Monday, May 10, 2010

An I-Con Of Science Fiction

I-Con was a blast.

I-Con is a convention run at the Stonybrook campus of SUNY1 for fans of Animé, SF & Fantasy. The VIPs run tha gamut from the movers and shakers in the comic industry to the actors in the most popular SF films and shows of the time such as Battlestar Galactica, Serenity, Star Trek Lord of the Rings and so on, and authors. In past years they had real astronauts and cosmonauts, but these days it is rare to find a real spaceman at this convention. I doubt any of the attendees would recognize them anyway.

At first, Mrs Stevie would attend every other I-Con to coincide with the attendance of Harlan Ellison. After the Stevieling was old enough to attend (11 months) we started going every year. As time went on the con got bigger and started to take over more and more of the Stonybrook campus.

In the early years of our attendance, it all packed into one building, the Javits lecture theater complex, a neat octagonal building with lecture theaters opening off corridors arranged in a cross form, the hub of the cross being a small plenum/atrium for lounging about in. Authors and media guests would be sitting at tables in the plenum or at the ends of the corridors and you were never more than a hundred feet from whatever event you next wanted to attend. It was in the Javits building that I met C.J. Cherryh2, Michael Dorn3 and Walter Schirra4 to name just three.

A big part of the SF con scene is the so-called "dealer's room" in which people can buy badges, props and clothing of an appropriate theme, which in the Javits era of I-Con was a terrifying thing to visit. You'd be shuffled at about a half a mile per hour past the various dealer tables by the force of everyone else packing shoulder-to-shoulder in the tiny room5.

You'd have to make two circuits too: one to select what you wanted to purchase and a second to transact the sale. Azathoth help the person trying to use a credit card. That would mean a third trip and the fervent hope the dealer hadn't given your card to someone else by mistake as you raced from the exit back to the entrance. Good times.

These days the dealer room is housed in a huge sports complex. Media guests also have a speaking stage in there. I have a picture of The Stevieling with George Takei6 taken in that place, and another of her with Billy Boyd7. In bygone years Mrs Stevie has run into Majel Barret8 and John De Lancie9 walking around that dealer room.

There are tables set up in that room for media guests to sign autographs. There's also a table in there somewhere (it never seems to make it to the key on the map) which is used by authors for signings. One of my fondest memories is of Ben Bova10 being dragged across the campus by the very young Stevieling. He had given a reading, then announced he was signing in the ISC11 but had no idea where it was. "I can show you" piped up The Stevieling and promptly did so with extreme prejudice.

Dr Bova is very generous when it comes to tolerating eager youth.

More and more, video games and Animé have taken the prominent role and the old-fashioned type-on-paper SF and Fantasy has been marginalized. I guess it's a sign of the times. Last year, Jack McDevitt12 had to cancel his guest appearance at short notice on account of the lousy weather (would that I had had as much sense) and such was the paucity of recognizable names 13 the con was effectively a waste of time for me that year.

Lest you are an I-Con attendee14 and think I am subscribing to the view that the con was doomed by having to temporarily relocate to Brentwood as the consensus seems to be amongst I-Conites, Brentwood had many advantages from my perspective over Stonybrook and I cut the organizers a lot of slack for having to work with an unfamiliar infrastructure. I've been there and done that. I was rather hoping for a second year at Brentwood in fact.

I was rather more scathing on certain other factors, chief of which is the ludicrously time-wasting method they choose every year to give people the tickets they bought and paid for months in advance, and which I hold to be extremely poor return for the faith shown by those advance purchasers in the con and their support with much-needed funding ahead of the event itself15

The I-Con staffers have stopped sneering "Well, if you can suggest a better method..." at me because I can. And I do.

