Monday, October 03, 2011

Big Trouble In Little China for All Seasons

It's a truly good day indeed when I have the chance to whip out some dialogue from Big Trouble In Little China. And that day was yesterday.

My wife and I were attending a friend's wedding (yes, the Cylon banner wedding mentioned a couple of posts ago) in Little China, er, here in Richmond. Among all of the giveaway items and nick-nacks and plates and centrepieces, etc scattered around our table at the reception were Jenga blocks. The newlyweds had left Jenga blocks for all of the guests, not to keep as souvenirs, but rather for the guests to write words of wisdom on and leave for the happy couple to read during Jenga games in the future.

Let's not even get into how many Jenga sets they'll probably have, given the number of blocks they needed for all the guests, or the rather tricky metaphors that might present themselves when the concept of a marriage is tied up with a block game that's designed to have only one winner and to fall apart more often than not.

I don't remember exactly what my wife wrote on her block... something on each side, I think, with advice for him to make her happy and advice for her not to make a doormat out of him.

But sitting there thinking about what words of wisdom I might have for the couple that were short enough to be scribbled onto a block, it didn't take long before I decided to draw from the ultimate well of inspiration. My choice:

"You were not put on this Earth to 'get it'." (paraphrasing Lo-Pan's line: "You were not brought upon this Earth to 'get it', Mr Burton." to fit into the limited space)

Words to live by in any situation, but applicable in the context of marriage in that, as all of you who are also married know, sometimes the motivations of one's spouse can be clear as mud, but you just have to go with it, 'cause that's the way it is. Also vaguely appropriate because Lo Pan uttered them himself on the day he intended to be married.

Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to go and eat a left-over wedding bun.

Vancouver Sun Photos from VCon 36

The Vancouver Sun's website has a short article, some photos and a short video clip from this past weekend's VCon 36. Nice to see the con got some media attention, though, speaking as a communications professional, it would have been better if they'd been able to put out a stronger hook that would have attracted the local TV stations, or if they'd pitched the right angle to garner some coverage ahead of time, which would probably have increased attendance.

Incidentally, I sat near the girl in the manga cat outfit in one session the other day, and she looks that good in person and has clearly put a lot of hard work into making a costume that's fairly close to the original. That being said, my friend Nicole Yamanaka, a cosplay veteran, made a version of the same costume that was a lot more detailed and accurate, though fairly revealing and probably not something that would be comfortable on a cold October weekend. No, I'm not going to attach a pic.

And They Have A Wedding Plan

Got a bit of an unexpected sci-fi surprise this afternoon when I went to a friend's wedding: a Cylon. Or, at least, a Cylon on a street banner in one of the wedding pictures.

After the ceremony a bunch of us were walking through the venue's foyer to the reception hall, and along the way we had to pass one of the wedding pictures (shot way ahead of time last winter, I believe) blown up, printed out to look like a painting, and mounted for everyone to look at as they went by. At first we murmured the usual "oh, that's nice" comments, and wondered which building and street were featured, etc. But on closer inspection, one of my friends said "Hey, there's a Cylon on that sign!" We couldn't believe it at first, but leaning in and peering at it for a second, we realized he was right.

Problem is that neither the bride nor groom are big SF fans, and there's no indication that they followed Battlestar Galactica when it was on. So what's a Cylon banner doing in one of their wedding pictures, and one that they liked enough to pay to have painting-ized to show off for generations to come? And what would a Cylon banner be doing up in Metro Vancouver (where the bride lives and the wedding was held), especially when it's been a couple of years since the series came to a close?

Well, to make a long story short, last winter when they'd arranged to bring in some hotshot celebrity photographer from Hong Kong he'd been denied entry to Canada and sent back to Seattle where his connecting flight had originated. Not wanting to lose him, they'd changed plans, packed up all the wedding garb and driven south of the 49th to do the shoot in the Emerald City. They went to a lot of locations downtown and around the market, so we figure this street must be in the vicinity of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. Can't be entirely sure since I haven't made a pilgrimage there myself yet, but there wouldn't be any reason for the city to have a Cylon banner displayed anywhere else. Our bet is that they didn't even pay attention to what was on the banner when they took the shot - it was probably done for artsy-fartsy reasons like lighting and the shape of the building, etc. Our young newlyweds probably picked the photo for similar reasons, not even realizing they were inadvertently flying a pretty obvious freak flag.

