What I took home from Arisia this year, aside from the usual bag full of dirty laundry and a case of social overload (which is better than a case of con crud), was an appreciation of just how complex a convention like Arisia is, and how astoundingly difficult it must be to pull it all together. I have nothing but admiration for the folks who do it. Keep that in mind when I bitch about the Green Room.
This was the first time I arranged the trip all up myself. Normally I try to share a room, car pool, all that. This year I blew the budget on this one convention so my two boys could go. Paying for parking stung, but at least Internet was complimentary this year. I’m glad I did it, but having two young (13 and 16) newbs with me did complicate matters. And as I merged into the madness of driving into Boston at 6:00 pm on Friday, white-knuckling the steering wheel, internally I was shrieking, “What was I thinking?!?!”
This violent total immersion into the City left me dazed and glassy-eyed. I have only the vaguest memory of the Broad Universe Rapid-Fire Reading which I had to moderate twenty minutes after getting settled into the hotel. I can remember being further stunned by Roxanne Bland’s reading (Nightmares, anyone?) and getting so caught up in it that I totally forgot I was supposed to be timing Elaine Isaak’s reading. I know I laughed out loud at Suzanne Reynolds-Alpert’s irreverent wit. Some of the excerpts were repeats of material I’d enjoyed on the BroadPod Fabulare (like an on-line Rapid-Fire Reading you can access every month) or at other RFRs. Good company to be in.
By Saturday I had recovered enough to present a reasonably intelligent face at panels. I attended “Take Back the Sci-Fi” which tackled head-on the explosive subject of sexploitation, particularly rape, in the genres. This is a personal biggie for me. I once fled a reading by Kate Kaynak because the signpost said “Rape ahead”. She had to reassure me later that it doesn’t actually happen (although what does happen is pretty horrific, at least for the girl’s attackers).
The panel did a great job pointing out how our culture lets writers get away with sexualizing what is essentially an act of violence, perpetuating pernicious assumptions about the victims and their victimizers. They offered examples, and also examples of authors who do it right, serving up the realities of what rape really is and what it does. (I lost my list of titles, but Shira Lipkin, who moderated, could likely help you out.)
One other excellent point made by panelist Ken Kingsgrave-Ernstein: Write letters. Not emails. Letters. Making your point with real ink and paper is far more effective that just pounding out a rant or a rave and hitting send. Having that artifact in hand, knowing someone went to the trouble of creating it, makes a much bigger impression on an editor or a writer.
I was the token atheist on the panel “Religion in Science Fiction” where almost everyone else was an ordained something-or-other. But mutual respect made this a great panel. Sparks flew a bit over whether faith-healing is valid or bunkum (I’m over-simplifying what was actually a complex and intelligent discussion) but we politely agreed to disagree. It was a packed room, with a lot of engagement. But civility was the rule, and that was beautiful.
It was on this panel that I encountered one of those people who really sticks in your memory. He goes by the nom-de-con of Darkteddybear, and he’s the sort of person you’d easily brush by until you realize the depths your dealing with. For one thing, he can do a killer Long John Silver impersonation: he is missing his right leg from the knee down. Uses a prosthesis and gets around just fine, thank you very much. He is an ordained minister and describes himself as feminist male kinkster. We sparred a bit, and I recognized a fellow philosopher in the way he articulated his spiritual beliefs (the first insights into which were inspired by Star Wars).
I ran into him later at Barfleet with Deanna Troi (more on Barfleet later) and he talked about a trip he made to Jerusalem, becoming overwhelmed with emotion when he stood in the spot where Jesus was supposed to have taught. When someone on the same tour pointed out that it was doubtful, or at least impossible to prove that Jesus had ever really stood on that spot, he replied that it was irrelevant. What matters is not the reality, but the myth, not the facts, but the power of the story.
This is, of course, diametrically opposed to the way I think; if the facts do not support it, the story loses its power for me. But I cannot deny the truth in what he said. For the majority of people, it is the story that moves them, the power of the myth that brings meaning. People will make choices based on their beliefs in the stories that move them, often in blind disregard of facts, often to their grief and the grief of society. On the other hand, the power of the story can bring meaning and joy where otherwise there might be despair. I grant the validity of his point, much as it makes me gnash my teeth.
