Worldcon ’08

Clearly I am not a real blogger. The World Science Fiction Convention (also cringingly known as “Denvention”) has been over for days. All the real bloggers were on their laptops uploading photos and blow-by-blows in real time. Not me. But just in case there’s any interest left on the insta-net, here’s how it went.

Portland to Denver, Monster Panel

Day 1-2: This is our first road trip with the dog. We bought a rooftop cargo box for the Mini so that the back seats could go down and Teagan could have a large space to nest. She uses it sporadically, mostly sticking to her in-town driving position; back feet on the edge of the back seat, left front paw on the emergency break, right front paw on the passenger seat/passenger’s leg. She never fully relaxes in the car but does okay. Except when we drift over the rumble strip, which terrifies her.
We stay overnight at the Comfort Inn, which is an awesome hotel if you’re bringing a dog. Unfortunately Teagan remains tense, and Marcie stays awake all night to keep her from barking. The next day we determine that the dog bed in the car makes a passable human bed as well. We take turns driving and napping, and pull into Denver mid-afternoon.

Day 3: hiking in the Rockies with my Dad, Marcie, Teagan, and Tycho and Casey (my parents’ dogs). We went up a gorgeous valley near Mosquito Pass, checked out an old abandoned mine. Tycho taught Teagan to hunt for marmots. Good times had by all.

Day 4: We visit the art museum with my folks. Last time we were in town it was still under construction. Rumor has it the crazily angled architecture makes some people seasick, but we all dig it. After that we go to the convention center for early badge pick-up. Practically no lines at all, a big switch from Anime Expo or ComicCon. The guy who hands me my badge is amiable and nerdy, giving me a warm welcome feeling. These are my people. We are here to celebrate my brother Erik’s 40th birthday, which technically was back in April, but we can delay the festivities to accommodate the roaming international science fiction convention, back in Denver after 27 years.

Day 5: Wednesday. We get this party started. There is a panel on giant monster movies in the first time slot, and obviously I am obliged to attend. Marcie and I find seats a few minutes early. Did I say these are my people? Waiting for this panel to start, I begin to feel like I’ve strayed a little too far into the nerd underworld. We are surrounded by PhDs in B-movie folklore, and they are trading arcane trivia about Ed Wood, Roger Corman, and some guy called Newcastle. One woman is spinning raw wool into yarn while waxing poetic about Ray Harryhausen. What have we gotten ourselves into?

Much of the panel goes like this:
Audience member: I think I saw this movie on tv when I was a kid with a giant chicken…?
Panelist: Oh yeah, that’s Guilala in The X From Outer Space, 1967, Shochiku Studios.
There’s also an interesting discussion about Cloverfield, and whether 9/11 killed the daikaiju genre. Which it couldn’t have, since the whole thing started as a response to the bombing of Hiroshima…okay, clearly I do belong here.
The most shocking revelation of the panel (and possibly the whole convention) was Pulgasari. Apparently, when Kim Jong Il was just a young tyrant-to-be, his father kidnapped a South Korean director and imported a Japanese crew so that L’il Kim could make himself a monster movie.
Sound too stupid to be true? Look it up.

Galactic Empire, Genre-Bending, Goggles

Wednesday night we go out to a Moroccan restaurant with Paul & Susie & Paul’s parents. After that, Marcie goes back to my parents’ house, and Erik & I go with Paul & Susie to see The Dark Knight Returns on Imax. I’m the only one who hasn’t waited for an open Imax seat to see it. The rooftop scenes are breathtaking. Everything else is just as good the second time. It’s a late night, but the dual-ended candle-burning has just begun.

Thursday. Day 6 of our trip, day 2 of the Con. What sets this apart from other escapist pop-culture cons is it’s all about the ideas. There is a Stuff Room with vendors of books, t-shirts, jewelry, toys, and so on (one guy has a huge assortment of goggles! More than I could scrounge out of army surplus stores in my whole life! But I keep it under control, I only buy one pair with matching flight hat), but it’s a very small part of the proceedings. The panels, on the other hand, happen 10 at a time all day, every day. Some, like the giant monster panel, are deep trivia fan-fests. There are also panels with a literary focus; plot construction, characterization, sub-genres, meta-genres. And there are professionally-oriented panels; working with large and small press, working with agents, being a sci-fi painter or sculptor. But the majority of panels grapple with science fiction’s assorted hypothetical problems; what life is like under a dwarf star, what makes a believable alien, and what social structures would hold up a galactic empire, to name a few we visit on Thursday.

