Convention Review

Au Contraire

The 2010 New Zealand National SF Convention

Because the 2010 Australian Worldcon was to bring so many from
the Northern hemisphere, the 2010 NZ national convention (natcon) was
specially held the weekend beforehand. The result was
New Zealand's most international SF convention to date.


New Zealand has had 30 national SF conventions up to 2010 and traditionally these are usually held wither over Easter (as is the British and some other natcons) or the Queen's Birthday (which actually is a holiday in some British Commonwealth countries rather that the anniversary of the culmination of Royal gestation, but already digress).  However, with Australia to host the 2010 Worldcon (Aussiecon 4) several hundred would travel from the Northern hemisphere to attend. The obvious question that sprang to some New Zealanders minds, not to mention others including Concatenation, was whether a few score from the Northern hemisphere might be attracted to a New Zealand event?  And so in the summer of 2008 it was announced that Au Contraire would be the 2010 NZ natcon and held the weekend before Aussiecon 4 at the end of August, and not its usual time earlier in the year.

The move turned out fruitful. Normally the NZ natcon attracts a little over a 100 but recently (such as in 2008) numbers have on occasion risen to around 150.  Au Contraire attracted some 230 including 60 – 70 from overseas.

The convention itself was held in Wellington, in the Quality Hotel in Cuba Street that, with its numerous restaurants, bars, and clubs, is sort of the equivalent to the Soho area of London's West End. Wellington itself is a marvellous city to visit, more of which later on (and elsewhere there is June Young's article on New Zealand's capital Wellington). That there was much to do in tourist mode was a definite plus point. This was especially useful for those of us coming from Western Europe as both the time difference, and direct distance to travel, was the greatest possible to get to a major SF convention from anywhere on the planet. Yet such is our pampered early 21st century developed nation, profligate fossil carbon reliant infrastructure, it was possible for me to leave home in E. Midlands Britain and walk into the hotel in Wellington in under 48 hours all the while travelling back in time (well in terms of time zones anyway). Hence it was good to be able to afford a few days of unstructured tourism to get round the jet lag (and indeed I took the opportunity for a few scientific engagements). Typically it takes the best part of a week to shake off 12 hours jet lag and so a number did tourism, indeed a few others broke their journey by arriving in NZ at Auckland (NZ's international travel hub) and travel by rail or car down the North Island to Wellington.

At this point perhaps I might reveal the greatest disappointment of my entire trip. You see when I told colleagues and friends that I was going to Australasia, they pointed out that there was this 12 hour time difference between GMT (Greenwich Mean Time) and New Zealand: I'd be time travelling!  Boy, was I excited: that's half a day's difference don't you know!  Imagine then my disappointment as we were flying along the distinct lack of the plane entering any sort of whirling vortex, or absence of any cackles of energy as we broke through our frame of the space-time continuum. Indeed when we landed I garnered local lottery-winning numbers but was unable to feed these back to friends in Blighty, now 12 hours in my past. In short, if this was time travel it really was dead boring, has been over-hyped, and all in all was a huge disappointment. But I digress…

Au Contraire lasted from Friday morning to Sunday night and consisted (as is typical of recent NZ natcon's) three main programme streams and (and this might be because of this year's event's size) in some additional rooms there were workshops, gaming, readings, and on Sunday there was a dealers area. With so much going on, most programme items saw about 30 or 40 people, which kept things nice and convivial, though of course major items, such as the Vogel prizes, easily saw a hundred or more. Most of the con facilities were located on a single floor with movable dividing partitions between the major halls so that major programme items could be afforded more space. Elsewhere in the hotel there was a con-suite for kaffeeklatsch's with the Guests of Honour (GoHs). It should be noted that the Quality Hotel was in fact just half the hotel: the other half was the Comfort Inn which had an older style décor but was no less accommodating, and both hotels shared registration, bar and restaurant. All of which meant that virtually everyone could be accommodated on site.

Guests of Honour
Au Contraire's NZ GoH was a Wellington local Elizabeth Knox who is probably best known for her fantasy novel The Vintner's Luck that was adapted to film in 2009. Meanwhile her juvenile / young adult novels Dreamhunter and Dreamquake (also known as The Invisible Road) sold out within 12 hours of launch, and apparently the audio book got extensively pirated.  She gave a reading and was also interviewed by someone who (it has to be admitted stumbled a lot but) asked interesting questions. Topics covered included genre definition (its marketing, cf. Margaret Atwood), and NZ novel criticism (which apparently is largely stuck contemplating works' sub-genre taxonomy). She also held a kaffeeklatsch.

