Note:This report was originally composed as a series of e-mails that were sent between September 1 and September 9, 2004. I've edited the original text somewhat, snipping the less relevant introductory bits and adding a few clarifications and hyperlinks, but overall I've striven to preserve the feel of the originals.
Given my long-standing love of rail travel, one might have expected my natural choice for transportation to this con to be Amtrak's high-speed Acela train. But I had also heard good things recently about a bus service called the Limoliner, which runs between New York and Boston in four hours, with comparable comfort and amenities to the Amtrak trains, and costs less ($69 each way). It also offers the advantage of truly reserved seating, whereas even the "all reserved" trains on Amtrak are still catch-as-catch-can for your actual seat placement. So I made a reservation way back in June, when the Republican Convention was still no more than a dark smudge on the horizon.
One challenge to be dealt with was the departure times for the bus. There was an early one at 6:45AM, which would get me into Boston at just about the right time to check into the hotel and catch the beginning of the convention. But how to get from New Providence to 53rd and 6th, the bus's point of embarkation? There are early-morning trains, but that early in the morning, one can't be guaranteed of making it from Penn Station to upper midtown by 6:45 by any means. My options were to hire a private car service to take me into Manhattan early in the morning, or to get a hotel room in the city the night before. I opted for the car service, which, while expensive, still cost less than the cheapest hotel room available.
Fast forward to the past few weeks, when all the talk of the metro area was of the disruptions in traffic caused by the convention, and the general words of advice were "Stay away from midtown!" I decided to call the Limoliner people today, to find out what experiences they'd had with the traffic control over the past few days, and what I could expect for my ride.
The person who answered the phone at Limoliner's toll-free number was very honest about the situation, and told me that they'd been getting conflicting information from the hotel, the NYPD, and the Secret Service about the rules for driving and parking their buses, and that the restrictions were changing almost hourly. He said that he wasn't sure whether the bus would be able to pick up passengers in midtown at all, and that they'd like to get their reserved people onto alternate transportation if we'd accept it.
"So what are the alternatives?" I asked. He said that they could make a reservation on the Acela for me.
Well, okay then, looks like I'm back to the train, for the price of a bus ticket! Guess I can't say the Bush Administration never did me any good. And I get to ride the Limoliner on the return trip, so I'll have a good basis to compare the two.
This change in plans also saved me the price of the car service into Manhattan. Even though the Morris and Essex trains are all running into Hoboken during the convention, a train to Hoboken and the PATH to 33rd Street is a known quantity for me, and I should be able to make it to Penn Station with an hour to spare before my 7AM train. And I'll still be in Boston before noon.
The really fun part is going to be getting from my home to the local train station tomorrow morning. The trains on the Gladstone line, which runs through New Providence, don't start early enough for me to make my connections. I can catch a train in Summit, which is a 40 minute walk away, but I will have to leave home at 4AM to make sure I catch it.
This is not quite as insane as it may seem, because I've been in the habit lately of waking up at 4AM and taking a long walk. And I did the same thing last year to catch the train to Toronto. So all that remains for me now is to pack everything tonight and get to sleep at my usual early hour.
By the time of my next update, I will, if all goes well, be up in Beantown on the site of Noreascon, which is the convention that has more appeal for me than any other being held this year.
Okay, so the transportation went off without a hitch. The morning walk was refreshing and moonlit. The trains were running on time, and Penn Station wasn't nearly as crowded as it usually is at 7AM on a workday. I guess the stories are true about many people staying away during the convention. The absence of the Morris and Essex trains also affected things, I'm sure.
I was first in line for the 7AM Acela train to Boston, although there really wasn't any need to rush. The train was empty enough that I could have had my pick of seats at any point during the trip. I hope this is just more convention fallout and not the usual state of the Acela, because Amtrak isn't going to make much money with nearly-empty trains.
The train itself is quite classy and comfortable. The overhead bins resemble those on airplanes, and the ride itself feels a lot like a plane ride would in a perfect world -- if the aisles were wide enough to swing your arms in, the seats were wider and only two across, the windows were large enough to actually get a decent view out of... well, okay, you can see some of the reasons why I prefer to travel by train.
Boston wasn't too familiar to me, my last extended trip having been more than ten years ago. But I managed to find the convention location by the usual Jimcat navigation method, which consists of a brief glance at a map and a lot of I'm-sure-it's-around-here-somewhere dead reckoning. The hotel didn't have my room ready yet (not too surprising at 11AM), and convention programming hasn't started, but fortunately some dedicated volunteers have gotten some Internet terminals up.
Once things do get going, though, there's going to be plenty to keep me occupied. Just as a preview, here are some of the panels I've tagged as must-see for today:
And that takes me all the way to 7PM, when the First Night festivites begin. It's questionable when (or if) I'll have time for dinner, but I may be too involved to care. And this isn't even the first full day! I will certainly be spending a lot more time on convention activities than I did last year. In fact, given that the hotel and the convention center are connected by a large indoor mall that spans several blocks of Back Bay, it's theoretically possible for me to spend the entire visit indoors, although realistically I wouldn't be likely to do that.
