Steamcon & WFC

Being all hardcore steampunk (well, scared of flying), I took Amtrak’s Coast Starlight up to Seattle for Steamcon last month. The Starlight runs from Seattle to Los Angeles so I’m familiar with it from its Southern leg and looked forward to completing the route.

I overpacked in my usual compulsive fashion, shoving enough outfits for two full conventions into one large suitcase and one carry-on. I didn’t think to weigh the suitcase before checking it in, so it was a relief to discover upon handing it over to the ticket agent that it clocked in at 49.5 pounds — just a half pound shy of the weight limit. And although I didn’t wear everything I packed, I did manage to go through a sizeable portion of it, changing two or three times a day. The only real embarrassment was the 22 pairs of stockings that my fevered pre-con brain had deemed absolutely essential.

The trip up was restful: I napped, enjoyed the views of the passing Fall foliage from the viewing parlor, and read. I finished Lost Horizon — the Capra film is in my top ten but I’d never read the novel, which is a fine example of an era when you could bring in a classic and satisfying tale in under 200 pages and no one felt shortchanged. I also got a ways through the Jack Cady short story collection Ghosts of Yesterday, which I picked up mainly for its opening short ghost story which is set in the city and which I will review in some later issue of SF/SF. The last novella in the book Time that Time Forgot was what occupied the bulk of the ride and fit it well, since the story takes place in a haunted mist-enshrouded woodscape just after the American Civil War, mirroring the Northwestern landscape the train was passing through.

I arrived in Seattle at around 8 p.m. and took the light rail and a very short bus ride to the Hilton Garden Inn with minimum fuss. By this point it was just after 10 p.m. and although I could see quite a few obvious congoers in the bar area, I decided to unpack and get settled and rest up in order to start my con in earnest the following morning. And boy was I glad I did this

I will preface the next bit by saying I had a very enjoyable convention overall and would consider returning next year, so please don’t take this as illustrative of the whole event.

That said:

At-the-door registration was listed as opening at noon so I grabbed some coffee and poked my head out to the poolside reg area at 10 a.m. About twenty or twenty-five people were in line so I lined up as well. The was being handled by the three or so folks at reg as far as I could tell. Eventually the twenty-five or so people ahead of me were done, and at just past 2:00 p.m., after being in line for four and a half hours, two and a half of those after registration “opened,” I went up to get my badge. My form was filled out, I marked “check” as payment and had the check filled out and ID in hand. The person who helped me had been drafted at the last minute from a different department, apparently, and looked at my check (and at my form with the three payment options printed on it: “Check,” “Cash,” and “Credit Card”) and asked another staffer, “Do we take checks?” I remembered my breathing exercises and tried not scream.

The volunteer was not to blame for this, of course, and not wanting to hold up the line I offered to pay with a credit card to speed things up. I was told that they did not have a credit card machine available at the moment. I bit my tongue and watched two other volunteers stuffing reg bags while my form data was entered, and then my check data. In the process I discovered that they did not have a stapler, either, so I offered to bring them one but was told one was “on the way.” I’m sure I looked skeptical. I got my badge and reg pack with no further conversation and went to have my first meal of the day and check what programming I had missed so far.

I checked at intervals throughout the day as the line slowly crept along and there were still people being handled at 4:30 p.m. Yes, shit happens and yes the staff was working very hard. But registration is something that every convention has handled and no visible effort seemed to be taking place to change the system even as it was obviously failing hard. The responses from the concom after have blamed the unexpectedly large turnout, however even if I had been the last person in line, opening 45 minutes late and taking an hour and a half to register 25 people still seems to point to problems with the process, not the size.

Additionally there seemed to be a lot of confusion about just how many memberships were available. I personally was told 1,200, then 1,300 which would fit the eventual official count of “about 1360.” I was also told “very few were remaining,” however my number was 1040 which implies nearly a quarter were still left. Still I haven’t heard or read about anyone being turned away at the door due to a sellout, and I have to say that with one very loud and annoyed exception who stomped out at 12:30 the attendees were by and large good spirited about the debacle.

But enough of that. The convention clearly knows this was a problem and I would strongly recommend they contact the committees of any number of other conventions of a similar or larger size to discuss the pre-existing solutions for registration in order to avoid such issues in the future.

