This marks Archon's second year as a four-day convention. Although growing pains are still evident, the organizers did a good job of solving what minor problems came up. Activities have expanded. It's nice to have two whole days between arrival and departure.
The location is a significant part of Archon's appeal. Archon takes place in Collinsville, just outside St. Louis, Missouri; the Gateway Center is a huge complex of a convention hall, Holiday Inn, several satellite hotels, and a cluster of restaurants—all within their own little network of roads. You can easily find somewhere to eat and sleep, at reasonable rates, right next to the main activities. I especially like the barbecue place, Bandana's, and the Comfort Inn. This is my favorite convention location for sheer convenience.
Archon hosted an excellent art show. They're also less pesky about checking items at the door—backpacks and such had to be left, but purses didn't, which is nice if you dislike leaving all your ID and money in a heap on the floor. The panels were laid out with plenty of space to walk between the rows. For those with a smaller budget, a Print Shop carried alternatives to original paintings; also notable was the Resale Section for collectors to find new homes for previously purchased artwork.
Some of my favorites this year include David Deen's intricately rendered aliens and John E. Kaufmann's candling of a dragon egg. Two artists caught my eye with similar techniques, the delicate pencil shading of Peter Bradley's fantasy sketches, and the subtle coloring of John Perkins' Lord of the Rings pictures. Several artists went for cross-cultural humor, of which I especially remember the party-colored Federation starship USS Cinco de Mayo. Another amusing entry was Sharon Young's "Pride of Lions"—who held mirrors in their paws. Rebecca McDannold displayed exquisite symbolism and composition in her often-surreal fantasy pictures, most notably "Elephant House," though it was the "Cloudscape" picture of celestial horses that I wound up buying a print of when I saw it in the Dealers' Room later. Allison Stein had some handsome gothic art featuring Celtic crosses.
John D. Williams presented photography, some merely suggestive, some depicting fairly erotic bondage; splendid photos, but I was a bit surprised to see them hung in a show open to all ages. Outstanding in the 3D category were the holograms by August Muth and Fred Unterseher, and John Perkins' guitar decorated with fantasy-themed woodburning. Patricia Pierce-Phillips used paste gems, rhinestones, and other decorations to elaborate on her fantasy pictures. In my "I wish I could've afforded to buy this" arena, W.J. Hodgson took the lead with a set of lovely spacescapes…one of which was set in a windowframe so that it looked quite a lot like an actual window with weird skies beyond it.
The Dealers' Room opened Friday afternoon. There was plenty of room, something not every con offers. The selection included clothes, games, artwork, jewelry, and other goodies. Butch Honeck, sculptor of the famous opal-eyed bronze dragons, had his usual table; a friend of mine bought one of his staffs, topped with a bronze claw holding an obsidian ball. The Medieval Starship table yielded one of the campaign-year bumper stickers I've been hunting for: "Harrington 2004—Our government needs more Honor." We also saw other merchant friends; Dave Kaufman had a nice setup for Horizon Music, and Glen Cook was there with his book booth, and many more.
The most fun I had this year in the Dealer's Room was at the DNA Publications table. They publish Absolute Magnitude, Mythic Delirium, and other magazines. Their newest acquisition features the band Kiss—and I got to hear all about how the rock magazine made it possible to get much better distribution for all the speculative magazines. Now that's a clever bit of applied economics! I'm glad to see this publisher making progress. Yard Dog Press also had a table, and for the first time I saw Golden Gryphon Press there too. Small presses need the exposure and the fan support. My finds included a moonstone ring, several dozen buttons, and the "Cloudscape" print. I also picked up The Ferret Tarot from the Tarot Garden not so much as a reading deck as for my collection; it's black and white, from a run of only 500 decks, with hilariously apt cards—such as "The Tower," showing two panicky ferrets clinging to a fifty-pound bag of ferret chow as it topples over. Archon is a terrific shopping con.
Panels and Presentations
Archon offered multiple tracks of programming. The main ones included literary, fannish, writing technique, art technique and appreciation, costuming, and gaming activities. The gamers had a huge room of their own; there were also assorted board and roleplaying games available for checkout if attendees wanted to try them. "You Sank My Pirate Ship" (held in a separate function room) was a fun setup to look at, even for people not playing, and some of the miniature layouts in the main room looked exotic and fascinating. The panels and presentations spread across the convention center and the main hotel. Particularly noteworthy was Archon's tendency to cross-track those volunteers who are willing—it really revs up a panel when you have artists and authors discussing a topic together, because of the different perspectives.
