Thursday, September 15, 2011

Dragon*Con 2011: A n00b's Tale, Part II

A Meeting Of The MindsImage by Cayusa via Flickr[Be forewarned, this more a memory core-dump than structured narrative. It's gonna get rough.]

FRIDAY

Despite the rather exhaustive and enthralling nature of the preceding day, Dragon*Con doesn't actually begin until the Friday of Labor Day weekend. Being the early riser (*cough* non-drinker *cough*) amongst my roommates, I awoke about 8:00 am, quietly showered and dressed, then descended the only slightly overcrowded elevators in search of food, and the location of my first panel.

This is where the Dragon*Con mobile app came in very handy. I had no less than three events scheduled for every hour of the day, but I tried foolishly to whittle those down to single choices for Friday, focusing on the Writer's Track if only to hew to that with which I was most familiar. The App also had some very comprehensive maps of the host hotels, but the map which showed the location of said hotels lacked a legend, so I had no idea which of the five labeled spots was the Westin. Basically, I knew where the Marriott was because I was sleeping there, and I knew how to reach the Hyatt via the PeachTree Center Mall connected via skybridge to my hotel. This helped narrow my choices of starter panels, as well.

(Quick aside: Money tends to evaporate at Dragon*Con, especially if you buy food in the hotels. The Peachtree Center food court, attached to the Hyatt and Marriott, is far cheaper but difficult from which to extract wholesome food. Your best bets are Jack's Sandwich Shop, which does a moderately good breakfast and lunch, and Farmer's Basket, which offers actual vegetables to go with roast chicken or meatloaf. I commend them unto you.)

I decided to avoid the celebrity-centric early panels, for which the lines were rumored to be both epic and spaz-laden. I also have an innate talent for proving myself ultra-nerdly even within nerd contexts, so naturally I gravitated toward the panels which most obviously resembled college lectures rather than high-potency public fangasms.

Yes, I totally went to the Man-Powered Weapons two-part panel from the Armory track, which discussed the historical origins and engineering realities of bladed, thrown, and drawn weaponry. The panel was nestled into the dungeon-like bowels of the Hyatt, a hotel with no less than three basement levels in two separate towers that connect via a byzantine collection of escalators and tunnels. By Monday evening I'd know the area like layout of Serenity, but at 9am on Friday I wandered around with the equivalent expression of a flashing n00b icon.

Complicating matters is that the Hyatt's two main ballrooms are host to A) the Dragon*Con art show (which I sadly never had chance to peruse; sorry, Kyle) and B) a woefully undersized theater for doing the aforementioned celebrity panels. Naturally, Dragon*Con led off with a heavy-hitter: William Shatner. His panel was actually titled "$#!% My Captain Says" which was all I needed to know to avoid it, and this was before all the anti-Shatner ranting kicked into gear later in the weekend. (Stay tuned.) I ran into Courtney Warfield again as the line formed for the Shat-Man well in advance -- she warned me away before the throngs of Kirk fanboys descended en masse. This also made navigating the Hyatt even more trying.

When I finally found the man-powered weapons panel, I was fiendishly early. This gave me my choice of seats, which I used to select an end-space near a power outlet. (Pro Tip: Every cell network gets overwhelmed at Dragon*Con, so your handset will spend the weekend in quasi-roaming mode and therefore will eat power like and off-the-wagon Oprah at a half-price buffet. Pack your charger and employ it with zeal.) I originally intended to only take in the first half of the seminar -- the swords, not the bows and slings -- and then hike over to the Westin for the Stargate: Universe restrospective panel. (Yes, a just-canceled show with less than 2 full seasons of fan-unsatisfying episodes still merits a retrospective, especially when it may have killed a franchise.) My experience trying to suss out the Hyatt's layout, and my notice of how early one needed to plan for media-centric panels, convinced me I was better off staying in the Hyatt's dungeons than divining the location of the still unknown Westin. Again: me = n00b.

The panel filled up with a bizarre mix of Tolkien cosplayers, Street Fighter cosplayers, and a wide swath of those coke-bottle glasses guys with fanny packs who know a scary amount about high-powered firearms and haunt the local game shop without ever actually playing anything at the demo table. Yeah, those guys. In any case, a middle-aged gent who all but screamed "former infantry sergeant" by his fatigued snark, even if he wasn't wearing fatigues (pun!), introduced himself as the moderator and then spent an hour breaking down the belabored differences between flint and obsidian blades, copper versus bronze swords, Japanese versus European steel, and the finer points of (pun!) forging katanas. Apparently, the issue for medieval Japan was an absence of coal for their forges, which led to innovative uses of charcoal and hammer-folded steel. Also, katanas aren't forged as curved blades, they curve when the heated steel is quenched, and the proper temperature to quench the steel was a closely guarded secret. It was surprisingly awesome. Even if I wasn't Westin-averse, I would have stayed for the second panel, especially when the host had to break lecture to take a call confirming the minigun had arrived for the armory next door.

