Saturday, October 02, 2010

VCon - Day 1

The 35th annual Vancouver Science Fiction Convention started off as the convention that couldn't be found. Oh sure, there's no way you can miss the hotel itself, but getting to the con floor, now that's another story. The hotel had a lack of clear directional signage inside, main elevators that were locked-off to con-goers and a usable side elevator that wasn't visible from the entrace, and the dealers' room located in a different building from the rest of the con. But in the end, I (and from the sounds of it, a number of others) eventually made it to the registration desk.

First off, I have to say hats-off to the VCon organizers for getting a gorgeous picture for this year's con T-shirt: a cool totem pole (appropriate for the West Coast) backed by a huge full moon and comets streaking across a star-filled sky, and squadron of zeppelins lumbering across the face of the moon (to go with this year's steampunk theme for the con). I didn't wear it today though - that's for tomorrow; today I was sporting the "White & Nerdy" T-shirt my wife got me at a Weird Al concert a few years ago. Lots of complements from fellow con-goers on this one, but the credit all goes to Yankovic and his people for making it, I'm just exhibiting truth in advertising by putting it on.

After prowling around the con floor and the dealers' room in the neighbouring building to get the lay of the land, I started the afternoon by taking in the last half of the session on the Future of Electronic Publishing. Some differing opinions as to the degree to which e-books might supplant paper, but a general agreement that paper books will probably last in some form for a while yet.

From there it was on to the Tense Viewpoint session, where the panel discussed the value and difficulties in using various tenses (first person present, third person limited omniscient, etc) in scenes or stories. Not the most interesting topic of the weekend, but its blandness was made up for by the lively and entertaining panel. I especially enjoyed their lengthy aside towards the end where they ended up talking aobut unreliable narrators and how this could apply to "the VanHelsing" characters that frequent SF - characters who pop into the story who have all the information and are completely confident that they know the score, just like Dr Abraham VanHelsing when he's called to assist Lucy's suitors in Dracula. The question became what if you introduced a VanHelsing into a story who was so self-assured and convincing that everyone went along with what he/she said, even though in truth this person didn't have a clue what's going on, or was completely insane? Great example of how the right panel can take a blah topic and make an hour disappear.

After that I had a bit of a debate on which session to go to... 4pm featured a panel talking about Killing Off Characters, and while I enjoy discussions on this topic, this is a session that's come up every year for the past couple of years. Every year I sit through it, and sadly, I have to admit that last year I didn't think I was hearing anything really new. I figured that was a sign that this year I had to give it a break. Instead, I attended the Science Fiction and Comedy session. Maybe I should've stuck with the casting bloodbath. I wasn't expecting the SF&C panel to be a laugh a minute, but even though there were a few witty comments here and there, on the whole it was kind of lacklustre.

The con Opening Ceremonies that followed, however, were, suprisingly, a real pleasure. Usually the con opening remarks are overly long, maybe spiced up a little by a good Guest of Honour if they're given the opportunity to give remarks, but generally the procedings are a snoozer. But con Chair Danielle Stephens kept the energy high this year and just charged through the notes, guest lineup, and announcements. Clearly she understands that as a con opener, this is meant really to just convey greetings and essential info and most importantly to let people get on with having fun. Fantastic job on her part! Author Guest of Honour Cherie Priest (I just finished reading her super fun Boneshaker a couple of weeks ago) talked for a few minutes about steampunk and was really entertaining. What a smart, warm, funny and genuine person - and I'm not saying that just because she autographed my copy of Boneshaker right after the opening ceremonies were done.

With those proceedings having wrapped up in just 20 minutes or so, I hiked over to the dealers' room and bought a bunch of books. The Edge Publishing table always brings copies of the newest Tesseracts anthology of Canadian SF to the con a couple of weeks before they hit the shelves in the bookstores, and I never pass up the chance to snag one. Tesseracts 14, edited by John Robert Colombo and Brett Alexander Savory, is subtitled "Strange Canadian Stories", but the jacket doesn't really give any written summary of the theme of the stories within. The picture looks like some kind of film-noire gumshoe who might be magical or alien, but it's all guesswork until I get a chance to crack open the book. The Edge table was also carrying just 2 copies of the new anthology The Aurora Awards - Thirty Years of Canadian Science Fiction. Looks like it's a short run being put out by a small press and Edge was helping out by bringing a couple of the books out to this con, so again, I couldn't resist the temptation to buy one of them. Over at the White Dwarf bookstore table, I bought a copy of Cherie Priest's newest steampunk adventure: Dreadnought. With my bookbuying appetite satisfied, I ambled off into the night to find a quick bite to eat (succulent Chinese barbequed duck on rice with veggies - I love having the con in Richmond!).

