Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Anybody Remember This Story?

A little over a week ago, I was thinking about science fiction during our preparations for Thanksgiving dinner. As you do. I was pulling the turkey out of the oven, and I suddenly flashed back to a story that I haven't read in more than 25 years:

It was a short story - probably not more than a page or two - about a mother getting ready for a holiday meal. Lots of hustle and bustle of family throughout the house as she worked to set the dining table and get the baby into his high chair. Amidst all of this, she was thinking about how great it was to have the modern convenience of an  instant feast in a pill: a large turkey, stuffing, gravy, potatoes, side dishes, etc, all on plates, and all compacted down into one small tablet the size of an allergy capsule. All she had to do was add a drop of water, and in a minute the capsule would expand into the whole huge feast, all of it piping hot and ready to eat. She puts the pill onto the dining table, then gets distracted by something. When she turns back to the table, she realizes the capsule's gone missing, looks around, and, horrified, sees the baby (having leaned out of his high chair across the table) has popped the pill into his mouth. End of story.

Not the best SF piece ever, but it's one that's stuck with me over the years, and I think of it when the bird is ready to put on the serving platter and bring to our table.

What's bugging me though is that I can't remember the title of the story or the author's name.

Can anyone help jog my memory? Do you know what this story was called, and who wrote it?

Monday, October 07, 2013

VCon 38 - Day 3 - That's a Wrap

Sunday's always the toughest day to go to a con. Say what you will about the difficulties of getting out of work early to make it to Friday's programming, or that Fridays sometimes have the weaker sessions because programming committees might predict a lower attendance on opening day, but I've always found Sundays to be the toughest. By Sunday, I've put a couple of days of attending sessions under my belt, usually from noon through until mid-late evening, supplemented by trips to the dealers' room and art show, not to mention late night blogging, and my system's fighting off whatever con-crud I may have been exposed to among the crowds, and it's starting to wear on me. But I don't want to miss anything, and, hey, if I've paid for the full weekend, I want to get my money's worth, so I drag myself out of bed and make the effort anyway. How much worse it must be for the die-hards who stay onsite and rock the room party scene, or doggedly roll dice through the night in protracted gaming campaigns! Yeah, no matter who you are, Sundays are tough. But you go anyway. 'Cause for SF geeks, this is your scene, and that's what you do.

So. Sunday. VCon. I blasted up the highway late this morning in The Ol' Porkchop Express and got to the hotel in time to catch the last half-hour of the "Science Adventures" panel, which profiled some of the naval explorers of the past and their exploits. A good, solid, informative session, and I wish I'd been able to attend from the beginning, but I guess I missed the boat on that. Ha ha. Heh heh. Ugh. Feeble, I know, but I couldn't pass it up. Anyway, a good start to the day.

Then it was over to the "Exploring Worlds Far, Far Away - Without Hyperdrive", where UBC prof Jaymie Matthews gave an entertaining lecture on how exoplanets are found, how the search is going (something like 952 planets confirmed, as of this morning, he said, and many more waiting in the wings for verification), and the status of some of the satellites that've been launched to discover them. On that note, a big "Way to go!" to Canada's MOST satellite, nick-named "the humble telescope" for its very modest size (in the range of a suitcase) and budget (just a few million), and otherwise known as Spongebob Squarepants for its appearance, for continuing to operate and get the job done when bigger, more expensive platforms have experienced problems.

From there, it was up to the "Alternate Canada, Eh?" session, which wasn't bad, but wasn't great. There were two panelists and probably more audience participation than there needed to be. Enthusiastic crowds are great (heck, I made a couple of comments myself), but in this case, the audience started to take control of the session fairly quickly, and while there were a lot of alternate history ideas tossed around, the sheer volume of them, and the rapid-fire barrage of ideas coming from members of the audience (frequently from 5 or so of the same people) who wanted to get their two cents in, prevented any real, in-depth discussion of the ideas, or a separating of the wheat from the chaff. I enjoy alternate history panels (regardless of national or general themes) when they're done well, but to be done well, you need at least four panelists who have the depth of historic knowledge to really explore the possibilities raised, and to play off one-another, and you need a strong moderator who can set the panelists off in the right direction, and keep audience participation focussed, and limited, because this is a panel discussion, not a 30+ person random brainstorming session.

