Tuesday, October 06, 2015

Find My Review of Shadows of Self

My review of Brandon Sanderson's new Mistborn novel, Shadows of Self, is now up on SF Signal!

Of course, you should be reading SF Signal anyway because the site is loaded with Mind Melds, other reviews, links to stuff happening everywhere in the world of science fiction and fantasy, and all kinds of other cool stuff.

Just be sure to bring some bagels to appease the 'Signal's Bagel Overlord, John DeNardo. I've tried to bring him over to the good side of donuts, I really have, but I fear when it comes to his choice of foods with holes, he's wholly lost.

Monday, October 05, 2015

VCon Day 3 - Time's Up

In some respects, the true test of the quality of a science fiction convention is whether it's worth showing up for the last day. In most cases, that's a Sunday. And in most cases, the energy level is much, much lower than any other day of the con: everybody knows it's the end, everybody's tired from a couple of days of high-intensity nerdity, some are still hungover from Saturday night's parties, some don't even bother to show up because they're still sleeping off last night's parties, and of those who are still hanging around, some are checking out of the hotel and loading their cars — the mere sight of which is guaranteed to sap the energy out of the few remaining die-hards. All of these things were true today at VCon, and yet, for all of that, there was still a relatively good line-up of programming on the board, and enough people hung around that some of those sessions were reasonably crowded. Proof that, despite the pervasive feeling of thrown-together-at-the-last-minuteness and what appeared to be a smaller-than-normal turnout, this year's VCon was none-the-less a pretty good gathering.

My day started late (as usual) with me rolling in just before 11am to meet Joe Haldeman (the con's Author Guest of Honour) and his wife, Gay, for an interview. What's the interview for? Well, stay tuned, friends. You'll find out soon enough. In any case, we had a good chat, and I'm really grateful they were able to make some time in their schedule for me. In fact, we enjoyed ourselves enough that after the interview we ended up going for lunch together and continued to have a good time. Interesting fact (maybe it's common knowledge, but it's not something I knew before today): Haldeman loads his fountain pen with his own ink. He uses his skills as a painter to custom mix his own shade of red, which is a pretty cool way to add to the personalization when he autographs books for fans.

After lunch, I found myself drawn back to the dealers' room. The guy at the antiquities and replica jewelry stand I'd visited yesterday had some interesting Roman and Medieval pottery fragments for sale, and one in particular stood out in my mind: a small, 3rd Century Roman pot that had been made to look like an artichoke. It had been shattered over the centuries and glued back together by the dealer, and about a third of it is missing. But, aside from the look of the thing, I really liked the idea of just an ordinary pot that some ordinary citizen of the empire would have had in an ordinary kitchen. In some way, it makes it more real than a more dramatic piece like the blade of a gladius or a chunk from the corner of a scutum. And I thought it would look good in the display cabinet in our kitchen. The price was reasonable (because of its state), and so it didn't take much to convince me to buy it.

Once my ceramic treasure was safely stowed in the car, I went upstairs to catch the back half of the "Evolutionary Tree of Dragons" session. I don't always bother going to sessions when they're half-way through, but because this one was about dragons, I probably would have gone even if there were only 5 minutes left. And I wasn't the only one: that little room was packed like Glaurung's treasure hoard. The biologist doing the session had divided the different types of dragons and dragon-relations from myths around the world and fiction into different branches of a family tree based on their appearances, and gave scientific explanations for how each type would have branched off and maintained or lost certain features like legs or wings. Lots of good examples were mentioned by the biologist and the crowd, like Fafnir, Tiamat, Smaug, Falkor, Elliot, Vermithrax Pejorative, Temeraire, Drogon and his siblings, Puff, and the flight from Pern, but there was no love for  Smrgol, Gorbash, Breagh and their buddies, or Draco, or even Godzilla. Seriously? Smrgol was a badass. There needs to be respect. Anyhow, it was a good session.

