Monday, October 25, 2010

Top 5 Ramming Scenes of SF

Sometimes, in the midst of a science fiction battle, you've gotta go for broke and call for ramming speed. Some of the best SF battle scenes that spring to mind most quickly for me involve a ship from at least one side, deliberately or accidentally, barreling into one of its enemies.

I'm not talking about some weenie, half-assed slap of a collision like the Enterprise shuffling into the Scimitar at the end of Star Trek - Nemesis.

I'm talking about a hull-wrenching, ship-wrecking, explosion-causing, full-on crash-up between two vessels, causing significant, crippling, if not catastrophic damage, and perhaps even changing the tide of the battle.

Run for the lifepods, chums, we're goin' in!

Top 5 Ramming Scenes of SF:

5) Star Wars - Return of the Jedi - The A-Wing Fighter Ramming the Super Star Destroyer's Bridge
It always seemed to me that this was an accidental ram: the A-Wing had taken a hit and the pilot lost control. But there's no denying that this was a truly devastating impact. How is it that the Rebel capital ships could pound away at this monster's shields and hull for minutes? hours? and not cause significant damage, but one little fighter, the smallest on the line, takes out its bridge and the Empire loses its flagship - and sustains massive damage to the Death Star II. Sure, we can argue until we're as blue in the face as Grand Admiral Thrawn about how absurd it is that the Super Star Destroyer's non-bridge officers weren't able to regain control in time through an auxiliary CIC or the engine room, but the fact remains that this was a David and Goliath scenario with truly awesome results.

4) Star Trek - Deep Space Nine, season 2 finale "The Jem'Hadar" - The Jem'Hadar Fighter Ramming The USS Odyssey
Sometimes, as we learned from the previous example, size doesn't win the battle, especially if your enemy is a Jem'Hadar fighter (let's call a spade a spade, those suckers are big enough to be small capital ships - they're basically corvettes or maybe big enough to be destroyers) with massive firepower and suicidal determination. The Odyssey, a Galaxy-class starship like the Enterprise, tries to come to the rescue of Sisko & co, but ends up getting pummeled by 2 (or was it 3?) Jem'Hadar "fighters". When the rescue is complete, Odyssey attempts to cover the escape of the DS9 Runabouts, but the Galaxy-class ship is destroyed while retreating when it is rammed by one of the Jem'Hadar. Sisko has it mostly right when he explains to the others that the ram was the Jem'Hadar's way of sending a message to the Federation of how determined they were. It was more than that though. It was really a big "fuck you". A message would have involved crippling or destroying Odyssey, but ramming it and destroying one of their own ships in the process was seriously over-the-top on the part of the Jem'Hadar. This was a scene that was also, at least in my mind, a major turning point for the Trek TV shows in terms of portraying the viciousness and brutality that a space battle might entail, and a promise of things to come for DS9 in particular.

3) Battlestar Galactica, season 3 "Exodus Part II" - the Pegasus 2-for-1
When the time comes to rescue the colonists from New Caprica, Galactica initially goes it alone, but the odds are stacked too heavily against the old battlestar, and it looks like Admiral Adama won't make it out. That's when his son Apollo appears in the Pegasus, and the larger, newer battlestar provides cover for Galactica to get away. Pegasus is heavily damaged in the battle, and so before he abandons ship, Lee sets his battlestar on autopilot and sends it hurtling guns-blazing directly at a Cylon basestar. The impact is so colossal that one of Pegasus' flight pods is sheared clean off and tumbles into a second basestar, destroying that vessel as well. An incredible battle to watch, and a nice nod to the episode from the old series where Commander Cain's Pegasus is last seen diving between a pair of enemy basestars in a hail of lasers and missiles.

2) The War of the Worlds by HG Wells, Chapter 17 "The Thunder Child" - Another Great Double Take-out
Of all the slug-fests described in SF books I've read over the years, the one that stays with me the most is a Victorian-era sea battle, the showdown between an early battleship and a trio of Martian war machines in The War of the Worlds. Wells sets the scene of a harbour clogged with ships loaded with refugees trying to escape the terrible Martian tripods. Suddenly, three of the alien machines appear and it looks like they'll be able to make good on the old cliche of having as easy a time as shooting fish in a barrel. But unexpectedly a large British ironclad comes racing into the harbour. In the first exchange, the Thunder Child is raked by a Martian heat ray, but destroys the alien with a volley from its guns. The battleship then charges towards a second Martian, which fires its own heat ray, destroying the ship's upper superstructure. However, the Thunder Child's hull continues to plow forward, ramming the Martian and destroying both. The third war machine slinks off, leaving the refugee ships to escape the harbour in safety. This scene has all the right ingredients: a surprise rescue, the good guys facing incredible odds (both numerically and technologically), a rousing victory when humanity needs it, the innocent escaping, and even though the heroes die, we get the satisfaction of seeing the surviving Martian retreating rather than destroying the ships in the harbour. Of course, it's also the last break humanity will get in the story until the germs take their toll. Wells shows how great a storyteller he is by giving us a victory that, as the rest of the story unfolds, seems smaller and smaller as the Martian occupation gets worse and worse.

1) Babylon 5, season 3 "Severed Dreams" - the Churchill vs the Roanoke
I've spoken at length before about what a powerful piece of TV storytelling (regardless of series or genre) this episode is, and this particular scene is one of the many reasons for it. The battle is raging as B5, the Alexander and the Churchill defend themselves against the Earthforce ships that have been sent to arrest their crews. The Churchill's captain, Hiroshi, knowing her ship is too heavily damaged to continue to fight, orders her ship on a collision course with the Earthforce-loyal Roanoke, broadsiding the other destroyer and causing both ships to explode. (I'm guessing Straczynski thought it would be appropriate to have a Japanese captain make a kamikaze attack in this scene.) It's an incredibly well-done piece of special effects to watch with a powerful musical score digging at the viewer as well. But ultimately, I think what's best about the scene is that it's treated with a lot of realism from the standpoint of the characters. When the destroyers explode, there's no cheering in B5's C'n'C. Some relief, but no celebration - not only do these people appreciate the danger everyone is in, and the terrible loss of life they've just witnessed, but they're also well aware that even though the Roanoke arrived as their enemy, not too long ago they were all part of the same military - all children of Earth. What we're witnessing in this scene isn't so much a great victory as a terrible tragedy. It's just an amazing piece of writing. As good as all of the other nominations are, they don't hold a candle to this part of "Severed Dreams".

