Steam Powered, the California Steam-punk Convention held in Sunnyvale over Halloween weekend, was apparently the first convention of its kind. I was pretty excited about it going in, but not knowing any of the people involved behind the scenes, I wasn’t sure quite what to expect. A new hotel for me, and I knew there would be at least a few Bay Area convention stalwarts including Mette Hedin and Bryan Little who live just yards away from the convention site, plus Chris Garcia, Jade Falcon and Erik Anderson who were all scheduled on panels and therefore guaranteed to be there. But beyond that it was hard to guess whether I’d be enjoying myself at a regular fannish con, a comic-con for steamers, or suffering through “Con-X-Steam,” as Andy Trembley suggested.
I was fiddling with costume bits and accessories right up until the day of the convention and therefore still tossing things into bags when Anthony and Deb arrived to pick me up. They waited patiently while I scrambled around shoving what appeared to be every last item of clothing, piece of jewelry and likely accessory into my suitcase, and we finally got on the road at around 8 p.m.
As we sighted the hotel we felt some trepidation. Although The Domain is a Joie de Vivre hotel and I’d heard good things about it, from the outside it looks like nothing so much as a public housing project. We parked in the underground garage and immediately spotted a few steamed-up folks wandering to and from their cars so, suitcases in hand, so we took the elevator to the lobby and hoped for the best.
When the doors opened it was like exiting a transporter into a whole different world. There were dozens of elaborately costumed people within sight and the hotel design fit perfectly. The lobby is dominated by a large staircase descending from the second floor, which in turn surrounds an open atrium with a white slatted wood balcony along which folks were leaning and chatting and taking in the scene. In the center on the lobby in front of reception, the convention had placed a freestanding room with a small bar and Victorian decor. Off to the side of that was registration, some couches for lounging, and the wide front entrance. Registration was closed for the night, but the Dealers’ Room was open and there was a lot of activity for a Friday night.
The inestimable Joe Price joined us just a few minutes after we arrived at our second-floor room and we all set about poking and prodding at our exciting new environment. The rooms were cute, in an Ikea-nerd sort of way, and the most popular feature was definitely the Sleep Number beds while the least favorite for most was the baffling poetry snippet on the wall. There were a bunch of little touches clearly aimed at the Silicon Valley demographic, but some worked better than others — for one thing, the toilet flushing mechanism was far too high tech for our 21st-Century-playing-at-19th-Century brains. Two buttons are apparently one too many when talking about plumbing.
After a quick freshening up we were joined by Jade Falcon and Erik Anderson, who like the rest of us were famished, so we all set out to find food. First we poked our heads into the hotel bar/restaurant area. The restaurant was closed for the night and the bartender was trying to do the same and looking a little overwhelmed. Luckily the Domain is located right in the middle of a nice little area full of shops and restaurants so we wandered out into the night and ended up at a delightful Thai restaurant, Thai Chili, which was about to close for the night but let us in anyway after we begged politely, hats literally in hands. The staff was lovely and the food delicious, I ordered the crispy fish, and even though we were the last people there holding them up from closing they gave us free desserts; marvelous lemon and pineapple sorbets and a very tasty vanilla ice cream.
We were feeling pretty good when we made it back to the hotel around 11:30, just in time for the folks to begin wandering in from the Halloween Famous Dead Persons Ball, which quite a number of Steam Powered members had attended. Kevin Roche was dressed as the “real” Captain Jack Harkness and Bryan Little was the Torchwood Captain Jack Harkness — leading to one of the slashiest photographs of the weekend. Merv Staton was dressed as Number 2 from The Prisoner, Andy as a Harry Potter spoiler (what’s the statute of limitations on that sort of thing?), and there were several other clever costumes which now escape me. By this time it was nearly midnight and unfortunately the hotel rules stated that non-guests were not allowed past then, so as the lobby areas emptied out we retired to Kevin and Andy’s room for drinks and conversation until we were all exhausted and ready for bed.
Saturday morning I managed to rouse myself early enough to make the breakfast buffet for which the hotel and/or the convention had thoughtfully provided discount coupons, but which ended at 10 a.m. Seating was limited and the staff clearly overwhelmed, but I desperately needed coffee and bacon and was not up to trying to make it to Denny’s. I eventually occupied and held a four person table until my companions joined me, fighting off advances from hungry circling ladies and gents already bright eyed and dressed in their finery. The buffet was basic but serviceable, with self-serve coffee, which made all the difference to my well-being.
Feeling far more human, we all got our badges from reg, and the oversized magazine style program book — which was a little light on content but kinda neat anyway — and then we headed upstairs to change into our daytime outfits, mine being a real casual reprise of the previous day’s and Anthony and Deb in matching overalls, with an industrial looking device attached to Ant’ s shoulder and a most alarming mustache curled over his lip. His costume was a great success and during lunch a wandering artist drew a great sketch of him.
However, before lunch the bulk of our time was spent in the truly amazing Dealers’ Room. The convention had very wisely chosen to select vendors who somehow fit the theme, so every table was chock full of Victorian finery, Steampunk gear, re-purposable parts, and genre appropriate doodahs.
The very first thing I encountered on the way in was the Weta Workshop table with their gorgeous ray guns on display. I eagerly accepted when Dr. Grordbort’s Chief Designer Greg Broadmore said it was okay to touch them. He pointed out the various moving parts and I discovered one moving part on the Victorian Mongoose prototype that really wasn’t supposed to be…. oops. The larger pieces are quite heavy and really only appropriate for display but the Mongoose’s Derringer-style design would probably be easily portable. I ended up getting some of the ray gun pins, which came in handy to secure my rather flimsy badge holder, plus a t-shirt, and will continue to lust after the ray guns from a safe distance.
