Monday, August 24, 2015

Photos from Sasquan

Fleeing from the Cylon tyranny — oh no, wait... that's the original Battlestar Galactica. Let's try this again:

Fleeing from the brutal wildfire haze that has resumed smothering Spokane like a facehugger from the Alien franchise, we hopped in the car around mid-morning today and raced back along the beautiful (and yet, shrouded in smoke, haunting) Route 2 across the plains, and through the mountains, back to the coast to head north and home to BC.

While I've been posting a few photos from Sasquan/Worldcon to my Twitter feed on the fly over the past few days, this is the first opportunity I've had to upload all of them to the blog. Included here are the pics from Twitter, along with some that have not yet been posted.

Fighters at First Night in the park
The couple that cosplays together succumbs to Alien infestation together
Guess who I voted for in the Worldcon 2017 site selection?

Black Widow
Captain America

One tough customer at the coffee bar
Bounty hunters. We DO need their scum!

Dr Bunsen Honeydew and his assistant Beaker. Sort of.

The last days of Krypton... er, a smoky evening in Spokane

This is how bad the air got by Friday night when the Masquerade let out
Where can I get a hat like that?
This guy's Captain Kangaroo cosplay could only have been better if he'd had Mr Greenjeans with him

All hail Immorten Joanna!

A pint-sized TARDIS, complete with mini Doctor

Miyazaki fans will know you don't want to feed this guy. You REALLY don't want to feed this guy!


We are Groot

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Getting Conned South of the Border - Sasquan Day 5

So, this is the end.

...of Sasquan, I mean. Not the universe or anything really important, like chocolate production, otherwise you wouldn't be reading this silly little post, and I wouldn't be writing it. I'd probably be clutching my last Crispy Crunch bar and weeping unconsollably in a corner or something. But anyway...

Today marked the end of Sasquan (though there are probably more than a few people still stumbling around at Dead Dog parties celebrating their achievement and trying to avoid thinking about all the cleanup that will need to be done tomorrow), as well as the end of the mostly clear air (the wildfire haze returned today with brutal determination). Despite most of a day's worth of programming, the convention centre halls were quieter and easier to navigate, and the hotel lobbies were not. There was that gently aching muscles sense filling the air that always comes on the last day of a con or after reorganizing one's bookshelves, and while some attendees were as eager as ever, many of us were just kind of going through the motions... getting in one last session or a final buy in the dealers' room just to say we'd got our money's worth out of a full con membership by attending every single day, even on a day when (no offence to the organizers or panelists, because this is true at many cons) there isn't much of a draw. It's the kind of day where you'd rather be starting the drive home, or sitting at home and inspecting your haul of con treasures, or sleeping in late and enjoying a slow brunch somewhere in the host city that doesn't rip off the tourists with inflated prices and small portions. But you show up to what's left of the con anyway. For a while anyway. And we did.

It was probably a little after 11 when we rolled in. My wife had nothing on her schedule, and while I'd scheduled a couple of panels on principle, nothing really mattered. We ambled in to the dealers' room to see if there were any previously unseen treasures or last-minute deals to be had, and there weren't. Not really. I went back to the used book stall that'd had the collection of Winston sci-fi novels for kids to see if the owner was prepared to be flexible on his pricing of Wollheim's The Secret of Saturn's Rings. When I pulled it off the shelf and asked what the price was, he automatically flipped to an inside page and pointed at the $100 marked there. A hundred bucks (American!) was greedy at the top of the week, and it was still greedy today (I bought The Secret of the Martian Moons a couple of months ago in reasonable condition for around $30 Canadian, so I'm not coming out of left field here). Preparing to haggle, I asked the guy if he would be able to knock the price down at all, and he said he could do $90. Still waaaaaaaaay too much. For 90, he'd have to give me 'Saturn's Rings AND Poul Anderson's Vault of the Ages (which he'd valued at $95), and I could see he wasn't going to do that. I pointed out that I could get Winston books a lot cheaper back home, to which he politely replied "Then you can." I can tell a pleasant "fuck off" when I hear one, and also that he had no intention of negotiating, and, it's his business, so that's his right. So I said "Okay." and walked away, and joined my wife in the artists' area where she was buying a pendant. Later, shortly after 2 o'clock, when there was less than an hour until the dealers' room closed for good, and many dealers were already packing up, my wife and I were back in the merch hall on our way back to the hotel, and I saw that particular used book dealer standing in the aisle, and decided to give him one last try. I asked if he'd consider selling 'Saturn's Rings for $50, but he said he couldn't. Fair enough. His business, his right. One thing he didn't seem to grasp though: in 5 days of Worldcon, one of the biggest gatherings of sci-fi book-loving nerds around, he hadn't sold that book. In fact, at a quick glance, it didn't appear that he had sold any of the Winston books (or at least not more than a couple). That would indicate pretty clearly that his prices are way out of whack with what the market's prepared to pay. That's the point where a dealer in collectibles has to decide whether to re-assess his prices and have the opportunity to make a sale and take some more cash home, or whether to stick to his overvaluation, go to the effort of packing up the unsold goods, pay for the gas to drive said unsold goods back to his store or storage locker or basement, and then have said unsold goods remain unsold for potentially several years as the market continues to refuse to pay his unrealistic price. You may claim that other dealers have books like these listed for high prices, but have they sold? Have they sold when other dealers are offering them for less? And again: 5 days of hundreds (if not thousands) of geeks passing by his stall didn't result in a sale at the $100 he wanted. Not great for business. So I walked away for the last time, spent a fraction of that money at a publisher's table that was having a sale on translated Japanese science fiction (I bought Mitsuse's 10 Billion Days & 100 Billion Nights and Sakurazaka's All You Need Is Kill), and the dealer ended up taking his unsold stock back to... wherever.

