Archive for September, 2011

Some News?

So first, I’d like to say welcome to all the new visitors to the blog! I’ve read all of your comments, but I’ve been a bit too busy to reply to them all. Either way, welcome, and thank you for your thoughts, every last one of you. I admit I was a bit startled when my hits counter started to go up, but it’s nice to see people interested.

Second, an explanation. As you all know, I am a graduate student, and it is now school time. This means I am often in class for up to six hours at a time (No, seriously. I have one day a week when I have six consecutive hours of class, and another that is four. This is me, quietly screaming inside.) As such, updates will be, ah, limited, as will my responses to your emails and comments. For truly vital emails I will try to respond as soon as I can, but it may be a while, so be patient.

Third, and unrelatedly, I have found an excellent article on another site about the Penny Arcade Expo, my personal favorite convention (I consider myself first and foremost a gamer, primarily of the tabletop variety and secondarily of the PC variety and then occasionally of the console variety; as such I am more than a little biased in my tastes). It’s a really wonderful example of not just why PAX is such a great con, but I think of the general atmosphere of nerd cons in general and why they’re so wonderful. PAX though I find unique as always because despite it being in the same heavyweight category as DragonCon and Otakon, it still feels intimate and friendly. Anyway, the article speaks for itself, so take a look:

http://www.themorningnews.org/article/pax-primer

Again, thank you all. I will now continue to attempt to detangle myself from the giant pile of homework assignments I seem to have found myself beneath! Hopefully in a few days I will be able to post a small clarification in regards to my Worldcon post (But today is not that day.)

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Chicon 7 and looking to the future

So I just completed my registration to Chicon 7, next year’s Worldcon.

“But Jensen,” you say, “You just said in your LAST post that Worldcon wasn’t really your thing!”

First, that’s more that Renovation wasn’t my thing. Chicon is a different city, a different administrative team, a different thing entirely. Second, well, I have to go, next fall is going to be my big thesis, and while I want to go to DragonCon, Chicon is going to be way more useful for networking than DragonCon will be.

That’s not the important thing, however. The important thing is that I’d like to invite all of you to go.

Yes, you. And you, and also you. All of you!

“Yeah but uh, why?” you ask.

Many of my problems with Renovation were because there was too little representation from my age group, my people, and my interests. If I invite my friends to go, well, that solves that problem, doesn’t it? We can kick in the door, open a dialogue, and cause some real change here. And Worldcon really is a valuable experience, in my opinion. You should go at least once, just for the history, just to see that hey, this is where your culture came from (well, if you’re a nerd, anyway), this is the great granddaddy of all cons.

So what am I offering to entice you?

Thing about Chicon is that they’re offering a con rate of $150 a night… for rooms of up to quads. So here’s the thing. If I get five people to buy tickets and commit to rooming with me by January 1st, I can reduce that cost to $150 per person, total. And there’s still four beds! For con space, that’s pretty awesome. And if we’re willing to squeeze in and get friendly with eight people (2 people per bed, or we can sleep on the floor. It’s con time, come on, you should be used to this kind of thing), I can drop that cost to under $100 a person.

Come on guys. We can Make This Happen. And I assure you, it really is a good time. Not my favorite con, sure. But it is an extremely educational con, a piece of history, and something you have to see at least once in your lifetime.

Tickets to Chicon will stay at $170 (ie, semi-reasonable; for comparison this is about the same as SDCC’s cost) until September 30th. So get them while they last.


In other news! The next con I am absolutely attending is Philcon, which just so happens to be the oldest SF convention in the world (founded in 1936, ladies and gents). Looking forward to it! If you’re going, drop me a line.

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WORLDCON — Reflection (and also swag)

So at long last, I’m going to sit here and talk about my overall feelings about Renovation, my first impression of WorldCon, and some general thoughts on the state of SF conventions as a whole.

But before I do that I’m going to talk about the phat lewt I got at the con.

swag!

