We always look forward to the month of August, because it means that the worldcon
weekend is not too far away. That was especially true this year, as Bucconeer was
at the beginning of August instead of the usual Labor Day weekend a month later.
But there's another reason we look forward to August -- it's the month of our local
County Agricultural Fair. This year was its 50th anniversary, and there was one
whole exhibit room devoted to timebinding on its history. In looking over the
clippings, we noticed how similar it was to organize a County Fair and a science
fiction convention. There are other similarities, too, as the following article
I'll confess it up front: I like worldcons, and I like the Minnesota State Fair.
Now that you've absorbed that shocking admission, I'll continue. This is not the first year I've noticed parallels between these special events (the differences are almost as much fun), but for some reason I felt compelled to share my insights with you. Maybe it's because I missed the worldcon this year.
The obvious parallel is that worldcons and the Fair both feature varied entertainment and attract large numbers of large people wearing odd clothing. Well, it isn't just the large people wearing the odd clothing -- they're just more noticeable. People-watching is one of the prime activities in both instances. The typical worldcon is about five or six days long and attracts about 5,000 people; the Fair is 12 days long and claims an attendance (this year) of 1,689,034. SF/F fans who have enough money attend cons, whereas anyone who can spare a few bucks for admission, is easily amused, or has a specific Fair-related interest (such as crafts, animals, farm machinery, eating a wide range of bizarre food) goes to the Fair. The State Fair is held at the end of August through the beginning of September, which usually means hot, humid weather and way too many large people wearing unflattering clothing. Fans may be slans, but they don't always know how to dress. (Please don't make me describe the horrors of spandex abuse, I beg you!)
Much of the Fair takes place outdoors over many acres, so we have to deal with the vagaries of weather. Most worldcons involve some outdoor walking, but the events are held indoors. Air conditioning isn't always up to the task in crowded rooms, though. State Fair attendees have to deal with the crazy bees that want to share your food and drinks without telling you first, which necessitates looking before you bite or sip to avoid a trip to the first aid station.
Both the Fair and worldcons have hucksters, special performances and ceremonies, exhibits, and food. They're held only in certain areas at conventions, whereas the Fair knows no such limitations. At the Fair you're literally surrounded by a heady (or nauseating) collection of merchandise booths, media promotions, bandshells with groups loudly playing everything from country-western to rock, dance groups (ethnic, square, etc.), and hard-to-define acts (we saw Weird Al Yankovic one memorable year), and (of course) food booths. (More on those later.) I've heard there are also talent contests, but haven't had the nerve to observe one. As for entertainment, there are music concerts and car races in the grandstand, with fireworks at closing each night. These are all audible all over the fairgrounds.
HUCKSTERS: There are Miracle Mops, ever-sharp knives, cookware by the truckload, and more, all available at the State Fair Special Price! The tacky becomes tantalizing, even irresistable. It's even better if you're wandering around at night, with neon and other interesting lighting creating a magical glow. As for purchases at a con, ever get home and wonder just why you thought a certain art object, piece of jewelry, book, magazine, etc., had to be yours? The light of day, a little more sleep, and reality slurps you a big wet one.
SPECIAL STUFF: Worldcons have thrilled/surprised/bored us with the Hugos, the masquerade, and numerous other, uh, unique events. I've enjoyed a lot of the exhibits featuring fannish history, but I also get a kick out of the giant farm machinery, crafts, and school displays at the Fair. An art show is common to both the Fair and worldcons, and more than a few of the State Fair entries would not look out of place at a con. This is especially amusing if the artist and judges apparently thought it was Serious Mainstream Art. Oftentimes there are booths at cons with companies trying to educate us about their products and services. There are certainly plenty of these at the Fair, ranging from the truly educational (Emu: A New Frontier in Ranching) to the self-serving capitalists (most of them). But maybe there really isn't that much difference between the table pushing info about Girl Scouts and the people claiming that the Sci-Fi Channel is God and we should spend money to bring him/her/it into our homes.
