New Zealand’s 37th National Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention, Au Contraire 3, was held in our capital, Wellington, over Queen’s Birthday weekend (3-6 June, 2016). In the aftermath of that convention, at which I co-directed the Writers’ Programming — with my writing partner in darkness, Dan Rabarts — I’d like to reflect a little on the importance of community building in New Zealand’s genre community.
To give a quick backdrop for non-Kiwi readers, New Zealand’s convention calendar comprises a single annual event dedicated to science fiction fantasy and horror. This convention is run by fans on a bid basis, and is the event at which our Sir Julius Vogel (SJV) Awards are presented.
Administered by the long-standing SFFANZ fan group, these annual literary and media awards celebrate the excellent creative work being produced by our community. Of course, there are other science fiction and fantasy events held throughout the country, but these tend to be large commercial events, such as Armageddon and ComiCon — the kinds of events which attract so many guests you need a map to find your vehicle afterwards. In contrast, our national conventions are small intimate conferences, drawing around 150-200 creatives and fans — persistent sorts with passion and enthusiasm, people who are looking for a more in-depth experience than just purchasing a ‘Leaf-on-the-Wind’ t-shirt and a carton of chips.
As its programmers, Dan and I hoped that Au Contraire 3 offered something more. Certainly, the CQ Hotel was full of the bustle of catching up with old friends, making new ones, attending panels and presentations and participating in workshops. Dr Mark English gave us a session on Planning Your Interplanetary Mission (he’s an honest-to-goodness rocket scientist who worked on the design and build of an experiment for the Cassini/Huygens mission to Saturn and Titan), while John Turner, Snr Fingerprint Officer with the New Zealand Police, taught us all about fingerprinting (and how to hide the evidence), sound specialist Shell Child gave us the skinny on creating sound effects in film (who knew her Corgi is the voice of Beorn in The Hobbit?), and author-psychologist Darian Smith took us into our characters’ hearts and minds with a view to developing character and plot. We work-shopped with Martin Hunt and made a life-sized origami BB8, took time out to meditate in a speculative colouring session, and enjoyed a crime-noir radio play written and directed by our own horror master Paul Mannering and performed by convention members. There was filking, cos play, larping, and gaming, alongside discussions such as Politics in World-building, Gender Diversity in Speculative Fiction, and an All the Punks panel, looking at genre mash-ups.
And in the midst of all that, Dan and I also directed our programming at community building and inclusiveness.
The first of these initiatives was a simple panel discussion. Traditionally, New Zealand conventions provide programming space for a discussion of the various funds that send fans to conventions abroad and also to bring them to our shores (see GUFF, DUFF, and FFANZ). Traditionally, no one turns up to these, that is, apart from the funds’ previous delegates whose souls have essentially been bonded to the cause from from the moment they were nominated. This year, we renamed the panel I get by With a Little Help from My Friends: Community Building and suddenly found we had a room full of people. Clearly, the penny had dropped, everyone realising that to grow and progress, we need to generate new membership. Fresh bodies. New blood. So there was a respectful quiet while convention historian, Ross Temple, gave us the context, and SFFANZ president Norman Cates and former delegate Dan Rabarts talked about the positive outcomes of seeding interest in our genre community across the ditch and elsewhere. Eileen Mueller took the mic to talk about literary events, and the effectiveness of including guests from industry, government and local body groups, giving examples from her time as organiser of the Wellington Storylines literary event for children. Both Eileen and also Jan Butterworth, our Au Contraire 3 administrator, agreed that young people are key to injecting life into the speculative community. As SFFANZ member and SJV administrator Lynelle Howell pointed out, citing her son as an example, New Zealand teens are already huge consumers of science fiction, fantasy and horror. How could we make them take the next step and join the organisations which support those activities?
