Ah, big science fiction conventions. So exciting, so exhausting, overflowing with possibility and inevitable disappointment. Dragon Con 2014 is over, I’ve had a post-trip nap and several showers, and the feelings I’m left with are…mixed…
To start with, I felt pretty good in the days leading up to the con. Getting to Worldcon was such a nerve-wracking experience, what with the flying 7 hours to a city I’d never been to, stepping out of the taxi from the airport and right into (at least what used to be) the center of sci-fi literature fandom, my first real con, not knowing if the people I had agreed beforehand to meet would be friendly, etc. Let’s just say I wasn’t in the greatest headspace last year, and Dragon Con was a welcome relief from that. I lived in Atlanta for around five years, my office is there now, and I arrived early in the week to do some work, which gave me time to acclimate. Getting on the train to go downtown on Thursday evening, I sat confident in the knowledge that I had done all this the labor day weekend before, and now all that remained was to step back into familiar territory.
Wow. No. For all the similarities between it and any other con, Dragon Con is, pardon the phrase, its own beast. And it’s not just the size; yes, 62,000 (!) people is a lot to deal with, but things only get really crazy from Saturday on, and if you stay away from the wildly popular tracks, you’ll find plenty of panels which are as populated or less populated than a typical panel at Worldcon.
Rather, it’s the little differences which took me by surprise. For example, on a Worldcon badge, your name is in big bold type so that anyone can read it at a glance, whereas at Dragon Con, its printed so small that it might as well not be there at all. A minor thing, yes, but the resulting anonymity has repercussions in how people treat each other. At Worldcon, your social standing among strangers is determined by whether or not people recognize your name. At Dragon Con, it’s determined by who is wearing a costume and who isn’t. Now, this makes me a nobody in either case, which is fine, but it also means that when I interact with someone new at D.C., there’s really nothing for either party to take away unless we get down to the point of formally introducing one another, which can get a bit difficult in a fully packed and moving lobby/bar/hall/line/whatever. This definitely makes introductions a lot less casual and more limited to a few in-depth encounters, but even these are stifled by what I perceive as a certain cliquishness among the attendees. Worldcon had room parties, which while problematic in their own right, were also full of people just hanging out, looking to meet someone new. Maybe its just my inexperience with the scene and inability to navigate unfamiliar waters, but even at the “socially”-geared events at Dragon Con, just about everyone was only interested in chatting with their small groups of friends and getting drunk.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that! I did a fair bit myself at various points with some co-workers, and there is an undeniable excitement to being on the floor, gawking at the costumes as the crowd pushes you along like a barrel over Niagara falls. I’ve seen cosplay before, Worldcon had its fair share, but this isn’t just cosplay, it’s fucking amazing cosplay, and it really needs to be experienced in person to understand why people devote so much time and energy to it. And now I get it, I really really do. But for me personally, I can’t justify the time away from my family just to have fun for four days. I need some kind of payoff in terms of networking or learning, and this is where things get muddy, because quantifying either of those things, or even knowing whether I did my best to pursue them, is next to impossible.
Point of order: the parade. This one was definitely my fault, as I intended to get to the con early on Saturday morning, but overslept due to cumulative exhaustion from the week prior. As a result, I got stuck on one side of Peachtree street by the incredible throng, and unwilling to risk an odyssey in the crushing heat for a chance to enter the Hyatt by the back door, ended up missing several panels and readings I would have liked to go to. Probably this didn’t really affect me too much in the end, since I did get around to speaking to every featured guest I wanted to, even if it was just to say “hi,” or “thanks for writing all those books.” The editors I spoke to were all extremely gracious and nice (unlike at Worldcon), though I do wish there had been an agent or two present as well.
And then there was the Writer’s Track. Nancy Knight and cohorts did a great job organizing the panels, attracting guests and choosing topics, but too many of them didn’t really speak to me. Maybe I should see this as a positive, but I’m not at the point anymore where I’m interested in learning about showing vs telling or why it’s necessary for a story to have conflict; been there, done that. Not that there isn’t always more to learn or that some of the panels weren’t insightful (the “Catastrophes of Publishing” was a highlight, with Elizabeth Moon and Janny Wurts holding some serious court and dishing out knowledge like it was gruel at a Dickensian orphanage), but when you’re sitting in a room full of people and the moderator says, “who here wants to write but hasn’t yet written anything?” and more than a fair number of hands go up, that’s when the “good for them, but what the hell am I doing here?” feeling kicks in.
And all of this plays into the networking problem described above, as well. The Writer’s Track proved a much-needed oasis from the madness of Dragon Con, but it failed to provide the Worldcon-like experience of being able to turn to the person next to you with the subtle understanding that they too take this writing stuff seriously and the two of you are therefore in some way simpatico. Were there plenty of such people around me at any given moment? Undoubtedly, but how could I possibly know which ones they were? It’s a puzzle that I’ll need to mull over and solve before I plan to go back.
Anyway, this is turning into bit of a waaaah-fest, so I’ll end with some positive impressions. The con was impeccably well organized and staffed. The attendees were welcoming and polite despite the sardine-can circumstances, and things stayed pretty clean, an encounter or two with a sinkful of alcohol-induced vomit notwithstanding. Everyone who I gave a free book to was delighted. As it was last year, being in the presence of so many creative professionals has inspired me to write more (though my energy levels have yet to catch up with my enthusiasm). The food at the Peachtree Center was good. I am not ill (yet). Arriving Wednesday morning and leaving Sunday evening meant my flights were comparatively empty and completely pleasant. The Alternate History track was awesome and a few of the panels provided some good hints for a project which may be in my future. And the costumes…oh Lord, did I mention the costumes? Here, take a look: