Friday, October 03, 2008

VCon 33, Day 1: Back to the Basement - Literally!

It was a surreal first day at VCon this year, and I don’t mean in a “what the hell is he dressed up as?” or “why doesn’t she cover that up?” kinda way either. No. This was all about the venue. When I arrived at the Compass Point Inn in north Surrey (the armpit of the Lower Mainland), I had to laugh, but at the same time I thought tears might have been just as appropriate: the geeks have been put back in the basement.

The hotel apparently has some history for the con. At some point in the past it was a host venue. Why the con organizers have gone back to the place is something I’m not certain of, but I suspect it’s because they got it cheap. Putting aside the obligatory anti-Surrey snobbishness that pretty much every Lower Mainlander (okay, every British Columbian) has as a result of birthright or rapid acquisition, it would be hard to argue that the joint’s in a pleasant part of town: the nearby skytrain station is like a war zone and those that spill out of it across the hotel’s parking lot on the way to the adjacent beer and wine store would, shall we say, make the patrons of the Star Wars bar look like high-brow dinner company. Taking out one’s wallet to buy a parking pass (even though the machine is mounted on the side of the building – because it was moved out of the lot proper, perhaps for some reason related to all the car theft warning signs around the place) is an exercise in caution to say the least.

Then there’s the hotel itself. I wouldn’t call it a dive. That wouldn’t be fair because the staff appear to keep the inside reasonably clean. That being said, the old girl’s certainly seen better days. Those better days, judging from the interior architecture, d├ęcor and equipment, were probably back in 1968.

I came in the front door and looked around for some kind of signage pointing to whatever convention/ball/board rooms would be housing the con. Didn’t have much room to look around in though, as the lobby was small enough to cross in about five steps. Sure enough, there were signs (sitting on the floor leaning against the wall – I guess easels and tripods and the like weren’t invented yet when the hotel was built and supplied) pointing downstairs. Yes, downstairs. The bulk of this con is in the fucking basement. Sure, we’ve got the hotel’s dark, remodeled in mid-70’s wood paneling restaurant /pub on the main floor for the odd event, and the hospitality suite and one of the alleged board rooms (about the size of a small hotel room) allocated to hold the odd session are both up in the tower, but the alleged ballrooms are all crammed downstairs. So down I went. Into what is literally a basement area that someone probably refurbished a few decades ago as an afterthought. The ceilings are low and the corridors are narrow (it’s damn near impossible to actually pass someone in the hall – which is conducive to encouraging conversations with fellow con-goers, but not the best when two of them are already talking and you’re just trying to squeeze past). The supposed ballrooms themselves are pretty small. Claustrophobic. Very. And I’m not one who usually feels claustrophobic in any building, but here, it felt like the ceilings were pressing down and the walls were crushing in. The dealers’ room felt especially crowded simply because of its lack of size. I also pitied the two con volunteers at the registration desk, stuffed underneath the staircase with barely any room to move. Then there are the elevators, which are also small (they’re only supposed to carry 5 people at a time) and are maddeningly slow – especially if you’re in the basement trying to get them to come down. It’s almost like the elevators are conspiring to keep us down there.