Tired, hungry and irritated, I frankly expected the rest of the weekend to be an utter disaster, but I ate lunch and looked over the reg materials and felt better. The badge and program book were lovingly designed and there were plenty of interesting panels and events coming up. Aside from Powers and Garcia, other Californians of my acquaintance present included TL&T Linda Wenzelburger as well as Merv Staton and Judith Richardson who I ran into in the restaurant and who smugly proclaimed their pre-registered Patron level badges which allowed them to skip queues and get first dibs at tickets for the tea party and Saturday concert.

My first official stop was the dealer’s room. Like Steam Powered before them, Steamcon had exclusively Steampunk and related items on sale. This makes for a nice solid selection of thematically appropriate wares, but as with Steam Powered, it seems to have discouraged or confused book dealers. Aside from one-title shows like Studio Foglio and the artist GOH Paul Guinan’s table, the only other book vendor I saw had picture books, comics and some manuals for the Steampunk RPG. This meant that there was no vendor selling Powers, Priest, Lake, Rambo or any other the other authors present as guests. Neither could you find any of the books or stories mentioned during any of the discussions.

This was covered back in August by io9 and both the convention and the book dealers seem to think that the decision was made entirely by the other side. But honestly, if Steampunk conventions are going to continue, this is something that I would love to see addressed. I can’t imagine that with a bit of flexibility both sides couldn’t be made happy, with the convention allowing Victoriana, a certain amount of horror, alternate history, dark fantasy and historical titles and the booksellers leaving some of their less appropriate titles at home. Luckily I had brought three books along with me so I was fine regardless.

The dealer’s room was also a bit smaller than at Steam Powered and therefore very full all the time but with a smaller selection, but partly that’s me being jaded — everyone for whom this was their first steampunk event was just blown away at a room full of goggles, watches and other wonderful things. I myself picked up a lovely red flouncy skirt and the usual last-minute accessories, in this case “attitude” feathers and a lovely black and white ribbon from Realms of Regalia.

Outside the dealer’s room, several bands had a table set up to sell their wares and I bought a shoulder from Abney Park to replace my own decrepit one. Of the things Steamcon did well, the best was almost certainly the music track. Like anime, steampunk seems to have a strong musical streak and the big event for Saturday evening was the Airship Invasion concert featuring San Francisco performers Vernian Process and Unwoman as the opening acts and Abney Park as the headliners. Additionally there was the Sepiachord Saturday Cabaret which ran from noon until 8 p.m. with a different performer each hour. I particularly enjoyed Rober Rial’s Bakelite 78 and their rendition of “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?”

Another thing they got right was that unlike Steam Powered, which didn’t have an art show at all, Steamcon had a nice variety of art all fitting the theme: paintings, drawings, photography, jewelry and sculptures. I was pleased to see some art on display from Sarah Dungan, whose sketchbook Oh My Stars and Garters I had picked up at Steam Powered. Other standouts included some gorgeous pistols and an impressive modded-up bike that made a nice centerpiece. It’s early days yet, but if I do go next year I will certainly be comfortable joining in the fun.

The first panel I saw was on modding and distressing. The first speaker covered modification of plastic guns. Most of the information was things I knew, but there were several tips and tricks towards the end that I look forward to trying out soon. Afterwards, the two other panelists covered distressing clothes for costumes. Their experience was in the theater but it translated very easily to both hall and masquerade costuming and it was a little thrilling to consider purposely trashing an outfit. I decided to apply some of the techniques to the wedding dress that I’ve used as a base for one of my steampunk outfits to finally complete a concept that I’ve been mulling over for quite awhile now, hopefully in time for the Nova Albion Steampunk Exhibition in March.

For the evening I disdained the pile of skirts I had brought in favor of my newly purchased one, and almost immediately upon donning it realized it was essentially a flamenco skirt and no amount of pinning or draping was going to change that basic fact. I resigned myself and complemented it with a black top, Spanish fan and red carnations in my hair to seal the deal. It wasn’t particularly steamy but it sure was fun to dance in. There were DJ dances both nights in the music room which almost made up for the lack of parties.

Which brings me to the second big hole in my convention experience, besides books: no party floor. Although this was apparently due to the con-hotel policies, it meant that there was no place to wander to between dancing. Once or twice I went to the lobby or to the pool area but I sorely missed the social aspect of being able to wander party to party and get into conversations. The lobby and bar of the Hilton are nice for chatting but better suited to private groups, not designed in a way that encourages mingling.

