Monday, September 15, 2014

One Last Pic - the Souvenir Not Taken

There was one last photo I almost forgot to post. Good thing I remembered, because this one was just too good — or too horrible — to pass up.

Nearly every major attraction around the UK (ancient castles, occupied palaces, museums, churches, etc) sells basically the same touristy souvenirs: pencil sharpener catapults, medieval-style chess sets, pewter mugs, fridge magnets and the like; even their own custom-made spirits or wines. It's pretty rare, but sometimes you come across a souvenir shop with something pretty unique, like the sponge sticks at the Canterbury Roman Museum. (Don't know what a sponge stick is for? Do some reading on ancient Roman hygiene practices.)

But what we found at the back end of the souvenir shop in the basement of the White Tower in the Tower of London (not in the other TOL shops, just the one in the White Tower), was so unexpected, and goes so far beyond anything else into the shadowy realm where bizarrely cool and completely inappropriate intersect, that I just had to share a picture of it.

Behold (above): the do-it-yourself paper executioner's diorama.

That's right, you know those little dioramas you can buy for your kids at places like museums or Science World, where the kids cut out or detach little paper segments and fit them together, using tabs and slots, to assemble a structure like a famous landmark, maybe the Eiffel Tower? Same principle here, except the goal is to not to build a castle or a bus or something, but rather an executioner and his victim at the chopping block, and a torturer (sorry, "pain technician" for all of my fellow Babylon 5 fans out there) and his victim on the rack.

I had actually walked past the thing in a get-me-out-of-this-tourist-trap fugue, but my wife caught sight of it and pulled me over. And it nearly blew my mind.

The souvenir shop had it an assembled model under glass and attached to motors so you could see how the paper figures could pivot as they went about their grim tasks. Boxes of the diorama kits were stacked nearby for bloody-minded tourists to snag on their way to the till.

It was one of those items that comes out of nowhere that was just so very, very wrong, and yet because of its uniqueness among the other mass-produced tchotchkes and specific and accurate link to some of the sites and activities within the Tower, it was also perfect.

We had to turn our backs on it though, because even though it was only the first full day of our trip to the UK, I knew we were going to be bogged-down with books, and whisky and clothes that we'd buy along the way, and I didn't think we'd have room in our luggage or that we'd want the extra weight of it. Moreover, I couldn't think of anywhere in our house we could display the thing. We also thought of a couple of relatives who would really get a kick out of it, but decided against getting it for them, as others might get the wrong idea.

Still, you've gotta give whoever thought this item up (and whoever agreed to stock it in the souvenir shop) credit for coming up with something so horribly wacky as to be almost suitable.

Photos from Loncon3 - and Beyond - Part 2

So, my last post was a little misleading because while I put up a bunch of pictures from Worldcon, I failed to include the promised "and beyond" images. An oversight, as I had fully intended to put up a few more pix from our trip around England and Scotland, but started to get tired last night while blogging, and started to think the post was long enough, so I closed it off and left the title as-is when I probably should have removed the "beyond" reference. Oh well.

Anyhow, for those who are interested, here are a few photos from the rest of the trip. Not a comprehensive album by any means, just a couple of images that might be somewhat interesting from a geeky perspective.



You know how much I love dragons, so you can imagine how giddy I became when we were in William the Conqueror's White Tower in Tower of London and we climbed up to another level and saw this big fellow dominating a hall. Note how he's made entirely of bits of weaponry - from the pistol claws to the helmet shoulder bones to the rifle and spear wing bones - perfect for a historic building devoted to war and full of displays of implements of destruction.


Facing the dragon head-on, and catching a glimpse of his treasure hoard, hidden in his belly.

















Gargoyles guarding the some of the buildings at the Tower of London.


St. Paul's Cathedral looking far less ominous than it did in Disney's Mary Poppins.

"Knight Rider, a shadowy flight into the dangerous world of a man who does not exist,..."

Well, you can't find AI-enhanced sports cars in the shadow of St. Paul's, but you can apparently get a plate of fish'n'chips.









From the British Museum: an ancient carving of a man fighting a dragon hand-to-hand (or hand-to-claw, as the case may be).


















The Rosetta Stone.


Anyone else remember the opening from Arthur C. Clarke's World of Strange Powers?
Or maybe that shitty final Indiana Jones movie?
Here's one of the crystal skulls, on display at the British Museum.

One of the Moai of Easter Island, on display at the British Museum.

Wasn't there an episode of the old G.I. Joe cartoon where Cobra Commander animates some of the Easter Island statues to fight the Joes?

For some reason, I also kept thinking of John Lithgow as Dick in 3rd Rock from the Sun bleating about an incoming transmission from The Big Giant Head.



Didn't have time to stop in Woking, but I had to get a shot of the sign as the train went through the station. I would have liked to have gone into town for a couple of minutes to see the statue of the Martian war machine that's supposed to be there. Oh well, maybe next time.


One of the legion of barrow mounds on the plains near Stonehenge. It put me in mind of Frodo and Tom Bombadil and their barrow wight, and Conan's encounter with the tomb of the Atlantean king.










Stonehenge, in all its ancient magnificent ruin.















The great megaliths of Stonehenge had some unknown purpose for humans in the deep past, but now they're a perch for crows...



...and a backdrop for nerdy tourists.



One of the gargoyles guarding Canterbury Cathedral.


A cool carving of a dragon and a dog on the gatehouse in front of Canterbury Cathedral. Not sure if they represent something, being as close to the royal standard as they are, or if they're purely decorative.
















The wreckage of Canterbury's old Norman castle.



Inside the walls of Canterbury's Norman castle, I found this view of two windows and the ruin of the central staircase really quite creepy. Like the face of Castle Grey Skull from the old Master of the Universe toys, except more time-worn, heavy, and somewhat unsettling.




A witch-dunking chair over the river running through Canterbury (also for poorly-behaving wives and bad businessmen).
As our boat went under it, I kept thinking of that scene from Monty Python's The Holy Grail with Cleese going on about "she turned me into a newt!"
Of course, being a redhead with green-blue eyes, I'd have been afraid of being put in that chair myself back in the old days.


How do you know you're in Scotland? When the stormtroopers wear kilts, of course!
I met this guy at the end of the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh on the Royal Mile. I was impressed with his local accents to his uniform. He was impressed that I was familiar with the 501st Legion. Saw another stormtrooper on the 'Mile a day later, but she wasn't wearing a kilt or flag.



The Sir Walter Scott monument in Edinburgh.
No offense to any Scottish readers, but when I saw this thing, my first thought was of the cathedral of the Church of Final Atonement (the Shrike Cult) on Lusus in Dan Simmons' Hyperion Cantos.
It's a jagged, frightening kind of structure.


The Writers' Museum in Edinburgh, devoted to the Scottish holy trinity of Robbie Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson.
A cool-looking old mansion, with quite an interesting collection inside.
The courtyard in front of it is also the staging area to take the Edinburgh Book Lovers' Tour (guided by writer Allan Foster), which was definitely worth while.



A flying lion gargoyle on one of the buildings within Edinburgh Castle.


Edinburgh Castle at sunset, in all its sprawling majesty.














Standing stones at the ancient cairn complex near Inverness.



See the round indentations carved into this stone in one of the cairns near Inverness? Our guide (and if you're in the area, you should go with Around Loch Ness and George Polwarth) said the consensus is that they were made on purpose, but no-one's sure what they represent. Maybe a constellation?