No point in explaining it to them, since not being fans and not following Western culture much, they wouldn't really get it.

Still, as a science fiction fan - and a BSG fan in particular - I'm fairly pleased at this accidental geek-0ut. You just never know when SF will quietly insinuate itself into the every day activities of the mainstream.

VCon 36 - Day 3

The end.

Okay, it was a short day for me at VCon today, but it wasn't that short!

I starting things off far too early in the morning (considering how late I was up last night reporting on the con and ranting about 'Yamato), stumbling in at 10 for the "World Building 101" panel, which featured a line-up of scientists from various disciplines talking about what science fiction writers need to consider (genetics, ecology, astronomical processes) in order to get their alien worlds right - or, at least believable enough from a scientific perspective not to sound dumb. They also discussed how the latest strange scientific discoveries and theories can also open up new creative frontiers for writers. One of the best lines of the morning - hell, one of the best lines I heard throughout the entire con - was from astronomer Dr. Jaymie Matthews (a venerable fixture at VCons, and also co-star of a Goodyear Tire commercial a couple of years ago) while he related a story about how James Cameron has been consulting with scientists about his Avatar sequel. According to Matthews, Cameron's thinking about combining his love of oceans with SF by setting the next movie on one of Pandora's neighbouring moons that's a giant water world. Matthews says that since astronomers have been able to tell Cameron that yes, aquatic super-Earths are possible, they have "given [Cameron] his wet dream."

After that I ducked out for a quick lunch, and when I came back I took in the last few minutes of the "Are Games Art?" session. Video game producer & designer Palle Hoffstein led the audience in a discussion about Roger Ebert's statement that video games are not art and never will be. From what I caught of the session, the audience consensus (not surprisingly) was that Ebert is wrong. Hoffstein noted that historically there's always a period of adjustment when new media are invented, with critics having been slow initially to accept photography, film and comics as art, and that video games are probably now waiting for their breakthrough moment to be accepted just as the other forms of media have. He also pointed out that one of the factors that's allowing this delay of acceptance to continue is a lack of evolution of written critiques of games beyond their value-for-money or quality of graphics and action - games are not yet being discussed for their artistic merit. Not being a gamer myself (or, at least, sitting down to video games only occasionally), I can't comment on the issue, but it was certainly fascinating to listen in.

From there, sadly, it became a chore to find something worthwhile to attend in the short time left before I had to leave the con. I'd really wanted to attend the "Podcasting" session to pick up some technical tips because I'm toying with the idea of occasionally melding my radio roots with the blog here with an occasional feature interview. More to come as - or if - it happens. Unfortunately, I hadn't bothered to look at the scheduling changes board earlier, and so hadn't seen that the podcasting session had been shifted to Saturday once the con got underway, and I'd unwittingly missed out.

As a backup, I'd wanted to go to the "How did that get on my book cover?" session featuring authors, artists and publishers talking about how cover art is chosen, but that too had been moved. Instead, that conference room had a panel talking about the benefits of exercise. Now, I've got a bunch of friends who are personal trainers, and despite my portly frame I do try to get a walk or workout in a semi-regular basis, so the last thing I need to listen to at the con is someone preaching about fitness. Rather than having a panel discussion sitting in a room talking about fitness, I think if the intent is to get nerds moving then the VCon organizers could have chosen a more creative and effective option: they could have taken the lead from the Montreal Worldcon in 2009, which, as part of programming, organized 1-hour walks each morning where fans could go out for a walk around the town with various authors in attendance, thereby combining exercise with the opportunity to chat with a favourite writer and see a little more of the host community beyond the confines of the convention centre/hotel/satellite ring of restaurants.

Bailing out on that panel fairly quickly, I wandered into the "Turkey Readings" for a little while. The Turkey Readings are a VCon tradition, where a panel of authors reads passages from a selection of painfully bad science fiction and fantasy novels (seriously, these rags are frequently the "literary" equivalent of Plan Nine from Outer Space or Robot Monster). Meanwhile, volunteers from the audience come up to the front to act out what's being read. The rest of the audience can then bid money to make the whole thing stop, or counter-bid to continue, with a fair amount of back-and-forth happening before someone finally bids enough to force an end. And then they start again with another selection from the trash pile. Money raised goes to the Canadian Unity Fan Fund which sends fans from one part of the country to attend cons in other provinces in an effort to bring us closer together.

