Monday, October 03, 2016

VCon Day 3 - Tourists and Turkeys and Lovecraft, Oh My!

Ah, lazy Sunday. Say what you want about a con's opening Friday taking time to gear up, but the closing Sunday, despite being a full day, always feels like it's drifting along half-asleep (as many fanboys and fangirls are after Saturday night's round of parties), determined to finish out the day as a point of honour, but not making any kind of real effort to get to that finish line in any hurry.

I showed up early in the afternoon, not because of any late-night partying, rather because of late-night blogging and, in all fairness, I never show up before noon. Sure, there were a couple of sessions in the morning that I'd wanted to attend, but, you know, morning. I started with the usual round of the dealers' room to see if there was anything that would catch my eye at the last minute, and ended up wrestling with myself over whether to buy a battered used hardcover anthology at one of the stalls. It was only a buck, but I resisted temptation and wandered off in search of a panel session to take my mind off of it.

I started with the "Science Fiction Tourist in Japan" presentation by one of this year's Guests of Honour, Stan Hyde. I've never been there before, but Japan's on my list of places to visit in the next couple of years (probably as a side trip the next time my wife and I visit my mother-in-law in Hong Kong), so I thought it would be helpful to get some tips from a geek perspective. And the presentation was definitely worth while. In addition to notes about culture and the do's-and-don't's, and recommendations for traditional places to visit, Stan tempted the audience with photos and stories about cool sf-related places to visit. The ones that grabbed my attention were the Studio Ghibli museum (which, from one angle, looks a lot like a freshly-opened box of plasticine) and the Godzilla-themed Hotel Gracery Shinjuku. Apparently, there's a room at this hotel where if you hit a button everything starts shaking, the lights flicker, and a simulated breaking news flash comes on the TV warning that the king of all monsters is on the rampage and coming close. While I can see us sticking mostly to the traditional sites when we eventually go, I think a couple of Stan's recommendations will find their way onto the agenda.

Next it was time for the suffering. No VCon weekend is complete without testing one's mental mettle (and the capacity of your wallet) against the horror known as The Turkey Readings. The session involves a panel taking turns reading from a selection of truly awful sf novels, accompanied by audience volunteers who act out the scenes as they unfold. People in the audience can make bids to end the torture (with the money being donated, I believe, to the Canadian Unity Fan Fund to send fans to conventions in different parts of the country to foster closer ties between the various sf communities throughout the provinces and territories), but they can also counter-bid with higher amounts to have the reading continue, with the back and forth bidding between the two sides raising the stakes, increasing the amount in the donation pot, and prolonging the "literary" torment. The first selection was hell, but I stayed out of the bidding war. The second was a different story... literally and figuratively. The panelist read a selection from an old Leigh Brackett novel, and while it wasn't one of her best stories, it certainly wasn't bad. I couldn't figure out how it had gotten tossed onto the Turkey Reads pile. So, after the first minute or two when someone in the audience offered a buck twenty-five to make it stop, I pounced immediately with a counter offer of a buck-fifty to keep it going, because Leigh Brackett, people! Show some respect! Sadly, after another minute or so, someone else raised the stakes to end it, and I didn't have enough change left to press the issue. The third story selection that came next was back to the usual standard of sub-standard writing, and after a few minutes my brain had endured all it could and I bailed out...

...And went from the madness of the Turkey Readings to a panel discussing HP Lovecraft and those influenced by his work. I've never really been a fan of Lovecraft, and have only read a couple of his short stories, but there's no denying his influence — both in terms of those inspired by his world and those reacting against many aspects of the author and his creations (I recently finished Matt Ruff's excellent Lovecraft Country, so the conversation with and repurposing of the legacy of HPL was fresh in my mind) — and the panel discussion was fairly interesting.

Afterwards it was time for the Closing Ceremony with the final thoughts from the Guests of Honour, a few last laughs, and various announcements. Nice to hear VCon will be hosting the Aurora Awards in 2018.

Then it was time to go. Admittedly, I was tempted to stick around for the Dead Dog Party, but it was getting time for supper, and I wanted to get home to my wife to hear about her day at the Lego convention/tour/thing Downtown and then binge-watch the last few episodes of season 2 of Detectorists before starting Luke Cage.

So long, VCon. It was fun. See you next year!

Oh, and before I sign off, the con photo of the post: someone's idea of an earthquake safety device, hanging on one of the doors near registration and the hall leading to the art room and dealers' room. I'll have to use this next time I teach an emergency preparedness class.

Sunday, October 02, 2016

VCon Day 2 - Can We Talk?

