Convention Review

Conflux the 2004 Australian Natcon

Conflux turned out to be a decidedly above average Australian Natcon


Conflux, held in Australia's capital city Canberra in May 2004, was the 43rd Australian National Science Fiction convention; the first having been held in Sydney in 1952. As the Australian Natcon it was a multi-streamed event exploring all things related to speculative fiction. Similarly, in common with Worldcons and many European natcons, Conflux was a not for profit venture organised by volunteers. Total attendance was well over 300 including 34 professional authors. The Aussie professionals included Sean McMullen, Fiona McIntosh and Trudi Canvavan, but not all were local. Aside from Guest of Honour Greg Benford there was another US author, Jack Dann, who seems to have put down roots in Melbourne. He took the opportunity to launch the Australian edition of his latest book, an alternate history novel called Rebel.

Conflux was convened under the auspices of Victorian Science Fiction Conventions Inc but by the same group of fans who have been running the highly successful CSFcons (Canberra SF Conventions) and this group effectively actually ran the convention. However the locals, lead by Donna Hanson, managed to recruit volunteers from outside of Canberra, to ensure that Conflux was truly 'national'.

Though ostensibly a general science fiction convention, other genres (such as fantasy and horror) within speculative fiction were addressed. Of particular interest to Concatenation readers Conflux also featured a 'real science' stream.

Canberra is not only appropriate venue city for a Natcon but is well placed being convenient to both Melbourne and Sydney on the east coast and boasting a busy airport and a wide range of public transport connections. The convention site, Rydges Lakeside, was situated in downtown Canberra City, and handy for restaurants, tourist attractions, central retail district, other hotels, and the entertainment venues (not that anyone needed this last during the convention). In fact, Canberra is one of the most extraordinarily beautiful cities in Australia with lovely federation-style buildings tucked away in amongst high-tech, glass-and-chrome constructions, with none of the hodge-podge of styles you tend to get in places such as Melbourne and Sydney. Lots of crisp, clean lines, wide open roads, pavements and walkways. Everything is beautifully spaced and surrounded by rampant greenery - or would be if it weren't autumn. Still, 'rampant brownery' doesn't sound as nice. Maybe the ample vegetation accounts for the lovely fresh air. It was also very quiet. The city seemed almost deserted save for a lone white hatchback that seemed to haunt at least one convention participant whenever he ventured out.

The convention itself was held in one of the few multistorey buildings in the city. Rydges Lakeside seems to have been purposefully built away from the surrounding two-level shopping district, further contributing to the sense of spaciousness.

Of course some might say that the best thing about Canberra - the very best thing - is Kingsley's. Kingsley's is a small Australian Capital City hot chicken franchise that achieved brief nationwide notoriety after getting in strife for advertising their value meals with the slogan 'same old price - GST free' when the Goods and Services Tax (equivalent to Britain's Value Added Tax) was introduced in July 2000. Kingsley's chicken subs (short for submarine - sandwich fillings wrapped inside a long bread roll) are absolutely to die for; the rolls are always soft, the chicken is lean, moist and tender, and the gravy...ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, the gravy! But, apparently, the locals tend to like Kingsley's more for their chips.

Naturally, many of the restaurants near Rydges Lakeside saw SF fans during the convention. The first on Friday lunchtime to find themselves the focus of a general stampede of fans was the Blue Olive bistro opposite the Post Office.

The con was held on Rydges Lakeside second level and on Friday it was a hive of activity: the Traders' Room was bustling as sellers set up their wares, hotel staff were rushing to and fro carrying A/V equipment, vacuum cleaners, table cloths, coffee, and - disturbingly - traffic cones. Had bookdealer Justin Ackroyd finally jack-knifed his traditionally enormous table?

