The Good: There was a lot that went right at Balticon 50. This was a unique event, as Balticon invited all of its previous guests of honor back to celebrate the fiftieth time this convention had been held. As a result, the lineup of guests was quite impressive for a relatively small regional convention, and a similar event is probably not going to happen outside of a Worldcon for at least a few years. The real beauty of smaller conventions is the unplanned things unconnected with any "official" events that happen spontaneously. We were able to go to dinner with Day al-Mohammed, Renee Brown, and Meriah Crawford and play Stone Age with Renee as well. I saw Natalie Luhrs, who I only get to talk to at conventions. We went to dinner on Saturday night with a group that included the authors Tom Doyle and David Walton, and so on. These sorts of things are the magical part of science fiction conventions, and pretty much make going to these events worthwhile all by themselves. As far as planned events go, the following are the highlights of the weekend from my perspective.
- All of the author guests the redhead and I interacted with were absolutely fabulous in person, most notably Connie Willis, Fran Wilde, and Kim Stanley Robinson. In the swirl of convention chaos, the presence of so many top-notch and exceptionally warm authors provided a steady rock to stabilize the convention. A terribly run convention can be saved by a strong guest of honor, and while Balticon 50 had issues, it wasn't terribly run and with both George R.R. Martin and the returning "Alumni Guests of Honor" it had the advantage of having at least a dozen guests who could have headlined the convention. There was so much star power at this convention that it is somewhat tempting to simply list them all and call it a great convention. As far as I can tell, every one of the "alumni" was extremely generous with their time and effort, patiently sitting through long signing sessions and participating in panels and readings scheduled for some of the less desirable hours that would normally be populated by faces with considerably less experience in the field (Connie Willis, for example, was saddled with two 8:00 AM events). I am consistently amazed by how accessible and friendly so many of the figures in science fiction are, and it is on this pervasive congeniality that the community is built.
- Speaking of readings, the redhead and I attended a number of very good author readings. Before Balticon, I though of Jody Lynn Nye as "that author who has written some collaborations with Robert Lynn Asprin and Anne McCaffrey". After Balticon, I will always think of her as "that author who delivers fantastic readings". Nye was brilliant both as a reader and as a panelist. I have some of her solo books (I even brought them to the convention and got her to sign them), and seeing her in person pushed them quite a bit closer to the top of my mountainous to-be-read pile. Although the event we attended featuring Steven Barnes was listed as an author reading, Barnes didn't do much reading, but instead talked about how he found balance in his life - more or less turning into an infomercial on "how to live your life according to the wisdom of Steven Barnes". This was different from the reading it had been advertised to be, but Barnes is such a passionate person that listening to him extol the virtues of almost anything would be interesting. We also attended a few multi-author readings, starting with one that featured Tom Doyle, A.L. Davroe, and David Wood. It seems that Balticon tried to put authors together who would have a diverse array of writing, as Doyle's modern secret magic story, Davroe's young adult story on the moon, and Wood's hard-boiled 1930s detective story would seem to have little in common. All three authors gave good readings, but the star was clearly Doyle who read the introduction to his forthcoming War and Craft, wherein he sang the mystical poetry duel between two Irish craft practitioners. The other group reading featured Scott Edelman, Steve Lubs, Christopher Rose, and Don Sakers. Edelman got everyone on his side right off the bat by bringing an assortment of cookies to share, and then delivered his usual excellent reading. Steve Lubs read what I believe was an as yet unpublished science fiction story about double-crossing aliens visiting the Earth, while Rose read his story that won a Baltimore Science Fiction Society-sponsored writing award, and Sakers read an excerpt from a longer work. Once again, the line-up of authors at the reading were all very different, although they were all quite entertaining.
