Swancon XXX – the outsider’s perspective

I’ll preface this extremely longish post by saying I have already booked flights and accommodation for Conflux 2 in Canberra, taking place in just under four weeks time. I’ll also add that I’m tired, descending into illness, and have a uni assignment overdue, but bugger it, I have a need to transpose, dammit!

And transpose I shall!

Swancon XXX was billed as a ‘Carnival of the senses’ and at four and a half days, it is the longest SF convention in Australia this year. More importantly, it was the very first convention Ange and I had ever been to.

WARNING: This con report, brought to you by gusts of hot air from SJC, weighs in at around 4800 words. Reading further is advised only at the discretion of a mental health professional.

Thursday
For me, the con started rather shakily. Our typical household regime means we’re often running late for well… pretty much everything. Swancon was no exception. Unfortunately I tend to panic when I’m entering a new situation, particularly when I’m arriving late.

Ange and I entered the Emerald Hotel foyer to find a couple of hundred people milling about waiting for the opening ceremony to commence. Fortunately my wits were present enough for me to approach the registration desk and declare my newbie-ism. From there, Ange and I were presented with our little yellow name badges (mine with a conspicuously absent ‘Jiraiya’) and a shopping bag full of various coloured bits of paper. A mini-fight ensued as Ange and I debated with the woman whether we were going to take a second goodies bag. In the end, Ange won out and we declined it. I didn’t want to appear like a greedy show-bag hound.

The actual ceremony was likewise as expected, exacerbated by the fact we were hidden in the shadows up the back – two rows behind everyone else.

From there I quietly slinked away (with Ange in tow), which led to all sorts of ‘animated discussions’ with her about what my expectations and social-phobiousness (Sean Williams was right! It seems many writers, like me, are destined for social phobias).

Now, at this point I’ll make a couple of comments:
*begin rant*
I don’t belong to SF fandom. I don’t even understand the fan mentality. I’m a writer of original fiction who finds satisfaction in blazing my own trail. Sure, I respect many other writers, and many people in general, but my mindset doesn’t allow me to bask in the shadows of others. I can’t write fan fiction, or slash, or discuss in animated detail how movies and literature themes are transposed into real life. I’m not condemning such a world view – just stating that I don’t really understand it.

Okay, back on track… I don’t belong to SF fandom, and this was my (our) first SF convention. I’d heard/read so often about the generous and encompassing nature of SF fandom, especially at Swancon. Yet I felt it was crystal clear that Ange & I knew absolutely no one. Perhaps it was that the organisers were too distracted, or that they simply didn’t consider having someone wander the crowd to ease others into the process. Perhaps too, that we masked our discomfort well. Nonetheless, we (well, actually me, since I *am* the writer after all) flailed socially. As it turned out in later days, there were people I recognised, but this didn’t help on the very first night. A suggestion I’d offer is to assist the con newbies out there with someone who can help explain the ropes a little. Swancon even has a ‘mumfan’ award for this very thing, but to be honest, I experienced very little of this on Thursday.
*end rant*

Ange and I returned for the Neo! panel for newbies at 10pm, which did assist a little with the orientation. Grant Stone did a great job of entertaining the newbies, and offered some useful common sense advice. The one we took on board strongest – drink plenty of water. He also inadvertantly came up with one gem:”Find someone to eat”… he was trying to say ‘someone to eat with‘. And here I was getting all excited that horror had returned to Perth with a vengeance!

Friday
There were a number of cool panels on Friday – some of the best of the whole convention really. We missed the morning due to a rockin’ Easter Egg hunt with the girls. I even drove out to the local park and the service station to plant clues for this hunt (and Ange and I stayed up until 3am to write up the clues and plant them in the first place).

Another reason for our lateness was Ange’s enthusiasm as she discovered most of her old clothes now fitted again. Friday saw her in a rejuvenated yet scintillating black mediaeval dress. In fact, EVERY day saw her in a scintillating black mediaeval dress or similar. If nothing else, Swancon was a carnival for my senses. :p However, Sunday’s outfit deserves special mention (see Sunday).

