Located a mere four hours by car from San Francisco, Reno seems a world away. Nestled in a high alpine valley, this playfully tagged, “Biggest little city in the world,” is most famous these days for being the kid-sister to Las Vegas: full of over-the-top casinos and quickie-wedding chapels. In past times, Reno was equally celebrated as the place to go for quickie-divorces and to strike it rich. Last week, this town was all about the 69th World Science Fiction Convention, a joyful fannish ode to everything science fiction, fantasy and horror.
This was my first WorldCon. As such, I arrived in Reno last week with some mild trepidation. Would I be quizzed on my knowledge of early SciFi, which remains poor? Would I have enough in common with other attendees to not feel out-of-place? Would I have fun? Well, turns out that I shouldn’t have worried so much. This was really a must-do event.
Consisting of five days of various panels, writers’ workshops, lectures, readings, book-signings, parties, video and movie showings, and other miscellaneous events, there was quite a lot to do. I attended several readings: Greg Bear, Brandon Sanderson, Eric Swendin, and David D. Friedman. I heard the guest of honor speech by Tim Powers, a writer of historical fantasies, the work of whom I remain unfamiliar, but have now become curious about.
The panels were especially engaging. “F*** your knight and the horse he rode in on: fantasy series not based on medieval European culture” probably had the most provocative title, though to me, the talk itself fell a bit flat.
“Molecular gastronomy: when you have more gadgets in your kitchen than your mom” had a certain appeal, despite the moderator, Dave Howell’s confession that he doesn’t actually cook that much. This was all about kitchen devices of the future. I liked Keith Kato’s idea that the best thing to have in your kitchen would be “sous chefs: all the Iron Chefs.” After that, the panel and audience alike were expounding on the wonders of immersion circulating cookers with “lab grade temperature control,” large motorized paddles to put in stock pots “like an outboard motor” to prevent burning, magnetic stirrers for candy making, the pros and cons of infra-red ovens (mostly cons as they apparently don’t cook the middle of the food that well), and “anti-grills” which flash-freeze food placed on them, though nobody could quite figure out what would taste good prepared on one of those devices.
“The real revenge of the nerds: Geek as hero” was amazing! But who knew that passionate geeks still felt so ostracized? I thought the days of oppression were way over. Panelists did agree that “the idea of geek as something to aspire to has penetrated popular culture.” Everyone was super into that really funny show, “Big Bang Theory,” and its brilliant depiction of several über geeks. At least one panel member referred to some of the shows more arcane jokes as being “for us.” There was some anxiety expressed by the audience over the possibility of a “geek backlash,” though personally, I don’t see that happening any time soon.
I was vexed when Hugo winner Connie Willis bashed down Sookie Stackhouse as being anti-geek, just five minutes after the panel praised the new mainstreaming geek sensibility as one of inclusiveness. I’m a huge True Blood fan. And if I take a brief moment to geek-out (more than I’m already doing in this story) I am certain that Sookie, with her unwanted mind-reading ability, feels awkward and isolated from “regular people.” So what that she and many of the True Blood folks are positively gorgeous. Good looking and geek are not mutually exclusive. You should know better, Connie!
I was fascinated by “What’s up with zombies?” and especially Seanan McGuire, who wrote, under the pen-name Mira Grant, the incredible zombie novels, Feed and Deadline, which follow a group of cool Northern California news bloggers as they chase after the truth in a post-apocalyptic U.S. infested with the living dead. I voted for Feed to win the Hugo award for best novel of 2010. She was robbed! Seanan said that zombies represent “the fear of death, the fear of loss of individuality, and the fear of disease.” Personally they creep me out too much to usually think about it that carefully, but it kind of makes sense.
“Science Fiction in the Seventies,” “Science Fiction, gender and social change,” and “Fairy tales and storytelling” all held my interest. I couldn’t agree with Joan D. Vinge’s conviction that folk and fairy tales contain “universal” truths about the human condition throughout time and across all cultures. But who would have guessed that the creative re-interpretation of folk tales in modern ways could be controversial? Movies like the very funny “Enchanted” do this with some success. Yet Ellen Asher was up in arms against co-panelist Bill Willingham with her assertion that writers need to remain respectful of the culture from which a story derives, to avoid causing harm. I still don’t get it at all. What harm are we really talking about here, anyway? Maybe she meant bad taste.
“My trip to Mars” presented by David D. Levine, despite the wild title, was a factual account of his two week stay at the Utah Mars Desert Research Station. There with about a half dozen scientists, he lived in isolation within a tiny structure, exploring what life might be like on the Red Planet. Sponsored by the Mars Society, these folks are real serious about everything Martian. I don’t think that I’d have enjoyed the freeze dried foods and shower-free lifestyle one bit. It convinces me that I’m not in fact space-faring material. Well, to each his or her own.
One annual highlight of the convention is the Friday Masquerade. Held in the Peppermill Resort and Casino rather than at the Reno/Sparks Convention Center, this was a fan-based costume show. There were about 25 or thirty contestants, both individuals and some in groups, who graced the stage in remarkable costumes that they created themselves. Judged in several categories from young fans, novice, journeyman to master, some of these were truly stunning. Unfortunately, many of my pictures were blurry as the contestants were moving faster than my camera could handle. The Blue Meanie from the Beatles Yellow Submarine blew my mind! That costume was massively large. I wonder how in the world Lance Ikegawa packed it all into his luggage for the convention? The Darling Gang lived up to their name. All you friends of Dr. Who would have appreciated Amy in the Tardis. I was awed by The Music of the Spheres. Here the photos don’t do the costumes justice. They glittered and literally glowed on stage.
There was so much more, with far too many things happening simultaneously to attend everything. Basically, I had fun.
As to the cake part of this cake and culture report, what can I say? A moon pie would probably have been most appropriate, though I didn’t think of that until I came back home. Instead I enjoyed the turtle sundae with vanilla bean gelato, hot fudge, caramel sauce, cocoa nibs, pecans, raspberries and whipped cream from the seafood restaurant, Oceano, at the Peppermill. This isn’t especially science fiction-y, but it is a crazy mix of decadent comforts, all thrown together in one delightful dish, sort of like the WorldCon itself.