It also didn't take me long to run into some of the old crowd: fellow escapees from Troy Mitch Gold, Jamie Bridge, Vic Alteria and some assorted companions. I'm sure more "con friends" will cross paths with me before long.
No idea when the next update will be, but I'm off to the opening ceremonies now.
The computers in the ConCourse don't have chairs, forcing me to be rapid and concise in my typing. But here are a few highlights from Thursday evening.
The Noreascon opening ceremonies were pretty much a disappointment. They tried to make them interesting, with a lot of video and slide shows and various banter, but the delivery of the whole thing came across as rather bland. Torcon had a much better sense of showmanship. But no con is perfect in every respect. The actual program materials here are more interesting -- and, as several people have pointed out, there is a lot more to choose from. The consensus around the con is that NESFA really knows how to throw a Worldcon.
On my way to the first panel of the day, I ran into Larry Niven. That isn't too hard to do at a major con, and I've been encountering him for several years, but most of the time I haven't been able to come up with anything better to say than "..." or "Um, you're like, my hero." This time I actually managed to get some coherent sentences out, but it was just small talk about trying to find the panel room.
There was a panel run by John Clute entitled "The Real Year", which explored the concept that each science fiction story or novel, while ostensibly about the future, actually had the feel of a year that was prior to when it was written. For example, many Ray Bradbury stories are about the late 20s in the Midwest, and Heinlein was generally writing from the point of view of 1930s Missouri. The discussion talked about which stories had a "real year" closest to the year in which they were actually written, and whether this made them better stories or not. There is the possibility that a story that's too contemporary may become dated rather quickly as the actual future overtakes it. I mentioned that stories may have a different "real year" from the point of view of the reader. I read Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land in the early 80s, and when reading its portrayal of a world leader who strongly resembled Ronald Reagan, the book took on the feel of 1982 for me. This despite the book's having been written in 1961, and the rest of the social feel of the book being more like the 1950s or earlier.
A panel on "The Singularity Versus the Eschaton" talked about the comparison between technological transcendence and the religious concept of Rapture. I've often thought that both concepts allowed some people to ignore the problems of the present, by convincing them that everything will be fixed by some miracle in the near future. There were some interesting debates about whether the Singularity was more "democratic" than the Christian Rapture. Some said yes, that anyone could be caught up in the technological advance. Others said no, access to technology would be limited by wealth and geographical location.
The one panel that I most eagerly anticipated was Teresa Nielsen Hayden's talk "Deconstructing Mary Sue". Briefly, a Mary Sue is a character in fan fiction who is a hopelessly idealized version of the author, who becomes the center of the universe, solves every problem, and has everyone singing their praises. A lot of what was discussed in the talk was already covered on her weblog -- do a Google search for "Making Light" and "Mary Sue" for more. One of the most amusing new comments was someone who asked what to do about the people who actually enjoyed reading Mary Sue stories. I asked, "Why is this a problem?", and the person cried, "Because it's wrong!" Much laughter.
I ran into Bill "Crash" Yerazunis, RPI Ph.D. and local legend, and talked to him about his Junkyard Wars that are scheduled for Sunday. I hadn't known that he was on the TV show way back in the second season (this is what comes of not watching TV). I also mentioned to him that I thought maybe I should have contributed some Yerazunis stories on the "Tall Tech Tales" panel, but wasn't sure if he'd have approved. Bill said that I should have, so next time such a panel comes around, I'm going to try to get on it. The stories I heard at last night's panel were great additions to my collection, and I have plenty of good ones to share about the crazy RPI professors and Yerazunis' blowtorch hacks.
The party scene was quite good for a Thursday night. Torcon had a "post-bid" thank-you party in appreciation for those who'd attended last year, and there was a bid for Australia in 2010 in the room next door. I signed up to pre-support Australia -- I've never been there yet, but six years should be enough time to save up the dough for a good trip.
The two contenders for the 2007 Worldcon, Columbus and Yokohama, were sharing a huge room for their party. There was free beer and sake, plenty of munchies, and a couple of musical acts. Easily the most fun place of the evening, and I ran into a lot of my old "con friends" there. I'm in favor of Yokohama winning, because there's never been a Worldcon in Asia and I think they deserve one. But I don't know if I could make it to both Japan in '07 and Australia in '10.
I'd love to write more, but there is a line of impatient fans behind me. There are only about six public Internet machines here and half of them have bad network connections this morning. It wouldn't be a good idea for your faithful reporter to be lynched for hogging the computer. Time for breakfast, the dealer's room, and the Friday panels.
