Bob Phillips attended the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild-hosted annual CONFLUX: an event for writers of Science Fiction and beyond. This year, it was held in collaboration with the similarly-genred NATCON. Here are his thoughts on the convention that was.
Speculative fiction [spec fic] is a broad church: it covers science fiction, fantasy, horror, artwork, games, fandom and conventions. In fact, it is a genre in which conventions play a major part. Several cities, including Canberra, host one annually. In Canberra, it is called Conflux, and this year we were due to host our ninth one.
There is also a national convention, or Natcon, which is held in a different city each year. This year, it was Canberra’s turn. The 52nd Natcon was held in conjunction with the Conflux 9, from 25 to 28 April at Rydges Capital Hill on Canberra Avenue. At least 200 people attended.
The theme this year was ‘steam, angels, junk’. It was inspired by steampunk, a subgenre that is part Gothic Victorian fantasy, and part exotic steam powered devices that might or might not have ever existed.
Organising an event of this size takes a fair bit of work and planning. There was a connection to the Writers Centre in that the two principle organisers of the convention, Donna Maree Hansen and Nicole Murphy, are both members, while former Board member Craig Cormick was the MC who organised entertaining opening and closing ceremonies. The convention book was designed by former Writers Centre staffer Kimberley Gaal.
Many things happen at a convention. There are guests of honour, workshops and discussion panels, book launches, authors reading from their works, a dealers’ room, presentation of awards, pitches by authors to publishers, and some colourful social functions.
Guests of Honour included two international guests, Nalo Hopkinson, who adds a Caribbean slant to speculative fiction writing, and Marc Gascoigne, the Publishing Director of the British spec fic imprint Angry Robot Books. Australian guests included writers Karen Miller and Kaaron Warren as well as Rose Mitchell, noted for her role in helping to organise conventions.
There were fourteen workshops on such diverse topics as how to write steampunk, social media, creating vivid characters and writing for children. I particularly enjoyed Patty Jensen’s workshop on writing to sell fiction. Her exercise in getting us to read the start of several stories reminded me, from my own experiences of ‘slush reading’ that in any collection of stories, there is usually one that sticks in my mind, and is likely to be the one that I would choose for an anthology or a prize. Why is it that certain stories stick in the mind? Oh, I wish I knew…
There were about seventy panels on topics as diverse as self-publishing, the importance of editors, angels in fiction, crowd funding, zombies, kissing in space, writing communities, using history to inspire fiction, fantasy world building, mentors, and technology versus politics. Amongst the issues that stood out to me were:
- Podcasts can be used to help build a brand
- One can get a lot out of being involved in writing communities, including a sense of camaraderie and critiquing of one’s works
- It is useful to immerse yourself in the literature of a time and place you want to write a historical fantasy about, to get some idea of peoples’ mindsets
- A distinctive cover can help a book stand out on the bookseller’s shelves; but as soon as a book becomes popular, other books appear with similar covers
- There are many technological possibilities for dealing with our environmental and resource problems, like graphite filters for water, and nuclear fusion for energy, but the rates of return on investment are probably not high enough to attract capital in Australia.
Conventions are great places for launching new books, because many of the potential readers are in attendance. A dozen new titles, mostly novels and collections of short stories, were launched at this convention. They included In fabula divino, edited by Nicole Murphy, which contains some stories by established writers, but also many by new writers, to give them encouragement.
Not to be outdone, after a few logistical dramas, the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild [CSfG] launched its latest anthology Next with considerable fanfare. The Guild sold enough copies to cover the cost of producing the book.
Several authors did readings from their stories to appreciative audiences. I particularly enjoyed Kaaron Warren’s intriguing, whimsical tale about how pigeons and waifs could have been used in 19th century London.
For me, the focal point of any convention is the dealer’s room, probably because of the time I spend at the CSfG sales desk. It is a hive of activity with, in this case, dealers selling everything from spec fic books to custom made corsets.
A major event at any Natcon is the presentation of awards. These include presentations to the long term servants of speculative fiction, and the prestigious Ditmars. Presented annually, the Ditmars are awarded based on voting by NATCOM attendees for Australia’s best spec fic novels, novellas, short stories and collections of stories. Canberra’s Kaaron Warren won Best Collection for Through splintered walls, and Best Novella for Sky.
Editors from several publishing houses were in attendance, and some authors got the chance to pitch their ideas for stories to them. They received mixed responses. One wishes them good luck!
It wouldn’t have been a convention without the social functions that usually accompany such events. This year’s festivities included a Steampunk High Tea, a cocktail party, a rerun of Conflux’s popular Regency Gothic Banquet, a Masquerade and impromptu gatherings.
Functions give people a chance to dress up (or dress down, depending on your point of view) as 19th century ladies (with or without corsets) and gentlemen, pirates, angels and Pan (with his pipes). There was also Elmo, a giant red something, about which, the less said the better.
Spec fic conventions give writers and fans opportunities to renew old acquaintances and make new ones, eat, drink, be merry, tell stories, have earnest discussions about the future of humanity or what they will have for dinner, and generally have a good time. Judging by the comments I’ve heard from the other participants, Conflux 9/Natcom 52 was no exception.