What are your favourite ramming scenes from SF?

1 Week Left in the NHL Superheroes Challenge

Alright comic fanboys and hockey fans, there's just 1 week left in the NHL Superhero Challenge! If the NHL and Stan Lee can team up in a truly ridiculous marketing scheme to create their own hockey-themed superhero squad, I think we, as fans, are entitled to give it a pre-emptive check into the boards.

Create your own superhero profile based on your local or favourite NHL franchise! Let us know what their strengths and weaknesses are (especially weaknesses!), what strange powers they have, and who their rivals are.

Deadline for submissions: October 31st - it's a Hallowe'en trick and treat!

Friday, October 22, 2010

Randy Quaid Tries for Refugee Status in Vancouver

The CBC is reporting actor Randy Quaid and his wife have been in an Immigration and Refugee Board hearing today in Vancouver trying to get refugee status in Canada.

Quaid, whose SF roles include drunken father & co-saviour-of-the-world Russell Casse in Independence Day, the monster in Frankenstein, and Bruno in The Adventures of Pluto Nash (not to mention his unforgettable non-SF role as Cousin Eddie in the Vacation movies) was allegedly arrested Thursday by Vancouver Police when officers responded to an incident, ran an identity check on a couple allegedly involved, and discovered the two were wanted on outstanding warrants in the US. The 60-year-old actor and his wife Evi are charged with felony burglary and misdemeanor for allegedly moving back into and vandalizing a home they once owned in Santa Barbara, California.

Today at the refugee hearing, the Quaids claimed they fear for their life in the US. Quaid says eight of his close friends have been killed in recent years and he thinks he's in danger.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Top 5 Insults of SF

There's nothing like a good insult - unless it's being directed at you personally, that is.

Science fiction and fantasy are full of characters who make fun of others and are poked-at themselves. There's Q from the Star Trek franchise, who wastes no opportunity to make snide comments at the expense of Picard, Riker or Worf. And the tables are occasionally turned when we get to see how ridiculous Q himself can be made to look. The Trek universe, through Deep Space Nine, has also given us Elim Garak, a tailor and former Cardassian spymaster, who while being treated for injuries boasts of having wounded a gang of Klingons for life with his insults. And the Dragonlance roleplaying tie-in books presented an entire race, the Kender, who have a magically-enhanced natural ability to taunt pretty much any person or creature to the point where they're driven into a mindless rage.

Say what you will about how nice it is of Babylon 5's Minbari to find amusement in misunderstandings of language rather than the possibility of personal danger or embarrassment, the rest of the universe usually gets a kick out of a good insult.

It's important to note that when I'm referring to insults, I'm not talking about SF-nal racial slurs here, like "mudblood" in the Harry Potter books, or when Cat offhandedly refers to the human crew of the Red Dwarf as "monkeys", or the Colonial use of "toaster" as an epithet for Cylons.

The true wit is in potshots directed specifically at individuals for real, overblown, or imagined flaws in their personalities, personal appearance, or actions. Sometimes it's an artfully drawn-out description or comparison taking at least a sentence to fire-off. Sometimes it's not that creative at all. Frequently good insults are dirty. And often just a single word will do to really, really get to someone.

And so this week's list is dedicated to:

The Top 5 Insults of SF

5) "Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!" Monty Python's The Holy Grail
Forget swords and armor or catapult-launched livestock and manure, the most powerful weapon the French soldiers mustered against King Arthur and his companions was their never-ending torrent of taunts. There are lots of really funny, merciless lines of beratement in this movie that never fail to get me howling, but this is probably the one that most readily springs to my mind. It's purely idiotic in its own right, but it's leveled with such ferocity and petty cruelty and it's just so creative that you can't help but love it. And let's not forget that it's part of the volley that succeeds in making Arthur cringe and driving him off.

4) "You stuck-up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf herder!" Star Wars - The Empire Strikes Back
Princess Leia's tongue-lashing of Han (right before her tongue duel with Luke) is perhaps one of the best-known insults in SF. What makes it really funny, as everyone knows, is that the space pirate takes more offence at being called "scruffy-looking" than a "nerf herder" or "half-witted" (which might be taken as a sign of being half-witted. I'm just sayin'.)

3) "smeghead" Red Dwarf
Short and to the point, this is Lister's favourite jibe at his snooty, idiotic roommate Rimmer (before and after Rimmer's death). What's great about this one, is that the writers no doubt concocted it to use in place of "asshole" and other similar real-life invectives that probably wouldn't be allowed by the TV censors (not entirely sure about the censors in the UK where the show was produced, but most Canadian and American censors would have an issue with it), and yet in doing so they used a real-life, disgusting bodily substance, and ended up getting away with it on air in a bunch of countries.

2) "You nameless licker of scentless piss!" The Man-Kzin Wars 3
Over the years as Larry Niven and his gaggle of co-writers have given us installments in the seemingly never-ending conflicts between humanity and the race of seven-foot, bipedal, intelligent, and highly belligerent tigers that terrorize the immediate neighbourhood of Known Space, they've done a good job of exploring the details of the Kzin culture. Part of this involves their language and especially their insults. The taunts they use at each other very much reflect their feline nature and behaviour. In this case, being nameless refers to low social status, as kzinti are only given names as rewards for outstanding work/war service or if they are noble-born (otherwise they're referred to by nick-names as kits and by their job titles as adults). The rest of the insult refers to an individual who engages in piss licking for no reason apart from enjoyment, since being scentless it would convey no information that a cat would normally pick up from it. In one nasty little barb, this phrase tells the reader a lot about the Kzin. As an insult among Kzinti though, it's very successful at driving the recipient into a rage, provoking him into a "scream and leap" - an attack resulting in a fatal claw-to-claw fight which is the common method for male Kzin to settle serious disputes. I can't recall which particular story from The Man-Kzin Wars 3 this insult comes from or which author wrote it, but it's a zinger that's one of my favourites for being gross, vicious, creative, kinda funny, and a piece of dialogue that provokes explosive action.