No tour of the Highlands is complete without a visit to Loch Ness. Aside from this fake plesiosaur beside a hotel on the banks, there was no sign of Nessie in the lake, just water the colour of stout.


Some of my plunder from the trip: a big stack of science fiction and fantasy books bought at the Loncon3 dealers' room and a couple of bookstores around London, a nearly 200-year-old illustrated collection of Robbie Burns poetry (purchased from antiquarian dealer The Chaucer Bookshop in Canterbury - very nice ladies to help you find what you're looking for among their shelves of interesting finds), and a few whiskies that are hard or impossible to find in my neck of the woods.



Another treasure brought back from the con: one of the t-shirts I bought from Ubertorso in the dealers' room. These guys make awesome t-shirts for companies from science fiction and other movies. I picked up this one for Quint's fishing charters from Jaws, along with an Encom t-shirt and Flynn's Arcade shirt from Tron - and a Hadley's Hope LV426 shirt (Aliens) for my brother.
The best part: just a couple of days ago, I was wearing the Quint's shirt while shopping at Costco, and I was approached by 2 guys with vastly different reactions:
The first guy came up to me in the parking lot on my way in and was interested to know where I'd gone fishing and what the charter had been like. I tried not to laugh as I told him it was a fake, and the charter company was from Jaws. He had to think about it for a minute before he got it, smiled, and walked away.
The second guy was a Costco employee who came up to me after I was leaving the checkout stand. His eyes were wide and locked onto the shirt as he walked over saying "Ohhhhhhhhh, that is so awesome! That. Is. Awesome! Only we would expect that!" He gave me a high-five and moseyed on his way. Well played, fellow geek. Well played.
I may have to buy some other shirts from these guys. I certainly regretted not having the money to buy more at the con.

Photos from Loncon3 - and Beyond

Well, the wife and I have been back from Loncon3 and the rest of our trip around England and Scotland for about two weeks now, and having sorted through the zillions of photos we took, I figured I'd share a few with you.

These are all from Worldcon, but I may share a few others from the trip in the next day or so.

Enjoy! - or feel free to mock.



The Helsinki 2017 bid wasted no time at Loncon - hitting up people lining up to register on the morning of Day 1 by handing out candy. I'll give the Fins a lot of credit, they want that Worldcon, and they want it bad, and they worked very hard to bring people onside.
Admittedly, I'm probably more likely to register and vote next year in Montreal's favour, because it's a Canadian city, a lot closer, a lot cheaper, and it would be cool for Worldcon to be there for Canada's 150th birthday and Montreal's 375th birthday. But, if it has to go to anyone else, I really hope it's Finland.
Still, I haven't eaten that candy yet. I'm afraid I'll lose consciousness and wake up a week later in an elk-hide tent in the middle of Lapland, trimming birch boughs for some crazy Finnish family's sauna (I'm looking at you, Mark Karjaluoto!).



The Loncon 3 program guides. Very cool. So cool, in fact, that I even lugged the big one back home to Vancouver, somehow finding room in my overstuffed suitcase.

"Take me with you, Doctor!"
Now we know why the Doctor keeps the door locked when he's out and about. Some people just aren't cut out to be Companions.


Vancouver's White Dwarf Books leaves its mark - or bookmarks, as the case may be - on the Loncon 3 freebies table.

Deadpool and his buddy were just so awesome, I couldn't pass up the chance to put them in the crosshairs - of my camera, that is. Bonus points to the cosplayer behind Deadpool's mask who did a fine job of imitating the assassin's banter.


A whisky bottle display and map of Scotland in honour of the late Iain M. Banks.


"...And onto this, bloginhood, destined to wear a receding hairline upon a troubled brow."

or

A Game of Nerds


My wife definitely looks more regal than I do.



(above) A multitude of Millennium Falcons

(left) A very detailed replica of Solo's ship


(above) Here's one droid the Jawas won't be loading on their sandcrawler. Delete that little sucker, Cyberman!

(left) A chorusline of cosplayers

(below) More cosplayers



This mini steampunk Dalek just wants to exterminate the contents of your coal scuttle.
















This Dalek, a member of the Cult of Tiki, is known for having screamed at the Doctor: "You will hula! Hula! HUUUUULAAAAAA!"

















The photo of this Drow isn't out of focus, he's just moving with incredible lethal speed.  ;)


This photo is out of focus, which is too bad, because Brian Aldiss was very entertaining as he shared a lifetime's worth of career recollections.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Loncon 3 - Day 5 - Time to Say Goodbye

There's a point in the late summer where you step outside, and the wind has changed, and you know that summer's over. There may technically be a few days, a week, or even the better part of a month left before September, and the sun may still be hot, but the sky has changed colour slightly, and the breeze blows a little cooler and has that first hint of a snap to its taste, and you know then that autumn is on its way in.

That was (and always is) what it was like stepping out on the morning of day 5 of Worldcon: the last day of summer. Most of a full day of robust programming ahead, but it's the last day, and the dealers and the information display people and the artists are all packing up, and for all that's left to do, the energy's gone, and looking in the faces around you, you can see that everybody knows it.

But we all take part because everyone wants to hold on just a little bit longer. It's been that good. And so we go to Monday's panels and activities and make the most of them; make the most of our last day of nerdy summer.

For my part, here's what I did:

It was a later start to the morning for me; I didn't show up until about 10:30, to take in Patrick Rothfuss' reading. Rothfuss, who can be deliciously foul-mouthed when he wants to be, despite being exceptionally well-spoken, got things up and running with a short speech about the joys, and appropriateness, of cussing, when asking if there were any kids in the room that he'd have to be careful about cussing around. That led to his statement, which was so perfect that I had to tweet it, even as we were all putting our cell phones away so that he could get started with his reading: "I don't swear because I have a bad vocabulary. I have a maaaaarvelous vocabulary." Fuck yeah.

Anyhow, he shared a short bit from a new piece of fiction with us, which, of course, piqued our interest and left us wanting more (as he said it would). He also read a scathing review he wrote about a children's book. So severe, in fact, that it didn't just outline what was wrong witht he story, it went much, much farther, taking the tack of schooling the author in how it should  have been done. Rothfuss drew from his own abilities to devote much of his column to rewriting the story to make it better, smarter, and more appropriate for children. And his critically-driven correction/rewrite was so good, it made me think that I'd like to see Rothfuss actually try his hand at writing a children's book sometime. I'd certainly buy it for my nephew and neice if he did.

When the reading concluded, I met up with my wife to head over to "The World at Worldcon: Chinese SF/F". My wife is Chinese, from Hong Kong, and was interested in hearing about the sci-fi scene of the Mainlanders, and for my part, as you've seen from my program attendance pattern over the past few days, I'm keen to learn about what's happening in sf literature and fandom all over the world.

During this group's presentation (it mostly seemed to be a series of speeches from its participants, rather than a real discussion), we were able to decypher a couple of interesting points about the nature of modern Chinese sf. According to one panelist, Chinese science fiction is different from that in the West because it draws from its own cultural traditions which don't distinguish between fantasy and traditional beliefs. This is illustrated by Wu xia stories, where martial artists have impossible powers (like leaping up walls or knocking a man over from across a room without touching him, by using the power of chi), but this isn't considered to be something made up, simply accepted as the benefit from having a great mastery of kung fu. A panelist also noted that Western writers tend to use metaphors and try to create deeper meaning, where Chinese writers do not, and instead include ambiguity in their stories (one reason why, it was claimed, they're big on Kafka's work).

