Wednesday, April 14, 2010

To Your Scattered Panels Go: Ad Astra 2010

It could, as one of the Nerdgasm comics observed, just as easily have been called "GoggleCon." If you're wondering why I'm wearing goggles myself now, this year's Ad Astra convention - the twenty-ninth since 1980, since it wasn't held in 1999 - is the reason. After my experience at Anticipation last year, I'd been looking forward to going back to Ad Astra for a proper convention experience, and not just the handful of hours I picked up last year. With what seemed like only a few hundred people in attendance, I didn't have much trouble finding it. It was much the same "convention flavor" as I'd found in Montreal, only not as concentrated.

The convention was held from April 9 - 11 in the same place it's been since 2006, the Toronto Don Valley Hotel & Suites - though it was known as the Crowne Plaza Toronto Don Valley Hotel as recently as last year, and there still remain some monogrammed napkins that attest to the old name. Situated adjacent to the Don Valley Parkway where the Eglinton East and Flemingdon Park buses meet, it's straightforward to get here by transit, if time-consuming - it took me an hour to return downtown on Saturday night, though some of that was swallowed waiting for my streetcar connection at Broadview station. Between the hotel salons, conference rooms, and the three-part Commonwealth Ballroom, there was plenty of room for everything from the Apocalypse Now panel to the Beefcake/Cheesecake Charity Event and the steampunk fashion salon, the latter of which likely goes a long way toward explaining why so many people had goggles on.

After speedily passing through registration, I had a chance to dig through the customary red swag bag. In addition to the standard convention programme book, it came with - among other things - a trial-size bottle of Irish Spring bodywash ("NOT FOR RESALE") and the first issue of the Stephen Colbert's Tek Jansen Adventures comic book series. Now I have two. Solar plexus!

You may recall from my Anticipation conreport that the last thing I did, before rushing off to catch a train in which the haze was palpable to Berri-UQAM station, was attend a reading given by Robert J. Sawyer. So it was only an appropriate synchronicity that the first event I attended at Ad Astra was another reading by Robert J. Sawyer - in which he read one of the pieces he'd also read in Montral, a prose poem called "The Transformed Man," as well as an extract from his new novel Watch and a scene from his earlier novel FlashForward. It was interrupted for a moment when he went to investigate the loud, thumping bass from the Collaborations panel next door, and I have to say I was a bit disappointed when he came back not covered in bloodstains and without a massive claymore slung over his shoulder. The air conditioning also started whirring and groaning the second he started reading from Watch. Everyone's a critic.

After taking the opportunity to float around the dealers' room (no fresh bumper stickers, regrettably), the next event I attended flowed seamlessly from the last - Robert J. Sawyer's Guest of Honour Hour, and it was devoted to the new series FlashForward, his involvement with it, and "why it seemed like a good idea at the time." He explained why the TV series ditched the original twenty-year flashforward for one only six months in the future - among other things, to avoid the necessity of artificially aging the cast, and to enable obvious seasonal discontinuities between the present and the future of the show.

"The usual Hollywood thing," he said, "is you get the rights, then you screw the author." Fortunately that hasn't happened in the case of FlashForward, and Sawyer is closely involved with the series. He read a couple of scenes from the script of the episode he wrote, scenes that ended up on the cutting room floor, which is unfortunate - the one of Lloyd Simcoe identifying his wife's body in a stadium full of dead bodies was powerful and "would've been really f'ing cool" if it had been filmed.

After the hour was up, I traded the future for an intersection of the future and the past at Steamed to Perfection: A Steampunk Salon, where the gracious Lord Spector and lady adicat "parade[d] visiting dignitaries and the latest in steam inspired haute couture... pomp and pageantry guaranteed." There were characters from time travellers and Continental royalty to the nefarious Mr. Holocaust - who has yet to conquer so much as a Tim Horton's - and Lord Summerdown and Lady Grey, "genetic aberrations" fighting for justice. Mostly though, I liked the steampunk fashion. Plenty of goggles.

The Apocalypse Now panel that evening was the first regular panel I attended during the convention, and it was a trip back to the sort of thing I'd done at Anticipation - standing on the production floor of the idea factory. It looked at why apocalyptic themes seem to be so common now, and asked why they resonate the way they do and whether they reflect the tenuous social climate of the modern day. I'm not too sure about that - I agree more with one of the later points raised in the panel, that it's when society is relatively stable that people are willing to get apocalypses in their entertainment. After all, you didn't see too much end-of-the-world stuff during the Second World War, which is arguably the closest we've come to an apocalypse in terms of culture.

Sunday was my panel day, and for Sunday morning panels they were rather well attended. The first was one that's been eating at me ever since, Writing the Future with Matthew Johnson, Hayden Trenholm, and Karl Schroeder. What were the key points of it? For one, that the future is not just the past with better gadgets. When creating a future, it's easy to exaggerate just one thing and leave everything else utterly unchanged - which is bunk. People are collaborative. Things can change in unexpected ways. There's no such thing as absolute stasis, technological or cultural.

What I hadn't fully comprehended before I attended this panel, though, was that while disruptive and transformative technologies exist, the assumption that a technology will prove transformative by simple fact of its existence - or, alternatively, that an existing technology is not transformative because it hasn't disrupted society yet - is inaccurate. These things can lurk in the wings for years, waiting for the right climate to erupt. Take the automobile - while the idea of the modern suburb became technically possible as soon as Model Ts started rolling off the assembly lines, it wasn't until the end of the Second World War that the social and cultural climate existed to make it happen. Without the example of the Great Depression and lacking the Levittowns that sprang up to provide housing for veterans coming back from the battlefields, North American suburbanization may well have taken a different turn.

I'm not going to blame Hitler for that. But someone might eventually. Or, worse - as was pointed out at the Inventing Real People: History & Fiction panel - some people a few centuries down the line, some culture who's isolated from what he did, might try to rehabilitate him as a hero through the process of historical revisionism. Imagine a time traveller stepping into 2510 and finding statues of him, and people so innocently unaware of ancient history that they don't realize why this is a problem. It wouldn't be the first time a leader and conqueror has been put on a pedestal - just look at Alexander the Great.

It was a fine convention, and I had plenty of opportunities to think on that during the bus and streetcar ride back under an open blue sky. Next year, Ad Astra 2011 will be commemorating the convention's thirtieth anniversary - and in November, SFContario will add a new gathering to Toronto's calendar. I can say that, yeah, I'm looking forward to the future.

Previous Convention Reports


  1. What a strange convention, why you don't upload a video of this strange reunion, it would be nice for me I mean it.

  2. Very interesting i was reading an study about this and how this can help people, specially the handicap people and some other devices but well the convention was pretty after all.