written by David Wyatt
At the most basic level a science fiction convention is a weekend party for people who enjoy science fiction, horror and fantasy. At least that's how they started. Today they include lovers of anime, comics, costuming, gaming or simply just dressing up and making the scene. It's a party, and if you're interested in alternate universes you're invited.
Cons began in the forties when SF was maturing. Writers like Robert Heinlein, Fritz Leiber, L. Sprague De Camp and Hal Clement were coming out, but SF still had an impression as a pulp enterprise unworthy of serious merit. But the fans loved it and began to contact each other, first in letters, then mimeographed fanzines. They discovered writers would come to speak when asked, provided someone paid their expenses. The easiest way to do that was share the costs. So people rented a hotel room and put out flyers. Somebody paid the up front money, and committees were formed to handle the details.
At first it was very casual. My friend Bob became the co-chair of Marcon 2 when he rented the room next door to the meeting room. They needed a hospitality room and so Bob became co-chair in return for the use of his room, where he did a lot of drinking with Roger Zelazny. Fifty years later he's still at it.
In the beginning cons were just an informal weekend with ar favorite writer and/or editor. Their would be a party, a reading, a formal meet and greet, and perhaps some organized discussions, which helped bring the smart but shy out of their shells. Of course back then all they had were books and pulps like Amazing Stories
and Aboriginal Science Fiction
plus a few movies. The contacts were informal as submissions to various amateur webzines. Many of the publishers and editors began as fans. A writer would come to promote his latest book and enjoy a weekend of adulation they didn't receive in daily life. Fans got to meet their favorite author, engage in a weekend's worth of drunken debauchery. The publishers realized their customers congregated at these 'cons' and started contributing. People who had been contributing to the various fanzines got to meet each other face to face.
Of course it grew from there as television and film became more prominent in the genre, particularly after Star Trek inspired legions of fans. Other media outlets inspired their own followings, such as clubs dedicated to Highlander and Star Wars. People started dressing up as their favorite characters to get into the spirit. That led to masquerades, costuming contests and more. People who loved Middle Earth started playing Dungeons and Dragons, and they wanted to play with others. Space was found for them, and soon the wargamers of other stripe moved in. People with a musical bent started re-writing the lyrics of familiar songs and filksinging was born. Artists wanted to exhibit their works. Each little sub-species developed its own following, until the largest regular cons may have thousands of attendees with a wide variety of interests.
People often dress up at science fiction conventions. Nobody is going to say anything to you if you walk around in a leather loincloth carrying a broadsword. Or you could choose to dress as a hobbit, imperial stormtrooper, tavern wench, dominatrix or the Thought Police. Anything goes, though nudity is discouraged in public areas. But it happens, particularly late at night when the room parties are at full swing.