We’re celebrating Erik’s birthday, but it turns out to be an opportunity to reunite the old Denver gang; Phil and Rachel are in from the Bay Area (also attending the Con), Paul and Susie are in from Chicago, and we all meet up with Chris for dinner. Then we go watch Paul and Susie perform comedy at a burlesque show.

Ever been to a burlesque show? It’s not your garden variety strip club. (I speak from vast experience, naturally.) There are girls taking off their clothes, there is an MC making lewd jokes, but there is also an unmistakable current of feminine power. It’s a tragically unique show tonight; the regular MC had died unexpectedly, and some of the acts were rearranged at the last minute. They don’t burden the audience with sad stories, just go on with the show. Paul and Susie go on twice, and they are FREEKIN HILARIOUS!

Then we go out drinking. I’ve never gone out and partied with Erik, it’s pretty cool. By the second bar we’ve lost Chris, and by the third we lose Phil and Rachel. The last stop is mostly burlesque performers, a kind of wake for their lost friend. We close the place down. For Marcie and I, the whole experience is far beyond our normal bounds of goingoutness. We stumble home at 3 am like the hard-living college students we never were.

Social Change, Geek Fatigue

Along with the many panels, film screenings, and anime episodes, Worldcon offers author readings and Kaffeeklatches, where 8 fans sit at a table with an author for an hour or so. Erik has many favorite authors in attendance, including the one guy Marcie and I are especially interested in seeing: Ian MacDonald. His book Brasyl is up for the Best Novel Hugo Award. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention, the Hugo Awards are decided at Worldcon, voted on by the attendees, meaning us. I read all the nominated short stories, novellas, and novelettes, but only one novel (Rollback). I voted for Brasyl anyway. (I finished reading it this week and stand by my choice.) The winners will be announced at the Hugo Award ceremony Saturday night. But it’s still Friday, as I was saying, and we are electing not to sign up for Ian McDonald’s Kaffeeklatch (also happening Saturday). The whole idea makes each of us uncomfortable. What would we say to him? What if we come off like stalkers? Besides, who wants to show up at 8 in the morning to sign up? But then Phil chimes in. He’s been to a kaffeeklatch already. I can’t remember the author, it was someone he wasn’t hugely excited about but he signed up anyway and tells us it was a wonderful experience. Alright, fine, we’ll meet here early tomorrow and get in line.

But for now it’s Friday, and Ian McDonald is on a panel about Science Fiction as a vehicle for social change. I haven’t read any of the other panelists. (Alright, now I do feel like a stalker. Really, there are lots of other sci-fi authors I enjoy, but my other favorites are not in attendance. Except for Connie Willis, which I’ll catch in another panel, and Phil Foglio, who I totally fail to talk to in the dealer room, and Robert Silverberg, who lays low until the Hugo ceremony.)

It’s a great panel, delving into the effects literature and art can/should/do have on an audience and society. I’m especially struck by some of the things James Morrow says (best line: “adult fetuses haunting their quasi-parents”)– I’ll have to look into his work. In fact I should read all of these folks, given that they have an interest in making a difference. Once upon a time I dreamed of making a difference. Then li’l bush got re-elected. But that’s another post.

Friday afternoon is the Critter Crunch, a gladiatorial robot combat, the inspiration for Robot Battle which has always been on cable channels I don’t get. I’ve been looking forward to seeing some miniaturized mechanized mayhem. It’s in the ballroom of the hotel, a few blocks from the convention center. We take the opportunity to check out the Con Suite, a breakout room in the hotel where attendees can lounge around, grab a free snack, work a jigsaw puzzle, and other low key activities just about 24 hours a day. Even though we never make it back there (except for Marcie, on a diabolical quest for P state quarters in the coin exchange) it lends the con a great sense of hospitality.

Alright, enough warm fuzziness. To the ballroom! To the Critter Crunch! We get there a few minutes after start time – no matter, it’s scheduled to go on for several hours, and I just want to catch a few rounds of carnage. But there is no carnage. There is nothing happening. There is a smallish plywood stage, people sitting in chairs, other people fiddling with robots and remote controls.

And this is where it all finally starts to wear on me. I don’t know why, really. It’s not as if we’ve had to wait around for a lot of things at the con. It’s certainly not as if I’m any more witty or charming than the presenters. But here we are, the robots I can see are disappointingly small and box-like, and they aren’t ready, and the sound system isn’t working, and a long-haired guy in a lab coat is stalling with a long-winded history of the Critter Crunch, peppered with inside jokes that don’t seem very funny even if you’re in on them. Lots of people at the the con are under a sadly mistaken impression that they are “witty.” Many people mistake the exaggerated stringing together of redundant overly-technical terminology for “wit.” I know, I’m being cruel and hypocritical. What is the World Sci-Fi Convention if not a place for nerds to gather, free from judgement? But I can’t help it. It grates on me. Maybe I’ve been spoiled by the Stumptown crowd; also a bunch of geeks, but hugely entertaining to be around.

