Anyone watching recent coverage of the massive Comic-Con in San Diego must think that all science-fiction conventions are costumed extravaganzas, and long-suffering fans of literary science fiction might wonder what happened to conventions where the writers weren't crowded out by spokesmodels and E! presenters. Fear not. This weekend, Austin's own ArmadilloCon is back to restore some faith in the quiet power of talking about books. Joe Lansdale, the boss of East Texas Gothic and an ArmadilloCon regular throughout its now 30-year history, puts it bluntly: "It's not for people in chicken costumes from space," he says, "but people who really read the literature and are interested in the writers and how they create."
Since 1979, ArmadilloCon has been a unique stop on the summer round of science-fiction and fantasy gatherings. "We're the second-longest-running Texas annual convention," explains this year's co-chair, Kurt Baty. Its big sibling, Texas A&M University's student-run AggieCon, actually hits 40 next year, "but they're pikers compared to others," says Baty. "WorldCon is going to be 66 this year." ArmadilloCon was in part inspired by the traveling WorldCon (or, to give it its full name, the World Science Fiction Society World Science Fiction Convention). Traditionally held either on the coasts or around the Great Lakes, its 1976 incarnation as MidAmeriCon in Kansas City, Mo., pushed Austin book dealer Willie Siros and fellow fan Robert Taylor to put their own together. They invited local authors John Varley and Howard Waldrop to headline the first event. Since then, its management and organization have been taken over by the Fandom Association of Central Texas.
"A lot of conventions didn't make it to 30 years," says Baty. "Usually when the founding group gets to the point where they won't mess with it anymore, they fade away, so it takes a good group to keep it going." For its 25th anniversary, the speakers list was a who's who of previous prestigious guests, but "for the 30th anniversary," Baty continues, "we're trying to reach out into Austin and remind people that they went to ArmadilloCon 15 years ago."
That historic guest list is a virtual science-fiction hall of fame (George R.R. Martin, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Neil Gaiman, to name a few). But ArmadilloCon's claim to fame is that the literary stars often came before they were big names. Take 1982's ArmadilloCon 4: Rising short-story writer William Gibson sat with local author Bruce Sterling on a panel called Behind the Mirrorshades: A Look at Punk SF. Four years later, Gibson was back as the guest of honor after his novels Neuromancer and Count Zero established him as a genre giant. The next year, it was Sterling's turn, after he edited the seminal collection Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology.
That seeming prescience is, for Baty, part of what makes ArmadilloCon both special and important. "The guest of honor is frequently a name that people never know, but it's the rising star," he says. This year's hot tip is novelist John Scalzi, who Baty calls "a major up-and-coming writer who has a major Internet presence."
Yet ArmadilloCon also attracts icons, such as special guest and first-time attendee Joe Haldeman. While works such as his landmark, The Forever War, made him synonymous with science fiction and won him every major genre accolade (five Nebulas, five Hugos, three Rhysling science-fiction poetry prizes, and a World Fantasy Award), he explains, "I'm basically a literary writer, and I choose science-fiction themes." What attracts him specifically to science-fiction conventions, rather than other literary gatherings, is that "the divide between fan and writer is unsharp," he says. "There are a lot of fans who have written one or two stories, and there are a lot of writers who have friends in fandom."
"All our best friends," interjects his wife, Gay (a convention veteran herself, holding her own panel on Sunday with Lansdale's wife, Karen, titled Living With a Creator). The closeness to other writers and the ability to move from fan to author and back to fan are two things the pair understands well. Joe recalls, "In 1963, when we walked into our first science-fiction convention, there was Isaac Asimov and L. Sprague De Camp fencing with broadswords, right in the lobby of the hotel."
"We were hooked at that point," adds Gay.
There are other literature-centric conventions, such as Boston's ReaderCon, but Lansdale suggests that ArmadilloCon taps into a very particular Texas literary tradition, one that evokes the state's genre-busting innovators like Conan creator Robert E. Howard. It encourages modern Texan writers to experiment in the margins – what Sterling termed "slipstream fiction" and others label "interstitial." Lansdale explains: "A lot of the Texas writers for me are so different [from] writers anywhere else. I don't know what it is now, but in my era, it was the isolation. There were no writers around me, and we read these different kinds of ideas and welded them together. I believe it is lacking a tradition that has given us a tradition."
That's why author and this year's toastmaster Bill Crider is an ArmadilloCon regular. While he has dabbled in science fiction with his Golden Duck-winning kids book Mike Gonzo and the UFO Terror, the Texas native is more famous for his mysteries and Westerns. Why does he make the drive from Alvin every year? "I like the people who attend. Their guest list is the tops," he explains. "I go as a reader, but it helps me as a writer to talk to people about the business of writing. ... I always come home from a convention clean, energized, and ready to start writing."
For editor/columnist/publishing polymath Rick Klaw, back as a panelist for his 14th year, it's the presence of highly literary writers like Haldeman, Lansdale, and Crider that makes this event important. "One of the strengths of ArmadilloCon has always been that it's three fans to every pro, so the pros feel a lot more comfortable," he said. "You have a chance to sit down and talk about whatever projects you're working on. As an editor, you can sit down to talk about working with newer writers. As a new writer, you get to meet these people. It enables you to get nearer to the fans." At the bigger conventions, he adds, "it's all about promoting whatever you've done. This, you're talking about what you're going to do."
Yet even after 30 successful years, ArmadilloCon isn't past evolution. "Because I'm chair this year, we get to do a few things differently," says Baty. "Every year we have a band or something on the Saturday, and Bill [Crider] and [self-proclaimed greatest living sci-fi short-story writer in San Antonio] Scott Cupp have just sat in the corner and shot the shit all evening. It's the most entertaining thing." This time, that's a whole event called Campfire Tales, with Crider, Cupp, and the two Joes – Haldeman and Lansdale – swapping anecdotes for an audience.
One thing will hopefully stay the same. Though Howard Waldrop is currently recovering from bypass surgery, the toastmaster from ArmadilloCon 1 is still scheduled to close Sunday's programming with a reading, just as he's done for 25 years. "It's traditional," says Baty.
ArmadilloCon runs Aug. 15-17 at the Doubletree Hotel North (6505 N. I-35). For more information (including complete lineup and admission prices), see www.armadillocon.org.
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