After that, I left the hotel to grab a late lunch at a local Chinese mall's food court, where I found myself eating just a table away from a guy who looked like an Asian version of Danny McBride in This Is The End - right down to the mullet. In fact, the resemblance was so uncanny, I began to worry that he was going to waste everybody's bottled water, and I didn't even want to think about what he might have done to the magazine rack around the corner. I finished my meal and fled as fast as I could before the winnebago full of post-apocalyptic minions could show up.

Back at the Con, a different kind of horror awaited me. After using a couple of "con scrip" dollars I'd found in the bottom of my registration bag to buy another nerdy button in the dealers' room, I went to the "Turkey Readings". The Turkey Readings are a VCon tradition where some of the guest panelists sit at the front of a room reading from pre-selected, old SF novels that are so poorly written that they're probably banned under the Geneva Convention, making it a miracle that the con hasn't been invaded by a UN peacekeeping force sent to dispose of these weapons of mass mental destruction and arrest those responsible for inflicting them on con members. But it gets worse. Members of the audience volunteer to act out the scenes from these "books" as they're being read. It's up to the seated members of the audience to then endure the madness that follows. Audience members can bid cash in an effort to make it all stop, but other sick individuals can counter-bid to keep the suffering going. When the "make it stop" side finally coughs up enough money to put an end to it, another panelist will crack open a different book, and the horror begins anew. Funds raised go to... well, at this point, given the lateness of the hour and the brain damage I sustained attending this session, I can't remember what worthy cause the funds go to, but the Turkey Readings do raise a reasonable chunk of change, which might be a redeeming virtue, but probably not, given the pain they inflict on the audience. Why do I keep going year after year? Sometimes the "performances" are worth a laugh, but if there's a reason beyond that, it's inaccessible behind the wall of psychological, emotional, and physical scarring the Turkey Readings have inflicted on me.

Reeling from that experience, I clutched at my chair when it was over, and waited for the Con's closing ceremonies to begin in the same room. The usual round of heart-felt thank-you's and see-you-next-years was enhanced this year with a cool announcement: VCon will be hosting Canada's national SF convention, Canvention, and the Aurora Awards (prizes for the best in Canadian SF) in October 2014! Congrats to VCon for landing this honour!

Maybe I'll volunteer at the Con next year - specifically, maybe I'll try to convince the organizing and programming committee to bring back the movie room. Things just weren't the same this year without the movie room. Don't know why they didn't have one, whether it was an issue of finding someone to man it, or of dealing with government regulations around using movies at a con, or if there's some other reason, but the movie room's absence this year just wasn't right. I'll have to send a note to the organizers to find out. If it means I have to step up to the plate next year to make it happen, then so be it. We'll see.

One of the great things about VCon, and cons in general, that I haven't talked about this year is the nice one-off conversations that strangers tend to have with each other. When I was leaving the hotel this afternoon and walking across the parking lot, I heard some strangely familiar music coming from another car... music I haven't heard in 25 years... It was a song (and video) I remember a DJ playing at one of our highschool or junior high dances back in '88 or '89 that once every few years flits like a ghost in the back of my mind, but I haven't heard it since school, and have never been able to remember the name of the band or the title of the song. Ditching my stuff in my car, I walked over and had a chat with the group standing around the other car, obviously enjoying themselves in the wash of nostalgic notes. The song was "Doctorin' the Tardis" by the Timelords (the Jams). A completely and utterly silly song, but fun as hell to listen and dance to. I downloaded it off of iTunes as soon as I got home. Many, many thanks to author Lisa Voisin for passing along the band name, song title, and YouTube link to the song! (Here's the  link to the original video)

So that's it for VCon 38. On the whole, it was fun, and time and money well-spent. Our local Con organizers know how to bring the geek community together and ensure there's something for everyone to enjoy. Thanks for putting it on, folks, and I'll see you next year!

