“Journeys in Color” Now Up and Running!

I’m pleased to announce that I now have a dedicated photography website. You can see it here, at journeysincolor.net.

My photographic interests are fairly widespread: I originally got into photography to take pictures of backpacking trips, and add a visual element to travel articles and blog posts. Along the way, my interest veered in more of a geeky/creative direction– I like taking pictures of cosplay, and bodypaint, and all sorts of art and costumes. At any convention or event that I go to, I will usually have my camera slung over my shoulder, looking for interesting people or moments to photograph.

In a sense, I feel like it complements my writing. Whereas writing is language-based, and usually requires a great deal of patience before finally arriving at a final product, photography is visual, and usually requires very little time at all. With photography, I can see the results immediately, and whereas it might take me several evenings of work to polish off a short story (and far longer for a novel), in the same several evenings I can process, crop and edit a few hundred pictures, any one of which might potentially stand on its own as a piece of creative work.

So please head on over and check out journeysincolor.net. In addition to having some of my favorite photos, arranged by topics and subjects, I’m also selling prints, so if you have a blank wall that needs a photographic print or collage, maybe you’ll find something that suits your taste. There are also full-size digital downloads for a token fee, if you see one that would work well as a computer background, or would like to print a picture or two for your own personal use.

I also have a blog up at the new site, where I’ll likely be posting photo sets from various travels and conventions. In particularly, I’m doing a yearlong projects called Journeys Around Seattle, in which I’m planning to explore at least one new Seattle-area neighborhood, event, or festival every week, and post a corresponding photoset. I’ve already done two, one to Eastlake and one to Cougar Mountain. You can see all the blog entries so far here.

I’ll still be posting trip reports here, as well as the occasional photoset, but by and large journeysincolor.net is where I’ll be focusing on photography, whereas Off the Written Path is where I’ll be focusing on writing (and life, and whatever current events demand a reflective and/or angry blog post). I’d be interested in hearing your feedback on the new page, so feel free to leave a comment either here, or in the guestbook over there, with any thoughts, suggestions, or constructive criticism.

And if you like it, feel free to share it around. In addition to selling prints, I’m hoping to branch into doing some additional event photography this year, and I’m hoping that journeysincolor.net will be a first step toward marketing and establishing the business side of things a little more.

Science Fiction in San Antonio

LoneStarCon 3, the 71st Annual World Science Fiction Convention (aka WorldCon), took place in San Antonio over Labor Day weekend. I’d been looking forward to this con even more than usual– it’s been my first since Norwescon over five months ago, plus, it was a welcome relief from a long vacationless slog at work. I needed a break, so I flew down to San Antonio to meet authors, hang out into the wee hours with friends, and just generally have an awesome time being a geek. My roommate was the inimitable Folly Blaine, and we stayed on the 26th floor of the Marriott Riverwalk, overlooking a gorgeous view of San Antonio.

I arrived late Thursday (technically early Friday) in San Antonio, stepping out into the nighttime air which was still every bit as warm as Seattle in the midst of a hot summer afternoon. Luckily, most buildings were air conditioned down to temperatures so cold you could leave milk out without worrying about spoilage. So between staying inside and occasionally darting outside long enough to thaw, I was able to maintain something approaching comfort.

This was also the first con in which I got to use my new camera (a Canon EOS 7D, instead of my old Canon Rebel T1i). I did photography during and after the Masquerade, and during the Hugo Ceremony. Unfortunately, I didn’t have my long lens with me during the ceremony, but I did manage to find the Hugo Photo room afterward and got some good pics of the winners (i.e. the Writing Excuses crew, seen left). The set up in the room wasn’t very good– the blue photo backdrop in particular was rather useless, as you can see in the photos, and the room was so small and the photographers were crammed so close to the winners that I really needed a wider-angle lens. (I had thought I was being clever by kneeling in front of the crowd of photographers, but it turns out I was too close. Ah, well. Luckily I managed to get some good pictures while generally avoiding the dreaded Up-The-Nose Shot.)

The full Flickr set with all my pics is here. If you’re in any of these pics and would like me to send you the full-size original (or would like me to take the photo down, for whatever reason) get in touch with me via any of the methods on the Contacts tab and let me know. If you’d like to reproduce any pics on your blog, personal, or author site, you’re welcome to, all I ask is that you credit me for the photo and link back to the original Flickr page.

