Arisia: Con Report Lite

What went right and what went wrong during Arisia weekend.

I’ve added “lite” to this con report because I did not attend the entire convention and because I’m only going to cover a handful of happenings, as opposed to a blow-by-blow account of an entire convention.

First – the history.

Arisia (which is named for a planet in E.E. ‘Doc’ Smith’s Lensman’s series, in line with the convention that it split away from – Boskone) split from Boskone, as best as I can discern, over three issues:  fan club politics, growth and size and a desire to embrace the larger media side of fandom as opposed to focusing almost exclusively on the literary side of fandom.

I’ve now been to three Arisias;  I was told by the folks who got me to go to the first one that it is essentially a “traditional” convention (largely, I gather, because it is run on a volunteer staff basis like traditional cons), but I must confess that I found it not to be so.

Arisia does embrace a much wider range of topics than a traditional con:  there’s far more media oriented programming (film, television, anime), far more costume play, and outliers like panels on BDSM (which I’ve no specific objections to personally) and a decidedly much younger crowd.  (Though on that score:  my observations from this weekend are:  just about as many males as females, but still very few POCs in visible evidence).

There is a frenetic atmosphere to the whole thing:  high energy and something I can only describe as a form of desperation in the air.  How best to describe that sense?  Well, I have never seen anyone walking around with a sign on their back that says “PROFESSIONAL AUTHOR” at a traditional convention.  I have at Arisia.

I’m used to and seemingly much prefer the aire of truly traditional conventions.  It’s possible to stop someone in the lobby or a hallway and engage in lengthy (meaningful) conversation; most of the people are “my” people.  I’ve no need to ask if the person I’m talking to has ever read, oh, say, The Space Merchants by Kornbluth & Pohl, or perhaps more tellingly, have they ever seen the original The Day the Earth Stood Still.  In the huckster’s dealer’s room, there are only a handful of dealer’s selling books and most of them seem to have very low traffic, as compared to those selling teas, costumes, leather works, BDSM gear (which in my considered opinion was not all that high quality) &c.

My feelings of course do not prevent the vast majority of others who attend Arisia from having what appears to be a marvelous time, but it is a crowd that I feel largely divorced from, one that I do not share a lot of experience with apparently.

But enough of the ‘feel’.  Many conventions are what you make of them and the fact that I commuted may certainly have prevented me from finding some of the things that would make Arisia a con for me.

Now, the panels.

I was invited by Arisia to participate on their panel program;  I was sent access to the programming database so that I could indicate which subjects I’d like to speak on and why I ought to be included on a particular panel.  So far, so good.  I selected a large number of subjects and, since I’ve got a fairly wide range of personal experience in a lot of subjects, I figured that I stood a good chance of spending most of Saturday “paneling”.

The response I received back from Arisia programming was (paraphrasing here);  we’ve assigned folks to their panels, take a look (website) to see what your schedule is.

I followed instructions and discovered that I’d not been scheduled for a single panel.

I’ll simply ask at this point:  what purpose does it serve to invite someone to participate when you aren’t going to give them anything to do?  It certainly wouldn’t encourage me to buy a membership, I can tell you that much.

I wrote to the proper authorities, informing them that I was apparently not scheduled for anything.  No response.  Then, about a week later, I received an email informing me that there had been some changes and that I should look at the scheduling website once again.

I should mention here that I had previously informed the authorities that I would be commuting to the convention from New Hampshire (its about a 90 minute drive – IF traffic into Boston isn’t snarled, as it usually is).

They scheduled me for one panel on Friday evening and one panel on Saturday afternoon.  I must confess that I seriously considered withdrawing entirely.  I’d be driving a three hour round trip to sit behind a table for 75 minutes.  Twice.

Fannish code of honor (and a desire to continue to give a public face to Amazing) prevented me from making that decision, but I’ll not do that again.  If you want me, you can find at least two panels on a single day to stick me on.  I’m pretty well known for being able to talk on just about anything, interestingly, informatively and knowledgeably (and if not, I’m pretty good at the art of segue). Or you can tell me that you can’t accommodate my commutation;  there will be no tears shed, I assure you.

And now – the organization.

Registration was abysmal.  I’m used to being able to walk up to a table labeled “Pre-Registration”, or even “Guests/Panelists”, get my badge, get a packet that includes the program book, the pocket guide, information about my panel assignments, etc.