After supper I had a little time to kill, so I found a quiet spot to sit down, check email, and chat with a couple of fellow con-goers. I can't say I know a lot of people by name at the con, but one of the great things about these events is that there's a sense of community. People just naturally strike up conversations about... whatever - the latest book by so-and-so, what's the best operating system to run on a netbook, how they modded-out their old costume to make it steampunkish, where's a good place to eat - that sort of thing. Just a nice, comfortable atmosphere.

When the Multi-Author Book Launch got under way, I made a point of digging through my backpack and finding my copy of Dreadnought for Cherie Priest to sign. I'll give her a lot of credit, who knows how many hours she'd been talking with people and signing books, but she still had a ton of energy.

From there I decided to check out the art room. A lot of the usual suspects were there... same artists and in some cases the same works of art that have been there year in and year out. But there were some new items from different artists that were intriguing. I have to say, I loved the Chinese Qing dynasty-themed steampunk paintings by James Ng. My favourite was The Imperial Airship, although The Night Patrol was also pretty cool. Too bad I've already spent my money on books (okay, buying books is never too bad, but not having more budgeting to spend at the con is) and that I don't have more wall space in my study.

I finished the evening at the What Is Steampunk session. This one was a prime example of that law of the universe (similar to the ones stipulating that every culture on every planet will at some point develope a version of the gin & tonic and Swedish meatballs) that dictates that at any con, at least one of the most popular sessions guaranteed to have a packed audience will be held in the smallest meeting room available, while the session in the largest room will likely be mostly empty. There were so many of us jammed in there that we were producing enough heat to steam power the hotel down the street and all the way to the edge of town. But as for the session itself, I'm of two minds. On one hand, the presenter had a lot of good information (for those interested) about what to keep in mind to make a good, authentic-looking Victorian-inspired costume. She also had some interesting things to say about prop-making, and about some of the major steampunk-oriented cons and clubs/groups that attend cons in costume. However, it was pretty clear that for all of her self-assurance on the subject, the presenter's knowledge of history and film were a little spotty. At a couple of points she said you couldn't have electricity in steampunk because they didn't have it in the Victorian era. Um, no. One old guy in the audience with a fair bit of knowledge on the history of science had to point out to her that someone (I can't remember the name he referenced) invented an electric car around 1813, but just couldn't make much of it because of battery issues. She tried to gloss over that and maintained that electricity wasn't widespread in the period and so shouldn't be used in steampunk stories. In fact, by the end of Victoria's reign and into Edward's (with the presenter's boundary of steampunk being the advent of the First World War), many buildings in cities would have been wired for electricity. Perhaps not rural areas, but certainly in the major cities. She also said that while zeppelins were fixtures in steampunk, they weren't around in the Victorian era, or at least not until the very end. I'm pretty sure that's not true either, that while there wasn't a dirigible on every corner, they were around, with propulsion and airframes improving over time. Blimps just didn't spring into being out of nowhere when WWI erupted. She also had some problems talking about steampunk in film, especially when one of the older guys in the audience mentioned an animated film from eastern Europe in the early 50's, and she tried to roll right over him babbling about Disney and clearly showing that she didn't know what the guy was talking about. Just admit the film predates you and you haven't seen it. She also dismissed the anime feature Steamboy as actually being dieselpunk - but later admitted that she hadn't seen the film and that she was going on what her husband had told her. What? Maybe you oughta see the flick before making a pronouncement like that. I own a copy. Seen it several times. It's pretty steamy. Not any diesel that I can recall. You may want to quibble about the nature of the steamball power source, but the bottom line is that the sucker produced steam, which powered the funky devices that rampaged across the screen. It's at least as valid as the "aether" that she said in her opening treatise was acceptable as a steampunk power source. By the time things wrapped up, I was kind of cool to the presentation.

And, at that point, I was ready to head for home. There was still some programming left on the board: filk and movies. But I'm not a filk fan, I wasn't going to stick around for the screening of the Rocky Horror Picture Show because I've never really been interested in the movie or all of the attendant hoopla, and most of all, I wanted to get home to my wife. Time enough for more con stuff tomorrow.
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