The Philip K Dick, Philip Jose Farmer, and Elizabeth Bear books were a lucky grab from somebody who just yelled FREE HARDCOVERS near the free stuff table, and also make it so I had to check my luggage. Completely worth it though.

Hounded, as it turns out, isn’t actually a very good book; the author spends the entire first chapter on an infodump, which instantly turned me off. I prefer implicit narration to explicit narration when it comes to fantasy, and I do not want you to just tell me how awesome your ten thousand year old druid is. Indeed, I’d have been more drawn in if the character’s age were never stated, just implied to be really, really old. I haven’t started reading the steampunk book yet.

The Song of Ice and Fire buttons in the upper right corner I found randomly on Sunday; they were originally handed out at the ASOIAF fan club meeting. I have… way too many of them, so I’m going to be giving them away as soon as I have the free time to actually arrange mailing them out.

Finally, the towel everything is resting on is the only souvenir I bought at the con, and well worth every penny. I mean. Look at that towel, guys. I will never leave home without it again.

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Alright, now onto the meat of this post: my feelings about WorldCon in general.

Overall? Yes, it was an interesting and excellent con. It has a very long history, and I had some excellent networking opportunities. The panels were, for the most part, interesting and engaging, and the parties provided wonderful ways to socialize. The Hugo Awards were fantastic to see and one of the highlights of the event.

But. And there are a lot of “buts.” Keep in mind when reading this that I approach this con not as an old-school SF fan but as someone who met fandom first through anime and second through media fandom and videogames. I am an outsider, I am a new-generation fan used to an entirely different convention scene. But I still think that my opinions and observations are entirely valid, and I’ll enumerate them here. Also: I still have two more SF cons to go to before I feel I’ll be able to safely say I have an idea of the spread of different types of SF cons, so my opinions may change from that as well.

First of all, the way I was hyped up for Worldcon did not live up to what I actually experienced. Everyone talked about it being the largest SF con, several oldfen warned me that I would be totally overwhelmed by all there was to do, reinforced by the program booklet and otherwise. Old stories of Worldcon talked about young starry-eyed fen’s lives being changed by this event, of them being lost and confused and ultimately welcomed into the fold as they rubbed shoulders with the greats.

The experience I had at the con itself was nothing like this.

First of all, Worldcon is not a large con at all. I was continually struck on the convention floor by how empty the place seemed, by how the convention occupied a space about five times larger than it needed to be in. Worldcon is 4000 people; I believe you could have fit 20,000 in the Reno-Sparks Convention Center (do NOT quote me on that, I don’t actually know the full capacity of the space, and I also don’t think you could do that comfortably… I just think you could do it), which in turn made me wonder why the hell the con committee had seen fit to rent such an egregiously oversized space. How much money was wasted on a convention center of that size? I saw many panel and meeting rooms go almost entirely unused at certain parts of the con, which again felt like a terrible waste of time, money, and resources.

Second, it was absolutely not worth the price in any way shape or form. Renovation’s tickets were around $200 at the door; for around a quarter of that price I could go to the Penny Arcade Expo and get a far, far better experience. “Yes,” you say, “But this is WORLDCON, not PAX! It’s DIFFERENT!!!” But what I’m saying is that the cost is prohibitive and I didn’t feel as though I was given my money’s worth at all. This event was not worth $200. Given that Worldcon moves around every year and is constantly in different locations, I could maybe see justifying $150 at-door, but as it stands the cost is absurd. You can argue the point all you like, but cost is absolutely a restrictive gateway for attendees, and doesn’t provide a particularly good return on the investment unless you are a pro. As a casual fan? This is not a con I would ever recommend.

