Past, Present, Future: Readercon 2009

Readercon, the book club meeting of SF conventions, celebrated its twentieth year last weekend just outside Boston. Famous among SF cons for its decided literary and academic bent, Readercon this year was just as advertised: a celebration of fiction.

The casual browser gets the first hint of the con’s focus in the Program section, which states, “There are three things you can do while at Readercon during the day: talk to friends, browse and patronize the Bookshop, or attend the program.” Cosplayers, leave your gear at home. (Note that even though musical performances are excluded from official programming, there were several events that featured music, including harp music at the Goblin Fruit party and two full nights of Rock Band, courtesy of John Joseph Adams.)

In general, the narrow spectrum is just the thing for those who are serious about reading and writing. (‘Rithmetic, one assumes, was voted out in the planning stages.) However, even as it celebrated twenty years of SF literature, there are significant changes on the horizon.

In addition to a fairly heavy pro track, fans of Guests of Honor Elizabeth Hand and Greer Gilman were in luck, since the two authors were the subject of several programming items both directly or indirectly. Hope Mirrlees, a little-known fantasy author of the 1920s, was the Memorial Guest of Honor; given that she was labeled by Virginia Woolf as “a very self-conscious, willful, prickly & perverse young woman,” she probably would have enjoyed the weekend immensely.

The pro and academic tracks were both well-represented, with roundtables on “How to Write for a Living When You Can’t Live Off Your Fiction” resting cheek-by-jowl with “The Invention of Fantasy in the Antiquarian Revival.” Greatest Hits panels from Previous Readercons were revived this year as well, with subjects like “Hacks Anonymous vs. The Art Police” and the always-practical “Is Fiction Inherently Evil (and If So, What’s My Job)?” (Answer: of course it is evil. Fiction is historically proven to give people notions.)

The culture of Readercon is an insular one, especially because of the hotel’s location, far from the city center and requiring a car or a long walk to get to any restaurants outside the hotel. With one restaurant and one bar inside the hotel, and no other options within easy reach, a collective cabin fever generally sets in around Saturday evening. (Seriously, how many plates of nachos can someone order in a single weekend?)

However, having reached its Porcelain Anniversary, the con is taking a hairpin turn next year. Program Chair Eric Van announced that in 2010, Readercon is adapting a single-track programming schedule. It’s neither the first nor only con to have single-track programming—Fourth Street Fantasy is known for it—but the idea would herald drastic change that could cause some controversy. What will happen to the author-reading track? How can a con the size of Readercon even handle only one panel at a time, considering many panels already overflow? Who will be selected to sit on panels with one-fifth the available number of slots? Without the informal Kaffeklatsch roundtables, will it be like a weekend of university lectures?

Reply Hazy: Ask Again Later.


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