After a heavy dose of chocolate courage and dressed like modern sophisticates we project ourselves to be, we fronted up for Swancon at lunch time. Before going into the Balancing writing and your day job panel at 1pm, we wandered the foyer and the hucksters room. There we ran into Dave Luckett, to whom I reintroduced myself (and Ange of course). The recognition wavered and died in his eyes, but considering neither of us had been to a KSP SF meeting for several months, and I’d lost twenty kilos while gaining a sexy new wardrobe, I can forgive that. Outside the panel, we ran into Lee Battersby and Lyn Triffitt (soon-to-be Battersby) and baby Connor, and so I introduced Ange. While waiting, we also found out we’d missed the martial arts demo, which appeared to be ultra cool. Seeing all those weapons on the floor when I entered the room certainly stirred up the old competitive juices.

The panel itself was great – Charles De Lint (the GoH), Robert Hood, Cat Sparks, Dave Luckett, and Lee, all gave insights into their struggles to be free of the ‘man’ and the difficulties in supporting yourself through writing. The consensus seemed to be: get a government job and milk it for all it’s worth. I tried that, but it was a job where I had to think too much. Ergo: I quit.

From there, we wandered over to the Books (etc) that should never be filmed panel. Unfortunately the room was small, hot and completely packed, so I stood awkwardly near the door while Ange sat on the floor. In the end I found a little niche in the corner but by then I felt a little affected by the room. Suffice to say, Ange enjoyed the discussion more than I did.

Next up was Short Fiction: Why do we still write it? By now, I was feeling acclimatised and with the focus on professional panels like this and the first, was much more at ease. The panelists were Charles De Lint, Stephen Dedman, Terry Dowling, Robert Hood, Cat Sparks and Lee Battersby. For me, this was one of the best discussions, highlighted by Ange’s suggestion to the panel that the issue with short fiction was its marketing, or lack thereof. It seemed as if she struck a chord with the audience (and some of the panel). Also during the panel, Lee noted at least six people in the room who had bought stories from him (I’m guessing Ange and I were amongst them). This was quipped by someone (Terry?) saying ‘it was nice to have family’.

We followed this panel up with the informative It came from the slushpile! Editors from Agog! (Cat Sparks), Borderlands (Anna Hepworth), ASIM (Zara Baxter, Sally Beasley & Ian Nichols) & Ticonderoga Online (Lyn Triffitt) related slushpile horror stories. It felt a little odd being in the audience for this one, considering both Ange and I are editors. In fact, Lee ‘outed’ us from the audience, which was cool as acknowledgement.

Along the way (sometime during the day), we crossed paths with the ever-cheerful Satima Flavell Neist from the KSP SF group. Ange also caught up with Stephen Dedman for a few seconds to introduce herself (since they had crossed swords in the short fiction panel). Happy with our efforts, despite not meeting as many people as I’d hoped to, we returned to the bat cave to unwind.

Saturday
We almost had our act together on Saturday, but the time taken to have Ange look so good is a worthwhile investment. Consequently, we missed the Robert Hood horror panel, but we compensated by attending the lunchtime book launch, which featured Daikaiju!, the Mitch? antho, and a cool Dave Luckett arms and armour book (illustrated) . Having corresponded with Robert Hood a number of times, and attending his Godzilla movie night in Brisbane while I was at Clarion South in January, I couldn’t help but go up and buy a copy of Daikaiju! It was a move worth much more than $35 (the extra $5 for the Mitch antho, which Ange insisted on buying after Mitch’s nervous but genuinely funny sales pitch). Cat Sparks greeted me, and then I re-introduced myself to Rob (we only chatted for a few minutes in Brisbane), as well as introduced Ange. My copy of Daikaiju is now signed by Rob and Robin Pen, as well as a couple of the contributors.

