AugurCon, the online gathering of speculative-fiction writers and readers being run by the Canadian spec-fic literary journal Augur, faced a number of hurdles to get up and running, from the ordinary challenges of programming a multi-panel event to the restrictions and uncertainties of an ongoing global pandemic. But before any of those obstacles were tackled, there was one core matter that had to be settled: what exactly did the founders mean by a “con”?
“What is a ‘con’: is it a conference or is it a convention? If we call it a con, we spin it into all the other speculative or sci-fi/fantasy cons that go on,” says Terese Mason Pierre, co-editor-in-chief of Augur and one of the driving forces behind AugurCon, which is happening this Saturday, Nov. 28. “When you call it a con, it’s implied that there are so many things going on – you have panels and you have workshops and you have readings. We’re just doing panels and workshops.”
Augur publisher Kerrie Seljak-Byrne is trying to leave the door open for a range of approaches as a means of ensuring AugurCon’s growth through any potential future iterations. “I’m calling it ‘AugurCon: A Speculative Fiction Event,’” they say. “You don’t want to rope yourself into a conference and then decide you want to be a festival.”
The idea of an event like AugurCon had been percolating behind the scenes for two-and-a-half years before it finally took shape. “We started planning last summer in terms of what it could look like and then through this year it’s been what it will look like,” says Seljak-Byrne. The founders received funding through the Toronto Arts Council for the inaugural event, which will include more than 18 participants from across North America.
The 2020 Augur Con is a one-day virtual event that includes sold-out workshops on writing poetry and fiction, as well as panels on speculative fiction and the CanLit canon, what editors and publishers are looking for in spec-fic writing, and the problematic aspects of allegory in the genre. “We took it down to one day because of the pandemic to give it one big push,” says Seljak-Byrne.
One of the driving forces behind programming was to come up with a variety of topics and panellists that would speak to a wide range of interests and concerns within speculative fiction. Panellists taking part in the virtual events include Dominik Parisien, Fonda Lee, Omar el Akkad, Jael Richardson, and Kai-Cheng Thom. “We tried to find a mix of people with different experiences,” says Pierre.
The panel Seljak-Byrne is moderating asks whether CanSpec exists as a specific genre and community and, if so, how do the same kind of conversations – about diversity, inclusivity, and marginal voices – currently ongoing in the broader CanLit arena occur within its context. “How do we create an environment that is responsible and collaborative and has care at the core of it?” Seljak-Byrne asks. “But also, on a craft level, what’s cool?”
The notion of CanSpec is a significant one for Pierre, who differentiates it from the way the larger literary landscape is understood in the country. “There’s an identity and a unity in CanLit. The question is, do we have that with CanSpec, and I don’t think we do.” Pierre goes on to point out her own lack of awareness about other people who are working in the field in her home country, something she hopes to begin to counter with AugurCon. “I feel like if I lived in the U.S. or I lived in the U.K. I would know who they were. I would know how to contact them. That didn’t feel good, to not know who my fellow contemporaries were.”
Seljak-Byrne also posits a tonal difference between this country’s spec-fic output and that of the louder, more hegemonic community in the U.S. “We have a certain slowness, or a certain ‘nothing happensness’ that resonates in some spaces more than others,” they say. “That was one of the reasons we looked at a Canadian magazine: to create a space in Canada that would be a space where people could get published with that type of quiet work.”
Augur began as a literary magazine, but was incorporated as the Augur Magazine Literary Society, with endeavours like AugurCon constantly in the background. “The goal was always to grow out into more arts programming and more arts opportunities,” says Seljak-Byrne.
In December 2019, Augur magazine was added as a recognized professional market by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, which allows it to tap a larger pool of contributors and potential participants for future cons. “We get more of these people into a recognized space where they have these opportunities in front of them,” says Seljak-Byrne. “It’s both a high-level, theoretical [approach to] what we believe in, but also [asks] what are the steps that we can take as an organization to get people into the space where those opportunities are actually tangible?”
Both AugurCon and the magazine that provides its genesis have at their core a philosophy of carving out opportunities for a variety of creators and thinkers who may have traditionally found themselves shut out of conversations by the publishing establishment in Canada. In addition to offering professional outlets for Canadian speculative fiction writers, Pierre emphasizes that both the magazine and the con are focused on building a community that has principles of inclusion and diversity as their bedrock. “What we’re working toward is building a community that starts with the core assumptions that people of colour and marginalized people are valuable and their stories are valuable and we’re going to take that into any of our future initiatives that we come up with.”