Sunday, September 30, 2012

VCon 2012 - Day 3 - I Went to the Apocalyptic Wasteland and All I Got was this Lousy T-Shirt

Okay, I admit, the venue was not a post-apocalyptic wasteland (only conceptually, as panels were discussing this year's theme for VCon; although sometimes the hotel had problems with the plumbing, in which case it approached cataclysm), and I ended up buying more than a T-shirt, and the this year's T-shirt was pretty cool - in part because it glows in the dark and under ultraviolet light - but I just couldn't pass up the opportunity for a lame T-shirt joke in the headline.

But that's all beside the point.

Today, much to my sleep-deprived brain's chagrin, I hit the con earlier than the previous days, which is to say noon. Still not early enough to make it to a science panel I really wanted to see, "The Red Empire" (what a cool session title!), about the prevalence of red dwarf stars in the Milky Way, and the likelihood that alien life might evolve on planets orbiting them, and what that would mean. Woulda been cool, aside from the subject matter, because the panel included Gregory Benford, and UBC astrophysicist, VCon veteran, and all-around interesting and entertaining dude, Dr. Jaymie Matthews. Oh well. Can't see 'em all.

What I did arrive in time to see was the "Dealing with Your Clone or Doppleganger" session, which wandered off topic somewhat due to the presence of Benford on the panel. Seems Benford has an identical twin, so much of the discussion turned to questions about, and Benford's reflections on, life as a twin, rather than clones and dopplegangers (although both were mentioned off and on briefly).

The best line on cloning, and what would you do if you were cloned and you ever met your clone, came from panelist, and Artist Guest of Honour, James Ng, who said "If I met my clone, I think I would learn a lot about myself - before we fight."

On what it's like to be a twin, Benford got laughs with "Of course we're unique - there are just two of me!"

After the session was over, I went down to the art room to see if I could buy a print I've had my eye on for a while, but it was too late, they were already packing up most of the works and preparing for the final art auction. So I ducked out for a quick lunch.

When I returned, I hung around the art room for a bit waiting for the auction to start (it was running very late, and I decided not to stay, especially since there was nothing on the block I was much interested in bidding on), then thought about, and decided against, attending the "Elron & Faned Awards" session (the Elrons are a tradition at VCon - mock awards for stupidity in science fiction and science). I've seen that award session a few times in the past, and while it's fun, it's not a "must-attend". So, I headed up to Uncle Victor's Movie Room. Last year, I spent quite a lot of time in the movie room - there were a lot of films on the roster I was interested in watching, Uncle Victor is a fun host, and there were a lot of time blocks last year where I wasn't interested in the programming. This year, there was a lot of interesting programming, and most of the movies I could take or leave. This time, I watched most of an hour of 2001 before moving on to another session.

That session was called "You'll Get My Books When You Pry Them from My Cold, Dead Hands". The panel and audience debated the merits of paper books versus e-books, and the likely future of publishing. Nothing new at all in the discussion, but I can't say I was bored or wanted to leave. I won't criticize anyone for reading e-books (I keep a couple on my iPhone, in case I've got time to kill and I'm without something from my bookshelves at home), because in an age where it seems fewer people are reading books, reading them in any format is a good thing. That said, my preference is very much for paper books. I prefer the sensory experience of a physical book, and I like to have my collection. Smaug had his pile of gold; my treasure is shelves of books. I also prefer to know that when I pay for a book, I own it and no-one can take it or mess with it without breaking into my home and fighting their way past the cat, whereas it's been demonstrated that it's pretty easy for publishers to put limits on the usage of electronic files on e-readers, or withdraw them or alter them, when the mood suits the company. No thanks. Not when I'm handing over my money for. I also want to be able to leave my book collection to loved ones when the page is eventually turned on me. I'd like them to get the same enjoyment and intellectual stimulation from them that I have, and, perhaps, in taking-in my collection as a whole, they might gain a little more insight into me.