- Although the redhead and I only attended a few panels, the ones we went to were all good - once again made so by the high quality of the program participants. Our first panel was Why Ant Man and the First Thor Movie Are Good moderated by S.L. Wideman with panelists Day al-Mohammed, Meg Nuge, and Joshua Bilmes. The panel was mostly interesting, although it quickly devolved into a referendum on the more recent super-hero oriented movies Batman vs. Superman and Captain America: Civil War, turning more into an analysis of why people don't like some movies featuring super-heroes rather than an explanation of why the movies that were supposed to be the subject of the panel were good. The next was titled Writing: Its My Job and What I Do for Fun and was moderated by Carl Cipra and featured Jean Marie Ward, Jody Lynn Nye, and Keith DeCandido. To be perfectly honest, the redhead wanted to go because she wanted to see Ward on a panel, having enjoyed her presentations at previous conventions. Ward was in fine form with her usual wit, and both Nye and DeCandido made us into new fans with their participation. The most star-studded panel we attended was Finding a Foot to Stand On, another panel moderated by Carl Cipra which had Alexandra Duncan, Charles Gannon, Fran Wilde, Larry Niven, and Connie Willis as panelists. The subject under discussion was more or less "how does an author with a non-science background write hard science fiction", and given that both Willis and Gannon have academic backgrounds in English, while Niven holds a degree in mathematics, this seemed particularly apropos. Wilde, with an undergraduate degree in English and graduate degrees in information architecture, seemed to bridge the gap. Overall, the panel was exceptional, covering the topic quite ably, and often humorously. Our last panel was a presentation by Day al-Mohammed which was titled How to Make Your SF Short Film, but actually had the topic of "odd historical pieces of technology that Day thinks are interesting", including al-Jazari's water clock, the Mysorean rockets, and the somewhat ghoulish necropants.
- The redhead and I attended part of the Baen Road Show, an almost ubiquitous event at conventions these days, where Baen promotes various upcoming titles. This road show was no exception on that front, with announcements including an upcoming title by David Weber and a discussion led by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller about the interconnected web that is their series of stories set in the Liaden universe. Having seen the presentation, I am somewhat interested in reading the series, but somewhat deterred by the fact that it is eighteen novels long (plus various other ancillary materials) and has an almost unfathomable continuity. The highlight of the event was when Larry Niven was called to the stage to talk about the ongoing Man-Kzin Wars series. Apparently, no one had bothered to tell Niven where the stairs were to get on stage. Not to be deterred by such issues, the 78 year-old clambered onto the waist high stage, and then slowly rose from the hands and knees position such a maneuver had placed him in. As he turned to the audience, one could see that his face was flushed from the effort and both the redhead and I were certain he would have a heart attack right there on stage. Fortunately, he did not, and when a con staff member ran up to point out where the stairs were, Niven simply deadpanned in response, "That will be useful information for when I want to get down".
- After two years of planning (and failing) to attend an Eye of Argon reading, the redhead and I finally made it. For those unfamiliar with the work, The Eye of Argon is more or less an homage to the pulpy barbarian stories of authors like Robert E. Howard, Lin Carter, and L. Sprague de Camp. Written by a very young Jim Theis and originally published in the Journal of the Ozark SF Society, the story is terrible in the most hilarious way, combining a mighty thewed barbarian hero, a wench with a "lithe, opaque nose", an evil prince with an adviser who gets killed twice in the story, and even more evil cultists worshiping the vile idol of Argon. The writing is terrible, riddled with grammatical errors, misspellings, words used in incomprehensible ways, and situations described that are literally physically impossible (at one point a woman is described as having her face peering up from between her bosoms). The story has since become something of a cult favorite at conventions where it is read aloud, with the challenge being to read it as written in all of its horrendous glory, convoluted syntax, oddly spelled words, and all. At this reading, members of the audience were brought to the front to read the story, with Ian Randal Strock reading along to make sure they read the text exactly as written, and stopping any reader whose internal editor unconsciously caused them to say "many faceted gem" instead of "many fauceted gem", "chasm" instead of "chasim", or "deity" instead of "diety". Enhancing the reading, Keith DeCandido, Hildy Silverman, and Mike Ventrella attempted to act along, trying to recreate the actions the text describes, although they occasionally had to simply shrug their shoulders and give up despite their valiant efforts, helpless to actually recreate what was on the page (mostly because what was described was anatomically impossible). Despite excellent work by Keith, Hildy, and Mike, and some almost improbably skilled readers (at one point DeCandido remarked that this reading had gotten further through the story than any other he had participated in), the highlight was Strock reading along and registering his approval with a nod and a smile when a reader navigated a particularly tricky passage.
- The redhead and I attended the eSpec book launch party where the publisher was officially launching their short fiction anthologies Gaslight & Grimm, The Weird Wild West, and The Side of Good/The Side of Evil, as well as the relaunch of their military science fiction anthology Dogs of War. With plenty of good food, an impressive array of authors, and a pile of good books to be had, this was an excellent event. There were a number of small presses at Balticon, many of whom clearly get a decent chunk of their business from convention sales, and eSpec, run by Danielle Ackley-McPhail and Mike McPhail, is one of my favorites (I am also a fan of Ian Randal Strock's small press Fantastic Books). With the death of the mid-list at larger publishers, it seems that small presses are taking up the slack. If one is interested in experimental work, authors on the rise (or simply authors who are more comfortable working at shorter lengths), the diverse assortment of small presses in the genre fiction world are the place to look.
