Con Review: A-Kon 24

AKONby Rob Balder

 

A-Kon 24
May 31–June 2, 2013
Dallas, Texas
http://www.a-kon.com

A-Kon 24 was brilliant. Although it is focused on anime and the hallways teem with anime cosplay, this is very much an all-fandoms convention. Programming and performance tracks covered broad swaths of fannish interests from the literary to the bizarre. There was a ton of space for gaming (tabletop, PC, LARPing), and guests from all different media and genres were invited to talk in panel rooms packed with enthusiastic people.

Over the last few years, A-Kon has grown into one of those whale-class conventions. Attendance this year topped 25,000. Not every con takes a growth spurt like that in stride, but the staff did an absolutely stellar job of adapting to a new venue and accommodating guests and attendees alike.

It was A-Kon’s first year inhabiting the sprawling 1600-room Hilton Anatole, a beautiful site with LED kinetic scupltures in the halls and its own permanent art exhibit of mostly Asian antiquities (http://www.anatoleart.com/). There was a ton of walking involved, but aside from one bottleneck around the exhibitor hall badge check (which the staff and fire marshalls cleared up quickly) it was actually possible to get where you were going. The elevators were managed by volunteers during peak traffic times, so the wait was never longer than a few minutes.

The Texas heat and the lack of nearby dining were a little bit of a drawback, but an armada of food trucks rolled up to the parking lot and gourmet eats could be had in the grassy shade of mesquite trees.

This con had a fun, happy vibe to it at all times. The guests, volunteers, and attendees just seemed to be glad to be there, and that’s a very infectious feeling. As a guest/panelist, they treated me as warmly as any con I can recall, and I thank them tremendously for their hospitality.

All in all, I’d say A-Kon can take its place among the major destination cons like SDCC, Gen Con, Dragon*Con and Anime Expo. Consider making it part of your plans in future years, because you can’t help but enjoy yourself there. A-Kon 25 will be held June 6–8, 2014.

 

Con Review: Capclave 2011

capclave2011by Michael D. Pederson

 

Capclave 2011
October 14­–16, 2011
Gaithersburg, Maryland
http://www.capclave.org/capclave/capclave11

I’ve become so accustomed to sharing con space with anime fans, cosplayers, video gamers, LARPers, and every other sub-genre that’s come along in the last twenty years that I’ve almost forgotten how refreshing it can be to attend a convention that is all about straight up science fiction. That is very much Capclave’s niche, and they do it very well.

Programming was pretty light (just over 60 events) but of the highest quality and always well attended. I was delighted at the amount of coverage the small press received on the program and particularly enjoyed the panel I did with Neil Clarke, Ed Schubert, and Anne Sheldon on the future of small press magazines.

Without a doubt, the highlight of the convention (and SRO) was a surprise visit from Terry Pratchett who stopped by on the tail end of his North American publicity tour for Snuff. He spoke for an hour before having to rush off to catch a flight home. Despite suffering from Alzheimer’s and having just finished a fast-paced touring schedule, he’s still one of the wittiest speakers out there. Getting to see him again was priceless.

Nth Degree’s Saturday night Halloween party was fantastically successful as well. I may have to make that a new tradition.

 

Con Review: Nanocon 9

Nanocon9by Rob Balder

 

Nanocon 9
November 4–6, 2011
Madison, South Dakota
http://www.nanocon.us/

Nanocon is a rare hybrid convention: an academic gaming con! Dakota State University offers a bachelors program in Computer Game Design, and combines a weekend of standard tabletop and LAN gaming with an excellent array of professional speakers from the game industry and academia.

I was honored to be the keynote speaker. The topic of my talk was “Choosing Independent Creator as a Career Path,” though most of the other presentations were more in line with the “Horror Gaming” theme of this year’s event. Programmers, developers and publishers spoke on a number of ludological topics such as how to classify horror games, building a narrative through gameplay, and creating valid female characters in video games.

At 436 attendees, the event was a major success for the DSU Gaming Club—blowing by their targeted attendance of 350. Most of the convention events took place in the Gaming and Dealer’s Room and the auditorium of the Dakota Prairie Playhouse. To anyone who has been to a large gaming con, that may not sound huge, but consider that Madison is out in the middle of the prairie. It was a 45-minute drive (as 40 MPH winds blew over the fallow cornfields) to the nearest Walmart. This was a fun event for students and participants, and I was glad to be a part of it.

 

Con Review: Philcon 2011

Philcon2011by KT Pinto

 

Philcon 2011
November 18–20, 2011
Cherry Hill, New Jersey

For many years, there have been three reasons why I always liked going to Philcon:

1. The location. Originally in Philly, which was easy enough to get to from NYC, but now it’s in a hotel in the more easily accessible Cherry Hill, NJ.
2. The panels. A lot of literature panels, a lot of professionals, a lot of different topics, a lot of intellectual conversations. What more can one want?
3. The people. Three generations of fandom walk the halls of Philcon, and it’s safe to say that they are some of the friendliest geeks on the convention circuit.