Next, it was over to "Grocery Store or Gun Shop" where the panel and audience discussed strategies for dealing with a number of different types of apocalypse. The consensus: get out of big cities where unattended infrastructure and runaway fires or floods as a result of that could be hazardous, and where decaying bodies would pose a threat of disease. Head for the countryside, but be sure to stock up on food and medicines, and small but important implements like needles and fish hooks that would be hard to make in the wasteland. As to the question of whether to hit the grocery store or the gun shop (not that there are many gun shops in Canada - unless you count hardware/outdoors stores, like Canadian Tire, where they can be purchased), well, food's more important, and you have to figure that the people who own and work at gun stores will know how to use guns, and be fairly vigorous about defending their turf, and those who would try to take down a gun store would probably be pretty rough themselves. Let the bad guys fight it out while you get the resources that'll let you survive the winter - and go to the bookstore while you're at it, for survival guides, medical texts, manuals for brewing and distilling (alcohol giving you safe drinking liquid, and, if made strong enough, good for sterilizing wounds and equipment), and any other how-to books you might need. Besides, as one of the panelists put it, a bookstore or library is the last place you'll run into violent gangs in the wasteland.

The downside to the Grocery Store/Gun Shop session was I fear I've exposed myself to con plague. The person next to me was coughing and sneezing through the whole thing, and stopped to talk to me, standing right in front of me not two paces away at one point (I held my breath the whole time), so if I come down with a bug this week - the week before Thanksgiving, no less, when we're going to be hosting the family next weekend - I'll know I brought more than a T-shirt home as a souvenir of the con.

Anyhow, after contagion roulette, it was time for the closing ceremony. Highlights of this year's goodbye (where Benford left us with a "So long, and thanks for all the fish!") included a late presentation of an Aurora Award (Canada's top honour for science fiction and fantasy). Turns out the winner couldn't make it to the con in Calgary earlier this year, which was hosting the awards ceremony, so they forwarded it on to our con committee for presentation. Congratulations to Tarol Hunt, for winning an Aurora for his graphic novel Goblins. Congratulations to the others present who were presented with Aurora nominee pins. Well deserved, everyone!

The other highlight of the closing ceremonies was an impromptu charity auction. For the last couple of years, VCon has been fundraising for a local non-profit, Aunt Leah's Charity that helps young, single mothers with young children. Usually money from the Turkey Readings session (where panelists read from a selection of some of the worst SF ever written, while audience volunteers act out the plots, and other audience members bid money to try to make the "performances" stop, or to out-bid the stoppers and keep the torture going) and a few other activities goes to the charity. This year, in addition to those efforts, Author Guest of Honour Connie Willis heard about the fundraising, and donated copies of five of her books to the con committee to auction off. Willis was pleasantly astonished, blushing, when she saw how quickly the closing ceremony audience members stepped up to the plate. A paperback copy of To Say Nothing of the Dog went for $80. When Blackout and All Clear were offered as a package, the bids went back and forth until one guy landed them for $100. In all, the five books raised $290 for the charity in just 10 minutes. Way to go audience!

With that, there were a few more closing remarks, and VCon 37 was all over except for the "dead dog" party for organizers and volunteers (and any other die-hards who were still able to stick around).

Next year's theme: Pirates & Piracy - sea, space & web. If the committee does the same kind of job with that theme as they did this year, it's going to be a top-notch event.

Until then, all we can do is fondly remember this year's get-together, and maybe scream:
(sorry, couldn't help it)

VCon 2012 - Day 2 - Treasures from the Crash

Like any treasure-hunting expedition to the untouched ruins of a city hidden in some forgotten corner of a post-apocalyptic wasteland, it's a simple reality of going to a con that you're not going to get to everything. Sure, some try: die-hards, fueled on caffeine and willpower who pinball from panel to room party to bar to gaming room and so on in a desperate effort to take in EVERYTHING. And more power to them. Someone's gotta be the ultimate party animal. But even those intrepid souls can't do it all. Sooner or later, they choose one session over another, or crash from lack of energy. For the rest of us, there's resignation to the fact that you're going to pick and choose, and end up missing a bunch of potentially good stuff, and valuing the good experiences you do have, all the more, as a result.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that I was completely bagged from staying up until past 3 last night doing post-con blogging, and I ended up sleeping-in this morning, then grabbing a late lunch with my wife, thereby missing a whole bunch of really cool-sounding sessions this morning: Parallel Universes in Science and Science Fiction, the James Ng Slideshow, Aliens Among Us, the Connie Willis Interview, the Gregory Benford Interview, and so on. But, hey, everything in balance, right?