The international GoH was Australian Sean Williams whose best known own work is the Astropolis space opera trilogy but is probably more widely recognised by the masses for his Star Wars novels such as The Force Unleashed.  Alas I missed his GoH presentation and his kaffeeklatsch but he was also one of the judges of the fancy dress masquerade which I did catch.

Other notable contributions to the programme came from: author Juliet Marikkier who very ably ran a well thought out workshop on 'voice' within story-telling; the book launch of an anthology of NZ speculative fiction called A Foreign Country; the launch of SpecFicNZ for NZ SF professionals and semi-pros; and finally the presentation of NZ's science fiction prizes, the Julius Vogel Awards.  I was a little disappointed to have missed the panel on fan funds given Concatenation's involvement in the former Anglo-Romanian Science & SF Cultural Exchange and Fan Fund.  Apparently there was also a Raymond Feist videoconference in the mix.

Tor (US) editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden and his kaffeeklatsch was particularly revealing of the N. American book trade. He revealed that as a commissioning editor he is looking to be surprised (citing the just published The Quantum Thief), that the three authors he wished he had on his books were Iain Banks, Alastair Reynolds and Robin Hobb, that in the US a successful fiction book needs to sell at least around 10,000 in hardback and 50,000 in paperback, that maybe the over-supply of fantasy possibly suggests it is easier to write mediocre fantasy than SF; and that he would prefer 'NY Best Selling Author' over Hugo Winner' on the cover any day.

I did contribute some comment to – along with a score of others who made up – the Science Round Table. This was an open session for those at Au Contraire with an interest in science to chew the fat. To sum up three-quarters of an hour of in part remarkable conversation, the hot areas of science that might soon see (or need) a major breakthrough were thought to include: tissue (bone) regeneration; communicating science in the face of cultural challenges; epigenetics (my own offering); preserving electronic privacy; networks (and the ability to cognitively process); and the bog-standard old but welcome chestnut of space exploration and astronomy.

GUFF delegate James Sheilds and I did a double act on predicting the future called 'Tea Leaves and Entrails'.  Now, whilst James and I had been approached months earlier by Au Contraire's organisers to participate in a panel on this topic, the organisers for some reason did not inform us who the others on the panel were going to be. Indeed, James and I only found out that were both two of those to participate in this programme item as it idly (albeit a little breathlessly) came up in conversation when we were out climbing Mount Victoria the day before the convention. We did not even realise that it was only to be just the two of us until just before the programme item was due to start.  Fortunately, James had compiled some thoughts on SF and prediction and so was able to give a presentation on these aspects. Equally fortunate – because of the scientist in me and I like to present hard data – I had nicked elements of the UK Government's CSA, John Beddington's, PowerPoint presentation on the mid-21st century 'perfect storm' (well he did put it on the internet for others to use) and merged these with other data I had from my energy and climate science work.  (As it turned out, these PP slides got much use during next week's Australian Worldcon.)  Anyway, it seemed to go down reasonably well (especially given the circumstances).

My principal personal contribution to the programme was one of my exobiology talks. This time it was a variation on the one I did for SFL in 2009 merged with elements of the one for Denmark in 2007. It too went down rather well: starting off with about 40 in the audience but ending up with around 80 as nobody left and people drifted in throughout from other parts of the convention. One consequence of this last was that two or three of the audience's end-questions were actually addressed early on in the presentation, boring those who came for the talk's entirety.

The convention's downsides. Well there were a few, but actually only a surprising few given the novelty of the exercise for NZ fandom to run a more international and larger event. For example, there were to be a half a dozen films but information as to what these were were not in the programme and only occasionally posted on the con notice board; indeed some were simply cancelled without notice! As this deficiency could have been so easily rectified with zero cost it really was a black mark against the committee, if only for being discourteous to those registering and bothering to turn up.