And this is precisely the crux of my bitterness. The stereotypical image of SF fans is of coke-bottle-lensed nerds huddling in their parents’ basements afraid to come up and out and interact with the world, taking cold comfort from the flickering blue light of Trek reruns on 20-year-old barely functional wood consol TV’s while thumbing through moldering old copies of ‘zines from the 50’s with sporting covers with bug-eyed monsters (presumably the basement-dwellers’ non-terrestrial brothers-in-spirit). Sure, we, as geeks even joke about that ourselves. I mean, hey, those basements are mighty handy for extra bookshelves to hold your ever-expanding collection of new and old SF books, or comics, or collectables, or old video game consols or whatever. But it’s one thing to joke around about a stereotype, and quite another to have it foisted on you. Because the fact of the matter is that we, as adults, even geeks, have left the basement behind long ago. Most of us have jobs, many have relationships and families, as well as houses or condos or apartments or fishing shacks or whatever of our own. Despite our reading or tv/movie-watching preferences, we do not actually live the stereotype at all. Many of us have attended other conventions, whether they concern SF or other entertainment, or business-oriented. In all the many kinds of conventions/forums/what-have-you that I’ve attended in all kinds of facilities, the convention rooms, at least the primary ones, have all been above-ground in rooms deliberately designed for gatherings at the time of the building’s construction (no matter how old the building). This is part of the process of a convention and a host facility treating its delegates like adults. Choosing a sagging old hotel that stuffs its geek conventioneers in an antiquated renovated basement is a joke that is only funny for about 5 seconds. Putting us back in the basement devalues us – metaphorically reduces us to 14-year-old status again. I mean, hell’s bells, crammed down in that basement this evening, I could almost hear my mother upstairs making applesauce porkchops for supper – except no-one called us up for supper or brought anything down! (mind you, I never really liked applesauce porkchops anyway) Maybe the hotel has some nostalgia value to older delegates who remember when the con was held there years ago, but personally I think we deserve better. I think we deserve a facility in a better neighbourhood, one that’s been kept up better/looks nicer, and one that can actually accommodate the con’s (and its delegates’) needs. Most of all, I think we deserve a facility that doesn’t reinforce stereotypes.

But it wasn’t all symbolic shock on arrival. Coming into the con was, in fact, very pleasant from a social perspective. Within minutes I was chit-chatting and laughing with other people in the registration line and waiting at the elevators. It’s like I said in a recent post, geeks, by and large, are caring, fun individuals and it’s great to hang-out with brothers and sisters in the SF community.

Now on to the con’s content. Because I was at work all day (some of the day being devoted to helping coworkers set up a completely different kind of con – a conference for fitness professionals from across the province), I missed most of the afternoon’s programming.

I was able to make the “How Stories End” session. Overall the panel was intelligent, interesting and entertaining. Author and panel moderator Patrick Rothfuss was a real hoot, at one point making the observation (while trying to set ground rules for his fellow panelists as to whether they could give away the endings to specific books when they were giving examples) that the divide between people who can’t tolerate spoilers and those who don’t mind them is religious in its degree of separation and fervor, with the two camps being eternally locked in opposing viewpoints and unable to bridge the philosophical chasm between them.

From there it was on to the Opening Ceremonies. The usual predominance of dry humour, but some of the Guests of Honour got some big laughs when introduced. I think the best was Science Guest of Honour Dr. Jaymie Matthews, an astronomer from UBC/self-described astro-paparazzo, Officer of the Order of Canada, and one of the inventors of the tiny MOST space telescope (jokingly referred to as the Humble telescope – which has outperformed the famous, and bulky Hubble). Matthews was asked to speculate on whether the current Canadian federal election campaign was dark fantasy or science fiction. The answer: a little of both. I won’t bother trying to recap his reasoning, though he did refer to the Harper government’s lack of interest in funding the arts and sciences, and got quite a chuckle from the audience.

Afterward I headed up to the pub where a book launch party was being held. I think something like 25 authors were there to promote their recently/newly/soon-to-be released books. It was good to see Walter from White Dwarf Books there with a table (I hadn’t spotted him down in the dealers’ dungeon earlier).

I didn’t hang around too long though – not much available in the way of food or drink and by that time it was after 8, I hadn’t had supper yet and I was pretty hungry. I had been tempted to stay around and maybe check out one or two of the room parties later on (there was a BSG party in one room, and a bring-a-bottle-of-Scotch-to-share-for-admission party that looked quite interesting), but the need for food and being tired and approaching cranky (did my opening rant give that away?) after a long day of work made me think it was time to call it a day.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s update.

On a completely different note… Remember to visit Not A Planet Anymore to sign up for our Blog Like It’s The War Of The Worlds commemorative online challenge!

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