ConVersion: Where geeks go to get laid

I went to ConVersion XIX looking for something I could understand, like what I saw in Trekkers. Somehow, I thought being able to recite most of Babylon 5 and the good Treks from memory would be sufficient to carry me through three days. It didn’t. By the end of the weekend, I had only begun to understand what true science fiction and fantasy fandom was about.



Friday, August 9, 2002

And so it begins…

Ten minutes before the ConVersion XIX opening ceremonies, a medieval-garbed technician fiddled with $10 computer speakers and a Discman as warm-blooded speakers had not yet arrived. Being a "ConVirgin," I didn’t know if this would be something rational like a Star Trek convention, or something much more. As I prepared myself for three days of conventioning, fans of all ages filled the 250-seat meeting room. I was not surprised to recognize some faces, like the computer store guy, the Magic® player, the accountant, two high-school science teachers and Robert J. Sawyer, who tripped into the aisle just beside me. Ten minutes late, the other speakers arrived.

Mr. Sawyer, the Toastmaster as well as a successful Canadian science fiction writer, started the convention with the usual housekeeping. The audience was very usual. Some fans dressed as fictional characters but most didn’t. I was not surprised to hear Captain Picard’s cell phone go off during opening remarks, or to witness his lack of an indoor voice.

One by one, speakers gave their opening remarks. Suddenly, the room blackened and all anticipated something fantastic. Maybe a pyrotechnics show or a Sith warrior. Or maybe someone just leaned on the light switch.

"Obviously, I was really meant to be here," Artist Guest of Honour Lar deSousa joked, taking the podium. "Regardless, I’m going to be here all weekend."

deSousa, known for his on-line art, also announced his painted toilet seats would be up for auction on Sunday. I wasn’t entirely surprised that three days of three conferences rolled into one would somehow involve toilet-seat art.

Gold-pressed latinum

The marvelous Dealer Room demonstrated capitalism and something else at work. Plastic likenesses of impossible beings were valued like solid gold as something drove the price of troll dolls, Beanie Babies, and various incarnations of Captain Kirk to irrational heights. I wanted a Klingon batleth–as an art piece, sacrilege to a true warrior–but none were to be had.

I don’t know why people collect antique yellow tomes about the future. Dog-eared comics, once treasured by children, still command the same attention and adoration from adults.

Perhaps there’s something special, overpowering, about owning the entire set of a discontinued series. Everything tells me that demand alone cannot propel the price of a pile of yellow, tattered pulp to $1,000. Memories from childhood, a piece of history, the likeness of a hero–they are worth more than money.

Fans and dealers exchanged cash for goods, ideas, wisdom and often a shared devotion to realities that the books represent. They debated deeper meanings, as though fictional artifacts or lives were at stake. They remembered both twenty-second century events and the Knights of the Round Table as history. They treated books as more than piles of paper and ink.

The national book-chain didn’t get this. Even with the largest booth, they had the smallest understanding of why they were there. Sawyer, Steele and the handful of other authors whose works the minimum-wage employees peddled were just anonymous people browsing, not actual customers. Author after author stopped, examined their respective works, and nothing happened. Meanwhile, at the smaller dealer’s booth both old and new books were autographed, and a crowd of onlookers turned into customers. By Sunday, used book dealers were depleted, left smarter, and had a following of new customers, while the national chain left with boxes of books marked "20 per cent off."

Everyone takes away something a little different from both the Dealer Room and the convention.

ConSuite

At all hours, beings flowed in and out of the ConSuite, a hastily drawn mess hall with big round tables and plush office chairs. I wanted to observe what was happening and write, but the conversations overwhelmed as a few dozen realities intersected in real time.

At one table, a medieval recreationist and a Jedi discussed the virtues of American Civil War uniforms and command structures. The Jedi also collected historic uniforms "from every stupid little German state and every stupid little Turkish state." Eventually, the conversation drifted to battle hardware.