As far as the con programming itself, it was okay. I’ve learned what I do and don’t like on panels, and while there were quite a few that I enjoyed (like the Mad Science panel, seen here), I stayed way the hell away from anything that even had a whiff of Things were so much better in the old days, or What’s wrong with things today?

WorldCon is steeped in its own arcane tradition– as noted earlier, it’s been going for over 70 years, and it occasionally feels like a relic of an earlier time. Today there is at least one annual con in every major city and state; WorldCon dates back to a time where cons were less frequent, travel was more expensive, and there was a need for a major con which switched cities every year. (If this sounds familiar, it might be because I said the same thing about Westercon last year.) Now, there may still very well be a need for a travelling con: WorldCon is inexorably linked to the Hugo Awards, and it’s nice that those are given out in a different city every year, so lots of different folks have an opportunity to come see them. It’s nice to have a reason for folks from around the world to travel to one city and hang out, and it’s nice that that city changes. It would be nice if that city was in North America less often, to make it even more of a “WorldCon”– but it’s usually in North America. This year, Helsinki, Finland lost the bid for the 2015 WorldCon to Spokane, Washington.

So all in all, WorldCon does occasionally feel a bit conservative and stodgy, and that’s reflected in both the politics and the programming. There’s a distinct hint of yearning for “the golden age” of sci-fi, that things were better back in the glory days of fandom: in my frank opinion, that line of thinking is bullshit. Times change; it’s the nature of progress. Science fiction and geek culture is, in fact, healthier than ever, as evidenced by the huge number of conventions across the world, not to mention the huge success of science fiction and fantasy films at the box office (The Avengers, now the second-highest grossing movie in the history of ever, won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Long Form Presentation this year– my friend Patrick Swenson is seen here, guarding the Hugo in Joss Whedon’s absence.)

Sure, fandom has had its share of conflicts lately, but those conflicts are by and large fights to make fandom more inclusive: friendlier to women, and people of color, and queer and LGBT folks. I think huge strides have been made in this area, and it’s a fight that will continue– in the meantime, anyone that yearns for the olden days gets little more than an eyeroll from me. Welcome to progress, folks. It ain’t always pretty and it ain’t always easy, but it is– I firmly believe– inevitable.

A brief example of WorldCon stodginess worth mentioning is in its seeming reluctance to acknowledge Young Adult fiction as an actual thing. Despite what naysayers would have you believe (“young people these days are only interested in TV and video games”) books geared toward teens and young adults are thriving. So far, though, WorldCon has refused to acknowledge it with a Hugo category, despite increasing pressure from the membership. Hopefully that will change within the next few years, but whereas I think healthy, growing aspects of the industry should be encouraged as much as possible, WorldCon is fundamentally a small-c conservative place. Maybe that’s a good thing, in some ways. But in an era of rapid change, it can also make it seem slow, dinosaur-like, and more than occasionally a bit petulant as well.

It seems like every year after WorldCon lots of people post blog entries and tweets fretting about how WorldCon membership is getting older, that attendance numbers are declining, etc. But frankly, I’m not worried, nor do I plan to spend a lot of time worrying about it. It seems to me that fandom is fine, just different in the eyes of the younger generation. It’s evolving; it’s less exclusive, and more popular, and enjoying a heyday. I hope that WorldCon is able to keep up with fandom, but ultimately I suspect fandom is going to drag WorldCon into the future, not vice versa– or perhaps WorldCon will fade away and sci-fi/fantasy fandom will continue, different but motivated by the same geekiness at heart, the same love of asking ‘what if’ and speculating on the answers.

But larger questions aside, I enjoyed myself at LoneStarCon, and many thanks to the volunteers who worked their butts off putting on the con. My only regret is that many friends were so busy that I didn’t get to hang out with folks much outside of late nights at the bar. The con was also fairly spread out, and I found myself going long hours, even most of entire days, without running into a single person I knew. As a result, I had some occasional issues with depression– I’m also in the midst of switching meds, which didn’t help– but I’m pleased to say that the end, the good times outweighed my own personal neuroses.

And of course, congratulations to all my friends and personal heroes who won Hugo Awards! The Hugos were the icing on top of a tasty WorldCon cake. And even if the cake did occasionally seem in danger of going stale, I have every confidence that things will be fine. With folks like the group below leading the way in Science Fiction & Fantasy, why on Earth (or off Earth) wouldn’t I be?