Less than 9999 people attend I-Con in any given year. Allocate each ticket sold a five digit number. Mail out the tickets (which are also the badges you must wear to prove you belong in the con when challenged) with a missing component. The tickets are usually a piece of thin printed card with a small, square holographic label stuck in one corner. Have the labels held by the people at the desks, each of whom has a clipboard with the alphabetized list of names of people who have pre-bought tickets along with the matching allocated number assigned to their ticket, which could be hand-stamped on a generic pre-printed badge using the same sort of indexing stamp used when numbering banknotes during the quality control phase of production, or could be printed at the same time the ticket is. It could even be written on by hand, like the name usually is.

So to recap: you pay up front, months before the con. Sometime between then you receive through the mail you ticket bearing your name, your registration number but no little holographic sticker (the actual difficult-to-forge part of the credential). At pick-up time you get on line with about a thousand other people in freezing, wet weather, but the line moves really quickly because (and this is the clever bit) anyone can be checked in at any of the tables, since the people sitting behind each table are each capable of validating your badge against the lo-tek master list, unpeel a sticky hologram label from his or her own reel of same, and sick it on the ticket/badge, thus completing the check-in process.

It would also free up the four-to-six guys they need to marshal people into the small area they usually set aside for this "badging" to do real work.

With this scheme everyone is happy. I am because the line moves at a reasonable speed instead of clogging because there are, once again, against all reasonable expectation, fifty times as many people crowding into the L-S line and blocking anyone from getting to the empty A-E table. I-Con organizers are because fraud is guarded against effectively16. Even the people manning the tables are because no-one is snarling at them about terminal bleeping stupidity year after year and them not being able to get me laid in a cat house or drunk in a brewery.

Where was I?

Well this year I-Con returned to Stonybrook and not only did Jack McDevitt agree to try again at being an author guest, but Samuel R. Delany17 was to attend on the Saturday, participate in panels, do a signing session and read one of his stories!

Samuel R. Delany wasn't the first SF author I ever read, but he is the one that is first in the old brain when people ask me who was. I can clearly remember pulling a copy of The Einstein Intersection, a Gollancz publication in their characteristic bright yellow dust covers, from the shelf in the library of St John Backsides. Within about a half hour I was rubbing my eyes and saying to myself "You can do that with SF?"

The Friday badge pick-up was the usual cluster-bleep and took more than two hours. It was made particularly hellish this year by Mrs Stevie deciding that since she has a brand new shuttlecraft18 she should offer to ferry every one of the Stevieling's peers who wanted to go to Stonybrook, so I was riddled with cooties before I even got there. Then two of the young ladies had to buy tickets at the door, which took even longer to achieve than trying to liberate an already bought one. Then I got into a stand-up, knock-down argument with security on the entrance to the dealer's room, the only thing worth visiting by the time we had cleared immigration, that ended with me being ejected over a bottle of water

A goon attempted to grab my water bottle from my bag so he could toss it. I explained I would rather he didn't and it would have ended there with me returning to the vehicle and stashing the aqueous threat to Democracy but a uniformed campus cop, all of about 25 years old and full of himself in front of the giggling 18 year old girls filling the place by then, decided that I was arguing and didn't understand that the security staff had orders. I eventually got so tired of being lectured by this little sheep-pimp I told him to bleep himself and left. He fired a witty "enjoy your ride home" at me, so it became a matter of honor to bleep with him.

I had to give Raven his revolving jewelry display case of extreme inconvenience, Raven was in the dealer room, I would enter the room and drop off the case despite Officer Wannabe.

I simply dropped off the offending water and grabbed the case, which was packaged in a box that originally contained an air conditioner and was a lightweight luggage trolley, and talked my way in through the vendor-only entrance. I spent so much time chin-wagging with the people I knew from all the years I've been attending that I cooled off and jettisoned my plan to stroll out and greet the Idiot In Uniform as I walked out of the exit. I knew I had won.

Word to the wise to any goons-in-training: I get that I can't bring drink into a place where that same stuff is being sold, and will certainly comply with that policy. All you have to do is say "You can't bring that in" and we are jake. If you grab for anything without so much as a by-your-leave, we are on the outs - and I have an attack paralegal on permanent retainer. We now return to the scheduled program in progress.