All of these things are great if you are an attendee of the con. But when you are going to the convention for business reasons, that isn’t enough to make the grade. There were a few issues this year…

Programming. The programming for many of the professionals was not only finalized with very little time to spare, but the individual schedules were also very sparse. Panels are many authors’ and artists’ bread and butter; it gets them noticed, and gives them a chance to promote their work. Two panels for some—which is nothing for a three-day convention—while others had eight or nine panels left the sour taste of favoritism in the air. There was also a disregard for requests such as time restrictions and moderator requests. For example, Dr. James Prego asked to not have any panels before 11am, and did not want to moderate. Out of his three panels, he had 10 am panels on both Saturday and Sunday, and was slated to moderate on Sunday’s panel.

The Dealers’ Room. Along with programming, professionals have to have a good experience in the Dealers’ Room to make a convention worthwhile. Although the convention cannot be held responsible for the lack of buyers, they do have to consider how the attitudes of the staff members in the Dealers’ Room may affect the professionals (making one feel like they’re a bother is not the way to go when dealing with people), and from an author’s perspective, having the room saturated with used-book dealers makes it that much more difficult for small press authors to sell their wares. It doesn’t seem like the convention—which is supposed to be pro-literature—took this into consideration at all when planning out who was going to be vending.

Would I go back to Philcon again? Definitely.

As a panelist? Maybe. Minor changes need to happen for that.

As a vendor? Not unless there is a complete overhaul…

 

Con Review: MarsCon 2011

marscon2011by Michael D. Pederson

 

MarsCon 2011
January 14­–16, 2011
Williamsburg, Virginia
http://www.marscon.net/

I think I saw one of the most amazing sights I’ve ever seen at a science fiction convention this year. MarsCon’s Writer Guest of Honor, Jim Butcher (Dresden Files, Codex Alera) had the hotel bursting at its seams. Yep. MarsCon broke their hotel.

Over the past few years, MarsCon has been slowly transitioning from a relaxacon into a full-fledged convention with traditional programming. After this year, I think that it’s safe to say that they’ve arrived.

MarsCon is still running out their contract at the Holiday Inn Patriot that they’ve been booked in since their days as a much smaller convention (they broke 1000 this year!) and have found some very creative ways to make the most of what little space they had. Some of their ideas included running interactive panels and concerts in the hotel bar and doing mini-concerts and how-to’s in the con suite.

Other Guests of Honor this year included author Shannon Butcher (The Sentinel Wars), artist Ursula Vernon, and toastmaster Michael Jon Khandelwal. Next year’s GoHs will be author S.M. Stirling and artist Theresa Mather (January 13–15, 2012).

 

Con Review: Stellarcon 35

stellarcon2011 by Michael D. Pederson

 

Stellarcon 35
March 4–6, 2011
High Point, North Carolina

If I could give points for “Well, they tried” Stellarcon would get an A+. They’ve been having some staffing problems the last few years but this one brought them a little closer to a solid staff. They still have some work to do though.

Booking Guests of Honor Todd McCaffrey and Larry Elmore was a brilliant first step in revitalizing a con that seems to be having a midlife crisis. Todd and Larry are both friendly, out-going guests that give good programming. Bringing back Jackie Cassada and Nicky Rea as Gaming GoHs after a long period of involuntary GAFIAtion was another great idea as well. As usual, I got to run my Inside the Stellarcon Studio interviews—this year I interviewed Cassada and Rea as well as Fan GoH Bill Mann, who was nothing but fun. That’s always a real highlight for me and the interviews were all very well attended.

Great guests and creative programming were, without a doubt, this year’s high points. On the downside though… As good as the panels were, there could easily have been more. There were several major chunks of dead time scattered throughout the schedule. With six rooms for programming, and a total of 29 hours of programming time to fill my rusty math skills tell me that they could have slotted up to 174 hours of events. There were a mere 88 events on the program grid, roughly half of what they could have done (by comparison, MarsCon—in a smaller hotel and still building up from being a relaxacon—had 83 events). I greatly enjoyed everything I did at Stellar this year, I just wish there had been more.

 

Con Review: Balticon 45, pt. 1

 Balticon45by KT Pinto

 

Balticon 45
May 27–30, 2011
Hunt Valley, Maryland
http://www.balticon.org/

A few months ago I received word from my publisher that my new book Beer with a Mutant Chaser was being premiered at Balticon, so I was asked to change my plans of going to Ohio. My editor got in touch with the head of literary programming to see if I could be given panels. She was told that I could be on panels, but that it was “too late” for me to get a guest pass. Already I started to feel bad vibes about going…

I sent an e-mail to the programming chair thanking her for letting me participate, and asked her if I could have a list of available panels.

No response.

A week before the con, my publisher sent me the list of panels that had space on them; I still hadn’t heard anything from the programming chair. I chose some panels and sent it to our contact.

No response.

So, I get to the con. I was not mentioned anywhere, I was not given any panels save the panel my publishing company hosted… I didn’t even have my name on my badge! It said something like “Darkon 2”; I was a non-entity.