Oh, yeah, there was an armory next door.

An Atlanta PD officer stood guard over a compact but chilling collection of swords, axes, machine guns, sniper rifles, bows, spears, and a training mockup of a backpack nuke. The Venn diagram crossover of rednecks and sci-fi/fantasy geeks was distilled to its essence in that room. It smelled like gun oil, flop sweat and Cheetos. I believe that's the quantum antiparticle for estrogen, but I'd rather not test the theory.

The second panel was less interesting, but that was merely an example of suffering by comparison. I did learn that using a crossbow against nobility in Medieval Europe was an excommunicateable offense, largely for the sake of preserving the tithe-base, so the panel had that going for it, which was nice.

My next panel was a modestly titled Writer's Track event: "Breaking In - How It's Done." The lineup was an all-female group of authors and editors who, with the exception of Gail Z. Martin, I'd never heard of. This was my first disappointment with Dragon*Con: There was nothing to be learned here I hadn't heard a thousand times before, with the exception of a bit of brutal honesty of which I was already somewhat aware. The Big 6 are shrinking, small presses are rising. Be professional. Query well. Publish short stories to earn an agent. There are no overnight successes. Never pay a reading fee. Edit, edit, edit.

The one useful admission, though I knew it already? Publishers are looking for authors with existing audiences and existing promotional platforms. Moderately talented writers with healthy blog-Twitter-Facebook followings are more likely to get published than very talented new media Luddites. With so much of the promotional burden and risk being shifted back to authors, publishers want to be certain you can pimp your own stuff before they invest in you. Bloggers are the new midlist authors.

This I already knew.

Also, romance readers are the most voracious and technologically adept demographic, especially if you skew towards erotica. There's a reason every third sci-fi/fantasy bookcover shows a bare-midriffed leather-clad heroine with a tribal tramp stamp: It sells like gangbusters.

Again, this I already knew.

Following up this panel was the first scheduling snub of Dragon*Con: Kevin J. Anderson & Rebecca Moesta's infamous "Things I Wish Some Pro Had Told Me" double-panel was actually double-booked with the "Is Traditional Publishing Extinct?" panel anchored by Lou Anders and Peter David. The solution was to limit the former to 90 minutes with no break between it and the latter.

The KJA/Moesta panel was, again, stuff I already knew except some niggling tidbit about the mechanics of editing an anthology. Still, I'll give the panelists credit: they used some very entertaining personal anecdotes to convey the harsh realities of life as a pro writer. Aside from Timothy Zahn, KJA is probably the most influential Star Wars Expanded Universe novelist out there, especially since he and Moesta wrote not only the Jedi Academy series, but also pitched and edited the Tales from Mos Eisley Cantina/Tales of the Bounty Hunters/Tales From Jabba's Palace trilogy. KJA orignally pitched the series offhandedly while working on a coffee table book of Ralph McQuarrie art at Skywalker Ranch. And how did he get that job? He was the only established Star Wars EU author within driving distance of Skywalker Ranch, so he'd be cheaper to bring in to talk to Ralph.

This is the level of planning that goes into the Star Wars franchise, and the kind of strange breaks that define careers. I expect many bubbles were burst by the end of that particular panel, and not just of the career variety.

Now, I've worked in online publishing for the better part of a decade, though not of the fiction variety, so I came into the "Is Traditional Publishing Extinct?" panel with a great many preconceptions and opinions. None were really challenged: The Big 6 are in the blockbuster business, midlisters need not apply. Ebook rights are the best friend to anybody with an established brand an extensive backlist, but they're a lousy way to launch a career. Small presses that don't need to play the physical publishing game except for limited collector runs or print-on-demand regional distribution are a great place to launch a career, just make sure that you -- as always -- have a contract that sunsets your rights, especially your e-publishing rights, so you can take your ball and go home (or to the Big 6) if and when the time and money are right.

No revelations, but seeing Peter David spar with the contingent from Baen Books was fun. Also, I got some nice inside-baseball on why Wizards of the Coast no longer has a fiction arm: Their contracts required authors to spend 20 percent of their advances on promoting the book, and they were expected to document their efforts with receipts. Effective marketing is one of the last arrows in a publisher's quiver. If you aren't doing that for me, all you really are is a loan shark fronting me my advance -- with my book rights as collateral. Thanks, but no.

Somewhere in here, I think I ate some kind of lunch, but it's really a blur.

The Worldbuilding panel I attended next was equally disappointing, if only because the authors merely pimped their works rather than offering techniques for better fictional worldbuilding.

Luckily, the main event was on the horizon.