After the first failed attempt to buy the book, and not being particularly interested in any of the panels at the time, we headed out for brunch (appropriately enough, in keeping with the week's sf theme, to a little diner called "The Satellite"). Back to the con afterwards, and while my wife took in a kaffee klatsch featuring a linguist, I went to The Great Debate. TGD was a fake political debate, where those of us in the audience were decribed as a council of oligarchs of the Empire of Inlandia, gathered to select an archon from among the panelists to lead us to wealth and conquering glory. On the panel, Brandon Sanderson took on the persona of The Great Ruler, an exiled immortal space despot come to Earth to restart his career (played in deliciously over-the-top style — think Emperor Cartagia in Babylon 5 mixed with Skeletor in the Masters of the Universe live action movie); Patricia Briggs was an immortal werewolf demanding worshipers — and food; and James C Glass was, well, a sex-obsessed starlet wanting to turn the world into a love-in commune. After much debate, derision, and promises of destruction, along with an audience Q&A, the assemblage of oligarchs voted in favour of the werewolf (proably because the Great Ruler promised to eliminate half of us right off the bat, and, for my part, because he vowed to make war upon Canadia and turn our hockey players into his toothless janissaries). Lots of fun, and I'll give all of the panelists credit for their performances.

When that was done, we were done. Sure, there was another hour of programming before the Closing Ceremonies, but none of those panels interested us, and neither did the Closing remarks. Better to go back to the hotel, relax in the pool for a while (now pleasantly empty with so many con attendees gone or holding on with grim determination to see the thing through to its ultimate end at the Closing Ceremonies), inspect our haul of merchandise, and talk about the week's entertainment and plans for tomorrow's drive home. So we did. We finished the day with supper with some friends, and packed.

While Sasquan has generally been fun, I'm eager for home.

Getting Conned South of the Border - Worldcon Day 4

What a day! So many developments, starting with...

...the sky! The air wasn't dangerous today!

We were up fairly late this morning, but when we did eventually leave the hotel, we were pleasantly surprised to see that we could actually see — the sky was blue. To be sure, there was still a little haze in the air; we could taste it and smell it, but it wasn't like a block of concrete being rammed down my throat into my chest like the death cloud last night. I felt like King Roland at the end of Spaceballs waking up and proclaiming: "I can breathe. Air! AAAAAAIIIIIRRRRRRRR!!!" Except I didn't have his highly funkified robes.

By the time we'd crossed the bridge to the convention centre, it was 11, and we decided to see the state of the line that was probably forming-up for the 2 o'clock George RR Martin signing. Unlike last year's debacle, this year Martin's team had laid-out their ground rules early, so everyone knew there was going to be a cap on the number of people who were going to be able to get autographs 400), so it was a given that some would probably start queueing-up even before the line officially started at 11:30. When we made a pass of the area, there were about 70 people already patiently waiting. We could have easily joined the line and spent the next three hours hanging around. But after some thought, I decided it wasn't worth while. Would it be nice to get his signature on a couple of books (one each was the rule)? Yes. Was it worth hanging around in the same place for three hours for a non-personalized scribble when I could be going to several other panels and signings, and, you know, having lunch (most importantly, having lunch from somewhere other than the convention centre's tuck shops with their extortion-level pricing)? No. So we left the line and went on to other things.

Other things for me turned out to be browsing in the dealers' room for a while. Nothing really grabbed me, so no buys today (although my wife acquired a very pretty hair pin while engaged in her own adventures). So I ducked out for lunch.

Coming back around 1:30, I checked-in with the Martin line: still quite large, but nowhere near as big as I'd expected. In fact, I talked with the con volunteer in charge of running the line, and he said if I queued-up, I'd be #170. Pretty good for a late walk-in, but I still had other things I wanted to do instead of waiting around for 30 minutes or more for the signing to start, and then more time for the line to move. So I left.

...And got in line for an autograph from Brandon Sanderson (I'd hauled my copy of A Memory of Light down from Vancouver to get it signed). The con organizers probably should have put Sanderson's signing in a dedicated room, rather than the usual open signing area in the hall housing the dealers' room, because the line got very big very fast. While we were all waiting, a couple of guys came around with a video camera recording messages from con attendees to send to the con's astronaut guest of honour, Dr. Kjell Lindgren, up on the ISS. For my part, I thanked him for advancing the cause of science, and wished him a safe voyage home. The other thing that came up in line was a really annoying incident where a couple of guys came up to me and the others around me, asked us what the line was for, and then casually slipped in — jumping the queue — behind me, and no-one called them on it. It wasn't for me to start any shit because their butt-in didn't affect me directly, but it was still out of line (bad pun intended). Worse, one of them, a young guy, started complaining about some videogame panel he'd just been to, and how he didn't like the panelists talking about the need for diversity and inclusivity in gaming, especially around the involvement of women. He claimed (to his buddy and co-queue-jumper, who otherwise seemed okay) that he worked in a videogame store, and never saw any women come in, so girls obviously don't play videogames and they shouldn't be included. This pissed me off because I know plenty of women who play videogames, and they should be encouraged to participate, and with all the bullshit that's gone on over the past year or two, this is an issue that absolutely needs to be discussed by a panel at Worldcon. Maybe this punk never sees any girls come into his store, because they're deliberately avoiding him. Maybe there are other stories with better selection and more knowledgable and helpful staff who aren't total jackasses. Luckily the line started moving again, and the guy in front of me (who was a good guy) started chatting, so I didn't have to listen to any more of the punk's crap. And the line did proceed at a good pace. Sanderson seems like a nice guy, and took time to chat with everybody, answering questions and doing personalized messages.

By the time I was done, my wife had finished with a panel she was attending, and we decided to try our luck again with Martin. Today, Lady Luck paid off. When we got to Martin's big signing room, there were still plenty of spots left before the cap (somebody later told me only 300 or so had bothered to come), so we got in and lined-up. Because he was only initialling, the line moved very quickly and we were out in less than 10 minutes. Perfect timing too, because it was coming up on 3 (a time deadline on top of the number cap), and they more-or-less closed the door behind us.

From there, it was on to another signing for me: Robert Silverberg, and that was another long line. However, as Silverberg was only signing his name (no personalized messages, and no chit-chat with the fans — though he did show some mild, non-verbal curiosity when I handed him my old Norton Book of Science Fiction to be signed, taking a few seconds to examine the name on the spine), the line moved fairly quickly, and I was out in about half an hour. Luckily there were no jackasses in this line, just good people and some entertaining conversation.

At that point, I was officially free! I'd obtained all of the autographs I'd come to get for myself, as well as a couple for my friend Sarah who wasn't able to make it. It wouldn't be long before I could dump my backpack full of books back at the hotel room and not have to carry any more. My back was practically weeping in relief.

