Thursday, October 6, 2011

To Your Scattered Panels Go: VCON 36

It's been a while since I've been able to attend a proper convention. Although my arrival time in Vancouver last year was such that I could theoretically have attended VCON 35, I didn't think it would go over particularly well when I still had to address minor issues such as, you know, finding an apartment. Aside from Fan Expo 2010, which was less a convention and more a chaotic orgy of merchandising and commercialism, the dry spell was a year and a half long. I was able to end that by attending VCON 36, the latest iteration of Vancouver's science fiction and fantasy convention, which was held between September 30th and October 2nd.

This year marked the fortieth anniversary of VCON's establishment in 1971, making it almost exactly as old as Amtrak, and yet there have only been thirty-six of them; this was explained during the Opening Ceremonies on Friday for the benefit of knownothings such as myself as being a result of some VCONs not actually being called by that name, as well as its displacement by Westercon 44 in 1991. It was held at the Sheraton Vancouver Airport Hotel in Richmond, a few minutes' walk from the Canada Line station at Richmond-Brighouse. I understand that in previous years the convention events were split between multiple hotels, but this year the con was entirely self-contained. According to an article I found about it in the Vancouver Sun, this year's attendance was in the neighborhood of seven hundred.

This hall at the eastern end of the Sheraton was the spine of VCON 36.

Among the attendees were the three guests of honour, divided into the Author, Artist, and Media categories. Originally the Author Guest of Honour was to be Gregory Benford, but apparently something came up with DARPA and he had to reschedule his appearance to next year; in his stead Larry Niven came up from Los Angeles. Jean-Pierre Normand, whose portfolio includes plenty of enchanting covers for Analog and On Spec, was the Artist Guest of Honour, and the Media Guest of Honour was Lisa Lassek, a film editor who has worked on a number of Josh Whedon projects - she was also the only one of the three I didn't encounter at some point during the weekend.

Still, that's the sort of stuff you could figure out by doing a few minutes of online research, though. What was it like - well - it felt comforting. Welcoming. Like I was surrounded by generally like-minded folks, the same way it had been at Ad Astra and Worldcon in Montreal. Like there were things I could hear there that I would have to really dig for on the internet, if they were attested online at all, such as how Larry Niven considers it a part of his job to save civilization by "keep[ing] six billion people scared" - of the threat of impacts, that is, such as the one written about in Lucifer's Hammer - and that he supports the Libertarian Party and believes that "global warming seems to be largely bullshit," comparable to the flatworm memory RNA experiments of the 1950s and 1960s... neither of which are particularly surprising when you take into account books like Oath of Fealty or Fallen Angels.

In that respect, my main interest at the con was the panels - they're the sort of thing that really keep drawing me back to conventions, the opportunity to learn new things and stumble into fresh insights that I am far too oblivious to make on my own.

Sandra Wickham, Lynda Williams, and Larry Niven at VCON 36's "Food in SF" panel.

The panels were salted throughout the weekend, with a few running even before the official Opening Ceremonies at 5 PM on Friday. There were a few throughout that looked interesting but I didn't attend, if only because it takes more than an hour to get from New Westminster to Richmond via transit and I wasn't feeling up to hanging around. Panels such as "The Rest of the World," which examined the tendency for fantasy settings to be strongly based on medieval Europe and much future-set science fiction to be "suspiciously like the United States with spaceships," and looked at the pitfalls and possibilities of setting a work outside the Western cultural sphere. It might be because it was the very first panel I attended on Saturday morning, but I feel like - and the state of my notebook suggests - I got the most out of that one.

At the "Food in SF" panel, it was established that science fictional food was "often terrifying" - but you don't need to go all the way to science fiction for that. The dude in the seat ahead of me was giving out what I later learned were Creamity Wafer Rolls, some strange Vietnamese no-expiry-date "chocolate" snack tubes that were said to taste of fiberglass. I would not be surprised if things like that, in addition to Quorn - which I seriously want to track down the next time I'm in the States for some of that sweet sweet mycoprotein goodness - end up becoming larger than we would think in our food future.