In between panels, I got together with Trisha Wooldridge (who is the Guest of Awesome at Pi-Con this year) and we got the January BroadPod Fabulare Podcast up. I was hosting it, and learning Garage Band as my mixing software. It took a bit of swearing, due entirely to my own inexperience, but we figured it out and it’s up. The theme is “Fear and Faith,” and be sure to listen through to the end; Phoebe Wray’s is my favorite.
At 8:00 we talked about our favorite mad scientists and “Things Man Was Not Meant to Know.” It was a thin crowd, but Eric Van was among them and I shared the table with Sonya Taaffe (who knows from mad science) John Monahan (who was flogging his book, “They Called Me Mad”), Mario Di Giacomo and moderator Suford Lewis. At times it was almost a preview of the Metropolis panel which was happening Sunday (which Sonya, Eric and I would be on) with our rapturous praises of C.A. Rotwang. We had a great deal of fun.
I revisited “Beyond Physics” with Vikki Ciaffone (we did this panel at Pi-Con last year) joined by fellow Broad Kate Kaynak and Val Grimm. Once again, a triumph well-attended. But the last one I did on Monday, “Post-antibiotic SF” was surprisingly high-energy with a packed room. The discussion got rather grim sometimes, as fellow panelist Seanan McGuire gloated in excessive detail about the symptoms of the Black Death. And apologies are owed to Sarah Smith, who got rather left out of it; but maybe she was just as happy that way, all things considered. There were a couple of people in the audience who were disappointed that we didn’t talk more about books on the subject, and I apologize to them, too. I’m just such a science geek (is that redundant?) I find the facts just as fascinating as what someone has fabricated out of them.
Oh, and one last note, this year Programming extended panel length from 50 minutes (with 10 minutes to get where you needed to go) to 1 hour and 15 minutes (with 15 minutes to get where you need to go). It took some getting used to, but I liked the format better, especially that extra 5 minutes travel time. It seemed to make all the difference, giving a more relaxed, less rushed feel to things. Unfortunately, it must have necessitated more competition between events, which made it harder to attend all the panels one might want to, and probably reduced audience size.
Now then, parties. There are always a grand assortment of parties, from promotional affairs (Broad Universe had the best food, and I’m not prejudiced. Salmon mousse sandwiches for example.) to eclectic themes (like Mutual of Ziggurat’s Wild Kingdom, hosted by Ziggurat Labs, which deserves an award for décor). But my party of choice has to be Barfleet, hands down. (Be warned, they don’t update their website faithfully — they are too busy throwing awesome parties.) The UBS Shameless was in dock, ready to rock, and once again had the best bar, the best sound system, seemed to attract the best crowd. They also do a raffle of items donated by vendors (Like the “Love Swing” and a marshmallow crossbow) and a percentage of proceeds go to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline in honor of Walter Koenig (TOS’s Chekov) whose son recently committed suicide.
The Captain of the Barship greeted me and made me feel welcome, as did the crew. They only smirked slightly when I asked to sample what was in that mysterious jug on the bar labeled, “Dr. McCoy’s Horta restorative and cure for blindness.” It was horrible. They explained why. It is a twenty-year tradition (yes, they have been around that long) to dump what’s left in the bottles at the end of a party into the jug. According to the Captain, the Barfleet ships all had parties last year at the Midwest cons, and saved samples from the assorted Hortas. Shots of each were compared, and the Shameless won as indisputably the worst. It was dubbed “Golf Course” due to its peaty taste from the excess of scotch.
The crew of the Shameless are very friendly folks. When I discovered to my chagrin that I had come without anything on which to take notes, I was provided with the side of a carton of Guinness and a Steampunk Revolution flyer from a Nashua, NH event. Now, how cool is that? Aside from the Horta, I sampled something called “white tea” that Shira Lipkin and some guy in a white bathrobe recommended. Sort of minty paint varnish. It effectively anesthetized my inhibitions enabling me to join Trisha “Queen of Awesome” Wooldridge and the others getting down to the music.