(P.S. Major props to Paul Cornell for his hosting of the Hugo Awards, and his shoutout to the SF&F activists– some in this picture, but many others less well-known or working entirely behind-the-scenes– who are helping to make sure that the field truly is welcoming and relevant to all.)

An Electrifying Saturday

We get plenty of rain in Seattle, but it’s usually in the form of a misty drizzle– the sort of rain where you’re not sure if it’s even worth the trouble of opening an umbrella. But a few times a year, lightning does light up the sky. It’s not very often, and the storms never last long, but whenever I hear that rumble of thunder, I immediately get excited and even somewhat nostalgic for the Southeast U.S. For me, there’s something therapeutic about ferociously bad weather, as long as I’m enjoying it from home and not, say, trying to drive through it.

Last night we got one of the best storms since we’ve moved to Seattle, and even though it was still relatively short (there were two or three brief bands of rain and lightning over the course of maybe two hours), it was nevertheless fun. I’ve been playing with a new camera (a Canon EOS 7D), so I took the camera to the overhang at the front of the building, set up a tripod, and decided to see what I could capture. Naturally, as soon as I did the rain and thunder faded away, but my patience was rewarded when another band of storms came through and I caught this picture, at about 1:30 am this morning:

That may be one of my favorite pictures I’ve ever taken. The overhang of my apartment is not exactly the greatest view– with a better vantage point I’d love to get a picture of lightning framing the Space Needle, or the downtown skyline– but given that it was my first attempt at lightning photography ever, I’m pretty happy.

Also, apparently taking that picture used up all my electricity-related karma for a while. When I left this morning to drive to Writer’s Group, I found my car battery dead. I took a taxi, and when I finally joined up with my fellow Wordslingers and turned on my laptop, I found it was only at half-power, despite having charged all night.

I got a measure of revenge on the universe by having this conversation on Twitter. (Warning: terrible puns ensue. Click on link at your own risk.)

Olympic Peninsula Redux

Last June I spent a few days driving around the Olympic Peninsula. I made it up to Hurricane Ridge, to the Hoh Rainforest, and the beaches, and even though the weather wasn’t always great, I enjoyed it immensely.

Later, relaying the details of the trip to my Dad on the phone, I mentioned that it would be a good place for us to go exploring and hiking for a few days. Dad and I have made plenty of similar trips before– in 2003, we went hiking in Wales, and in 2008, we spent a week together in Europe, taking the train from London to Berlin and stopping in Normandy for a few days to pay our respects at the D-Day sites. Not to mention all the trips we took when I was growing up.

Dad and I don’t get to see each other much these days– we live in opposite corners of America, and Dad’s work and travel schedule have kept him busy. So last Friday, May 3, when we met up to go exploring the Olympic Peninsula, it was the first time we’d actually seen each other in over 2 years. Not due to avoidance or anything…. just due to life. (Side note: one really shouldn’t let life do that.)

Anyway, our trip consisted of lots of driving, lots of hiking through the woods (and in snow, and over sand), lots of eating in greasy spoons, lots of talking and catching up, and (perhaps most surprisingly for the Olympic Peninsula) lots of sunlight. There were snow-capped mountaintops, clear views across the Strait of Juan de Fuca and deep into Canada, vibrant sunsets over the Pacific, and warm sunlit beaches bearing more resemblance to the South Pacific than Washington state– at least until you stuck your foot in the water.

I’m really pleased with the entire set of photos I got from the trip (the full set can be seen here on Flickr), but here’s a few of my favorites:

Looking from the Dungeness Spit across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, with Mt. Baker in the distance:

Seagulls nesting on a rocky stack off Cape Flattery, at the very Northwest corner of the United States:

A Coast Guard cutter crossing La Push Harbor at sunset:

The Visitor Center at Hurricane Ridge:

Deer along the road near Hurricane Ridge:

The stacks at Rialto Beach (with my Dad in the foreground for comparison), with the famous hole-in-the-wall in the distance:

A sea anemone surrounded by pink lichen:

Starfish in the intertidal zone:

Ferns (and a spider) in the Hoh Rainforest:

An oceanside waterfall, at Third Beach near La Push:

Looking south from Third Beach toward The Giants’ Graveyard:

Marymere Falls:

A bald eagle high up in a treetop, overlooking the beach:

Looking from Port Angeles toward the Olympic Mountains:

I’m sorry, did I say “a few?” I meant fourteen. It’s just that the number of environments and ecosystems we crossed was so huge– from the ocean (above and below the water), to the coastal forest, to the inland rainforest, to the snow-capped mountaintops and everything in between– that it’s difficult to capture the range of what we saw in just a few pictures. And we had perfect weather the whole way, which is pretty extraordinary, given that most of the Olympic Peninsula is absolutely inundated with rain (the Hoh rainforest gets 140 inches a year).