1) "petaQ!" (or p'tahk, pahtak, p'tach, patak, or however you choose to spell it) the Star Trek franchises
I haven't been able to pin down exactly what this nasty little bit of Klingon means, but like the previous Kzin insult, it's bad enough to usually force a fast and brutal response. PetaQ makes it to the number one spot for being short, effective, and probably the best-known insult in SF.

What insults from SF books, TV shows or movies stick out best in your mind?

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Fanboy (and Fangirl) Challenge: Your take on the NHL Superheroes

As I've been harping about for the past week or so, Stan Lee and the NHL have joined forces to create a squad of hockey team-themed superheroes, but they're making everyone wait until the All Star Game on January 30th before they unveil their creations.

But why should we have to wait until the season's half over before we get to see these superheroes? The idea behind the Guardian Project mashup is just so insane that we should be allowed to start making fun of them now!

So I say let's do it!

I'm issuing a challenge to all the comic book/SF and hockey fanboys and fangirls out there:

Choose your local/regional or favourite (if you don't root for the home team) NHL team and create a tongue-in-cheek character profile for that superhero.

Be sure to include:

The Superhero's Name (must be some variant of the actual city/team name)
Physical & Costume description
Optional: Other relevant data such as battle stats (in place of game stats like never having won the Stanley Cup)

Bonus points if you've got some artistic talent and can send a link to a sketch you've drawn!

Remember: the whole idea of mashing-up superheroes and hockey is so ridiculous that your character and his/her attributes should be equally ridiculous. Be brutally honest about the potential strangeness of any comic character that would be inspired by your city/team. If they play poorly, dress funny, or have a vague name that implies nothing about what the superhero's abilities would be, or if there's something quirky about the team/character's home town, that's all fodder for your character profile.

I can't offer any prizes at this point for those who participate except for honour and glory, but it'll be fun!

Want to participate but you don't have an NHL team in your area? Need a refresher on the names of the teams? Not a hockey fan but want to take part in the fun? Visit the NHL's website for a complete list of all 30 of the current teams.

Note: I will also accept your nominations for superheroes based on NHL teams that no longer exist (ie the Quebec Nordiques, Winnipeg Jets, etc).

Reply through the comments section of this post. Deadline for submissions will be Sunday, October 31.

Stan Plays Coy about new NHL Superheroes

Comic book legend Stan Lee and others associated with the new NHL Guardian Project took part in an interview with ESPN Radio on the 13th where they really didn't say much about the new batch of superheroes except how big this endeavour is.

At one point, Stan mused that some of the characters could turn out to be villains, but no specifics were given. Later he hinted that there could be some explanation for rivalries that might reflect some of the real teams' histories with one-another. Again, there were no details.

In fact, the closest they got to shedding light on any of these superheroes was one point where a member of Stan's gang mentioned that they'd drawn the Minnesota Wild character as being physically massive.

The rest was all hype about the big unveiling at the All Star game this winter.

Stay tuned for more on the comics-hockey mashup...

Friday, October 15, 2010

New Logo for Sci Fi Trading Post

We've just posted the new logo for Sci Fi Trading Post to the site!

Kudos to Catherine MacDonald at Phatcat Creative for doing a great job on the design.

And a hefty dose of thanks as well to good friend and webmaster extraordinaire Steven Rowe of Lim Rowe Consultants for putting the site together and getting the new logo up.

We're still in the midst of building the back end of the site and getting the books and comics catalogued, but we're hoping to be open for business in a couple of weeks. Be sure to follow Sci Fi Trading Post on Twitter: @SciFiTradngPost for updates on our launch and information on our products.

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Not-So-Happy Thanksgiving

Happy Thanksgiving everyone! I hope all my fellow Canadians out there had a great holiday long weekend, and for all of you who aren't from the Great White North, I hope you had a Canadian nearby who was willing to share his/her celebratory turkey with you!

For my part, normally I'd be smiling blissfully in a turkey-inspired near-coma right about now, but instead I've spent the weekend meditating on designed obsolescence in household goods, specifically appliances. While Thanksgiving proper is today (Monday), my wife and I usually do the big supper on Sunday, giving us the Monday to take it easy. But yesterday's meal preparations were far more of a hassle than they normally are: the oven died on us after the turkey had been in it for a couple of hours. Luckily I've got a big-ass barbeque out back with plenty of propane and I was able to finish it off very nicely out there, even adding a touch of mesquite smoke.

That being said, the whole event got me thinking of science fictional ways to get avoid having to deal with inconveniently-timed appliance failure. I was reminded of a very short science fiction story I read long ago (and I'm totally blanking on the title and author's name) about a family of the future getting ready for their big Thanksgiving or Christmas turkey dinner... the mother was bustling around the kitchen getting things ready, the key preparation being putting a big platter on the table and placing a small pill on it. All she had to do was apply water and in a second the pill would expand into a huge, hot and ready to eat turkey with all the trimmings. Meanwhile, the kids are running around, and she's concerned about the baby being underfoot, so she picks him up and puts him in his highchair at the table, then turns back to the kitchen to continue the other preparations. She turns back to the table a minute later, and realizes something is amiss: the pill is no longer on the plate, she looks around, unable to find it, then realizes in horror that the baby has reached across the table and is just stuffing the pill in his mouth. The end. Okay, so maybe the meal-in-a-pill idea isn't the best solution to my GE oven crapping out. Still, there's gotta be some way to build a more reliable appliance that doesn't die at the most inconvenient time.