Made it to the dealers' room for my annual book-buying frenzy. I tried to keep it to a reasonable level, since I still have paperbacks from the last Worldcon that I haven't finished reading yet. But there's so much good new stuff being written, it's hard to resist... guess I'll have to spend more time reading and less playing Civilization. Or less time on the Internet.(-:
Mitch Gold and some of the other RPI folks commented on the lack of media and gaming presence at this con. Personally I don't see this as a bad thing, but I guess some people do expect their TV shows or gaming merchandise. But this con is run by NESFA, who take their science fiction programming pretty seriously.
More good panels this afternoon. The first one I went to was entitled "The World Map of 2100", which was a natural for me given my interest in history and maps. There wasn't too much talk about actual changes in borders, but the consensus was that most of the geopolitical events of the next century will be driven by two factors: demographics and energy. Birthrates are falling, not only in the civilized world, but in the developing countries as well, and the ratio of older people to younger will drive some severe economic readjustments in the near-to-medium future. S.M. Stirling pointed out that China is experiencing increased economic power now partly because it has hit the "sweet spot" of declining birthrate demographics. Because their birthrate fell below the replacement rate about twenty years ago, they now have a large group of people in their prime working years without many dependent children or retirees. But this situation will only be advantageous for the next three decades or so, after which the largest birth cohorts will become retirees themselves, with fewer working age people to support them. Japan is facing that today, and when it hits China after decades of being an economic powerhouse, the result may ripple throughout the world economy, and it won't be pleasant for anyone. Another interesting point was that the United States is the only advanced country that is actually projected to gain population steadily for the next few decades. So between that and populations elsewhere falling, the US will contain a significantly larger fraction of the world population, and even more so of the civilized world's population.
From speculation on the future, I next went to a panel exploring a possible alternative past, entitled "Nukes on the Moon?" Apparently in the late 50s and early 60s, the US Army and Air Force drafted serious plans to build a nuclear missile base on the moon, as a strategic deterrent. Back in those days, the ballistic missile silos were relatively new, and bombers were the main delivery system for nuclear warheads, so the nuclear arsenal was considered to be rather vulnerable. A base on the moon would guarantee us some surviving weapons in the event of a Soviet "nuclear Pearl Harbor".
The plans were quite ambitious. One estimate from the 60s projected that five Saturn rocket launches every month for two to three years would be required to get all of the materials to the moon. Some people thought that this would have brought the cost of space launches down because of economies of scale, and that we would have a more permanent presence in space now as a result. But I think that the lunar missile base was an unsupportable concept to begin with. Missiles require constant tending and maintenance to keep them launch ready, and that would require people on the moon, who in turn would require supplies, and crew rotation, and so forth -- the expense would be enormous just to keep a few missiles in working condition on the moon. And that doesn't even take into account the vulnerability of the base, or its supply line. It's much easier to take out a supply rocket bound for the moon, or even to destroy a launch site on Earth, than it is to attack a base on the moon. Ultimately, the "invulnerable" portion of the nuclear force was based on submarines, which are a lot easier to maintain than a base on the moon. It was an interesting exercise in what-if scenarios and strategic thinking, though.
Another panel later in the afternoon was based on a speech given at an earlier Worldcon, way back in 1965, by author Harry Harrison. His talk was titled something like "SF as the Salvation of the Modern Novel", and apparently its premise had been that, because of the pervasive influence of science in the (then) modern world, no literature could accurately portray that world if it didn't include some element of the scientific discoveries and their effects.
Well, Harry Harrison is still very much alive and active, and he was on this panel, and he began by saying that first, he didn't have any written records of his old speech so he wouldn't be able to re-create it, and second, with the perspective of almost forty more years, he thought that it was "bullshit". But with that out of the way, the panel launched into an interesting discussion of SF vs. "mainstream" literature, whether there was a difference at all, and if so, whether the scientific or technological element had a positive or negative influence on literary quality. There were a lot of different opinions among the panelists and the audience, and while no definitive conclusions were reached, it did provide a lot of food for thought. I suspect that if another panel on the same topic were to be held forty years from now, the end results would be similar.
One amusing footnote to this panel: I was talking to Harry Harrison before the panel started, and I mentioned to him that I'd first read his Stainless Steel Rat books about twenty years ago. He looked at me and said, "What, when you were ten?" Well, that was flattering, but I had to admit that I'd been more like fifteen then. (I don't get brain freeze when talking to most science fiction authors. Just Larry Niven.)
Once again it's getting close to party time. I slept until 8AM this morning, so I should have a lot more energy than I did yesterday when I'd been up since 3AM. Time to see if Noreascon can handle an energized Jimcat.
Noreascon made the papers today -- there was an article on the first page of the "lifestyle" section of the Boston Globe about Noreascon. It included a picture of Howard, one of my "con friends", dressed in his Star Wars X-wing fighter pilot's uniform. I was actually present when the picture was taken, and I think he was even talking to me at the time. But I wasn't in the picture -- guess I didn't look science fictional enough in my plain green t-shirt. But the article was pretty good; it wasn't condescending or completely clueless, as some articles about cons have been, and actually captured the flavor of the convention and the science fiction community fairly well.