Arriving at the con around 2 though, I was in for a surprise - a pleasant one - right off the bat. Today, I'd decided to wear my Ghostbusters hockey jersey (courtesy of Dave's Geeky Hockey, which is perhaps the strangest, but most awesome mashup of nerdity and sportswear I've come across). While coming through the lobby, I exchanged friendly nods with another con-goer who I've seen, and occasionally chatted with, at VCons over the years - no-one I'd say I really know, but familiar and friendly enough. After a second though, he did a bit of a double-take, looking at the jersey again, and came striding over...

"I've got something to show you," he says. "Come with me!"

"Um. Okay," I replied, and followed him to the elevator, thinking that this was pretty weird. But then again, it's a science fiction convention. The whole joint's weird. And it's not like I was getting a bad feeling off of the dude, and I'm solid enough to hold my own, if need be, so up we went. I stood in the door as he rummaged around for a minute, then he turns around and presents me with a lap tray - like the kind you're served breakfast-in-bed on - branded with the old cartoon The Real Ghostbusters.

My brother and I used to watch the show (anyone remember that Arsenio Hall used to voice Winston Zeddimore before he landed his talkshow?), but I hadn't thought about since... well, since it was on 27-or-whatever years ago. Certainly not something I'd expected to be reminded of, and definitely not a piece of merchandising I even thought would have existed in the first place.

I made the appropriate appreciative noises for the pop culture relic and made to hand it back, but the guy said "No, it's for you." I said thanks, but I couldn't take his find. But he said that he'd got it from an uncle a while ago, but realized that while he likes Ghostbusters, he's not a huge fan, and with limited space to store the treasures he does love most, he figured he might as well bring it to the con and give it to someone who looked like a fan of the franchise. No charge. No trade. Just wanted to find a home for it. He saw my jersey, and figured he'd completed his quest.

So, with many thank-you's, we proceeded back to the lobby, and I brought the tray down to my car so I wouldn't have to lug it around the con all day.

But what a nice surprise! How often is it that someone singles you out, based on what you're wearing, and just gives you something because they think you'd like it? As geeks most of us, at some point in our lives, have probably been marked because of something we were wearing, or some possession we had with us, but we were probably picked-on for it. How many other circumstances are there, other than SF cons, when a relative stranger points at you in a crowd because of your attire, and, without bullying or guile, gives you something? A genuine, simple act of generosity from one fan to another, knowing that the other person might appreciate a collectible? Outside of a con, not very often, in my experience.

Now I'll have something to balance my sandwich and drink on, next time I'm eating in front of the tube.

After that, it was on to my watch my first panel of the day: the live recording of the Caustic Soda Podcast, with guests Willis and Benford. Now, admittedly, until this point, I haven't been a follower of this podcast. It's something I'd heard about in the periphery of my attention at cons in the past, but for some reason never paid attention to the talk, or didn't follow up on it. My mistake. Today, I decided to give it a shot, since I'd seen one of their hosts yesterday and was pretty impressed, and because today they were bringing two of the con's guests of honour on board.

Wow. What a lot of fun! The boys from the podcast are smart and funny and keep that thing jogging along at one hell of a pace. I think they were recording for an hour-and-a-half, but the time just exploded by. Both Willis and Benford were a pleasure to watch in action as well, as the discussion bounced around the con's theme of Post-Apocalypse. As guests go, Benford was more reserved than Willis, but personality-wise, he seemed kind of like a straight-man in a comedy team: watching, waiting, timing, letting the others get the shots in, then quickly stepping in with a deadpan zinger that had everyone laughing. I'd love to quote some of the great lines that came up, but that'd be a spoiler, and it's much better all around if you just go to their site (or iTunes) and wait until this episode is posted and listen to the whole thing yourself. That said, well done, everyone!

While I didn't give the 'cast any thought before, today's show has definitely made a fan out of me. Before i head back to the con tomorrow, I'll be downloading a couple of their older shows and start making my way through their archive on the drive over.

Once the taping wrapped up, Willis and Benford were both kind enough to autograph a couple of books I'd been lugging around with me. I asked Benford to sign his short story in my copy of the Norton Book of Science Fiction, "Exposures". Willis signed the Norton as well, on her story "Schwarzschild Radius", and her story "Miracle" in the Christmas Stars anthology.