Studio Foglio had a table in the corner where Phil was doing sketches of people in their costumes, so Anthony took advantage of the opportunity to get himself immortalized as a mustachioed member of the steam powered proletariat. Other recognizable groups were the Neverwas Haul which was set up to take people’s “digitgraphs”, and Abney Park, who had their custom instruments on display. I ran into Jill Roberts over where Ann and Jeff VanderMeer were signing copies of the Tachyon Press Steampunk anthology. I managed to find things to buy at the Etsy Steampunk group table and two or three other vendors, ending up with new bits of jewelry, a whole bunch of vacuum tubes, and various other bits and pieces.
There were two tracks of programming during the day, with quite a nice diversity of appropriate topics and speakers but mostly through sheer laziness I’d already missed several panels that I wanted to see and missed at least one more when a bunch of us crossed the street to grab lunch at a Korean BBQ joint. But the food was good and totally worth it. I was glad we made it back in time for the Jake Von Slatt panel. I was able to find a couple of free seats at the back along with Ace, Lazer and Garcia. The audience was obviously thrilled to see the man and burst into applause when he came in. He read a manifesto, which Chris has gotten permission to reprint, and then showed us his latest device, a Winhurst Machine. His public speaking was not quite polished and he could probably have used someone else up there to help him along with questions and the like, but the content was good and what I could see of the device was pretty neat.
After the talk I stashed my loot from the dealer’s room and we decided to grab dinner at the hotel restaurant. We had been warned that service would be slow, but the weather had turned and we really were not dressed for it so we decided to take our chances. It did end up being extremely slow, as there was only one cook, but our server was very nice and attentive and eventually we fed and ran off to get changed for the evening.
I had not managed to complete the costume I really wanted to, but I had most of the core of it and it looked good enough to pass. Jade and Deb pleaded exhaustion and stayed behind as the boys and I headed over to the Abney Park concert, which was being held off-site at the San Jose Civic Auditorium.
I had been misin-formed as to the schedule of the free shuttle service, so by the time we checked the outgoing trips had stopped running. Erik was kind enough to offer to drive and we made it in time for Abney Park, although we missed the opening band, Platform One, entirely. We found and joined Chris Garcia and the Lovely and Talented Linda along with Kevin and Andy and a few other folks who were all seated near the front left of the room.
Although we didn’t fill the auditorium by a long shot, there was a pretty decent sized crowd, most of whom were dressed up in their evening finery. Phil and Kaja Foglio were standing near the front and they, along with most of the standing crowd in front, started up a jig when the band played a pirate song that everyone seemed to enjoy immensely.
I was impressed to see that Foglio continued getting his boogie on for most of the rest of the night. Although I knew of the band I had not actually heard them before, so I was pleasantly surprised. The music was an eclectic combination of genres, Irish, Middle Eastern, a little goth-rock and a whole bunch of other stuff tossed in and recombined — like Steampunk itself.
When the band was done there was an hour or so of DJ music, which alternated between okay and good and culminated with some very entertaining bhangra. The dance floor never had more than half a dozen or so folks on it but it was still a nice way to end the night. Afterwards we left the crowds still getting autographs from the band and those waiting for the shuttle home and drove back to the hotel.
Folks were trickling back in and since by this time apparently all the regular business guests were long gone the hotel was more relaxed about the rules and the lobby chairs were all occupied with people chatting away. We ended up in Merv and Judith’s room for a few more hours drinking Mandarin Napoleon along with Radar, Bryan and Mette, our own Jean Martin and a few other drifters.
Sunday morning it was Deb’s turn to rise early and scout out a table for us. The buffet was only slightly less discombobulated but again good enough to get us where we wanted to be. Jade and Erik had forgotten about daylight savings and were an hour early for their panel, so they were able to join us for a bit, looking quite respectable beside our bedraggled group.
After breakfast we ran into Chris, who cast a pall on the morning by giving us the news of Forry’s heart attack. This took the wind out of our sails as we went back upstairs to change, but it’s hard to stay down at a con and I had the bonus fun of getting to help dress Deb up, Anthony and I hovering like a geeky version of Trini and Susanna joojing and primping until we were satisfied. Anthony’s own costume had an actual steam emitting device which was a big hit with everyone and I myself got lazy again and put on various bits of other costumes ending up looking more or less like a silent movie director.
We checked out the Dealers’ Room one final time looking for last minute bargains and did the traditional Sunday wandering around from group to group saying hi to the people you missed during the weekend and saying bye to the people heading out. At one point a largeish group of us had gathered and for some reason the conversation turned to who would be a good movie director for Iron Chef. It was a bizarre and extended bit of brainstorming and highly entertaining.
Most of the group then wandered over to a sushi place across the street and took over three separate tables. Aside from the tasty sushi the highlight was the table of loud and quite inebriated folks sitting behind me who one couldn’t help but eavesdrop on (and I thought I had a filthy mouth!) and who left behind three empty sake bottles and eight beers including the bottles under the table. Loud and unruly and mostly incomprehensible, but luckily not as rowdy as they appeared upon first entering the establishment.
When we got back to the hotel things were winding down and the urge to get coffee was overpowering. Alas, the hotel itself had no espresso bar so the only option really was the Starbucks a couple of blocks away. Taking this as a sign we piled into the car and headed off into the afternoon.
SF/SF Issue #77, December 3, 2008