Sunday, October 05, 2008

VCon 33, Day 2: Good Beginning, Weak Ending

Another day, another drive out to Newton. Sigh. I’m saddened to note that the back of the VCon 33 program indicates that next year’s event will be held at the same hotel in north Surrey. Almost enough to keep me from attending. Almost.

Anyway, on to the con…

I started the day up in the tower at the “Where is Everybody? SETI Conundrum” session. The panelists included authors Spider Robinson and Robert J. Sawyer, NeoOpsis editor Karl Johanson, UBC astronomer/Science Guest of Honour Dr. Jaymie Matthews, and local fan and Mr. Science columnist Alan R. Betz. A very interesting discussion. Generally it focused on a lot of the usual hard science reasons why we haven’t heard from anyone yet: our signals haven’t been out there long enough to reach anyone yet, their signals have to travel far to get to us, civilizations might be spread too far, there may not be many –if any- other civilizations coexisting with ours in the galaxy at this time (including the speculation that ours might be the first – that we could be a billion years too early to expect much in the way of interstellar company), whether civilizations could survive dangerous technological and social infancy, other cultures might be using more sophisticated means of communication than radio (some of which we’re only beginning to look into), etc. One interesting possibility that Matthews mentioned is that we might not be hearing anything because a civilization even slightly more advanced than ours could, for technical reasons, have simply stopped using communications technology based on broadcast. Matthews noted that within our lifetimes we’ll likely see the end of broadcast radio and TV, with the old antennas abandoned for the other, more efficient technologies – in effect, after a little over 100 years of inadvertently sending signals out to the cosmos, we’ll have rendered ourselves radio silent through the simple act of upgrading. They also touched on social possibilities for the silence, with Robinson (in one of his few comments of the session) put forward the notion that unlike ours, other civilizations might be smart enough to keep quiet, rather than stick their heads out of the figurative hole and advertise their presence to all the hungry predators in the area. Sawyer suggested that any other civilization that could communicate with us is most likely older than us and so probably doesn’t want to start a dialogue and give away any info that could endanger our species in one way or another, or take away from the necessary struggle to learn those answers for ourselves. For his part, Johanson pointed out that given the limited amount of time the people of the Earth have been making noise in the universe, other civilizations may just be receiving the Beach Boys, and thus from their perspective, we have nothing worth talking about. And speaking of nothing worth talking about, one fan in the audience sidetracked things towards the end of the session by asking the panelists to weigh-in on UFO’s and possible alien cover-ups. Naturally, being reasonable and intelligent people, the panelists trounced on the notion that governments that couldn’t cover up Watergate could hide that kind of going on, or that military that wipe out entire villages would hesitate to execute civilian workers or witnesses leaking secrets, or that hicks in trailer parks would be visited in secret rather than scientists and artists and governments being contacted in the open. It was interesting seeing the panel get fired up by the task of putting this fantasy down, but I would have rather the last 5-10 minutes of the session been spent talking about something of more value.

From there it was down to the pub to hear Spider Robinson give a reading (in that not-quite so low and not nearly so husky as, but still vaguely reminiscent of George Burns voice of his) of his book “Very Hard Choices”. Robinson chose to read a passage where one of his characters, a telepath, reminisces about the shocking and frightening death of someone close to him. It was one of the most emotionally painful bits from a novel I’ve heard in a long time. While it was difficult, it speaks to the quality and depth of Spider’s writing. I haven’t got this one on my shelf yet. Yet. I hope to remedy that soon with a trip to the bookstore. He then took questions from the audience and told a few tales, including getting freaked-out one day when he heard the voice of Heinlein talking to him in his study. Afterwards, several of us stuck around to have books signed and it was great just to chit-chat with Spider for a bit. He was nice enough to autograph my copy of “The Callahan Chronicles”, as well as the first page of his short story “User Friendly” in my copy of the Canadian SF anthology “Northern Stars”. He seemed to get a kick out of it when I mentioned that the emotionally-wrenching “User Friendly”, with its pervading dwelling on feelings of powerlessness, was my “gateway” story for his work (rather than, say, one of the light and fluffy Callahan tales, which is the case for many). Jeanne Robinson, an author in her own right and choreographer, was also on-hand and chatted with a number of the fans. It was funny to see her come in every now and again to manage the autograph line, clucking away with “Come on now, kids, if you let him keep talking and don’t put your books down for him to sign then he won’t stop!” Nice folks. It would have been a treat to talk with them some more.