There were, however, a couple of points raised that were rather hard to believe.

One panelist, an editor, emphatically claimed that the Chinese government "does not censor the ideas of the writers, only the behaviour of the market." Yeah. Sure. A government that regularly censors or out-and-out blockades social media and other internet communications channels (I can recall being unable to access Facebook, Twitter, and my internet service provider's webmail site while in Beijing a few years ago) and search engines; and that is notorious for leaning on Hollywood production companies to comply with its standards for movie content, else they run the risk of not being allowed to show films to the vast Chinese audience; a government that jails dissident artists; and, let's be honest, that is the same party responsible for the madness of the Cultural Revolution, and this guy wants us to believe that this government isn't censoring the writers who live there. Whatever. The guy then went on to say that as long as a writer doesn't "write a specific person's name in a critical way" (I'm guessing he means government official) or specifically mention the Tiananmen Square atrocity by name — or even refer to its date! — then the writer is okay. Yeah. No censorship there, dude. Right.

The panelists later made the claim that most Chinese science fiction writers are interested in science (stories about things like spaceships), not politics (like the never-to-be-named Tiananmen Square), and so alternate history isn't really a sub-genre that's explored much, except for some stories that focus on the ancient past. One has to wonder though, if writers might be interested in experimenting with alternate history stories if, you know, they weren't at risk of being sent to the gulag. On the same topic, the editor on the panel claimed "In my opinion, alternate history stories are not good for writers because readers can argue with them." I think someone's missing the point. But whatever; it's their scene, not mine, and they can have it.

After that, we took one last walk around, watching as the displays started to come down and things began to get packed up. We wandered into the dealers' room, and had one last chat with the old guys who were selling-off their collections. Nothing on the book pile to tempt me today, but it's the conversations that have the real value.

From there, we headed over to the last of the plays being performed at the con: "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)". It ran a little longer than I thought it would, but the performance was absolutely hillarious, and the actors knew how to play to the audience, throwing in a barrage of sci-fi references, including Highlander's "There can be only one!", a debate about when certain types of Earth Alliance destroyers came into service in the Babylon 5 universe, and, most appropriately, Shakespeare "in the original Klingon". If this show comes to a playhouse in your community, it's definitely worth watching.

And then it was time to go. Sure, there were other panels running through the afternoon, and the closing ceremony, but we'd had our fill. The Loncon 3 organizing committee did a monumental job of putting on this event. It wasn't just a con. It was a statement: this is how you bring the members of a diverse and far-flung community together and educate, entertain, and engage them. This is how you ensure that every single person who attends gets everything they possibly can out of the experience. And it was really, really fun.

But just like that last true day of summer, you know when the wind has changed. We looked around from our lunch table and saw people wandering around trailing their suitcases, with tired eyes but happy smiles, and giving each other just one last warm handshake or squishy hug of farewell. It was like that scene at the end of Meatballs: summer camp was over, and we were all just waiting for Bill Murray to appear and hop on his motorbike with Roxanne and lead us home.

Goodbye, Worldcon. Goodbye, summer. Thank you for everything.



Sunday, August 17, 2014

Loncon 3 - Day 4

First of all, allow me to congratulate the winners of the 2014 Hugo Awards:

  • Sarah Webb (Best Fan Artist)
  • Kameron Hurley (Best Fan Writer)
  • SF Signal Podcast (Best Fancast)
  • A Dribble of Ink (Best Fanzine)
  • Lightspeed Magazine (Best Semiprozine)
  • Julie Dillon (Best Professional Artist)
  • Ginjer Buchanan (Best Editor — Long Form)
  • Ellen Datlow (Best Editor — Short Form)
  • Game of Thrones "The Rains of Castamere" (Best Dramatic Presentation — Short Form)
  • Gravity (Best Dramatic Presentation — Long Form)
  • Randall Munroe "Time" (Best Graphic Story)
  • Kameron Hurley "We Have Always Fought: Challenging the Women, Cattle and Slaves Narrative" (Best Related Work)
  • John Chu "The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere" (Best Short Story)
  • Mary Robinette Kowal "The Lady Astronaut of Mars" (Best Novelette)
  • Charles Stross "Equoid" (Best Novella)
  • Ann Leckie Ancillary Justice (Best Novel)


Also, congratulations to the winner of the John W Campbell Award:

  • Sofia Samatar


And congratulations to Kansas City for landing the 2016 Worldcon!

Excellent efforts from everyone involved!

And speaking of effort, although far, far more mundane and unimportant, it was an effort to get up this morning and go back to the con. Not because there's anything wrong with the con — far from it— it's just that the full days, including all the walking around, supplemented by our touring around in London, followed by the late nights of blogging, and not quite enough sleep, are starting to catch up with me. But, despite the fatigue, I'm still enjoying myself immensely.

I began this morning in the authors' signing area in the dealers' room, coming in to get my Wildcards books autographed by Melinda Snodgrass. There was really no line to speak of yet, and, best of all, Snodgrass is really personable and took the time to chat, and we talked about the nearby Emirates Air Line gondola ride over the Thames (worth taking as a quick way of getting out of the Excel campus and over to the O2 area where there are more dining options).

Because it was still fairly close to the top of the hour, I decided to take in a session right away, and headed into "The Spies We (Still) Love"  panel. As I walked in, the group on the panel was making the point that the nature of fictional spies has changed in the last decade or so, in that they're less likable now, even though they have greater moral authority. One panelist said "I'd be much more worried if Jack Bauer knocked on my door than Angus MacGyver." Others wondered if the heavy tone, or lack of comedy in today's fictional spies (with the exception of Archer, Chuck, Austen Powers and a few others) is because the world seems to have become a scarier place where there's a greater capacity to harm more people. I'll give the panel credit: it was, in many ways, a more serious discussion than I thought it would be, although there were a few laughs here and there.

After that, I went over to a session asking "What Does Ireland Have to Offer?", which was really more about Irish identity in its writing, but spent a lot of time discussing the difference between what Irish culture and folklore really is, versus what it's usually thought to be by the wider world (or, as the panel put it, what Irish culture and folklore is not). Prime example: fairies. As the panelists put it, most people have an image of Irish fairies that's more like the English tradition of the Fairie Queen, where there are tall, beautiful, wise, otherworldly beings on one side, and a few ugly ones on the other. What's actually closer to Irish folklore, said the panelists, is that fairies "live over there, and they're scary and weird and don't fuck with them." This lead to a discussion of how strong the old superstitions can be, so that even today, even with people who claim not to believe in such things, there's a very real fear of places traditionally associated with fairies, because on some level, no-one wants to do anything that would honk them off.

Following lunch, I got in line for the Kim Stanley Robinson signing. This was another of those great con situations where standing in line prompts fans to connect with one-another. During the half-hour we were waiting to get to the front of the line, I got to know the semi-retired Yorkshire gardener with the MA in science fiction, and the Danish translator who were standing in line. We swapped stories about everything from our favourite Robinson books, to education, to culture and fandom, to the degrees to which sf has or has not been able to climb out of the literary ghetto and get (or not) respectability in our home regions. Sometimes the line experience is as good (or even better) than getting the signature of the author you've been waiting to see.

But this was the perfect combination, because not only was there good company in the line, but at the end, Robinson was a cool guy. I'd brought my copy of The Years of Rice and Salt, and we spent a couple of minutes talking about the effort Robinson put into writing it, and how it's his favourite among his own books. Nice to hear, as it's certainly my favourite of his works, and probably in my Top 10 of all science fiction books.

