Saturday, October 04, 2014

VCon 2014 - Day 1

If I was a religious or otherwise superstitious man, I'd say the universe was trying to tell me earlier today that I shouldn't go to VCon. I was up late last night — later than I should have been. Consequently, I was up late this morning — later than I wanted to be. When I left the house to go to the con, I had to turn around and go back because I'd forgotten to print out my receipts from my online registration (sure, I normally don't need them, because online pre-registration means I'm already in the con's reg system by them I arrive, but it's always a good idea to have receipts in hand, just in case there's a screw-up of some kind — then one can at least prove that one's already paid, and leverage a quick solution). When I finally got things printed and got out the door and on the road for real, I took a wrong turn — three times. This, despite the fact that I know my way to the con hotel like the back of my hand. I've been there a million times, both for previous VCons and for other events that I've had to attend in a professional capacity. There's no reason to go the wrong way. Three times. But I did. Three times. And when I arrived (finally), just before 2:00, at the Sheraton in the Guildford neighbourhood of Surrey (just up the road from my home in South Surrey — but a very long way up the road, as long as it would take to get into Vancouver), there was confusion between the hotel and the con as to which organization would handle the parking fees for attendees using the downstairs parkade. In years past, it had always been the hotel. So, upon coming up to the lobby from my car, I automatically queued up in front of hotel's front desk — for a 15 minute wait because the hotel didn't have adequate desk staff in place to deal with the six of us lined up and the occasional phone call. Normally the hotel's pretty efficient, but not today. When I finally got up to the counter and asked about paying, the staffer told me that was being handled by the con. Ummmm, okay. Never happened before, but there's a first time for everything. So I walked over to the registration line, thinking at least I'd kill two birds with one stone. At least, maybe after what turned out to be a 10 to 15 minute wait. Not a long line, but a slow moving one. Fair enough. Shit happens. Except I got to the front and found out that there was a separate line for pre-registered people like me. Yes, I saw the sign earlier, but no, it didn't look like a separate line at the time because there hadn't been a line-up extending back from that desk (not that there could be much of a line, because the reg desks are crammed into a narrow hallway). At this point though, there were three or four people crammed in together in front of the pre-reg table, so I dutifully walked over and joined them. Luckily, this line moved quickly, and I received my badge and con package in fairly short order. Problem was, the guy at the pre-reg table didn't really know anything about the parking situation and tried to direct me back to the hotel staff. When I explained what had happened, he brought me over to another registration volunteer who knew a little bit about what was going on, but had to find someone else who knew more than he did, and there were a couple of people already ahead of me wanting to sort out parking payments. At this point, it was nearly 2:30, I'd had enough of being pingponged between lines, and I wanted to get up to a session that was starting in a minute or two. So I tabled the parking payment issue for the time being, and went in to find the session room.

That's when I thought that if I was a religious or otherwise superstitious man, I'd say the universe had been telling to tell me I shouldn't be there. Luckily though, I'm not, and (knock on wood, rub yer rabbit's foot, or whatever) that it seems to have been the end of the blockades and otherwise bad omens. For now.

One good thing about spending all that unnecessary time in line though, was the chance to chit-chat with other con-goers. One of them was in front of me in the registration line, and happened to be someone I'd run into just under two months ago at Loncon3. She was one of the Montreal 2017 bid team volunteers who'd been spearheading the attempt to get some hockey going at Worldcon this summer. It was interesting to catch up with her now and get the inside scoop on some of the bid team's experiences there (all of them off-the-record, so I won't repeat anything here), and look ahead to next year's vote (Personally, just looking at membership numbers from London, I get the feeling that for the 2017 Worldcon, Washington, DC might be the frontrunner [easy for a lot of US fans to attend], followed by Helsinki [they've been pushing hard for a couple of years now, and maybe all of the Europeans who came to London will figure another Worldcon in their neck of the woods would be a good thing], with Montreal and Shizuoka as the dark horses. I really want Montreal to win, but if they can't, I'd really like Helsinki to get it, 'cause those crazy Fins have worked so damn hard to land a Worldcon, they deserve it [and who wouldn't want a con with a sauna around every corner?].). As I've said time and again, it's the little one-off encounters and conversations that really make a con worth while.