But there's only so much of the Turkey Readings that I can tolerate before I feel my tenuous grip on sanity slipping away, so I fled that room after a while and spent a few minutes quietly reading from the new Tesseracts anthology in the hall.

The last session I attended was "Writing about Fighting", which is pretty self-explanatory. Didn't get to stay for the whole thing though because I had to get home to get changed and go to a friend's wedding later in the afternoon. The early departure meant I had to miss the infamous Elron Awards and the Closing Ceremonies, but I've been to enough of those over the years that, while they're entertaining, my con experience certainly won't be ruined by taking a miss.

So how was my VCon 36 experience? For the most part, pretty good. The programming selection may not always be full of "can't miss" sessions, but there's usually a panel worth attending, the movie room (with its constant bombardment of chocolate from Uncle Victor) is good to spend a couple of hours in, there are always great costumes to look at, and interesting and unexpected conversations with fellow fans. At the end of the day, I have to say the reason why I keep coming back year after year is that feeling I get when I walk in the door on the first day, look around at the other fans and the displays, and head for the registration desk: that feeling of coming home.

Thanks, VCon.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

VCon 36 - Day 2

Today I probably spent more time in Uncle Victor's movie room than going to panel discussions, but that's okay. You can't complain about a day at VCon when you come home with free toys and food.

The day's con-going started for me around noon; I arrived at the hotel and found the Ghostbusters of Alberta had parked their Ecto-1EH right across from the front entrance, so, as promised I grabbed a couple of snapshots. Typical cellphone cam, most of them aren't great, but this one is good enough to show the love the group's put into this old wagon.

Anyhow, the first session of the day for me was "Computer Science in Science Fiction - Ahead of or Behind Our Time?" I'd missed about half of it, but it was still pretty interesting, with speaker Tamara Munzner weighing some of the advances of the last couple of decades against areas that have lagged somewhat. Examples included the rapid increases seen in processing power over the years while video display capabilities haven't evolved anywhere near as quickly.

After that it was over to the "Author GOH Interview" to listen to VCon elder statesman Michael Walsh do a Q&A with Larry Niven. Pretty entertaining for the most part, with the old author sharing funny musings about his "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex" essay (if you enjoyed the conversation in Kevin Smith's Mallrats about the perils of Lois Lane's relationship with Superman, here's - directly or indirectly - the source material), or dropping lines like "Remember, I'm allowed to make up my facts." when talking about how rigorous to be with science in hard science fiction. It was also interesting to hear him talk about his membership in Sigma, a think tank of SF writers supplying advice to the US government and some NGO's. What I could have done without was the extended foray into his Libertarian views, but I blame Walsh for leading him down the path to spout that nonsense.

When that was over I headed over to the "Food in Science Fiction" panel (which, incidentally, Niven participated in) which talked about the role of food in SF and culture (human and alien), the impact of different biologies on the types of food consumed, various foods that have appeared in SF, etc. While they did touch on the issue of foods being unique to their home planets because alien species, having different biologies, wouldn't be able to digest or derive all their required nutrition from them (never mind if those food weren't downright poisonous to them), what they didn't discuss were the rare, but highly amusing instances of universal foods that pop up from time to time: Gin & Tonics (courtesy of Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) and Swedish Meatballs (Babylon 5). Good food for thought, anyway.

I took a bit of a break after that, wandering through the Art Room and Dealers' Room again, and stopping to chat with a rep from the group putting in a bid to host Worldcon 2015 in Spokane, Washington. Apparently their competition at this point is Orlando, with a group there wanting to host the event in a section of the Disneyworld complex. Tough choice. Spokane's certainly a lot closer and it's nowhere near as hot, but if the con was in The Mouse's lair I wouldn't have to worry about how to convince my wife to okay the trip - she'd be booking the tickets so fast my head would spin, just so she could indulge in her love of Disney while I was getting my geek on. I have to confess I wouldn't mind going to Disneyworld for the con either, as it's been nearly 30 years since I was there last. Ah well, I don't follow the travelling Worldcon roadshow closely enough to keep an eye out for location voting opportunities or rules anyway. When I hear which way the vote goes, I'll make my decision whether to attend or not.