Somebody had the genius idea to pit noted libertarian and military sci-fi firebrand John Ringo opposite a leftist political science professor on a panel called "Liberals in Space."

You can't make this stuff up.

The panel managed to establish an air of fraught tension as early as the introductions, when the moderator -- who actually turned out to be a very solid guy -- described himself as a "teabagging racist."

The first 15 minutes of debate were almost (but not quite) cordial, with distinctions being made between small-L liberalism in the classic sense, and modern Liberalism, which is perhaps better distinguished as Social Democratic politics in the modern European mode. Ringo and the professor -- his name escapes me, though he was a man of African descent with a European accent, which is an important detail -- began to spar over whether multiculturalism and government intervention were ever successful. Examples such as Barbados were bandied about when the professor cheap-shotted Ringo with an "at one point men like you kept men like me as slaves" retort.

Ringo grabbed his bag and bolted for the door muttering "no, no..." then stopped midway, turned, and shouted (as best I can remember), the following: "My great-great-grandfather was a slave. We never owned slaves. We bought and created freemen. FUCK YOU!" Then he slammed the door open and disappeared into the larger Hyatt, not to return.

This, as you might imagine, derailed the panel for a spell.

For the next five minutes the liberals and conservatives in the crowd shouted stereotypes at each other while the rest of us began to wonder if or when we could leave without looking like assholes. Luckily, the aforementioned moderator somehow conjured up a replacement conservative panelist from elsewhere at the con, and we somehow managed to resume the panel. It was almost miraculous. With the tension expunged, a rather lively discussion of what political ideologies were most accommodating of space travel flowered from the manure of the first 20 minutes of ego-posturing.

The conclusion, for what it's worth, is that it will almost certainly take a state-sponsored effort to underwrite any serious space colonization, and that the first colonists -- especially if generational ships are involved -- will require military discipline to survive. Perhaps more importantly, no matter what ideology the generational crew had when they launched, the crew that arrived would almost certainly be vastly different, if only for having lived in confinement and given birth to generations raised in a confined environment. It was actually very stimulating.

I wandered back to my room, as it was now 8 pm, and scrounged up a turkey sandwich from my roommates' supplies. I needed to decompress, but the con was still going strong, still calling to me. The last panel had finally delivered on the memorable experience that the preceding hours had failed to offer or even hint at, if in unexpected fashion. I need something I could sink my teeth into. Something that would strike right at the core of my fandom, and would spark discussion debate and outright passion from the audience.

Yeah, I was going to "Star Trek Reboot Review" panel.

I headed back to the Sheraton, where I spent a big chunk of Thursday waiting in line for my convention badge. The entire hotel, while not a central venue, was entirely devoted to the Star Trek programming track, or at least it seemed. It was two blocks way, and the walk in the muggy evening air helped clear my head. Throngs of geeks coursed through the sidewalks, with a Trek-centricty growing as I approached the Sheraton.

I arrived perhaps 15 minutes before the 10pm panel, and a small group was gathered outside, confused. Apparently, the Klingon Karaoke session had refused to relinquish the room despite running nearly a half-hour over schedule. There was a debate as to whether the Reboot panel would even happen. As the panel room opened and closed every few minutes, staffers passing in and out, heavyset cosplayers could be seen inside, belting out "Bust a Move" or "Enter Sandman" in bizarre fashion. (No, they weren't singing in Klingon, but the DJ was in full Kahless garb. I was not impressed.) A compromise was reached: everyone still in the queue to sing was allowed to finish their set, then the room would be turned over to us, a half hour late.

The karaoke energy lingered even after most of the singers and cosplayers left. Perhaps 40 of us remained, and for the next hour J. J. Abrams, Zach Quinto and Chris Pine were alternately celebrated and decried, often in the same sentence. Star Trek was indisputably cool again, but had it squandered its soul to go mainstream? Was this just a mindless action flick in Roddenberry drag? Was the franchise revived, cheapened, or both? It was invigorating, it was contentious, it was passionate. In short, it was everything I was looking for in a panel. Come 11:30, were were all crackling with energy and opinions.

Which is when the lights dimmed, the projector beamed, and the Paramount starfield gave way to the film in question. We sat in rapt attention, taking in every frame, every line, every mythology gag and remix of sacred canon. We laughed, we cheered, we ogled Uhura and her Orion roommate while Quinto and Pine made the other half swoon. It was electric. It was magical. It was the high note of my Friday.

Now 1:30 am, I practically hovered back to the Marriott, buoyed aloft by the glow of geekdom triumphant. The post-panel parties were just revving up, and even the nearby clubs were filled to the brim with cosplayers and their geek t-shirted brethren. I would not be joining them, as I needed to regain my strength.

Dragon*Con Day 1 down, Days 2 through 4 to go.

[To be continued...]

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