While in line for Silverberg, I heard some good news: Helsinki had won the 2017 Worldcon! Apparently they'd announced it last night, not too long after my wife and I had left for dinner befoer the Masquerade. One of the guys in line said he'd talked to a few people, and apparently Helsinki had won by a landslide. DC had reportedly come in second, but it was a distant second. As I've said before, the Fins have campained really hard and shown a lot of heart, so they deserve this. Unless I fall into an unexpected jackpot, I won't be going, but I'm glad they won the Worldcon bid.

When that was done, I went to the Demigods and Chosen Ones panel. I can't say I agreed with everything said by the panel, but I would agree writing different kinds of stories with different approaches to heroism and protagonists is a good thing.

When that was over, my wife came in and convinced me to stick around for the panel discussion about Peter Capaldi's Doctor Who. Unfortunately, that discussion wasn't terribly interesting to either of us, so we agreed to slip out for an early supper at a fried chicken/bbq/soul food joint a few blocks away (and Chick-N-Mo was a good choice, by the way).

Then it was back to the hotel to dump our bags and change before heading back to the convention centre theatre for the Hugo Awards ceremony. The highlights for me were the Dalek guest presenter, Silverberg's Hari Krishna benediction, and 5 of the Hugo categories getting No Award as the voters told the puppies in no uncertain terms that their agenda wasn't going to be tolerated. Now, of course, the question is what's going to happen moving forward? Will the Hugos go back to normal, or are they broken, as some fear, and, if so, what do we do about it? Not too long ago, Kelly Robson wrote an article wherein she came up with an interesting solution: maybe it's time to hire a professional mediator to help sort this mess out. I'm not sure how workable that would be, but I don't have a better solution myself, so I'd back the idea if things get worse. Let's hope they don't.

Now for the last, slow, wrap-up day of Worldcon before the long trip home. Stay tuned for tomorrow's update.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Getting Conned South of the Border - Sasquan Day 3

The sun stumbled into a sky above Spokane this morning the colour of a canvas bag of old, dirty underwear scattered across a floor. There was more smoke than sky. More ash particles than air. Sunrise over the wildfire apocalypse, and the proof was the flag at the hotel across the street flying at half-mast in honour of a group of firefighters who'd died recently battling one of the forest fires. It's getting fucking hard to breathe around here.

But we trudged through the semi-solid air across the bridge and into the convention centre anyway.

Overheard upon entering the joint: "I keep wanting to go to a [con] business meeting, but everytime I walk in, I keep walking back out. I've been traumatized." Must've been a sub-committee meeting about ordering dixie cups for the water stations or something.

I started the day at the Tomorrow Stories panel, listening to authors, artists, comic creators and TV producers talk about bringing their own projects (as opposed to a corporate-owned property project) to fruition. Lots of interesting stories and perspectives, and one of the most valuable pieces of advice was one of the simplest: "You have to know how to play well with others." I'd say that applies to life in general.

One of the panelists was author Kevin J. Anderson, and even though he had to run off to another session right away, he was kind enough to hang around for a couple of minutes and sign books for a bunch of us. I'd brought my copy of The Martian War, and was glad to get an autograph.

Then it was over to the George RR Martin-Robert Silverberg dialogue, which, for the first ten minutes or so, was actually the Robert Silverberg-Robert Silverberg dialogue. Martin was late, so Silverberg began having a conversation with an imaginary George. Think of Clint Eastwood's infamous Obama-chair dialogue, except funny and nowhere near as uncomfortable. Once Martin did show up, Silverberg needled him mercilessly throughout the chat, though George did occasionally get in a shot or two of his own. The fact that they're friends and that it's all in good fun was what made it work. Over the course of the next nearly hour-and-a-half, they shared annecdotes of Worldcons and Hugo Awards past, as well as various grand personalities from the old days.

After that, I attended a kaffee klatsch with Melinda Snodgrass. Now, I know I interviewed her the other day, but a 'klatsch is a different kind of experience. There are more people, different focus(es), and a different sort of vibe. I asked one or two questions, but most of the time the other fans did the talking, and Snodgrass shared some wonderful stories about writing and writers, books and Hollywood, and some of the projectst that she's wanted to do. She wouldn't divulge any details, but she hinted that there may be some coming developments about a possible Wildcards film, which would be all kinds of awesome if it ever gets made. All in all, the session had a good bunch of people, and was a lot of fun.

I then booted it back to the hotel to wolf down some leftover pasta from the other night for lunch, before heading back out into the murk (by mid-day it was significantly worse - with the haze creating difficulties seeing even a couple of blocks down the street) and back to the con. I'd heard the bloodmobile was on-site again (originally, it had only been scheduled to be at the con on Wednesday, but the drive had been such a success that it had returned yesterday and today), and wanted to get tapped, but by the time I got to it (on the far side of the labyrinthine convention centre), the drive was done for the day, and it didn't sound like it would continue on the weekend. Oh well,  I guess I'll just schedule a donation at my regular bloodbank when I get home.

Then it was into the line to have Vonda N McIntyre sign a book for a friend who couldn't make it, and one of my own anthologies as well. The wait went fairly quickly though, as my friends Geordie & Marianne were passing by and stopped to shoot the breeze for a while.

When that was done, there was an announcement in the main hall that voting for the 2017 Worldcon location would be wrapping up in an hour-and-a-half, so I bolted over to the voting station to add my choices to the selection process. I'll admit, I'm still kind of sore that they make you pay to vote for the site selection these days. It wasn't that long ago that site selection voting was a privilege included in your membership purchase, but not anymore. This year, Helsinki, Montreal, Shizuoka, and Washington, DC are in contention. To my mind, DC should definitely be out of the running. Sorry, Washington residents, and Americans in general, this is nothing personal. DC's no doubt a fine town and it certainly has a lot of history, but let's be fair, it's hosted Worldcons on a couple of previous occasions, and with this year's Worldcon in Spokane, and next year's in Kansas, a DC win would make it three in a row for the US, and that's just not right. This is supposed to be the World Science Fiction Convention after all, so, you know, the rest of the world should get a shot at hosting this thing far more often than is the case now. Personally, I think there ought to be a new rule that no country be allowed to host the Worldcon more than 2 years in a row (and ideally, even that's pushing it). So, in terms of ranking preferences, DC was definitely number 4 on my ballot. The number 1 spot was tough though. Nationalism was certainly calling me to vote for Montreal as my first preference, and certainly in 2009 la belle province proved it could host a very good Worldcon. Montreal's also easy and relatively cheap for me to get to. We've got friends not too far away. And then there's Schwartz's, home to the best smoked meat sandwiches in the universe, conveniently within walking distance of the convention centre. But Montreal's hosted the con in very recent memory, so I also think it's timet to give someone else a chance. And that leads me to Helsinki. As I've said before, the Fins have shown a hell of a lot of heart in their campaigning over the past couple of years, and Helsinki has not hosted a Worldcon before. Yes, it would be one of the more expensive destinations to get to, but I'm pretty sure it would be worth it: new sites to see, a new culture to expereience, and I'm certain the Fins would be able to do a good job of organizing a con of this size. I think that in good conscience, voters have to give them a shot. So Helsinki was my first preference, followed by Montreal. Shizuoka, in all fairness, sounds like it would also make a very good host city for Worldcon, and I'd love to take a trip to Japan sometime. But that country has hosted the Worldcon before, so the Shizuoka bid was relegated to third place on my ballot. Now it's a matter of waiting to see how the other members voted.