And to get to spend four days catching up with Dad in the midst of all this cool wildlife and weather and scenery? Made it just about the best trip ever.

Norwescon: Roses, Onions, and Assorted Vegetation

Norwescon was a blast this year. For me, it was also a bit of a healing process, a reassurance that yes, life is still totally awesome. It was great– even more so than usual– to hang out with friends, meet new writer peeps, take lots of photos, and just spend a few days indulging my creative and social sides. My writing has been fairly neglected over the past couple months, what with family and travel and work and life, and so Norwescon was a bit of a kick in the pants, as if life shook me by the shoulder and said, “hey, I’m expecting some stories from you this year.”

The con is always very good about soliciting post-con feedback, so I’ll do most of the con recap in a “Roses/Onions” format. That’s Norwescon-speak for good things and bad things, although just as an aside, I’d rather have a bushel of onions than a bushel of roses– the former is tastier. That said… we’ll stick with convention for the time being. (No pun intended.)

Rose:Name Badges.

The most universal gripe I heard last year was that the names on the badges were too small to read from more than about a foot away. After all, at a con where you’re seeing new people constantly, it’s nice to be able to see their name without squinting at their chest. So I was pleased to see they addressed that. There was still some name badge silliness– for example, the requirement that someone have a badge name AND a real name, and that they both be on the badge… this led to oddities like someone having their real name printed twice. Why not just make the badge name optional? (I suppose it’s possible that it was and I wasn’t paying attention, but I never saw anyone with just one name on their badge.)

Onion: Registration.

The name badges took a step forward; the registration took a step forward and three steps back. This year, they tried a new process, with stages delineated represented by traffic light-ish colors (red, yellow, blue, green). Unfortunately no one knew what the stages actually meant, so a volunteer had to be stationed up front telling people exactly what to do, and I presume, repeat the exact same thing three thousand times.

The general idea was that people could input their own information, print the form, take it to the cashier, and pick up their badge. But I suspect confusion slowed things down (not to mention forcing the pre-reg folks to go through the whole process too) . Everyone I know who registered on Thursday afternoon said the line took at least an hour, which for a relatively small con like Norwescon, is silly. I got there on Thursday evening, at which point there was no longer a line, but was still caught in registration for several extra minutes by a jammed printer which I had to fix myself. I suspect it wouldn’t be too hard to remove the physical paper from the process entirely, since its only purpose is to be carried three feet to the cashier.

Rose: Readings

Lots of fantastic and well-attended readings this year; Tina Connolly and Nancy Kress stood out particularly in my mind. The Broad Universe Rapid-Fire reading was also very good– Camille Alexa’s telling of her story “All Them Pretty Babies” might be hands-down my favorite reading ever (pictured left). Cat Rambo, Folly Blaine, and Mae Empson were all fantastic as well.

All those folks read short stories instead of novels; by and large I was not as much a fan of the novel excerpt readings, not just because novels are less satisfying than short stories in that format but also, by and large, they weren’t read as well. Oral storytelling is an art in and of itself, and not all writers have it. But of the folks who did read longer excerpts, Patrick Swenson’s stood out in my mind, and I can’t wait to read his book The Ultra Thin Man when it comes out from Tor next year.

Onion: Overcrowded panels.

I didn’t attend many panels (more on that later) but Norwescon appears to be outgrowing its panel space. Most of the panels take place in the Cascade rooms upstairs, and a decent percentage of panels (maybe even a majority) were standing-room only. It’s great that the panels are so well-attended, but it does make things feel a bit overcrowded.