With a little time to kill, I went down to the Dealers' Room. Forgot to mention it in yesterday's post (weariness was blurring the details), but I had a good chat then with my friend Walter from White Dwarf Books - I don't think we'd had a chance to catch up since he joined me on a pilgrimage to the Canadian Barbecue Championship in Whistler this summer. I'd also spend a few minutes shooting the breeze with Karl Johanson, Editor of Neo-Opsis Magazine. It's been a little while since I've read an issue of the mag, but I have read them every now and then in the past, and enjoyed them. One of the things Johanson said that stuck out in my mind was that his first criteria for picking a story is "Do I like it?" - before theme, or style, or other considerations, because his initial enjoyment is the most important test as the guy who'll be offering those stories to other readers. That reminded me a lot of what an old artist and retired UBC art professor who's a friend of the family once told me about picking art: Choose what you like. Technique, symbolism, the artist's name and popularity don't matter anywhere near as much as whether you like what you're looking at. Definitely words to live by for any form of art. And speaking of art, I also enjoyed talking with a guy who makes Doctor Who and steampunk-inspired necklaces, keychains, and various nick-nacks. We had a bit of a debate over the question of whether nerds and geeks are the same thing (I maintain they are, the crafter maintained they're not - nerds being hyper-analytical and geeks being big-picture creative, in his estimation), which put me in mind of a diagram someone put online a few years ago, but despite our differences, we both enjoyed the exchange.

Anyhow, today's first trip to the Dealers' Room was made with the intent of fulfilling my VCon tradition - buying the latest addition to the Tesseracts anthology series (showcasing Canadian science fiction and fantasy) from the Edge Publishing table. Nice folks, in from Calgary, and what was even nicer was that they were offering a deal where you could pick any two books from the table for just $20. Pretty good, considering the Tesseracts volume was about $15 or $16 on its own. So I snagged it, along with a copy of KA Bedford's Time Machines Repaired While-U-Wait, which I recall had received some good buzz when it came out a while ago. Knocked another 2 bucks off the price of those books, because I remembered I still had my "con bucks" with me. Nice.

On the way out of the room, I had a nice exchange with a lady at one of the costuming businesses, which was a bit unusual, in that I'm not really into costuming, but that's the cool thing about cons, you get to talk with all sorts of interesting people, some of whom have similar interests, others completely different, but all of them with a lot of passion for what they follow and what they do, which makes for good conversation.

Then it was up to another panel: "The Shadow, Doc Savage & Sky Captain: The Pulp Movie Problem". The session analyzed why pulp fiction, which was so popular in the early 20th Century, somehow has not been able to come back and gain box office success in the movies. It started out a little slow, but built up momentum and became quite entertaining. Best comment off the top was probably Stan Hyde's "Pulp fiction is not what Quentin Tarantino thinks it is."

One of the interesting exchanges involved R. Graeme Cameron suggesting something along the lines of:

"Modern comics work in film because they are living pop culture. Most of the pulp fiction characters are fossils. They're dead."

To which Hyde responded:

"Pulp characters do work on film. There is a movie called Raiders of the Lost Ark."

Good stuff.

After that, it was more good stuff - back in the Dealers' Room, though it was more good discussion, rather than a purchase. I had some time to kill before anything of interest, so I went down for another look at the SF Canada table, and ended up having an in-depth discussion of Tolkien with one of the ladies there. For an hour. How many times can I say it? That's what a con's about, good discussions with interesting people. As many others have pointed out about this and many, many other cons, some of the best times you'll have are outside of the sessions: in the bar, the hallways, the elevators, the room parties, and, yes, the Dealers' Room. Just a delightful way to spend time. At the end of it, she gave me an invitation to the SF Canada Members room party later on.

From there, I took in the Costume Contest, which was already under way by the time I got to the room, but there was still quite a lot to see. Nice work by many of the costumers. Lots of variations on the post-apocalyptic badass, in keeping with the con's theme, but there were a few that went their own way. Big kudos to the woman who made a working mermaid costume (meaning she can swim in it, not that she'd somehow bioengineered herself to be half fish), and the big guy who geared-up as Thor. Coincidentally, Thor had to carry the mermaid from her seat to the stage about half a dozen times, because, with the tail on, she couldn't even hop without losing her balance. The big prize of the night, however, went to a couple dressed as David Bowie and Jennifer Connelly in Labyrinth - except the dude didn't have the frighteningly large codpiece bulge that the Goblin King was sporting in the movie. Worth checking back to the con website to see photos of all the entries once they're posted.