One of those contributors is Martin Livings, whom I was looking forward to meeting, especially after I’d bought/accepted stories from him for both Shadowed Realms and the Alternative Time antho. With his busyness in signing books and the tide of panels to attend, we parted ways and didn’t get the chance to chat further.

We caught the Sensoria (21 senses) panel, but that was perhaps a little too dry and scientific for our tastes (although there was some damn interesting subject matter). After that we attended the Psi-Fi panel, but left this one early for entirely different reasons. Ange grew steadily more agitated as this panel debated in very one-sided terms the possible existence of psionic powers. Being prone to an open mind, her sensibilities were bludgeoned by the belligerence of the anti-psionic mob. Like her, I don’t necessarily believe in ESP and the like, but given the choice of listening to unenlightened haggling or being elsewhere, I/we chose elsewhere.

Ange and I shuffled off into the city to vent some steam while looking for lunch. We settled on a Japanese/sushi place in a food court we’d been to a few times before and found the food a much needed salve. We followed this up with a spot of shopping, and true to form, we returned to the con believing we were late for the Battersby wedding (although we did have their present in hand and smartly wrapped in silver rose/black paper wrapping).

Fortunately we returned at the perfect time, and so took our seats with decorum. Regrettably, that decorum was shattered as I took the present out to the gift table and trod on someone’s toes in the process. I had my heavy boots on and all. Despite profuse apologies, she didn’t seem in a particularly forgiving frame of mind.

Eventually the fluster settled and soon enough (although a little later than I expected) Lyn and her entourage made their way down the aisle. The emotion, the excitement, and the sense of occasion were all clear on her face. Her emotion was infectious, with Lee and half the audience caught in the whirlwind. I’ve never been to a wedding before (not one that I can recall anyway) and I thought everything went beautifully for the bride and groom. I was reticent about the whole marriage at a SF con thing, but I think it worked in their favour. The line of people offering congratulations to the pair was considerable. Ange and I found ourselves at the very end of that line, even behind Lyn’s kids (who needed to line up to get their parent’s attention on such a hectic evening!).

After sharing a congratulatory word, we retired to the bar where the personally invited guests (family and friends) were hanging out. I debated about going (the social phobia again) – even though I did actually receive a personal invitation, I wasn’t sure if I knew Lee and Lyn long enough to justify my entry into their inner circle. I needn’t have worried.

This was where the con kicked up a gear for me. Where Ange and I actually started forming connections and meeting people.

While Lyn and Lee were busy with their post-wedding responsibilities, we mingled amongst the guests. Soon we found ourself talking with Rob Hood and writer Deb Biancotti (although she disappeared before I had the chance to really get to know her better). As the evening progressed, I left Ange in the middle of a deep conversation with Rob about horror, extreme Japanese horror, and anime, to introduce myself to Russell B Farr and Liz Gryzb (editors of Ticonderoga Online). I was soon joined by Cat Sparks, and from there we shared Clarion stories (as seems to be the custom, but hey, it is THE club to be in!).

It was hard to turn down a dinner invitation from these guys but the girl needed us, and so I pried Ange away from Rob and we headed for home. Thanks to Rob though, we were armed with a number of suggestions for some soul-shattering movies to get our hands on (like Odishon/Audition and Kairo/Pulse). Another ‘to see’ was the anime movie Legend of the Overfiend. As memory serves me, this was the very first anime/manga movie I ever saw, but except for the exploding woman rape scenes and the giant penis-tentacles shooting energy rays, I recall precious little of it.

Sunday
Sunday really became giant monster and buy lotsa books day. It all started on the right foot with Ange suiting herself up in what we term the ‘spider dress’. Think see-through black webbing material laced in intricate web patterns and you’d be spot on. There was a green layer of webbing/overcoat and some underlayers to provide some modesty, but the overall effect was amazing. Wearing the spider dress again has been a goal of Ange’s for a number of years, so we were both over the moon when she could put it on and look so great in it.