And the stupidity doesn't end there...

Today (Monday), the fridge died on us. We only found out after it had been dead for a couple of hours. Had to toss a whole lot of food.

Two appliances in as many days, and over a holiday weekend centred on food! I've had streaks of bad luck before, but this is getting ridiculous! What's the plan for tomorrow? Is a meteorite going to brain me as I walk down the street tomorrow to a business meeting?

Why is it that nothing lasts anymore? Up until a couple of years ago, my grandmother had a fridge in her basement that she'd owned since the 50's that was still working perfectly and had the honourable designation of being "the beer fridge". My fridge: no more than 7 years old. Same with my electric oven (grandma's gas oven dated back to the 30's). If I had any doubts before, I'm now certainly a firm believer in the idea of designed obsolescence.

Where's the super smart house that's supposed to stay in working order and take care of me for life? Where's the smart house that Bradbury described in "There Will Come Soft Rains" that's tough enough to outlast its owners (and their dog - excuse me while I wipe some tears away) and stay functional even after a nuclear blast. Granted, it was only functional for a short time before eventually being destroyed, but still, it was pretty tough, and kept working until the end! I'll betcha its fridge and oven were running just fine until the place finally burned down!

Now if you'll excuse me, I've got to dig-out my bike helmet from the depths of the closet. I've gotta be ready if that meteorite makes an appearance tomorrow.

Friday, October 08, 2010

NHL Superheroes' Promo Website Up and Running

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, the NHL and comic creator Stan Lee have teamed up to create a new line of superheroes based on each of the league's 30 teams. It's called the Guardian Project. Today the new Guardian Project website has gone live.

Upon arrival, the site takes visitors through a short trailer (complete with a driving metalhead guitar and drum score that gets kind of annoying after a while for its repetitiveness) teasing what some of the characters will look like. Problem is, the superheroes are all so shrouded in shadow it's pretty hard to make out any details, much less identify who represents what city.

Once the promo's over, it flips to the homepage, which is even more murky and piled with a legion of generally indistinct figures. There really isn't much more to the site aside from Stan's bio and a news page.

The National Hockey League's news page reports the characters will be unveiled at a special presentation during the All-Star Game on January 30, 2011 in Raleigh, North Carolina.

I've still got a bad feeling about this.

But, at the same time, I think we can have a little fun with it. More to come...

Superheroes Coming to the NHL

This has got to be one of the strangest mashups ever: Superheroes and the real-world NHL. And who's one of the main characters behind this cultural collision? None other than Stan Lee.

CBC is reporting the creator of Spiderman, the Hulk, and the X-Men (through his SLG Entertainment company) has teamed up with the National Hockey League to create Guardian Media Entertainment, which will work with VICON House of Movies, an animation and motion-capture firm. Under the deal, Lee will create a superhero to represent each of the NHL's 30 teams.

The new squad of costumed vigilantes will appear in games available on a website set to go live tomorrow (Friday), coinciding with an announcement Lee and the NHL will be making at the New York Comic Con. These superheroes will be making appearances in broadcasts and animated sequences (presumably during the games) over the course of this hockey season. The report says a comic could also be published around February. Videogames and merchandise may be coming down the pipe at some point as well.

The aim is to attract 9 to 14-year-old boys to hockey.

Does anyone else have a bad feeling about this?

Reading the story gave me something of a queasy flashback to '79 when as I kid I sat dumbstruck in front of the TV when The Super Globetrotters animated series came on one Saturday morning. That was a weird sports/comic mashup, and that's even considering the Globetrotters were more of an entertainment act than a legitimate sports team in the first place.

What I want to know is how will these new superheroes reflect their actual home teams? Will an individual character have the same name, more or less, as his team? For example, would the Vancouver Canucks superhero be called the Canuck, or Canuckman or something like that?He certainly couldn't be called Captain Canuck because that's the name of an actual trademarked superhero. Same goes for the Nashville Predators - Predator has been a property of Darkhorse Publishing for a long time (although it would be really cool if they could use the name and actually have their superhero be a Predator - except, rather than battling evil or whatever, he'd probably just mercilessly hunt down the other superheroes and take bits and pieces of them as trophies).

What about his/her (I'm assuming it'll be "his" in most, if not all cases, because the marketing goal is to attract male fans) powers? Will their powers have something to do with the name of the team, or the region/city the team is located in, or it's logo (thereby making the superhero an alternate mascot)? Would the Oiler have the ability to extract non-renewable polluting resources from the ground? Would the Flame shoot fire, or just be flaming (sorry, Calgary, I just couldn't resist)? How about the Canuck? With an orca for a logo, would he swim around and eat salmon; or would he go for the Vancouver angle and have the power to knock-off work early, go skiing or golfing, and find someone pretty much anywhere who'd let him take a toke or two of BC bud?

Or will each individual's powers in some way reflect the particular skill or tendency his real-life team is known for? Would that mean that the Maple Leaf would have the power to suck?

What about weaknesses? Would the Canuck start off strong in a fight, but then become kind of indifferent and inconsistent and ultimately get knocked out of the battle? Would the Shark be powerless against Chinese chefs out to make sharkfin soup? Would Capital be neutralized if a badguy could turn him into a lower case?

Presumably all of these superheroes know how to fight really well, since, as the late, great George Carlin noted, hockey is really 3 activities: skating, playing with a puck, and beating the shit out of somebody.

Would there be rivalries among these superheroes, just as there are among the actual teams? Really, would missions be jeopardized because Toronto Maple Leaf and the Montreal Canadien constantly rehash their ancient feud and slug it out with each other rather than the badguys?