We then tried to take in the (take a deep breath, because this panel had a hell of a long title) Chinese Myths and Traditions in Contemporary Literature panel, but ended up leaving at the half-way point because it was a complete disaster. First of all, one of the panelists (my wife insists she was the moderator) was obsessed with trying to foist a powerpoint presentation on the audience, even though at the beginning the convention centre or con organizers hadn't set up a screen. So she then tried to show the presentation & pictures on her laptop from the front of the room... to a room that could comfortably seat a hundred and was mostly full. No way were most of us going to be able to see what was on that thing. Later, someone came in with a screen, but it was inadequate, and even then there were problems with the powerpoint, causing even more delays. At least 10 minutes was probably wasted on this thing - and probably more after we left. Then there was another panelist who took the sopabox and ran with it, going on for nearly 10 minutes like no-one else was there. Two of the other panelists got to say a little bit, but by the time we left, the fifth panelist had hardly said anything.  There were other problems with the execution of this session, and my wife, who's from Hong Kong, was less than pleased with the affair. The whole time we were there, there was a steady stream of people leaving the audience, and I'm surprised we stayed as long as we did.

After that it was back into the dealers' room. I'd previously decided that I was finished buying books, but when I passed one of the publishers' tables, I found myself being drawn back to the book displays. The other day, SF Signal's Patrick Hester had been urging me to buy Josh Vogt's Enter the Janitor, and I'd been humming and hawing over it, but today I finally gave in and bought the thing. I blame Hester. (Hesterrrrrrrrrrrr!!!) But it certainly didn't take too much arm twisting. It does look like a fun read. My wife and I then turned to the business of getting some souvenires for our nephew & neice.  A geeky t-shirt for the boy and a couple of hand-made steel flower hair pin-broach thingies for the girl oughta do it. And then my wife saw a dragon wood carving she'd been thinking about for a couple of days, and gave it - throwing a wooden pig into the mix too. So we're loaded for bear with treasures from the con.

Then on to dinner at a charcuterie down the street before orbiting back to the convention centre for the Masquerade. By this point, smoke was roiling above the streets, people were actually walking around wearing masks to keep it out of their lungs, and the con organizers had posted dangerous air warning signs on all the doors.

When we entered, it was a bit of a different experience this time, with the con organizers giving out tickets with specified seating, rather than the normal allowance of a first-come-first-served free-for-all, but, given that our seats were in the centre and only about mid-way back, and that the seats were fairly roomy, even though we didn't get an aisle seat like I normally prefer, I couldn't complain. The show itself didn't seem as well organized as others have been in the past, feeling a bit slow and clunky transitioning between segments and participants. And rather than doing the logical thing and calling for a half-time break when the Masquerade was over, they kept pushing on and went straight into the filk concert performance. Which met with a mass walk-out by a huge number of people - including us - who either needed a break after an hour-and-a-half, or who (like us) didn't want to hang around for the concert. But for all the Masquerade's organizational faults, there were some really good costumes this year. Sadly, I couldn't get any pictures because there was something about the reflectivity of the backdrop on the stage that was interacting with the spotlights to blind the camera on my phone. Some of the best costumes included a wee little girl in a very good Miss Marvel costume, a couple of Weeping Angels, a guy doing version 2 of Wells' The Time Traveller - this time with a backpack time machine, a woman in an excellent Immorten Joanna costume, and a group that came on stage dressed as D&D adventurers facing off against an enormous Spider Queen - complete with somebody rolling on stage dressed as the world's most unlucky dice (every side was "1"). Hopefully I'll run into some of the during the last two days of the con and will be able to get pictures (I actually met Immorten Joanna in the dealers' room this afternoon and got a photo, which I'll post later).

Then it was back through the thick, ashy air to the hotel room to wheeze on my inhaler like the predator at the end of Predator 2 with his breather mask... except, you know, I'm just a fat man, not an interstellar safari hunter, and Danny Glover hasn't lopped-off my hand. No parties for us tonight because, as usual, we're exhausted.

Stay tuned for more nerdy adventures tomorrow...

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Getting Conned South of the Border - Worldcon Day 2

I won't start this post with the usual chronological summary of the day's events, but rather with a question:

At what point does asking for help in the autograph lineup turn from genuinely asking for legitimate help to being an outright dick?

This is an actual question I'm asking all of you, fellow fans... I really do want your opinions, because an experience today has left me puzzled and somewhat annoyed.

At one point today I joined a line to get an autograph from an author. Which author doesn't matter, this person has no bearing on the story. We only need to say that this author had a long-ish line of fans waiting for signatures — say, a 20-30 minute wait. Not the end of the world, but enough of a wait that there's some standing around and time to chat with other fans and check email and social media (the Spokane convention centre has excellent wifi, by the way).

Ahead of me in line was an older guy, probably late 60s or early 70s, with a leg brace and one of those walker/seat things all slung with book bags. At one point, the guy looks at me and asks "Can you hold my place in line?" To which I replied "Sure." because that's what you do. It's the friendly line etiquette that most people at cons observe, because the reality is that when lines are long enough, there's going to be a point where someone has to step out to hit the washroom, and they shouldn't have to lose their place just because nature has called. We've all been there at some point, and we've all appreciated other people honouring our spot in the queue and maybe watching our stuff for a few minutes. So, of course, because I assumed the guy was headed to the head, I agreed. No big deal.