After that, I made the mistake of strolling through the dealers' room again. "Mistake", because the trio of old guys who were selling-off their collections had opened another box and put some more treasures out on their table this morning — treasures I couldn't pass up. I didn't want to buy any books today, really I didn't. But when I was walking past their table, I noticed a volume of Isaac Asimov and Martin H Greenberg's The Great SF Stories sitting on top of the pile. A volume that I didn't have in my own collection. And this is important, because that series played a major role in my science fiction education. I had purchased volume 14 at my local bookstore as a young teen after my uncle introduced me to Asimov and Frank Herbert, and I was eager to get my hands on anything with their names on it. When I cracked open that anthology of the best sf stories from the chosen year, I was exposed to all the giants of the past, and some of the most influential short stories of the genre. As each new volume came out, I learned more and more, developed preferences, and started to notice trends. It really was an intense education in the anatomy and evolution of science fiction and fantasy. And so, when I looked over today and saw volume 1, I had to have it. And then I picked it up and saw other volumes, and still more. So I handed over volumes 1, 5, and 6, paid a reasonable price to the old fan on the other side of the table, and thought: now I have even more books to lug around the UK and then back home! I shudder to think what might happen if I go back in there tomorrow!

When that was done, I joined a friend for the "Brian Aldiss — 40 Years of Cover Art" session. There were a couple of other panels I was interested in during that time block (which is pretty much everybody's story at this con, because it's been organized so well and there's just so much to do), but I thought I'd attend this one because I've never seen Aldiss speak live before, and he's getting up there age-wise, so this might be my last chance. The name of the session was a bit of a mislabel, because even though the cover art of his books was mentioned a couple of times, most of the time was spent allowing Aldiss to reminisce about various experiences over the course of his life: everything from serving with the British Army in Burma during the Second World War, to getting stories or books published, to some of the famous people he's befriended over the years. While Aldiss' memory did fail from time to time, he still has some marvelous stories to tell, and a great sense of humour. The session ended with the audience singing "Happy Birthday" to him. And many more, sir!

Then I went to another of the fantastic "The World at Worldcon" sessions, this time, profiling the sf scene in Australia and New Zealand. Well, almost entirely Australia, because there were no New Zealanders on the panel. To be fair, the Aussie writers and editors did do a good job of rattling-off the names of several Kiwi writers when asked by a member of the audience, but mostly they stuck to discussing the state of sf in their own country. And, despite their prolific output, there is a problem with Australian science fiction, according to some members of the panel, the problem being that there is no Australian identity to their sf because of the nature of the country's book marketing system. They noted that if Australian writers want to work, they have to leave their country, or write for an American audience, which causes them to usually step back from exploring their own national identity. They noted that the small press scene is helping an Australian voice and identity start to emerge. But even that was qualified, with one panelist noting "there is a group that wants to celebrate Australians and everyday Australian life, but there is also a cultural cringe where people don't want to deal with stereotypes". Some also noted that the country's speculative fiction tends to be fantasy-heavy, and that more science fiction should be fielded, and that there's a definite need for greater diversity in all ways. Near the close of the session, there was a sort of call to action from the panel, with one member saying "what we need is a real breakout writer with a real breakout novel who will take the world by storm" to inspire other Australians to celebrate their unique voice and take it abroad.

At that point, it was time to meet up with my wife for supper, and then take in the Hugo Awards ceremony. Overall, the awards show was a good production. There were a few technical glitches, and it looked like the hosts were trying to buy extra time for some reason near the end when they started engaging the audience in some English Tube-related word game before announcing the winner of the Best Novel category, but everyone seemed to be having fun.

With that done, we headed back to the hotel, and got one final treat for the day: I don't know what the occasion was, but when we got up to our room, we looked out the window and saw fireworks across the Thames, somewhere in the distance on the south shore. Whatever the reason, it was a big, expensive display and a pretty way to end the day.

Tomorrow: the conclusion.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Loncon 3 - Day 3

What do you get when you combine dashed hopes, discussions of identity, and Klingon cheese?

No, it's not a day on a Canadian dairy farm during a constitutional crisis, it's a rough idea of how today went at Loncon 3.

It all started with me trundling into the convention centre about mid-morning, hoping to catch a programming session or two before getting in line for George RR Martin's signing at noon. I'd wanted to take in the "World at Worldcon" panel on Canadian literature (just to see who was talking and how it was being presented to the international audience), and maybe the "Dreaming England" session, but I also knew that there were probably an awful lot of people wanting Martin's autograph, so I figured I'd better see if they were already queuing up. Good thing I did. It wasn't even 10:30 yet, and already they were lined-up down the hallway, out the door, and around the corner. Since I'd lugged three of Martin's books half-way around the world to get signed, I figured I couldn't take any chances, so I ditched the programming sessions, snapped a quick photo of a guy in an awesome Deadpool costume, and got in line. Again, this was a fortunate decision, because that was right about the time the game was changed.

Up until about 5 minutes after I joined the line, the plan the organizers had told everyone (and presumably agreed to in advance with Martin's "people") was that he'd be signing from 12 until 1:30 (or 1:20, if you factored in a slightly early end to let people get to their next programming option), and that everyone was allowed to bring 3 items to be signed (and if you brought more, then after your first 3 you could go to the back of the line and resume waiting in the hope that you'd get to the front again before time was up). Now, unhappy-looking con volunteers had the unenviable duty of going along the line announcing the changes that Martin's people had suddenly made and were insisting on:
  • There would be no messages written, your name would not be written (only his own initials), and there would be no photos.
  • Fans would only be allowed to have 1 item signed, not three.
  • No-one would be allowed to go to the back of the line to have another item signed.
  • The signing would now only be until 1, not 1:20.
  • Martin would be signing for a maximum of 200 people. No more.
The whole limit on the line thing was so seriously enforced, that one volunteer was assigned to count everybody in the line, and make the cutoff line at the 200th person. I remember him getting as far as me when he suddenly was called away, and he asked me to remember that I was "120", just in case he forgot. No-one was very happy with the 1-item limit, or the bans on names or personal messages, but it was the limit on the number of people and the cutting of a third of the signing time that caused the most annoyed head-shaking down the line, because many people know that Martin usually just signs his initials, "GRRM", and fairly quickly and sloppily, and is thus capable of blitzing through a large crowd with little trouble.

But his holy (or unholy) handlers had spoken, and the poor con volunteers didn't have any choice but to play by their new rules, so we all went along with it (according to another volunteer I spoke with, Martin's handlers had been a real pain with details about the previous day's reading session). At that point, it was a time for tough choices for me: I'd brought my copy of the first Wildcards book, as well as my uncorrected proof/advanced review copy of Wildcards: Suicide Kings (I'd been hoping to get both Martin & Melinda Snodgrass to sign that one), and the Old Mars anthology. While I love the Wildcards series, there's nothing special about my copy of the first book — it's a paperback, and not even a first printing. The review proof of Suicide Kings could be potentially valuable someday with autographs. And Old Mars (a first printing in hard cover) has an opening essay by Martin that really got to me with its longing for a style of storytelling that just isn't done anymore, one that I'm wistful for myself because it formed an important part of my early development of a love for written SF. So the choice was 'Mars or the 'Kings. In the end, emotion won over financial sense, and I went with Old Mars.