When that was done, I decided to take a little break and do some reading down in the lobby. At one point the fire alarm went off, and everybody had to evacuate. In theory, at least. There being no signs of smoke or sense of excitement from the hotel staff, a fair number of people in the lobby and pool courtyard area just stayed put, and those of us who went out front as we were told did so without any great sense of urgency. While milling around outside, I heard one person make a crack that the alarm had probably gone off because someone had wanted to get a really good deal at the art auction. I also overheard, on the way back in, from a couple of hotel staff, that it may have just been steam or a little smoke from a hot plate in the con suite that set off an overly sensitive smoke alarm. Oh, the terrible price of cheap eats. And speaking of terrible, after resuming my seat in the lobby, a family of non-con-goers sat down nearby (overly showy new rich, from the looks of them), and I had to spend the next 10 or 15 minutes hearing the mother and teenaged son quietly make fun of the nerds passing by. Riiiiiight. Like anyone mashing miniature dogs under their arms like footballs as a form of fashion accessory, the way these two were, has any right to make fun of someone else's appearance. Stay classy.

Not liking the smell of the bullshit near me, I went upstairs a bit early for the "Unintended Consequences" panel. Lots of good examples from the panel about scientific advancements, technologies and drugs that had wide-reaching and unintended consequences, such as cars, cell phones, and birth control pills. But there were also a number that were mentioned that have also had unforeseen ramifications that most people don't think about, like genetic testing, the introduction of tea into the Western diet, food and water safety measures, different forms of lighting, and even universal education. Another well-attended session, and one that made a thoughtful end of the con for me. Because after that, I decided I'd had my fill, and skipped the closing ceremonies and went home.

My only regret: I never did get the chance to sit in that replica of the Time Machine. Maybe I could have travelled back in time and prevented the fire alarm from going off, or gone back further and snagged that artichoke pot back when it was newly-made in some provincial town in Gaul... Nah. I probably would have just wound the clock back a day or two and bought more books. And who knows what sort of unintended consequences that would have had!

Sunday, October 04, 2015

VCon Day 2 - Wake up! Time to buy!

When you allow yourself to drift into the dealers' room at a con not once, not twice, but three times, there's no way you're going to leave financially unscathed. Today, I was scathed. Oh so scathed.

The day started a little later than I'd intended. No surprise there — that's the story of my con-going life. I'd wanted to arrive around 10 this morning, because VCon's programming looked pretty good right off the block this year. But with last night's blogging, followed by reading, and a leisurely get-up this morning, 10 turned into 11:30 by the time I rolled in the door. That was the first time the dealers' room got me.

Oh, it started off innocently enough... I'd gone in to drop-off a care package: my wife makes chocolates and other confections, and she'd sent me with some treats to give to our friend Walter at the White Dwarf Books table. Which was fine. Except the coolness emanating from the Cat's Knitting table dragged me over like tractor beam from a Dalek command ship: there was a set of cool Doctor Who-themed scarves that I knew my wife would love. With our tenth anniversary coming up, the outcome was a forgone conclusion. So the wallet came out, and I bought her a black scarf with red trim, a red Dalek, and the word "Exterminate" woven into the pattern. Deadly stylish.

At noon I hit my first session of the day. Sessions, as a matter of fact. I started by trying to go to the "Science of Time Travel" panel, but the room was packed, some video was playing (for quite some time), and my space along the wall didn't allow me to see the screen, so I abandoned ship in favour of something else. The next option was the Joe Haldeman reading. Definitely worth going to. Haldeman read an excerpt from a new book he's working on called Phobos Means Fear, and showed the audience the notebook he's using to write the thing out. Bonus points to him for still doing most of his manuscripts in pen. Extra bonus points for his wicked sense of humour — Haldeman frequently had the audience in stitches during the Q&A afterward.

Heading out into the hall when it was done, it struck me that VCon feels smaller this year. Not as many people as you'd normally see on a Saturday, and not as many in costume. I can't back this up with numbers, but that was my impression. Not sure why it would be smaller this year (if it is) but while it wasn't crowded, the turnout at least looked respectable. And while there weren't as many costumes as I'm used to seeing, there were a few, and some of them were pretty good. I got a kick out of seeing someone dressed as Ratchet, the Autobot medic from Transformers. It could only have been better of it was capable of transforming, but that's a pretty tall order. Later on, just before I left this evening, there was a couple sporting intricately made Time Lord robes. I'm not a cosplayer myself, but I certainly respect good workmanship and people who have a real passion for their outfits.