When that was done, I adjourned for dinner (very definitely offsite, this time) and when I got back, most of the panels were done and the socializing was well under way in the hospitality suite, dance hall, and room parties.

I tried to get one more session in though. Tried. "Randomness with Professor Whovianart" was truly painful. A few people came into the room and left after just a couple of minutes. I held out for about 10 minutes before I decided that listening to the guy at the front babble about the cool stuff he owned was too much. I dunno, I seem to be having bad luck with these end-of-the-night panels this year.

Anyhow, dancing's not my thing (and my wife wouldn't approve of me busting a move with another lady), and the hospitality suite was crowded, so I headed for the elevator and went up to the SF Canada room party. And stopped outside the door. And didn't go in. Part of this was because I don't know anyone who was there. Now, admittedly, I've just gushed repeatedly in this post about entertaining conversations with strangers at cons, but for me, there's something different between random chit-chat in the halls, and actually going into a party where you don't know anyone. I'm not saying I don't warm up at parties, I do, it's just a lot more comfortable - and fun - to go in when there's at least one person I know who I can start with. An anchor, a friendly face, or, let's call a spade a spade, a security blanket, if you will. And I was tired after a long couple of the days. But the nail in the coffin was a feeling of inadequacy. It was a party for authors and their guests. What am I? I'm a writer by profession, but not of fiction. In terms of fiction, I submitted a story that landed third place in an On Spec postcard fiction contest a few years ago, but those of us in the top three only had our stories posted to their website, not in the printed magazine (and I'm not even sure the link exists anymore). Not bad. In fact, it's something I'm proud of. And yet, there was that nagging feeling outside that door tonight that maybe I haven't earned my stripes yet to have a place in a party for authors. I dunno. Maybe that's true, maybe not - the invitation to come was extended with friendly intent, after all. Probably a missed opportunity to hang out for a little while with some cool people. Maybe it's something that'll motivate me to put some of the stories in my head to paper, finally. In any case, I went back down the elevator, got in the car, and headed back home to share my day's adventures with my wife.

And now to put my nagging self-doubts to bed.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

VCon 2012 - Day 1 - Posts from the Apocalypse

A lone man travels through a perilous land, facing hordes of hostile beings, in a desperate effort to reach a last sanctuary for like-minded individuals.

Sounds like the plot of any half-rate post-apocalyptic thriller, I know. But it's nothing so grand: merely a description of my commute this afternoon, fighting traffic through the Massey Tunnel and across the roads of Surrey on the way to Day 1 of V-Con - the 37th annual Vancouver Science Fiction Convention.

Given the similarities between the rush hour commute and the end of the world, it's fitting that this year's theme for the con is "Post Apocalypse."

By the time I arrived, it was about 4:30, so I hadn't missed much in the way of early programming. Plenty of time to register and poke around. I've been to this particular hotel many times on business, so I already know the lay of the land, but it's always a good idea to find out where all the amenities like the dealers' room and the art room are before immersing in programming.

And speaking of programming, this year's event looks like it's shaping up to be pretty good. Science fiction Grand Master Connie Willis is the Author Guest of Honour, author and astrophysicist Gregory Benford is the Science GoH, and James Ng, the local genius behind a series of Asian-inspired steampunk paintings, is the Artist GoH.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Wandering around...

A quick look in the art room revealed a mix of "the usual suspects" - the same artists who display the same stuff every year (some of it very good, other stuff... meh) - along with a couple of new additions. As always, Ng's works caught my eye, and this may be the year I give in and buy a print.

After that, it was over to the dealers' room for an exercise in self-control. I try not to buy anything on the first day, and definitely not on the first pass through the room. There's always something I want to pick up, and, by the end of the con, someone in the dealers' room is likely to part me with some of my money, but the first time through is when I get a sense of the room and start setting priorities for what I absolutely need to buy (books!), versus other nick-nacks that might be nice to have, but wouldn't be the end of the world (there's that inevitable apocalypse reference again) to pass up. This time, I found myself coming back to a table selling Doctor Who action figures, with an eye towards maybe picking up a Dalek, or one of the Doctors. But we're planning a move in the next couple of months, so maybe more toys are not what I want to be lugging around.