Then it was up to Uncle Victor's movie room to catch the screening of the 2010 live action version of Space Battleship Yamato (warning: heavy spoilage to ensue). My favourite TV show when I was a little kid was Starblazers (the North American name for the original animated SBY series), so I was itching to see this flick since the rumours and trailers started surfacing a couple of years ago. For the most part it was a lot of fun. The battleship itself has been brought to life in glorious photo-real CG, the battle scenes are fast-paced, and the robot (well, hand-held AI for most of the movie, but he gets a full body at the end with a head that's a nice nod to the old series), Analyzer in this version, though known as IQ-9 in Starblazers, gets a badass upgrade. And I didn't mind that the writers merged Iscandar and Gamilas/Gamilon into one planet, with their respective leaders made into seemingly individual faces representing the hive minds of their species, like non-corporeal versions of the Borg queen. Sure, some of the dialogue is corny from time to time, there are plot points that don't make sense (like Yamato not bothering to use its fighter squadron for defense while waiting for Kodai/Wildstar to rescue Yuki from her damaged Black Tiger), Captain Okita seems to have no facial expression whatsoever (seriously, the puppets in Disney's "It's a Small World" ride have more animation), the actor who plays Kodai looks like a younger version of the original Iron Chef's Chairman Kaga, and the embodiment of the Gamilas consciousness (at least in its subterranean lair) looked a lot like the MCP tower in Tron minus the face, but for the most part it was worth watching.

I say "for the most part" because of two major flaws. The first - and worst - was an immensely disturbing moment in Kodai's rousing speech before the attack on Iscandar/Gamilas where he refers to the original sea-going Yamato as a symbol of "hope" when it was launched in 1942. Hope? Really? I know, I know; this is a Japanese-made film made, primarily, for a Japanese audience. But don't tell me that the writers, producers and directors of this movie aren't aware that in the nearly 40 years since the animated series was created, the franchise has developed a major international audience (hell, they're probably well aware of it as a source for bonus revenue with overseas distribution or sales) that might catch this stinky little piece of dialogue and see it for what it is. And that's a shocking lack of awareness of and/or repentance for Japan's actions during World War II. Let's be very clear: Yamato was a dreadnought manufactured by a vicious regime hell-bent on taking over Asia to strip other nations of their resources and enslave and massacre the people of those nations. Yamato was one of the instruments they used to try to enforce that theft, enslavement, torture and despicable experimentation, and murder. Hope? Why not ask Chinese or Koreans or Filipinos or Allied servicemen or anyone else who got in Japan's gunsights during the war whether that's an appropriate word to use? Old warships are cool to look at, but let's not sugarcoat the very real horror that this thing represented. If the writers had put in something about redeeming the ship's past, that would have showed maturity and a full understanding of history. But they didn't. No, they quaff deeply of their koolaid of glory and airbrush the shit out of the past.

Second, and less offensive, was the unforgivably tedious arming of the ultimate weapon and sad farewell to the hero. When the Gamilas warship moves into orbit it takes forever to arm its final, huge, ultimate planet bomb - so long that it never gets around to firing. Remember how Star Trek: Nemesis dragged-out the Scimitar's reconfiguration and the arming of its mega deathbeam? That's got nothing on the pokiness of the Gamilas. Seriously, if the Yamato hadn't been there to make a pest of itself, the people of Earth would still have had enough time for a complete evacuation, terraforming another world, recolonization, and turkey dinner before that damn missile was ready to fire. As part of this act in the flick, the audience is forced to endure the endless, melodramatic goodbye between Kodai and Yuki. Really, the fight should have been over by the time she was hauled off the bridge. If it hadn't taken the Gamilas so long to prep their big missile, the movie really would have been over while those two were still clinging and gasping over one-another (really, the actress who played Yuki did not seem capable of actually crying in any of her crying scenes in the film, and appears to have settled on hyperventilation as an acceptable alternative) or the crew were still having another sad, last-minute bye-bye wave to Kodai. That farewell took so long - how long did it take?! - that farewell took so long that by the time it was over, the Earth could have naturally recovered on its own with rats having evolved into the next dominant form of life with their own technological civilization capable of taking on the fight with the Gamilas - like The Secret of NIMH, except with spaceships and not as creepy. That being said, despite its shortcomings, SBY is mostly worth watching. Mostly.