Finally The robots are working, warmed up, and Labcoat is still talking. I start yelling “fight! fight!” at passive-aggressive volume. Labcoat gets the message and the Crunch is on. It’s not too exciting though. All you have to do is push you’re opponent off the platform, making the preferred weapon a little snowplow. No spinning saws, no hammers, no mechanical arms. I guess it’s childish to expect such things, but come on! Battling robots! What am I supposed to expect?

We catch a couple more panels and call it a day. Anyway it’s good to have some time with my parents. Especially since they’ve had to babysit our dog this whole time. Teagan plays with Tycho really well, but she’s still not totally sure about Casey. Not exactly the non-stop dog party we were expecting, but they’re doing okay.

Hangin’ with Ian

Today is Ian McDonald day; he’s doing a reading at 11:30 and the kaffeeklatch at 2:30. Oh, and this evening they present the Hugo Awards.
We arrive at 8 am, an hour before kaffeeklatch signup opens. There are around 100 people already in line. There are lots of kaffeeklatches though, and it turns out Marcie, Erik and I are #s 1, 2 and 3 for Ian McDonald. Score! We briefly entertain the notion that no one else will sign up, but of course it fills up. That’s later. We go get breakfast.

As I mentioned, there are films and anime screening almost constantly. So far we haven’t seen any. This morning I decide to take a look at the anime. Marcie and I find the room. It’s still early and there is only one person in there. The program is a high school soap opera, not my cup of tea. Some of the characters look like they might change into demon warriors under the right circumstances, but we opt not to stay.

We catch the last half of John Picacio, one of the Hugo nominated artists, presenting slides of his work. I wasn’t especially struck by what I saw of him online before voting (I voted for Phil Foglio and Shaun Tan) but between this presentation and what he’s got on display in the art show, he grows on me a lot. Some of his Photoshop collage and photographed constructions remind me of Dave McKean. Plus he seems like a thoroughly decent guy.

After that it’s time for Ian McDonald’s reading. The three of us find the room early and no one is there. We sit in the second row. It’s a small room, maybe 50 chairs, feels very cozy. Some more groups come in, and pretty soon the man himself marches up to the front table. We’re talking with the other audience members, and Ian can’t help but overhear and sort of get pulled in. Marcie tells him how hard it was to read Brasyl during her post-MBA brain crash, and he agrees it’s a difficult read, “like being hit over the head with a bat.”
It’s been several years since I’ve read any McDonald. He writes densely packed prose that demands your full attention (after the first chapter of The Broken Land, I felt like I’d read an entire book). But when he launches into excerpts from his forthcoming book The Dervish House, I ask myself, what have I been reading all this time? I am instantly dazzled, transported, engrossed, exhilarated. I won’t even try to describe the story, I could only do it disservice in my limited space. Suffice to say he swings across centuries and introduces four distinct casts of characters. By the fourth segment I’m barely paying attention, overloaded with images, personalities, intrigue. It is sublime.

We meet up with Phil and Rachel for lunch. I pump Phil for info about the generation ship panel I missed on Friday. I’m supposedly writing a story about a generation ship in my spare time, so I should have gone, but there’s just too much to go to everything. As it turns out, my story ignores most of the questions raised in the panel. I’m also supposedly working on stories involving time travel, nanotechnology, and consciousness-affected quantum weirdness, and I have dutifully attended panels on those subjects. I take my sketchbook everywhere, and at odd times I’m inspired to fill in background information and plot points on my various stories. It’s nice. Maybe the ultimate reward for being here.
You didn’t know I’m writing stories? I am. Supposedly. The comics and teaching and event planning have kept my head spinning and I haven’t really written anything since getting back from Denver. Here it is, almost October, and I haven’t even finished blogging the stupid convention. So it goes. But I digress. It’s August, and I’ve got several stories slowly accumulating in various file folders and sketchbook pages, which I’m less optimistic about ever seeing the light of publication than I am my comics projects, which is not much. Just like 90% of my fellow attendees, I’m sure (except for the comic stuff. Most of these people have much more lucrative day jobs.)
Then we go to Ian McDonald’s kaffeeklatch.

