“If you haven’t heard of a literary convention, as a fan, you are missing out on something that can change the way you look at reading books. “
Forward — Give Me LibertyCon!
Fandom is, at the core, a group of people who enjoy the same things and like to celebrate that. And at the heart of fandom are conventions. Whatever the type of gathering, be it for cosplay, anime and manga, comics, media, literary and art, or a relaxacon, they are a gathering of like-minded and like-interested people from all over. Conventions give us all a place to gather, to enjoy our hobbies and lifestyles, to meet others in fandom, and even a chance to listen to, and if we’re lucky meet, the many people who create the media and stories we are fans of.
There is controversy over what and where the first speculative fiction convention occurred. Some point to Jules Verne’s masquerade ball as the earliest proto-conventions, though most people think they were strictly social events with no focus on speculative fiction. They also shared nothing else in common with modern conventions beyond the theme of Verne’s stories. A stronger case can be made for the “Vril-Ya Bazaar and Fete” in Royal Albert Hall in 1891. The multi-day event was a fundraiser for the London Massage and Galvanic Hospital. The theme was based on the novel The Coming Race (Edward Bulwer-Lytton, William Blackwood and Sons, 1871). However, the event was not ever touted as a science fiction convention and though it shared similarities with modern conventions, its focus was fundraising for the hospital.
The first time the idea of a science fiction convention is mentioned in print is in “The Ultimate Ultimatum” (Robert Bloch, Fantasy Magazine, August 1935), a story about a convention of writers. One line from the story is “It was a big convention. Lovecraft was there.” Most historians mark the true beginning of speculative fiction conventions as being one of two events. One in the United States and one in Britain.
On October 22, 1936, Fredrick Pohl and about six other people traveled from New York to Philadelphia to meet with more fans (possibly as many as 10) at Milton A. Rothman’s home, The group called the event the first science fiction convention. They expanded to a larger group numbering about 35 in February 1937 at Bohemian Hall in Astoria, Queens in an event they named Second Eastern. The Third Eastern was held in Philadelphia later in 1937. By the Fourth Eastern (Newark, New Jersey, 1938), the event had grown to over a hundred people. This gathering of people would vote in a committee to plan out the inaugural World Science Fiction Convention (WorldCon).
Across the Atlantic Ocean, a group of British fans held their first gathering on January 3, 1937. Unlike the get-together in Philadelphia, this was a planned event held at the Theosophical Hall in Leeds. About twenty people attended, including future writers Arthur C. Clarke and Eric Frank Russell. Many fan historians claim this event as the true first convention since the Philadelphia group was a spontaneous gathering while the group at Leeds had been planned for almost six months. The question of which convention is, in fact, the first convention continues to be unanswered today.
What is of no question is that the first World Science Fiction Convention was held in conjunction with the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City. This was a perfect placement for the convention, as the fair’s theme was “The World of Tomorrow.” Frank R. Paul was the Guest of Honor, though by no means the only guest who would be recognizable later. Other notables included Isaac Asimov, Hannes Bok, Ray Bradbury, L. Sprague de Camp, John W. Campbell, John D. Clark, Harry Harrison, and Jack Williamson. The first Worldcon was not without controversy though. A group of fans, including Frederik Pohl and Donald A. Wollheim, broke off from the Greater New York Science Fiction Club. They labeled themselves Futurians and were at political odds with the original club. This disagreement in political outlook led to the Futurians being banned from the first Worldcon, in what became known as “The Great Exclusion Act.” The Futurians held a counter-convention at the same time and several people who attended the Worldcon also attended this event. Sadly, this would by no means be the last time a difference in political opinions would cause dissent among conventions and fans.
Science Fiction conventions continued to gain popularity in the United States. Here in Chattanooga, Tennessee, several would find homes and grow. Starting in 1976, Chattacon is the oldest of the conventions operating in the city. The event occurs in January and has continued without a break since its beginning. The COVID-19 pandemic did require the convention to go virtual in 2021, but the staff and volunteers were back in force the next year.
In 2002, HallowCon held their first convention. Held toward the end of October, the event focuses on the horror aspects of speculative fiction. Like other conventions, they went virtual in 2020. A group of fans in 2007 set out to create a convention that was family-friendly during the day and more adult-oriented at night. The first Con Nooga was held in February of 2008. The convention continues to this day, set for its fifteenth anniversary in 2023. FarleyCon, established in 2017, is a one day convention (growing to two in 2023) centered around pop culture, comics, and speculative fiction toy collecting. The convention is held in late summer. The newest of the Chattanooga local conventions is Metrotham Con. Started in 2019, this convention is also focused on pop culture and speculative fiction in media including television, movies, and anime guests.
In 1987, Richard “Uncle Timmy” Bolgeo presided as the Con Chair for the first LibertyCon. Held in late June, LibertyCon is a literary, STEM, and art convention. In the last 36 years, it has only not held events twice. Once in 2002 due to a fire the week before the convention which damaged the hotel the convention was scheduled in and in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021 the convention was virtual, again due to the lockdown restrictions from the pandemic. As well as being a convention, LibertyCon is also a 501(c)3 nonprofit charity focused on assisting other local charities. Over the past 10 years, we have donated over $120,000. A feat not possible without the support of the fans who attend the convention.
Next year, at the 35th anniversary, LibertyCon will be hosting DeepSouthCon 61. DeepSouthCon, or DSC as it’s also known, is frequently hosted by other conventions and, as such, is a floating convention for the entire southeastern part of the United States. It’s been previously hosted in Chattanooga three times. In 1984 (DSC 22) and 1990 (DSC 28), the event was a stand-alone here in the city. In 2003, LibertyCon 16 was the host of DSC 41.
One person can enjoy nothing more than a tiny sliver of speculative fiction and be a fan. Another can dive deep and swim throughout the vast ocean of speculative fiction offerings, embracing all of it and be a fan. Others can choose an aspect to follow: comics, movies, art, a specific show or character, novels, light novels, manga, or anything else that catches their fancy and be a fan. Fans are stars, who in groups, form amazing constellations. Conventions are the brightest of the fan constellations and are a joyous gathering for all. They bring us together in places where anyone and everyone is welcome. If this is your first time stepping into fandom; if you’ve been a fan all your life; if you fall somewhere in between— LibertyCon welcomes you. Remember, no matter which conventions you go to or enjoy, there’s no wrong way to fan.