There were also a few cases in which panels were assigned to poor spaces. For example, the Weapons Demo, in which various martial artists and combat experts did demos for writers to help them write fight scenes more accurately. It was a great panel, but it was scheduled in a room with low ceilings– this made any weapon demos with anything longer than a short sword kind of impractical. Recommendation? Put the Weapons Demos in one of the Evergreen rooms next year. The ceilings there are high enough that someone can construct a 10-foot tall costume and still not touch the ceiling.

That’s not a hypothetical, as you can see in the picture to the right. The Venus & Venice Carnival Fashion Show, which showcased both traditional and sci-fi-style Carnival costumes, was excellent. The real Venice Carnival is now on my bucket list.

Rose: Parties.

The parties at Norwescon were, as usual, excellent. Particular props go out to the folks who organized the Masterplan party, which was easily my favorite room party.

For pure socializing and hanging out, the more sedate “writerly” parties were pretty awesome too, as was the Saturday afternoon Fairwood Social. It was fun to hang out with both the “amateurs” and the pros, too. I’ve had enough practice that this sort of mingling and chatting comes almost naturally to me now. Almost.

Onion: Advanced Writing Panels

I’ve more or less stopped going to the writing panels at Norwescon. Not because of the overcrowding, but because I kind of feel like I’ve seen them all before. To be clear, this isn’t a Norwescon-only problem, it’s a problem at all cons, except maybe World Fantasy, which has the luxury of assuming its entire audience are pros.

But by and large, it feels like all cons have the same writing panels. There’s the Worldbuilding 101 panel, How to Write a First Page, the How to Submit Your Stories to Markets, How to Edit, How to Critique, How to Write a Character Arc… which is fine. They cover the basics, and I presume the reason they keep having them is because they’re popular.

But each of these panels is pretty much the same every year, and each time the panelists give a very basic level of advice that they could give in their sleep. Given the sizable chunk of serious/aspiring pros at Norwescon– people who’ve written a fair amount, are actively submitting and publishing their stories, and know a lot of what’s being said– I think there’s room for some more advanced panels, or panels that cover unusual topics. To be fair, the science panels at Norwescon are pretty cool and cover some of this (for example, the “Pigs in Space” panel dealing with agriculture in space was very useful from a Science Fiction standpoint), but I think there’s room for more.

Some fantastic writing panels that stand out in my memory (at Norwescon and other cons) include things like Weapons Demos for Writers, Mapmaking for Fantasy Books, and in-depth discussions of a particular Fantasy Archetype (i.e. The Changeling, or the Eternal Wanderer). I’d really like to see authors and panelists take more advantage of niche knowledge to create really unique panels, because those are almost always more fun than something broad and basic.

Rose: Photography.

I really like the designated Masquerade photography area. No other con I’ve attended has anything similar, and it’s a great opportunity to get photos of both hall costumes and the Masquerade. You know what would be really cool? If there was an area– even just a few feet of a wall– where a section of backdrop was left up all weekend and people could get pics in front of it anytime. Hall photography at Norwescon isn’t the easiest, since the registration area takes up the largest empty space and obvious gathering places are limited. An all-weekend photo area might give folks a place to take pictures that doesn’t block hall traffic. Just my two cents.

Onion: Photography.

This isn’t really the con’s fault, but sitting in the second row of the Masquerade photo area was a mistake. I was too short (and the gaps were too small) to get good pics from behind the first row without standing up, and if I stood up, I felt like I was blocking the people behind me. As a result I spent two hours alternating between sitting and being in a rather uncomfortable half-crouch. My legs were killing me, which contributed partly to my decision to leave midway through and go drink scotch. Next year it’ll be easier to just stand up for the whole thing instead.

Also, the flow of cosplayers through the photo area was a bit disorganized. Large groups were spontaneously pulled together out of various hall costumers, which isn’t bad, but then having to get pictures of the groups and then of the folks individually, from multiple angles and poses, meant that things moved slow and those of us who didn’t have the leg strength to half-crouch for four hours missed out on a bunch of the Masqueraders. I realize this is mostly just me whining now, but well, an onion is an onion. I got some great pictures, I just wish I’d gotten more great pictures. The pics I did get are here: link.

Rose: Volunteers.

Sure, it may sound like I’m complaining in the onions above, but only in the sense that you tell someone you love when there’s a piece of spinach between their teeth. Norwescon has grown on me, and all in all it’s a fantastically-run con. I have a better time every year I go, partly because I feel more comfortable there each time, but partly because it is well-run, despite occasional hiccups like this year’s registration.