Last night's parties were as good as Thursday's and more diverse. Among them was the best hoax bid party since Necronomicon: "Xerps in 2010", which says that we'll all be abducted by the Green Aliens for the Worldcon in that year. They had a sort of alien punch that's a distant cousin to Aviation Fuel -- no dry ice, though. There was also a "Tron" themed party run by the same fellow Howard -- for this one he got a lot of ultraviolet bulbs, dressed up himself and the room in fluorescent tape, and put together a soundtrack of techno-ambient music, 80s electronic pop, and science fiction themes. Those two probably were the best parties for science fictional atmosphere of the evening, although the League of Evil Geniuses party gets an honorable mention.
My planned schedule of panel visits got slightly rearranged today because I paid a visit to the Science Fiction Oral History Association table. I have an interest in collecting oral history myself, and I wound up volunteering to take a tape recorder to a few panels to capture the discussions.
The SFOHA people said at first that they needed someone to tape the Golden Duck Awards, which were being presented by a Chicago based science fiction group at 11AM. Unfortunately that conflicted with Terry Pratchett's Guest of Honor speech, and I said that I'd really rather not miss that. But the guy who was planning to tape Pratchett's speech was there, and he said he'd cover the Golden Duck Awards instead, and I could tape Terry. Okay, I was sold.
So I got into the grand ballroom early, planning to talk to the organizers and the GOH himself, to make sure that everything was okay and get the microphone up on the podium. When I got there, it turned out that someone else from SFOHA had already talked to the con committee, and they were going to be recording the speech through the sound board. Not to be deterred, I said, "Well, just in case the big expensive technology goes kablooey, this can be the backup tape." Everyone was happy with that, and I got to sit in the front row with the muckety-mucks (and a few very enthusiastic fans).
Terry Pratchett is very friendly to his fans, and his speeches are every bit as entertaining as his books. He started out by saying that he didn't really consider himself worthy to be up there, joining the ranks of such exalted SF legends as Asimov and Heinlein and Clarke, but he'd do his best to entertain us anyway. He talked about how he got some of the ideas for his stories -- as I'd often suspected, many of the most amusing or most improbable details are taken from actual examples in history. He also gave hints of some of the ideas in his next couple of Discworld books, but he couldn't give away entire plots, partly because he didn't know himself yet how everything was going to end up.
Outside of Pratchett's speech, there were also a couple of space exploration panels that I was pleasantly surprised to find well attended by people who knew a lot. The first was a presentation by a representative of an organization called Liftport, which has actual plans to build a space elevator. At my very first convention in 1987, I went to a panel called "How Long Till the Beanstalk?", which was moderated by Charles Sheffield and had about ten people attending (admittedly, this was a regional con and not a Worldcon). For today's panel on the same topic, the room had about 50 chairs, all of which were filled, and people were lining the walls and spilling out the door. And the talk about the space elevator or "beanstalk" was much more on the practical engineering level, as opposed to the pure theory that was being discussed seventeen years ago. I'm sure that there are still technical, financial, legal, and other obstacles to overcome, but the answer to the question from that original panel would seem to be "within our lifetimes if all goes well".
Another panel was titled "Cutting Edge Physics and Space Travel", and I thought it might have some discussion of ways to cheat relativity and break the lightspeed barrier, but that was only barely touched. It turns out that there are a lot of less exotic technologies that won't get us faster than light, but could get us really fast space travel within our solar system in the foreseeable future. Solar sails, electric propulsion, and laser launchers were discussed, along with some more bizarre ideas like a nuclear salt water rocket (water with uranium salts is heated and spewed out of a tank in such a pattern as to cause a fission reaction just as the material leaves the rocket nozzle. Tremendous power, but I'd hate to see the environmental impact statement). Everyone liked the idea of antimatter, but the problems of making and containing antimatter in any sort of useful quantities are still enormous enough to prevent its being practical or profitable any time soon.
There were a few miscellaneous bits of trivia gleaned from that panel as well. Professor Leik Myrabo's research on laser launch systems, which he conducted at RPI during my time there, was well known among spacecraft designers, but he had a reputation for "designing fifth-generation systems before constructing the first-generation prototypes". So RPI was sometimes referred to as "Roswell Polytechnic Institute" at space travel conferences. We also learned that there are existing regulations in the United States for transportation of antimatter across state lines -- they were drawn up in the 1950s!
As a favor to the oral history project for letting me tape the Pratchett speech, I skipped another panel I'd planned to attend and took a recorder to the "Remembering Hal Clement" session. I'd already participated in one of those at Philcon last year, and there were yet more wonderful stories about him. One of the most amusing concerned when Hal had been learning to drive. He grew up in the Boston area and never needed a car when he was in high school or college, and after college he became a bomber pilot for the Army Air Force, so he learned to fly a plane before he learned to drive a car. When he got back to the US after the war, he did have to learn to drive. In one of his first sessions on the road with a driving instructor, the car in front of them hit the brakes abruptly. Hal reflexively did the first thing that came to his mind: pulled back on the steering wheel and hit the accelerator! Fortunately the instructor had a brake on his side, and after they'd both resumed breathing normally, Hal admitted that he'd been trying to fly over the car in front of them. The instructor told him that he'd better learn a new set of reflexes for traveling on the ground.