FOOD: Food at conventions is often minimal and expensive; on the other hand, food is the main reason a lot of people go to the State Fair. They'll even say so, often while chowing down on a foot-long hot dog and holding a bag of mini-doughnuts. There are few areas at the Fair where a food booth of some kind is not within a few yards, and people are eating all of the time. Of course, by 'food' I mean everything from cotton candy to porkchop-on-a-stick. It's great fun to see the new, weird food. This year saw the premiere of deep-fried pickle slices and pepper rings, elk burgers, french-fried ravioli, Italian sundaes (ice cream which looked startlingly like spaghetti with meatballs, and fettucine Alfredo), Nummies (numblingly-sweet Rice Krispie bars drizzled with peanut butter and chocolate, on a stick), pasties, wild game, and Oats-Cream. Prices range from highway robbery to good deals. I'm in the ranks of those amused by food on a stick. The Info Booths have a huge listing of things on a stick, and occasionally someone takes off on that for non-edibles, such as the Internet on a Stick.
REGIONALISMS: It can be a lot of fun to see what worldcons do to toot their local horns, from local writers to special foods, and the same can be said for the State Fair. I must qualify this by saying that I haven't been to other State Fairs. For all I know, all State Fair queens have busts carved of their heads out of butter. (I personally can't tell much difference between the busts or the queens.) And then there's the all-you-can-drink-for-50-cents milk truck. There's just nothing better than sauntering over there with a cone of fresh, hot chocolate chip cookies and chowing down like there's no tomorrow. Walleye, wild rice, and lefse are available, though lutefisk rarely is (thankfully).
There are many features of the Fair and conventions that do not cross over neatly. Politicians at the Fair are entertaining, but just can't compare to site selection parties (bidding and winning). The Midway also comes to mind, as do the bungee jump, the Ejection Seat, the gondola ride, the giant slide, the Space Tower, and the Old Mill (a mildewy Tunnel of Love). I suppose the Haunted House could be compared to a number of things at a worldcon, from a badly-handled con suite to a messed-up masquerade. Haven't seen any cow-milking demos at a con, though a lot of fans would like the print shop with working old-time linotypes and other hulking pieces of machinery. The Technology building is very popular and is sort of a cross between the hucksters and the propaganda booths. Most years the Fair has some sort of special display. For several years it was giant sand castles; this year I was delighted by the butterfly garden. It was also fun to pose for the photo buttons and digital postcards with silly friends. (I was able to send the latter to defenseless e-mail friends, too!)
The Fair's daily parade feels like a touch of small-town life to me. There are floats full of beauty queens, media folks, and people who apparently just got the chance to ride. Thousands of people watch marching bands, drill teams, and horse-drawn vehicles with all sizes of horse, pony, or mule and whatever they're pulling. The Budweiser Clydesdales are always impressive, and one year we got to see the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile. There are little kids riding in the recycling cup train. Clowns, fancy ropers, Smokey the Bear, McGruff, the State Fair mascots (giant gophers), and many more walk or ride through the fairgrounds. We know the parade is nearly done when the giant steer statue comes along, followed soon after by the street sweepers.
A worldcon often has a fanzine room, computer room, panelists' green room, movie premieres, and many more delights. But the Fair has its own delights, too. Do I dare mention the DNR pool with giant fish? The largest pig on display? The enormous pumpkins? The Pet Center with daily surgery on TV? Empire Commons (the dairy building) with exhibits and great ice cream, as well as the butter heads on display? The tourism building? I'm sure you'd want to see Carousel Park, with a gorgeous carousel and space to sit and gather with family and friends.
Well, that's probably more than enough evidence of the similarities between worldcons and the Minnesota State Fair. (Are you laughing or screaming?) Do your own comparison sometime! Local fans are often happy to show visitors around, which creates a really wonderful crossover of a worldcon and the Fair.
Like Brigadoon or Atlantis, the State Fair and worldcon appear. Each year they're the same in many ways, and each year they're very different. Like a soap bubble or a rainbow, they won't last long. So, enjoy all they have to offer -- and save me a fanzine on a stick.
All illustrations by Julia Morgan-Scott