After registration (with parking still unresolved), I headed upstairs for the Spider Robinson reading. I got to the room a little early — before the previous group had finished — and was waiting outside when Spider arrived. I was a little shocked at what I saw: he was grey (actually grey!) thin-to-almost-wasted-away, and looked exhausted. The last time I'd seen him was a few years ago at a con (I've been fortunate enough to run into him several times over the years, and he's always been good to shoot the breeze with), and while he was always lanky, he always had colour in him and a vibrant energy like a guitar string that's just been plucked. Of course, that was a couple of years ago, and since then, life has curb-stomped him. Repeatedly. His wife, Jeanne (a hell of a nice lady — I met her too a couple of times) died four years ago of cancer, then his daughter was diagnosed with cancer, and then he got bushwhacked by a heart attack, and, since then, from what I hear, his muse has been rather stingy. To see him early this afternoon, every one of those things appeared to be hanging off him like Jacob Marley's chains. But, for all that, he's still a very cool, very friendly guy, and we talked about this and that for a few minutes before he went to grab some coffee before the reading. When the half-dozen or so of us who came managed to get into the room, Spider weighed the reading options. There was something he's been working on for a while, but he said it wasn't writing easy and it wouldn't be published soon, and from his face, it looked like he wasn't entirely happy with it. Then he smiled, and offered instead to read the intro chapter from Starseed, which he'd co-authored with Jeanne years ago. He mentioned that Jeanne had written that portion of the book entirely by herself, and that this would be the first time that text had been read aloud at a con since she'd died. It seemed right, and the little gaggle of us sitting around him gave a collective appreciative nod and sat back to listen. It was easy to tell that reading it made Spider happy, and that made all of us happy. Afterwards, with only a few minutes left, Spider paid homage to his old hippie friend, Stephen Gaskin, who died this summer, by reading the intro he'd written years ago to Gaskin's Haight Ashbury Flashbacks. Another sombre reminder of death driving a reading, and yet, as with the first, this reminiscence of someone special made him happy too. And that's a good thing. When he was done, there was no time left — the con volunteer and next group were already coming in to give us all the boot — so I wasn't able to get any autographs in the anthologies I'd brought along that contain his short stories, and I couldn't ask him in the hall because he ran into an old friend and they went off to grab a bite. Which is fine. As a fan, an autograph is nice, but I'd already had something better today: a chance to have a real, if brief, catch-up conversation, and I'll take real communication over a name scrawled on a page any day. Besides, there's plenty of con left, and maybe the books will get signed later. As a post-script, I ran into him briefly later in the afternoon, and in the exchange of "how's it goin'?" in passing, Spider looked a much healthier colour. The afternoon at the con, the connections with people he'd met (not me, but others more important), and a bite and some coffee had done him good. Very nice to see.

From there, it was back downstairs to the reg table to get the parking situation sorted out. Luckily, things had been sorted out in the intervening half-hour since I'd last been there, and I was able to pay (although I would have been just as happy not having to pay, but I've gotta stay honest) in fairly short order and get on with things.

Something odd I noticed at that point though: there was no con t-shirt stand near the reg table. I looked around for a second, then asked the reg table guy. Yes, apparently there are con t-shirts this year; no, they had not arrived yet (and still hadn't, by the time I left early this evening). Okaaaaay.

Something else noticed: con security was called to deal with some guy who'd just finished registering around the same time I'd just finished taking care of parking. Didn't look like he was making trouble at the reg desk (though he did make some snotty remarks about philosophers versus natural philosophers), and I can recall having seen him around the con just about ever year since I've been going, but I overheard some other attendees mentioning he'd been banned from the con. If someone gets banned from the con, it's for a good reason. I wasn't able to catch what he'd been banned for, but off to the side with the security volunteers, he sure as hell wasn't happy about it. I decided to keep heading into the Dealers' Room, rather than watch the rest of the scene.