At another table, an amateur radio disc jockey discussed sand art and Russian frigate deployments. Pretzels and iced tea–it was too early for kegged Big Rock beer–offered little explanation of this diverse scene which almost slipped out of an encyclopedia or holodeck. Fans, not geeks or nerds, from every walk of life conversed about anything and everything as equals, in a kind of intellectual United Nations where the only conflict is over Star Trek vs. Star Wars and battles are won with wit, intelligence and twenty-sided dice.

Sterile fluorescent office lights dimmed ahead of the coming darkness. By 9:40 p.m. on Friday, office workers vacated the mausoleum, janitorial staff finished gathering the remains of a day of cryptic servitude, and everything of the mainstream world fell away to an uneasy truce.

I lost track of time, as amazing personalities made themselves known through a great commonality. It’s a shame this environment only lasted three days. Everyone crossed paths here, where I eventually found Kirstin, Mark, Mr. Sawyer and everybody else.

Saturday, August 10, 2002

et al and Robert J. Sawyer


I first met Mr. Sawyer at the Ask-A-Pro-Anything and signing session. I’ve navigated through ministers, corporate presidents, lesser authors, and even the odd student government official but this was the first time I deliberately sought out someone with celebrity status. I only knew of him through his Discovery Channel appearances and occasional articles in national magazines so I didn’t know what to expect when I asked him to autograph a book for someone else. Knowing I was not yet a fan he obliged anyway.

Dinner with Rob–everyone called him that–was quite interesting. I didn’t know anything about his books, only that he was a futurist who remembers people by name. He had a very modern outlook on society and culture, as did the other authors at the table. I feared a holier-than-thou author, but he was just a normal science fiction guy with a very genuine sense of honesty.

We broke the ice with cordial chatter and garlic bread.

"What we need is chairs on a conveyor belt," Sawyer remarked, "so everyone could see everyone."

"Like the conveyor-belt cafés in Japan, but not," came another.

As people became comfortable, the usual debates about politics and society ensued. What surprised me most was that Rob strained to hear the regular people as much as we tried to listen to him. He was another normal guy, who ate the same spaghetti we did, and tried to mooch a ride to the airport from other speakers. This casual Rob was perfectly consistent with the one who gave opening remarks.

Unsurprisingly, his attitude towards his readers was equally relaxed.

"There are always people who will read new science fiction," he said. "I forget about whole slews of people and at the end, find people who love your writing for what it is. Those are the ones you want to write for, the others you can just dismiss."

He repeated the same to an audience of aspiring writers a day later, stating emphatically that he will not insert the technology of the month just to attract new readers.

An exercise in efficiency

Before dinner ended, various conventioneers deliberately told me I should look forward to the evening’s costume contest and slave auction. Uninitiated on both fronts, I asked my colleague Mark for guidance and observed. He told me of the enormous effort some contestants put into elaborate costumes, and of the social aspect of the exercise. The jovial atmosphere, it seems, allowed participants to skip much of that awkward courtship stuff in a controlled environment. Kind of like speed-dating.

Inhibitions lowered, members of the local Costumers Guild donned stuff made at the Iron Costumer contest earlier that day and some wore well-crafted creations to be judged as they performed comedic or artistic scenes to music. The audience responded equally to the kid in the Tigger suit and the parallel universe Frodo.

The slave auction–comparably tame this year I’ve been told–can be described as an exercise to legitimize giving to the Calgary Food Bank, with the side effect of an evening of consenting fun to anyone who wanted it. About two dozen men and women–some costumed, others not–crossed the stage and sold (and sometimes bought) an hour’s time for the food bank, raising between $25 and $220 each.

Two things occurred to me. One, the population of science fiction fans included good-looking women. Two, had I known in advance that Senator Amidala, elf Queen Galadriel, Princess Leia, or the fallen dark angel were going to bid, I probably would have participated in the slave auction myself (hot grits not withstanding).

