Chicago, as I’m reminded every time I set my foot in this metropolis, is the perfect place for a science fiction convention. That’s got little to do with it being America’s second city, or with its convenient location in the Midwest, or that it’s a large metropolis possessed of a number of large and accommodating hotels with lots of meeting rooms. It’s because Chicago itself often looks like something out of a science fiction novel.
The people organizing Chicon 7 clearly thought so too, since the distinctive imagery on our badges depict the Chicago skyscrapers proudly towering over rockets ready for launch into the heavens – and, funnily enough, the rockets don’t seem out of place. It’s something I’ve remarked every time I stroll around the Loop and Michigan Avenue – that the pristine skyscrapers of glass and steel are uncannily futuristic. Unlike the rather straightforward skyscrapers of New York, the ones in Chicago are winding, twisting, slanting, oddly shaped, the tall proud neighbors of equally proud Gothic structures that reach just as magnificently to the sky. It’s a conglomeration of architectural feats and scientific splendor that look like they’re only a decade from being Coruscant or Atlantis. Some buildings – the ones that, conveniently, decorate the rooms where most of the panels take place – even look like alien spaceships that have landed on the corner of Dearborn and Madison.
It’s a pleasant note to start on, and, as I quickly realize, a necessary one. Because as soon as I walk in and get my badge, I realize that I am so totally out of my depth. In my science-fiction-addled brain, I can just hear that phrase in Samantha Carter’s distinctive voice saying “Oh boy” in my ear. Oh boy indeed.
There are a few things I should clarify: I am, in case it’s difficult to tell, a geek. I quote Han Solo because his particular brand of arrogant badassery just happens to be my preferred way of dealing with the world, I take notes about watching Star Wars, and I will happily inform you about why the speed of light is the same in all inertial reference frames. I am also, however, a convention newbie (this is my second one) and geeks are not famous for their social skills. Attending a social event for people who’d rather be reading books seems like a bit of an oxymoron, and it does nothing to set me at ease (and excuse the blatant stereotyping. It’s allowed because I include myself in the generalizations).
So when I arrived on Thursday, I had the sinking feeling that perhaps I should have come earlier and gone to all the “Conventions 101” panels that I was so clearly in need of. Because being in a hotel full of 5,000 people who have read more David Brin and John Scalzi than I have intimidates even my arrogant self. The 15 or so options for each time slot, coupled with signings and interviews by more authors than I’ll ever have time to read in my lifetime, but whom I should probably know if I am to be worthy of the title of Geek, as well as the slew of parties and afterparties, make me realize really fast that I really, really don’t know where to start.[Insert panicked flailing here]
Even my neat highlighted schedule and copious maps of the multi-story (and multi-tower) facility don’t help, so to remedy the problem of indecisiveness, I decide to plunge right into the academic programming. Academia is my niche, so to speak – nothing makes me more comfortable than discussing the metaphors and symbolism of science fiction, for example.
I’ll be giving a brief overview of the panels I attended on Thursday; as one might guess from my descriptions, a five-day, all-day convention with rigorous academic discussions is an exhausting event, and by the end of the day I barely have the effort to type, let alone to lay out all the complex ideas under consideration in all of their academic glory. Once the convention is over and I have rested my legs, fingers, and mind, however, I will ramble on about the topics under discussion more extensively. I will also likely end up as the author of a convention-going guide by Monday evening, because nothing makes you learn to swim better than being thrown into the deep, deep water and it would be nice to have something to show for it.
The first panel I chanced upon on was one on the use of the alien as metaphor in science fiction. As the panelists so rightfully pointed out, we haven’t actually met any aliens yet (Canadians don’t count), so any extraterrestrials in science fiction are going to be metaphors – visions of and therefore ways to explore the role and nature of individuals and groups of different races, genders, and nationalities. Aliens imply distance, and distance, as so many pointed out during the discussion, is reassuring when dealing with such thorny topics. It raises questions about the perspective from which we’re viewing ourselves – humanity – and the ensuing discussion on points of view and the historico-cultural specifics could be an essay in itself, which I will omit for the moment.
The next panel was more of a discussion, entitled Functional Nerds, though perhaps we should have called it Functional Geeks – nerds, as we concluded at the panel, are the socially awkward ones, while geeks are just the obsessed ones. From then on we ruminated upon the changes in fandom over the years. We dwelled for a while upon the transformation of the fan conventions: what initially started as small, local gatherings grew into much larger national conventions – the result of many factors, such as globalization. Another important question raised was why we want to meet in person anyway, especially now that we have the internet. Will we be convening online in 10 years, or will I still be reporting back about what I saw and heard in person? And, the most important question of all: Are we geeks still a group in ourselves, or have we become too assimilated into the mainstream? (Or perhaps we’ve assimilated the mainstream?)
Finally, a large group of people piled into a secluded room in the West tower late in the day to discuss gender roles in science fiction. After beginning by throwing out a few titles, we launched upon a discussion of whether Virginia Woolf’s Orlando is a science fiction novel. While much of the discussion focused on which works of SFF (science fiction and fantasy) included interesting and well developed gay, lesbian, and transgender characters, some other academic topics were touched upon as well – such as why SFF is such a good medium for exploring gender roles, and why it is that women write slash. (Gasp. Our secret is out of the bag. That’s what we do in our spare time!)[Insert conclusion here. Because cons are exhausting, and to hell with the editors who say I need to actually have a conclusion after a full day of events. More on the con coming soon!]