Which in turn brings me to the social scene and a problem both myself and my friend Kevin encountered, in that we both felt terribly alienated here. It wasn’t quite as bad as my first Otakon (nothing will be that bad) but I still felt a genuine sense of displacement and, in some cases, like I wasn’t even wanted. In my case, if I mentioned my work on this blog, I would catch the interest of a few older fen, but this felt like they were only interested because they were flattered, and because they found they idea of a young fan researching fandom history almost exotic (the number of times I heard “but you’re so young!”…)

While I did make a few interesting connections at parties, these were largely with other younger fans who felt the same way — alienated and sometimes even ostracized by the larger fandom. In some ways, Worldcon felt like an old country club, full of people with their own rituals who had no interest in outsiders. I sometimes heard conversations where in the same breath as someone complaining about the “greying” of fandom they’d then complain about how the young people just didn’t get it, and were all too caught up in their animes and mangas to care about real fandom. Kevin elaborates on the feeling and his point on his own blog a bit better than I’m doing here.

SF fandom has fallen behind other fandoms. Where once Worldcon really was a giant of the con scene, the be all and end all, now it’s barely a footnote in comparison to other cons. You can go on and on about how the traveling nature makes it so much more expensive, about how the history makes it worth it, but that doesn’t change the fact that the young people aren’t coming to the con anymore, that we feel alienated and sometimes even ostracized, that the discussion isn’t as vibrant or interesting as it used to be. Frankly, I wasn’t impressed, and if it wasn’t for the fact that I need to keep going to Worldcon for my research, I wouldn’t go to Chicon next year.

This isn’t okay. For a culture to survive, it needs new blood, and Worldcon should find a way to make itself more inviting and palatable to people of my generation. Everywhere, people complain about the greying of fandom, but nothing is really done about this, nothing concrete anyway, and I get the feeling that nobody wants to do anything about it.

Now, on the flip side? It’s not like I didn’t have fun. I did. I got a lot of research done, I had some fascinating conversations, and yeah, I got to see the Hugos. I just don’t think that experience was worth the time, effort, and expense of the trip. Like I said, I’ll be doing Chicon next year, and in another two years I might do Worldcon if Orlando wins the bid (long story as to why), but that’s all the way in 2015, so who knows what I’ll be doing or feeling then.

And maybe it was just this particular con. After all, each Worldcon is very, very different from the rest, given the way they move around and are chaired by different people. Perhaps Chicon will be different, more welcoming, and more accessible. Who knows?

To conclude… to me, Worldcon feels like a fallen giant. I can see how back in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and even the early 90s it might have been a giant of fandom, the mainstay of the geek scene and the heart of all conventions, but now it feels like a fallen monarch, ousted from its glory by a combination of bigger, better, friendlier cons. I still think it’s worth going at least once, just to say you did, but it will not be a mainstay of my con stable.

(Also again, I’m sorry if this comes off as excessively bitter: I really did have a great time and really did get a lot of research done! The people who I did interact with were great. But I still had a lot of problems with the con I felt I needed to get off my chest.)

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Kickstarter Reward Blog #1 — Tim Powers, for Patrick

This will be the first in a series of posts I owe a few people who donated to my Kickstarter. This one goes out to Patrick, who requested I write about Tim Powers.


First, a little background: Tim Powers is, of course, an SF writer. His first novel, The Skies Discrowned, was published in 1976. His breakout hit was The Anubis Gates, a tale of time travel, magic, and madness; it won the Philip K. Dick award and was nominated for the Locus Fantasy Award and the British Science Fiction Association award. As of this writing, he’s published about thirteen novels and five short story collections.

Powers is best known for his “secret histories,” that is, the way that he merges fiction and fact in his books. Many of his novels involve real historical figures and events, set against a speculative fiction backdrop of magic, weird science, and otherworldly powers. Even the magic he writes, however, tends to be well-researched and grounded in mythology — the voodoo in On Stranger Tides, for instance, is all based on traditional voodoo rituals, even if it takes a purely fantastic twist at the end.