Sunday, October 06, 2013

VCon 38 - Day 2 - Guiding a Newbie Deep into the Jungles of Nerdom

I am not a morning person. Really, really, really not a morning person. Even when I've had to get up stupidly early for weird job shifts back in my radio daze, I could do mornings, but never learned to like them. Tolerated them at best. When it comes to SF cons, I may make vague noises about attending morning sessions (and cons - including VCon - very often have good sessions scheduled in the morning), but, for various reasons - not the least of which is the complete awfulness of mornings - never wind up going to them. Until today.

The day started far too early (especially given last night's late blogging run-down of Friday's adventures at the Con) because I had to drop off my wife at her volunteer gig if I was going to be able to have the car to go to the Con. Luckily, the wife's activity and the Con are in the same municipality, so that made things fairly easy - dropped her off, then drove over to the Con hotel in less than five minutes. I even arrived an hour before programming started, so I was able to get breakfast at one of the hotel's restaurants. Breakfast is a somewhat alien meal, what with my avoidance of mornings, but when in Rome...

The first session of the day for me was 10am's "Others Among Us", concerning mainstream culture's adoption of an increasing number of science fiction and fantasy movies, TV shows, books (Harry Potter, A Song of Ice and Fire, etc.), and even comic conventions, and raising the question of whether that means nerds are no longer outsiders. Absolutely fantastic panel, and they had a lot of thoughtful things to say (even if they wandered off topic a little from time to time) about whether mainstream culture really is more accepting of the SF community now, and what the obstacles to greater acceptance might be. Some pointed out that while younger people tend to adopt SF culture more readily, they may not be fully integrating with the traditional SF community (or integrating the traditional SF community into their own) because they just aren't communicating through the same channels - they don't know that we're even here! A good point; it's been nagging at me for years that as I've looked around the con (and the WorldCon in Montreal not too long ago, and the one many years ago in Winnipeg) that fandom seems to be getting older. Sure, there are a few highschool and university students who come, and some of the people my age who are parents bring their kids. But by and large, the crowd is predominantly middle-aged people and seniors. That's a problem if this sort of gathering (meaning cons that are focussed on thoughtful discussion of literature, rather than comic cons which seem increasingly to be merely a place to strut flashy costumes and less concerned with substance) is going to continue. One thing that wasn't mentioned, which I've often wondered about, is whether the younger generation is more accepting... kids do seem to be flocking to the comic cons by the thousands, and following SF-related books, TV, and movies, while middle-aged mainstreamers tend to maintain the old illusions of the ghetto of science fiction. I recently had some co-workers who were otherwise well-read and reasonable people, who stated that they couldn't stand sci-fi... until I pushed them a little and got them to admit that they loved Game of Thrones, and Battlestar Galactica, and thought "they guy who directed the new Much Ado About Nothing was brilliant" (Whedon). And even then, they were a little uncomfortable with the notion that SF could be intelligent, mature, and compelling. I remember a few years ago talking to another coworker who pulled out every term in the literary criticism dictionary and twisted them in all kinds of weird ways to allow that Tolkien's LOTR was "real" literature rather than fantasy - of course, having majored in English Lit, I was able to smile and call her on her bullshit and point out that she was just waving her hand and using a lot of fancy terms that basically meant fantasy, and that there was nothing wrong with the "F" word. So, I don't think acceptance of geeks and geek culture is truly here yet. But getting back to the panel, someone pointed out that part of the problem is within the geek community itself, because, like all communities, we have our own bullies who try to belittle and marginalize newcomers, which doesn't make us any allies among the mainstreamers who try to adopt parts of geek culture. That's an important point, because if we, as a culture, are going to whine about ostracism from the mainstream, we better damn well make sure we're not putting up our own barriers that keep newcomers out.