Saturday I almost by chance wandered into the Boiler Plate panel and was glad for it. It’s a hoaxstory by Paul Guinan about an automaton that participated in pivotal events during the Victorian era. I had of course seen the website but had been unaware that there was a book. Guinan is a historian and political activist and the panel turned out to be very interesting, the book more than just a gimmick expanded into saleable form.

Afterwards I did another round of the dealer’s room to stretch my legs. I got back in time for Powers’s panel which was very amusing and during which he mentioned that he is working on a follow-up to The Stress of Her Regard which is my favorite of his novels, so I am looking forward to it. The panel was in an interview format, followed by questions from the audience. At both this and his Sunday “Victorian Era” panel, Powers’s method was an interactive lecture style — probably because he also teaches — with a lot of walking into the audience and up to the questioner, especially the quieter shy ones, poor dears. Even some of the more awkward questions (or questioners) got handled with grace and humor.

I changed into my black and white number for the evening concert. I had not seen or heard Vernian Process before, although I’d seen their name around, but they did a fine job, and Unwoman is always wonderful. Abney Park is a crowd favorite of course, and they put on a great show. I had not heard about their change in lineup but am glad to report that their new female vocalist, Jody, was just great.

When the concert ended the DJ dance was still going, although just till 1 a.m. As the last songs played they announced next year’s theme, Weird Weird West, which was met with great approval from the audience. Then it was time to wish for someplace to go as most folks wandered off to bed. I stayed up a while chatting poolside with a lovely group of Canadian fans before calling it a night.

Departing on Monday, I overestimated my transit skills and didn’t realize that the hotel shuttle while convenient (it was raining) would lose me about half an hour since it would hit the airport first and then double back to drop me at the light rail station. Thus I missed my train by just a couple of minutes, to the amusement of my twitterlist. I rebooked for the next day’s Coast Starlight and looked out the window at the pouring Seattle rain. Sightseeing was not an option.

Luckily Leigh Ann Hildebrand, Transit Professional (retired) Extraordinaire came to the rescue and hooked me up with a place to crash in Portland. So an hour later I boarded the Cascades South. The Portland weather was fine, and since I had checked in my giant suitcase I was only burdened with my little rolley overnighter which I proceeded to roll all over the very walkable downtown area, grabbing a tasty pastrami sandwich and ale, then visited Powell’s which was just as amazing as advertised in theory, but in practice was in the process of remodeling the SF section and therefore missing everything from M-Z that I was interested in. I popped into the Buffalo Exchange across the street to see what the Portland kids were wearing (answer: nothing I wanted) and picked up some gloves, then headed to the slightly seedier end of town for a dozen Voodoo Donuts before grabbing a bus out to Reed. Every single person I met was helpful and friendly. It was a bit creepy.

The next morning I grabbed one donut for the road (the maple bacon) and caught my Coast Starlight home at last. Of course it turned out someone had broken the Norton Bridge while I was away so the thirty minute Amtrak bus from Emeryville became the two hour Amtrak bus from Martinez instead, but eventually I found myself back home to an eerily quiet Embarcadero area.

My original two days to rest, recoup and do laundry became one day of sleep-deprived madness when my brother arrived in town for the evening and I remembered I had committed to head to the Marina for a meetup with Tim Powers and a bunch of folks from the Powers Yahoo group. I cleverly combined the two and so my brother picked me up, tossed my suitcases in the back of the giant Penske truck he was driving and we headed up for beers and a very fun evening. He is not a fan himself and so some of the explanation of what I had been doing the previous weekend and what I was doing the coming one (World Fantasy) were lost in translation, but he is a reader and so fit in fine with the great group of folks at the dinner and he ended up discussing Catholicism with Serena Powers. In addition, an old friend from my SFNet days was there. Afterwards I was wired and wanting to catch up a bit with Raul, so we stopped off for some more drinks at Home over on Church Street. We chatted and had some wonderful Maple scotch that tasted like breakfast and a very good vodka recommended by the bartender.

Eventually I got home, pulled the essentials out of my big suitcase, threw them and whatever quasi-respectable clean clothes remained in my closet into my small suitcase, and grabbed a few hours of sleep.

