Thursday, August 25, 2016

Event - MidAmeriCon II, August 17th - 21st, 2016: Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday

Last week the seventy-fourth Worldcon, titled MidAmeriCon II, was held in Kansas City, Missouri. The redhead and I were among the many thousands of attendees this year, and at least as far as we are concerned, it was a terrific convention.

Wednesday: We arrived late in the day on the first day of the convention after driving eight hours to get to Kansas City. After checking in to our hotel, we took the Main Street streetcar to the convention center for the first time. I will take this opportunity to heap praise onto Kansas City for their excellent streetcar service, which was easy to use and got us where we needed to go in a most efficient manner.

After a short walk from the streetcar, we reached the convention center and found the registration desk shortly before it closed, claiming our badges. The redhead also got her first badge ribbon as the volunteer working the desk had a "Team Mystic" ribbon to give her. From there it was a escalator ride to the enormous main hall of the convention where the "consuite", dealer hall, and artists' alley could be found as well as the various "parks" that had been set up, and the "party rooms" were located. Con ops and the area for author signings were also located in this room, as were the gaming area and the cosplay repair station. Everything was separated by temporary dividers, which worked well, but did block some of the food vendors along the walls - a fact that we did not discover until Saturday, and then only by accident.

We took this opportunity to tour the dealer hall, as we didn't know if our schedule would permit us to do so later. We found the Studio Foglio booth where we acquired volumes twelve and thirteen of the Girl Genius series, and had them both signed by Phil and Kaja Foglio. From there we headed to Larry Smith's book store and acquired a number of books we had been looking forward to, including Time Siege by Wes Chu, League of Dragons by Naomi Novik, The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin, and The Royal Succession by Maurice Druon. We would have also picked up Glamour in Glass by Mary Robinette Kowal, but Larry didn't have the book, just as he had not had it at either Balticon or InConJunction. He had all of the other books in Kowal's Glamourist Histories series, but not that one for some reason, at least not at the start of the convention. All turned out well eventually, by Thursday Larry had received a mailed shipment of books that included Glamour in Glass, and in a stroke of luck, Mary was there when the redhead went to buy a copy and got it signed on the spot.

After leaving the main hall, we ran across Fran Wilde, Sarah Pinsker, Scott Edelman, and a few others, giving us an opportunity to catch up with them. After a short conversation, we headed over to the local supermarket Cosentino's to stock up on supplies for the rest of the week. We usually do this at most conventions, stocking up on snacks, drinks, and food for the convention and carrying the supplies in an insulated backpack we bring just for this purpose. We were able to get most of what we needed, but we discovered something we didn't previously know about Cosentino's: Their pre-prepared food is very attractive, but for the most part is mediocre at best.

Thursday: Our convention really got going on Thursday, with a panel on the Best (Mega)Bits of Gaming featuring Randy Henderson, Symantha Reagor, Andrea Stewart, Brianna Wu, and Carrie Patel moderated by Vivian Trask. We had mostly gone to the panel to see Brianna and Carrie, but the entire discussion was excellent, touching on a wide variety of issues related to video game development and design. On a side note, this panel was scheduled in the earliest time slot of the day, which was a quite reasonable 10 A.M. Whoever made the decision to have programming for this Worldcon start at 10 A.M. (as opposed to many conventions where 8 A.M. is the norm), I send my thanks to you. As a bonus, Brianna's husband Frank Wu was in attendance at the panel, and we were able to meet him as well. He thought my Five Year Mission t-shirt was interesting, so I pointed him to the band's website where I hope he enjoys the music they produce.

After our panel we ran across Mary Robinette Kowal, who was in costume for her roving book launch party for Ghost Talkers. We gave her the pass phrase from the blog post in which she had announced the roving book launch party, and she gave us a coded telegram. And thus our participation in the game of cracking Mary's various coded messages began, although it turned out that this was an inauspicious beginning, as there was no real way to crack the code in the telegram. It turned out that the code in the telegram was a book code keyed, naturally enough, to Ghost Talkers. Unfortunately, Ghost Talkers was pretty much impossible to acquire at the convention, as none of the book dealers had a copy available, which made the code impossible to crack. After we had beaten our heads against the code for the better part of a day, we ran into Mary again, and she gave us a postcard as a replacement code to puzzle out, and the rest of the challenges went quite smoothly. There were common Caesar codes, a keyed Caesar code, a pigpen cipher, and a columnar transposition cipher. We spent the better part of two days working them out and then tracking Mary down to give her the coded pass phrase to get the prizes of tea, chocolate, rum, and a pencil, and finally the final code. The final prize was to be delivered at the party on Friday evening, but I'll talk about that when I write about Friday's events.

