Wednesday, February 3, 2016

ChattaCon Reflections: The Importance of Community

For a relatively small city, Chattanooga, Tennessee is graced by several conventions for fans of science fiction, fantasy, horror, anime, etc.  Last weekend I attended one of them: ChattaCon.

This was my second time attending ChattaCon.  Last year I was inspired to write a post, "Aliens are Everywhere (A Post-ChattaCon Thought)."  After attending a panel on aliens, I thought about how the appearance of aliens in SF is really a way of considering otherness more generally: other cultures, other people, even ourselves.

ChattaCon is held at the Chattanooga Choo Choo hotel,
which no doubt inspired this cool graphic (

I was trying to think of a similar idea based on something from this year's experience when it occurred to me that the very idea of something like ChattaCon is interesting.  When ChattaCon began 41 years ago, there was no internet and (even worse!) no blogs.  Cons like ChattaCon were an important way for fans to form communities where they could discuss their favorites, learn about new stuff, and meet interesting people.

Do we need Cons like ChattaCon today?  Aren't SF fans all shut-in introverts who make snarky anonymous comments on blogs and YouTube videos?  Even if we do need communities, couldn't we move the Con experience to the internet, where we've moved so much of our communal interactions in the 21st century?

A ChattaCon Report

While the internet is great (you're reading it!), I think physical meetings are still an essential part of community.  To make my case, consider some of the things I did last weekend:
Robot battle!  (photo: me)

  • There was a performance by the Chattanooga Fire Cabaret.  It was fiery!
  • There were robot battles!  A robot built by a seven-year-old won one of the matches!  I don't know if his name was Anakin.
  • There were snacks aplenty in the ConSuite.  And beer!
  • Speaking of beer, there was a panel on how to make beer and mead if one were on an alien planet -- with samples from home brewer, Brandon Wilkinson!
  • To sate my bibliophilia, I picked up some books from a bookseller in the Dealers' Room (Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor and Dark Intelligence by Neal Asher).
  • I went to a room party for a bid for New Orleans to host WorldCon in 2018.  I met some cool people, drank a few hurricanes, and had some discussions with nice people (whose names I unfortunately don't remember) about space travel, Babylon 5, and Farscape.
  • One of the guests was Larry Correia (of the Sad Puppies).  I went to one of his panels with a few friends.  Given my opposition to the whole Sad Puppy fiasco, I was wondering what he'd be like in person.   Answer: not all that different than most author guests, although nobody asked him about the Puppies.
  • One of my favorites was a panel on the new Star Wars.  Which reminds me that I keep meaning to write a post on further reflections on Episode VII (see my earlier reactions here).

I'll leave it to readers to determine for themselves which of these activities could have suitable online equivalents.  The internet is a great place to build community, but it's not the only place.  There remain important things to do and fun to be had in person.

In the ConSuite with my friend, Dominik Heinrici (left)
(photo credit: Sarah Einstein)

Belonging for Nerds

One of my favorite things about attending Cons like ChattaCon (or my other favorites like TusCon and CONvergence) is the sense of belonging.  At these events I feel at home with my people!  I also feel this way at philosophy conferences, but whether it's because philosophy is my career or because I've been a science fiction fan as long as I can remember being anything, I feel even more at home at SF Cons.

While being a geek/nerd has become sort of cool in recent years (and I'm not entirely thrilled about that), there are still disturbingly large numbers of people who aren't impassioned by discussing whether the new Star Wars is a rip-off or homage to the originals, engaging in intense debates about the merits of Star Trek versus Star Wars, or wondering why George R. R. Martin hasn't finished the next Song of Ice and Fire book already.  What do "normal" people do with their time?  I don't know.  And I'm not sure I want to know.

The nerd/geek community still needs physical spaces where you can let your geek flag fly proudly, where you can wear your Starfleet uniform or chain mail armor without reservations, where you can be who you are among others being who they are.

Community Contra the Atomic Theory of Human Nature

I've written before about what I've called the atomic theory of human nature, according to which human beings are atomic, isolated, self-interested beings.  I think this theory is fundamentally wrong, both empirically and in terms of its promotion of morally short sighted behavior  (see my post on the topic for my arguments for this conclusion).

Communal spaces like ChattaCon show us that individuals need communities just as surely as communities need individuals.  As many Confucian philosophers would say, our identities as individuals are constituted by our memberships in various communities and our roles within those communities.  We are fundamentally social beings.  How much fun would it be to argue about whether Han shot first if there was nobody to argue with?

I hope to continue pondering these questions in a few weeks at ConNooga and maybe even in several months at MidAmeriCon II (WorldCon) in Kansas City!


  1. Hello Ethan,

    I love your blog. I probably say that every time I comment. I totally get what you mean when you talk about there being outlets for people like you but still sometimes those aforementioned outlets don't exactly make the cut.

    I am writer and being a writer is... interesting. There are many people who throw things out there but still I feel like there is hardly anyone so passionate to hold meaningful discussions with about certain topics. Who do I talk to about my lack in interest of modern television? Who can I speak with about the predictability of literally every show and movie on television without spoiling it for everyone else. Hahahaha.

    I like that there are online communities but they are seldom complete. I think it is important to have physical spaces to be a part of. Sure you can log onto a Facebook community but having physical events where you can actually mingle is just as important. Sometimes only having web-based outlets sort of makes you feel like you're talking to ghosts or something. Ugh.

    I look forward to your next post.

    1. Kyanna, Thank you so much for your kind words! It's always nice to hear that people are reading and enjoying the blog.

      There were a lot of writers at ChattaCon and other Cons I've been to, so you might see if there's anything in your area for meeting with like minded writers.

      As much as I love online communities, it is nice to see flesh and blood human beings, too!

  2. I enjoyed your brief account of Chattacon 41, my 41st Chattacon. Some things are different from that bygone era when we began, but the tribal/community aspect remains the same; and there is nothing like it.

    Kyanna, where's the nearest mid-size or larger city to you? Ethan, myself or some other of his readers could offer you some tips for finding a real fannish con for you to enjoy.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Mike! I'm sorry I didn't make your acquaintance in person at ChattaCon, but I'll be sure to do so next year. Someday I'd love to hear more about the early days of ChattaCon and/or other fannish happenings. Cheers!

    2. Hello Mike,

      Richmond is a few miles up the road. And when I say a few I mean close to a hundred great miles away. Hahaha. Thanks in advance for helping me out Mike and Ethan.