- One glaring problem was that programming was a mess, and apparently so from the beginning of the convention. Balticon provided both a large convention book containing a schedule and a pocket guide that also had a schedule. The first problem was that these schedules were incompatible with one another, each listing events at different times - they diverged by a half an hour, which unsurprisingly served to make it difficult to figure out when an event was supposed to take place. The second problem was that many program participants had schedules that were, as Mur Lafferty described it, "temporally impossible", with many participants double-booked for two events at one time, or booked with back-to-back events separated by several hotel floors. When I attended a scheduled interview with Phil and Kaja Foglio on the tenth floor of the hotel, they were immediately whisked away to a panel that was taking place on the fifth floor. Despite many fans standing there who wanted to say hello to the Foglios and maybe get something signed or a picture (and the Foglios being apparently willing to accommodate such fans), the requirements of the schedule were such that they had to leave right away. Given that the Foglios did not have a scheduled signing session, this was somewhat disappointing. The programming issues were especially problematic when one considers the presence of so many guest of honor "alumni". Given that the convention had a magnificent pool of talent to draw from that included Steve Barnes, Peter Beagle, Michael Flynn, Phil and Kaja Foglio, Joe Haldeman, Donald Kingsbury, Sharon Lee, Steve Miller Larry Niven, Jody Lynn Nye, Nancy Springer, Allen Steele, Charles Stross, Harry Turtledove, John Varley, Jo Walton, and Connie Willis as well as their usual set of attendees such as Charles Gannon, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Fran Wilde, not to mention guest of honor George R.R. Martin, there was absolutely no need to have such tight schedules for any participant.
- The convention was held at the Renaissance Baltimore Harborplace Hotel, which had a number of design flaws that hampered the convention. I'm not going to hold the poor hotel design against the convention staff (except to the extent that they never should have chosen this hotel to begin with), but I will hold it against the convention staff that they used the available space quite badly. To begin with, programming was spread out over several floors, with scheduled items taking place on floors five, six, nine, ten, and eleven, and the Con suite and Green Room were on floor twelve. This meant that program participants often had to go up or down several floors to get between their (often tightly packed) events. Because the hotel had so few elevators, this often meant using the Soviet surplus stairwell to get from one event to another. Apparently no one considered that by bringing back several guest of honor "alumni", they were bringing back people who are a lot older than they had been the first time they attended Balticon, and many of them are, for want of a better word, frail. Watching a convention staff member try to get Donald Kingsbury to hurry to his next panel was almost painful. Kingsbury was a trooper about it, but the man is eighty-six and that should have been considered when his schedule was made. This could have been avoided: Most of the programming could have taken place on the fifth floor. If ConOps, the Tabletop Game room, the RPG room, the Dance Hall, and the LARP room had been moved to the sixth floor (or in the case of ConOps, to one of the ninth or tenth floor suites), that would have freed up more space on the fifth floor for programming, easing the load on the elevators and making it easier for program participants to move from scheduled event to scheduled event.
- Using the space badly extended to the locations provided for author signings. With a star-studded lineup, one would think that the convention would have thought to provide a good space for signing events. Instead, most of the signing events were crammed into the back corner of the hotel restaurant, meaning that the lines would snake through the bar area and into the hallway. This resulted in people seeking to get books singed being constantly admonished to move their line so it wasn't in the way of restaurant patrons - an issue that loomed especially large during signings that coincided with the breakfast buffet, such as the one for Niven, Willis, MacAvoy, and Turtledove. Another issue was having signing sessions that conflicted with one another - the signing session for the four authors I just mentioned took place at the same time as George R.R. Martin's first signing (which had its own issues, that I will go into next), so a fan basically had to choose between getting something signed by Niven or signed by Martin. Placing the signing sessions where they were almost seemed like an insult to the authors in question, who should have had space allocated to their event that was more commensurate with their stature. Compounding the problem, immediately behind the "main" signing area was a glass partition, behind which the convention had scheduled other signing sessions: At the same time Niven, Willis, MacAvoy, and Turtledove were signing up front, Compton Crook Award winner Fran Wilde and former Compton Crook award winners Alexandra Duncan and Kim Stanley Robinson were behind the glass partition at their signing event - and the only way to get to them was to form a line in the area where Niven, Willis, MacAvoy, and Turtledove were doing their signing. This created no small amount of congestion. This was not unique - later an "up front" signing session that included Charles Stross had John Varley, Peter Beagle, Jody Lynn Nye, and Donald Kingsbury behind the glass partition.
