Conscription – 2009 NZ NatCon

New Zealand has a population less than that of Finland, or the Bay Area. It is also rather spread out, with inter-city travel being largely by plane rather than by car or train. This presents convention organizers with a challenge: put a convention in an airport hotel and it will attract out-of-town visitors, but deter locals, and vice-versa. As it turned out, the Auckland folks apparently chose an airport hotel because it had worked well for them in the past, and they knew the staff. It was unfortunate, therefore, that the owners chose to recycle the middle management shortly before the con started and leave them with an inexperienced crew that was afraid to do anything that wasn’t strictly by the book. Such are the risks of con-running.

Having said that, apart from the awful banquet food, you would not have noticed anything amiss. The con committee apparently got a little stressed, but everyone else had a fine time. It is, after all, difficult for a small con to go really bad. Pre-con sales were in the region of 100, with maybe 20 or 30 walk-ins. With a small size came modest ambitions, and the con has apparently broken even. The only major expense was flying Julie Czerneda in from Canada, and even that was shared with the Australian NatCon taking place the following weekend.

I have to be careful, however, not to let my extensive Worldcon experience color my judgment of what the NZ folks have done. They did, after all, bring in a troupe of Samoan dancers from a local school for the opening ceremonies; they brought in a Roman legion re-enactment group; they had Norm Cates bringing the news from Weta; there was a writers’ workshop prior to the con; and they ran their award ceremony very smoothly. That’s all very admirable.

I was particularly impressed with the efforts that the SFFANZ people went to in order to encourage interest in, and voting in, the Sir Julius Vogel Awards. They clearly took the awards very seriously, and I was pleased to be able to help out by giving them some live coverage. The only thing I didn’t quite understand was why they started the award ceremony with the Best Novel award and worked down from there. A little bit of suspense about the major categories is always a good thing.

On the other hand, NZ fandom is rather small and inward-looking. It is hard to blame them for this. Their country is a long way from anywhere, and even Australian visitors are a rarity. New Zealand isn’t like Ireland – just a hop across a pond from the big neighbor, it is two whole time zones away from Australia. Cheap air fares are slowly brining the countries together, but it is a slow process.

While the NZ fans might not have been very interested in the outside fannish world, what is clear is that they want to write. I have been to two NZ conventions now and I’m happy to state that they have a higher percentage of wannabe writers than any other fannish convention I have attended. They have also had some spectacular successes. People like Elizabeth Knox and Nalini Singh have achieved massive recognition in the US and UK, and others such as Russell Kirkpatrick and Helen Lowe look as if they might do so.

The arrival of the Worldcon circus Down Under next year is therefore likely to have a mixed effect. Some NZ fans will doubtless find even an Australian Worldcon vast and intimidating. Others are going to see it as a massive opportunity to get noticed. There isn’t much I can say to the former group. Some people just aren’t cut out for big crowds, and there’s no point in trying to force them to go. The other group, however, has a treat in store. Hopefully a whole bunch of Worldcon-bound people will stop off in Wellington on their way to Melbourne, but even if they do a trip to Worldcon is not to be missed if you have any ambitions to be a genre writer.

On the subject of Wellington, the 2010 New Zealand Natcon, Au Contraire, will be held in a hotel right in the middle of the city’s restaurant district. I have checked it out and there is plenty of good food to be had; also lots of coffee bars. In addition Wellington has some fine museums and the offices of movie magicians, Weta. It can be a little cold and windy, but it is a lovely city. As the Wellington convention is the weekend before Worldcon it is the perfect stopping off destination on a tour of the southern hemisphere. I’m particularly hoping that a number of authors decide to do both conventions. New Zealand doesn’t get to see many big name writers, and generally can’t afford to bring in more than one international guest a year. This is a great opportunity to spread a little community good will. I’ve been talking to some Kiwis and we may be able to do something to encourage you.

Based on this year’s convention, the program won’t be anything spectacular. In a very small convention you are unlikely to get the sort of high-powered programming you’d get at, say, WisCon or Readercon. But if enough foreign visitors sign up for Au Contraire I expect the con committee will run a bunch of “about New Zealand” items for them to attend, and that will be something very different.

More about the convention can be seen in my video diary and photos. I have also posted a video diary and photos from Wellington.

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