Except it became a big deal. Turns out the guy wasn't going for a washroom break. Even with a Mad Max-style leg brace, he got out of his walker chair thing with surprising ease, dug around in one of his bags, fished out a huge stack of books, and walked over (walked, mind you, not limped) to one of the other authors who had only a short line, and stood in that author's line for 5 or 10 minutes, and got 3 books signed. Think that was all? Noooooooooo no no no. Not by a long shot. Once his 3 were inked, he turned around and went to the back of the same author's line, then after a few minutes, got to the front, and had another 3 books signed.

Was that it? NO! He then went over to a third author, who had a short lineup, and got another bunch of books signed.

Finally he came back to the original lineup for the author that me and 30 or so other people were waiting for. All the while I'd been pushing his walker thingy ahead as the line shuffled forward. He stuffed the signed books back into one of the bags, and sat down without a word of thanks, and resumed rolling forward as the line advanced.

Was it over then? Hell no! When we were nearly at the front of the line, he turned to me, looked me over, and said "So, do you only have those two books for ____ to sign?" Me, suspiciously: "Yup." Him: "I've already got my three, so can I give you another one of my books so you can have ___ sign it?"

I furrowed my brow and stood there thinking about it for a minute. Steam may have started to seep from my ears and begun to fog my glasses. Was I going to abet this line-hopper in further deking around con autograph line etiquette? (If you haven't been to a con, or you go to ones that don't have long lines or where the rules are a little more lax, the convention for autographs is that you're limited to 3, and if you have more books you then move to the back of the line and go through the queue again to get another 3 signed, and so on. That way you're not dominating the front of the line and making others wait forever while your entire library gets signed. It's a good rule.) I looked over at the guy in front of Mr Line Deker. He shrugged and said "We do these little favours for people." I grimaced. "Yeah," I said, "I know." But the situation with this guy was a lot different than any I'd seen before. Finally, I relented and agreed. He passed over the book without a "thank-you". And a few minutes later, I discovered the Uber Line Deker had pulled the same thing wtih the guy in front of him, the whole "you've only got 2 books, so why not help me out and take one of mine?" schtick.

When I got to the front of the line, I had my books signed, got The Incredible Deker's book signed, and handed it back to him. He mumbled a terse, quick, insincere "Thanks" and scooted away with more speed and agility than a person using a walker chair thing would normally be expected to have.

So I ask you, and I really do want you to leave your opinions in the Comments section below: was this old codger way out of line (pun kind of intended)? Did he take a dump on the 3-book-and-then-requeue etiquette? Should I have said "no?" to his signing request in light of his first performance? Or was his behaviour okay?

I really don't know. It certainly feels wrong to me. I've never seen anyone pull that kind of a stunt before in any autograph line that I've been a part of, and that includes Worldcons and local cons. But I'm willing to consider that maybe this kind of thing is okay at some cons. Hence my question to all of you. What do you think?

Anyhow, enough of the autograph line angst. On to the daily run-down.

On the way across the bridge to the convention centre this morning, we ran into the Ribbon Kid. This kid looked to be about 13, and had a million-and-a-half ribbons hanging from his membership badge. He said his goal was to outdo his personal record of 87 ribbons, and have a 13-foot length of them which he could then use as a kind of Tom Baker-esque scarf. Everyone's gotta have a dream. You go, Ribbon Kid. You live that long ribbon scarf dream.

The first panel I attended was Future Pharma. Lots of interesting discussion about the nature of the pharmaceutical industry and its scientific research and ethics. I was especially intrigued by the discussion around the growing possibility — especially in light of the growing DIY culture in our society and the availabilty of a wide variety of equipment and substances for private purchase — of people getting into home brewing/DIY pharmaceuticals and research in their garages. What are the dangers? What if there was a valid and useful discovery — would an individual working out of a basement have a chance of being taken seriously, even if they'd discovered a cure for, say, diabetes, and would there be any funding and follow-up or ethical permission? What if people just buck the system and start making and using pharmaceuticals on their own? The whole thing was especially interesting to me because as part of my other life as a freelance writer, I have clients who have me interview scientists involved in chemistry and pharmaceutical research.

After that I queued-up for an autograph from Joe Haldeman. Enjoyable conversations from that line included meeting a 50-something guy and life-long fan who's attending a con for the first time. As someone who's first con was also a Worldcon (Winnipeg, back in the '90s), I know what it's like, and it was nice to hear about how much he's enjoying it. There was also another guy showing pictures of his home library — an absolutely beautiful multi-room basement affair with big dark wood bookcases housing something like 7.5 tons of books. If only my wife would let me take over the basement like that!

When I had the signature, I went over to take in the rest of the Anatomy of a Pandemic panel. Not surprisingly, lots of scary stuff about how bugs can get around and get out of control, and a good counterpart session to the earlier Pharma panel.

After lunch I went to a reading by Connie Willis. Before getting into an excerpt from her new novel (which was very funny and had banter that reminded me a lot of her Christmas story "Miracle"), she shared some annecdotes that had the crowd in stitches. Not only is she a good writer, she's a hell of a live entertainer.

From there it was on to the Mike Resnick signing (as a fan and occasional collector of Hawaiian shirts, I was suitably impressed with the loudness of the aloha shirt he was rocking today), and then over to the George RR Martin reading to catch the last half of an excerpt from his new book, and the audience questions. Best quote: "No work of fiction can possibly be harmed by the addition of turtles." Tell 'em, Thomas Tudbury!

I then took in The Changing Face of Hard Science Fiction, which went pretty much as expected. The best part was meeting David G Hartwell afterwards — even though he was in a rush to get to another panel, he was kind enough to take the time to sign my old copy of Northern Stars. As a Canadian, this is a big deal. Northern Stars was one of the first widely-seen anthologies (it was published in time for, and promoted and sold at the Winnipeg Worldcon back in the '90s) to celebrate Canadian speculative fiction writers, and it meant a lot for an American with a big reputation for anthologies to give the project his attention and help bring it into being. I already have signatures from a number of the book's contributing authors, and Hartwell's will tie it together nicely.

The last programming item of the day for me was the Greg Bear signing, after which I did the obligatory daily tour of the dealers' room, and did the obligatory buying of a book. This time it was the new steampunk anthology The Best of Penny Dread Tales.

I then met up with my wife, who'd had her own full day of programming, and we went over to an Italian restaurant, Luigi's, which I think had about half the con in it for a pasta feed. Good food, and we've got leftovers for lunch tomorrow.