The last thing I attended today was a musical performance by the New England Guitar Circle. This is a group of musicians who studied at Robert Fripp's Guitar Craft workshops, and got together to make "polyrhythmic" music with six guitars. The instruments are all acoustic, and the music is partly planned and partly improvised, making incredibly complex and beautiful sounds through the interaction of multiple instruments playing variations on a theme. It's some of the best music I've heard in years, and it's too bad that I'm not local to the Boston area and they don't have anything commercially available yet. But they do plan to have CD's out soon, and I'll be sure to buy them when they do come out.
I was actually able to get some computer time because the Hugo Award ceremonies are going on now, which much of the con seems to be attending. I've never really enjoyed award ceremonies myself, so that works out nicely for me. Time to get some dinner now, and then hit a few parties. But I don't think tonight will be as late a night as last. I need at least one "recovery day" during an event as large as a Worldcon, and tonight and tomorrow will probably be it.
On Sunday morning, the day after the Hugo Awards and the Worldcon site selection, the big question is "Who won?"
The Hugo winners are a matter of public record, but just for some highlights, Lois McMaster Bujold won the Best Novel Hugo for Paladin of Souls. Neil Gaiman won the Best Short Story Hugo for "A Study in Emerald". And the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form went to "The Return of the King", which I believe makes it the first movie to win the top film honors at both the Academy Awards and the Science Fiction Achievement Awards.
The 2007 Worldcon bid was won by Nippon 2007 (Yokohama), and most of the con attendees are happy about this. The voting numbers were very high, but many people (including myself) voted for Yokohama with the knowledge that they probably wouldn't be able to actually attend. This may turn out to be one of the few Worldcons that has more supporters than attendees. (Post-convention note: according to the official vote tally, 935 people voted for Nippon. Even though many people may not be able to make it to Japan, it's reasonable to expect Nippon 2007 to be at least as well attended as Aussiecon Three in 1999, which had about 1500 members on-site.) A lot can happen in three years, and it's not completely out of the question that I'd find myself able to go, but at this point it's looking like I may not attend another Worldcon until 2008.
Future bids are already being discussed. I've already pre-supported Chicago in 2008 and Australia in 2010. No confirmed 2009 bids have been spotted so far. There is talk of Denver organizing a competing bid for 2008, and rumors of another Baltimore bid have been heard. (Post-convention note: Worldcon bids spring into existence rather quickly. By Sunday evening, the Denver in 2008 bid was official, and two bids for 2009 had been organized, for Montreal and Kansas City. Bucconeer II seems to be a hoax bid... at least for now. For the most up-to-date information, see the Worldcon Bids Page.)
Now that Asia is going to have its first Worldcon, some people are already beginning to look to Africa. There was a party last night for South African fandom, which was quite well received. I was in a group of people talking about whether they should bid for a Worldcon in South Africa. The party organizers said that they weren't, but someone mentioned that the Australia in 2010 bid had grown out of a party like this. Apparently the Australians had thrown a thank-you party after their 1999 Worldcon, and someone asked them if they were bidding for a future year, and suddenly people were handing them $20 bills for pre-supporting memberships. At that point they grabbed a bunch of Glasgow pre-registration forms, crossed out "Glasgow 2005" and wrote in "Australia 2010", and accepted $20 contributions in any currency -- American, Canadian, Australian, whatever. The Australians who were at that party got a good deal on that one, and anyone who has one of those receipts has a rare artifact of fandom. (Post-convention note: a more complete and accurate account of the origins of the Australia in 2010 bid is posted on the bid's web site.) There wasn't any spontaneous South Africa pre-registration at last night's party, but I'm going to be keeping my eyes open.
The party scene last night was fun enough that I stayed out a lot later than I intended. I'd said that I was going to be in bed before midnight, but there was such a good crowd at the parties, especially after the Hugos let out, that I was still having fun well after midnight. I wound up not getting to sleep until 1:30 -- a little earlier than Friday night, but still pretty late.
One proven icebreaker at Worldcon parties: wear an interesting t-shirt. last night I wore my American Apology Shirt, which says in all the official UN languages "I'm sorry my president is an idiot. I didn't vote for him." It got a lot of sympathetic reception from the Worldcon crowd. There was one fellow wearing a Republican pin who said, "I don't agree, but we can talk about this like grown-ups." Unfortunately, in about thirty seconds he had proven himself wrong. Someone disagreed with him about whether CNN and the Big Three networks were or weren't liberally biased, and he started shouting "That's a lot of bullshit" at the top of his lungs. I left that room without even a pretense. That wasn't what I'd come to the Worldcon for. (In fact, the con had put real-world politics so far out of my mind that, on Thursday night, when someone mentioned that there was a Kerry/Edwards support party going on, I asked "Who is Kerry Edwards and what kind of support does she need?")