And speaking of a dedication to fannish pursuits, I've got to give credit to a couple of folks in the games room, who wanted to get a group game of Magic The Gathering going so badly that they came out into the hall to try to recruit people to come in and play. One of the guys approached me, but since I haven't played Magic since university 20-odd years ago, and back then I played it poorly, I had to politely decline. But I certainly appreciated the invite. That's one of the things I like about VCon: it's not the biggest convention in the world, but most of the people who go are friendly and welcoming.

After a quick lunch, I was back at the hotel to take in the taping of an episode of the Caustic Soda podcast. What? You're not listening to Caustic Soda? Go and download an episode now. Seriously. Minimize this window, go to the show's website or iTunes, download an episode on whatever uncomfortable topic seems most interesting, and hang on for the ride. This time around was a little different, with only one of the regular hosts present, supported by a panel of guests, but ultimately the show worked, and was a good mix of information and entertainment delightfully skirting bad taste.

The show ran just over an hour, so when it was done, rather than jump into another session midway through, I drifted back into the dealer's room. Do I need any more books to add to my to-be-read pile? No. Did I buy some. Yes. Because I have no power to resist a good bookstore/stall.  So I picked up an anthology of Canadian speculative fiction (a book with the highly inventive name Canadian Tales Volume IV) from the SF Canada stall, and then, from White Dwarf, a copy of Haldeman's A Separate War and Other Stories and the Chinese-themed anthology The Dragon and the Stars, edited by Derwin Mak and Eric Choi. It wasn't too long before I was then browsing at antiquities and replicas of antiquities at the Gaukler Medieval Wares stand, and doing my best to fight the temptation to buy something there. Because as much as I may want an authentic Viking-era ice skate carved from some animal's thigh bone, it would be hard to make the case that I actually need to have it... although part of me thinks that I do actually need to have it (though ultimately my wallet won-out on behalf of the "no" side of the debate). It was a long battle too — I was probably there for the better part of half an hour, shooting the breeze with the owner about various historical knick-knacks. But I held firm. For a while, anyway.

To wrench my attention away from the lure of shiny things, I did a circuit of the art room. As usual, it was a mix of very nice work alongside stuff that, well, just isn't what I'd put on my wall or in my display case. But to each his/her own.

By 5pm it was time for the "Justify the Science Flaw" panel, an annual tradition at the con, and a session that's become one of my favourites over the years. This year's panel was made of a large and diverse collection of experts, and it was pretty funny seeing them stretch science to its limits to try to plausibly explain things like the salt vampires from the old Star Trek series, or how the nightfall in the classic Isaac Asimov short story "Nightfall" could actually work if you juggled the orbit of a planet, its gaggle of local stars, and maybe a moon or other planet just right.

I'd been doing some thinking about what I'd seen in the dealers' room, so after the JTSF panel let out I went back to the Gaukler table. As I mentioned earlier, my anniversary's coming up, and I thought I needed to get my wife a little something more than a scarf. She's been mentioning lately that she'd like a nice pendant, and I saw a really nice brooch with nine amethysts (a replica of an actual piece from the Anglo-Saxon period in Britain) that could easily be repurposed with the addition of a chain. The price was right, so I completed my anniversary shopping. From the rib-crushing hug I received when I got home, I think it did the trick.

Initially, I'd intended to hang around for the Masquerade at 7pm, but after waiting around in the hall with half of the other con attendees for 20 minutes with still no sign of it getting under way, I gave up and left to find some supper and go home. Sure, I could have stuck around for a while longer for the costume show, or gone to a room party, or had dinner and come back for a late panel (the late evening "Sophisticated Insults for More Dignified Folk" session looked particularly appealing), but I'll freely admit I'm at that point in life where something's gotta be pretty spectacular to keep me around in the evening, when really, all I want to do is go home, see my wife, have supper, relax for a little bit, then do some blogging or reading before hitting the sack. Let the others hold up the party banner. I've been there, done that, and got the t-shirt. Speaking of bed...