Up first thing was Satima’s panel (with Richard Harland and Zara Baxter), Practising what they preach -Religion in SF. It was a topic we devoured but from memory it didn’t expand our insight or take my thoughts in a new direction. Even so, it was a good discussion.

We then caught the Godzilla as urban renewal project panel run by Rob Hood. As ever, Rob’s passion, insight and fanatical interest in kaiju eiga (monster movies) adds layers of complexity to what is otherwise a guy in a rubber suit trashing miniature sets. I know his presentation was effective, because Ange proclaimed herself a convert and is actively interested in looking up a Godzilla movie or two in the near future.

With our heads dizzy from monstrous rampages and the Gamera song! (“You’re so groovy, Gamera!”), we slipped into the zine launch, where fellow Clarionite Lily was launching Fables & Reflections #7, in addition to Gynaezine #?, ASIM #17, and Borderlands #5. Borderlands editor David Cake did a good job of not reading my name out (I’m trying to keep my Invisible Man reputation intact), opting instead for the ‘talented new writers you’ve probably never heard of’ angle. I reckon it’s just trying to pronounce ‘Jiraiya’ that throws people off, but Cat Sparks did an excellent job the evening before. Aside from the print zines, the guys at Ticonderoga Online did a quick spiel and offered up pamphlets and bookmarks. I was impressed at the tactic – even though our next Shadowed Realms issue is about to launch any day now, it wasn’t launched at that time, so we didn’t worry about marketing. However, this zine launch proved that even webzines can score a bit of cheap promotion. It’s a vital lesson for upcoming next cons (Conflux in late April is our next one).

Knowing that Gojira provides, we returned to the company of monsters with the panel The care, feeding and proper use of monsters with Rob, Richard Harland and Terry Dowling. The boys put on a good dose of banter, but I felt the topic strayed too much into the philosophical nature of the outsider and other musings on the definition of ‘monster’.

Following this panel (before and after lunch in the city) we harangued Rob and Cat for books at their market stall (see the list below to understand our level of consumerist capitulation) and ended up talking more on the meaning of all things dark. Cementing his reputation as a scholar and a gentleman, Rob slipped into our pile a copy of his novel Backstreets for free, which really made our day. Ange’s especially, as the subject matter is right up her professional alley of youth work, drugs and ‘street-present youth’.

At the same time, a nearby Richard Harland invited us to buy a copy of The Black Crusade. Boy, this became a fascinating exchange. I was already interested but Ange wanted to know more. She good-naturedly asked Richard to make a sales pitch. He started by saying the novel had won the Golden Aurealis award (remember, I was at the Aurealis Awards night with my fellow Clarionites, so I was privy to this). In response, Ange (in beautifully off-the-cuff fashion) said: “awards don’t impress me – what’s the book about?” I almost swallowed my tongue, and from Richard’s face, he did seem a little taken aback, but he did recover and give a blurb about the book. To save the day, I pulled out my wallet and cast cash in his direction as quickly as possible! It was all in good fun, and we properly introduced ourselves (we did that a lot actually – started talking to people and then realised we hadn’t told them who we were), and ended up having a good old chat.

We finished up the conversation, and the day with a panel Richard was on: Underused mythologies. Richard was with Stephen Dedman (who had miraculously appeared at almost every panel we went to – he must have been stretched very thin in his capacity as programmer!), Benjamin Szumskyj and Sarah Chong? (I hope I caught her name right, she was a fascinating panelist). There were bits of the debate that were of great interest – as both Ange and I are especially fascinated by mythology. However, one audience member came to dominate the discussion, and was then invited onto the panel. This was too distracting, and in my opinion stifled the flow of what could have been an otherwise great panel.