There was one story about a panel that took place on Saturday that illustrates nicely what science fiction fandom is all about. There was a panel scheduled on the possibility of a future ice age, and the featured presenter didn't show up. So someone in the audience suggested that the panel should be held anyway, and invited anyone in the audience with expertise to get up and comprise a panel. A novelist who was writing about an ice-age earth, a geologist who'd studied ice ages, and a science writer for Analog magazine volunteered, and ably saved the panel.
As of the last Noreascon report, I'd covered up to Sunday morning. I didn't have time to access e-mail at the con since then, and right now in real time I'm in New Jersey on a rainy Wednesday afternoon.
There weren't many must-see panels on Sunday, although I did attend a talk on "Weird Tales of Early Aviation" and a panel on "Books That Died Despite Everything". (One wonderful thing about a well-planned Worldcon program is the diversity of program items.) The highlight of the afternoon was "Junkyard Wars". On the off chance that someone hasn't heard of it, the premise is this. Several teams build devices to accomplish a specified goal within a time limit. The teams have no idea ahead of time what they'll be asked to build, and the raw material is scrap from a junkyard. In the case of Noreascon, the "junkyard" was a roped-off section of convention center floor, and the junk was donated by convention attendees. Tools and a workbench area were also provided.
About eight teams were organized, and the objective was revealed. The teams were to build a device that would move a payload (a Beanie Baby) over a measured distance, about twenty yards (or about twenty meters for those who use a real measuring system). The winner would be the one who came closest to a target sitting on the floor. To make things a little more challenging, the target disc was placed in a large upturned storage container lid, so that there was a "lip" around it that the devices would have to get the payload over. Aside from that, there was nothing but flat concrete floor between the starting point and the target (although the floor wasn't entirely level, something that would have to be taken into account for rolling devices). The devices had to be powered by stored energy, not by a human: for example, if you had a rolling cart, you couldn't push it, but you could build a starting ramp for it and release it from the ramp. You were allowed to take two "shots", and the second shot had to start no closer than where the first shot ended (similar to golf or tiddlywinks).
The teams had 90 minutes to build their devices, so the first hour or so was taken up by scavenging in the junkheap, followed by much commotion of hammers, saws, drills, and other implements of construction/destruction. As the clock counted down to the last half hour, some interesting devices had begun to take place.
The solutions devised fell into three broad groups: rollers, ballistic launchers, and powered vehicles, plus some that overlapped these categories.
There were a number of coffee cans and other cylinders in the junkheap, and a few teams literally "reinvented the wheel", putting the payload inside a cylinder and rolling it to the target. They all had to contend with the barrier around the target, and most of them addressed this by taking one roll right up to the lid and then re-positioning the starting ramp. These were the simplest devices, and got the earliest successes.
A couple of launchers were built by people with knowledge of medieval siege weapons. One worked on the catapult principle, the other was a trebuchet. They were crowd-pleasers during the test phase, flinging Beanie Babies in nice satisfying arcs, but they weren't very good at getting the right range or aim. The trebuchet was too powerful for its own good, and at one point its payload got stuck in the ductwork near the ceiling (a good fifteen feet up, and no one had a ladder). These sort of devices showed good engineering expertise, but would have had more success at the Punkin Chunkin competition or the Society for Creative Anachronism. There was also one slingshot-powered sled that was sort of midway between a launcher and a roller, but this seemed to be the worst of both worlds, as its aim was bad and there wasn't any provision for it to negotiate the lip.
Two teams found salvageable electric motors in the pile, and created electric powered carts. One of these started on a ramp, but it turned in a poor performance, not going very far from its ramp and veering off course as well. The second powered vehicle was more successful. It had a chassis with plastic wheels and rubber caterpillar treads. These looked to have come from a discarded toy tank or robot. Some people thought that this was a little too "packaged", but anything in the pile was fair game. I do have to give the team technical credit for not only getting the motor working, but also devising a wire-connected remote control device to start, stop, and steer it. Using a crane-like scaffold to hold the Beanie Baby above and in front of the crawler body, this device was the winner by the contest rules, getting its payload closest to the target.
But wait! I've actually saved the best for last. The real winner in terms of audience response (call it the Geeks' Choice) was a truly ingenious contraption put together by a team that included an honest-to-gosh rocket scientist. Picture this: a four-wheeled cart with wire wrapped around the rear axle like a spool or a yo-yo. The wire runs up a strut on the back end of the cart, over a pulley, and to a weight on the end. The motive power is provided by simply letting the weight fall to the ground, which unspools the wire and turns the axle. When the weight hits the ground, the wire stops pulling, and the weight itself acts as a brake. If you are knowledgeable about simple mechanics and the ratio between the axle and wheel circumference, you can be very precise about the distance traveled by selecting the right length of wire. Finally, to get the Beanie Baby over the edge and to the target, there was a hinged arm with an open coffee can on one end. When the cart stops traveling, the momentum of the arm swings it downward, and the payload drops out of the can onto the target. This device got oohs and aahs from the nerdly crowd as it was rolled out, and a louder and louder crescendo of cheers and appluase as it approached the target and dropped its payload. In terms of accuracy it came in second (the difference in proximity to the target was only abou one centimeter from the winning entry), but this will be the one that people will still be telling tales about at Worldcons years from now.