Saturday dawned, and I grabbed two boxes, one filled with my entire collection of Samuel R Delany books (around 14 paperbacks) and the other with everything I had by McDevitt except the two books I bought the first time he had been at I-Con, about five years before (he and Ben Bova were the SF author draw that year)19, about 17 paperbacks (McDevitt was a lucky find for me and I'll buy anything he writes these days). I was in for a treat. But first we had to pick up the gaggle of young women that "we" had agreed to transport.

I once read a story in which the POV character spends the entire thing in a traffic jam with a heroin addict, who is going into noisy, painful withdrawal. It turns out at the end that the POV character is dead and in hell. After I-Con weekend I now envisage hell as being on the road in a Honda Odyssey with Mrs Stevie and five screaming teenaged girls blithering on about Azathoth-knows what. The level of noise would gradually climb to a crescendo, at which point Mrs Stevie would press the reset button by yelling "Keep it down!" and it would start all over again.

I was climbing the walls by the time we reached the Stonybrook campus, a thirty-five minute drive that Mrs Stevie can manage in about eighteen since she has no sense of smell and the stench of burning tire rubber doesn't bother her at all, and she fears nothing under the sun, including the Sheriff's Dept who now police the Long Island Expressway instead of the Suffolk County Police due to budget crunches. I digress.

As we were entering the car park, one of the young darlings in the back of the van cried out "I've forgotten my ticket! We have to go back!"

To understand the effect of this announcement you have to understand the parking realities of I-Con. We like to put our vehicle behind the sports complex so the walk to it during the con isn't an epic trek. Throughout the day the vehicle will get visited by me so I can drop off books & collect other stuff, and Mrs Stevie and The Stevieling (and, this year, the entire cast of "Hell on Wheels" - a Story of Teen Angst20") attend in costume21 and sometimes need to swap out attire as the day drags on. Parking space in this car park is at a premium and you have to be there 30 minutes before the con opens just to find a spot.

Mrs Stevie first ascertained that this wasn't amusing improvisational Théatre-de-Van, then the screaming started.

I maintained an amused distance, knowing a) that Mrs Stevie had brought this down on herself by volunteering to transport lackabrain teenaged girls, and 2) I wasn't driving so I wouldn't have to go home at all. I could grab my gear and I was good to go.

Not only that, Mrs Stevie had only herself to blame. At every stop to pick up a teenager, Mrs Stevie had gone through a lengthy "Have you got your ticket? Show me!" routine, but had been so eager to depart by the fifth one that she had forgone her ticket check. I remember thinking at the time it was a bit foolish and she really should check all the girls had their ticket, and that in her place that's what I would do. But I had no desire to get on her bad side by interfering so I kept mum and assumed she knew what she was doing.

What then ensued is best viewed from a distance of about three miles through heavily smoked glass from within a half-buried concrete bunker. Mrs Stevie had a full-blown conniption fit.

It would have been interesting to watch under other circumstances since I've only ever seen these from the viewpoint of the target and have often wondered in the short moments of lucidity that come between cranial impacts what they look like from the outside.

Unfortunately I was too busy screaming about the parked cars we were about to crash into and clawing at my seat belt in a futile attempt to escape the hurtling Pilotless Ballistic Van of Certain Death in which I had been unwittingly trapped to pay attention to anything else.

Fortunately the other occupants of the van managed to draw her attention back to controlling the vehicle, by means of a group pantomime involving madly waving hands, informational facial expressions and in one case improvisational urination. It was all very trying.