Never one to blend into the woodwork, I went in search of panels that I could crash; I was rather disappointed as I went through the program. My author compatriots had little to no panels, and my favorite topics—sex, vampires, villains, and flirting—were non-existent… on the literary track.

That’s when I noticed that almost the entire con was overrun with “new media” panels. Anything relating to sex, taboos, or vampires was all put aside for “new media”. When I went to my first Balticon in 2007, I was on panels like “Romance, Love, Sex, and Erotica,” “How to Get Laid at a Con,” “Sexy Vampires?” and “Creating the Perfect Villain.” None of those panels existed in 2011. Now such topics had been reduced to things like “Erotica… Iron Chef” and “Alien Sex: What Could Go Wrong?”.

Author Michael A. Ventrella commented, “…many participants were willing to do more panels but the convention had no place to put them, and as such some panelists had decided it was not worth the trip and expense to show up only to be on one or two panels.”

On top of all that, there were no late-night social events. The couple of events that were planned were more dance classes than socials. There were no other parties, no gatherings… only a late-night hula-hooping event. This is why I spent most of my Memorial Day weekend in my publisher’s hotel room, reducing their alcohol supply.

Summing up the situation, author Stephanie Burke said, “As always, Balticon is a lovely four-day endurance trial… But it is the people, open, friendly, and beautiful, that makes this a con to remember.”

 

Con Review: Balticon 45, pt. 2

Balticon45by Rob Balder

 

Balticon 45
May 27–30, 2011
Hunt Valley, Maryland
http://www.balticon.org/

I’ve been a frequent program participant at Balticon for a number of years running, and there was a time I was starting to get a bit worried about it. A few years ago, it looked like the more established literary cons were running out of steam. Attendance was falling, room parties were fewer, and there was a sense of less energy to them.

If that had been true, then this year’s Balticon was a definite uptick. Attendance seemed to be up, the program and night life were lively, and everyone seemed newly recharged.

My time focused on the music/filk track—put together with the usual care and brilliance of Gary Ehrlich. Concert space and sound tech were fantastic, and the combination of regular and new musical acts (particularly Norm Sherman and Filk GoHs Bill & Brenda Sutton) made the whole thing just a blast.

Part of Balticon’s energy has to come from their embrace of podcasters and new media, a track run by Balticon podcast host Paul Fischer. Some substantial and forward-looking panels and hands-on work with the pros and semi-pros in new media rewarded fans and creators alike.

But the big treat for me was my panel with Author GoH Ben Bova, about A Duel in the Somme, the comic that he and I put together with Bill Holbrook. The room was packed with happy and admiring readers, Ben was jovial and entertaining, and I just mainly tripped over my own tongue. But it was a wonderful moment in space and time, and afterwards people lined up for a signed copy. Balticon remains a literary con at its core, and their fantastic choices of author guests will always be a prime reason to attend.

 

Con Review: Origins Game Fair

Origins2011by Rob Balder

 

Origins Game Fair
June 22–26, 2011
Columbus, Ohio
http://originsgamefair.com/

This was my second Origins, and although it was a working con for me and I rarely left the Exhibitor Hall, I still got the impression that the event was kind of hollow.

Attendance was almost certainly down from my previous visit a couple of years ago (total attendance was 11,502, actually up from recent years–ed.), and the fact that they were not filling the spaces this time seemed impossible to ignore. The spirit of the event, though, seemed unbroken. The gamers were having a good time, the events were run well, and I have nothing but good things to say about the organization and execution of this con.

Impression: Maybe an off year? Still plan to return in 2012.

 

Con Review: Confluence 2011

by KT Pinto

 

Confluence 2011
July 22–23, 2011
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
http://www.parsec-sff.org/confluence/

Getting to Confluence took me and my friend Matt a good six hours on one of the most boring strips of road in the country—from New Jersey all the way through Pennsylvania—but Confluence 2011 was most certainly worth the trip!

It was a much smaller convention than I’m used to, but it comes with that small-town friendliness and attention that sometimes gets unintentionally lost at the bigger cons. In their own words, “Confluence is about programming that lets fans of science fiction and fantasy hear about the views and visions of some of the leading authors, editors, and critics in the genre.” This is a very accurate statement. Lately I’ve noticed that many conventions let anyone who has a passing interest in a topic sit on a panel, minimizing the importance of a professional’s years of knowledge. Confluence didn’t do that.

Not only was the programming staff a pleasure to work with both before and during the con—thanks to the hard work of Karen Yun-Lutz and Kevin M. Hayes—but the panels were interesting, the hotel staff was polite and efficient (and we got an amazing shower in our room) and there was enough to keep me entertained without any alcohol involved!

One of the best parts of the weekend was that I finally got time to hang with Chris, Brian and Christine from Fortress Publishing. I’ve known them for a while, but usually only get a chance to say hi as I run past them in the vendors’ room. This time I got to be on panels with each of the guys and go to their meet and greet. Sadly, I didn’t get a chance to drink with them… next time, I promise!

Am I going to Confluence again? Definitely, if they’ll have me back… hint hint.