With almost every con I go to, my respect and appreciation for con volunteers deepens. It’s tough to sit and do a job when everyone around you is chatting to friends, having fun, networking, cosplaying, or just generally having fun. So thanks, everyone. A particular note of thanks for the hospitality suite. The food options close to the hotel aren’t exactly numerous, and the hospitality suite helped keep me going several times.

Onion/Rose: Harassment Policy.

This might yet go either way. I noticed, to my surprise, that there was a panel on creating an anti-harassment policy for Norwescon. While it’s good that one is under consideration, it’s somewhat disconcerting that there wasn’t one already.

I wasn’t able to make it to the panel, so I don’t know the outcome, but I hope one gets put in place for next year. Anti-harassment policies work best when thought out and constructed before an incident, not hastily thrown together or updated after one, as ReaderCon learned with much difficulty not so long ago. I’d hate to see anything similar happen to Norwescon.

Rose: People.

Each year I know more people at Norwescon, and each year I make more friends and strengthen previous ones. What really makes Norwescon so much fun for me these days is getting to chat to people, and not just my writing group, who I see fairly often, but also people who I may only see once or twice a year. Especially this year, having spent so much time in North Carolina and missing the Rainforest Writers’ Retreat, it was awesome beyond words to see everyone again. If I ever leave Seattle, I think the writing and fan community would be the thing I miss the most.

And now, after a con last weekend and three blog entries in four days, it’s time to get to writing actual stories. Thanks again, everyone, for making Norwescon great.

A Weekend Among the Gamers

Over Labor Day Weekend, geekdom was split in three. Gamers flocked here to Seattle for the Penny Arcade Expo. Sci-fi & fantasy writers, artists, and fans met in Chicago for the World Science Fiction Convention (and the associated Hugo Awards). And nerds and geeks of all stripes partied and drank their way across downtown Atlanta for Dragon*Con (aka Nerdy Gras). Three awesome events, and sadly, only time to go to one– but which?

Regular readers of this blog (all six of you) know that I’ve been to Dragon*Con each of the last several years, and had a blast every time. But Atlanta is a long, expensive way away from Seattle. PAX, on the other hand, is a mere seven blocks from my apartment. On the other other hand, most of my writer friends (and many of my favorite authors) were planning to be in Chicago for WorldCon.

I had pretty much decided to stay home and try out PAX this year, but then all umpty thousand PAX tickets sold out in less than one day. I considered Dragon*Con and WorldCon, but was reluctant to commit to the money. Registration, hotel, and airfare add up to a lot, and ironically, money is tighter this year than last, even though I actually have a job now. Financial responsibility sucks sometimes.

Thus, last week, I was thinking I wouldn’t make it to any convention. And, well, I did have an idea for a new story and could maybe get some writing done… it would be a chance to enjoy a relaxing weekend, and really, who needs all the hassle of rushing around a busy, crowded convention anyway?

Then, last Thursday, I learned from a good friend that she knew someone who was trying to get rid of some extra PAX passes.


Yep, soon I had my hands on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday day passes for PAX. The story idea would have to wait a little longer.

If numbers are to be believed, PAX is the largest convention I’ve ever been to, by a wide margin (70,000 vs 46,000 for Dragon*Con). Cons of that size are so large that it’s hard to tell from an on-the-ground perspective, but PAX did feel like it was the most crowded convention I’ve been to, and that’s saying a lot– the Expo floor, which is a huge, sprawling space, was completely packed all the time.

For all that, it was also probably the most organized convention I’ve ever been to, thanks in large part to the efforts of the blue-shirted PAX enforcers. They were omnipresent, and always helpful– they organized lines and panels with ease, kept us entertained while we waited (for full context, imagine Gangnam Style being played in the photo on the right), and were always happy to answer questions. At other cons I’ve gotten lost, or confused by the schedule, at PAX I never had to worry about that in the slightest, because there was always an Enforcer nearby who knew the answer. To be a combination cat herder/fountain of knowledge/spontaneous entertainer is a tall order, but somehow they managed it.

I have to admit, I’m not much of a gamer. I haven’t really been one since World of Warcraft consumed a large chunk of my life a few years back. Since then, I’ve kept my distance from video games in general. It’s not that I think they aren’t fun, it’s just that I don’t want to get sucked into spending large chunks of time on them. I have a hard enough time getting my writing done as it is (case in point: this weekend).