Dancing with shadows

After three hours of visual fore-play, everybody was eager to collect on their slaves. Most did so at the dance which was somewhat awkward and uneasy until people brought copious beer from the ConSuite. Then elves danced with Jedi and anything else that moved. Many admired the costumed participants, and some people admired them. Elf Queen Galadriel, Princess Leia and Amidala looked suspiciously like sisters for some reason, and they were part of the gypsy bidding block earlier. Hmm…

By 1 a.m., sleepiness had set in, accentuated in the haggard faces of a few convention veterans yet to depart for a room party. Young people were loose enough to limbo, the lady who was wheeled around on an office chair started chair-dancing and a couple conga lines degraded into knots. Everyone had fun on the tiny dance floor. At 2:37 a.m., the security guard finally insisted that the dj wrap things up. He did so, with Raise a Little Hell, and the undanceable theme song from the original Star Trek, to the groan of even Star Trek fans.

The fall of night

Little, capped plastic shots, cheap alcohol, random junk food and discussions about everything well into the morning defined the room party. Official convention room parties complimented the other room parties held by guests or future convention organizers, where beer and vittles were free. Like any good bureaucracy, the business of attracting and organizing a science-fiction convention has a lot to do with how well you do at other peoples’ conventions.

I spent part of the evening at the Westercon 2005 Calgary bid committee’s room party. Their stated purpose was to get support for their bid to host a huge convention here in 2005, but a bathtub of beer and unlimited salty fried snacks guaranteed our presence for everything else.

I also spent much of my time at the hospitality suite with the older crowd. Ideas copulated in mid-air and I eventually discussed short-story writing with Brewster, an aspiring Calgary writer. Being on opposite sides of the coin–he writes realistic dialogue to go with stories, while I try to make sense of what people say–we partook in a hearty exchange of insight. His knowledge of A Clockwork Orange and everything else on the Bravo! tv station astounded me, and the rest of the non-sober and mostly smoking and middle-aged crowd around the coffee table. I also met a fantasy writer trapped in a journalist’s body, the grizzled old con goer, and Mama Maureen, the matriarch of the local Wicca community.



"Can we talk about something less abstract, like God?"

Discussion about religion at the conference itself was more limited than I expected. With so many obvious possible allusions to religion in science fiction I thought that surely there would be at least one formal session on religion.

Nonetheless, I found myself in multiple discussions about the nature and existence of God, number systems (the number and types of infinities), pragmatism, the virtues of goto, other things, and eventually God again.

As the evening continued, people migrated back and forth between the five or so parties on the twelfth floor (the convention had booked most of the floor, to the dismay of at least one weary traveller), acquiring a different brand of drink and merriment from each. Almost inevitably, the conversations in each of the rooms drifted from any science fiction topic to spirituality, women, drinking, and other random stuff.

Anime room attendance was minimal by this time. Temporal crystal monsters eating Japan’s corps of middle-school sailor girls could not maintain an audience that now desperately wanted some raktajino to stay awake.

Gnomes surrender

Upstairs, morning papers were delivered and sections were quickly consumed by those too sober to care. Food became increasingly interesting as fruit and some strange bell pepper and dipping sauce concoction replaced puffed cheese snacks. Some people tired of a tub full of Kokanee, traded with other rooms as the beer caches on the floor revealed themselves. New kegs were tapped and pizza arrived, breathing new life into the party.

By 4 a.m., people were sufficiently intoxicated that unusual pairings disappeared, some to the privacy of the unsupervised 24-hour science-fiction movie room, others to the uninhabited Metropolitan Centre, looking for par’Mach in all the wrong places.

Meanwhile, cougar hunters became the hunted as the Illuminati game, in its fifth hour, showed no signs of ending. Players of both games retired to odd places.

"Gaming is more important than sex," someone cried at the game.

"Well, yeah!"

"Obviously, he hasn’t had much sex," came a third.

About this time, I realized room bookings during ConVersion served two main purposes: room parties and booze storage for room parties, and bonking facilities for those so inclined. (Well, almost everybody was inclined, execution on the other hand…)

Because of ConVersion, I am now a firm believer that the non-canonical subtitle to every science-fiction convention, "Where geeks go to get laid," is based on reality. I will surely return next year if only to get the rest of the ConVersion experience.

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