A few months ago, my friend asked if I would be interested in attending Readercon with her in Quincy, MA. As is fairly normal for me when asked to do bookish things with bookish people, I checked my calendar and said yes, without really giving too much thought or research into what exactly I was signing on for. I trusted that if someone who knows me and my tastes well, especially bookwise, extended the invite, I might enjoy myself and learn a thing or two.
As the date for the three day conference of speculative fiction writers, readers, publishers, vendors, and all other form of book involved folk approached, I finally got around to researching what was involved in this gathering and, after reading about the program and the panels that were up on the schedule, I was up for all of it and getting fairly excited. I was also both a Readercon and a "this type of conference" newbie, and I have always maintained the importance of continuing to experience new things, at every stage in my life. So one day in mid-July, I was off to Quincy, Massachusetts.
I'd be lying if I said I entered this experience with no preconceptions. For starters, speculative fiction has not ever been a genre I am terribly familiar with, though I have in recent days felt a pull toward science fiction (likely due to the fact that the terribleness of reality has been amplified, magnified, and been pouring out of the belly of a deformed, orange pinata of late...but I digress.) I have always been keenly aware, however, that the genre and its fans come from passionate histories with the books they've read and loved, particular tastes, and some unnameable quality that I've always admired from a distance. Part of me was excited to be around it for a few days, to get an inside view and the other part of me was intimidated. It helped immensely that I wasn't alone. In fact, I was with a seasoned pro at these cons. (I have been waiting a long time to use "pro at cons" because it makes me chuckle.)
When we arrived at the hotel, I knew immediately that I was going to have to adjust the way I experienced a conference. For the last ten or so years, I have attended conferences for my career and I have grown accustomed to the pace and expectations of working at a conference. Even socializing is work at so many of those meetings and approaching a conference as a leisure activity did take some adjustment. When I realized that I didn't HAVE to get up at 8am for six hour meeting or have to choose between eight different simultaneous programs, I sighed with relaxation.
We were given a program of panels and readings and immediately, I was struck by the diversity of the speakers as well as the topics of discussion. From the little I knew about the sci-fi/fantasy community of readers and writers, I had gathered that in recent years (as it has in all of publishing across the board) the need for diversity is talked about ad infinitum and not much else. It was heartening to see it actually put on the front lines for the majority of the conference. It appealed to me as a writer, librarian, and reader of color. And it struck me that these smaller cons are ahead of the game when it comes to programming. The ones I attend for work could learn quite a bit.
Some standout panels I attended included, but were not limited to:
Global Roots of Speculative Fiction: The panel discussed the ancient origins from non-Western countries of current speculative fiction. I got a list of many of the books they recommended, though I suspect that if current speculative fiction is intimidating, the ancient texts the panel recommended might be something to work up to.
Our Human Limits: This panel discussed the physical limits of ordinary humans in order to shed light on putting characters in realistic situations in fiction. It was a panel comprised of medical professionals, forensic scientists, and authors and it was both fascinating and hilarious. There were some excerpts read from various works that were incredibly far fetched. I learned quite a bit about writing realistic situations. Most importantly, I learned about the Rule of 3s: 3 minutes without oxygen, 3 days without shelter, 3 days without water, 3 weeks without food (if you have shelter and water.) Scary how fragile we all are!
Habit Reversal Training for Writers: Being both a procrastinator with my own work as well as a very, very busy person with a LOT of projects in motion at any given time, this program was eye opening and gave me a wealth of techniques to employ while writing. I am especially prone to procrastination when I'm working on my own writing (hence, my taking on other projects.) I found this to be the most practical of all the programs I attended.
It's Complicated: Improving Intersectionality and Representation in Speculative Fiction: This was a lively discussion about how to avoid "cardboard cut-outs" of characters in stories that often appear only to further the plot. From the program description: "How can authors create rich, realistic characters whose overlapping identities and ways of moving in the world reject stereotypes and cliches?" So, all of that. It is an important discussion to have, given that it is past time to move beyond just the "we need more diversity" and focusing more on specific ideas on how do we do that.
