Wednesday, October 11, 2006

A Busy Weekend: Thanksgiving, Mid-Autumn Festival, Our Anniversary and Getting Conned - VCon 31

Happy belated Thanksgiving everyone! For those of you from other corners of the internet marketplace of ideas, Canadians celebrate Thanksgiving at the beginning of October, unlike our friends to the south who don’t tend to have fowl dreams until well into November. The advantage of scheduling the festivities at this time of the season is that after the initial feast at a dining room table groaning under the weight of a massive, juicy roast turkey with crisp, brown skin and rivers of thick, heady gravy flowing down mountains of garlic mashed potatoes across the plains of your plate to crash into cliffs of flakey butter buns, and then after the weeks of piling through leftovers in the form of re-plated bird, ‘taters, stuffing and the like, or turkey soup, or gravy bread, or turkey sandwiches, or turkey burritos, or…you get the idea, after we’ve slogged through all of that, we can turn our minds to the sweet gluttony of Hallowe’en and then have the better part of two months to let it mellow into a fond memory simmering just below the surface to prime us for eager anticipation of another turkey dinner come Christmas. The Americans, on the other hand, get a turkey double-tap with scarcely a month’s gap – so close it’s surprising they can even tolerate the thought of a second face-off with a gobbler mid-winter. At any rate, Thanksgiving was good this year. Although the holiday was technically on Monday, we celebrated on Sunday for convenience – easier to do prep on Saturday, cooking & feasting on Sunday, and contented recovery on Monday. Lots of good food and a bunch of good friends gathered around the table.
We also celebrated the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival this past weekend. Take your pick of the many legends behind this holiday, whether they have to do with goddesses in the moon or heroes shooting down burning suns with their bows. The season sees Chinese children staying up late to play with lanterns and candles under the moon while everyone munches on Moon Cakes. Salty or sweet, depending on your preference, and the more duck egg yolks buried in the Moon Cake’s centre, the more money you’ll be paying to buy them – never mind how much you’ll spend trying to get your cholesterol down later!
What do these holidays have to do with speculative fiction? You might argue not much. But, there is a certain magic to these celebrations… epic myths from ancient China, mighty Thanksgiving feasts in the West that harken back to harvest revels in days of yore where stories would be shared over a groaning mead-board piled with good food as everyone sought comfort before the coming winter. There is a magic to any time that brings people of many backgrounds together in friendship. Sentimental? Sure. But no less true. I think of the almost-four-year-old son of our friends who were over for the feast on Sunday night, playing with his golden lantern, still content from a Mid-Autumn festival celebration the night before, as he chomped on turkey dinner or a pumpkin-shaped cookie at the first Thanksgiving his family had taken part in, and I think there’s a certain magic in that too… where a boy can grow into the future enjoying the best of two different cultures. What fiction can equal that? Like I said, sentimental but true.
This past weekend also marked our first anniversary. My wife and I took some time Monday evening to talk about the past year and watch our wedding DVD for a few laughs.
And if that wasn’t enough, I took in day 1 of VCon 31 – the Vancouver Science Fiction, Fantasy and Gaming Convention on Friday, which I enjoyed immensely. I must confess, it’s only the second con I’ve attended. The first was ConAdian – the 52nd World Science Fiction Convention held in Winnipeg, Manitoba back in Sept. 1994.
It’s not that I haven’t wanted to attend other cons, it’s just that higher priority family events, work obligations or money or timing issues (or combinations of the four) have interfered. And even if none of the above had stood in the way, I’m not sure that I would have attended all the annual cons in whatever province I was living in, or some of the bigger national or international cons here in Canada or the US. I think that while I am, as a fan, a member of this community, I don’t feel the need to immerse myself in it all the time. I’m more of a passive observer who occasionally dips into the experience. I guess if the con scene was a city and the people who attend it were its citizens, I’d be someone content to live in the suburbs who makes the odd foray into town to keep in touch and see what’s happening.
That being said, I do enjoy these trips into Conville, and where time, money and personal and work scheduling permit, I may find myself making more excursions. This year was a no-brainer: Vcon 31 was held at a hotel in Richmond (just south of Vancouver) just a stone’s throw from the house – I could have walked there in 20 minutes, instead, pressed for time, I drove there in 5. And the stars were aligned for scheduling, because I was actually able to make some time to attend this year. So I went. To be sure, the seeming convenience of holding the con over the Thanksgiving long weekend was actually problematic – if you’ve got family, it’s difficult to be able to take in the entire event. In fact, the holiday might have prevented some from attending altogether who would otherwise have come. For my part, shopping and prep work nixed the chance of attending on Sat, and Sun was out because of the cooking during the daytime and feasting in the evening. So it was Friday, opening day, by default. And while there were a number of panels I would have loved to attend on Sat & Sun, what I was able to take in on Fri did the trick.