What about arch-enemies? Just who will these guys be fighting? What will the forces of evil look like? Will Lee have to create generic non-hockey-related crooks like bankrobbers for them to fight? Even better, what if he were to create supervillains that actually reflected the evils of the game? What about the deadly powers of Low Audience Attendance Man? How about Unsustainably High Player Contract Man? Or the truly horrific Franchise Relocator, who forces lesser, financially unstable superheroes to move to new cities, possibly even regions that aren't known for hockey at all and don't have a significant fan base?

What about supporting characters based on legends from the larger NHL community, like Don Cherry (host of Coach's Corner, one of Canada's favourite hockey curmudgeons, and quite possibly the worst-dressed individual on television aside from the cast of The Big Bang Theory)? Cherry would be awesome as a character... I just can't decide whether he would be a sideline goodguy, like a grumpy kind of Charlie's Angels Bosley who sends them on their missions, a badguy who berates them for their ineptitude until they burst into tears, or someone neutral - like a version of The Watcher who complains a lot. Would Gretzky make occasional appearances in the comic as some kind of supreme being in the manner of the Celestials or Galactus or one of the gods?

What about teams that used to exist but have since moved due to financial insolvency (victims of the afore-mentioned arch-villain Franchise Relocator)? Would the superheroes have to face the ghost army of the Winnipeg Jets, the Quebec Nordiques, the Hartford Whalers, etc? Or would we see the team/superhero they've become have occasional flashbacks to his old identity? That might actually be kinda cool. Wait a minute... I can't allow myself to get caught up in this and actually approve of this mad marketing scheme.

For all the money that the NHL has to throw at this thing, and all the creativity and connections Lee has, I just can't see this insane hybrid actually having much life (much less credibility) in it.

But it does give me an idea...

Stay tuned, comic/hockey fans.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Top 5 Worst Diseases of SF

I've been sneezing and aching my way through a nasty bout of the flu for the past few days and as I sat around a few hours ago shaking my fist in the vague direction of the hotel where VCon was held (a bug was not the souvenir I wanted to take home from the con this last weekend!) and trying to decide on a topic for the Weakly List, it occurred to me that contagion might be a fitting category. Science fiction, fantasy and horror have been crawling with tales of viruses and bacteria of one kind or another since their earliest days, so it seems fitting to catalogue some of them. To be clear, when I say the "worst diseases", I mean the baddest of the bad, the ones that are scary and harmful in some way, not silly and beneficial like the luck virus in Red Dwarf. These are the ones you'd want to avoid like... well, like the plague.

Top 5 Worst Diseases in SF:

5) Drafa Plague - Babylon 5, season 2, "Confessions and Lamentations"
Unlike the Star Trek franchise, deadly diseases were a pretty rare plot device in Babylon 5 - they didn't pop up every three or four episodes as yet another threat to test the wits or toughness of the lead characters. "Confessions and Lamentations" though was one episode where disease did factor hugely into the plot, as it ultimately exterminated the entire Markab race, and threatened several others before a cure was eventually found. Looking back on it, I'm not sure what was more frightening about this disease: the fact that it annihilated an entire species in the span of about a year, or that the Markab probably doomed themselves by refusing to do anything about it or even talk about it because the contagion fell under religious taboo for being associated with those thought to be morally unclean. Clearly there's an allegory for the stigma around AIDS, with some people back in 80's and early 90's (and unfortunately, even still today) wanting to sweep the problem under the rug (or even more horrifically, considering it a punishment from god) because of its association with the gay community (despite its presence among the heterosexual community as well). What's most powerful about this episode though is the clear message that only by reaching out to each other, no matter what community we come from, by helping rather than shunning, do all of us have a chance at survival; that the loss of one community diminishes us all. Looking at the B5 universe, it might be noted that there's another terrible disease that rears its ugly head (and in fact has an entire - if short-lived - series devoted to it): the Shadow Plague/Drakh Plague. Certainly this is a disease that has destroyed other species that have tangled with the Shadows and their minions, and ultimately threatens the population of the Earth. But it's comparatively slow, taking something on the order of 5 years to do its dirty work, as opposed to the Markabs' Drafa Plague, which annihilated that race in about 1 year. With less time to find a cure, I'd be more worried about the Drafa Plague. The only reason it's going at the bottom of the list is because it appears to be a relatively peaceful death.

4) "germs" - The War of the Worlds, by HG Wells
Wells doesn't single out a particular germ to seal the deal for the Martian invaders, rather he uses the plural and goes on to say that all of the bugs that mankind has had to live with, developing immunity or limited resistance to, at the cost of many lives, have combined to attack the extraterrestrials' bodies. It's bad enough (at least if you're a Martian) that they cause a total Martian kill-off in a matter of weeks, but what's worse is that these are real bacteria and viruses that have killed many humans in the past before natural resistance was developed or immunizations discovered. In fact, if we count the many common strains of influenza that were no doubt part of this microscopic defence force, you can't help but remember that thousands of people around the world still die from germs like this every year. Real germs are scary.

3) Xenovirus Takis-A/the Wild Card virus - Wild Cards, edited by George RR Martin
Developed by a race of humanoid aliens to give themselves super powers, it was sent to Earth for testing to ensure safety. Although one of the aliens, who the people of Earth would eventually call Dr Tachyon, stopped the initial attempt to release the virus, the bomb that contained it was captured by a human and released during a battle above New York, spreading across the world on the winds. It was nick-named the Wild Card virus because of the unpredictability of its effects. 90% of those who contract it die horribly when it manifests: they might explode, burst into flame, melt, get ripped apart from the inside out, or suffer a wide range of other gruesome ends. This is referred to as drawing the Black Queen. With the 10% who survive, 9% draw a Joker and are inflicted with deformities. These can range from problems like translucent skin, tails, squid tentacle mustaches, to full transformations into animals, to deformities accompanied by super powers like Peregrin (a woman with wings who can fly) or Troll (changed into a frightening 8-foot troll with super strength and tough skin), to crippling and painful disfigurements that are awful to behold, like Peanut and Snotman. Only 1% of those who contract the virus draw an Ace and manifest super powers. However, only one-tenth of these have abilities that are significant, like super strength, the ability to fly, telekinesis, or invulnerability; the rest are given relatively useless powers, like Rainbow Man (guess what he can do?). Because of the risk of an unexpected, horrible, agonizing death, or being left to survive with a crippling disfigurement, the Wild Card virus easily earns a place in the top 3 of this list.