Lots of familiar faces to the Australian SF community began to appear including in no particular order: Joel Shepherd, Fiona McIntosh, Erika Lacey, Rob Hood, Cat Sparks, Bill Congreve, Michelle Marquardt, Leigh Blackmore, Keith Stevenson, Karen Miller, Maxine McArthur, Sean Williams, Kim Selling, Edwina Harvey, Tessa Kum, Karen Herkes, Chris Andrews, Trent Jamieson, Gillian Pollack, Tim Reddan, Gerald Smith, Eric Lindsay and Rowena Lindquist/Cory Daniells. Naturally some could not make it including: Kate Orman, and Lyn Triffitt. This is what many like about conventions; the opportunity to catch up with people whom you wouldn't often see in other social situations. You also get to meet a number of people with whom you only ever communicate with by e-mail, or whose names are known only through the grapevine, conreps and so on.

As is common with many in European fandom, a good proportion of the Australian SF community, if not professional authors, editors and book dealers, have their own, or participate in group, SF projects. Robbie Matthews, for instance, is current editor of ASIM (Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine). ASIM is a semi-pro venture with a floating editorial locus that wanders in a seemingly aimless pattern around Australian capital cities. It is not known how long that can last but it is an interesting experiment. Others attending come from overseas. One of the most international of these at Conflux was the Japanese fan Yoshihiko Miazaki, a PhD student in Psychology at the University of Waikato, near Hamilton in New Zealand. In recent years he has attended most Aussie Natcons, as well as quite a few regionals and he always attends Japanese Natcons so providing a link between the two.

Then there were those fans being sponsored to attend conventions in other countries. The current fan fund winners at Conflux were: NAFF laureate Jon Swabey and FFANZ laureate Maree Pavlejich. (The National Australian Fan Fund NAFF exists to send a fan from anywhere in Australia to the Aussie Natcon. The Fan Fund of Australia and New Zealand FFANZ sends a fan from one of those countries to an event in the other, the direction changing from year to year. Similarly with the Down Under Fan Fund DUFF and the Going Under Fan Fund GUFF that send fans between Australia and the US or Australia and the UK, respectively. The 2004 GUFF winner, Pat McMurray from Britain, could not make it to Conflux and instead attended Continuum, a convention in Melbourne over 11-14 June 2004. The DUFF winner this year is New Zealand's Norman Cates who will be going to Noreascon (the 2004 Worldcon in the US).

Finally there are always those for whom it is their first convention. Notably among those at Conflux was Anna Tambour, who has been nominated for Best New Talent in the Ditmars (more of which later). At first she appeared a little overwhelmed not knowing anyone but introductions were made and she seemed to be having a good time.

As with most European and N. American conventions, one of the first things participants receive on arrival at the registration desk is all the convention bumph. Besides a beautifully produced convention book, the registration kit included a four page programme guide in the form of a folded over A3-page and another A5 sized booklet called the Conflux Really Useful Handbook, equivalent to the UK 'Read me' booklets. The latter had everything - lists of ATMs, bars, bottle shops, nightclubs, churches, mosques, temples, doctors, hospitals, newsagents, photocopiers and stores in the neighbourhood; timetables for author readings and book signings; details of a special bus service to enable fans to attend the Anzac Day dawn service on May 25th; a map of inner Canberra, and even a cut-down version of the program at the end.

Conflux actually began an hour before its official opening when the Australian Capital Territory Writers Centre sponsored a cocktail party. Drinks and nibbles were free to all and the only thing that stopped it developing into a free for all was the imminence of the opening ceremony starring Sydney's own Nick Stathopoulos. Nick, in the immortal words of 'Doc' E. E. Smith, has the pulling power of a planetary tractor beam. It included the idea that everyone had been temporally transported from 1974 to attend this 2004 convention. His performance was the perfect introduction to Greg Benford's GoH speech that set the tone for the entire convention.