And now we come to the innovative part of Au Contraire 3’s programming. For the first time, we included a full-day youth writing stream to our programming. Held on the Friday, in advance of the convention proper, this was a full-day workshop aimed at intermediate (middle grade) and college (high school) students, and run by youth literacy activist, teacher and author Piper Mejia. With a long history in teen literacy, including convening writing competitions, youth anthologies, critique groups, and an ongoing young writers’ website, Piper was the perfect convenor, bringing together a group of middle grade and YA writers to facilitate the day’s activities.
Advertising directly to schools and also on the convention website, we had planned to register 40 students — this was an experiment, after all — but the uptake by schools exceeded expectations. Perhaps this is due to a lack of good extra-curricular programmes for their ‘Gifted and Talented’ students — something all schools are required to provide in New Zealand — but our workshop number was pushed out from 40 to 60, then to 80 and finally we closed registrations at a little over 90 students, the maximum we could comfortably manage in the convention space available, and we still had a further 50 students on a wait list. And it seems those places were hotly contested. One teacher explained that the students at her school had had to go through a selection process to determine who would be lucky enough to attend.
In retrospect, we did not charge enough: NZ$15 (just US$10.50) which made it affordable for students, but barely contributed to the cost of the convention space, the ‘goodie bags’ for the students and the book prizes. Teachers and parents attending the workshop said they would have paid twice that fee.
From a writer’s point of view, the programme wasn’t extraordinary: it covered warm ups, and plotting, world-building, character and dialogue. There were lots of writing exercises and opportunities for students to share their stories. Group and individual work. Some games. All standard stuff. What was different was instead of teachers, the students were interacting with realwriters of actual books, learning where those writers sourced their stories, talking about ideas for new worlds, and what the professionals do to get over writers’ block. In short, it was a mini-con within a con, and those of us at the front of the room were the Guests of Honour.
The excitement of the students was palpable. Think back to your own first convention. The hotel thronged with kids jabbering about this book and that writer, world-building for film and games, and who does the best dragons. In the lunch break, there were kids filling exercise books in the corridors and leaning up against the walls reading. Still others were clamouring for autographs from the authors. Before the workshop was even over, they were asking about next year.
It was a success: the average age of our conference attendees had dropped by at least a decade.
As members of the annual convention, the students were eligible to vote in the SJVs, although we actively discouraged the students from voting because most of them had not had a chance to read the nominated works, and because 90 votes for a single work could have significantly skewed the outcome of the awards. And while there is an argument for non-censorship of children’s reading, nor do we want a bunch of 11-year-olds scared out of their wits after reading something intended for adults on the ballot. By not allowing students to vote, we averted the issue in the short term, but this will need to be addressed if we are to take a lesson from the Hugos and retain the integrity of our literary awards.
In a Kiwi strange twist, workshop registration meant that the students were automatically members of the convention, but not members of overarching body SFFANZ (although all the relevant membership details were collected). However, in my own view there is little point in the students joining SFFANZ, given that this organisation exists to promote relationships between fandoms and to administer the SJV awards: it does not in itself offer educational or other extension programmes for youth. On the other hand, the New Zealand Speculative Fiction Writers group, SpecFicNZ, are fired up to provide programmes for emerging young writers and they have the resources to do it. They’re already offering competitions and mentorship to their members, so setting up a youth extension would not be an insurmountable task. All it requires from is a tick in the box on the student registration form. No doubt the two groups, SFFANZ and SpecFicNZ, together with next year’s LexiCon convention committee, will sort it all out sensibly before the next convention in June 2017, although, when it comes to rejuvenating our genre community, increased youth involvement is the only answer.
The convention is over and I have packed away the last of the book boxes, happy that on the one hand, some progress was made: we have improved the number of young people participating in our genre community. But there are others we haven’t reached. What about the people who might not attend because the registration forms are too complicated, or the website too obscure? People who can’t afford the registration fee? People who live in rural areas and can’t travel? Are we inclusive to poets? To minorities? What about other groups that are hidden from our community?
The convention might have closed, but our community needs to stay open.