It was a small turnout on Fri (I expect, given the number of people I saw checking in at the end of the day, things were busier later during the weekend), but that didn’t detract from the appeal of the con. In fact, it’s actually nicer to have your choice of seats in the rooms holding the panel discussions, or to be able to take your time checking out the art displays or browsing in the dealers’ room.
Hats off especially to the organizers for assembling some great writers' panels with interesting, intelligent themes. In fact, I think that’s what impressed me the most: the commitment to intelligent discourse about speculative fiction, writing in general, about science and history. No crowded halls of drooling fans quizzing actors about pointless minutia of their shows. No authors expounding on their own greatness (something that really turned me off of one grand matron of the genre back in '94 - but that's a story for another time). These sessions encouraged the panelists, and for the most part, the fans, to debate moral and scientific issues, to investigate literary style.
I was fortunate enough to attend the following panels: How Stories End, Near-Future SF, Living on the Moon and Mars and Historical Fiction: Where Does History End and Fantasy Begin?
My favourites, without a doubt, were How Stories End and Near Future SF. Both featured lively debate among smart panelists with some interesting questions and comments from the audience.
How Stories End explored why authors write the endings they do - what literary logic is involved in steering the story’s course, how much does the author have a responsibility to the demands of the audience for a particular ending and how much should this be taken into consideration, the impact of focus groups on television and film and whether this “tool” of Hollywood would have corrupted the endings of pre-focus group movies of the past, along with many other issues. The session also featured a bit of tension between a couple of the panelists, but that served to add a little more energy to the debate and things did remain professional. Another panelist, during the "how would focus groups have affected the outcome of older movies" discussion, dropped a quick reference to my guilty pleasure: "Walt Disney's The Black Hole". It came during another panelist's pause for a breath, so I don't think too many other people caught it, but I'll grudgingly admit it gave me a surge of pure fanboy glee. That being said, it does raise the strange question (which would have made a great discussion if the panel had seized on it) of whether a focus group could actually save a movie from a bad ending. Would it have been possible for a randomly selected collection of yokels representing the "average" moviegoer to have moved the mighty Disney machine to change the ending of "The Black Hole" to make it, well, make sense? One can only wonder.
Near Future SF was not, as some might fear, a simple checklist of what author made what prediction and was it right or wrong. Rather, the panel examined the effects of technology, nature and changing human psychology and sociology on culture and humanity itself, and how authors have interpreted these factors and reflected them in their fiction.
I’d say the only real downer on the day came during the Living on the Moon and Mars panel. It was a display of utter crassness from some audience members that became the perfect example of where fandom can get a bad name. And, to be clear, I'm not talking about the stereotypes of how fans look. Personally, I don't care whether someone is dressed in non-descript clothing like I was, whether they look like the epitome of the computer geek with the coke-bottle glasses, whether they're in Renaissance period costume, whether they're muscled and sporting flowing tresses, or whether they're a 350 pound transvestite goth. All of those physical types and more were present at the con and these panels, and pretty much all of them had worth-while comments to share and behaved with caring and consideration towards each other, the panelists/guests and the organizers. No. I'm talking about the shitty attitude a very small minority of people (without reference to any physical type of mode of dress) carry around that makes them think that they, even though they've probably never been published or been publicly acknowledged or applauded by any member of the speculative fiction community or have any degree of scientific or cultural expertise, are intellectual giants who have the right to take cheap pot-shots at anyone who's from outside their own limited experience or who has the guts to address a crowd. I'm talking about the self-deluded few who's snideness has transformed them (likely without their knowing) into living charicatures of the worst aspects of fandom - the Comic Book Guy from "The Simpsons". What's saddest of all is that society in general tends to hold the mistaken belief that this tiny percentage of fandom actually represents everyone who loves speculative fiction. These fuckers give us all a bad name and I'm sick of it.