I then stepped out for a while for supper, coming back to take in the last few minutes of the "Justify the Science Flaw" panel, which was coming up with some pretty funny scientifically plausible explanations for everything from how ravenous zombies would be able to wait without food until the next batch of unwary living people blundered by, or how Spiderman would be able to climb walls using real spider attributes despite his human size.

Then it was back up to the movie room for a screening of Ghostbusters, with commentary and trivia by members of the Alberta and BC chapters of the Ghostbusters fan group. Prior to the film actually getting under way, movie room host Uncle Victor, in addition to handing out lots of chocolate to all in attendance, also gave out some prizes. One prize, in honour of Mr Staypuft, was a marshmallow gun and a bag of large marshmallows (perfect for campfires, but sadly incompatible with the gun, which only takes mini marshmallows). It was initially given to a woman in the audience, but she wasn't interested and ended up giving it to me, which was great because my wife and I will make use of the marshmallows for baking and the launcher will be a nice addition to whatever we get our nephew for Christmas. Anyhow, once the swag was dispensed, the fanboys treated the audience to a bunch of clips from classic Ghostbusters-like features (including one of my favourites: a very old Disney Hallowe'en short about Mickey, Donald and Goofy and their "Ajax Ghost Exterminator" company misadventures in a haunted house), TV shows from the 80's trying to capitalize on Ghostbusters' success, and, of course, Ray Parker Junior's music video. Eventually, the movie itself got underway. The commentary from the fan group members skirted between being the right amount of cool factoids and trivia overkill. Everyone laughed when they talked about researching acceptable dosages of Thorazine and how Venkman's administration of 300 cc's of the stuff to Dana/Zul was probably enough to kill an elephant, never mind the unsettling question of what he was doing bringing a syringe with that much of the drug with him on what he had initially assumed would be a date. But there were also moments, especially near the end, when the panel got gabbing about too much unimportant minutia and it was kind of annoying when this drowned-out some of the movie's really good dialogue. Ah well. It was a good evening and if I want to watch the movie without interruptions, I can pop it in the DVD player sometime (which I'll probably do this month anyway).

And that was it for today.

Must hit the sack now, as I want to take in a couple of sessions tomorrow morning and morning will be coming waaaaaaaay too early.

Saturday, October 01, 2011

VCon 36 - Day 1 - supplemental

Forgot to mention an odd conversation today in the previous post:

At the end of the closing of the Opening Ceremonies today, some guy came up to me as I was heading for the door and said: "Hey! Did you know you look exactly like Gordie Freeman?!"

I'm not really a gamer, so I didn't know about Dr. Gordon Freeman from "Half-Life".

He went on to talk about how I apparently resemble Freeman in this way or that way, and gave me a brief background of the character as scientist and badass.

Badass? Well, I look like a fatass, but certainly not a toughguy.

I did a quick web check a couple of minutes ago and I really don't think I look like Freeman, but I've decided to take it as a compliment.

Hey, beats being told you look like Q-Bert.

Sent from my iPhone

VCon 36 - Day 1

Another year, another VCon. While nothing really wowed me about the programming schedule ahead of time, there's still something comforting and homey about the con (in a geeky sort of way) that makes me look forward to going back each year.

VCon 36 got off to a bit of a late start for me... I don't think I arrived until just before 4:00, which is okay because while registration and some of the displays and movies fire up at noon, most of the major sessions don't get under way until about 4, and there was nothing that was really standing out to me right away. I knew things were beginning well right after I finished at the registration desk when I was called over to a display table run by the Ghostbusters of Alberta fan group. Seems one of them had taken a liking to the "White & Nerdy" t-shirt I'd picked up at a Weird Al concert a few years ago and wanted to know if they could pick one up locally. Sadly, there's no local connection for Yankovic merchandise that I know of when he isn't coming through on tour. That being said, we had a nice chat and I had a good long look at some of their equipment. I don't know which was more awesome: their replica proton pack signed by Dan "Ray Stantz" Ackroyd, or the club's white stationwagon out in the parking log tricked out to look like the Ecto-1 (or, the Ecto-1EH as they call it, eh). Will try to grab some pix tomorrow to share. Lots of other great costumes out and about today as well, especially with the 501st Legion out in full force (pun intended).