I felt surprisingly good on Thursday morning, probably because it was my Friday. Work zoomed by and soon enough I was on Caltrain headed South to San Jose for World Fantasy.

Trusty Google Maps had served me heroically in Portland and didn’t fail me in San Jose. A fifteen minute walk got me to the Fairmont, where after a brief irritation with hotel checkin I got to my room and changed for the evening, then hit the consuite where the VanderMeers were co-hosting a party for Last Drink Bird Head. I ran into a bunch of friendly faces right away, like the consuite staff which included Kevin Roche and Andy Trembley as hosts, plus a full support staff that made me feel less guilty for not helping out on my first night.

In short order I ran into Jeremy Lassen from Night Shade, Jacob and Rina Weisman and Jill Roberts from Tachyon, and some of our own crew including Chris Garcia and Jean Martin. At ten the Australians opened their party down the hall in the Presidential suite, but it was so packed initially that it was not worth going in. When I did make it over I ran into Tim Powers again who introduced me to Kim Stanley Robinson… I managed to mostly keep my shit together. They were chatting with some Clarion graduates including Nayad and her husband whom I had met at Steamcon. Eventually I wandered back to the consuite and got into a conversation with Kevin and with a writer from Texas, who was very fun and terribly patient (my tweets for the evening suggest I was pretty drunk by this point) and who later research indicates was Chris Roberson from Money Brain books and someone whose work is on my to-be-read shelf. At around two a.m. I called it a night and hit the sack.

I remembered to hydrate but forgot to put up the Do Not Disturb sign, so I woke relatively early on Friday. Up to the consuite for coffee I went, and got a chance to take a better look at the wonderful job Kevin & Andy had done decorating the place. The large main room was done up in homage to the Great Balloon Hoax, as the Corvidian Aeroscaphe Adventures airship embarcation waiting room, with posters of exotic destinations and all manner of clever touches. In the adjacent room the destination of Fiji was created with Tiki decor and a wonderful large portrait of Poe done by Mo Starkey who continues to amaze me with the great decor pieces she contributes to these shindigs.

I picked up my badge and my giant bag of swag, which lived up to its reputation. Off to the side a table had been set up for people to leave books they didn’t want or already had. I dropped off two novels and picked up a copy of Escapement and the Eclipse Two anthology. I was amused to note that fannish OCD kept the table organized with one pile for each book or magazine.

Unusually for a convention, I had to leave the hotel for a quick errand, and was surprised at how nice downtown San Jose is. I’d been to the city a number of times of course, but rarely wandered about and my impression was that it was a bit of a dump, but in fact the whole area has been revitalized and is extremely walkable with a bunch of shops, restaurants, museums and green areas and SJSU’s lovely campus. The Tech Museum right across the street from the Fairmont is currently showing the Star Trek Exhibit and I am hoping to make it down to that before it closes.

When I got back I headed back up to the consuite for a bite and a chat and accidentally found myself drafted into service by the daytime shift leader Lamont Jones whom I unwisely allowed to see me being useful. I restocked food and drinks until 4 p.m. when it was time for my first panel of the convention, about overlooked writers of the supernatural. It was an overview of writers, mostly ones born in the late 19th century and deceased in the middle of the 20th, whose star had faded mainly due to unfortunate timing, being not quite modern but not quite classic enough the be rediscovered, and additionally mostly being authors of short fiction. I took copious notes and look forward to digging some of their work up.

After the panel I checked out the dealer’s room which was quite impressive and contained almost nothing but books, although Spring Schoenhuth was there with her amazing jewelry. Next door was the art show, which was smaller than I expected, and good but not great. With a juried show I had for some reason expected something extraordinary. That said, there was John Picacio and some really neat pieces by artist GOH Lisa Snellings, some great Lee Moyer pieces and a nice print of one of my favorite recent F&SF covers, Finisterre.

I decided on a quick nap before I was due to help Kevin with the bar at the consuite. The nap was not as quick as I had hoped but I eventually made it up there, apologized for my tardiness and put in some hours at the bar. I took a couple of breaks to wander the 19th floor where Locus and Night Shade and others where throwing parties. The MythosCon party room was notable for its Great Wall of Pizza where they had covered their food needs by ordering 104 pizzas from Dominos. While staring at this aghast I met up with Jean Martin and her friend Stephanie and we wandered next door to see what was going on over across the hall. It was packed and some sort of awards where being given. I poked my head in a little later when the mass diminished and it was wall to wall authors I recognized. Somewhat intimidated, I retreated to the consuite.

