Probably the first thing that's brought to mind when you think of a science-fiction convention is nerds. Recent films about the cult of Star Trek fandom, the movie Galaxy Quest and, of course, William Shatner's infamous "Get a life" sketch on Saturday Night Live have all helped the general public continue to feel superior to the conventiongoing fan of the genre.
Of course, these geek-spotters wouldn't be caught dead at such an affair. So they have no experience getting an autograph from a beloved speculative writer. They have never seen a fan-art exhibition. They haven't attended a charity auction and picked up AstroBoy action figures or advance proofs of Arthur C. Clarke novels for a pittance. They would never be interested in checking out a battling-robot tournament, a festival of short sci-fi films or a masquerade, or getting drunk with others with whom substantive conversation is possible before unconsciousness arrives. I mean, why spend a full 17-hour day being fascinated from start to finish when you can act aloof and dismissive instead?
If you've never been to a sci-fi fan convention, you're missing a weekend so stuffed with cool programming it can be really difficult to choose what you're going to do next. Archon is the ranking convention in the St. Louis area, gearing up for its 24th year. This year's schedule includes some new events, like Robowars and the Postapocalyptic Car Show. Archon chairwoman Michelle Zellich says the Archon version of the Robowars remote-control-robot battle will be waged with "sumo rules, meaning you basically have to shove them out of the ring instead of beat them to death." The car show, according to convention literature, features autos altered to look as if they're ready for The Road Warrior, Death Race 2000 or Car Wars (a role-playing game). These cars and their drivers will not battle to the death as they race along I-55. Oh well.
Conventioneers can shop at a marketplace with 85 tables selling everything from Xena: Warrior Princess T-shirts to latex Klingon forehead ridges to used books by Lester Del Rey. Panel discussions of industry pros will touch on the history of Rocky Horror fandom, the next former professional wrestler likely to break into politics and a slew of other topics. Those who enjoy role-playing games and fantasy-themed card games like Magic and Legend of the Five Rings can literally spend all day playing them and join in demonstrations of new games hosted by manufacturers' reps.
The annual art show features work created by fans that is sold at auction. There are also contests for those who paint pewter role-gaming miniatures and assemble plastic model kits.
These cons have a tradition known as "filking," a word that originated from a typo in the word "folking," meaning the performance of folk songs. Yes, people actually write songs about the worlds of Tolkien, Gundam Wing and the films of Kurt Russell and sing them to guitar, bongos, flute or whatever. Another group, known as SLUGS -- the St. Louis Underground Gaming Society -- will host a tricky find-and-kill game referred to as Live-Action Vampire. This imaginative contest is played in the hallways of the convention center at night.
Through it all, lovable Klingons will offer a "Jail 'n' Bail" for a charitable cause, during which, explains Zellich, the costumed barbarians will "find you, arrest you noisily and kick you off to wherever it is that they're going to put you, and then you get to pay them to let you out again."
For many of the 2,000 attendees, the highlight of the weekend is the Saturday-evening masquerade, at which people compete in a creative-costume contest. A recent showstopping costume was the AT-AT Imperial Walker from the Hoth ice-planet battle scene from The Empire Strikes Back. Two people coordinated their movements from within the horse-style costume, which was 10 feet long, to shuffle forward, just like in the movie.
Late on Friday and Saturday nights, many will open their hotel rooms at the Holiday Inn to host room parties. Decorating your room with Christmas lights and serving oddly colored spiked punch is typical.
This Archon also plays host to a reunion of "First Fandom" alums, who created the World Sci-Fi convention in 1939. These men and women, now in their late 70s and 80s, are the forefathers of the modern convention crowd. They began by writing letters to one another and the editor in pulp magazines like Weird Tales, Unknown, Astounding, Worlds of If and Amazing Stories. They eventually started their own fanzines, and many, including Fred Pohl, Jack Williamson and Wilson "Bob" Tucker, became accomplished writers of fiction themselves.
This year's guest of honor is Larry Niven, best known as the author of popular 1970 novel Ringworld. Niven is an exponent of "hard" science fiction, meaning his literary creations are based on actual or theoretically feasible technology-- he "plays by the rules," as he puts it. He attempted to attend an Archon a number of years ago that didn't quite work out, he relates. "Marilyn (his wife) and I arrived at an Archon as guests of honor to find out it had been canceled. We hadn't been told. That is certainly memorable."
Niven says he enjoys both the interaction with his fans and the respite from what can be the lonely experience of writing to attend the very social cons. "If I had known about these things when I was 10, I would have been going," he says. "It would have felt like paradise."