Balticon 56

Balticon 56 - Convention View
The view from Balticon’s Green Room, on the 12th floor of the Renaissance Hotel.

I had a great time at Balticon 56 over Memorial Day weekend in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. This isn’t a surprise, of course. Balticon is the largest literary SF convention in the region and is generally well-organized and well-run.

This year was interesting, for a lot of reasons. First, we’re all emerging, however slowly, from the cocoon of the pandemic. With soaring COVID rates (even if the current strain isn’t as lethal as Delta), the convention had obvious and logical protective measures in place, including 1) showing your vaccine card before being able to pick up your badge, and 2) mandatory masks in all non-eating areas, even for panelists. Given the age and risk factors associated with a lot of the convention goers, I think these measures were reasonable precautions.

This was a hybrid convention, with both a live track and a virtual track. I was on seven panels this year, including two virtual panels. The virtual panels were a little dicy. Since I was traveling back and forth each day, I didn’t have a hotel room to privately attend my virtual panels. However, Balticon had a PC laptop set up in the Green Room to handle people like me. Fortunately, I never came across a situation when two of us needed the device at the same time. This was my virtual panel setup, sitting on the floor at the coffee table…

My setup for virtual panels, in the Balticon Green Room.

Here are my other observations from the convention:

  • The convention seemed more lightly attended in person than in previous years. This is to be expected, given surging COVID rates. Still, there was quite a respectable number of attendees.
  • The Dealer’s Area took up two rooms, albeit there were only five vendors in the second, smaller room, occupying perhaps 40% of the space in the room. This was smaller than previous years, though larger than I’d expected.
  • It was nice to see Larry Smith Books in the Dealer’s Area; since they’re basically a full-on bookstore that simply moves from event to event, I expect their business took a big, big dip during the pandemic. Well, I can honestly say that I helped them out because I bought a number of books there (farewell budget, hello books!).
  • The above virtual setup worked fine for both of my virtual panels. I’d be happy to work the virtual track again, as long as I had a good setup to use. Interestingly, I was the only panelist to really work the chat as well as the speaking; this is a probably a carry-over from all the Zoom and Microsoft Teams work I do with my writing group and my Day Job, respectively.
  • My general sense–I don’t know if this is accurate–is that there were fewer panels, and thus presumably fewer panelists. Rather than doing back-to-back hour slots, where panelists talk for 50 minutes and then give 10 minutes to attendees to move between sessions, this year Balticon used 90 minute slots with 30 minutes between sessions. I suspect this worked well for attendees, but less well for panelists. For example, if you had sessions at 4:00pm, 5:30pm, and 7:00pm, the half hour between sessions didn’t really provide time for dinner. Still, this was only a minor concern.
  • I got to be on a panel with Seanan McGuire, the one called “Through the Portal,” which was about so-called portal stories. First, preparation works, especially when you’re going toe-to-toe with someone as knowledgeable and sharp as Seanan. When Seanan corrected me on a minor point, I mock-cringed and said, “On Twitter tonight: David Keener beaten up on a panel by Seanan McGuire,” which got a rousing laugh (and a smile from Seanan, too). It was all good fun, and probably my best-attended panel (mostly because of you-know-who).
  • I was on panels at different times with Arkady Martine and Ada Palmer, both of whom impressed me as smart, knowledgable writers whose work I have somehow missed. I will correct this forthwith.
  • On the downside, a double homicide occurred at the festival across the street from Balticon on Saturday night. Convention-goers were told to stay in the hotel for a short time until police sorted it out. The all-clear was given a short time later, but the perpetrator was never caught. Honestly, the two main buildings on the shore of Inner Harbor are useless wrecks in perpetual renovation and the whiff of danger that pervades the area isn’t cool. I’d much prefer it if the convention returned to Hunt Valley or some other venue outside Baltimore.
  • There was an incident at the convention at a panel about diversity featuring author Stephanie Burke. I was not a witness to the incident and have no special knowledge of it, but by all reports, the incident was badly bungled by several Balticon staff members. Balticon, and SF conventions in general, need to get a better handle on dealing with complaints. First, I’d remind folks that the principle in this country is “innocent until proven guilty.” Second, there’s no convention without panelists, and panelists won’t show up if they’re constantly in danger of being canceled.

Despite the shooting (which clearly wasn’t Balticon’s fault) and the “incident,” I had a great time at Balticon (as I always do). I enjoyed all my panels, got to see a few panels myself, spent too much money on books, and enjoyed some of the fine restaurants in the Inner Harbor area. I also re-connected with friends and fellow authors I hadn’t seen since before the pandemic started.

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