From there I did the usual prowl around to get a feel for a layout of the convention hall's various session rooms, the dealers' room, the art room, Uncle Victor's movie room and the hotel in general. Bit of an unusual experience in the art room though... Larry Niven, who's the con's Author Guest of Honour this year, had been in there looking around and shooting the breeze with the room supervisor; after a while, round about the time I was looking at the cool Chinese steampunk prints by James Ng, I hear Niven walk over to the entrance to get his bag or whatever from the room supervisor on the way out the door, and while he was waiting he started singing "Some Enchanted Evening". Not big, loud, room-filling singing, mind you, just that sort of that light, only somewhat audible, half-unconcious singing that some people do where others might just hum or whistle. Didn't last too long though before he got his bag and was off about his business. Really not something I expected. And ya know, he may be a good writer, but that singing is really not something I'd want to hear again.

The Opening Ceremonies were thankfully light and pretty quick. Anyone who's been to cons knows that when the mic starts getting passed around the front table during introductions there's the serious potential for people to start talking and just not stop, but this year's VCon front table team didn't waste any time. Indeed, probably the longest spiel came from Niven, who rambled on for about 10 minutes on the subject of his 1971 book Lucifer's Hammer, the chances of a person getting killed by a meteorite, the risk of comets and asteroids to the Earth, his book Lucifer's Hammer, nuking said celestial bodies, other means of pushing in-bound threats away, an amusing anecdote about John W. Campbell and Analog in the 40's having to do with atomic weapons, oh, and did I mention Lucifer's Hammer and nuking space rocks? Still not entirely sure what all that had to do with "here we are at VCon", but it was kind of entertaining anyway.

From there it was on to physicist Rob Knop's "The Science Behind Larry Niven's Neutron Star", with Niven himself sitting in the audience. A good general lecture on neutron stars, gravity, tidal forces and basic physics.

Next I ambled over to the Book Launch for a couple of minutes to ask Niven to autograph my copy of Ringworld and the first page of his short story "Not Long Before the End" in The Oxford Book of Fantasy. Asking him to sign his contribution to TOBOF is something that's a couple of years overdue for me. I just happened to be reading not only that anthology, but that very story a couple of years ago when I was attending Worldcon in Montreal and ran into Niven at a session one morning. We were both sitting in the back row and I had the book in my bag and figured I'd ask for his autograph when the panelists were done. Problem was, a couple of minutes after the session got started, the old author nodded off. He was still asleep an hour later when the discussion came to an end and I didn't think it would be right to wake him to pester him for his signature. Luckily he was wide awake this evening.

After that it was down to the hotel bar for a leisurely supper watching the first quarter of the Lions-Eskimos game with fellow con-goers and other hotel guests. Hats off to the kitchen for doing a delightful scratch-made caramel bread pudding. Not only was it tasty, it was huge: as big as the Death Star and probably quite capable of destroying the blood sugar levels of an entire planet.

My next session after dinner was "Our Green Future Does Not Have to be Soylent". What was supposed to be a panel discussion about the possibility of a sustainable future given human population growth and activity degenerated after just a few minutes into a sustained diatribe about the general uselessness and evils of government and business. Now, I'm not going to chug koolaid and defend irresponsible political decision making or blind corporate self-interest, but on the other hand I would certainly have appreciated a more balanced discussion because not everything has gone to pot, and, call me a hopeless optimist, I don't think it's a foregone conclusion that as a species we've slotted ourselves and our planet into a straight line towards extinction. I suspect our remarkable ability to adapt may buy us at least a small chance of survival.

At any rate, the last panel I attended today was "Old School Vampires", where the folklore origins of these creatures of the night were explored, along with discussions of their evolution to the portrayal of vampires that we know today. It was pretty informative and moved along quickly, and while the panelists weren't able to completely avoid discussing the current Stephanie Meyer spin on the undead, they did make every effort to not dwell too much on sparkly vampires that suck.

Speaking of creatures that stay up all night, I've spend half it already and should probably turn in so I don't miss all of tomorrow's programming.

Stay tuned for the next VCon 36 update tomorrow night, and of course the odd Twitter update as things unfold.