I hadn’t known who Tim Powers was until Patrick asked me to write this article (a fact true of many of the attendees at Worldcon — I’ve been out of the SF literature scene for so long that many names are unfamiliar to me, to my eternal shame). Interestingly enough, at the same time as I’d asked Pat about what subject he wished me to write on, I had also asked my friends to recommend fiction about 18th century piracy, and one of the top recommendations was Powers’ On Stranger Tides. It is in fact an excellent book, but sadly I did not have enough time to read Powers’ other works before arriving at Worldcon.

I went to two events involving Powers — the first was a panel entitled “Consistent Magic Systems in Fantasy,” which concerned exactly what the title implies, that is, how to construct a magic system that feels believable and organic in a fantasy universe. The second was his Guest of Honor speech. I attempted to go to his Kaffeeklatsch, but unbeknownst to me it had been rescheduled from Sunday at 10:00 AM to Wednesday at the same time, so I had missed it by two days (much to my sorrow — I adore Kaffeeklatsches, and feel that they’re one of the best traditions of the SF con, and something that other media conventions might want to think about adopting).

In “Consistent Magic Systems in Fantasy,” Powers talked about his own personal methodology in making sure that the magic in his works feels simultaneously believable but also magical. While he agreed with the other panelists that the key to this was setting up rules and limitations on the way magic works, he cautioned against telling the reader too many of those rules outright, or defining them too rigidly. According to Powers, if you define the rules explicitly rather than implicitly, and magic just becomes another kind of technology and loses the quality that makes it magic. In his case, many of his books are based on real history, so he attempts to find magic that fits the time and place — ancient Egyptian rituals, Arabian mythology, Caribbean voodoo, so forth and so on, he researches these myths and legends and then adapts them into magical systems that work for his stories.

Powers and the other panelists also discussed acknowledging the effects magic has on the world you’ve created. In a universe where everyone knows you can talk to the dead, the legal system would be quite different than the one we have in our world, by simple virtue of the fact that in murders the victim could easily be interviewed. In addition, Powers mentioned his reluctance to blatantly defy all laws of science and physics: “I always worry, even though I have supernatural stuff going on. I don’t want to accidentally posit something that is absolutely impossible. I would never have an invisible man who could see by visible light. I might have two little retinas floating in the air. If I had a four inch tall man, I’d want to know can he talk? How much does he have to eat, how much space does he have for his brain? If you recognize these challenges and talk your way around them, it makes them look more real.”

Powers’ Guest of Honor speech was mostly about his philosophy in regards to science fiction and fantasy, peppered with anecdotes from his life. He talked a little about the general attitudes towards science fiction and how the field has expanded. When he went to his first convention, it was still possible to have read everyone in the field; now, it would take a lifetime. In addition, science fiction has mainstreamed — now more and more people have at least read one fantasy or science fiction novel. Yet when Powers talks about his work to his neighbors, they still say “Oh, that Buck Rogers stuff?”

When discussing his attitudes on the place of the fantasy and science fiction genres in our lives, he said that “Fantasy at its core is bogus.” There’s a sleight of hand, a trick, a bit of smoke and mirrors involved in making the reader temporarily forget that what they’re reading is fantasy and transporting them into another world. Powers fully believes that fantasy is pure escapism: while it’s perfectly valid for it to have deeper meanings or relevance, at its heart it should be designed to take the reader out of the mundane and into another world. Fantasy and SF that tries too hard to have a “point” or “purpose” falls flat for him — in the end, it needs to be truly fantastic for it to be fantasy.

As I said, I wasn’t able to get to his Kaffeeklatsch, but after those two panels, I really would like to read more of his work. Now, if only I can get the time…


Hope you enjoyed, Pat!

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DONATE BUTTON!!! No wait nevermind

Nevermind. There are technical difficulties apparently (I am bad at PayPal). AT SOME POINT IN THE NEAR FUTURE THERE WILL BE A DONATE BUTTON for realz.

