The Odd Origin Of The World's First Sci-Fi Convention
When we think of the Victorians, we usually picture big hair, big hats, and just all-around big Queen energy. Under Victoria's reign, Britain was changing. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing, and every Charles — from Darwin to Dickens — was having a moment to share their ideas of the natural world and beyond. Naturally, along with such progress would come some science fiction, with one particular novel proving a hit among the British folk, written by the same guy who coined that dreadful melodramatic opening, "It was a dark and stormy night."
The writer of this sort of sci-fi novel was Edward Bulwer-Lytton; the book called The Coming Race was later published with the full title, Vril: The Power of The Coming Race. While Bulwer-Lytton set out to write about the occult, his story displayed the kind of sci-fi fantasy elements that would eventually shape and establish the genre. It deals with a fascinating subterranean Egyptian-like world occupied by winged beings who call themselves Vril-ya. The Vril-ya enjoy equal rights, speak their own language, have telepathic powers, and can take away pain. These ancient underground beings sustain their powers through an elixir-like spiritual energy called "Vril" that can both heal and destroy.
The story was so rich that, almost a century later in the 1960s, a conspiracy theory would take hold alleging that there existed a secret Vril Society who first established themselves in pre-Nazi Germany and who were basically the inner circle of the Thule Society, a cult who liked to think of themselves as superior beings and supported the Nazi-beliefs in the whole Aryan race thing. Kind of wish these people really could grow wings so they could just fly the f**k away.
Anyway, back to the late 19th century, where people were really getting into their sci-fi. Bulwer-Lytton's book would become the precedent for modern stories about strange worlds and their workings. When H.G. Wells' The Time Machine was published in 1895, The Guardian's review started off with: "The influence of the author of The Coming Race is still powerful, and no year passes without the appearance of stories which describe the manners and customs of peoples in imaginary worlds, sometimes in the stars above, sometimes in the heart of unknown continents in Australia or at the Pole, and sometimes below the waters under the earth. The latest effort in this class of fiction is The Time Machine, by HG Wells."
The Coming Race with its Vril-ya garnered such a niche following that in 1891, The Vril-Ya Bazaar and Fête fundraiser festival was held at the famous Royal Albert Hall in London. It is this five-day event that is considered by many to be the world's very first sci-fi convention, complete with merch booths and people dressing up like the winged Vril-ya.
Moreso, it was at this event that the famous English savory spread named Bovril was invented. To create something that resembled the Vril elixir, festival-goers got to sip on small bottles of salty beef extract that got its name from mixing "bovine" with "Vril."
Of course, the event also drew the first upper-lip criticism from the kind of people who think that anything sci-fi needs to be sacred and elitist somehow. One attendee from The Preston Herald said he expected elegance for some reason but wrote that he saw "nothing very attractive or remarkable" and that the decor and people's costumes were off-putting. It is quite possible that said writer may have been the origin of the phrase, "You must be fun at parties."
Unfortunately, the festival caused the organizers to go bankrupt because a niche isn't enough to keep the Wheel of Money turning. It would take some time for sci-fi and pop culture to really develop and garner lucrative attention, enough to warrant official conventions. But it's pretty cool to know that the first one was inspired by a guy who wasn't even trying to write sci-fi and is also known for coining the phrase, "The pen is mightier than the sword."
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