by Jaym Gates
If you haven’t been to Dragon*Con before, here’s a little background. The convention takes place, technically, from Friday-Monday, over Labor Day weekend, in Atlanta. Most people come in on Thursday. A lot of us get there on Wednesday. Over 40,000 people pre-register, packing five hotels to overflowing. (Following some law of the universe, the escalator in the Hyatt always breaks down on Saturday afternoon.) The size can be overwhelming.
The programming tracks cover a wide range, from writer’s workshops to Q&A sessions with popular actors. There really is some of everything here, if you can find it. This is the third time I’ve gone, and I’ve never managed to make it to more than a handful of panels. There’s just too much to do and see.
Earlier this year, the director of the SF Literature track asked me to moderate the Race In SF panel. I was a little nervous, but I’ve been asking for more panels on topics like this for a long time, so I said yes.
One week before the con, social media blew up with the Weird Tales debacle. Watching good friends fly to opposite sides of the debate was an excellent reminder that this is an ongoing, gnarly issue with no clear solution. My butterflies tripled in size. It was even more nerve-wracking to find the room nearly at capacity, 20 minutes before the panel.
My co-panelists were L.M. Davis, Eugie Foster and Janny Wurts. I knew, going in, that an hour was nowhere near long enough to discuss the topic, so we focused on certain angles. Davis had already led a panel on African American issues in SF, allowing us to open the discussion from that into the past and future of race issues and representation. The discussion was positive and challenging.
Wurts brought up an issue closely tied to negative representation: whitewashing all the issues out of a culture or time-period. Her books are also considered subversive in Japan, and so we discussed the potential of literature to be escapism in one setting, and culturally revolutionary in another. The hour passed too quickly, and we could only take a few questions at the end.
I stuck around for a few minutes afterward, curious about the audience’s response. Nearly half of them had stayed, breaking into small groups and eagerly debating the subject. The groups were notably mixed, too, strangers taking the opportunity to listen and learn and ask questions.
These were fans, people who maybe were just starting to write or be published and readers. They are the people the authors and publishers started out as, and the ones who will be deciding the future of the industry. After a few years of attending conventions mostly populated by writers, it was a refreshing change of pace to hear from a larger crowd.
It is also interesting to see the difference in demographics. There were several pointed posts after WorldCon, decrying the lack of racial discussion and diversity. But sitting at a table at Dragon*Con, the sea of faces was far from monochromatic. There were panels on multiple racial issues that were well-attended and well-received. The guests were as diverse as the attendees.
Conventions like WorldCon and World Fantasy are wonderful. It’s a chance to catch up with peers and talk about work, to drink in the bar with your fellows. But it’s a relatively closed system.
But conventions like Dragon*Con, ComiCon and GenCon offer the opportunity to reconnect with the people we should really be paying attention to. They offer a view of geekdom at large, and a reminder that our small, tightly-knit community really isn’t that small anymore. It’s big, vibrant, colorful and kind of scary in the best of ways, and that’s just fine. It’s good to leave our ivory towers and mingle in the marketplace sometimes. Taste, smell, find the new and exotic and see what you can learn from your fans and younger colleagues.
Jaym Gates is a publicist and editor. Her clients include Prime Books, Pathfinder Tales, M.K. Hobson, and more. In her copious spare time, she games, trains horses, and writes. She can be found on Twitter as @JaymGates.