io9’s James Whitbrook argues that our obsession with canon—whether a story is an “official” part of a fictional universe—is ruining our ability to enjoy stories, because it values factoids and trivia over storytelling. “It predicates the gatekeeping act of being a fan that is built on how much you know about a thing over whether you actually enjoy that thing or not. It’s an attitude that in turn feeds the equally unruly and constantly growing spoiler culture because a fandom that values pure details above all else puts weight in the knowledge of those details.” True that. (I also think people obsess about canon because, deep down, some part of them believes their fictional universe is real: it’s why they freak out when a show breaks established canon.)
The latest science fiction convention meltdown—this time, Odyssey Con, a Wisconsin convention that bungled entirely foreseeable harassment issues—is a reminder of the outsized place conventions in general have in our field. In my view they take up too much space—too much time, money and space in our heads—leaving too little room for the literature and media these events purport to be about.
Last September, in a Patreon post about building bridges and equalizing power structures in arts communities, my friend Tim Cooper noted that the science fiction community does those sorts of things less well, partly because the work isn’t being done to the same extent, partly because it’s actively being opposed from some corners. But he had this to say about conventions:
I’m going to single out conventions as a major force of drag on the field. Maybe they were originally intended to accomplish something, but at this point they’re basically social events, places for field insiders to show up and hang out and talk shop with each other. Which every field needs, but most fields manage to tie those things in with a community-building purpose—coming together to talk about approaches to institutional problems, or for fundraisers, or just showing off all of the neat new things people are doing. In science fiction there’s a vast amount of money and volunteer time going to events which don’t accomplish anything lasting. A lot of that money is leaving the field entirely, going to airlines, hotels, and restaurants. From a nonprofit-runner’s perspective, science fiction conventions look a lot like a nonprofit that’s spending all its money throwing parties for its board members. That would be illegal for us, but it’s a bad idea for everybody.
Tim offers a useful perspective, because many people active in a community don’t have anything to compare that community to. And his point is worth thinking about: when we go to sf conventions, exactly what the hell are we doing?