We served drinks until around 2:30 and on my way back to the room I checked the 19th floor again, which was completely dead. Curious, I went down to the lobby and spotted about ten or so people still conversing in the bar area. We hadn’t quite closed the place down, but we’d made a brave attempt.

Saturday was Halloween and despite the Blue Meanies who insisted that costumes were verboten for such a lofty professional event, plenty of people dressed up anyway, fans and pros alike. I woke up around eleven feeling a little tired and mostly spent the morning in the consuite chatting with Chris Garcia, Mo, Lamont, Chris and John O in the sort of rambling tag-team conversations that I associate with a good con, with people wandering in and out of the discussion and sentences like “I tell you, don’t ever eat osprey.”

After my near-apocalyptic levels of overstockingness at Steamcon I had managed to arrive at World Fantasy minus a single pair of sheer black stockings. The hotel gift shop only had them in petite (hah!) so Lamont who used to live in the city was kind enough to walk me down to the Safeway. Unfortunately not to the new nearby Safeway built after he moved, but the old one a mile and a half down the road. On the other hand, between my excursions and all the running around during my shifts I managed to lose a couple of pounds despite my indulgent eating habits during the weekend.

Back at the consuite I loitered for a while before hitting the Notable Books panel which was entertaining but wandered from the subject into discussions of the popularity of certain subgenres, SF vs. Fantasy, the rise of Young Adult, etc. I had hoped for the sort of panel I’ve seen at Worldcon for this subject where the panelists recommend their favorites from the previous year. I left about halfway and did another wander of the dealers and art show before going back upstairs in time to see the amazing Sugar Bowl cake that had been especially prepared for the evening’s Edgar Allan Poe birthday celebration. It was a hot air balloon in white, silver and blue with little ravens on it. A cask (or so) of Amontillado was also provided.

After some more loitering I changed into my LBD for the evening and came back up for a full shift of helping at the bar, this time with Lamont so Kevin could host the cake cutting and later on the tiki bar in the Fiji room. There were a lot of Halloween costumes, and some fannish ones. In addition to the parties on the floor below and the consuite there was also Gail Carriger’s book launch party across the hall from us which was steampunk themed and had the best spread I have seen in a while, with tea sandwiches, petit fours and some tasty Scotch Eggs. They had a little bar going on as well, but there wasn’t really much mingling space so I admired and retired back to the consuite.

I took a couple of wanders of the other parties but mainly stayed at my post, since I was having a ball serving drinks and letting the world come to me instead. The cake cutting was a great success and the cake itself mighty enough that we only got through about two thirds of it. The Amontillado was also lovely, and I mostly stuck to that along with the occasional “Death in the Afternoon” (Champagne and Absinthe.) Leigh Ann came down after finishing up her volunteering for the Spiral Dance in San Francisco and it was like quasi-Fanzine Lounging except I wandered off a lot less.

As other things shut down more people filtered in, and around two or three we closed the doors but kept going for a few hours longer just hanging out, finally doing some cleanup and packing it in at around four or five in the morning.

After very late nights I often wake up early, which is perfect for the last day of a con. I woke and headed down to a 10 a.m. panel called Rural Fantasy which was very interesting and added to my ever-growing list of books and authors I must check out. When I got back up to the room Leigh Ann was up and she kindly treated me to the fancy Fairmont buffet for a nice leisurely breakfast before taking one final round of the dealer’s room. Of particular interest this time was the Eraserhead Press table, with such titles on display as the now classic Shatnerquake and The Faggiest Vampire. We spent some time chatting with them then visited with Radar, who was watching Spring’s table for the morning.

Then it was checkout time so we headed over to the consuite for those final lingering hours until Dead Dog. Leo came by to pick Leigh Ann up but I decided to stick around for a while and get some final conversations in with old friends and new before dragging my\ suitcase and giant bag of loot over to Caltrain, tired but satisfied.

~España Sheriff

SF/SF issue #99, December 9, 2009