Going back to the subject of musical acts, at noon, we attended Paul & Storm's concert. As usual, the duo were excellent, providing geeky comedy and music that included numbers such as Opening Band, Irish Drinking Song, Write Like the Wind (George R.R. Martin), Nun Fight, and Westerosi Pie. They closed their concert with a rousing (and lengthy) rendition of The Captain's Wife's Lament. If you have not attended a Paul & Storm concert, it is worth it to go just for that song alone, although one should be warned that they take a song that runs for about two minutes and twenty seconds in the studio recording and make it last for eight, ten, twelve, twenty, or even more minutes. As a consolation, the live version of the song incorporates substantial audience participation, which is what makes the song so long and so much fun.

Our next event was the Grand Master Chat featuring Larry Niven, Connie Willis, Joe Haldeman, James Gunn, and Robert Silverberg. This is the sort of panel that it is almost impossible to find anywhere but Worldcon, because this assemblage of talent doesn't show up anywhere else very often. The panel was mostly an undirected conversation, in part because one would be hard-pressed to find someone who could moderate this group, and in part because there wasn't any real need to direct it. For the most part, this panel was a little bit like sitting in a room where some very old friends were having a conversation about whatever they thought was interesting. Everyone on the panel was excellent, but Willis and Silverberg stood out even in this group.

Our next panel was titled SF as Protest Literature with Bradford Lyau, Mark Oshiro, Jo Walton, Ann Leckie, and moderated by Alex Jablokow. Once again, this was a brilliant panel with intelligent and knowledgeable panelists providing insightful and interesting commentary. From there we went to Your Character Ate What? a game show style panel hosted by Fran Wilde and featuring Elizabeth Bear, Scott Lynch, Maz Gladstone, Esther Friesner, and John Chu. The format for the game show was fairly simple: Two audience members were selected as contestants; they then picked a member of the panel as their spokesperson for each question. Fran would ask a question and ask the selected panelists to answer it, at which point the contestants would have to decide if their chosen panelist's answer was right or wrong. The twist is that the questions almost always involve food, and are almost always incredibly weird. The real fun is watching authors who clearly have not read the book that the question is based upon try to bluff their way through their answer, or, as seemed to frequently be the case for Scott Lynch, when they simply make no pretense at getting the correct answer. This panel was great fun, and was one of the highlights of the convention. If you are ever at a convention where Fran is hosting this game show, I highly recommend attending.

The redhead and I then headed back to the main hall to cast our votes for site selection, which was an extremely well-organized process. Our return to the main hall also allowed us to stop by the various fan tables, including those organized by the various bids to host Worldcon and NASFiC. This allowed us to obtain a number of badge ribbons, both for the bids themselves - I got ribbons for New Orleans in 2018, Dublin in 2019, New Zealand in 2020, and San Jose in 2018 - and silly ones such as a ribbon stating "Adult Supervision Is Recommended", and a pair of Chuck Tingle influenced ribbons: One said "I Am Chuck Tingle", and the other "No Devilman Plots". The redhead got one that said "Ladys Get Hard". On that note, I should point out that anyone who thinks that Tingle's placement as a Hugo finalist embarrassed the Worldcon community is simply deluded. There were so many Chuck Tingle themed badge ribbons that if one didn't know better, they might have thought he was one of the guests of honor. There was even a matching set of ribbons that said "I am secretly Chuck Tingle" and "I am not secretly Chuck Tingle", which many people wore together, making them a kind of Schrödinger's Tingle. Far from being upset by the nomination, most people seemed to embrace the silly nature of it, and had great fun at the convention as a result.

Friday: Friday was supposed to start off with the panel It's Not Torture If It's the Good Guys, but the combination of Wednesday's drive and Thursday's packed schedule meant that the redhead and I didn't get ourselves together early enough to attend. One thing that almost always happens at a convention is that your planned schedule will be disrupted and you won't be able to do one of the things you had hoped to be able to do. Whether it is because you overslept, or because getting lunch took longer than you thought, or simply because the event you wanted to attend was so overcrowded that you couldn't get in, something is almost certain to go wrong somewhere, and it is unlikely to be a unique event. You just have to be prepared for this sort of thing to happen, and roll with it.

The first panel we actually made it to wasn't really a panel at all, it was the Magazine Group Reading for Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine, moderated by C.C. Finlay and featuring readings by David Gerrold, Cat Rambo, Sarah Pinsker, William Ledbetter, and Esther Friesner. This was the first of several magazine reading panels that the redhead and I had scheduled at the convention, and I cannot recommend this type of panel enough. There is no better way to get exposure to the work of a lot of writers than to go to a group reading panel, especially one that is themed in some way. The authors on this panel had all been published in Fantasy & Science Fiction at some point, and most read a section from one of their stories that had appeared in the magazine. Each of the authors gave a terrific reading, but both Gerrold and Friesner were notable for the humor that infused their readings.