Much, but by no means all of the programme, consisted of panels and one of the first of these began after Greg's address. In fact it was not so much a panel as a debate with the motion: 'There is evidence that intelligent extra-terrestrial life has visited the Earth' and was Chaired by Greg Toohey, with Peter Barrett, Michael Barry, Simon Brown, Rob Hood, Chuck McKenzie, Sean McMullen, Antony Searle and Scott Westerfeld. It all seems to go quite well, especially given that few of the panellists had actually prepared anything in depth. I suspect that the team - comprising Antony, Rob, Michael and Chuck - has an advantage in arguing the positive, as the comic possibilities are endless. Obviously this has occurred to the negative team as well, and the strain became evident. Poor old Sean McMullen eventually has to be dragged screaming from the podium by his team-mates after his brain imploded. In the end the 'for alien visitation' team won.

One programme innovation was the premier presentation of new Australian SF or fantasy short plays. Conflux had received 39 original plays, representing all Australian States, for consideration for production at Conflux. On Friday two were acted out: The Devil You Know by Garry Fay, and Times Variable by Robert Luxford.

But not everything happens on the programme. As is common with UK conventions, but less so for room partied US conventions, the bar is a major focus. At Conflux it was the Cahoots Bar downstairs that lubricated many of the convention's wheels. It's a very pleasant bar, with wood panelling and a lush carpet that gave the place an air of warmth and opulence.

As for eating, other than going out, there was the dining room on the top floor (that used to command spectacular views of the Canberra's main features until it was built out by a taller crescent-shaped rival hotel next door) but it was only open on Friday and Saturday nights and was hideously expensive to boot. Fortunately the Conflux committee had organised a sandwich bar to operate continuously whenever there was anything on the programme, which was most of the time but, unlike most European Natcons, there was no programme during meal times. There were one hour fifteen minute breaks in the programme for lunch, one and a half hours from 6.30pm for dinner, and 15 minute breaks for morning and afternoon tea. The snack bar itself seemed to provide a platform for a somewhat anarchic discussion group. Even introverts who tend to mind their own business did so with raised voices. If there ever was such a thing as a group soul at Conflux, it burst into consciousness then and never quite dissipated until the end of the convention. Meanwhile, at the evening break there were dozens of fans that formed themselves into groups for the purpose of walking downtown for a meal.

Saturday saw the rush begins around 10:00 AM with late arrivals pouring in to register. Convention t-shirts are selling like hotcakes and box loads of stuff for the auction are waiting to be tagged. One of the highlights of the convention that morning was Guest of Honour Greg Benford's science talk on Energy Implications of Global Climate Stabilisation. It noted that there was a huge deficit between our current growing energy demand and the need to cut carbon emissions if the global climate is to stop warming above 1990 levels. Greg covered a range of technologies including space ones such as space based solar power beaming energy to Earth and solar shields to block part of the Sun's light so cooling the Earth.

This presentation was part of the afore mentioned science stream. Other items on this stream included 'Building Your Own Imaginary World - A Geographer's Guide' by Russell Kirkpatrick, a New Zealand map-maker who writes fantasy. His phenomenal wall-length map was subsequently mounted as a mural between the registration desk and the huckster room. But who has it now? It ought to be preserved in the national archives. Then there was: the 'Tidbinbilla-Deep Space Tracking Station' information session by Glen Nagle; 'All at 'c'; the World at Relativistic Speed' by Anthony Searle science presentation, and 'The Medieval Science that Fantasy Forgets' by Sean McMullen.

But it was not all science. Media SF had a good showing. Here items included: 'Writing in Created Universes-Just how hard is it?' with Greg Benford (Enterprise), Jonathan Blum (Dr Who), Matthew Farrer (Warhammer), Kate Orman (Dr Who), Sean Williams (Star Wars); SF on film in Australia with Bob Eggleton, Lewis Morley, Dean Toovey, a short film Divine Curse and the Zombies and talk with film makers; '3D animation-What's the scene?' with Dan Miller from the Academy of Interactive Entertainment, a Star Wars fan film, Desert Duel, and Death and a Salesman. Finally there were several Dr Who related items.