The Masquerade was the highlight of Sunday evening. For those who may not know, this is a costume competition in which the contestants present themselves on a stage in front of an audience of thousands (literally -- it's the best attended single event at most Worldcons) and are judged by a panel made up mostly of costuming experts, with some "celebrity judges" included (for example, Terry Pratchett was a judge at this masquerade). The presentations can have introductions, background music, lighting, and dialogue, and can range from a simple display of a costume to elaborate skits with teams of people and props. It's open to anyone who wants to create a costume and sign up, and there are categories so that people will be competing against those with approximately the same level of experience and skill. But there are some very serious costumers at the Worldcons, some professionals or professional-quality hobbyists. Just about anyone who decides to enter a Worldcon masquerade has put a lot of work into their entry.
I had originally planned to find a seat in the auditorium very early and watch from there, but I ran into Mitch and Jamie and their bunch, who planned to watch the closed circuit simulcast from the Mended Drum (I haven't even mentioned the Mended Drum -- it was a fully equipped pub set up in one of the con's function areas, modeled after the pub of the same name in Pratchett's Discworld books. It solved the "no beer in the con suite" problem quite nicely, but since the beer was being sold at downtown Boston prices, most people just had one or two drinks there and then opted for the bid parties, which were providing free drinks). This turned out to be a better choice than sitting in the auditorium, possibly a hundred feet from the stage, and trying to see over the heads of hundreds if not thousands of strangers. We commandeered a couple of tables with a good view of the screen, we had drinks and snacks, and nobody had to shush us if we talked when the people in the audience were supposed to be quiet.
The masquerade at Noreascon was generally agreed to be an excellent one. Maybe not the best in recent memory, but certainly close to the top. There were a large number of entries in the junior category (12 years old or younger), some of whom had made their own costumes and done quite well at it. And there were about forty "adult" entries, so the whole presentation took quite some time. The event was supposed to begin at 8:30, the start was delayed till almost 9 (no unusual thing for a Worldcon masquerade), and the costume displays continued until after 11PM. But it was worth staying for.
Some of the costumes were re-creations of certain characters or scenes from books or other media. With Terry Pratchett being one of the judges, of course there were quite a few Discworld based entries. Most of these were rather silly, not surprising as the Discworld books themselves are often silly. There were also a fair number of Lord of the Rings costumes, and a handful of Harry Potter entries. But in my opinion, the best presentations were those whose source was the imagination of the designers. The judges seemed to agree with this as well, because the highest awards went mainly to those sorts of costumes.
I didn't take notes on everything in the masquerade, but some of the best that I saw were:
The post-masquerade parties were every bit as much fun as the previous three nights. After having stayed up quite late Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, I told myself that I'd take it easy Sunday night and get to bed before midnight. But it was already close to midnight when the masquerade presentations ended (and the judging was still going on). It was past 1AM before I really realized it, so yet another late-to-bed and late-to-rise night. Then again, why would I complain about four nights in a row of parties so good that I forgot to go to bed?
Just one more day of the Worldcon remained after that, but if you think that it was going to be uneventful, you haven't been paying attention.
The convention was scheduled to officially come to a close on Monday afternoon. Some people used the day for travel, so attendance was lighter than on the weekend. But there were still plenty of people there and several good panels to see.
One of the panels I attended on Monday morning was called "Obsolete High Tech", dealing with technologies that were state-of-the-art for their day but have now been bypassed or superseded (think of the telegraph and the dirigible, for example). Several dozen people gatehred outside the door to the panel room, but all the doors were locked! Many jokes were made about the "obsolete technology" of drum locks, and several people suggested picking the locks. The lock-picking suggestion was met with about ten different suggestions on how best to do it, and no action. This seems typical of the SF fan/techno-geek mindset (and I include myself in that category). Eventually someone from the convention got through to building security and the door was unlocked, but the gathering outside the doors was almost as much fun as the panel itself.
Later in the day was one of the highlights of the convention, an interview by Harry Harrison of Phil Klass, who wrote science fiction as William Tenn. We found out, among other things, that his choice of pen name was an accident. When he started writing, he had the idea that authors had to have a pen name, and he sent all of his early stories out under different names. "William Tenn" just happened to be the name on the first story that was accepted for publication, and he stuck with that ever since. He told a number of amusing stories about his time in the Army in the Second World War, and in the Merchant Marine after that. One of his most highly regarded stories was written at the behest of a drunken shipmate. He received a copy of a magazine in the mail with one of his stories in it, and showed it to his friends on board. One guy had had a bit too much to drink, and insisted that a) that couldn't be Phil's story, because it was clearly labeled as being by some guy named William, and b) if Phil was a real writer, he'd sit down and write something right now. So Phil took the guy up to his cabin, sat down at the typewriter and started to bang out a story. By the time he'd gotten through about ten pages, the shipmate was passed out on his bunk, but the story wasn't half bad, and it went on to publication and good reviews. I leave it up to the reader as to whether there's a lesson to be learned from this.