After that I had a little time on my hands, so I wandered around for a bit. One or two more dealers had arrived today, and Saturday always sees a larger number of people at the con, so the dealers’ room was crammed tight when I ventured back down to the basement. No sign of Walter from White Dwarf Books though – he was in last night for the so-called book launch, but a con without a White Dwarf table in the dealers’ room for the weekend just isn’t VCon. That being said, I did get my book fix, stopping at the Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing table and picking up David Nickle and Karl Schroeder’s “The Claus Effect” (I’ve been eyeing that one for a few years now, but had never bothered to actually buy it until now) and “Gaslight Grimoire”, edited by J.R. Campbell and Charles Prepolec. GG is a collection of fantasy short stories revolving around Sherlock Holmes. Should be worth reading. It’s brand new too – the publisher just got them in the morning they were leaving for the con - it hasn’t hit the stores yet. I only hope they managed to sneak a steampunk tale or two into this fantasy collection. Too bad Edge didn’t have any copies of “Tesseracts 12” (this is another one that won’t hit the stores for a couple of weeks) – they were supposed to have a bunch on-hand, but the Edge staffer was complaining they’d been lost somewhere in shipping. Whenever it comes in, I hope it’s better than the last installment.

Next it was over to the art room (which shared the same “ballroom” as one of the session areas, the two divided by a row of display easels). It had the usual collection of cute sculptures, weird and kinda disturbing sculptures, somewhat talented but unremarkable sketches, and the rare collection of exceptionally talented stuff. In this case, the true talent was in a small group of paintings by Stephanie Ann Johanson (I think – I’m pretty sure it was one of the Johansons associated with Neo-Opsis). My favourites were a painting of an astronaut looking out over a huge Martian canyon rendered in awe-inspiring detail, and one of a waterfall in a cave with a subtle but sad and vaguely menacing surprise at the bottom.

Another show for the eyes when you’re wandering around at any con is the variety of people in costume. Saturdays at VCon are always a big day for costuming because the masquerade and dance take place in the evening. This time there were the usual assortment of ladies in corsets and renaissance/medieval-inspired gowns, and guys dressed up like Jedis. The ones that really stuck out in my mind were the members of a local Star Wars fan group - the 501st Legion (“Vader’s Fist”, or so their display claimed) Excellent detail on the costumes from this group. They included a couple of Imperial officers, a stormtrooper, Boba Fett, and a woman who appeared to be dressed as Vader, minus the iconic helmet. There was even a guy dressed as a Rebel ship crewman (good on him for representing the good guys amidst all that Imperial action). I think what impressed me the most was the recruitment poster on their display which said something to the effect of “Do you value duty? Are you loyal? Are you expendable?” Across the hall (and it literally was just about two steps over against the other wall of the corridor) was the Trekie contingent. While the Star Wars fanboys have been pretty diligent in keeping their display table manned this weekend, this was the first appearance by the Trekies that I’d seen this year. In any case, rather than, say, a Vulcan or Klingon, the local Trek fan club was represented by a big, good-natured fellow in Starfleet Marine formal black trying to recruit people into joining – specifically into joining the Federation’s Marines! Funny thing was, he looked and sounded a heck of a lot like some of the RCMP/municipal police/military recruitment officers I’ve met over the years. And there was a dude who was trying to fly his Doctor Who colours – kind of. Buddy was sporting something that looked like it was trying (and failing) to be a Tom Baker scarf. The colours looked approximately correct, problem was that the Fourth Doctor’s scarf was, what, about 900 million metres long (okay, maybe not that long, but it was a long, long scarf, especially since it looked long on a tall guy like Baker) and this guy’s muffler was maybe two-and-a-half feet long. It kinda hung around his neck like a short, skinny towel. Go back to Gallifrey, wannabe, and don’t come back until you’ve regenerated into someone who’s mom can knit a real Fourth Doctor scarf of appropriate length (like the one made by my buddy harrysaxon’s mom)! But the one that took the cake for double-take “what the…?” factor was some dude wearing puffy boots like the ones teenage girls wear these days, a kilt, a home-made red shirt made up to resemble an RCMP red serge formal/traditional jacket, and something trying to be a Mountie’s Stetson. Huh? Is he supposed to look like a member of Her Majesty’s British North American Horseback Constabulary from some weird and cheaply-made alternate universe or something? One of the best costumes of the day though was a guy dressed as The Joker – a take that was sort of between Nicholson and the comic, with Ledgeresque makeup around the mouth.