Now that the decision was out of the way, I spent the wait getting to know the woman who was waiting in line behind me. And that was one of the best experiences of the con. It's one of the best experiences of any con: those unexpected, impromptu discussions with other fans from wherever, where you can, briefly, form a real bond sharing your thoughts and feelings about science fiction. We talked about her life, growing to love SF as a kid back in Trinidad, then moving to England, and later to Chicago. Then a little about me and life in Canada. When we first read Martin's stuff, and what other sci-fi had an impact on us. It's amazing how fast an hour-and-a-half can disappear.

And then it was time for our audience with the wizard, and there was a quick scribble across the page (the wrong page, as it turns out, in my book, even though I'd marked the proper page with the appropriate posted note supplied by the handler) with a brief glance up from himself and a polite, if terse, "hello", and we were tossed back onto the streets of nerd city with the rest of the unwashed.

At that point, I figured I'd mosey to the back of the line, just to see if there was an off chance any of us would be able to beg for an autograph on a second item. After all, even though the handlers had set the limit at 200, Martin had almost finished everyone in the line, and it was only just turning 12:30 — waaaaaaay ahead of schedule. There were a couple of people there who had the same idea, but not many. But there was also a small crowd of people who'd just arrived, who were somewhat upset about the last-minute rule changes. And it's hard to argue with them: when the game's been changed without notice, when the new deadline is no-where near, and when Martin himself was still going strong because he'd only been scribbling initials, really, there's no reason why an exception couldn't have been made, and these people could have been let in. After all, isn't one of the main rules for con-going "Don't be a dick"? And shouldn't that apply to authors and their handlers, just like it does for the little people who buy their products and keep them fed? I can understand them turning me away, because I'd already had my chance. Fair enough. But they could have let the last bunch in, at least, and the fact that they didn't was disappointing.

Now, to be fair, I don't entirely blame Martin (nor even his handlers... well... somewhat.... but not entirely). After all, as fans, we're not paying him for the service of autographing (although, as a communications professional, I can say that free autographing is a good part of the value-added approach to marketing his products that he relies on us to buy), so he was in no way obliged to do it. And, I get that he's a fanboy himself and that he should be able to take time to hang out at the con if he wants (which he did, as I saw him walk by in the dining boulevard about an hour later), and that writing (even sloppy initials) for that many people can be a strain on the wrists and we sure as hell don't want to do anything that would keep him away from his writing desk. And, it is indisputably true that, as so many have said, George RR Martin is not your bitch. But, today at least, with the way the signing was handled, it certainly felt like we were his.

After that, I met up with my wife (who's really been getting into some of the programming) and hit the room to pick up some t-shirts. There's a guy selling branding shirts that advertise fictional companies and organizations from movies and TV. I picked up shirts for Encom, Flynn's Arcade, Quint's Fishing Charters, and a fourth for my brother (because he's cat-sitting while we're away, and most likely has had to clean up cat lava at least once). From there, it was onto a long, slow, lazy lunch on the concourse (and the Martin sighting), and a brief check-in with a friend who was between sessions.

From there, we headed to "The World at Worldcon: Chinese Diaspora" session, which was really fascinating — and of personal relevance, since my wife is part of the relatively recent wave of said emigration. The three panelists (two Canadian writers and one American, all of Chinese background), had an extensive discussion about identity, and what it meant to be a Chinese-Canadian or Chinese-American (or fill in your own relevant hyphenation). One mentioned the duality and friction of having two cultures, of being Chinese but having to fit in to that of the country a person lives in (or, in some cases, has been born in). Another panelist stated that whatever is written represents the Chinese diaspora, because Chinese diaspora science fiction is the science fiction written by someone from the Chinese diaspora. There was also some discussion about the value of having stories that touch upon the Chinese experience in other countries because that helps to fill in gaps in the history of those countries that might not otherwise mention the contributions of immigrant cultures. Really good stuff, and a lot of excellent reading recommendations.

Then it was off to the "Just Three Cornettos" panel, focussing on a discussion of the Simon Pegg/Nick Frost/Edgar Wright "Cornetto" trilogy (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and The World's End). The panel was initially funny, but then, about mid-way through, some woman came in, sat on the floor nearby, and began cleaning her feet. Which caused an odor to drift over. A cheese-like odor, but so vile, so aggressively rank, as to be unlike any cheese, no matter how strong, on this Earth. It was so violent a stench that it would have to be a Klingon cheese. You certainly could have cut it with a bat'leth. But, and call me species-ist if you like, I want no part of Klingon cheese. And the panel was starting to lose its charm anyway, so we left.

Another trip to the dealers' room to pick up one of the books mentioned in the Chinese Diaspora session, more milling around for a while, an unsastisfactory supper in the food court again, and it was time for the Masquerade. Or hockey.

Earlier in the day, we'd passed the Montreal 2017 bid tent again (I'd been there the day before to throw my support behind their bid, because if Vancouver doesn't have the guts to make a run at a Worldcon, I sure as hell think Montreal should get it once more) and they'd mentioned that they were going to be playing some shinny in the evening, round about the time of the Masquerade. A tough choice, but, while I've never been a jock, I'm like most Canadians and have a tough time passing-up a good pickup game of street hockey. So we went down to the fan hall to see what kind of game they'd organized. Sadly, another disappointment. They only had 4 sticks, and were only able to secure a 7x11 space under a tent indoors. No real ball hockey to be played here. Probably for the best though, as I'm nursing a whole set of blisters (some big enough to be xenomorph eggs that Ripley should be shooting at) from all the walking around on rough pavement this past week, and I probably wouldn't have played well, and most likely would have just hurt myself even more.

So it was over to the Masquerade. Lots of entries, some of them somewhat interesting, such as a minotaur get-up, some retro 70s Doctor Who villains, and a collection of some of Tolkien's Valar, but nothing that really blew me away. I'll give all the participants credit for putting in a solid effort, but if you ask me next week what some of the entries are, I probably won't remember any, whereas I can still tell you about my favourite from the Masquerade in Montreal back in 2009.

Back to the hotel room, then. And now, off to bed. Two days of conning to go.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Loncon - Day 2

It was a day to glimpse into the future. It was a day to hear the history of a made-up past. It was a day to see a Dalek in a hula skirt.

It was Day 2 of Loncon.

Another mid-morning start for me today, but, hey, any day where I can hit the con before noon is a good day. Gotta stay up late and file these meandering reports, right? I began the day at the "Genre and the Great War" panel — a fitting topic for this, the 100th anniversary of the First World War's opening year. As the panelists noted, you don't have to look very deeply to see the effects of the war reflected in the writings of those, like JRR Tolkien, who survived it. As one of the panelists noted, "World War I was responsible for modern fantasy, in that it reintroduced the values of virtue, heroism, and adventure." And yet, they also noted that it left deep scars. One of the panelists pointed out "in children's books written after the war, there are a lot of images of abandoned children — these images do more than just show that many children were orphaned; they're metaphors for how people felt about their state and life in general. Everybody in the 1920s felt like they'd lost something." Another pointed out that these cultural scars were, in some ways, permanent parts of modern science fiction: "Unlike US Civil War, and World War II stories, World War I seems to have no alternative — no alternate history. It seems to be a fixed point that had  to happen in our world." Another agreed, adding "We don't seem to be capable of believing in any other outcome than a World War I happening." This came up again when someone in the audience asked whether Lovecraft and Howard would have been the dominant influencers of modern fantasy (rather than Tolkien) if there hadn't been a First World War, and the panel, after some thought, opined that probably not, because it just didn't seem likely that there wouldn't have been such a conflict that would have ultimately inspired Tolkien or someone like him. A very absorbing discussion, and one that I would have liked to have heard more of, but I had to bail-out about half-way through to get in line for the next item on my agenda.