After midnight, tipsy and in need of working off some alcohol before bed, I stood in the second best ballroom at the Westin during the Weird Science Dance, looking around me. Is it our culture or is it part of our nature to be dissatisfied with our mere selves and yearn to be what we dream? All around me are costumes. There’s the folks bringing their steampunk world to life. There’s the sex goddess, the fairy queen, Dr. Who, and the companion cube (yes, really). Me, I’m the science fiction writer. You know, the famous author who hasn’t been discovered yet. It’s a very popular costume at these events.
It’s fun to pretend. I don’t think the zombies really want to be zombies. They just want to get stares and gasps at their awesome make-up job. However, I expect a good percentage of the Trekkers would admit that if a portal were to suddenly open up, giving them access to a Federation future, they wouldn’t hesitate to walk through.
Then I had a flashback to a “Meet the Prose” party at Readercon. So many people desperate to get recognized, people with more skill and savvy than I have, better connections, more energy, yet still lost in that immense ocean of the trying to get published, the published and trying to get noticed, the published and noticed struggling to keep their place and climb to the next rung. I’ve tried, and I know I can’t compete in that mosh pit. Like most of them, I have about as much chance of realizing my own dream of success as having that portal open and Picard reach out his hand.
But here we all are, out on the dance floor.
Sunday morning, another busy day. I needed to brave the Green Room again for con fuel (coffee, that is). I do not ever verbally abuse volunteers, but I was tempted.
The staff of the Green Room were a lot more friendly last year. I found it unreasonable in the extreme when I wandered down first thing in the morning wearing a perfectly respectable pair of slipper socks and was informed that I couldn’t even come in and get a blessed cup of coffee until I marched myself all the way back to my room and put on proper shoes. Rules are rules, but the staff were just a bit too enthusiastic about enforcing them. I observed one poor gentleman publicly embarrassed when he made the mistake of idly running his fingers through his hair a bit too close to the coffee table for the staff’s liking. Perhaps they were merely trying to discourage participants from using the Green Room at all in order to reduce crowding and make the food last longer. Worked for me.
The Con Suite and the Green Room both were disappointing this year. Granted, they had to deal with more people in a smaller space, but I remember eating well last year. This year the choice of food was more limited, and they always seemed to be running out just as I got there. Covering the floor and furniture in plastic in the Con Suite didn’t work. There’s got to be a better way.
Monday after the last panel I collected the boys and we hit the dealer’s room for T-shirts before going on our merry way. The boys had mostly hung out in the gaming room playing Magic, or wandering the hotel, checking out movies and panels on their own. It’s good to have kids old enough to find their own ways of getting into trouble, and smart enough to avoid it and have fun anyway. They came to the Metropolis panel, being big fans of the film themselves, and joined in the discussion. Max (elder son) got to show off his duck tape prosthetic hand, a tribute to Rotwang (or Dr. Strangelove, another very worthy mad scientist). We verified it was indeed the right hand. Accuracy of detail is important.
If I could have chosen one panel for them to come to, it would have been that one. Aside from myself, Eric Van (Dean of Readercon) and Sonya Taaffe (uber girl geek), we had artist, writer and animator Frank Wu and writer John McDaid. Eric had disliked the film until the latest restoration made it nearly whole again, and filled in the gaping and bleeding wounds left by the cutters. The rest of us had already been converts because of the sheer visual beauty of the film and the power of its metaphors. But no one disagreed that adding the lost footage finally made the plot make sense, and gave desperately needed depth to the characters.
Ultimately, this is the best part of any con. I love the parties and the opportunity to see all those folks I never see anytime else. But the panels, matching wits with the truly awesome, or just shutting up and listening to what they have to say, is what will bring me back, year after year, con after con. Now I’ve exposed my boys to the geekly and weird, which I believe is part of my job as a parent. We’ll see what they do with the experience.