We parked the van and Mrs Stevie explained that we would not be returning home, suggesting an alternative plan in which the young woman bought a second ticket, the price of which would be refunded on presentation of both tickets at the ticket booth on Sunday morning. There was a deathly silence, followed by general agreement that this was a good plan, and then I ponied up a sawbuck so the kid wouldn't be broke all day as a result of her incompetence and off we went, Mrs Stevie to breakfast followed by Ren Fayre goings-on, me to change my pee-soaked underwear and then to the first author panel of the day and the kids to get a new ticket and then wherever their little hearts took them, clad as they were in incomprehensible Japanese character drag.

Indeed, a little later in the day The Stevieling begged us to allow her to spend a fortune on a rather daft wet-look overcoat that was supposed to be worn in some Japanese cartoon show. The coat featured an oversize zipper with teeth the size of my little finger's last joint, and since the zipper didn't open fully the coat had to be stepped in and out of like a shiny hula-hoop with sleeves. Ridiculous.

All the kids were wearing them too. I shrugged and said "It's your money" which made the daft-mac lady and The Stevieling very happy and Mrs Stevie very unhappy, but hampered by her Ren Fayre finery she couldn't move fast enough to reinforce her side of the argument so that was that. I escaped to the building where the afternoon panels were to be held, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

The first panel was on the subject of whether someone should start their SF/Fantasy writing career by writing short stories for magazine publication or go straight for the novel. The answers to this question see-sawed back and forth as the panelists, all published authors, some with decades of experience in selling their work, gave their take. Most seemed to feel that you should write what you intend to end up writing - if you are a budding novelist, write novels, if you prefer the short form, write in it. The surprise was Carol Emshwiller, an author of longstanding reputation, who felt that it didn't matter, and went on to illustrate how she had broken every one of the "rules" the others had sagely concurred were in effect during the creative process and marketing of the results afterwards.

After the panel was over, I used the time to ask Samuel R. Delany if my 14 books would be too many for him to sign at one go (some authors have policies on what and how many they sign) and he graciously said no, no problem at all, then asked his helper where he was due to be next and was told he was scheduled to do a reading. He looked alarmed and said that he hadn't been made aware of this and that he had nothing to read. I said that I had everything the con attendees would know of his work in the box I was carrying, and that I would be honored if he were to pick something from that and read for us.

And that's what happened.

Unfortunately, when he opened the volume he picked, I don't think he realized how old the paperback was and he broke the spine of my early 80s vintage "Driftglass"22. Now I look after my paperbacks, and most of mine do not have broken spines as a result. It would be fair to say that if you break the spine of one of my books, I'm not your friend any more until the heat-death of the universe. But somehow, although I heard the "Crack!" and knew immediately what had happened, I didn't mind at all. It was worth it to hear the Grand Master read Aye, and Gomorrah, my favourite Delany short story. Afterwards, during the signing session, he was gracious enough to add "I-Con 29" to each signature so in years to come they would act as reminders of the day.

Authors are often surprised that I ask them to add this, and wonder why I don't want t he date. My answer is that since I have no plans to sell the books (said books are usually from my collection and may be upwards of twenty five years old) that knowing where they were signed is more important and anyway, if anyone wants the date, all it takes is a bit of research.

That said, I used my time on the Delany signing line to buy the new reprint of The Jewel Hinged Jaw, Delany's critique of SF, possibly one of the most sought-after analytical books on the subject and long, long out of print23. It was a good day for Science Fiction.

I followed Delany and McDevitt around to their various panels (both are very interesting speakers) but missed the Delany-biopic "Polymath" because McDevit was signing at the same time and I was eager to get the autographs over and done with so I could return the books to the car. I bought a copy of McDevitt's Time Travelers Never Die while on line, so it turned out to be eighteen books I was handing to him. He was surprised to learn that I had acquired (and read) all the books since his last visit to I-Con, and we chatted about his upcoming fiction while he wrote a book's worth of signatures for me. I reckon I gave everyone writer's cramp that day.

Incidentally, I recommended the McDevitt book Polaris so often that Mrs Stevie demanded to be shown said book when we got home (as this was my first McDevitt book, bought at the other I-Con and signed then, it wasn't in the box) and has since devoured half a dozen McDevitt works and wants to read the others. You really should give Polaris a look.