On the walk back, we talked about going to a room party or two this evening... We'd heard the Montreal bid team was serving smoked meat from Schwartz's, and, let's face it, it's worth giving Montreal another Worldcon just to get a sandwich from Schwartz's. There was also another party hosted by the Fins of the Helsinki bid (although it's not a real party with Fins unless there's a sauna involved). But, bulging with pasta and with a long day behind us and another coming up tomorrow, we were just feeling our age too much and longing for bed rather than a nerdy kegger. So here we are.

More news tomorrow, but in the meantime, let me know what you think about that old dude deking around the 3 book limit rules for the autograph line.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Getting Conned South of the Border - Sasquan Day 1

Can you say you've had a good con experience if you show up for Worldcon and don't attend any of the day's programming? Hell yes!

Normally I'm big on going to panels and readings, and, just like any other con, I'd planned out a rough schedule of what I wanted to check out today, but it all went out the window when other opportunities arose, and the result was fantastic.

But I should backtrack a bit... Yesterday's 8-hour drive (that's including a couple of stops along the way) from Vancouver to Spokane was a visual feast: starting with craggy, green-cloaked coastal and near-inland mountains wading through a light haze of wildfire smoke, giving way to lower, dryer peaks and high orchards and vinyards pulling the now thicker ash-air over themselves like lazy teenagers yanking up blankets to sleep away the morning, then on to high desert and canyons that look like they'd be right at home as tributaries of the Grand Canyon or in Monument Valley with tumbleweeds bumbling across the road and exploding across the hoods of cars, then onto the surreal dry farming plateau that looked shockingly like the prairies because of its flatness and the inablility to see the mountains on the horizon because of the smoke, and finally finishing with two towering columns of smoke billowing up from the north as we hit the outskirts of Spokane. We were so glad we took quiet little Route 2 through Washington, instead of the bigger highway. There's nothing like a long drive through country you haven't seen before. When we arrived, we went for supper with friends and fellow con-goers from BC, Geordie and Marianne, which is always a blast. Lots of laughs, tales from the road (they took Highway 20 - also very scenic, from what we've been told) and a chance to catch up on life in general. Then it was back to the hotel for a flurry of emails to get today organized.

Today started off like a blast from a cannon. Rather than the normal pokey shuffle along the registration lineup and stroll through the convention centre to get the lay of the land before getting into programming, I instead interviewed author Robert J. Sawyer. Over the years, I've read most of Sawyer's books and short stories, and have met him a few times at conventions and book launch readings. He's a nice guy with a lot to say, and I couldn't pass up the chance to sit down with him for a bit and ask a few questions. One of the highlights was discovering a shared appreciation for Oliver Butterworth's The Enormous Egg. Bonus points to Rob for agreeing to do an interview while fighting what sounded like a bad cold. I know if I was in that position I'd probably just want to take a day in bed, but he soldiered through the interview with a high level of energy and made some good points.

Coming out of the Sawyer interview, my wife and I wound up having a quick chat with a couple of ladies from Baltimore who were in for the con. Never met them before, but I really believe that these impromptu friendly conversations with fellow fans in the hallway are what makes cons great. You've never seen these people before; you may never see them again; and you're probably from different walks of life, but for an instant there's a connection, and that chance to engage with people who have different perspectives is important.

Then it was over to the main hall for the afore-mentioned shuffle along the registration line. I'll give the Sasquan volunteers a lot of credit: it was a long line but it moved relatively quickly. They were extremely efficient in getting attendees checked-in, badged, and on their way — and they were very friendly. While waiting in line, we had a great conversation with the guy behind us — a fan from Gainsville, Florida — mostly centring on the various cities bidding for the 2017 Worldcon. Again, different background, different perspective, and a one-off encounter that was an enjoyable way to spend time while waiting for the reg line to move.

From there we scouted out potential locations for other interviews, and had a quick look at the 2017 bid tables and the dealers' room.

Then it was time for another interview. This time, Melinda Snodgrass — another author who's work I've really enjoyed for a long time, especially her writing and editing for the Wildcards series. Snodgrass is engaging and friendly, and balances high energy and enthusiasm with thoughtfulness. While her credits include writing for the screen, we focussed most of our conversation on books — her favourites, and her approach to writing her own — and it was a real treat to find out we share a fondness for Donald A. Wollheim's children's classic The Secret of the Martian Moons. We covered a lot of ground, and the time disappeared in a flash. Before parting, she was kind enough to sign my copy of Wildcards - Double Solitaire.

After that, my wife and I went to grab a late lunch, and by the time we got back, most of the programming I'd thought about attending was over. But you know what? That's okay. I didn't attend a single programmed panel or reading today, and I had a great time — one of the best con days ever. It's not often that you get to sit down with two authors whose work you enjoy and get to pick their brains for awhile. I couldn't have asked for better — especially on an opening day. What's with the interviews? Stay tuned, fellow fans. Stay tuned.

Then I broke one of my long-cherished rules for con survival: I spent money in the dealers' room on the first day. It started with a stroll back towards the land o' merch, and we stopped a bunch of the tables where teams bidding for future Worldcons had their displays. We chatted with the folks at the Dublin 2019 table (and we're really leaning towards going to that one) as well as the New Zealand 2020 group (another tempting destination — though another expensive trip, and back-to-back with Ireland potentially makes it an extra burden on the bank account... if they win their respective bids). But then we spent a lot of time looking at the bidders on this year's ballot for 2017... We had a good chat with the reps for Montreal, which, as a Canadian, I feel something of an obligation to support, especially since they did such a good job with Worldcon 2009, and because a win for Montreal would mean a walk down the street to Schwartz's for a smoked meat sandwich for me, and that is universally recognized as an absolute good. The folks from the Japanese bid were also a really nice bunch, and plying me with strange candies was a good tactic. The "White & Nerdy" t-shirt I was wearing (my obligatory attire for day 1 of any con) prompted a couple of us to discuss our mutual love of Weird Al Yankovic while we were there, and, as far as attire goes, I had to admire the team's commitment to showing their spirit by wearing some very nice kimonos. After that, it was over to talk to the Helsinki team. These guys have impressed the hell out of me for a while now. Hitting con-goers up in the registration line on day 1 last year in London by giving out weird Finnish candies was a good start, and since then I've heard their bid mentioned on a few different fronts. I've always been impressed by how much heart this team has. While it's doubtful we'd be able to attend a con in Finland, I'm a very strong believer in the idea that if this thing is actually going to call itself a "world" con, it needs to be held in many different locations around the world, and, most importantly at a greater frequency than it has been historically. Look at the current line-up: Spokane this year, Kansas next year, and there's a strong bid for DC in  2017. That's a little much. The Americans certainly know how to put on good cons, but two years in a row, and potentially three, is too much. Spread the love around, fanboys and fangirls. Spread the love around. I haven't definitively decided which bid I'll vote for this year, but it won't be DC. But getting back to Finland... the Helsinki team has impressed me so much, and because I also have a buddy currently in Waterloo who's of Finnish stock (and is quite tolerant of my frequent sauna and Monty Python "Finland Song" jokes), I thought it was time to put my money where my big mouth is, and bought a Helsinki bid supporter t-shirt. I like the bear on it. And they gave me more weird Finnish candy. You can see it isn't hard to win my love.