Next we attended the Magazine Group Reading panel for Analog: Science Fiction and Fact moderated by Trevor Quachri and featuring Alec Nevala-Lee, Stanley Schmidt, Rosemary Claire Smith, and James van Pelt. Of all the group readings the redhead and I attended at Worldcon, this one was the least interesting overall. I'm not sure if it was because the readers delivered their material in a dull manner, or if the stories themselves were weak. I have found the stories in Analog, when taken as a group, to be the blandest and most pedestrian of the stories found in the major speculative fiction magazines, although I usually attribute this to the fact that the magazine emphasizes technical details more than the others, sometimes at the expense of storytelling, and that may have been what happened on this panel. On the plus side, there were two stories featuring dinosaurs. I will also say that while I have often been critical of Quachri's time at the helm of the magazine, the answers he gave to the audience questions were informative and insightful.

From the Analog reading, we moved directly to the Magazine Group Reading for Asimov's Science Fiction moderated by Sheila Williams and featuring readings by James Patrick Kelly, Mary Robinette Kowal, Steve Rasnic Tem, Connie Willis, and Robert Reed. As with the other readings, all of the authors were in top form, and all gave excellent readings, especially Willis and Kowal. One of the interesting things to see at these panels is the interaction between the editors and the authors, and one particularly funny exchange ended up with James Patrick Kelly crawling away into the audience in shame.

Friday was the day that David Truesdale hijacked a panel on The State of Short Fiction, an incident that led to his expulsion from the convention. I may write about that in some other post, but to satisfy my curiosity I went back and figured out where the redhead and I were when this happened: We were in line to get books signed by Robert Silverberg. Over the course of the convention, the redhead and I asked several authors to sign books for us, and every single one of them was gracious and generous, whether we were asking after a panel, or while in the dealer hall, or at an official signing session. Silverberg was no exception. One of the wonderful things about the science fiction community is that an author with as long and accomplished a career as Silverberg will still sit and talk with fans almost at the drop of a hat. In many cases, I have the impression that were it not for the requirements of scheduling, many authors would spend all of their time at Worldcon simply sitting around and talking with attendees.

Our final Magazine Group Reading of the day was for Clarkesworld, moderated by Neil Clarke and featuring Mary Anne Mohanraj, Kelly Robson, Seth Dickinson, Martin Shoemaker, and Naomi Kritzer. As with the other reading panels, this one was entertaining fro start to finish, with highlights provided when Kritzer read from her Hugo-nominated (and later Hugo-winning) story Cat Pictures Please and Shoemaker read from his WSFA Small Press Award-nominated story Today I Am Paul. Aside from the readings, the best moment in the panel came when Mohanraj pointed out to Clarke that he has turned down the sequel to the story she read and he went and stood in the corner in shame.

After four magazine group readings and two signing sessions, the redhead and I made it to our first actual panel of the day titled 'It Takes a Pack to Raise a Child' Families and Friends in Steampunk, with panelists Gail Carriger, Beth Cato, Sandee Rodriguez, and Belinda McBride moderated by Heather Rose Jones. This panel was quite good on the whole, delving into what makes a character a side character as opposed to a member of an ensemble, and how to use such characters to drive a story forward. All of the panelists contributed, but the star of the hour was definitely Beth Cato, whose commentary was consistently stellar.

The final event we attended on Friday was the Girl Genius Radio Play hosted by Phil and Kaja Foglio. As they explained at the outset, this event was neither radio nor a play, but rather a collection of people standing in front of microphones reading a story in character in a manner similar to that done in the past for radio broadcast. Except there was no broadcasting done on this night. After Phil selected members of the audience to fill out parts, Kaja took to the microphone as Agatha Heterodyne, Girl Genius, while her son took on the role of Krosp, Emperor of All Cats, and Phil assumed the role of narrator. With the cast in place, presentations of Revenge of the Weasel Queen and Agatha's Big Date commenced, with much fanfare and cheering and audience participation. Othar Tryggvassen, Gentleman Adventurer, tried to be heroic, Krosp was sarcastic, Zeetha knocked heads, and Agatha saved the day. Kind of. By mistake. The Girl Genius Radio Plays, despite being neither radio nor plays, are a rollicking good time, and if you are at a convention where they are held, I highly recommend going.

After the Radio Play, we went to dinner and eventually went to the party, and finally completed Mary Robinette Kowal's final code challenge. The prize for completing the challenge was supposed to be a story, written by Mary on the spot at the party using her portable manual typewriter. Unfortunately, she had accidentally dropped the typewriter earlier in the day, and it was not working. Mary spent nearly two hours trying to fix the machine, adjusting the tension of various screws and wires, trying to find just the magical combination that would get it working again. For much of this time, I sat next to her, having offered my Swiss Army Knife for her to use as a screwdriver and holding the miniature flashlight for her while she tinkered away. Eventually she gave up, and gave us an I.O.U. for the story, but even if she had not, this is the sort of experience that makes conventions what they are. As tense and out of sorts as Mary was for most of the time, I will never forget sitting there and doing my best to help. It wasn't how I imagined I would spend the bulk of the party, but I wouldn't trade the time spent being Mary's assistant for anything. On a more party-like note, I did get to spend some time making the acquaintance of Naomi Kritzer, who is just as delightful in person as her stories are on the page.

MidAmeriCon II, August 17th - 21st, 2016: Saturday and Sunday

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