Nevertheless, PAX was fun. I spent most of my time wandering around, seeing what there was to see, and taking pictures of costumes– as I usually do at such events. PAX isn’t as heavy on the cosplay as Dragon*Con, but there were still some excellent costumes around.

The biggest difference between PAX and other conventions is the Expo Hall. There is a lot of work, preparation, and above all, money behind the Expo– massive corporate displays put together by some of the industry’s biggest players, both in the software and hardware realm: Nintendo, Square, Microsoft, Sony, Nvidia, Intel, and plenty of smaller players who nevertheless put together massive booths (perhaps “realms” is a better word, given their size) to promote upcoming games. In addition to providing space for people to play said games, huge murals and diorama-like displays were everywhere. These weren’t booths, they were movie sets. For someone who’s used to literary conventions, with struggling writers, artists, and independent vendors sitting at fairly spartan tables, the sheer amount of money that had to go into something like PAX is a bit mind-boggling. Even larger fan cons, like Emerald City Comicon and Dragon*Con, have nothing on the Expo Floor at PAX.

For me, it was both fascinating, and also kind of a turn-off. I think I’d rather wander through a floor full of writers or comic artists at their own tables, selling their own stuff, than an expo floor that’s been transformed by marketing budgets. I know there are lots of indie game developers out there (many of them were at PAX, and some had pooled their resources into a large indie gaming booth), and game developers are, by and large, every bit as passionate about developing games as writers and artists are about their own creations. Certainly gamers are just as passionate about their hobbies as sci-fi & fantasy literature fans are about theirs. But the main thing PAX brought home to me is that video games are very much an industry,and a much bigger one than either publishing or comics (at least, publishing on the scale that I usually see it). PAX was so different from the cons I usually go to that even as I write this, I’m still suffering from a bit of culture shock. Fun culture shock, mind you, but just… wow.

There was other fun stuff happening, too. At each PAX there’s an Omegathon, in which 20 contestants compete through six rounds, each round featuring a different game– they could be board games, video games, or otherwise. In the last round, the final two players go head to head in a mystery game, which isn’t revealed until the contestants are on stage. This year, a Twitter friend and writerly acquaintance, geardrops, was one of the contestants, so I attended the Omegathon rounds, took pictures, and cheered. She lasted until Round 5 (see the giant bananagrams on the left). Alas, they were knocked out by the other team, who were (in my opinion, as an avid Bananagrams player) entirely too willing to resort to two-letter scrabble words. But a win is a win, and a loss is a loss. Still a good show all around.

I also went to panels. Some of them appealed to me because they touched on aspects of writing that I’ve seen at other cons, but from a video gaming perspective (how to create good villains, how to build your world, and so on). By and large I didn’t go to those. I also went to some of the more activist-type panels; there was one on Wil Wheaton’s law, i.e. “Don’t be a dick,” and how we can discourage shitty behavior in online games. This has always been a problem, in online games, on the Internet, and even in the broader fan community– in fact, it was Gabe of Penny Arcade who coined the Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory. Some day soon I may do a separate post on that whole subject; there’s been a lot of discussion on harassment and bullying in the geek community, and I’m tempted to add my two cents.

But by far the greatest panel (in fact, one of the best I’ve been to at any con) was the NASA panel. Several NASA engineers on the Mars Curiosity project were on hand to do a wide-ranging panel which touched on a variety of subjects, including free online games that allow people to interact with and learn about the current Mars mission, as well as future robotic control systems that may be inspired by gaming technology, and all the way to future exploration, in which gamers might one day step into a holodeck-like and be immersed in a 3D environment, as if we were right there with our robot avatars on other planets. The last ten minutes of the panel were as inspiring as anything I’ve ever seen at any con, ever. If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and watch it yourself (you can watch the whole panel if you want, but for the best part, skip ahead to 1h8m). The future they paint is very exciting indeed.

I have to admit, there is one thing I didn’t do at PAX, and that’s actually play any games. I was too busy doing everything else: touring the expo floor, attending panels, watching the Omegathon, going to the evening concerts, being blown away by NASA. Maybe if I go back next year, I’ll have time to dig a little deeper.