Klass also told the story of how he turned down a lucrative writing assignment for the New York Times Review of Books, because he didn't like a book that Robert Heinlein had writen. Klass had always admired Heinlein and his writing, and when the book Time Enough for Love was due to be published, the Times asked him to write a profile of Heinlein's writing and career, with a focus on the new book. Heinlein sent Klass a corrected galley proof of the book, which remains one of his most treasured possessions to this day. But he found that he really didn't like the book itself, and he couldn't bring himself to write the article, because he was afraid that a bad review of the book would end Heinlein's friendship with him. Klass commented that he thought Heinlein's writing style had become bloated and self-indulgent in his later works, an opinion that many fans share. Someone from the audience spoke up with a contrary opinion, but Harry Harrison steered the talk away from an argument by pointing out that this panel's purpose was to honor Phil Klass, not to debate the quality of Heinlein's books.
Interestingly enough, though, that same topic was resurrected in the next panel, which was a discussion of Heinlein's books. At last year's Worldcon, the Heinlein Society had announced the publication of Heinlein's long-lost first novel, For Us, the Living. At that time, they predicted that this publication would spark a new era of Heinlein scholarship. Since then, the book has been released, and Heinlein scholars are working to make that prediction come true. The last panel I attended at the con was a presentation of a paper to be published soon, an assessment of the themes used in For Us, the Living, and how all of the more controversial elements in this book were also present in his later works. The thesis of the paper was that, contrary to Heinlein going "in the wrong direction" in his later works, he had actually tailored his early works to conform to the standards of what could be published in the late 1930s through the early 1960s. Once he gained the popularity and clout to deal with editors on his own terms, and once the social and moral standards of the time changed so that his ideas were more acceptable, he gradually began to include more explicitly in his books the ideas that had been present in his mind all along. Copies of a draft version of the paper were handed out, which made for interesting reading later that afternoon. I won't argue with the premise of the paper, or its scholarship, but it's still not going to convince me that The Number of the Beast was a well-written book.
That panel was the last official piece of convention programming that I attended. The closing ceremonies were scheduled for 3PM, but given my disappointment with the opening ceremonies, I decided that the time would be better spent getting dinner and perusing some of the large pile of reading materials I'd acquired.
The last unofficial convention event, as it is at most Worldcons, was the "Dead Dog Party". This is where people who aren't going home yet gather to consume leftover refreshments, share memories of the convention, say their goodbyes, and bask in the atmosphere of the con one last time. I actually met some interesting people for the first time at this party, and got a chance to speak briefly with Phil Klass and Terry Pratchett, both of whom dropped by the party to say their farewells. Once again I wound up staying later than I'd intended to, not getting back to my hotel room until almost midnight.
Worldcons are always difficult to say goodbye to, because you've spent several days getting intimately familiar with a location and the people in it, and then it ends forever. There may be another Worldcon in Boston someday, but it's a classic example of the no-man-steps-in-a-river-twice principle: the city won't be the same, nor will the convention, nor will the people. And it's unlikely that I'll attend another Worldcon before 2008. (The realization of that provided me with a brief freak-out moment: I'll turn 40 in 2008! I'm not supposed to be that old!) But all is not lost; there's Philcon in December, and other regional cons, not to mention other adventures to take.
After Monday night, all that was left was the bus ride home. I got to ride the Limoliner bus after all, but it turned out to be somewhat of a disappointment. The seats were comfortable enough, but a bus is still more cramped than a train car, and more subject to traffic delays and other annoyances. Also, it's slower than the train. Since I decided to take the 12:15 bus on Tuesday, I didn't get to Manhattan until about 5PM. I decided to have dinner in the city rather than fight the rush-hour crowds, and it was about 8PM by the time I did make it home, which made Tuesday a mostly wasted day. Next time I go to Boston, I'll shell out the extra money and enjoy the train ride.
So Tuesday night brought an end to six days of living, eating, drinking, and sleeping in the world of science fiction fandom. I readjusted my body to Fannish Standard Time, going to sleep well after midnight and not waking up until 8AM, a considerable change from my usual routine. Fortunately it hasn't been too hard to adjust now that I'm home. Old friends were met, new friends were made, and many good books were brought home. I'd have to say it was one of the best conventions I've ever attended, so I'm glad I was able to share it with all of you.
(Thanks for bearing with me through all this. Among other significant happenings related to this convention, this is the first con report I've actually finished in seven years or so.)
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