2) zombie-ism
Admittedly, this is a meta nomination, referring to a condition portrayed in many, many books, movies, and now TV shows. Do zombies result from a disease? Some works have portrayed the outbreaks this way, while others chalk them up to the supernatural or cosmic rays or whatever. Any way you slice it though, the zombie outbreak certainly behaves like a disease, with infected individuals spreading the condition to others through bites, and those who survive the initial eating attack eventually being overcome and transformed into zombies themselves who then prey on other living people. Zombies aren't the only critters from horror who spread like a disease; certainly vampires and werewolves behave the same way, transmitting their condition through bites (more or less). But of the three types of supernatural infectors, zombies have always been the most frightening to me. Sure, being hunted and bitten by a vampire or werewolf is terrifying and painful, and the eventual transformation itself carries the promise of further pain and horror, but at least with these two there's the possibility of retaining some degree of sentience and free will. For all but the most animalistic vampires, after the need to feed is satisfied, there's time to put one's mind to other things and a retention of the sense of self. For the werewolf, it's a once a month trauma, but again, there's the retention of the self and the possibility of leading some kind of life the rest of the time. Admittedly, for both there's the possibility over time of a weight of guilt for atrocities committed, and, in the case of werewolves, the fear of the pain of the next transformation. But zombies, on the other hand, are completely mindless, shuffling, disgusting monsters constantly in search of the next kill, acting either alone or in a mob to drag their screaming victims on them to eat them alive. It's a frightening, painful process becoming one, and once transformed, there's a total loss of self. The zombie disease is also remarkably fast-spreading, with total apocalypse coming very quickly, whereas vampires and werewolves tend to be far more controlled in their spread, having some degree of choice in whether to transform or permanently kill victims, and generally opting to simply kill and feed on them. I don't tend to follow horror too closely, but I don't know of too many stories about total werewolf or vampire apocalypses (aside from Richard Matheson's I Am Legend and its movie adaptations, or Peter Watts' Blindsight). The zombie "disease" certainly is one of the worst in speculative fiction.

1) the Black Death/Bubonic Plague - The Years of Rice and Salt, by Kim Stanley Robinson; Eifelheim, by Michael Flynn
What's worse than a supernatural disease that kills millions? A real one. And one of the scariest in recorded history is the Black Plague. It's estimated that in the mid 14th century this painful, awful disease killed anywhere from 1/3 to 2/3 of Europe's population, and there were further outbreaks over the next 500 years. Eifelheim tells the story of German villagers who discover a starship that's crashed in a nearby forest and who have to learn to live with their new alien neighbours. Eventually, the plague arrives wipes out the entire town. It is a story of how people cope with the introduction of something immensely different, with change, and with their inevitable deaths in the face of a seemingly unstoppable force of nature. In The Years of Rice and Salt, Robinson creates an alternate history where the Black Death goes into overdrive, killing 99% of Europe's population. The story opens with a haunting image of a Mongol warrior riding alone into a European countryside filled with towns but empty of people. It's fascinating to see how Robinson uses the (exaggerated) effect of a real disease to paint a centuries-long history of the development of the rest of the world's cultures free from Western influence (a history that's neither better nor worse than the real world's, merely different, if equally violent). The Black Death is, without question, the worst disease that's been used in SF because it actually happened and because of its terrible death toll.

(Dis)Honourable Mentions:
-the Vidiian Phage - Star Trek Voyager - The Trek franchise presented a lot of diseases over the years, but this one always seemed the creepiest to me.
-Borg nanoprobes - Trek's variation on the zombie theme
-the Cylon-killing disease - new Battlestar Galactica

So which diseases from SF do you think are the worst?

Monday, October 04, 2010

VCon - day 3 - The End

Another year, another VCon, another lazy Sunday afternoon where things drew to a close.

I decided to catch up on a little sleep and then grab some brunch before heading to the hotel, so I didn't make it in until shortly after 1:00. Originally, I'd planned to start the day with a hefty dose of literary suffering at the Turkey Readings. For those who don't know, the Turkey Readings are a VCon tradition (don't know if they do this at other cons) where a group of panelists reads passages from a selection of some of the worst novels ever written in the SF genre. We're talking the literary equivalent of Plan Nine from Outer Space, or Manos - The Hands of Fate. Books that are so poorly written, their prose might come close to being classifiable as Vogon poetry. The panelist reading from a selection is assisted by volunteers from the audience who act out whatever's going on in the story as it's read. The rest of the audience has to suffer through this until someone in the audience offers money to make them stop. The catch is, once the money's been paid, anyone else in the audience can make a higher bid to keep the, um, "performance" going. This can in turn be trumped by a higher bid to force a stop, and so on. Bids initially start at a quarter or a buck, but as people in the audience continue to try to outbid each other to force a stop or ensure continuation, the price can soar, with, in some cases, winning bids being in excess of ten dollars. Then the next Turkey Reading begins, and the suffering and bidding renew. Money collected goes to the Canadian Unity Fan Fund, which each year selects and pays for one person from one region of the country to attend a con in another part of the country in an effort to build bridges between fan communities.

At any rate, when I arrived, the Turkey Readings had been rescheduled to later in the day to free that room up for a special surprise session: actor Robert Picardo, of Star Trek Voyager and the Stargate franchise fame (not to mention Innerspace!) dropped by to do a Q&A with con-goers, followed by an autograph and photo session. Seems he was in town shooting an episode of Stargate Universe. I went in and grabbed a seat for the Q&A. Picardo's an entertaining guy to listen to, sharing onset anecdotes from the sets of his various shows, and thoughts on the characters he's played.