There were various readings from different authors throughout the three days that I enjoyed but none more than that of Nnedi Okorafor. Prior to attending, I learned that Okorafor was one of the guests of honor, the other being Naomi Novik. In preparation for the con, I read one book of each of these authors and I was very impressed by Okorafor's "Binti."
She was reading from her work, including the forthcoming sequel to "Binti" as well as sections of her other novels. Thanks to the on site Bookshop and its many, many available titles from an impressive variety of booksellers, I was able to purchase a copy of another of her titles, "Lagoon." Unfortunately, I didn't get it autographed, despite the fact that after her reading, I saw her perusing the Bookshop. Something in me hates to interrupt anyone in a bookstore. I have since recommended her books to many, many people, librarians and patrons and friends alike. And I'm doing it again. Read her books.
Throughout the conference, my friend and I as well as the other attendees were largely confined to the one hotel. It mostly meant we ate and drank alongside the same people for three straight days. The intimidation I felt at first began to wane slowly over the course of the time. I don't mean to imply that there weren't cliques. Because there were. There probably still are. And some of those cliques are fiercely held together by a tube of I'm cooler than you are glue. This con was a microcosm of the world outside it. Even in Boston, the cool kids came from Brooklyn. And even in this scenario, in a gathering of people I would likely have been very good friends with in high school, I navigated my way along the outskirts. It is my way. But there were also very nice people who were unattached to preformed cliques. Or members of cliques that didn't care about cool points since we are all adults. Well, most of us are adults. There are, apparently, some people who are petty teenagers in adult bodies. I had an unfortunate encounter with a group of those. But I digress.
I had a celebrity/hero sighting. At lunch with my friend, as she looked something up on her phone and (probably) after a cocktail, I sat in the hotel bar and let my eyes survey the sparse crowd finishing up lunch. In a movie moment, I caught eyes with Junot Diaz as he walked directly in my line of sight and I automatically smiled. He smiled back. I exchanged smiles with one of my favorite authors of all time. It has actually been quite an amazing year for me and being in the same vicinity of writers who inform my life. This was just a small part of it. It made sense that Diaz was in attendance; he lives in Boston and teaches at MIT. He is also an unabashed fan of speculative fiction. That much is clear through his writing. I did the appropriate freak out and then played it cool the rest of the time when I had a dozen or so more sightings. Well, I played it cool in my mind, anyway. I can't confirm what my body language was doing.
Overall, the programs I attended and the plentiful readings and discussion groups were worth the price of admission and travel. I also got the sense that, if I were a speculative fiction writer, it would have been a prime opportunity to network.
The con had its fair share of recreational activities as well. There was a trivia night and a 90s themed dance on one of the nights. Most people were game and dressed the part. I dressed in a Cure t-shirt, fishnet stockings and my green Doc Martens but I only did that because that is how I spent 90% of the actual 90s dressed. I was, apparently, very convincing because upon ordering a drink at the bar, I was carded. It really WAS the 90s!
On the final night, there were a few events that provided free wine. It was a beautiful night and people were gathered in the hotel's courtyard. The cool kids had their own table and my friend and I sat in a corner, drank red wine and people watched. It was a great way to round out a fun and interesting couple of days.
Final thoughts: The speculative fiction community is very aware and actively pursuing diversity of all kinds in the genre. I was impressed by the amount of programming that discussed it. Small conferences are an entirely different experience from any that I've had before in both positive and negative ways. However, I was able to really relax and enjoy myself at this, since it spoke to being a writer and reader alone (as opposed to how I could apply everything to my career as a librarian.) I'd be open to attending another Readercon or similar meeting. Junot Diaz is not only one of the best living writers, he's also cuuuute. Sorry. I had to.