This past weekend, 3000-plus nerds descended upon the Westin Waterfront in Boston for the 25th annual Arisia convention. Started in response to the scaling down of the Boskone convention in the ’80s, it’s become the most diverse of the local conventions in both programming and audience. Boskone’s audience is mostly older (with a secondary audience of younger kids attending with their parents) and its programming mostly literary-focused (word is they don’t even have a head of video programming this year*); Anime Boston’s official programming is exclusively centered around Japanese pop culture and its audience skews towards teens and young adults. Slightly larger than Boskone but a lot smaller than Anime Boston, the crowd at Arisia spans all ages and provides programming to all nerdy interests (as well as some interests which don’t immediately appear nerdy; the “communities” programming track contains a sizable number of panels on polygamy and BDSM, which actually makes sense if you think of the influence of Heinlein and various fetish-y fantasy writers). Diversity’s a big thing at Arisia, with panels devoted to feminist, queer, and POC perspectives on genre fiction and this year’s convention theme being that of multi-culturalism.
More than other conventions, Arisia feels like its particularly by and for fans. Anime Boston balances fan-run programming with anime industry announcements, anything with “Comic Con” in the title leans heavily towards industry showcase. Boskone also leans towards fan-focus but there’s usually one big-name guest who inevitably gets the big spotlight, a Charlaine Harris or George R.R. Martin. Arisia this year didn’t have any guests with HBO shows. The programming was run by a mix of lower-profile writers, artists, critics and simple fans, usually together on the same panels. There’s something very egalitarian about it, where the speakers come in with varying experiences and expertises, and the regular attendees often have as interesting comments to make as the official panelists (the best moment at the Women in Games panel came from an older woman in the audience describing how she was able to break into the male-dominated programming field in the ’80s, followed by heartfelt thank yous from younger game developers who might not be there if not for groundbreakers like her). General fandom meet-ups which would normally be made informally are included within the official schedule (I went to a Homestuck one), though last-minute parties in hotel rooms still happen at night; I briefly attended a “Hogwarts alumni” party with some excellent homemade chocolate frogs and other treats.
The convention runs from Friday to Monday. I went only two of the four days, Saturday and Sunday, and was thoroughly exhausted but had a great time. In addition to the Women in Games panel and the Homestuck and Harry Potter fan meet-ups, highlights included the highspeed 2013 Movies in Review rundown, a Doctor Who panel with some heated debate between a younger fan in love with Steven Moffat and older fans with more mixed-to-negative views of the infamous showrunner, the Remembering Roger Ebert panel (at which I recounted how he gave me positive feedback early in my time as an online film reviewer), and the hilarious play The Complete Works of William Shakespeare Abridged. There’s something for everyone at this convention, so I won’t be shocked if it keeps going for another 25 years or more.
*Full disclosure: I volunteered running the video room at Boskone between 2010 and 2013 before college schedules made it too inconvenient to go.