Arisia placed their registration desk on the mezzanine of the hotel, a relatively narrow and long space with meeting rooms at one end, elevator access in the middle and escalators at the other end.  In other words, a space that is already high traffic.

The line that formed prior to the opening of registration was so long that security types were not allowing anyone else coming up the escalators to join the line.

When I asked where registration was for panelists, I was told that I could pick up my packet in an office that was at the opposite end of the mezzanine from the escalators and that I’d then have to join the snake line to get my badge; there was one long line for everyone – guests, pre-registrants, day passes and unregistered attendees.

I did as directed, only to discover later that my packet did not include a program book or a pocket program (which necessitated yet another trip through the mezzanine morass at a later time).

Photo by Chris Dunkle. (Note: the rest of the line was at least as long as the portion depicted here.)

Then I got in line and waited, and waited and waited.  I finally managed to get my badge about ten minutes before the start of my first panel.

There’s more though:  one of the delays was due to apparently misbehaving badge printing machinery.  Has no one ever heard of having backups?  I used to think that kind of preparation was a no-brainer (of course printers are going to go down).

Once printed, badges were lain on the table in front of the printers, waiting for their owners to come and pick them up – if they could fight through the scrum to do so.  I’ll point out the security lapse here:  anyone could have walked up and been Steve Davidson for the day (why they’d want to is an entirely different subject).  I was not asked for ID when registering (only what my email address was, which, if someone was hell bent on impersonating me is easily obtainable);  my ID was again not asked for when I took possession of my badge.  In fact, a little while later another registration person stepped in to help speed up the process;  he did this by picking up a random badge from the table and calling out the name.  It was then handed off to anyone willing to claim it.

The space registration took place in was not suited to the activity.  The methodology was terrible, as was the security.  This needs to be seriously improved by Arisia.  At the very least, pre-registration could have taken place elsewhere.  At the very least, ID needs to be checked on a routine basis.  Badges should not be handed out in some weird imitation of a Bingo game.  Packets should have everything in them – a badge clip, program book, pocket program and whatever else you want to stuff in there.  If you’re anticipating a rush when registration opens (and you ought to anticipate a rush), as many people as possible should be shunted off into separate lines/areas, as long as they are in a separately definable class of attendee (day passes should be separate from all weekend attendance;  guests/panelists should have their own dedicated line; those attendees whose information you already have should have their own lines, since processing them goes much more quickly.

To say the least, the press at registration seriously dampened my enthusiasm.  As was attendance at my first panel, since the room was located behind the long, snaky registration line.

The Panels

As mentioned previously, I was scheduled for two (and only two).  Friday’s panel was called “You Know That’s Based On A Book, Right?” and concerned itself with trying to find better and more effective ways to increase the readership of genre literature, especially in the face of the boom of interest we are currently seeing in other media.

My primary offering was the idea that publishers ought to look for high-traffic venues that provide a steady stream of eyeballs.  The example I offered was the paintball industry’s engagement with Wal*Mart;  in 1990, an entirely new paintballs/gear manufacturing company was formed expressly for the purpose of getting paintball into the sports sections of Wal*Marts across the country.  New product that could meet Wal*Mart’s price point demands were developed and methods to move players from buying at Wal*Mart to playing at local fields were created.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy fellow panelists concentrated on Wal*Mart’s known method of squeezing suppliers, as opposed to the general concept which was “high traffic venue”.  (I know all about Wal*Mart’s ways;  I was a supplier and I anticipated the pricing squeeze, the packaging requirements and all the rest.)  No one seemed to hear the basic concept:  you’re not looking for profit, you’re looking for market exposure.

Proof is in the pudding:  over the course of about five years, paintball’s growth was phenomenal;  it became a household word and 15 million new players took to the fields each and every year.  New customers found their way from the cheap Wal*Mart gear to the specialist retail stores and fields – and kept on buying paintballs and gear long after their initial exposure. Today, paintball can not be found on the shelves of Wal*Marts anywhere;  the relationship had run its course and paintball no longer needed it.  What would genre publishers do with 15 million new readers?  Plotz, probably.

I’d say the panel was marginally successful in that it at least opened up the subject for discussion.

My second panel apparently made history.  It’s the first one on its subject – Atheist Fen.

It essentially asked the question:  how is atheism accepted within fandom?

I think we came to the conclusion that atheism is at least a bit more accepted within fannish circles than it is in the wider world at large.

The panelists and the audience did a marvelous job of keeping on topic and of not allowing the discussion to descend into vitriol, as so often happens when the subject is religion, or the lack there of.