A lot of people talk about "barcon" when they share their science fiction convention experiences: spending more time yacking with people and/or doing business in the hotel/convention centre bar than attending or participating in panels. Sometimes not even going to any panels at all. If that's your thing, that's fine, though I've always enjoyed taking-in panel sessions. Today was different though: I probably spent as much time down in the bar as I did going to panels, and thoroughly enjoyed the change of pace. But I'm getting a little ahead of myself.

Saturday's usually the busiest day at VCon — hell, at any con that sprawls across a weekend — and while it was bustling when I arrived early in the afternoon today, I got a feeling that it was a little smaller than it has been in the past. The halls weren't quite as crowded as they have been. There weren't quite as many people cosplaying. The bar wasn't as consistently full. The ups and downs of the convention scene from year to year? More people staying at home because the Lower Mainland started its winter rains early? Everyone's glued to Netflix binge watching Luke Cage? Who knows. What matters is that the con still had a good vibe.

I started by taking in the back half of the "Justify the Science Flaw" panel. The session's a long-standing tradition at VCon, gathering a squad of scientists and authors to grasp at every last straw they can get to use science as we understand it to explain apparent impossibilities (or problems that only exist because basic solutions are ignored) in sf movies and TV shows. One of the science flaws wrestled with this time around: why did the salt monster in the Star Trek episode "The Man Trap" need to kill people to get salt, when sodium and chloride are common enough in the universe that the creatures of M-113 ought to be able to make it? I enjoyed astronomer Jaymie Matthews' excuse, er, theory that maybe  "salt" in the show didn't refer to actual salt, but rather it was "S.A.L.T." — some kind of acronym for an exotic substance that had to be siphoned out of living victims. Lots of other wacky science flaws and equally wacky explanations before it wrapped up. Always one of my favourite panels to attend at the con.

Afterwards, I hung around the room for the next session, where a panel reflected on the 50th anniversary of Star Trek. Interesting to hear each of the panelists reflect on why the show was/is important to them and how they were introduced to it. It took me back to the late 70s when Trek was running in syndication and I watched it as a little kid — at least until the episode "A Private Little War" scared me away (and no, it wasn't the Mugato that did it). I didn't come back to it until Star Trek III — The Search for Spock came out, but once I started watching rebroadcasts of the old show again, I was hooked.

Next it was down to the art show (again, it seemed smaller this year). Lots of interesting stuff, but, as with previous years, I was entranced by Stephanie Ann Johanson's paintings, especially her picture of an astronaut standing on the edge of the Valles Marineris, entitled "Mars".

And then for something completely different, it was time for a Beatles sing-along. Science fictiony? Nope. Just a bunch of fans at the con who like John, Paul, George and Ringo getting together in one of the rooms and jamming to the Beatles' song book. Don't worry, folks, I didn't inflict my voice on the crowd — it's far too unreliable these days, especially after my early September bout of bronchitis. No, I was there to meet up with author Spider Robinson (who was playing a mean guitar up front with a couple of others) for an interview afterwards. As ways to kill time before an interview go, this one was pretty good. The musicians had a lot of heart, and even if some in the audience couldn't quite carry a tune, they had just as much heart themselves, and the overall good will in the room levelled things out until it all sounded good enough. That said, there was one woman sitting up front beside Spider whose voice was simply magnificent. It was worth it to go to that session just to hear her.

So then my mini barcon started. Spider and I adjourned to a quiet corner of the hotel bar/restaurant so I could interview him for an episode of the Invaders From Planet 3 podcast to air during season 2 this coming winter. Even though we'd prearranged the interview yesterday, I had to talk to Spider on the fly today due to some question about his con scheduling. But he's a great guy and was kind enough to sit down and chat for a bit, covering a wide range of topics. We probably could have gone on for a couple of hours, but his next panel was looming, so we made due with 30-odd minutes. The formatting for this episode will be a little different from the others, but I'm looking forward to sharing it with you early in 2017.

Another season 2 episode you'll want to keep your ears open for is my interview with author and editor Silvia Moreno-Garcia. In addition to writing her own stories, she's also the editor of Fractured: Tales of the Canadian Post-Apocalypse, which I think is one of the best anthologies not only of 2014, but of the past several years. When I saw that she was going to be a panelist at this year's con, I had to line-up an interview with her, and Silvia was kind enough to say yes. So, not too long after Spider and I wrapped things up, Silvia and I sat down in the bar to tape a discussion about her fiction, re-reading authors like HP Lovecraft, the state of Mexican and Latin American speculative fiction, and lots of other topics. I'll be posting it this winter.

After a break for supper, I went up to watch the Costume Contest. Again, it didn't seem to have as many entries as I remember from years past, but maybe I'm wrong. That said, hats-off to those who did come out to show off their costume-making talent. My favourite moment was when an entrant was menacing his way across the stage in his Kylo Ren costume and one of the judges pointed and said "I think you still have a little Han on there."

