Monday, February 08, 2010

AggieCon 41 in the rear-view mirror

AggieCon has a proud, yet tumultuous history. Run by students at Texas A&M, it is the oldest science fiction convention in the state and the guest list of years past reads like a Who's Who of genre and comics publishing of the last 50 years. Almost all of the big names have attended at one time or another, and during the 1970s the con was akin to a giant astride the Earth. Being a student organization, however, left it with one major Achilles heel--the inevitability of graduation and younger generations reinventing the wheel over and over again. Still, there were more good AggieCons than bad.

Except that certain powers-that-be within the university disliked Cepheid Variable and the convention they orchestrated every year, and so back around 2005, these forces finally succeeded in getting Cepheid kicked out of the Student Programs Office, which meant the university no longer provided significant annual funding. But they persevered, landed some grants and other donations, and soldiered on. A focus on paid media guests at the expense of authors somewhat dimmed the lustre from the con, but it wasn't until 2008 that disaster really struck. Because of some person issues and a leadership vacuum, a mere handful of guests were invited and little advertising effort was made. The result was an all-time low in attendance and much ill-will generated amongst the Texas fan community. The following year vows were made to rectify the mistakes of the previous year, but despite good intentions, poor communication doomed 2009 to be a near-repeat of 2008. With limited funds, Cepheid didn't have much leeway in planning for the 2010 edition. Many guests and dealers were wary of committing their time, effort and money toward a convention most had written off as walking dead. To compound matters, the Memorial Student Center on campus would undergo a multi-year remodeling (remodeling in this case involving bulldozers and wrecking balls) forcing the convention off-campus for only the second time in its 41-year history. This relocation to the College Station Hilton meant more overhead than the cash-strapped organization had ever had to deal with before, and an unfortunate date change from late March to early February, a bare week before the popular ConDFW. The odds were grim. More than one attendee I spoke to over the weekend admitted they'd attended in part so they could say they were at "the last one." AggieCon 41 simply had to be a success. If it flopped, there would be no skiffy 42. Simple as that.

I'm happy to report the concom rose to the challenge. Down in the bottom of the ninth, they came through with at least a triple. AggieCon 41 was, without a doubt, the best AggieCon since Neil Gaiman ushered in hordes of swooning fans way back in 2002. The guest lineup was savvy and cost-efficient, with Guests of Honor including alums Steven Gould and Martha Wells, plus Marv Wolfman, Ellen Datlow, David Lee Anderson and Selina Rosen. AggieCon discovered the magic of editor guests, as regional authors who'd never attended before suddenly found time in their schedules for a trip to College Station. Bridges that had been burned badly years ago were mended. There were many enthusiastic reunions of friends who hadn't seen each other in decades, if not longer. Panels were very well attended, even on Sunday morning, which is practically unheard of.

That's not to say there weren't any screw-ups. Quite a few folks who'd requested no morning panels had multiple early slots; readings were initially left off the schedule, then held in the hallway outside the dealers room; Ellen Datlow, at one point before a hasty schedule revision, was down for six hours of back-to-back panels. For my part, I was placed on the ubiquitous "What You Should Have Read in 2009" panel, which I am utterly unqualified to speak on. Seriously--I didn't read a single thing published last year, as I go to these types of panels to take advantage of those who've already blazed the trails. Fortunately, Scott Cupp and Ellen Datlow were both well-read enough to make up for my slack-jawed ignorance, so the panel was a success despite my dead weight.

My other panels went swimmingly. The political commentary in SF, Whedonverse, urban fantasy and SF's predictions of the future panels were all entertaining and well-attended, and I like to think I made coherent contributions to the discussion. There were many gamers doing their thing, and costumers had a stronger presence than they had in years. Art show seemed smallish on Friday, but I didn't get a chance to go through on Saturday, so there may have just been a bunch of late arrivals. Dealers room, too, was small by past AggieCon standards, but the actual physical size was comparable to Armadillocon and Apollocon, and there were remarkably few empty tables considering most dealers opted to attend ConDFW the following week instead. The Saturday night blues/jazz concert by Bland Lemon Denton and the Lemon-Aids was a great deal of fun, and evoked memories of many of these same folks performing as Los Blues Guys at AggieCon 20 years prior. The Project: A-Kon people did a fine job in the hospitality suite as always. The biggest shocker of all was the fact that there were room parties both Friday and Saturday night. Apollocon and Texas 2013 had things going Friday, and then on Saturday Apollocon, Armadillocon and FenCon all had mighty festive shindigs. I took several bottles of my failed blueberry mead to the Apollocon party, and while everyone agreed that it was wholly without blueberry flavor, they admired the pretty color and were taken aback by its smooth, dry character. Nobody went blind, I gave a bottle to Kim Kofmel to take home to her husband, and I had none left by the end of the night, so somebody must've liked it.

I rode up to College Station and back with Scott Cupp, and I have to say there's not a finer person to share a ride with. His taste in music is gloriously eclectic, and after listening to CDs as diverse as Carlene Carter, a glam rock compilation and Ry Cooder, he treated me to a disc of British Invasion acts which included the awesome, yet utterly obscure, band called The Smoke. Good stuff, all of it.

So, the long and short of it is, the kids done good. They pulled it off. The Hilton proved to be a favorable venue for the con with better parking than can be found on campus, and several times over the course of the weekend I forgot that I was at AggieCon and referred to it as either Armadillocon or Apollocon. And I mean that in a good way. Nobody I spoke with had a bad thing to say about the con, and most of the problems that cropped up weren't anything that couldn't be fixed with a little better planning. If AggieCon 41 is the foundation of things to come, I can't wait until 2011.

A full gallery of photos from AggieCon 41 can be viewed at The Wife's website.

Now Playing: Ali Farka Touré & Ry Cooder Talking Timbuktu

1 comment:

  1. I'm really glad to hear such a good report on the con. I hope that things have turned around and that it will just keep getting better.