anime. I joined them, mainly because one panellist was an academic and specialist in Japanese culture (and knew a lot about other East Asian countries too) and I was hoping to get advice on portraying Inari Meiwaku (the Kitsune main character in my work-in-progress urban fantasy novel). We actually didn’t have time to get into that but I did learn about a couple of intriguing series including not-quite-vampire anime Shiki and the beautiful yet tragic manga The Girl from the Other Side.

After that it was time for a panel called Writing the Nonhuman. Which for the most part was about making believable and interesting aliens. (Although the Raksura, a highly unique fantasy race who featured in my first ever Fantasy-Faction article, also got a mention.) The conversation ranged from sentient animals to alien behaviours exhibited by actual humans, but what stuck in my mind was Ack-Ack Macaque author Gareth L. Powell talking about a many-limbed tree-dwelling creature with faces on his hands who works as a starship engineer in his new sci-fi series Embers of War. When the engineer is feeling shy he presses his faces to the floor and when he’s feeling conflicted the faces argue with each-other, all very characterful stuff.

Finally, I went to see a panel about The City as Protagonist. In theory this was about how cities and settings can be characters in their own right and each have a distinctive feel to them. It actually ended up being about a lot of different things, including writing dystopias and the way that Brexit and the Trump presidency were making writers of dystopian fiction feel irrelevant. It was still fun to watch though and I got to hear sci-fi and fantasy author Emma Newman talking about the half-buried histories and uncomfortable architectural truths that lie like scars across modern cityscapes. I also got to see the face of Stark Holborn, the mysterious and secretive author of The Nunslinger.

Though that face seems to have vanished entirely from my memory.

How curious.

And then I was done, or so I thought. I had dinner in the hotel bar and contemplated heading back to the house where I was staying. Despite the friendliness of the con and my own incredible social skills (cue the manic laughter) I hadn’t magically made a group of new friends in the last 8 hours. I probably could have just wandered up to a random group and asked to join them, BristolCon seems to be like that, but I’d already used up my store of confidence for the day.

But then we were all summoned into one programme room for the closing ceremony, which was short and sweet. And the chair of the con asked for volunteers from the audience to help with clearing out the Art Room, since everything needed to be packed up and taken away that night.

Why not? I thought. My schedule is wide open.

Marpoles are a stubborn lot, so I was one of the handful of volunteers and die-hard helpers who stayed to see through all 2 hours of the ‘Get Out’, dismantling displays, collecting rubbish and pushing trolleys laden with mysterious metal implements and bits of stage scenery through winding maintenance corridors whose existence I’d never even imagined.

BarCon by Mariëlle Ooms-Voges

After that I got to properly enjoy BarCon (the drinking which happens before, during and after BristolCon itself). Firstly, by having a drink with one of BristolCon’s organisers, who dispensed some sage advice, “If you want to get involved in a con and make new friends then volunteer to help out, it’s the best way and it’s hugely appreciated. But remember, cons take a huge amount of work so make sure to set limits on how much time you’ll devote to helping out, or you’ll miss the con itself!”

So, there you go, if you haven’t been to an SFF convention before then remember that advice, if you remember nothing else about this article.

Anna Smith Spark by Julia Kitvaria SareneBarCon is in many ways the heart of BristolCon. You might have seen an author on a panel but now you get a chance to run up to them and blurt out how you love their books or say how much you enjoyed their thoughts on the nature of sci-fi. I, for one, collared Anna Smith Spark (author of the wildly acclaimed epic/grimdark fantasy series Empires of Dust) as she was leaving and awkwardly thanked her for revealing a great way to start arguments with Harry Potter fans during one of her panels. (She was very gracious about it.) Overall this part of the day was a great deal of fun. After spending a large chunk of my adult life explaining fantasy fiction and comics and mythology and sci-fi and roleplaying games to non-geeks it was very refreshing, even relaxing, to be surrounded by people who all had at least one SFF addiction.

And that was it, for me the con was over.

One more thing I did learn about conventions is that unless you have access to time-travel technology you’ll never get to experience everything they have to offer. There were a ton of great events which I just couldn’t make the time for. Pete Sutton’s epic new novel Seven Deadly Swords was launched and Sylvia Townsend Warner’s fantasy short stories collection Kingdoms of Elfin was relaunched. There were panels on writing and on getting published. There were panels on paradigm shifts, Spaceship Top Trumps and The Future of War. There were book readings, art-workshops, a talk on Isembard Kingdom Brunel, a discussion of religion in sci-fi, a dissection of good and bad clichés and 50 minutes devoted to bemoaning the increasing size of SFF novels.

That’s okay, I’ll try harder to fit everything in next time.

And there will be a next time.

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One Comment

  1. I loved reading your first-time experience at Bristolcon! I went to Megacon (Orlando, FL) and Dragoncon (based in Atlanta, Georgia) a few times and if you’re ever in the states you should definitely check those ones out (if not the acclaimed Comiccon).

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