Written SF was also well represented with items such as 'Is Dark Fantasy the new horror?' 'Can fantasy exist without magic?' with Zara Baxter, Kirsten Bishop, Trent Jameison (chair), Garth Nix, and Simon Brown, and 'Research-the backbone of your fiction' with Jack Dann, Gillian Pollack, Tansy Rayner-Roberts (Chair), and Trish Smythe. One popular panel was the 'Beginners Guide to Short Story Writing' with Michael Barry, Deborah Biancotti (Chair) Monica Carroll, Claire McKenna, and Lyn Triffitt. Among the gems of advice and information were:

All of which buoyed up the would-be writers present. However any undue enthusiasm was tempered by other programme items including: 'Sieving the Slush- Editors Panel' with Julie Bozza (Homosapien Press), Sarah Endacott, Orb (chair) Trent Jamieson (Redsine), Stephanie Smith (Harper Collins), Cat Sparks (Agog Press), Keith Stevensen (Aurealis magazine), and Robert Stephenson (Altair) and 'Soul-destroying, seizure-inducing rejections - what do they really mean?' with Sarah Endacott, Glenda Larke and Cat Sparks.

Conflux could have been distinguished from many other conventions for the quality of its panellists in any case, but the ebb and flow of their interaction from one session to the next seemed to operate at a measured cadence that kept audiences interested and involved. That was manifest through all of the Sunday sessions. It is fortunate that over a third of attendees were either authors or wannabes, for the experience is sure to have knocked some rough edges off even the rawest talent. That Conflux was above average was reflected in the fact that word had started to get around Canberra that something special was happening at Rydges Lakeside. The registration desk became busier as casual memberships picked up.

That is not to say that Conflux did not have its share of slips. For example, at 3.15, with the auction due to start, all of three people turned up. So it occurred to Justin Ackroyd (who fulfils the role that Rog Peyton did in Britain for many years as an accomplished auctioneer) and Danny Heap that potential attendees seeing '3.00 - Set Up' and '4.00 - Auction' on their programmes, might have missed the '3.15 - commences' printed discreetly between the two headings, and may be under the impression that the auction doesn't begin until four. Executive decision: Justin opts to begin the auction at 3.30. In the meantime, one of the committee opts to run around the 'con, alerting people to the new starting time. At 3.45 the auction finally begins. One of the best things about the Australian Natcon auctions is the Justin & Danny show. These guys are not only consummate professionals in running the serious business of auctioning goods, they are also a fantastic double-act, extremely funny and witty, and certainly as entertaining (if not more so) as anything else on the programme.

One of Saturday's highlights for Australian fandom, according to Robin Johnson and others, was Chuck McKenzie's 'This is Your Life'. The tribute was to an unsuspecting Australian fan and it had been planned for about six months in secrecy. There was just so much that could have gone wrong. For a start, the subject of the tribute - Bill Congreve - was not aware that he was the subject, and might well have made a break for the exit as soon as he realised what was going on. Thankfully Chuck managed to at least ensure his attendance by telling him that the tribute is actually for Robert Hood, and would Bill be kind enough to get up and say a few words? Chuck thoughtfully bought a bottle of Guinness intended as a tranquilliser for Bill. Further, there was Japanese beer and the wine as a gift to mollify him after his massive public betrayal. There was also meant to be fish! These were intended to be used in a re-enactment of Monty Python's Fish-Slapping Dance, one of Bill's favourite sketches. However, it was probably for the best that Chuck was unable to secure them. 'Respected Editor Beats Former Friend To Death With Fish' is a headline Chuck would have preferred to live to see. There was a reasonable crowd waiting to see the show. It is difficult to publicise an event like this; on the one hand, you can not tell too many people who the tribute is for, lest word of it gets back to the intended victim. On the other hand, if you do not tell anyone what is going on, you risk ending up with an empty room. So the event was been billed as a 'surprise tribute to a well-known (and unsuspecting) member of the genre community' (which could be anyone) - though Chuck had been discreetly spreading the word amongst Bill's friends and colleagues over the past couple of days. About 100 people eventually roll up, but Bill is not among them, which throws Chuck into an instant panic. However, as 9pm hits, Bill appears on the arm of his partner Michelle Marquardt (who's in on the whole thing), enthusing about all the embarrassing things he was going to say about Rob tonight. It all made it very difficult for Chuck to keep a straight face, especially with Michelle grinning at him over Bill's shoulder. The attendees take their seats, and Chuck gave a brief introductory speech. Sean McMullen, resplendent in full formal attire and top hat(!) rose to his feet in order to escort the victim to the Parkinson-style couch on stage. It was a beautiful thing to watch: moving around the room, Sean paused briefly before Rob (grin of anticipation from Bill), moves away, walks up and down the aisle, back to Rob (even bigger grin from Bill), before striding over to Bill and doffing his hat. "I've always wanted to take my hat off to you, Bill," he says to Bill (whose grin of horrified realisation was frozen on his face). The response, "You bastard!" rises above the applause, as Bill is lead up onto stage and deposited upon the couch, Sean taking up position at Bill's side to prevent escape. Here it is, then, the fruition of months of planning and worry, of surreptitious information-gathering from Bill's many friends (particularly Michelle and Rob). And - much to my relief and gratification - it all went very well. The biographical information compiled turns out to be accurate for the most part. Bill was generally forthcoming when questioned about his private life. The guests who have been asked to come up and speak about Bill - Sean McMullen, Rob Hood, Sean Williams, Kyla Ward, Ben Peek, Michelle Marquardt and Cat Sparks - all delivered interesting and heartfelt dissertations on Bill's impact upon their lives. Michelle's beautifully honest answer to the dreadful question, "What attracted you to Bill?" literally brought a tear to some.