After that, I went over to the History is My Playground session, where a panel of authors talked about, well, writing stories in historical settings. At one point, they spent a great deal of time talking about how much their research had taught them about the toughness of people who lived a century or more ago, despite their relatively short lives. This also led to a discussion of battlefield injuries and mortality rates, hospital mortality rates (and how they compare to today's statistics), and medical practices of the previous century. The only downside to the session was the crotchetiness of one of the panelists, Dave Duncan. At the beginning of the session, when Duncan was quietly wheezing through his spiel on something or other, one of the people who was sitting about midway back in the audience asked him to please speak up. A fair request, given his low volume, the size of the room, and the amount of noise from out in the hallway that was getting through the walls. Without missing a beat, Duncan growled at her that there were plenty of empty seats up front. True, but not enough empty seats for everyone who was sitting beyond row 2, and past that point, the noise was an issue. He was also gruff with another person in the audience who had put up her hand to ask a question within the first 10 minutes of the session. Okay, in all fairness, the first 10 minutes of the session is a bit early to start shotgunning questions or wanting to put your own two cents into a discussion that's really only in its nascent stage, but still, I think Duncan could have been nicer about it. Since, you know, it's people in the audience who buy his books and all (not me) and can choose whether to continue to support him and whether to share their reasons for doing this or not with other readers. Anyhow, the other panelists, Donna McMahon, Cherie Priest, and Lisa Smedman were louder, nicer, and, on the balance, had more interesting things to say over the course of the hour.

Once that was over, there weren't any other sessions for the next hour that were even remotely interesting to me, so I headed down to the movie room to see what was playing. Big mistake: they were re-running a low-budget piece of garbage called The Beast of Bottomless Lake that had made its debut Friday night at the con. I could only sit through about 20 minutes of it before I had to walk out. The story about an expedition to find Okanagan Lake's famed Ogopogo (BC's version of the Loch Ness Monster) was shot, written and acted poorly, and given that it was probably supposed to be a bit of a satire of this type of low-budget monster-hunting flick, it didn't even work on that level. I decided my time would be better spent in some quiet corner in another part of the hotel reading and checking email until the next session block started.

When it was time for the next round of panels to start, I decided to take in Where's the Science in Our Science Fiction?. As you can probably guess from the title, the panel consisting of SF mag editors, a physicist, and an author called for more hard science fiction to be written.

From there, it was time to wrap things up. I sat through most of the closing ceremonies, but left when the charity auction started (none of the items up for grabs really interested me, and even if something had, I'd already spent my allotment the other day on books).

Now that it's over, I have to say it wasn't a great con, but it was good enough. I was a bit disappointed that none of the session options really wowed me, and there weren't enough of the ones that managed to catch my attention. But, on the plus side, most of the sessions I did attend were interesting enough, the new addition of Uncle Victor as host of the movie room made for some fun times, the Chinese-influenced steampunk prints by James Ng in the art room were very cool to look at (and the link I passed along the other day has already made a friend of mine into a fan of Ng's stuff), and most importantly, over the course of the weekend I had some good chats with a number of fellow conventioneers. And that's enough to ensure that I'll probably be back next year.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

VCon - day 2

Saturdays are traditionally the "big day" for the Vancouver Science Fiction Convention. Everybody's off work, so the attendance is a lot higher than Friday, and unlike Sunday, they're not thinking about traveling home that night or going to work the next day. You also see more merchants at the tables in the dealers' room as well. Saturday is when the con pulls out the big guns: it schedules the most interesting session topics, along with big-draw events like the masquerade and the dance (which always draw a big turnout from the cosplay crowd). So why did today feel kinda middle of the road?

I'll freely admit it's probably me more than the way the con's been organized. I don't go to the masquerade or dance (I've got nothing but respect for those that do, but I don't make or wear costumes and on the rare occasion that I cut a rug, a national state of emergency is usually declared), I don't tend to gravitate towards the sword-fighting or martial arts demonstrations (which are very cool, but I prefer discussion sessions at cons), and I don't do the rounds of the parties because by the end of the day, I'm kind of geeked-out (insert gasp of amazement) and just want to spend a little time with my wife. But the sessions... the all-important discussion panels... somehow, this year they just haven't seemed as interesting to me as they have before. That's not to say today was a bomb - far from it - there were a couple of good sessions that I attended, but nothing Earth-shattering. My litmus test for con quality (here or anywhere) has always been the frustration factor in deciding which session to go to. The best cons are the ones where in any given hour (or at least three times in a full day) there are at least two (if not more) sessions that look really cool that I want to attend, thus creating a degree of frustration at having to choose only one (I'm not a session hopper - I pick one and stick with it because focus is important to get the most out of a panel discussion or interview. I only leave if the session turns out to be lame). When this happens frequently, you know your con has put together a good lineup. Hasn't happened this year though. Again, maybe that's just me. Maybe this particular year has session topics that resonate with other nerds better than my own particular bent. Maybe I'm just tired from staying up too late every night after days at the con. Maybe (and I certainly hope not) I'm experiencing some kind of con burnout. I don't know. Maybe I'll have to ask some of the old guys in the local SF community whether they've ever experienced this kind of malaise after years of con-going.

Anyhow, on to the day's activities:

I started at the Author Guest of Honour Interview (already nearly at the half-way point because I'd had to stay at home waiting for the dishwasher repairman - not that I'm complaining! I can research an author's opinions on this, that and the other anytime. Getting the dishwasher fixed - and on a Saturday! - so that I don't have to wash them, is a priority). By the time I arrived, Cherie Priest was just beginning to share her thoughts on American Southern Gothic Horror: why the setting and pre-Civil War period resonate so well with authors and audiences. Interesting shift into reflections on the mindset of people from cultures that have been defeated in wars. The only downside to the session was when the interviewer took a turn for the strange and asked Priest to do some role-playing, where he would pretend to be Boneshaker's Maynard Wilkes and Priest would be Briar, and the two of them would have a conversation where the daughter would share her thoughts with her deceased father about the novel's events and what was going through her mind. Uhhhhhhh... what? From where I was sitting, it looked like Priest thought that was a weird idea, and she did her best to squirm out of the proposal and succeeded in changing the topic. I can't speak for the rest of the audience, but I was sure grateful she pulled it off! Anyhow, she reflected further on regionality and its impact on how others perceive a person, and then moved back to the subject of ghost stories, finishing with a creepy tale involving a friend's business. For the most part, it was a good session and I'm glad I was able to catch some of it.