*e2* Does anyone know if perhaps you aren’t allowed to post PayPal donation buttons when your blog is hosted through WordPress.com? If so I may need to look into new hosting…

Have you ever looked at this blog and gone “Wow, what quality writing! What effervescent personality! I would like to support this author, but alas! There is nowhere to send my money!!!”

WELL YOUR PROBLEMS ARE SOLVED. I have (finally) created a PayPal account, so now you may send me money, if for some reason you like to do that kind of thing.

AMAZING! ASTOUNDING!

Posts are slow because I have started a new semester so I have all the homework. I did (seriously) have a WorldCon reflection post and a post with all my sweet loot, but it’ll have to wait until I have some actual time again. Which will be long after Renovation is relevant. Sorry folks.

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Another delay…

Yes, I know, this is getting outright silly with these delays, but I have good reasons for them. I was going to try to get a new post up today, but with the start of the semester looming and the fact that I am both a full time student AND a part-time employee of my college, I’m going to be busy busy busy. On top of that I have a new roommate moving in (yay!), the monthly avalanche of bills (boo!), some minor health issues (double boo!), a few problems getting my grant money from my school (KHAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAN), and somewhere around fifteen of my old friends coming to visit this weekend.

You will get my Worldcon reflection and my swag list eventually, it just might not be until Sunday or Monday. I know you are all waiting with bated breath, but so it goes.

OI. KICKSTARTER REWARDS PEOPLE. Those of you who got photos still haven’t told me what you wanted. I cannot make you prints unless you tell me which prints you want. That is how these things work. I am going to start harassing you by email soon about this. BE WARNED.

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WORLDCON REPORT — SUNDAY, AUGUST 21 — Farewells

Sunday, August 21 began with a combination of the usual con-haze of “I’ve just spent two days straight running, writing, and talking” combined with a new feeling of “wow, I drank a lot last night.”

My first panel was for me probably the most important panel of the con — First Fandom: Awards, and a Look Back at the Very First Worldcons. The panelists were all attendees of the very first Worldcon, true ancients of the fandom world: David Kyle (who I’ve mentioned several times), Art Widner, and Erle Korshak (the chairman of the second Worldcon, Chicon 1). The panel began with information about each of the panelists, starting with Erle, who apparently chaired the second Worldcon by accident. He talked about hitchiking through Philly to get to the first Worldcon, since he was sixteen years old and it was the Depression. There was some talk about other methods of getting to Worldcon, and a lot of note about how many fans would help other fans out of kindness and a desire to see them.

And then… Erle mentioned the Exclusion Act. There was an audible sigh from David, though he was kind enough to explain it to the audience, there was still this clear “not THIS again.” It’s really kind of a shame that the thing David Kyle is remembered most for is accidentally causing his friends to be banned from the first Worldcon.

This segued into a lot of talk on all parts about how they were all young and stupid back then — something which I think holds true of many modern fandoms. We’re all young and stupid. There was also a lot of talk about how divided fandom was — many states had at most one fan, but they stayed connected to the larger world through letters and magazines.

The most interesting thing that came out of the panel was when Erle mentioned that the ticket cost of Worldcon in 1940 was $1 — so, where did the money come from to run it? It came from advertising revenue and from exhibitors in the form of pulp publishers. I was thrilled to hear this: earlier, I’d countered someone’s observation that I was awfully young to be at a Worldcon with a retort that perhaps more people my age would arrive if the admission price wasn’t so ridiculous, which was in turn countered with “Well, Worldcon is all volunteer run, and unlike those big cons like the anime cons and comic book cons, we didn’t sell out to advertisers.” But according to Erle, Worldcon had “sold out” in the 40s! It’s all well and good to be noble, but if you’re going to complain about falling attendance numbers and a lack of representation by the under 30 crowd, then don’t act high and mighty about the fact that you don’t use outside sources of revenue. This in turn has led me to wonder — when did Worldcon get this hipster-esque “But we don’t use filthy advertisers or sponsors or corporate exhibitors!” come from? When did that start?