Sunday saw a bus load of fans attend the Anzac Day dawn service at the Canberra War Memorial. It was a moving ceremony attended by Alec Campbell (age 103) who is the last surviving Anzac.

Traders' Room: lots of stuff to buy. Edwina Harvey's there with her Celestial Cobbler wares; the ASIM table; lots of second-hand books; Agog! Press / Orb Speculative Fiction, Homosapien Press; CSFG and associates; and Bill manning the MirrorDanse Books / Infinitas Bookshop table. Justin Ackroyd is set up next door, pushing books on unsuspecting readers. He knows your tastes and weaknesses, folks - and he always has a book just for you, hidden under the counter!

The Art Show was a real feature of the con. Les Petersen has really outdone himself. Large white panels are carefully arranged to form a gentle maze through which one can wander, feeling as though one were in an actual art gallery. The artwork itself is breathtaking: brilliant acrylic starscapes, dragons painted on silk scrolls, cartoons and prints, pencil and charcoal studies, techno-sculptures by Rob Stephenson, beautifully detailed brushwork on tiny pebbles by Marilyn Pride, disturbingly pneumatic acrylic sculptures by Lily Chrywenstrom, and a framed copy of the cover art for Maxine McArthur's 'Time Future'. $2,250?!: it's not a copy There are also some fantastic cartoons by Brian Smith; a psychotic Mr Squiggle battles the Aliens, grasps the severed head of the Predator.

The Ditmar Award ceremony begins at 3pm. These are the 2004 Australian Science Fiction Awards. The Ditmar Awards recognise excellence by Australians in Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror. The Awards are a proud tradition that has been maintained since their inception in 1969. They are named after Dr Martin James Ditmar (Dick) Jenssen, a founding member of the Melbourne Science Fiction Club. The winners were:

Sunday evening and its the disco. At 7.30 the first masqueraders begin to file in, lining up at the bar with their complimentary drink vouchers in hand. Many of them have obviously gone to a great deal of effort: lots of gorgeous frocks and dresses, tight-laced bodices and gilt-edged masquerade-style masks. And that's just the guys. Lily Chrywenstrom is wearing a dress emphasising her cleavage to such an extent that her chest actually enters the room a full thirty seconds before she does. Donna Hanson is running around dressed as a Greek goddess, there's a bloke (?) in a bug-eyed monster mask, and someone dressed up as Gary Dalrymple in a Star Trek uniform. (Upon closer inspection, it turns out to be Gary Dalrymple. In a Star Trek uniform!). Kim Wilkins is dressed superbly as a '20s flapper. Les Robertson is decked out in a full Tartar/Saracen costume that looks as though it must weigh a tonne. An hour into proceedings, the music stops and all costumed folk are called onto the floor to have their photos taken - singly and in groups - while masque judges Bob Eggleton, Greg Benford, Sean and Maree observe from the sidelines. Photo op over, the judges retreat to a table outside the club to ponder their decision. Greg asks to hear some Rolling Stones while he judges,. Bob wants to hear some Abba. After a set of three 'Stones songs, plus Meatloaf's Paradise by the Dashboard Light (which makes Bob a happy boy), it's time to announce the winners. Sean and Maree take the podium, then bring it back and stand on it. Lots of prizes to give out. 'Best Punk Teddy-Bear' goes to Justin Ackroyd. There are prizes for Best Greek Goddess (Donna Hanson, by now pissed as a newt), and Best Goth on the Floor (Aileen Harland), and finally first prize, going to Les Robertson for his aforementioned Mountain King ensemble. And then it's back to the party. Lots of disco and 80's stuff. Finally there are room parties, some of which go on to 3am.

At last, Monday and the final day. Ultimately everyone shuffles into the Lake Superior room for the closing ceremony. MC Nick Stathopoulos begins by running through the usual thanks and congratulations, then - tying in with his opening ceremony presentation - 'transports' us through time from 2004, back to 1974 (from whence he'd originally transported us all to get to the 'con). In keeping with this theme, he also takes great delight in pointing out temporal anomalies arising from the journey - such as having younger and older versions of the same person in the same room (Alan Stewart and Greg Benford, for example - very obviously one and the same person).

And that was a distilled version of what went on at Conflux. Comments from those there include:
"Thanks so much for one of the best cons I've ever seen - & I've been to hundreds!" Greg Benford
"We are all now doomed to rate other cons as fractions of Conflux, the perfect con. I had a truly fabulous time. Thanks to everyone who worked hard to make Conflux so good. Sean McMullen
"Conflux was like the old style cons I dreamed about in the past. It's really one of the best cons I've ever attended." Nick Stathopoulos

And if you're feeling sorry you missed this Australian national convention, you can always go next year (2005). It' will be in Tasmania, and they're calling it Thylacon after the extinct Thycacene, otherwise known as the Tasmanian Tiger - although, along with most of Australia's other native animals, it was actually a marsupial.

This con report is based on material co-ordinated by Rose Mitchell from a number of those who attended including Bill Wright, Chuck McKenzie and Greg Benford.

Rose Mitchell has been involved in various fanac in Australia since the early nineties. Her predominant fannish interest is in con running, having worked on many Aussie fan cons and events including heading up the Finance Division of Aussiecon 3 (the Worldcon held in Melbourne, Australia in 1999). She is currently (2004) the Treasurer of Victorian Science Fiction Conventions and is associated with the Australia in 2010 Worldcon bid.

Bill Wright joined Australia's Melbourne Science Fiction Club circa 1955 and has been a Member of the Australia and New Zealand Amateur Press Association (ANZAPA) throughout the 1970s and from December 1996 to the present time. He was Secretary of the bid committee for 'Australia in 1975' which culminated in Australia's first Worldcon in Melbourne in 1975.

Chuck McKenzie is an SF writer and fan. His publishing credits include the SF comedy novel Worlds Apart, and (as co-editor) AustrAlien Absurdities: Comic Tales of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror by Australian Writers, as well as sales of short fiction and articles to The Age, Altair, Aurealis, AntipodeanSF, Agog! Fantastic Fiction, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Orb Speculative Fiction, Borderlands, Passing Strange, Planet Relish, Elsewhere and CyberPulp.

Gregory Benford was one of the overseas author guests who, due to Australasian fan co-ordination, then went on to attend a convention in New Zealand. Aside from being an author, he is also a professor of physics at the University of California with policy interests in energy and space, hence the nature of his Conflux presentation.

Details of the Victorian Science Fiction Conventions on

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