From there I headed over to the Upcoming Movies of 2010 and Beyond session, where podcaster/broadcaster Gareth Von Killenbach gave us the inside scoop on most of the big flicks coming up. No need to really go into detail on that stuff, as you can probably track that on your own online if there's a certain film you want updates on. What he also spent a fair amount of time on was a discussion of the controversy around the advertising of 3D movies. Seems there's a movement afoot to ensure that studios be more specific when advertising new 3D movies to tell the audience whether the films were actually shot in 3D (using proper 3D cameras and thus creating a better 3D viewing experience) or whether they were shot in standard 2D and then digitally altered to appear to be 3D (which is supposed to result in an inferior 3D viewing experience). Von Killenbach pointed out that most movies billed as "3D" are actually shot in 2D and then altered. He argues that since audiences are shelling out extra money to see a film in 3D, they ought to know which process was used to create it so they'll know if it's worth while to spend the extra. Something to think about the next time a special effects blockbuster comes out with the option of seeing it in 3D.

After that I took a break for a late lunch. Coming back, there really wasn't much on the panel schedule that really interested me, so I browsed through the dealers' room (exercising self-control and getting out without buying anything) and had another look at the Chinese steampunk prints in the art room (reminding myself I'd already spent my allotment yesterday). Still lots of time though before anything remotely interesting was going to start, so I walked way, way, waaaaaaay over to the hotel next door where the con had stashed the movie room today (not sure if it's going to change locations again tomorrow).

I have to say that irrespective of whatever's running on screen, the movie room at this year's con is a real blast. The volunteer running it goes by the monicker of Uncle Victor. He sports a wild shock of white hair and a lab coat that's covered with miniature replications of old SF movie posters that have been dyed into the coat's fabric like a T-shirt would. I'm told Victor was a fixture at Keycon for many years, and now that he's moved from Winnipeg to the Lower Mainland, VCon benefits from his presence. Uncle Victor's a warm guy who's got a smile for everyone. He's added homey - if geeky - touches to the movie room, bringing in an inflatable Christmas Mickey Mouse, a plastic monster arm and hand, a statue of a winged pig (subject of a naming contest), and his ubiquitous plastic Darth Vader head that's filled with Hallowe'en candy. Anyone who comes into the room gets chocolate. That's the rule. Even when he leaves his lair, Victor's determined to put a smile on everyone's face and an extra centimeter on their waistlines, tossing mini chocolate bars across the room to people attending other sessions or meetings. Walk into the movie room on the rare occasion when nothing's running, and he'll immediately make you welcome and chat you up about all kinds of movies from every decade and country. Just an all-around great guy.

Anyhow, when I walked in, Earth Versus the Flying Saucers was starting to wind down. As others started to arrive, no-one was too eager to wait it out, so Victor was happy to swap it off for something else. The group ended up choosing to take a break from SF and we ended up laughing along with a Best of Saturday Night Live Commercials collection. Mmmmm... bass-flavoured milkshakes from the Bass-o-matic!

Once that had wound-down, I headed over to the Buffy vs Edward: What would Dracula Think? session. It was okay. Nothing amazing, but it was a way to fill an hour. The panel talked about how pop culture has changed the nature of the vampire over the years, in terms of its abilities and quirks, as well as the nature of the beast, from vicious monster to something romanticized. Plenty of discussion about the highly-watered-down end of the vampire spectrum occupied by the current Twilight craze. And while the panel talked about the more traditional (in terms of abilities and characteristics) rural town vampires of an old X-Files episode (kudos to them for referencing that classic!) or the more menacing bunch in the True Blood series, they didn't include in their discussion of vicious bloodsuckers the excellent Bram Stoker's Dracula done by Coppola in the early 90's (I think they touched on it briefly, but given the way the discussion was going, it deserved greater depth), or John Carpenter's Vampires (the absolute opposite end of the spectrum from the sissies of Twilight), where James Woods' character gives that awesome line about vampires being nothing like the "whiny good-looking Euro-trash in the movies" (or something to that effect - I apologize for any misquote, as it's been a few years since I've seen it). Someone in the audience asked for the panel's take on how science fiction authors have treated vampires, citing Peter Watts' scientific explanation for them. But while some on the panel were familiar with Watts' Blindsight, overall they said they tended to prefer a more traditional horror or fantasy take on vampires, noting they wanted some mystery with their monsters. I dunno... the fact that Watts made his vampires so alien in the way they think made them mysterious enough, and plenty frightening. On a slightly different tack, I was also pleased that someone else in the audience brought up Spider Robinson's vampire Piotr in the Callahan Chronicles, who copes with his vampirism as one would an addiction. Unfortunately, this prompted the panel to reminisce about Forever Knight, which though valid for the discussion, was none-the-less a lame show that's best forgotten.

After the session let out, I took a break for supper. Coming back later, I found the hall where the masquerade was being held was pretty much standing room only, so as cool as some of the costumes probably were, I didn't figure they were quite worth standing behind the door, craning my neck around the corner and trying to see past a horde of heads. Instead, I moseyed back down to Uncle Victor's movie room, where, ultimately, about 20 of us enjoyed Serenity. While I own it on DVD and watch it once or twice a year, there's something about seeing it on a larger screen with a gaggle of fellow fans that you don't get at home.

Anyhow, tomorrow is wrap-up day. Must get to bed.

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.