Which brings me to George RR Martin's reading. The lineup, as I expected, started early. Even though I arrived at the auditorium half an hour early, there were already a couple of hundred people queued-up. No problem: the auditorium looks like it seats upwards of a thousand. I figured, with the popularity of both the Song of Ice and Fire series of books and its HBO show, augmented by those of us who were fans of Martin before they came along, that there would be at least a thousand. Surprisingly, he didn't get that kind of heavy turnout. Not sure why, but I'm certainly not complaining. Better to have a huge auditorium where a couple of hundred can sit comfortably, than be jammed in cheek-by-jowl praying the AC doesn't break down. Anyway, those of us who did show up and wait in line were pretty stoked. The woman in front of me was so stoked, that she actually started hopping up and down with excitement at some point. Seriously. No provocation, no sight of GRRM himself across the lobby, not even a conversation with someone else in line about the awesomeness of the G-meister. She just started hopping, with this big ol' giddy smile on her face. Then she landed after her final hop and suddenly realized that, you know, there were a lot of other people standing around who might have been looking. She turned to me with a sheepish expression on her face, but I just smiled and said "We all feel that way." Because it was true.

So the doors opened, and in we went, and we waited for few minutes until Martin came out, and waited a few more while he waited for the organizers to bring out a table so he would have something to put his papers on as he read through whatever it was he was going to share. And then he shared.

I was hoping for an excerpt from the upcoming installment in the A Song of Ice and Fire series. I was really hoping that if he didn't, he'd bust out something entirely new and different, let us in on his next piece of awesome before the rest of the world knew about it, kinda like waaaaaay back at Worldcon in Winnipeg in '94 when he quietly sat down in front of a small room of about 20 of us and proceeded to read the prologue chapter for A Game of Thrones, when people were expecting an update on the Wildcards series, or a progress report on Doorways, or something. Didn't pan out that way this time though.

Martin shared a Westeros tidbit, but not quite what anyone was expecting. Seems he's been working on what he's calling a coffee table book about the world of the ASOIAF series (and that's probably no secret, because the book's due to hit the shelves sometime this fall), writing all kinds of little sidebar extras to flush-out the world we already know. Turns out, he's written a lot of extra sidebar material. Too much, according to his publisher. So, they've trimmed it down for the purposes of the coffee table book, but Martin says he's holding on to the longer versions of the sidebars because, once ASOIAF is finally complete, he plans to publish an extra book containing all of the extra world-building tidbits, at their full, original length. Sort of like The Silmarillion augmenting The Lord of the Rings. Today's tidbit was a historical text, written by some crusty old maester, detailing the lives of Aegon the Conqueror's sons, Aenys and Maegor, and their children. You don't get dialogue and tension, just an assemblage of facts and historical speculations, but if you're like me, and you love ASOIAF and you want to know everything you can about the world that Martin has built, this stuff is like candy. If someone would have told me beforehand that a supplemental coffee table book was coming out, I probably would have taken a pass, but now, knowing that extras like these are in it, Martin and his publisher have probably roped me in — and I'll probably buy the full book of extras when that comes out in several years too!

I have to hand it to Martin, despite his status and fame, when he comes into a room at a con to do a reading or appearance, he is completely committed to it and to doing right by his fans. The organizers had allotted him an hour for the reading, and he took most of it to go through his material (though not all of it - he still had a big sheaf of pages on the table), but when the end came, he really looked like he would have been quite happy to keep on reading to us. In fact, with only 5 minutes on the clock (which, strictly speaking, meant he should have called it quits, since the audience for the next session was chomping at the bit to take over the room), he opened the floor for questions, and again, gave every impression that he would have been happy to keep taking them, had the next session's attendees not stampeded in.

I've said it before: as a fan himself, George RR Martin knows what it's like to be in the audience listening, and he does right by his fans as much as he can. He's a class act.

Now, as if getting a Targaryen conquest-era history lesson wasn't enough, once the reading let out, I went into the fan gathering hall to meet my wife and get some pictures with/on an Iron Throne replica that was brought in today. Inside, I was hopping up and down with glee.

After lunch, I spent a good chunk of the afternoon just drifting through the dealers' room again. I was able to find a nice souvenir for my little niece at a crafter's table, which means I now only have to find something on this trip to take back for my nephew. Funny. I thought for sure he'd be the one getting something from the con, but so far, nothing's really grabbed me enough to make me think he'd flip for it. Oh well. Maybe somewhere else on our travels across the UK.

For myself, I stopped by a collection of used book tables run by a trio of old guys and found some old paperback copies of Bob Shaw's The Ragged Astronauts and Roger Zelazny's Damnation Alley at a reasonable price to take home. I got to chatting with the gents, and in doing so, caught a glimpse of a possible future. Initially, I'd thought they were genre lovers who had a second-hand book store somewhere. Turns out, they're actually just old fans who, in their final years, are selling their personal book collections. At this, I asked in mock-incredulity: "What? You're telling me it's actually possible for an old dragon to let go of his horde?" (because I can't conceive of it myself) But, as one of them said, they each came to realize that at their age, they weren't going to be rereading anything in their collections again, so there was no point in keeping the old stuff around. He added that none of them had grand-nephews or -nieces who were interested in science fiction, so it seemed best to sell their collections at the con, where at least the books would find good homes. And that's where I saw a possible future. Having no kids of my own, I don't have anyone to leave the entirety of my own dragon's horde of books to. Sure, my brother's trying to raise his kids right, to encourage them to grow up to be sf fans, and it looks like it might be taking, but they're still pretty young, and anything could happen. If not them, then would the collection fall to my paternal cousins (who are fans of sf, thanks to their father, my cool uncle who introduced me to Foundation and Dune) and their kids? Who knows? It could very well be me, in a few decades, chatting up the next generation (or two) of fans, hawking my beloved books.

I needed a laugh after grim thoughts like that. Luckily, I found one, after coming across a hula'd-up Dalek in the display area. Yup, grass skirt, coconuts covering its globes, and a Mai Tai at the end of its sucker appendage. All it needed was a ukelele. Or maybe that's the chosen weapon of the luau Cybermen; I don't know.

Waiting around for a panel a little while later, I got another laugh when some guy went walking through the hall, just as normal as can be, with a buddy at his side — except the buddy was telepresent through a remote-controlled robot (think Sheldon in the Big Bang Theory episode "The Cruciferous Vegetable Amplification", or Holly in the Red Dwarf episode "Queeg") — when he walked through a doorway in a glass wall, and his 'bot-piloting buddy banged into the glass because the camera couldn't pick up on the glass of the window. A couple of dozen people nearby were just howling at this.

What wasn't so funny was when I went into the "Big Anthologies: Bookends or Benchmarks?" session, and the noise from the neighbouring room's sound system was so loud that it was interfering with the sound from our own room's panelists. Apparently, nothing could be done, so I and a few others abandoned it after a couple of minutes.

Instead, I ended up catching the "Classics in Speculative Fiction" session, where a trio of academics read presentations from some of their sf-related papers. I missed the first one, contrasting the experience of speaking to the dead in Percy Jackson versus The Odyssey. But the later presentations on "Ancient Philosophers as Characters in Post-Apocalyptic Science Fiction" (Plato in Bernard Beckett's Genesis and Roman emperor Julian the Apostate in Robert Charles Wilson's Julian Comstock), and "A Common Thread: Representations of the Minotaur in London" were very interesting.