As the panel concluded, Ange had a quick chat to Richard to express her desire to talk through some of his ideas on mythology the next day. He seemed happy to oblige (as were all the pro writers we met at the con – a great bunch of people). Also during the day we bumped into KSP SF members Annette and Jessica at both panels and for a quiet sit down between events. As with Satima (who we also met up with), it was great to introduce Ange to some familiar faces.

We left the con early to have dinner at Hogsbreath Cafe with Tracey, her new man Shane, her sister Jodie, and niece Taylah. The dinner itself was delicious and the conversation enjoyable, but I grew a bit edgy as 8pm came and went – we needed to return to Swancon for the Awards presentation, which included the Tin Ducks. Shane seemed quiet, but he’s a country boy (from Port Hedland) with a deep distrust of the city, so we cut him some slack. On first meeting, he appeared to be a nice enough bloke.

Propelled on by my edginess, I excused Ange and myself and we barrelled back down the freeway and arrived right on time (again!) – just as the audience was being seated.

First up was the Art Show prizes, which didn’t mean much to me since I didn’t actually get to the art show. The short story competition was, however, something I was interested in, since I had Colossus of Roads and Blasphemy on Eight Wheels entered. Unfortunately I didn’t rate a mention, but congrats to the winners. I was, to say the least, disappointed – particularly as I gave the stories a light post-Clarion touchup. In saying that, they have merit and are good reads but they aren’t my best work.

Then came the Tin Ducks. With the understanding that voting in the Tin Ducks (like the Ditmars) is essentially a popularity contest amongst con-goers, we knew both I and Shadowed Realms didn’t stand a snowball’s chance in hell of winning. Especially as no-one (except the professional writers ironically enough!) knew me from (proverbial) Adam. Suffice to say, I didn’t win (the unstoppable Stephen Dedman won the Best Pro Fiction category, while Lyn Battersby was a popular winner in the Best Pro Production with ASIM #11). You know your chances are slim when the presenter reads your name out with heavy shades of trepidation and scans the crowd to see if someone stands up. Given my feelings toward the process, I don’t want to appear overly negative. It was a great opportunity to stand up in front of eighty odd people and see their expressions as the light bulb went on (proverbially) in their heads, as if saying “oh, THAT’s who that guy is!”. It was also a good opportunity to show off my cool pseudo-Borderlands shirt (the new one with the dead tree print and the birds flying above it that looks like the cover of BL #1) – the same shirt Stephen Dedman congratulated me on in a chat after the presentation.

In fact, I’m a little out of sequence. Ange and I had a nice introductory chat with Shadowed Realms #1 contributor Adam Wieland and his family after the awards. Having not attended a con before, and only dropping in for the awards presentation, he did look a little overawed, but hopefully we made him feel a little more at home with the whole process. Despite our shared lack of success, it was good to put a face to the name, and personally congratulate (not proverbial) Adam on his SR story.

Zara Baxter (ASIM slush mistress extraordinaire) also came up and said hi. Even though we’d bought ASIM copies from her earlier in the day, I didn’t think to introduce us, and I totally forgot she was part of the 2004 ClarionBorg. So with proper introductions, we had a great natter on all things Clarion, as well as the wooden roadside post she carried with previous year’s Swancon guests signatures all over it. Joining the conversation were Borderlands editors David Cake, Stephen Dedman (who I now believe has an ability to manifest in any nearby shadow, given the number of times he simply ‘appeared’ during the con), Dr Emma (Tin Duck winner) and for a brief moment, Lily.

Alas, time, disappointment, and depleting batteries forced us from the field of discussion and home to allow recuperation for the final day. If nothing else, many more people kinda-sorta knew who I was.

Monday
After deciding to take it easy, we hit the con at 11am for the Writers Workshops panel. With Clarionettes Cat and Zara on the panel, Clarion talk was inevitable. In fact, this was the only panel where I actually contributed from the audience. I guess it also helped that I was wearing my Clarion South 05 t-shirt. 😉 It was all very writerly and I very much enjoyed the shop-talk aspect. Also in the room (it was a small audience of a dozen or so people) were Satima, Lee B, Stephen D, and Glenda Larke, so there was a pro emphasis. As time passed, more people entered and dragged the discussion into areas like writing groups and the advantages to inviting guests of honour to conventions. Sadly, I lost focus with the discussion, so didn’t contribute much in the second half.