Saturday, October 03, 2015

VCon Day 1 - Here for a Good Time, Not a Long Time

It seems like almost no time at all has passed since we were down in Smokane this summer for Worldcon, and already October's upon us, a chill is in the air, Thanksgiving is coming up, and it's time for VCon.

Time is very much on my mind at the con this time around: there was the rush to get away from work on time today (especially since it was the last day of my contract and I wanted to wrap up as much as possible), trying to make good time in rush-hour traffic (which, luckily, I did), getting to VCon in time to actually take in some programming before the end of the day, making time for other outside-of-nerdity life this weekend, and, beyond all that, there's the theme of the con this year, which is Time Travel. Fortunately, even without a time machine at my disposal (although, as you can see from this photo from the dealers' room, someone at the con certainly has one at their disposal - and a flashy one at that!), it all seemed to work out. So far.

Against all odds, I made it from Downtown Vancouver to central Richmond to the con hotel in just under an hour (Been to the Lower Mainland before? Then you know the traffic hell of which I speak.) and was able to find a pretty good parking spot. Registration was friendly and reasonably fast, and I was pretty impressed with the con's programming schedule. In recent years, the programming's been hit-and-miss, but this year, even though it feels like there are fewer sessions on the schedule (and that's just a guess — I don't have last year's schedule for comparison and can't be bothered to hunt it down), overall a lot more of the panels look a lot more interesting than they have in a while. In fact, I'll even go so far as to say that hour-for-hour, the programming for modest little VCon this year looks more interesting than the average day at Worldcon this summer.

Next, I wandered around a bit to get my bearings. VCon's been at the Sheraton in Richmond many times before, but it's always good to do a refresher tour to see if they've located things in different rooms this year, and to see who's turned out. I had a nice chat with the folks at The 13th Colony BSG fan club table because I just can't resist stopping to check out a Cylon centurion mask. After that, I scouted-out the dealers' room, stopping to chat with my friend Walter at the White Dwarf Books table, as well as the folks at the Edge Publishing table (not much to buy from them this time around because they took all my money at Worldcon when I proved incapable of ignoring their collection of new anthologies). I also had to stop at a table selling knitted goods (she sold me a replica Tom Baker scarf a couple of years ago) to check out her new line of Doctor Who-themed scarves because my anniversary is coming up, and my wife loves the Time Lord something fierce. No buying though — not yet, because this time I was determined to stick to my no-buying-in-the-dealers'-room-on-the-first-day policy. Tomorrow though...

From there, I took in the Science of Fantastical Beasts panel. Think a "justify the science flaws" session focussing just on critters of myth, legend, and the fantasy genre, with a panel of scientists grasping at genetic straws to explain how these things could possibly exist and function in the absence of magic. Examples included the "vegetable lamb" of Hebrew mythology (think of a lamb that buds off of a tree, with blood tasting of honey, and flesh tasting of fish) that would probably be some kind of semi-ambulatory coral; and the King of Monsters, Godzilla himself: maybe akin to a sponge... a titanic colony of organisms, rather than a single creature. Yes, yes. I know. "Heresy!" you're no doubt hollering. "Godzilla is a force of nature beyond our ability to fully comprehend!" But maybe the big guy's a little like a bath product too. Anyway, lots of fun at this panel, and I was really glad to have caught it — especially since that was the only panel I had time for today.

After that, I sat down to interview author Kristi Charish for a little while. What's the interview for? Stay tuned, fellow fanboys and fangirls. Stay tuned. Suffice it to say that she's a great conversationalist and we had a pretty entertaining and informative discussion. If you haven't read her stuff yet, you probably should. Owl and the Japanese Circus has been getting a lot of good buzz, and I'm a huge fan of her "Canadian Blood Diamonds" supervillain short stories (the first can be found in Masked Mosaic: Canadian Super Stories, edited by Claude Lalumiere and Camille Alexa). All in all, a good way to end a first day (even if this "day" was only 2-and-a-half hours of con time for me) at VCon.