We then dove into the dealers' room, and it wasn't long before I threw the tradition of first day restraint completely out the window and I started buying books. I blame the people at the Edge Publishing table. They know my weakness for anthologies, and they're more than willing to exploit it. By the end of the stop at their table, I'd forked over for 3 anthologies for me (Tesseracts 18, Nevermore, and Professor Challenger - New Worlds, Lost Places) and a new collection from Suzanne Church for my wife. They're nice folks. But they're book bullies. I felt like a kid who's been beaten-up in the school yard, except instead of leaving me with bruises, they left me with books. And who am I kidding? I'll be back for more punishment. If that wasn't enough, I stopped at another dealer, where I picked up a used copy of Wildcards - Marked Cards that I'd needed for my collection. They also had a good copy of Wollheim's The Secret of Saturn's Rings, but at $100, it was too rich for my blood. For her part, my wife saw a couple of necklaces that tempted her, but she showed more restraint (for the time being) than I did.

After that, we had a first look at the art display, then wandered outside to the park in the middle of the river to check out the con's First Night festivities. More display tables, a demo by the SCA (or some similar group) which was fun, and various other activities. All under a blood red sun that would be the envy of Krypton, and a sky turned a sickly orange-grey by the wildfire haze.

Super followed at a nearby restaurant (the Steelhead — not bad), and then we made a leisurely circuit of the area to check out other eateries for the next few days.

Back to the hotel room then, exhausted, to file this report and hit the sack. Tomorrow: more adventures.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Getting Conned South of the Border

We're off to Spokane today for Worldcon!

Normally, Spokane wouldn't be my first choice for a week's vacation, involving a 7 hour drive in 30+ degree heat through mountain passes choked in smoke from any number of wildfires. But when Worldcon is being hosted practically in your backyard, you go.

In preparation, we've been watching some classic SF road trip movies over the past couple of nights: Paul, Fanboys, and Mad Max - Fury Road.

As usual, I'll be posting a summary of observations and misadventures (and maybe a few photos) here on the blog at the end of each day. Stay tuned!

Mini Reviews 8 - Murder and Mayhem

In this instalment of the mini reviews, let's take a look at a trio of books that offer murder and mayhem across a multitude of worlds — some of them off the mark; some dead on target. For your consideration: Sebastien De Castell's Knight's Shadow, the new addition to The Greatcoats series; Dan Simmons' recent offering, The Fifth Heart; and an anthology from a few years ago, edited by Jaym Gates and Erika Holt, called Broken Time Blues — Fantastic Tales in the Roaring '20s.

WARNING: SPOILERS (of course!)

Knight's Shadow, by Sebastien De Castell

Sometimes for one of your summer reads, you want a nice, easy, rollicking story that you can blast through in a couple of days and enjoy the hell out of. It doesn't have to push boundaries or explore deep concepts, it just needs to be a straight-up good story. Knight's Shadow, book two of Sebastien De Castell's The Greatcoats series is just that — more Three Musketeers-inspired goodness packed into a fantasy world of murder, deceit, and just a little bit of magic.

The story picks up where Traitor's Blade left off: Falcio, Brasti and Kest have seen the resurgence of the Greatcoats (their disgraced order of former travelling magistrates/police created by a deposed, and now dead, king), the defeat of an army belonging to one of the corrupt dukes that despoil the land, and one of the trio has levelled-up to become the patron saint of swordsmen. But good hasn't triumphed in the tired and beaten land of Tristia yet. The dukes still hold all the power, civil war is brewing, someone is inciting the peasants into uprisings that will only result in their massacre, and the dukes and their families are being assassinated one by one. And our trio of heroes and their new-found sidekicks have to try to put a stop to it all... while constantly under threat of being framed for the murders and sedition, evading arrest, facing an uphill battle to try to build alliances with the nobility and knights (the knights especially being problematic as the Greatcoats' long-time enemies), and, you know, generally avoiding being killed.

Overall, Knight's Shadow is a fun read, and a worthy follow-up to Traitor's Blade. De Castell knows how to write action scenes, easygoing banter, and interesting characters. Where the story suffers is in its somewhat predictable ending. Most of the signposts pointing to the major betrayals are fairly visible long before the end of the novel. Also, the suspense during Falcio's capture and torture is robbed of its energy by the first-person narration. Falcio's telling us the story of his suffering, so we know he must make it out alive. If the narrative style sucks the energy out of the suspense, it's flat-out crippled by the over-the-top melodrama of the assassin who's captured Falcio. Every time Heryn the assassin opened his mouth in those chapters, I kept picturing the captain of the prison guards in Spaceballs saucily examining Vespa and Lonestar and braying "What a pity. What a pity. So, Princess, you thought you could outwit the imperious forces of..." You get the idea. That said, if you're looking for a good book to enjoy on a rainy day at the cottage, Knight's Shadow is a good pick, and I'm certainly looking forward to the next instalment in the series.


The Fifth Heart, by Dan Simmons

There was a time when you could pick up a new Dan Simmons book and you'd know, sight unseen, that it would be good. Maybe not great everytime, but at least good. Those years seem to be gone, as his new novel, The Fifth Heart proves — lost to a pattern of hits and misses.