Although I have to admit, I missed Dragon*Con this year. And I would very much like to be back in Atlanta next Labor Day Weekend. But PAX was certainly impressive.

To see the full set of pics from PAX, click on the lovely face below:

A Quiet Weekend at Westercon

Westercon has a long and prestigious history– it’s been around since 1948, and has been hosted in various western cities every year since. It’s a bit like WorldCon, moving from city to city, and this year it was in Seattle, in the same Doubletree Hotel that hosts Norwescon every April. However, Westercon is much smaller than either WorldCon or Norwescon– whereas those two have attendees in the thousands, there were probably only about 800 people (at most) at Westercon this weekend. This makes it one of the smaller cons I’ve attended– and since the Doubletree can host cons at least five times bigger (i.e. Norwescon), it felt very quiet. The bar was never full, and there was always plenty of room to walk in the hallways. Which is good, but it’s kind of disappointing, too. I like the chaos of cons, and I like seeing a wide variety of people and costumes, but by and large, Westercon was not the con for that.

In a way, Westercon feels like a relic of an earlier era– it dates back to a time when cons were few and far between, travel was more expensive, and fans who lived in the Western U.S. needed a regional con. Now, with every semi-large city in America hosting at least one con a year, it feels a bit obsolete. Nevertheless, Westercon seems to enjoy a base of dedicated attendees, and I certainly won’t complain about getting an extra chance to hang out with local writers.

Despite its small size, it was still a great opportunity– there were plenty of pros there, and it was easier to slow down and catch up with people than it can be at busier cons. The pro-to-fan ratio was pretty high, and while that’s bad for the pros and vendors looking to sell their stuff, it’s good for us newer writers looking for advice and networking opportunities, and anyone just looking for a chance to chill out and chat with folks.

The panels were smaller, too. Often at Norwescon the seats are arranged auditorium-style and the panels are standing room only; here, the panels were generally arranged in chairs around a large central table, which lent a much more personal feel to the panels… not to mention making it easier to see the panelists and ask questions. There were occasional hiccups– I attended a panel on Dystopian Design that apparently had no panelists scheduled at all– but we were still able to get some good discussion going.

Despite its small size, there were some big names present– Robin Hobb, Greg Bear, and David Brin, to name a few. David Brin is one of my favorite authors of all time, and it was awesome to get a chance to meet him. It was fun hearing him speak, because despite being very smart and successful, he doesn’t take himself too seriously. At his readings and panels, he was more than happy to tell jokes and ramble and occasionally derail his own train of thought– but he was clearly enjoying himself through it all. He kind of reminds me of Robin Williams, if Robin Williams were a futurist instead of a comedian.

Another highlight of the con was my first-ever public reading– even though it ended up being only to fellow members of my writing group. On Friday, the 4 of us who were at the con decided to arrange an impromptu public reading late Saturday afternoon, and so for the first time ever (but hopefully not the last) the Cloud City Wordslingers had a quick reading. Each of spent a few minutes reading a snippet of fiction– and even though a couple last-minute tweets and posters did not entice anybody else to come, I still had fun, and it was good practice. I look forward to doing it again sometime, hopefully in front of people I don’t know.

The other highlight was BarCon– the chances I got to hang out with folks at chat at the bar, whether it was the writing group (lunch on Saturday), or Patrick Swenson, Tod McCoy, and Shoshana (Saturday dinner), or Jennifer Brozek, Keffy, Liz, and Lily Cohen-Moore (late night chilling and drinking). Fantastic folks, all. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again– part of what keeps me at this whole writing business is the community of folks you get involved with. I love it. (P.S. If you’re a reader or a gamer, check out Lily’s kickstarter, The Guide to the Village by the Sea.

In the end, even though Westercon was quiet and I didn’t get much good photography in, I certainly won’t complain about getting to go. (What pictures I did manage to get can be seen here.)

One other highlight worth noting– there were some fantastic musicians there, including Leannan Sidhe, Vixy and Tony, and Jeff and Maya Bohnhoff. Excellent concerts, and the Bohnhoffs’ Masquerade Intermission was considerably more entertaining than the actual Masquerade. (That’s a compliment to the Bohnhoffs, not a diss on the Masquerade, although with only 9 entries, it was somewhat sparse.)

Now I really need to buckle down and get back to the Clarion West Write-a-thon. There are words to be written, and sadly, blog entries don’t count.