Here's how the debacle went down: Sci-fi author and retired physics and astronomy prof James C. Glass and David Bigelow, who builds electrical control panels and is a sometime writer, were the panelists. Things took a turn for the pointless right from the start. During the introductions, Bigelow identified himself and made some mention of a particular career he is or was involved in (I can’t remember what) - a pursuit that was not related to astronomy. Without missing a beat, some complete jackass in the audience pounced on Bigelow, saying something to the effect of “Then I guess you don’t know anything about what’s involved in traveling to or colonizing the Moon and Mars!”
There’s no excuse for putting a guest speaker down, especially not before the discussion’s even begun. Clearly this idiot in the crowd is so high on himself that he’s incapable of considering that maybe, just maybe, the con organizers chose Bigelow to take part in the panel because even though he’s not a pro astronomer he may have put a hell of a lot of research into this kind of stuff on his own time and might just know what he’s talking about. Or maybe that his different field of expertise might be relevant in some way that this loser can’t conceive. Or maybe that he's read a ton of the stories in the field that concern colonization and can comment on its literary portrayal. More to the point, the know-it-all doesn’t understand or care that the rest of us in the audience who are aware of the concept of respect didn’t pay our con membership fees to listen to the likes of yappy little freaks like him. The fact is that while Glass, as the expert in the room, spoke in the most detail about the practicalities of colonization and deep space flight, Bigelow did have a number of worthwhile things to say. For his part, the idiot in the audience did not.
And that brings me to the other matter that bugged me about that session: a general problem at cons… outta control fanboys. Audience participation at panel discussions, when kept focused and carefully moderated by the panel, can be intelligent, entertaining and worth while. But some members of audiences should be actively ignored or better yet, shut down quickly by moderators, and never allowed to speak their minds (or their pathetic excuses for minds) either because they have nothing to say beyond “you know what’s cool…” or because they’re rude, or because they won't shut up - they believe in their heart of hearts they're members of the panel too, or because they're determined to steal the spotlight for themselves because they’re not actually interested in listening to the panel.
The Living on the Moon and Mars presentation was an example of where two losers in the audience took every opportunity they could to hijack the session and pontificate on their own views of what deep space exploration and colonization would be like, irrespective of the actual science involved that Glass and Bigelow were discussing. It bugs me that these two fools wasted probably 10 minutes with their blather, taking full advantage of the politeness of the panelists who allowed them to speak. I would rather that time had gone to the panelists to make their sound predictions, or even that we had been able to use that 10 minutes to leave the room early to stretch our legs before the next seminar, than to a pair of dweebs interested only in masturbating their own imaginations in front of the rest of us. You wanna share your half-baked notions? Write a story, produce a television pilot or movie, or launch a blog. If the rest of the human race is remotely interested, people will read, watch, or log-on, and maybe then you'll eventually earn your place at a panelist's table to share your views with an audience. Until then, on behalf of everyone else who's parents and/or life experience taught them basic respect for others: sit down, shut up, and quit wasting our time! We didn't come to the con to listen to you!
Of course, that begs the question, why didn't ol' bloginhood or someone else in the audience take the initiative and shut these jokers down? Simple: respect for the panelists. The two idiots had already hijacked enough time, and getting into an argument with them would have just wasted more. And getting into a scene in the hallway afterward (in addition to being waaaaay too highschool) would have also probably failed to achieve results, and would have interefered with getting to the next panel on time. No, I think in these cases, it's up to the panel moderator to stare the grandstander in the eye and say "Thanks for your comments, but you're off topic and we'd like to give the panelists a chance to speak." In the case of out-and-out rudeness such as the insult at the beginning of the panel in question, I think it's up to the moderator, on behalf of the con organizers, to either give the offending fanboy a warning or to ask him to leave.
But, I guess there’s no such thing as a perfect con and if there were only two losers in an entire day of panels at the event, then the con was batting a pretty good average. And that being said, what Glass and Bigelow had to say about underground colonies, supply issues, radiation dangers and other practicalities was quite interesting.
I was also quite happy with the dealers’ room. Granted, some of the tables were empty Fri afternoon (I got the impression the room would be full by Sat), but I was able to spend some time chatting with the friendly folks at the Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing table, where I picked up some very nice back-issues of anthologies that you just can’t find on bookstore shelves anymore. I was able to secure copies of the “Tesseracts” anthology – volumes 1, 3 and 4, “On Spec: The First Five Years” and “land/space: An Anthology of Prairie Speculative Fiction”. The bonus: they were all old warehouse stock, so I was able to get them for the original cover prices! He shoots, he scores!
All in all, a good weekend.
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