Given the amount of audience participation, I suspect that the majority were of atheist leanings, though there was one brave soul (sitting at the back of the room no less) who did fess up to being of a religious orientation.  I know that the general respect everyone showed was a bit of a shock, because that same person commented that their experience with atheists was that they thought that the religiously minded were all idiots, ignorant dolts too stupid to recognize that a belief in sky beings is itself stupid.

The panel admitted that this is often the attitude expressed, but also pointed out that our experience with religion through media usually supports that viewpoint;  most of the talking religious heads usually do come across as idiots (or, at the very least, are willing to look like idiots in order to advance a political agenda).

We generally agreed that respectful dialogue is a good thing;  we examined why atheists are “the most reviled minority in the country” (who in their right mind would want to associate with someone who is most definitely going to hell and is doing so voluntarily?); we admitted that the “New Atheists” (Dawkins, Hitchens, etc) can sometimes be problematic but that their zealotry is understandable and we all agreed that it IS possible for atheists to have a moral center, even if it doesn’t come from the Ten Commandments.

It was an excellent example of free thought and open expression, handled by all in a respectful and meaningful way.  My understanding is the subject will be back in future, and I look forward to it.

All in all, I’d give my panels a C+ and an A+ and organization of the con a D.  I’ll be happy to go back – if someone gives me crash space OR schedules me for more than one panel a day.

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  1. Hi Steve! I was on the Atheist Fen panel with you.

    I’ve been at every Arisia since the first one – the first one, in 1990, was also my first con – and the line at Registration this year was hands down the worst ever. In the old days there were terribly long lines, and eventually Registration improved enormously. But this year the line was far longer than I’d ever seen it before. I’m told that it moved quickly, but I wasn’t willing to stand in that line. So I just waited until 9pm and registered then; there was no line at all by that point.

    No one bothered me about not having a badge, even though I was on a panel before I registered. That may have been because I was already wearing my badges from ten previous Arisias.

    I absolutely agree that program participants should receive their badges with their packets. I’m going to recommend that to the con.

    Your points about the relative youth of the congoers and general sense of desperation at the con are all very well-taken. I was quite unhappy during some of the con, and so were some other people I know; I wasn’t sure why, but in retrospect the con has gotten younger as I’ve gotten older. My son and I cosplayed for the first time this year, as Number Six and Number Two from The Prisoner, and almost nobody recognized us! The biggest reaction I got was from two mundanes (forgive the term) who recognized me as “the guy from the Island” from The Simpsons.

    If there are cons where The Prisoner is remembered, and where I could have a decent conversation about the classic literature of the field, I want to attend. Readercon, perhaps? I’m open to recommendations.

    I was really proud of the Atheist Fen panel; perhaps I shouldn’t be the one to say it (since it was my suggestion), but it certainly deserves an A+! The conversation was enlightened, thoughtful, and entertaining. I would have been happy to continue it for several more hours. Next year I’ll probably suggest at least two panels on atheism, one for basic discussion and another for respectful, non-judgemental dialog between theists and atheists. That sort of conversation is long overdue.

    1. Hey Peter – thanks for stopping by!
      I was initially very hesitant to lay it on the line as they say regarding the convention: lord knows (or maybe not, lol) that we need as many good, non-commercially oriented conventions as we can get – but not at the expense of poor quality. I reconciled myself with the fact that there were both good (our panel) and bad things that took place, that Arisia has been around long enough to sustain a little criticism and my experience may not have been that of others (though I’m certainly glad to see someone else agreeing with my points).
      Regarding your cos-play and The Prisoner: if you remember, I certainly recognized who you were dressed as and prior to the start of the panel there was a brief, all-hands-on-deck lamentation of the fact that so few know about the show these days. It was LANDMARK television, not just for its day but for any day. The “re-do” (I won’t even mention the channel, most can guess) probably killed any interest in the property that might have remained, at least for a few decades.
      (And no, the line did not move quickly on Friday afternoon – I was almost late for our aforementioned panel.)
      When it rolls around time to discuss panels for Arisia for next year – make a point of getting in touch. Amazing will happily support the subject with discussion and essays here. We’ve got a great staff of folks who range from devoutly religious to rabidly atheist and, despite a couple of rough patches in the beginning, we’ve figured out how to get along, exist happily in the same space and (wonder of wonders) even share some of our differing views without resorting to insult or name calling.

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