However, in the main things seemed to go very well and there were some minor, but really nice, touches. For example, the pendant convention badges had duplicate information on both sides so that no matter what happened as it dangled the right side was always on show. Also its badge names were in a large, clear font: something that some major conventions get wrong but actually is important when you have a gathering of folk most of whom are unknown (even if only visually) to each other. Then there was the convention's Mistress of Ceremonies was not the con chair but (presumably playing to personal strengths) someone with presentational flair oozing bags of energetic enthusiasm. The cocktail party saw inventive SFnal cocktails; all rather fun. Simon Litton planned a well-researched pub crawl for the day after the convention (sadly clashing with one of my external science engagements) and there were other tourist events that day including a visit to the Te Papa national museum.

It has to be said that there were some missed tricks. On a visit to the Carter Observatory, James and I witnessed the astronomy presenter including an Iain Banks' novel in with his notes and so we told him about the convention. He was unaware that Au Contraire was an SF event, nor were other Carter staff with SFnal interests, and he thought that an internet link exchange might have been a zero cost option.  Then there was no press coverage. This was really a missed opportunity as getting press coverage is easy to do (if you have the experience), as is getting good press coverage if press liaison is properly conducted (some of the Concatenation team have worked on press matters for a number of Eurocons and European SF events with some success). It was especially a missed opportunity as part of Au Contraire's self-appointed mission was "to revitalise, revolutionise and reboot fandom in New Zealand", and things like the launches for A Foreign Country and the SpecFicNZ association would have in all likelihood garnered a few column inches and so draw some new blood into NZ fandom. Certainly there was space in enough of the programme items for, I guess, another 50 or so registrants without significantly altering the character of the event.  Having said that, virtually every field of human endeavour sees missed opportunities and I only mention these here in the event someone somewhere organises something similar in the future.

The organisers seemed determined that all were to have a good time. This was a very worthy goal, though the behaviour warnings in the programme book were a little stern (and repeated). To this day I am not sure whether this was due to committee nervousness or some unfortunate experience at a recent NZ convention, or even due to behavioural differences between NZ locals and their Australian neighbours?  It was also noted that Au Contraire would see an uncommonly high proportion of its attendees from overseas and that some "words or phrases do not have the same connotations they might in your home country", which is very fair enough. However, an interesting philosophical question was inadvertently raised when we were instructed in the programme book to "ask if you are unsure": which begs the poser how can you know what you do not know!?

At the end of the day – in fact at the end of three days – much jollity was had, programme items enjoyed, old acquaintances renewed, new friendships made, science fiction done, and all lubricated with some partying. It all went off rather well. In fact, it went better than some UK national conventions (we have had our turkeys it must be said) and had it been a Eurocon in one of our continent's smaller states (remember NZ has a population of only 4.3 million, a fraction of London's), then I would have rated it very highly. In short, those within NZ fandom really do owe the committee something, and the committee itself can now be assured that they have contributed a meaningful stepping-stone in NZ's SFnal history. So, well done.

Yet there was life beyond the convention… As mentioned early on, Wellington is a marvellous capital city: and the southern-most capital city in the World if I am not mistaken.  My first 24-hour period (I was both tired and extremely jet lagged hence not firing on all cylinders) saw encounters with airport staff, bus passengers, shop keepers, bar staff, café patrons etc., all helpful, friendly, and welcoming.  June Young in her article on New Zealand's capital Wellington was though – if I may be so bold – a little coy when it came to matters of personal safety in the Cuba Street area. She said that the area was safe during the day but advised going out in a group at night rather than alone. I took this at first to be typical urban advice, but actually that was not entirely what was meant. Cuba Street, it turns out, is in fact Wellington's red light district so any ladies at night by themselves and dressed in a casual way might find themselves the target of some unwanted attention. However having said that, unlike in the supposedly cosmopolitan British Isles, New Zealand seems to have a remarkably progressive attitude towards certain establishments: everything seems to have its place.