The other anecdotes are a bit of a blurr — Art shared a story about staying on a rich Southern plantation while hitchiking to another convention and having the best meal he’d ever had, while it came out that David Kyle won the first ever costume contest with his 1940 Ming the Merciless.

Due to a scheduling problem, the panel ended a bit early, so I wandered into another panel, namely the end of The Changing Short Fiction Market, with panelists Lou Anders, Neil Clarke, Stephen H. Segal, Rick Wilber, and Sheila Williams. I was only in the tail end of this panel, so mostly what I got out of it was that short fiction is more accessible to a younger audience, and that we’re seeing a renaissance of the novella thanks to e-publishing and the internet. Originally, novellas were difficult to publish due to paper costs, but favored by authors for giving a little more freedom than a short story but less commitment than a novel. The internet solves this problem because paper costs are a non-issue.

I didn’t get to stay in this panel long since, as I said, I was only catching the tail end. After that it was onto the Chicon 7 panel, with panelists Jane Frank, Dave McCarty, Helen Montgomery, Peggy Rae Sapienza, John Scalzi, and Steven H. Silver. This was a panel about the next Worldcon in 2012 (obviously), and the panelists answered questions about their approach to the con. All in all it sounded like a really good time — they asked the crowd to give suggestions for panels, then mentioned that some panels would be simulcast to Dragoncon (so attendees at both cons could see them) which seemed pretty cool. I highly suggest going to the Chicon website and giving suggestions (and I’ll see you guys there!)

The last panel of the day was Issues in RolePlaying Game Design, with panelists Jennifer Brozek, Colin Fisk, Steve Jackson (yes, THAT Steve Jackson), Tom Lehmann, and Allison Lonsdale. Unfortunately my notes on this panel indicate that my exhaustion had finally caught up with me, as they read: “late. Not giong to say much, i’ts a really interesting panel but I’m very tired?” There was discussion on GM-less gaming, but I’ll get to THAT in a minute!

After that it was time for the Closing Ceremony, which… to be frank, was completely boring. It was mostly a speech, followed by a symbolic passing of the torch to the Chicon committee. The highlight was when the con chair, Patty Wells, realized that she hadn’t ever officially opened Renovation, and so she declared the con open… then immediately closed. This followed on the heels of the Chicon staff accidentally saying that their con would run from August 30 to September 30 (instead of August 30 to September 3), and thus a joke that the world’s shortest Worldcon would be followed by the longest.

While at the closing ceremony, I met up with a guy named Mike with whom I had a great conversation about medieval weaponry, and also my friend Joy Crelin. After that, we headed out to the Dead Dog party, where we hung out, ate snacks, and generally decompressed from the convention. Later, Mike left, and Kevin once again joined us.

The last highlight of the con began with a man walking about asking loudly if anyone wanted to play an RPG with him; I spoke up and said sure, why not. The man’s name was Jason Wodicka, and the game was called Microscope.

Now.

THIS GAME IS AWESOME. All caps and italics awesome. Seriously. This is one of the aforementioned wave of GM-less games, in this case a collaborative storytelling game that is also diceless. We ended up with a story about a great 21st century war against dragons which ended with a renegade AI killing all dragons and almost all of humanity.

Halfway through the game though I stepped out to finally meet Christopher Garcia about being Emerson students, fandom, and writing. I also gave him a hug, and then I got to hold his Hugo. We had a great conversation that ended up all over the map, and in the middle of it a lady gave me an LED on a piece of velcro (it came from her costume…? Random?) which I promptly stuck in my hair (it now lives in my hat). I then went back to playing Microscope.

Alas, we all had early flights the next day, so it was time to trade contact information and head off to bed.

UP NEXT: My swag pile, and a reflection post.

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