 The Dealers' Room had a few interesting items at some of the stalls. I stopped for a few minutes to chat with the knitting lady, who'd sold my wife and I the excellent TARDIS toque and 4th Doctor scarf last year, and managed to exercise some will power and refused to give into temptation when she pulled out some new wares — including a comfy-looking blanket with the Serentity on it. I also had a talk with the folks at Edge Publishing. Didn't see anything that grabbed my interest (or the contents of my wallet) this time (the latest instalment in the Tesseracts anthology series isn't out yet), but it's always nice to spend some time at their table. The lady heading the Edge delegation (I can never remember her name, much to my shame) takes everyone under her wing and makes you feel like she's welcoming you home, rather than just trying to sell you books. Elsewhere in the room, I came across some guys with a 3D printer selling nerdy trinkets, including little thumb-sized replicas of the TARDIS (left). They'd also concocted a 1/3-size replica of the Glaive (minus retractable blades) from Krull, which prompted us to trade jokes about whether they ought to make some custom action figures of Rell the cyclops and Ergo the Magnificent (but only if Ergo's was accompanied by a gooseberry pie). I kept to my policy of never buying on the first pass, but later in the afternoon I came back to this table and bought a little TARDIS for my wife to put on her desk at work, to replace her TARDIS coffee mug which was broken a couple of months ago. No, I wasn't the one who broke the mug, but hopefully this little present will help get me out of the dog house the next time I am responsible for some mishap. Back to the con though, something that didn't seem right about the Dealers' Room this year was the absence of White Dwarf Books. As Vancouver's only specialty sf bookstore (and the only one in Western Canada, and one of only two in the entire country), they've been a fixture at the con — and in the sf community — for a long time. Whatever the case, I hope to see them there next year.

After the temptations of the Dealers' Room, I meandered next door to the Art Show. There were a number of the usual suspects who have displays every year — some of whom I very much enjoy revisiting — but there were also some new works from different artists. I may not buy things at the Art Show, but I always like to spend time there.

Then it was time to head into another session. This time, I took in the "What Is Magic Realism?" panel. What is it? Well, the panel generally seemed to agree that it's mostly a matter of semantics as to whether there's a difference between magic realism and fantasy — semantics employed by publishers, critics, and even writers and readers for a variety of reasons. Good discussion from the panel, and some solid points made by the audience. The best was when one of the panelists quoted Terry Pratchett as saying magic realism "is like a polite way of saying you write fantasy." Spot on.

When that session wrapped up, I wandered around a little more and found another display table area in one of the halls upstairs, including an offering from a steampunk group. For all the gaslight gadgets on their table, the one that really attracted my attention was the thing beside the table: a steampunk robotic dog. (above). He was even remote controlled and they had him wheeling around, flashing his eyes. Very cool.

At that point, it was time for the Opening Ceremonies. Good thing I arrived relatively early, because the room ended up being too small for the crowd, and I was lucky to get a seat. By the time things were under way, it was standing room only. The best part of the event might have been after most of the crowd was in, just before proceedings got under way, when author David Weber made a grand entrance, whistled-in and accompanied by a troop of uniformed members of the Royal Manticoran Navy. I've heard of Trekkies, of the 501st Legion, of Browncoats, and Bronies — even Achievers (big fans of The Big Lebowski) — but until today, I'd never heard of a dedicated Honor Harrington fan club, much less a costumed one. Well, if that's what you like, what the hell. While the first half of the event was thankfully quick and to the point, the final section was strangely irrelevant and tedious. Oh well. On the whole, the Opening Ceremonies didn't run more than half an hour or so, and, having a chair, that was fine with me.

After a bit of a break, I went to Weber's first signing (in a smart scheduling move, the con organizers have anticipated that Weber's probably going to have a large number of fans looking for autographs, so they've booked a couple of signing sessions for him over the weekend). I haven't read much of his stuff, but a friend of mine, Sarah, who lives back east, is a huge fan of Weber's, and since she couldn't make it out to BC for the con, I offered to get a couple of her favourite books signed for her (Basilisk Station and The Apocalypse Troll). While I was at it, I figured I'd get him to sign my copy of The Space Opera Renaissance anthology, which includes one of his stories. One thing that hit me right away: with three books in hand, I probably had the shortest stack in the room (hey, it's not the size of your stack that matters, it's the books you've chosen!). Five seemed to be the minimum, and most people had more than that. Some, after they'd received their autographs, were even talking about hauling in more piles of books tomorrow. Happy is the author with such dedicated fans! And Weber himself did seem pretty cheerful. I'd been told before that he likes chatting, and, true to form, he kept up a non-stop patter with everyone who asked for a signature. Lots of interesting anecdotes, and, overall, a nice guy who knows how to give his fans a good signing experience.

Mission accomplished, I decided to call it a day. Yeah, there were a few other sessions going into the evening, and the Book Launch event, but none of them really looked interesting to me. Better to get some supper at a reasonable time and spend the evening with my wife, who's been nursing a cold these past few days, before hitting the computer and typing up this nonsense.

Now, let's see how early I can get started tomorrow! Or not.

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