But back to the programming…

At this point it was on to the “Believable Evil” session, which would have been a lot better if it hadn’t been held in the room sharing space with the art exhibit, and hence been victim to the panelists’ voices being drowned-out by loud groups (and I’m not faulting these groups for being loud) going through the gallery area, and also picking up a fair amount of noise from passers-by out in the hall through the big open doors at the back which presumably couldn’t be closed. Wasn’t made any easier by the fact that some of the panelists had softer voices. The first part of the discussion got bogged-down in the question of what is evil. Eventually it moved on though. Some worth-while points were raised, but ultimately I didn’t think this was one of the stronger sessions.

From there it was time for “Killing Off Characters”. This is one of the sessions I attended last year, and I’m pretty sure at least one of the panelists was a holdover from last year too. I came to this one hoping that while the subject matter was the same, there’d be a new panel with new insights. Sadly, this session was not significantly different at all from last year, and was made worse by the fact that it was held in the pub, which hoovers acoustics, and didn’t have the microphones turned on. At one point someone in the audience asked for the two panelists to speak up. That lasted for about a minute and a half. Then those of us at the back were straining to hear the quiet muttering again. I shoulda bailed on this one.

After that I descended into the basement again to take in the “Physics of Superheroes” session, but it was held in the room sharing space with the art exhibit (doors still open) and two of the panelists were really, really quiet. In fact, one of the audience members near the back asked them to speak up and one of the panelists promptly mumbled something about how if the people at the back stopped talking to each other it would be easier to hear. Someone else in the audience then jumped in and pointed out that the noise was actually coming from the art area and from the hall, and the panelist then retreated to a statement about how she wasn’t a loud speaker and we’d just have to try to hear her. Yup. Way to interact with your audience who might potentially buy your books – well, not anymore anyway, because not being able to hear what you’re saying, we have no idea if you have anything to say that’s worth listening to and thus won’t bother buying and reading your books. In addition, what little I could hear from the one panelist who spoke at any volume was pretty much the same discussion of the realities of physics and how superheroes don’t seem to adhere to them that I’ve heard and read in about a dozen other interviews. No point in sticking around, so I left.

I poked my head into the filk session going on up in the pub, but, despite the impressive vocal talent of the performer, after about a minute I remembered why I don’t like filk: regardless of the singer’s ability, I just don’t give a shit about songs about goblins under your bed or your vampire lover or something. I’m not deriding it as a form of entertainment, especially at a con, it’s just not my bag. I went up to the hospitality suite briefly, but it was pretty full, so I decided to call it a night. I was tempted to stick around for the parties (a group from Seattle was hosting a get-together to garner support for their 2011 Worldcon bid, as was a rival faction representing Reno), but they didn’t get rolling until mid-evening and at that point I was thinking about getting some chow and heading home (I’ve got to get up early tomorrow to wrangle media at the fitness conference hosted by the agency I work for).

Not a bad day at the con, but I wish the late afternoon sessions would have been stronger. Oh well.

Stay tuned for more updates tomorrow.

Have you registered to take part in the Blog Like It’s The War Of The Worlds commemorative online challenge yet? Better get your blog listed on the roster so we can see what goes down with the Martian invasion in your community on October 30th!

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