The first panel I attended had the intriguing title "Prejudices We Haven't Thought Of…Yet." It turned into more of a discussion on past and present prejudices, but some of the speculative elements proved interesting. This is where I first met author Elizabeth Donald, who propped up a cover for her book Nocturnal Urges. In that novel, vampires are the oppressed underclass; with seemingly everyone else writing about cool, powerful, rich vampires, I loved the idea of exploring the opposite. I also introduced the idea of robots as an underclass, as portrayed in the movie I, Robot where the African-American hero treated robots much the way white people have sometimes treated black people.
Another panel, "Collecting in the Age of eBay," featured the Author Guest of Honor, Alan Dean Foster, along with several other folks. They talked about how electronic shopping has changed the experience of collecting, with a focus on books. You can search a wider range of stores for rare items—but you're less likely to find bargains, because it's much easier for shopkeepers to research what things are worth.
This year I presented only one panel myself, but it turned into a beauty. "Real Aliens, Real Abilities" featured me, author Mark Tiedemann, and artists David Deen and John E. Kaufmann. The basic premise was that some authors and movie producers present aliens with powers so bizarre that—especially without explanation—they can snap the audience's suspension of disbelief. So we explored possible abilities inspired by examples from nature. I suggested aliens who could fly, or echolocate. Mark Tiedemann mentioned aliens that could "see" via X-rays (at an intensity fatal to humans). The artists discussed ways of representing alien abilities visually —for instance, an eyeless alien might have some other organ, such as antennae, brightly colored to attract the viewer's attention and indicate its importance. The diverse perspectives excited the audience; we got a lot of participation around the room. Finally, it came clear that readers would enjoy more alien aliens in science fiction; some people complained that aliens are too similar to humans in most stories.
Aside from panels, Archon featured a lot of other programming. The Filk Guest of Honor, The Great Luke Ski gave a ninety-minute concert on Saturday. When we arrived for that, "Meet George Takei" was just wrapping up, so we got to see the last ten minutes or so. I wish I could've caught Takei's whole presentation, but it conflicted with my own panel. He's impressive behind a podium, demonstrating one of the great mysteries of public speaking: if you underfill a room with your presence, it bores the people in back; if you overfill it, the atmosphere seems oppressive and crowded; but if your voice and energy reach exactly to the walls and no further, it's enchanting. One of the things I find most inspiring about attending a convention is that I get to observe people who've been working the fan circuit for decades and have mastered skills that I'm just beginning to learn. I can watch what they do and how they do it—the Guests of Honor, the moderators of panels, the authors at their signings, they all give me a glimpse of the poise and presence to which I aspire.
But back to Luke Ski, who does things I'll never be able to do, because I can't sing and I'm not a comedian. I am, however, enough of a poet to understand his tremendous skill as a satirist; the precision with which he parodies song lyrics is truly amazing. He specializes mainly in rap, bringing a fresh new voice to the filk genre, which for decades has leaned on folk and occasional pop styles. For this concert, he did eighteen songs, a whole album's worth, all live, complete with pantomime and some very silly props. (There is just no substitute for watching a rubber Yoda puppet sing.) In the process he mocked and honored—often in the same tune—such favorites as Star Trek, Star Wars, Firefly, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and The Lord of the Rings. Several songs did the same for fandom itself, including "It's a Fanboy Christmas," and "Fangirls, Shake That Booty," which wound up with over a dozen femmefans (of all ages and sizes) dancing on the stage.
Another event we caught by accident. Some friends and I decided to catch Elizabeth Donald's reading (from Nocturnal Urges and other stories), and went into the room early, expecting it to be empty. Instead, there was David Okenfuss (Starlight Ceilings, 636-458-2908) with his "Glow in the Dark Painting." Now, when I see "Painting" in a title at a con that has an art track, I think it's a how-to presentation. This wasn't. It turns out that Okenfuss is a muralist who paints very realistic starscapes on people's ceilings. He's done private homes, nurseries, hospital rooms, and a few business offices. He uses paint that glows all night once charged with light, and also looks spiffy under black light. Hopefully he'll come back next year, with more promotion; he only found about Archon a few days before the con, so had little preparation. I think if more people knew they could hire someone to starscape their ceiling, he would've been mobbed. So I have a freebie painting of the constellation Aries on black paper, and his brochure, and I'm eyeing my ceilings speculatively because I've always wanted them starscaped and David Okenfuss' elegant spreads were much more impressive than anything I could do with a packet of stick-on stars.