- George R.R. Martin breaks conventions. That can simply be taken as a given. He has hordes of fans, all of whom want autographs and pictures with him, and they will mob any event he is at unless plans are made to organize this chaos into some semblance of order. Balticon worked out a system where each attendee could get a ticket to one of his signing events, and then they would control the number of people who attended each one and limit how many things a person could get signed. This seemed like a reasonable plan, but it was (at least initially) executed very badly. The schedule said that the first signing would begin seating at 10:00 AM, and the event would start at 10:30 AM. When people began to show up at 10:00 AM, it seemed to take the convention staff by surprise, as they were unready to begin seating people. When 10:20 rolled around, a large line had formed in the central hallway, and convention staff were yelling at people to clear a passageway through the area so others could get to and from the events going on at the convention. When convention staff finally started calling for groups of ticket numbers to come forward, the woman working the seating table insisted that those in a group called up that included numbers 1 through 40 must line up in numerical order before she would process them and allow them to enter the room. A good plan can be foiled by poor execution, and although Balticon's plan had promise, the execution left a lot to be desired.
- This is a gripe that is probably minor in the grand scheme of things, but as one of the things that I look forward to at conventions is browsing the booksellers in the dealer's hall, I will bring it up anyway: For no real reason that anyone can discern, Larry Smith was given inadequate space. Smith has been attending Balticon as a dealer for many years, and in the past he has always requested, and paid for, four tables to be able to adequately display his stock. This year, he was limited to two, and one was only allocated to him at the last minute. To cope with his reduced space, he bifurcated his wares and had some in the dealer hall with a suite on the tenth floor to hold the remainder. Smith was able to work around the problem, but it was a solution he should not have had to resort to.
- One of the major problems was the structure of the hotel itself. The hotel had most of the convention space on the fifth floor with an additional amount on the sixth floor, and a few suites on the ninth, tenth, and twelfth floors, which would not have been a huge problem, except that the hotel only had one publicly accessible bank of six elevators to serve a twelve story facility that took up an entire city block. Two of these elevators were express elevators that only went between the first and fifth floor (and the parking garage), so getting to and from the convention space was a little bit easier than one might think, but the elevator area was still incredibly congested at almost all hours. Although this hotel has more rooms than the Hunt Valley location Balticon was at for the last couple of years, I'm not entirely convinced it has more public convention space, and even if it does, it is very poorly laid out. Among other things, the public areas seem to be almost designed to prevent the kind of casual socialization that makes fan run conventions so special (and the hotel security did their best to make such socialization even more unappealing than the space did). When these issues are combined with the greater expense of everything in the Baltimore Inner Harbor area - from parking to food to accommodations - the move from the Hunt Valley location to the Renaissance Baltimore Harborplace seems like a step backwards.
- The Harborplace Hotel also seemed to be poorly ventilated. The main convention area on the fifth floor had a skylight and overlooked a four level mall built into the hotel, and the HVAC system of the facility didn't seem to be up to the task of keep the air in this large area adequately circulated. With the sun shining through the glass roof onto several hundred people, the convention area got quite warm, and was almost stifling at times. Someone who had their table in the atrium area of the convention space got a sunburn from sitting there all weekend. I can't imagine how unpleasant this space must be in July and August. The Harborplace Hotel seems like it was designed to be a pretty facility, and it is, but it certainly falls down when it comes to functionality.
- The biggest problem with the Harborplace Hotel was that hotel security was obnoxious and surly. I have seen reports that hotel security harassed convention goers, including the sexual harassment of female cosplayers. That would be an issue by itself, but the hotel security seem to have spent their time looking to start problems rather than trying to solve them. Security people would roam the quiet hallways, knocking on doors looking for parties to shut down - targeting rooms that were frequently occupied by sleeping guests instead of the parties they were supposedly looking for. One convention goer was accompanied by his teenage children, and left his door propped open so they could get in and out of the room when he wasn't there. Hotel security paid him a visit to harass him over leaving his own room door open. Hotel security apparently harassed and behaved aggressively towards a person who was in the middle of a panic attack. One of the panels I attended was interrupted by hotel security who informed the panelists that there had been a noise complaint. One of the panelists asked if security had contacted the convention staff to let them know (so they could do something to make sure it didn't become an issue again), and was told they had done so. This was a lie. Hotel security never bothered to contact convention staff. When people attempted to discuss the matter with hotel security, they were uninterested in working with convention staff to prevent problems from reoccurring and seemed almost gleeful at the prospect of throwing people out of the rooms they were using. I have been told that hotel security did, in fact, shut down the dance hall.