Lunch time saw us pop out to the market room to chat to Rob, Cat and Zara again. This time Terry Dowling was with them, so we managed (with the help of Jeremy Byrne) to track down a copy of Blackwater Days. It’s a very sexy-looking collection, with what Terry calls a ‘monstrous’ print (the end of a giant bone rising out of an industrial landscape) by Shaun Tan on the cover. From here we had a pleasant chat with Terry on all things dark and dangerous, while again ensuring I had properly introduced us.

Cat also took me outside on a suggestion from Rob for a photo shoot for his upcoming Daikaiju e-anthology that I’ve been pestering him about. Once that was done, we returned the favour and took pics of me with Rob and Cat, and then with Zara. It was all very cool hanging around with down-to-earth people who are also peers and professionals. Just before we went into the final panels, we had a cuppa in the bar with the KSP gang (Annette and Jessica), and then were wrangled up for an impromptu photo shoot with Satima and Glenda Larke. The photo (which Satima emailed me today) looks great.

Ange and I finished the con with the Banality of Evil and Keeping the Artistic Imagination fresh panels. The latter was lost to me as I was too tired to really absorb it all, and the former was another of those panels that riled Ange up good and proper. She resented the simplistic moral representations the panelists were asserting, and the over-reliance of some on SF pop-culture references (movies & books) instead of philosophical reasoning. Both she and I don’t believe in ‘evil’ per se. Amorality, yes. But evil as a force, or even a choice, no.

The closing ceremony came and went, and for mine was a little too long. Sure, I agree in given credit where it’s due, but overly long video sequences and rambling speeches toward the end just sucked the life outta me.

Fortunately, we had the opportunity to say goodbye to our cluster of con buddies – Rob, Cat, Terry, Richard, Russell & Liz. It was quite affirming that when we wandered back into the main foyer after the closing ceremony, Terry pointed in our direction and Richard came up to lament missing the chance of having the indepth chat Ange had hoped for. The reality, which made all of it totally worthwhile, was that they all (the pro writers and editors, but especially Rob, who I can’t praise enough – he’s good-natured, witty, and loves giant monsters and horror – what’s not to like?) made Ange and I feel completely welcome and at ease. I sincerely look forward to catching up with these guys in a ‘live-in’ con environment (as opposed to leaving in the afternoon/evening as we were locals), where the fun really happens.

The irony though is it was the professionals who welcomed us into the fold.

Regrets: Sure, I would have loved to have spent more time with everyone, but feel that I especially missed opportunities to chat with Stephen Dedman (although he was rather busy), Lee & Lyn (again, quite busy), Deb Biancotti, Russell & Liz, and Martin Livings. Plus probably another dozen or so people I’ve neglected to mention.

All in all though, we had an absolute blast and will be signing up for pretty much every other con this year. Conflux in April, Thylacon in June, and Continuum in July.

As an outsider trying to force my way in, I can only say that SF conventions are an unparalleled experience. With guys like those mentioned above, plus my Clarion South buddies to catch up with, 2005 should be a great year!

PS. The Swancon final goodies haul was:

Daikaiju! (signed by editors and a couple of contributors!)
Mitch? 4: Slow Dancing in Quicksand
Immaterial: Ghost Stories by Robert Hood
Backstreets by Robert Hood (thanks Rob!)
Bonescribes: Years Best Australian Horror 1995
The Black Crusade by Richard Harland
Blackwater Days by Terry Dowling (signed! thanks to Terry, Rob & Jeremy Byrne for the hunt!)
Borderlands #5
ASIM #17
ASIM #6

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