After that, I had to duck out of the con for a little while to pick up my wife. We're going to Worldcon next year in London, but she's never been to an SF convention before (I don't count the Vancouver FanExpo we both went to two years ago, because the atmosphere of a Worldcon is closer to that of a smaller, local SF con, rather than a bloated commercial comic convention/merchandising marketing blitz), so I thought the best way to prep her was to bring her to the Saturday programming at VCon this year. So, after lunch, we came back to the hotel, got her registered, and wandered around for a while so she could take it all in. Admittedly, this isn't traditionally her scene, so she was a little taken aback at first, but she was very impressed with the level of skill many of the cosplayers had put into the making of their garb, and by the time we hit the dealers' room, she was getting into it. First stop was at the White Dwarf Books table to chat with our buddy Walter, the owner. Then, as we made our way around the room we came to a lady selling knitted wares, who made an easy sale when my wife caught sight of her TARDIS toques, and I saw that she had a couple of 4th Doctor scarves. We probably would have bought them anyway, but when she offered us a deal if we bought both, we were hooked. So, add one TARDIS toque, and one Baker-era scarf (don't ask me which series, I'm too tired to remember scarf specifics, and I don't want to unroll the damn thing to check the tag on the end that's currently buried in the middle) to the pile of Con goodies.

Her first real session was the live Caustic Soda Podcast, with guests John Kovalic (of The Dork Tower) and Mur Lafferty (of I Should Be Writing). I became of fan of Caustic Soda last year when I attended their podcast recording at VCon, and shortly after I began listening to it, my wife picked it up and fell in love, so this was the perfect way to begin the programming side of her con-going experience. As usual, Joe, Kevin and Torren were wickedly, mercilessly, brutally funny while talking about a range of awful subjects, ranging from families dying in unusual accidents to discontinued sugary cereals of the 80s. John and Mur fit right in, and were hilarious in their own right - in fact, they had probably the best lines of the 'cast:
Mur: " can't brawl to Simon & Garfunkel."
John: "You people have ruined me."
At the end, we went up and thanked the team for their efforts, and I bought a Caustic Soda T-shirt. It'll go nicely with the podcast's pin that I picked up last year. Does that now make me an official Soda Jerk? Or do I have to undergo some arcane and uncomfortable ritual to be initiated into the ranks of this particular fan sub-set?

From there, we went up to the "Justify The Science Flaws" panel, where a crack team of real scientists, moderated by Neo-opsis editor Karl Johanson, focussed their collective genius on pointing out science flaws in well-known SF movies and TV shows - including Pacific Rim and episodes of classic Star Trek - and then tried to come up with explanations (some more plausible than others) for why those supposed mistakes might actually be possible. Another panel of great personalities, and (as it is every year) the session was educational as well as entertaining. I certainly enjoyed it, and I was happy that my wife did too.

After that, we had a look around the art exhibit, and then called it an early day. I could have kept attending sessions and stayed until mid-evening, but my wife had had her fill for the day, and I didn't want to ruin her positive first con experience by forcing her to stay and overload on nerdity. Sometimes easing into the pool is a better way to teach a person to swim than booting them into the deep end. Now she knows what to expect at Loncon 3 next year (sort of) and will probably be able to enjoy it more.

As for me, I wasn't going to complain about an early day and the chance to eat at home and get to bed earlier. That'll give me the energy to more thoroughly enjoy the final round of sessions on Sunday.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Arrrrrr, it's time to get Conned again! VCon 38 - Day 1

Well. buckle my swash! Avast! And timber my shivers! October's come in like a galleon under full sail, and that means it's time for VCon again! And - if the corny buckaneerisms haven't tipped you off yet - this year's theme is pirates (of the sea, space, the web, and anything else that you can cram a tricorn cap on top of).

As far as themes for the con go, "pirates" isn't a bad idea. Granted, in mainstream pop culture, most people probably see coursairs as a straight-forward part of a real, by-gone era (or, possibly still relevant in the modern era, with incidents of piracy in the waters off of Africa getting news headlines - and even a Tom Hanks movie - these days). But pirates have always comfortably commanded a place in genre fiction too - from the founding of modern speculative fiction in the 19th Century with Jules Verne's Captain Nemo, to more recent dashing swashbucklers, like Captain Harlock or Han Solo. Beyond the literary and cinematic appropriateness, the pirate theme is also a good way to challenge cosplayers to show off their sewing skills in a different way than previous years. While you won't find me sporting a peg leg or armed with a cutlass (though I have been forced to wear an eyepatch on occasion in the past, post-op), I enjoy seeing what other people have managed to put together.