Seeing as I was already in the dealer's room (the author signing table being in the back of it) I did some T-shirt shopping before returning to the Van of Death to drop everything off. I picked up a couple of T-shirts and a rather neat golf shirt with a really subtle Cthulhu logo on the pocket. S'my fave shirt now.

Saturday evening rolled around and the guests all made off to attend the traditional con banquet, which I'm told now features decent food in sufficient quantities for all. Past fiasco has made it a non-starter for Mrs Stevie and me though. We gathered the girls and departed for a diner, then returned them all home, getting back to Chateau Stevie around 9:30 pm or so, and falling into bed exhausted.

The next day was a much lighter program. I attended more panels, readings and whatnot, Mrs Stevie hobnobbed with Celtic bards, the kids went and got their refund on the ticket and then disappeared into the con for whatever they were going to do. For the first time in years I reached the end of the con before I was really aware it was all over. I swung by one of the filk singing events, but before I could get settled in it was over. I would have bought one of the singer's CDs, but the fire alarm went off and we had to evacuate the building. I spent the last half hour reading The Jewel Hinged Jaw in which Delany was developing the idea that form and content cannot be seperated, and then Mrs Stevie arrived in theater and I was told we were leaving.

It was much more fun than last year.

  1. State University of New York
  2. Author of Downbelow Station, Cyteen and the Foreigner series. Buy them. Read them.
  3. Worf from Star Trek: The Next Generation
  4. Real Spaceman, not an actor
  5. Actually, there were two of them
  6. Mr Sulu
  7. Peregrine Took
  8. Mrs Gene Roddenberry aka Lwaxana Troi
  9. "Q" of Star Trek:The Next Generation
  10. "Hard" SF author of Mars, Venus and other books with slightly predictable names. Buy Mars and read it
  11. something-beginning-with-I Sports Center aka dealer room during I-Con
  12. Author of Polaris, an SF "locked-room" mystery that takes the Marie Celeste story and runs it into places it was meant to go. I can't recommend this book highly enough. If you haven't encountered McDevitt's work and plan to do so, start with this one. You won't be sorry
  13. A condition I readily cede is as much to do with my lamentable lack of familiarity with the newer authors as the I-Con executive's innability to stock the con with top-shelf talent
  14. A vanishingly small possibility
  15. This nonsense is worth a posting to itself, but I'll summarize: One buys a ticket in advance and gets a receipt. On the opening of the Con, typically late afternoon on the Friday, everyone is forced to stand for as much as three hours in March weather while once again the I-Con executive fail to get a clue. They arrange for people to sit behind desks with the tickets in a file box, alphabetized for ease of use. They break the alphabet into ranges of letters and allocate one file box to each range along with one of two people to verify you are who you say you are and give you your already-bought ticket. This wouldn't be so onerous and time-consuming if the idiots would realize just for once that the ticket-buyers do not spread across the alphabet evenly with respect to last names, but clump around certain letters. Like "S". As in Smith. You'd think that somewhere in the executive there'd be a halfway competent statistician, or someone who could remember last year's fiasco, but no.
  16. The real reason no-one gets their bought-and-paid-for badge when they pay for it: fear the purchaser will scan the badge and run off a few more With my scheme the secure credential that must be guarded with life and limb until the con starts is the box of stickers
  17. Author of such seminal SF works as The Einstein Intersection Babel-17, Dhalgren and a baker's dozen more titles available on request or by using you own Google nodes
  18. A Honda Odyssey seven-seater. Long story to come in another post if I remember
  19. Polaris and Hello Out There if you're interested
  20. As in: Angst brought on by teens
  21. Mrs Stevie in "Medieval Drag" and everyone else channeling some Japanese cartoon character or other
  22. A collection of Samuel R Delany's SF short stories
  23. I had been looking seriously at a copy printed in 1977 just weeks before

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