The "Worldbuilding 101" panel, which was held at 10 AM on Sunday and thus required me to leave New Westminster a little after 8, was enlightening - one of the panelists was a UBC astrophysics professor and a member of the COROT and Kepler teams. In addition to overviews of exoplanets like HD 80606 b, which has the most eccentric extrasolar planetary orbit known to exist, discussion touched upon things I hadn't considered. Such as, on a habitable planet with a high oxygen content such as the Cretaceous-era Earth in the new series Terra Nova, would it be too dangerous to use internal combustion engines? When it came to the possibilities of cross-species infections, I'd never thought about the possibility of plant pathogens being exchanged... but the danger would, theoretically, exist, and there's always the chance that an ecosystem could be decimated or wiped out by a latter-day Columbian Exchange.

One thing I found odd, and which I can't recall encountering at any other convention I've attended, was that the program grid listed a significant number of panels that only had one panelist scheduled. To me, part of the interest of panels is for multiple people up at the front to be interacting with each other and the audience; when it's just one person, it seems a lot more like a university lecture.

It was also while waiting for that "Rest of the World" panel that one of the dealer's room exhibitors, Professor Whovianart, came by and gave a few of us a personal introduction to a circa 1919 electric shock therapy device, which produced the prickly sensation you get when a fallen-asleep limb wakes up again, but over my entire upper body.

Look out! It tingles!

The dealer's room at VCON 36 was rich with options and had a great deal of variety, though the trend skewed far more sharply toward crafting and steampunk than in the Ad Astra dealer's rooms - I'm not sure whether this is because of the time that's passed, or just fan-cultural differences between Vancouver and Toronto. EDGE, publishers of the Tesseract series of Canadian sf/f anthologies, seemed to be the largest publisher in attendance. I found it strange that On Spec wasn't there, considering that it's a sponsor of the event; Neo-Opsis, however, was in from Vancouver Island.

VCON 36 was also the first con I've attended that gives out its own scrip. As I understand it, every registered member found two "VCON 36 CON CA$H" certificates in their swag bag, each worth $1 in the dealer's room, VCON merchandise table, or art show direct purchases. These are apparently also how some con volunteers were compensated for their time. The one I kept is valueless now, of course; it expired at 5 PM on the last day of the con, but I figured it would be worthwhile to keep it in my con file, next to the flyer for the Aberdeen Proving Grounds' 2011 Worldcon bid.

A convention newbie at VCON 36 would have been presented with multiple pathways to the wider world of sf/f conventioneering. The most prominent was the Spokane in 2015 table, which sought to raise awareness for Spokane, Washington's bid for the 73rd World Science Fiction Convention - as it won't be decided until LoneStarCon 3 in 2013, there's still plenty of time to figure that out. There were also flyers out advertising Rustycon 29 and ConClusion, Westercon 65, both of which will be held in Seattle in 2012. Well, SeaTac - but close enough.

Con-goers act out a scene from the Red Sonja novel The Ring of Ikribu at VCON 36's Turkey Reading.

There was a lot about VCON 36 that I know I missed out on. Taking the SkyTrain back and forth made me feel like a commuter student at university; I was around for the lectures but not any of the after-class stuff that's just as important. Despite that, though, it was still a good con. The problems I need to get over are my own, and I suppose the first steps to solving that would be buying a membership for VCON 37 and learning how to deal.

Previous Convention Reports


  1. I'd almost suggest getting a hotel room... if you split it with 2-3 other people it's not terribly expensive... There's a lot of after hours stuff... I didn't go to bed before 3am any night I was there... I also live in New West... but it helps my 'job' a great deal if I don't have to go home...

    VCON 36 Volunteer Coordinator (And 37 it seems)

  2. A very broad look at the con. In a good way. I'm blogging a series on the con, but mine's a lot more 'tunnel vision', since I'm shackled to a vendor table for a lot of the weekend.

    But yeah... getting a room nearby is a good thing to consider. I've done it the last 2 years. It SHREDS any illusion of making a profit, but it allows me to see more than.. the vendor's room. Even if I only slept in my room for a total of 6 hours over the weekend. Next year maybe I'll just stay up for 3 days. would that would? No? Oh.

  3. Playing the Manifestation was SO MUCH FUN. I had a great time at VCON kind of generically, particularly at things like the Ishirō Honda panel and the explain-the-science panel, and playing at night around the con suites and Rocky Horror and and and. XD

    Honestly I haven't had that kind of relaxed and groovy good time at a con in a _while_. I'm coming back next year if there's any way I can! (And there should be.)

  4. Do you have any more photos from the con? I wasn't able to attend this year. I'd like to see more of what was missed.