The day started for me just after noon. After making a wrong turn (no, not at Albuquerque, rather on the approach to Cessna Drive - the entrance to the Delta Airport Hotel in Richmond has been a real pain in the ass for years, ever since Translink slapped a minor transit hub in front of it, blocking the main way into the parking lot), I finally managed to get to the hotel. Parking's free for the weekend, which was a good way to open the Con experience. The registration area was a bit cramped, but they were moving people through in a reasonable fashion, so I couldn't complain.

First order of business after that was to get my Con T-shirt. There was the usual inefficient payment shuffle from the T-shirt table, to the registration desk to process credit card payment, then back to the T-shirt table to take possession, but the real disappointment was this year's T-shirt design: they've gone with this year's overly cutesy mascot drawing, which looks like it belongs on an educational cartoon for 4-year-olds, and that, in and of itself, is a big disincentive for me to actually wear the thing (well, I'll wear it at least once - just this weekend - if only because I've paid for the thing). It's also just a bare-bones, white line outline of the mascot, totally lacking in detail. Really a poor showing, especially compared with Con T-shirts from years past. I was so disappointed, I almost didn't buy it. Until this year (at least in the years since I've been attending), VCon has consistently produced Con T-shirts with great designs that I would (and have!) proudly wear to other cons, showing the world the cool stuff coming out of Vancouver's local Con. This year... this year's was so lame that after this weekend's obligatory wearing, it'll go at the bottom of the Con T-shirt collection drawer and never see the light of day again. Ever. You may ask, if the shirt is so bad, why did I bother buying it? Very good question. I'm still asking myself too. I was only just barely tipped onto the purchase side of the decision because I've got every other Con shirt from the past several years, so I thought I might as well have this one to complete the collection, and every collection needs the one mistake to look the good ones look even better. Really though, I hope next year the Con organizers will choose a design that's actually worth buying - there are enough good genre artists around that they don't have to settle for this kind of crap.

Normally I don't buy anything in the dealers' room on the first day, but the Con T-Shirt left such a bad taste in my mouth, that I had to counteract it by purchasing something good, so I picked up a trio of geeky buttons, and a trio of books at the Edge Publishing table. Having just moved into a new house and reshelved all of my books, I'm all too aware of how stupidly big my "to-read/inbox" pile is, but I always look forward to picking up the latest issue of the Tesseracts annual Canadian SF anthology at the Con, and, while I was there, I saw a couple of other collections that looked cool - Shanghai Steam (edited by Ace Jordyn, Calvin D Jim, and Renee Bennett) and Urban Green Man (edited by Adria Laycraft and Janice Blaine) - and I'm a sucker for anthologies, and, what with Edge offering a deal on pricing, I had to buy all three.

Leaving the dealers' room, I prowled around the hotel a bit to find out where all of the Con session rooms, etc were, and then it was on to the first panel of the day.

The 1:00 session of "Meet You At The Airship Terminal" (a panel about alternate history) was a bit problematic. Seems that due to some scheduling confusion, the session had already taken place at 12. But since the Con program listed it at 1, a pair of the panelists stayed on to do a bit of a recap for our (very) small audience. The panelists were nice guys, so I stayed for the whole thing, but they only ran for half an hour, it felt very much like a highlight reel, rather than an actual panel discussion, They also occasionally made historically incorrect statements (Such as one offhandedly mentioning that Britain had lost its legends when Charlemagne invaded. Charlemagne? Um. No. That'd be William the Conqueror.) - and not in the same deliberate way as when they were giving examples of alternate history in literature or film - which was pretty jarring. Something that's always made alternate history panels at previous/other cons interesting and worth attending is when the panelists are actually well educated in history, and make accurate references to real history as the basis for discussing alternate history, and so today's session, lacking that, seemed more than a little amateurish. As an audience member, there isn't a lot of incentive to ask questions or engage in discussion with panelists if it isn't clear that they know what they're talking about, or that they have an in-depth perspective on the subject matter (in this case, a real knowledge of history in order to be able to discuss alternate history significantly).