My own experiences of Wellington were invariably positive. Having arrived in the local middle of the afternoon, my body was telling me that it was in the small hours of the morning and that bed (last seen over 48 hours preciously) was long overdue. However I find that the best way to overcome jet lag (though admittedly I have never had such a large lag to adjust to before) is to ride through it. So I went out. And lo, just around the corner from the con hotel I found a marvellous little side street called Swan Lane that was sunny and airy due to one side of it being an open car park. There, among the handful of shops, was one (the Met Shop) establishment that purveyed science and geography related items. As I was under instruction from Simon to get an 'upside-down World map' this I was duly able to do.  Delighted that I had fulfilled the first (out of a couple of score) of my antipodean mission goals within an hour of arrival, and still journey weary, I decided to celebrate with a beer and found a delightful little hostelry 'The Swan Lane Emporium' where I spent the rest of the afternoon. To cut a long story short, I discovered that we were to miss by just a few days New Zealand's premiere beer event, Beervana. Aside from this being a two-day Fest in Wellington's Town Hall with some 170 beers from over 40 brewers, there was a formal pub crawl competition. Despite it not being the week of the event, and despite my not being an NZ resident (which was part of the rules), I was given a Beervana passport that invited me to get a stamp for each of 12 local bars (out a possible total of 33) that each offered a specific brew. Had I been doing this for real then I could have handed in my 12-stamped passport at the beer fest and entered a draw for an expense-paid trip to Melbourne Australia (which ironically was actually where I was going to be during the beer fest). Anyway, I settled for a Duke Carvell's Emerson's organic pilsner, and jolly nice it was too.

This brings me on to food. NZ is of course a largely agrarian society. And while there, as part of my climate change investigations, I discovered that in 'drought' years NZ gross domestic product can be depressed by up to a couple of percent. In addition to crops, NZ has a thriving dairy industry and is, of course, known for its sheep farming. NZ, like GB, is an island nation, and so there are sea fish too. Yet unlike GB, NZ has a low population and industrial density both of which serve to make its limnetic systems to have extremely good water quality, and so freshwater fish are also readily available. All of which ensures that there is a wide variety of not-that-expensive cuisine available, and the Cuba Street quarter seemed to have just about as much of that variety to hand as you might expect.

Needless to say we did not go hungry and Wellington is one of those places where you run the danger of a (red-shifted) Hubble waistline. In the course of my one-week stay I was able to have at least a couple of meals with a range of jolly folk including: Tom Barnes (US), Kurt Baty (from the US and my first eggs Benedict), Norman Cates (NZ), C.J. (US), David Farmer (US), Urban Gunnersen (Sweden), Rod O'Hanlon (Ireland), Simon Litton (NZ), Karin May (US), James Shields (Ireland), Kathy Sullivan (US), and June Young (NZ), plus too-many-to-list others with whom I only had a single dining encounter.  Recommended for carnivores is the Southern Cross restaurant, just off the south end of Cuba Street at 39 Abel Smith St. But do go for the genuine stone table-cooked dishes and not the fake stone ones which David Farmer got (and to date the only Southern Cross patron going for such dishes failing to get properly stoned.., which has to be some kind of record).

The only odd thing food-wise, is that NZ seems to be unaware of NW European bacon. What they called bacon was a form of cured gammon. Maybe we were unlucky, but if not, and NZ (or even just Wellington) is devoid of it, then an entrepreneur could really make an absolute fortune introducing real bacon to the economy.

As for the rest of Wellington, June Young's article New Zealand's capital Wellington really covers the essentials. However, picking up on a couple of aspects of her article, I can say that the Carter Observatory in the Botanic Gardens really is well worth it. Though you need to be aware that the central exhibit area has two excellent but audio-clashing exhibits and the stairway to the observatory is tucked off to one side. Then, there is their marvellous little planetarium. (Alas, for our visit half this show was a planetarium film made in Britain but the local astronomy half was fascinating.)

I also must make special mention of the Zealandia Karori Wildlife Sanctuary. Reserve the best part of a day for this, around NZ$100 or so, and do not bring your own packed meal, but use the cafeteria as the area is low SPF (specific pathogen free) biosecure not to mention surrounded by a small mammal-proof fence. (I say small mammal proof as an elephant could probably get through.) There is a wonderful exhibit area that perfectly hits the spot, screenings a few times a day of a 20-minute film of the biogeography of NZ, and the whole valley to explore either by yourself or as part of a group (recommended).  Trust me on this, it is a biologist's wet dream!

And that, as they say, was that. A sad farewell. Off to Australia.

Jonathan Cowie

SF2 Concatenation's initial summary report of the event is on the autumn 2010 news page.


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