The Fifth Heart unites real-world author Henry James with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's fictional detective Sherlock Holmes in an adventure that draws the two out of their respective seclusions and across the Atlantic to America to solve what could be a murder, and prevent a political assassination. The two meet one night in Paris, when both have gone down to the Seine to kill themselves: James giving in to melancholy over family tragedy and career stagnancy (and, one suspects, as the novel unfolds, a general feeling of lack of fulfillment in life and the cumulative, dragging effects of denying/suppressing his sexuality); Holmes in a fit of existential angst. Somehow as a result of the meeting, suicide falls by the wayside, and Holmes drags James (nearly kicking and screaming, at some points, if that behaviour wouldn't have been so unbecoming to one so uptight as James) across the Atlantic to Washington, DC, to investigate the apparent suicide of one of the author's friends — a death that might have a more sinister cause. While there, Holmes also works on a mission to foil an assassination at the Chicago World's Fair. Professor Moriarty, Irene Adler, and Samuel Clemens all make appearances, and there's even a mention of Hercule Poirot. And, even when willingly stepping out of his shell, James steadfastly continues to be uptight.

If the intent in writing The Fifth Heart was for Simmons to create a masterpiece of utter tediousness, then he's succeeded brilliantly. In his later years, Simmons has become a fiend for worldbuilding minutia, cramming his stories with absurd amounts of detail on the technical aspects of whatever's being done and wherever the plot is unfolding. Sometimes, as in the case of The Terror, it's the perfect tool to make the world he's presenting all the more real. At other times, such as The Abominable, the intricacies of something like mountain climbing techniques teeter on the fence, helping the reader to understand what the characters are concerned with in certain scenes, but occasionally running the risk of slowing down the plot unnecessarily. Then there are times like the entirety of The Fifth Heart, where the sheer load of minutia on every single thing encountered in the story makes the book top-heavy, boring, and distracting. I found myself wondering if this was an author's trick — if Simmons was doing this deliberately to put the reader in the shoes of Holmes, who sees every detail of every thing, and has to deliberately condition himself to forget people, places, and incidents, for fear of overloading his memory. If this is the case, then he's succeeded with executing an experiment in having the reader empathize in a very small way with Holmes (a generally alien personality in his emotional distance), and yet has inflicted on himself an abysmal failure in terms of story execution. There's no point in pulling off a technical stunt of writing if the success of that experiment is detrimental to the movement and enjoyment of the story overall. In fact, it runs the risk of making the story so completely off-putting that some readers might just toss the book aside. Really, the only reason I bothered slogging through to the finish was the fact that my past enjoyment of most (but not all — Flashback was a complete piece of shit) of Simmons' books left me hoping that he'd pull something out of his storytelling hat that would make this ponderous experience worth while. But he didn't. Not only was the story dull, it was incapable of making me care what happened to James, Holmes, or any of the other poor souls trapped in Simmons' world.

Here's hoping that with his next book, Simmons will follow his pattern of recent years and flip back to the other side, and write something that's actually worth reading.


Broken Time Blues — Fantastic Tales in the Roaring '20s, edited by Jaym Gates & Erika Holt

As an anthology, Broken Time Blues is like a Tommy Gun hosing-down a jalopy full of gangsters: sometimes it hits, sometimes it misses, but ultimately it gets the job done. The title is pretty self-explanatory, encapsulating a group of tales about speak-easy dwellers, noire-ish dames on the run, shine runners, tough guys, and others (Like birds. Yes, birds.).

In terms of the hits, my favourites were "Semele's Daughter" by John Nakamura Remy, "The Automatic City" by Morgan Dempsey, "Button Up Your Overcoat" by Barbara Krasnoff, "Jack and the Wise Birds" by Lucia Starkey, and Robert Jackson Bennett's "A Drink for Teddy Ford".

The book's about four years old, and from a smaller publishing house, so it might be harder to get a hold of than the secret password to a back-alley speakeasy, but if you can find it, it's worth picking up.


Monday, August 10, 2015

Want a Piece of Toast?

"Want a piece of toast? ...How about an English muffin?"

To all my fellow Red Dwarf fans: the answer to your breakfast time prayers is here — a smeg toaster!

No-one who's followed the boys from the Short Rouge One in their curry-and-lager-fueled bumblings across the galaxy can forget the occasional cameos by Lister's talking toaster. Obsessed with, obviously, all things toast-related, this smeg-headed small appliance was destroyed a couple of times over the course of the show — and for good reason: sometimes you just don't want a piece of toast.

A few days ago, my wife was out shopping in a specialty kitchen store in Vancouver and came across this brazenly red toaster with the word "Smeg" written across its face, making it perfect for any Red Dwarf fan's kitchen.

Admittedly, while the Talkie Toaster took a couple of different forms during its various appearances in different series, it didn't have "Smeg" stamped across its front. But this word referring to a disgusting biological substance was the insult of choice aboard the 'Dwarf, so it's about as perfect a tribute to old 'Talkie as a fan's going to get for his/her home, barring a raid on the BBC or Dave prop closets.

In fact, it'd be a perfect match for the Smeg refrigerator I stumbled across a few years ago (and I still wonder if the company knows how much you really, really wouldn't want a fridge full of smeg).

Now we just need to find a beverage dispensing machine that makes beer milkshakes...

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Can You Recommend Some Great Books for Kids?

Calling all parents; education professionals; involved aunts, uncles, and family friends; and book lovers in general:

I need your help coming up with a list of books for kids.

Specifically, I'm looking for your recommendations of books written for elementary/primary school children that help them learn about how to make friends, and how to deal with anxiety.

The request is on behalf of my friend Connie, who's a professional counsellor who works helping kids at a non-profit organization in Vancouver. Connie's great with the kids, and she thinks some of the younger ones might benefit from being able to read and enjoy good stories that also happen to include some useful lessons.

As a friend and a book lover, I think encouraging kids to read and helping them learn important life skills at the same time is a great idea! Unfortunately, I can't really help with recommendations, because it's been a long, long time since I've read children's books with specific messages. I've been wracking my brain for titles of books that I enjoyed as a young kid, but nothing comes to mind that fits the bill (I probably did read some when I was a kid; I've just forgotten). Same with the books I've read or given to my nephew and niece.

So I'm turning to you, my well-read friends of the blogosphere! What books have you read to/read with/given to your kids, grandkids, nephews, nieces, friends' kids, and students that have helped them learn how to make friends and/or deal with anxiety?

Please leave your recommendations in the Comments section below, and I'll pass them along.

Any suggestions would be much appreciated — by me, by Connie, and most importantly, by the kids.

Thank you.