It’s in one of the convention breakout rooms. There are round tables spread loosely around the room, each marked with an author’s name, coffee and tea in one corner. We find our table, which we share with half a dozen other fans. McDonald is the last to arrive. There are enough talkative people that conversation starts up right away. Our group is mercifully free of self-important uber-fans attempting to become best friends with Ian. A couple people don’t say anything at all, but everyone who wants to speak gets a chance. It is just the coolest thing ever. And Ian says several things that amaze me.

He has a day job. As a TV producer. He’s been a full-time writer in the past but prefers to do other things as well. (Makes a certain amount of sense, I guess. When I see Ben Edlund’s name pop up all over the place, I figure his towering stature as creator of The Tick opened the doors to writing and producing for Firefly. But more likely, the paltry rewards of a cult comic book empire forced him to moonlight in TV. Or something. I don’t really know anything about Ben Edlund’s life. But it gradually becomes clear to me at this con that as with comics, a science fiction author can have books in print and still not be particularly well-off. This should demoralize me, but it has the opposite affect. As with comics, it means I am not so far from my idols.)

“Writers hate to write,” he says. Writers will do everything there is to do but write the damn book. That’s the norm? I’m not missing a gene that drives one to constant profligate creation? Well I am missing that gene, but historically it seems intertwined with self-destruction. So that’s okay. I can be one of the others, the ones who struggle. That’s most of them. Us.

He gets jealous. He reads something brilliant, and his enjoyment is tainted with the wish that he had written it. That’s me all over.

He says lots of other interesting things. He signs Erik’s books when it’s all over. He won’t remember any of us. It’s the best hour of the convention, worth the trip all by itself.

After that it’s all gravy. We’ve got a few hours before the Hugo ceremony, so I take my first in-depth look at the dealer room. There’s lots of great stuff, lots of out-of-print books, lots of really witty t-shirts, but I just want one thing. Goggles. I go back to the goggle guy and after much deliberation I buy one more pair, the most obnoxious gigantic bug-eyes I can find.

The Hugos, Last Day

Alright, you’re sick of reading about this and I’m sick of writing about it. Let’s put it to bed.

Saturday night and we’re in the big auditorium for the Hugo Award ceremony.

High points: the toastmaster’s opening monolog is really funny. Robert Silverberg and Connie Willis are hilarious, warning against the hazards of winning a Hugo and just being in Colorado, respectively. The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate by Ted Chiang won for best novelette. Dr. Who: Blink won for dramatic presentation, short form.

Low points: At least two thirds of the winners are not there to accept the awards. At the end they take a ludicrous group photo of the “winners,” the majority of them proxies.
Michael Chabon got the big prize– best novel– for The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. I haven’t read it, so I can’t say whether it was deserved. I did read The Adventures of Cavelier and Klay, which did not impress me especially. So I’m not exactly a fan, quite possibly biased against the guy. In any case, as his representative reads Chabon’s thank-you speech and gushes on about how gratifying and prestigous the Hugo is, I can’t help thinking “the author doth protest too much.” This convention has hammered home what a niche science fiction really is. Why should the New York Times bestselling author care about it? Just sayin.

Sunday is the last day. At 5 days, this is the long con (ha ha). I’ve never attended a con for more than 3 days before. By Sunday morning, Marcie is done. She attends one final panel with me, one for artists about pricing your work. This is the last in a series of panels for professional artists that have been going on since day 1, but somehow I missed them all. Still, the pricing panel is a goldmine of information, and potentially the most valuable panel of the whole con. (Almost two months later I still haven’t taken any steps toward selling prints, but honestly it’s been a hell of an almost two months. Stay tuned.)

Erik and I are staying to the bitter end. Marcie is calling it quits and heading back to my parent’s house. Before she leaves, she goes to my favorite vendor and buys me three more pairs of goggles. What did I do to deserve her?

The closing ceremonies. All special guests march across the stage, the toastmaster is funny again. The proverbial torch is passed to Montreal, host of next year’s Worldcon, in a skit involving roped-up explorers. Or something. It’s hard to follow because the sound doesn’t work and apparently no one rehearsed. Strangely, I’m not bothered anymore. Maybe I’m just exhausted. Maybe the Hugos and the artist panel and Ian McDonald have extracted a committment from me, made me finally acknowledge that these really are my people.

The ceremony ends, the con is closed. Erik is parked on the other side of the convention center. I wear my flight hat and goggles all the way to the door.


One response

26 08 2011
Worldcon 2011, part 1 « Taking It Too Seriously

[…] Denver/Worldcon 2008 […]

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