After a brief walk away from the convention centre for supper, my wife and I came back for the big symphony performance. No, this wasn't a gaggle of fanboys and fangirls sitting around with kazoos and cheap synthesizers, this was the real deal. Loncon 3's organizers gathered together members of the London Symphony Orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Concert Orchestra, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Britten Sinfonia to form an 80-piece orchestra, along with a conductor and a soprano. When the fan community of London tells you they're going to give you a little culture, they are not fucking around. The evening's selection ranged from classics like Gustav Holst's "Mars" to movie themes, such as John Williams' "Superman March", and Gary Lloyd's "The Bridge Redux" (created in memory of Iain Banks). I had to leave half-way through to come back to my hotel room to take a business call, but the performance was phenomenal. Bravo to all involved!

Tomorrow: well, more con stuff, of course.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Loncon 3 - Day 1

There's a point in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (the movie, that is; it's been so long since I've read it, that I don't remember if this is in the book) where the boys have to rescue Trillian from the Vogons, and they encounter a seemingly endless bureaucratic lineup. Arthur Dent steps forward and says something to the effect of "Leave it to me. I'm British. We queue better than anyone."

This is true, as I found out today at Loncon 3.

Today was Day 1 of the con, and when my wife and I arrived this morning to register, the dozens of fellow fanboys and fangirls we'd seen around the Excel campus over the past couple of days had swollen into a couple of thousand. And a couple of hundred of them were lined-up, waiting to register when we came in the door. So we joined them. One of the con volunteers was working the line, keeping everyone in order and making sure we knew the score, and, surprisingly, she said the wait would be about 45 minutes. We had initially figured that, with the number of people in front of us, it would surely be more like a couple of hours. Better still: it only took us about 20 to 30 minutes to progress to the front. Truly, the British are masters of the efficient queue.

How could it get any better? Free candy, that's how! While we were in line, a nice lady from the Helsinki Worldcon bid team was working the crowd, passing out Finnish candy to encourage people to back their group. You can't argue with candy, but really, wouldn't it have been more culturally appropriate for the Fins to set up a sauna and invite everyone in for a relaxing steam — and then some non-relaxing slapping with birch boughs? On second thought, maybe the candy was the right move. (Cue Monty Python's "Finland" song)

So we got our badges in short order and started exploring the Fan Village (or, hall of the bid teams, gamers, kid zone, and all-purpose lounge for everyone). Actually, it wasn't so much of an exploration as a blitz to the area where the con organizers had set up a replica of the TARDIS. Mandatory pictures with said vessel for both of us, of course. Then my wife ditched me to do some more touring around London on her own. Which was okay, because there wasn't much that interested her on today's program, while I, on the other hand, found plenty that was interesting, so we agreed to meet up in the evening by the TARDIS when she returned.

The first panel of the day for me was "The World at Worldcon: Nordic SF/F", where authors from Finland, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark discussed the state of SF in their countries. I'm quite eager to attend as many of these "World at Worldcon" sessions as I can, and give a huge amount of applause to the Loncon organizers for including them in the programming, because I'm fascinated by the science fiction coming out of other countries. In Canada, we have a strong speculative fiction culture of our own, and, of course, we get nearly overwhelming exposure to US product, and to some British writing as well. But beyond that, things get pretty sparse. Once in a while, our bookstores will get anthologies of Australian science fiction, but that's about it. And it's too bad too, because we know there's a lot going on elsewhere in the world, we just need to find what's been translated. Those are voices I'd really like to experience. But getting back to this particular set of voices, it was a good panel, with the group of soft-spoken authors making interesting points about common themes in their native literatures, like the presence or absence of light — something their people are emotionally sensitive to, because of the dark winters — as well as an awareness of nature. It was also interesting to hear about the high level of English language SF they're exposed to, while at the same time, how little the Nordic cultures share amongst themselves (for various cultural, if not linguistic reasons). A comment from one of the panelists that really stood out was "One of the best Nordic SF books is Neil Gaiman's American Gods." It's too bad that during my later perusal of the dealers' room I couldn't find any anthologies of Nordic SF translated into English. It would have been nice to follow-up the panel with a chance to read some of the material they were talking about.

From there, it was on to the book signing by Patrick Rothfuss. A couple of years ago, Rothfuss and his bushy beard (I say that with utmost respect, as someone who can't allow his own beard to get that voluminous) came to VCon not too long after the debut of The Name of the Wind, and, not having read the book yet, I missed the chance to get him to sign it. I didn't want to miss the opportunity this time, so I hiked that damn thing half way around the world, and today stood in line for a few minutes to get a quick autograph. We didn't really have a chance to chat, but Rothfuss is a nice guy — and, in case you haven't read his stuff yet, one hell of a writer. I'm looking forward to seeing his next book.

After that, I went back to broadening my cultural horizons, and took in "The World at Worldcon: German-language SF/F". Unlike the more reserved Nordic authors in the earlier sessions, the panel of Germans was boisterous and funny as hell. Seriously, each of these cats would be awesome to have at a party — lederhosen or no lederhosen. A lot of their talk seemed to centre on science fiction, as literature, as culture, still being very much in the ghetto that it was relegated to in North America until recently (and which, in some cases, it still may be in). As one author on the panel said "Having a novel labeled 'science fiction' does not help. You can have a story on the moon with spaceships, but it's all a metaphor!" Sounds familiar — an awful lot like the "science fiction cooties" that Peter Watts has rightly accused Margaret Atwood of having. Another panelist followed up with "The impression you get is that Germans have a hard time being entertained. Or that fantasy is for children, and science fiction is probably written for very strange old men." The panelists observed that SF "is classed below the academic educational levels." Sound familiar? I recall at least one prof laughing at me when I mentioned SF back when I did my English major. It's too bad German writers and readers still have to contend with a major stigma on sci-fi, but hopefully it'll start to gain the acceptance there that has brought it into the mainstream here. This was another panel where I wished, when it wrapped up, that someone had brought some English-translated anthologies to sell, or that some had been available in the dealers' room. Oh well. Someday.

When that session was over, I tried to get into the interview with Connie Willis and George RR Martin, but that room was packed balls-to-the-walls, so I went next door to listen to Kim Stanley Robinson read an excerpt from a new novel he's developing, about a generation ship. The text is rough, but deliberately so — it all makes sense in the context of what's going on, and promises to smooth-out later. I was able to get enough of a sense off of it that I think I'll probably keep an eye out for it and buy it when it eventually hits the shelves.

Then I decided to scout the dealers' room for a while. A few temptations, to be sure (at least one book I need to complete my Wildcards collection, a couple of cool t-shirts, and something that I think will make a good souvenir for my niece), but I stuck to my self-imposed rule (see my recent post on the 5 Bonus Rules for Con Survival) and didn't buy anything on the first day. The t-shirts and the item for my niece will probably still be there tomorrow, and if the book isn't, then it's not the end of the world. It's always best to step back and take a breather, and avoid what could simply be first day impulse buying.