I was tempted to hang around for the 10:30 panel about dragons, because, as a dragon fanatic, it's a rare session about these beasties that I don't like. But I wanted to get home to spend some time with my wife and relax, so I decided to call it a day.

The question for tomorrow: do I dare brave the dreaded Turkey Readings?

Saturday, October 01, 2016

VCon Day 1 - Second Chances

They say "third time's the charm" but this year, the second time's the charm for me, at least when it comes to science fiction conventions.

A few weeks ago, I was in Ottawa taking care of my folks after my dad had knee surgery, and, by the time the old man had recovered enough to get around on his own again, it turned out that by coincidence I was there when the local con — Can-Con — was being held. It looked like they had a pretty good line-up of panelists/guests and when in Rome... or, Bytown, anyway. I set up a couple of interviews with some cool authors for episodes next season of Invaders From Planet 3, had plans to meet up with some friends, and was really looking forward to spending a Saturday seeing how the fans in Ottawa put on a con. Until the Friday night, that is, when I got bushwhacked by a kaiju-sized flu. Even if I'd been capable of dragging myself out the door (which I most certainly wasn't), I didn't want to show up sick and wind up being "patient zero" for con crud, so I had to bail on those plans.

Since I came home (on the infamous #AirIguana) — and finally kicked the bug — I've been looking forward to attending this year's VCon, and so far it's been a lot of fun.

I got off to a bit of a late start, wandering in around 4, but hey, it's Friday, the first day, and while there's programming, there's no real rush. Registration was slow as the volunteers were still figuring things out. One of the guys beside me in line got a little impatient, but I just shrugged and said that at a Worldcon, there'd be 200 people ahead of us in line (and probably more at some of the truly monster events like Comicon) and waiting in line is part of the con experience. Nothing to do but take it easy and watch the whirl of other con-goers going by, many in costume, all of them looking happy to be home. There are certainly worse ways to spend part of an afternoon. Besides, this year's registration package included a free book! What's better than getting a free book as a reward for waiting patiently? Nothing. Except maybe a free book and a unicorn. That would be cool.

Name tag finally in hand (or, clipped to my vest, anyway), I prowled around the hotel for a bit to get my bearings, and checked out the dealers' room. Not a bad gaggle of merchants in there this year, and I spent a fair bit of time browsing at the book dealers' tables and checking out the interesting finds the antiquarian dealer/replica jewellery maker had hauled in.

Up next was the Opening Ceremonies. This is one of those events that I feel a certain obligation to attend... it's the con's formal welcome to all of us attendees, the introduction of the guests of honour, and the occasional bit of info about what's in store. Lots of people skip it, but I figure that since the con organizers and the guests are putting it on, the least some of us can do is come out to listen to them. This year's opener was quite funny (especially when Neo-Opsis editor — and Editor Guest of Honour — Karl Johanson got up, donned a golden Star Trek command jersey, and belted out a 'Trek-themed cover of "I wanna go home"), at times touching, and, surprisingly, mercifully short. The perfect way to kick things off.

Then it was time to violate one of my prime rules of con attendance: never buy anything from the dealers' room on the first day. Because there are always exceptions. This time it was to hit one of the publishers' tables to snag a copy of this year's edition of the Tesseracts anthology (#19 — Superhero Universe — edited by Claude Lalumiere & Mark Shainblum) before it sold out. I'd have been pretty bummed if that one didn't make it home to my collection. Mission accomplished, I adjourned for supper...

...And made it back in time for the truly excellent "Minions" panel. Not "minions" in reference to the movie about the little yellow pill-looking guys from the Despicable Me franchise, but science fictional minions in general, like Otis, Doctor Watson, Darth Vader, or Beaker. Lots of great discussion from panelists Rick Sutcliffe, BJ Allan, Stephanie Johanson, Randy McCharles and Donna McMahon about what a minion actually is (versus a sidekick), what the different kinds of minions are, whether minions are exclusively evil or whether good guys can have them, and other henchman (henchperson?) related issues. Really good audience participation in this session too. It probably could have gone on another two hours, but it ended on time and on a high note.

Speaking of high notes, I can't talk about the Minions session without mentioning the man of the hour: the guy in the loud orange Star Wars cantina Hawaiian shirt! I had to get a picture of it, and he was proud to pose. This piece of nerd couture was truly magnificent! It's too early to say this was the best piece of attire of the con (Saturday, after all, is when the cosplayers come out in force), but at the very least, this cat was the best dressed today, hands-down! This IS the shirt we're looking for! In fact, when I came home, I immediately checked online to see if I could buy one. Sadly, the Disney store has sold out of it in the larger sizes. Depression over being denied an awesome aloha shirt is a path to the Dark Side. Must... construct... a red light sabre...