By the time I peeled myself away from the dealers' room and had gone upstairs to start attending the programming, the Opening Ceremonies were pretty much over, so I headed down the hall for the "The Plural of Apocalypse" session. What a thoroughly entertaining panel! Moderator and Caustic Soda podcast host Joe Fulgham, UBC biology researcher Kristi Charish, author Geoff Cole, and Willis were smart, personable, and an absolute riot as they chewed over different types of world-ending events, their likelihood, and their cultural and fictional significance.

The most memorable quote of the panel - and something to add to the "Things You'll Only Hear at a Science Fiction Convention" list - was Willis' remark during the introductions:

"I've ended the world in a number of ways."

Of all the different varieties of apocalypse discussed, the group seemed to spend the most time talking about the very real possibilities of diseases mutating (probably naturally), getting beyond our control, and significantly thinning humanity's herd, if not wiping our species out entirely. Everyone got a chuckle when Charish said:

"If the apocalypse is a disease, at least with my background I'll know when to run for the hills."

Later on, they moved on to other likely causes of destruction, like meteorite impacts - something common in science fiction, but almost completely overlooked by the public. I couldn't have agreed more with Fulgham when he said something to the effect of:

"The meteor likelihood is one of the reasons I'm unapologetically pro-tech. All those people who want to go back to living in the forest... Guess what? One of these days, that forest isn't gonna be there."

The session was over faster than a flash from a nuclear inferno, and the group could have easily done another hour without losing momentum or the audience (and they were a good bunch too, letting the panelists do most of the talking, but raising some good examples and questions from time to time too). What a great way to start the con. This is what a panel should be.

Bonus points to Fulgham for telling Willis early on "It's an honour to be on a panel with someone who was interviewed on Prisoners of Gravity." Anybody who references PoG is fairly awesome. Bonus points as well to the woman in the audience who gave Don McKellar's brilliant Last Night as an example of personal and society reaction to an impending apocalypse.

From there, I went back to the registration area and bought this year's con T-shirt (now glow-in-the-dark!), then took a break for an unsatisfying supper in the hotel restaurant that took far too long (I know, I know, get out of the hotel when you're looking for something to eat, that's the best way to get a good meal; but I tend to feel a bit guilty at these things if I don't have at least one meal in the host venue). By that point, it was a little after 9, and there wasn't much choice in the way of programming left.

I went to the "Post Apocalyptic Vampires?" panel, and ended up wishing I hadn't. Only two panelists, and it seemed like after about 20 minutes they'd exhausted every angle they could figure out for life - or unlife, as the case may be - for vampires after a major calamity. Seriously, from that point on, every 8 minutes or so, they kept asking if the audience wanted to leave early, or if anyone had anything else to mention. I don't blame them, aside from running through their material, there were a couple of people in the audience who were doing a lot of talking, and - though I can only speak for myself, I'm pretty sure a couple of others would have agreed - it was all stuff we could have done without. You know the types, the non-stop yapper who figures he ought to be on the panel; the guy who has to snarl everything he says as though it's all beneath him, even though he's inflicting his opinion on everyone fairly frequently; and the monotonous guy who suggests things that are, well, just dumb, goes quiet for a minute or two, then starts droning on about the same thing again as though no time has passed, then repeats. I'm no nosferatu or bloodsucker wannabe, but by the end of this session (yeah, it got relentlessly dragged along like a fresh victim with blood still seeping from the puncture wounds to the neck - all the way to the end of the hour) I was just about ready to drive a stake into my own heart. Why didn't I leave, well, within a minute of when I'd first entered and realized what I'd got myself into? A sense of politeness for starters, I guess. I would feel kind of rude getting up and leaving in the middle of a session when there aren't any other sessions going on and nothing else to see or do except hit the bar.  My mistake. Next time I'll bail.

Speaking of bailing, I've been up since far too early this morning, so, with nothing left to report, it's time to bail from this post. See you tomorrow, for another report from the apocalypse!