Since that session ended early, I did a little more poking around, and found the hospitality suite. Then it was on to the panel that was simply titled "ARRRR!", concerning pirates. Unfortunately, I didn't find the panelists to be terribly engaging, and rather than getting into any real detail about piracy in a speculative fictional sense or from a historical perspective, there were just a bunch of bland statements about pirates being terrible people, but how they represent freedom - mixed with the occasional bit of strangeness, such as one panelist stating that pirates were people of ultimate principles (even if some of them were bad), like mobsters. Really? Anything historical I've read or seen about pirates seems to indicate that while some of them had occasional quirks that were somewhat principle-like in nature, most were, as most criminals are, unprincipled people who would do whatever they had to, and whatever they thought they could get away with, regardless of their code or their shipboard quasi-democracies. Despite being located in one of the larger session ballrooms, this panel had a fairly small audience turnout (to be fair, it was the middle of a Friday afternoon, not the busiest time of the Con weekend) - not more than half a dozen of us, which didn't help with the energy level in the room. But it was the general blandness of opinion on the panel and lack of meaty discussion that did me in though. I called it quits after about 10 minutes and left to grab a bite.

Sadly, things weren't much better with my late lunch. A nice view of the marina from the hotel restaurant that's perched out over the river, but the service was shockingly slow, and the food was overpriced and - I hate to use the word again - bland.

After lunch, I ambled over to the ballroom housing the art display, and here I was really impressed. Lots of good entries this year. Some are the same artists and works that have appeared in previous years (hell, the Con just wouldn't be same without some of the same damn pictures turning up year-in, year-out), but of those, there were more entries from the more talented artists. And there were new entries from new artists - many of them extremely skilled. I was especially interested in a set involving glass and plants - one especially that looked like a glass human head, used as a terrarium, with a watering tube as a sort of crown. Not sure it, or the other works in that particular display, would fit in with the decor at our house, but I really enjoyed looking at it.

At that point, I bailed-out of the Con for a little while to run some errands, but I was back in time to catch the last couple of minutes of the Opening Ceremonies (which had a pretty good turnout).

From there it was on to a pair of back-to-back sessions on how to work with audio: "Kitting Out Cheap: Building Audio Toolkits On A Budget" (we all had a laugh when a couple of people arrived a few minutes late wondering where the session on "knitting" was being held - "kitting", not "knitting") and "Home Recording 101: Using The Kit You Built". These sessions were a real pleasure to attend. Admittedly, they were perhaps a bit too technical at times, but the information covered was absolutely necessary for anyone toying with the idea of home recording for podcasting or music recording. The hosts were also friendly and engaging, and clearly very passionate about working with sound, and helping others learn how to do it right. The two hours blew by in a flash.

At that point, I thought about grabbing a quick bite, then coming back for a couple of late evening panels, but I'm tired and not feeling 100%, and I've got to get up early tomorrow to drive my wife to her volunteer gig before the Con, so I figured best to call it quits and head home.

On the balance, I'd say a 50-50 start to the con, maybe leaning slightly more towards the positive because of the art room.

One thing I do miss though: the movie room. I looked high and low through the program and the hotel, but I couldn't seem to find it. What a shame. The movie room has always been a highlight in the past - the perfect venue to drop in on during those lulls in programming where I (and others) just couldn't find any panels of interest, and there was always an ever-changing crowd of easy-going, nice people to chat with, jointly heckle the movie with, and sometimes quietly enjoy films with. I hope the lack of a movie room was just a Friday thing this year. If it's off the roster completely, perhaps I'll have to send a polite request to the Con Committee, or maybe even get off my lazy butt and volunteer to run it next year.

Oh well, let's get the next two days of this year's Con out of the way first.