Over Memorial Day weekend I attended Clockwork Alchemy, a steampunk convention put on by the good folks at Fanime. It is held at the venerable San Jose Doubletree, which has been the home base for many conventions over the years.
It’s smallish convention compared to its parent con but still a bustling, busy event, full of costumes and creativity. A lot of effort is put into the decor and atmosphere, with props like faux gaslamps serving as signage and panel rooms with furniture and other decor to lend a Victorian drawing room or library effect. I’ve seen other conventions, like Convolution, give this sort of thing a shot and would love to see it spread, although obviously cost is a factor for most cons.
Like a lot of steampunk cons the music track was extensive; Professor Elemental, Frenchy and the Punk, Unwoman, Lee Presson and the Nails, Good Company, Marquis of Vaudeville, Jody Ellen, and others. Each evening had its own musical event: Friday it was several bands and a musical play, Saturday had swing dancing to Good Company, Lee Presson and the Nails plus two DJs, and Sunday’s main act was Professor Elemental, though I unfortunately had to miss that because of working early on Monday morning. A nice touch was the use of the hotel nightclub space for dance classes and things like a really great Saturday afternoon jam session which featured a wide range of the attending musicians.
There was a movie room with a combo of classics like Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines and more modern fare like an anime version of War of the Worlds and a truly terrible Sherlock Holmes film starring Gareth David-Lloyd. There were panels as well, though the focus seems to be on single person talks. On impulse I went to a trivia panel on Sunday and managed to take first place, winning copies of The Adventures of Drake and McTrowell: London, Where It All Began and Machina Mortis: Steampunk’d Tales of Terror as well as a bag of chocolate, which was a nice egoboo.
The Artist’s Bazaar had many wonderful vendor but while I do like the emphasis on showcasing artisans who primarily make their own goods I feel it would benefit from a few exceptions like at least one proper bookseller. There were authors selling their books down near the panel rooms, but for obvious reasons that meant very limited books on sale and of course zero DVDs or games, and only the music of the performers in attendance. The Artist Gallery is set up like a museum rather than an art show/gallery in the sense that no sales are permitted, not entirely sure what I think of that. There were some paintings by one artist that I rather liked but their card had the wrong URL and the convention doesn’t seem to publish a list of exhibiting artists, which is something I really wish all conventions would do as a matter of course.
Something that I hadn’t seen before at CA or at any other convention was volunteers making an effort to spread the word about what was going on in a panel room. The jam session had a volunteer at the door who knew who all the musicians inside were and told me what was going on when I walked up to read the schedule posted by the door. Likewise I ended up at the trivia panel mainly because one of the panelists/judges stepped out into the hall before it started and asked people walking past if they were interested in coming in for the trivia game. While I don’t think every panel at every convention necessarily needs barkers pulling in the crowds, I found it intriguing.
As in previous years I enjoyed myself, aided partly by the fact that my badge allowed me to hop on the free shuttle over to Fanime and check that out for a few hours for free. I went over on Friday and wandered the massive Artist Alley, admired the crazy variety of amazing costumes, and was impressed by the Fanime volunteers roaming the halls with tall signs offering Information and Answers. When I reached sensory overload I left the convention center and hit up Safeway for snacks to keep my food budget under control. On the way there I found a thrift store and spent ten bucks some costume bits for the evening that came together quite nicely and helped me feel more like a proper participant instead of a spectator.
But really I felt the lack of real social spaces. Worldcon style fandom puts a pretty big emphasis on the social aspect; party rooms, fanzine lounges, the consuite, and so on are all aimed at creating places for strangers to meet and interact. Without getting into how well or not that works for everybody, it is noticeable to me when I’m at a convention that lacks these. Clockwork had a tea room, but there was always a line and it closed at 5pm. The ballroom would be the obvious place in the evenings but the focus there was definitely the performances and dancing, there was no real mingling room or bar area for chatting. The actual hotel bar was the closest thing, and the small huddle of comfy chairs nearby, but space was limited and often packed with hotel guests. I wished that Convolution had managed to throw another party like last year, but see no sign on a party scene developing.
All in all it was a nice weekend spent enjoying wonderful costumes, seeing friends, and enjoying the invigorating energy of being inside of a thriving convention scene.