At that point, I went over to the signing area to get my old copy of A Place so Foreign, and 8 More signed by Cory Doctorow. Doctorow's a really cool guy (and I'm not just saying that because he's a fellow Canadian, although it does substantially add to his coolness) who had a friendly greeting and handshake for everyone, and took the time to chat for a few minutes. Hopefully I'll get a chance to see him when he comes back to the Great White North this fall for the writer's conference in my neck of the woods, but if not, it was good to meet him this time.

More prowling around the dealers' room, and then a look at the art display. A large selection of generally very good art. And luckily, only one artist had submitted paintings of cats. I'm a cat owner, but when fantasy cat paintings are kept to a minimum in a con display room, that's a good thing.

Lastly, I went to the "Tolkien Society Presents: The Unpayable Debt?" session. The authors on the panel started by answering the focus question of what they owed to Tolkien (which included one relationship that ended in happy marriage, and another that resulted in a fortunate split), but eventually started to veer off topic into a discussion of JRRT's influences. It went a little long, so I had to bail early to meet my wife for supper.

Tomorrow: gaining purchase in the dealers' room, and more panels.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The 5 Bonus Rules for Con Survival

If you've ever attended a science fiction, fantasy, or comic convention before, you're probably heard some variation of the 5 Rules for Con Survival:

  1. Shower/bathe at least once per day — using soap.
  2. Eat at least three times per day and get plenty to drink.
  3. Get at least four hours of sleep per day.
  4. Ask permission before taking someone's picture.
  5. Don't be a dick.
These make so much sense that none of them need to be explained. Just do what they tell you!

But they don't necessarily tell you everything you need to know to help you get through a con. Over the years, I've learned a few other things that make cons easier and more enjoyable, and with Loncon 3/the 72nd Worldcon kicking off tomorrow, I thought I'd pass these tips along.

The 5 BONUS Rules for Con Survival
  1. Scout the convention centre/hotel and its surrounding neighbourhood as soon as you arrive. While you can usually find things like the bar, dealers' room, art room, and movie room without too much trouble, it's also good to get to know the layout of the venue so you can find the best routes to get from one place to another. This is especially important at large cons, because you'll find that the hallways get crowded when the panels or major events let out, and if you know the floor plan well enough, you might be able to find some back hallways or outside routes that can get you to your next location quickly and easily, without getting bogged-down by the crowds. You can also use this opportunity to find the least-used washrooms — a real necessity when you're at a big con and the restrooms along the major corridors tend to experience traffic jams and can run into TP and paper towel shortages, and horrifying lapses in cleanliness. If you know where the washrooms are in the quieter areas of the venue, things will be a lot more pleasant for you. Quiet's important too if you're doing podcasting (or even a non-recorded review where you're just scribbling notes) or looking for a place to have a conversation. It's also good to know where to go if you just need some alone time away from the crowd. So get there early and find the spots where it isn't so loud, and where you can have some privacy. Lastly, you want to get a good sense of the neighbourhood around the venue because you'll want to find out where the good restaurants are. Granted, there are some people who are perfectly happy to stay within the embrace of the convention for its entire length and never leave, but for most people, I think the best idea is to get out once in a while. Take a breather. Stick your head up from the soupy morass of nerdity, get some exercise with a short (or even long) walk, and get a bite to eat at a restaurant that's guaranteed to have better food than what you can get in the hotel (and, just as importantly, food that isn't overpriced) among people who aren't desperate to share their personal Gilligan's Planet slashfic with you. Enjoy the con, yes, but also enjoy the other experiences the community has to offer.
  2. If hand sanitizer is available at the venue, use it. If not, bring your own and use it. Con Crud is real, folks. I'm not a germaphobe, but there's the simple fact that in every crowd, there's going to be someone who's sick. Maybe they aren't feeling well and they come anyway, maybe they're contagious but haven't become sick yet, or maybe they're a Typhoid Mary type who's just carrying the bug and remains healthy while happily passing it on to others, but there's always someone who's going to sneeze or cough or rub their pestilence all over the place. You don't want to pick it up and come down with a bug and have it cut into your fun at the con, or have it hit you afterward and leave you feeling like garbage and having to take time off of work or school. There's nothing you can do to avoid coming into contact with at least some germs during your con experience, but you don't have to make it easy for them. Use hand sanitizer, and wash your hands before you eat.
  3. Don't buy anything in the dealer's room at the first pass. I know, especially at big cons where a lot of vendors turn up with cool merchandise, this is easier said than done. You walk into that huge room for the first time and see that nifty set of Kid Video action figures that you saw years ago but missed-out on, or that pair of hand-knitted Super Harlem Globetrotters earmuffs that you've always wanted, and your eyes light up and it's hard to resist. But trust me, it's a better idea to exercise some self control. This is especially important if you're on a budget.  Sure, take a look on the first day at what the dealers are offering, but hold off for a while. If you wait a day, that impulse may fade, and you may realize that you just don't have room in your home for an 8-foot-tall stuffed Larry from the Robonic Three Stooges. And you may realize that your life would not, in fact, be better if you owned the complete show notes for every episode of Hero High. You can also take this time to see what's out there and then go back and prioritize so that you don't blow all of your money right away on a couple of things that turn out to be mediocre, and then find you don't have anything left to buy that last item hidden under a pile of stuff on a table at the end of the hall that has real emotional and financial value. There's also an outside chance that if you wait until the last day, the vendors might be offering discounts, or might be more amenable to haggling so they don't have to drag all of that merchandise back home. The caveat to all of this, of course, is that if you do see an item that is truly one-of-a-kind, that you know will be snapped-up by someone else if you don't buy it right away because it's so rare and in such high demand, then it's okay to buy on the first pass.
  4. Remember to check the handout table for freebies. Whether it's in the dealers' room or in an overlooked end of the hallway outside the registration area, the handouts table is usually just a wasteland of flyers for parties you're probably not going to, and products you could care less about. Once in a while, there might be an interesting bookmark or pin sitting there, but they're usually just shilling something too. That said, once in a while, especially at the end of a con, vendors and others may leave items of real interest and worth (and, admittedly, "worth" is a relative term). At the end of Anticipation (the Montreal Worldcon) a few years ago, there were a number of old anthologies left on the handouts table by publishers who didn't want to drag them home. A couple of them were actually worth reading, and I was glad I had glanced at the table so that I could snag them. I'm not saying this happens all the time, but it's worth looking.
  5. Don't soapbox when you're asking questions or making a comment at a panel session. There's nothing worse than having an interesting and entertaining panel discussion slam to a shrieking halt when some jackass puts up his/her hand to ask a question, then proceeds to drone on for 10 or 15 minutes about their own thoughts — sometimes on-topic, sometimes waaaaaaaay out in left field — without realizing (or caring) that no-one else in the audience gives a shit about what they're saying, or that many people in the audience, after the eighth minute or so of this hijacking, want to kill either themselves or the dufus in question. I know, I know, this is the point where the moderator should step in and put the kybosh on the recitation, but nearly every time I've seen this happen, the moderators have been too nice or too hands-off to intervene (maybe it's just a Canadian thing). And yes, I know, some people are wired a little differently, and the best practices of good social discourse and politeness are not understood. But really, everyone, for the love of your bootleg Starlost VHS tape collection, if you're in the audience, and you're going to ask a question or make a comment, please keep it short and sweet. Remember, folks: we're here to listen to the panel, not you. You'll get to meet and enjoy conversations with more fellow con-goers — and panelists too — who like the same things you do and are interested in what you have to say if you don't soapbox. 
So, if you're a veteran of the con scene, what tips do you have to share with newbies (or even other experienced con-goers) to make their experience better?