Elizabeth Donald showed up for her reading, right on time. She has a warm voice and an impish sense of humor that go very well with the kind of material she writes. First she read an excerpt from Nocturnal Urges, an erotic mystery about vampires and humans, which had some great quips in it too. Then she read the short story "Sisyphus," possibly the creepiest love story I've ever heard. Those and some other tidbits appeared in the little pamphlet that got handed around to the audience—I wish more authors would give handouts at their readings. She even had matchbooks done up to look like they came from the club mentioned in her novel.
There was a constant stream of autograph sessions at Archon, neatly organized in the La Salle lobby. I missed Sharon Shinn this year, alas, but I did catch Alan Dean Foster. Not only did I get my books signed, but I got an answer to the question I've been wondering about for years—yes, he talks the way he writes. When I mentioned how much I love the rich vocabulary in his novels (he's one of the few authors who can reliably send me to a dictionary once per book) he said, quite firmly, that he doesn't dumb down his writing. In an age of plummeting standards, it's nice to see someone stand firm; expansive and well-used vocabulary is a hallmark of Foster fiction.
Even more impressive was George Takei's signing. That was the least boring line I have ever stood in—he kept joking and conversing with all the fans, and everyone leaned out of line to watch him. I've admired Takei's acting all my life, but in person he's downright charming. The International Federation of Trekkers stationed a couple of ladies to help manage the line, and take photos of people who wanted snapshots with George Takei, which really made things flow smoother. That's service.
Costuming formed a serious thread in the Archon experience. Friday featured the Hall Costume Contest and a Masked Ball. The Children's Masquerade took place on Saturday, especially for kids under twelve, but the Grande Masquerade included a junior category too. I went to the latter; Archon's Grande Masquerade is the best outside the true costume conventions.
Some of the entries were cute and clever. One favorite was "The Return of the Four-Letter Word," with two quite young children dressed up as Aragorn and Luke Skywalker. Another contestant came cloaked as Senator Palpatine, trying to convert people to the Dark Side of the Force…and when that didn't work, off came the cloak and the guy was dressed like the old geezer in the Six Flags commercials, and he proceeded to do the whole wacky dance. The Great Luke Ski appeared dressed as Bender, from the series Futurama, and did a performance of his song "Bender Roboto." Other costumes stood out for technical skill, like the giant robots (in the novice category, no less) and the dragon with movable wings (master class). Among the more memorable for storytelling was an enactment from The Silmarillion about the making of the sun and the moon.
Odds and Ends
The Archon experience is among the most balanced of conventions I've attended, with a good support network and plenty of different things to do. There's no way to see everything, of course. I missed the special showing of Pirates of the Caribbean for which the audience dressed up as pirates and shouted witticisms at the screen, à la Rocky Horror. I did hear good things about the Video Room in general, which spanned anime and live-action movies. In addition to the concert by The Great Luke Ski, the filk track also included open filking and some panels on the topic.
The hospitality suite was, as traditional for Archon, mainly a beverage station with a lot of room to sit and talk. The VIP suite, however, offered not just beverages but snacks and actual food. They had barbecue one day, Mexican food another, and there was always fruit on the table. The guests and organizers had a quiet, comfortable refuge away from the hullaballoo of the con proper. Another thing I cherish about the best cons is the way you can relax around a table with some of the world's most interesting people, and not feel compelled to be entertaining, but just be yourselves and enjoy each other's company. Conversely, there's always something for the fans to do—the parties started late Thursday and the festivities continued until everyone fell asleep.
Archon is a terrific con for pros and fans alike. (If you're new to programming, try volunteering for Thursday afternoon or Friday morning; those are still light on volunteers.) Archon 29 will take place from Sept. 29 to Oct. 2, 2005 with Guests of Honor Jody Lynn Nye and Bill Fawcett.