I attended my first science fiction convention in 2000 or so. EerieCon in Niagra Falls, New York. A decade-and-a-half later, I’ve become a regular at some conventions, such as GenCon, but others I don’t regularly attend. The big, more corporately-driven conventions like GenCon, Comic-Con, and DragonCon, are very popular, but it’s the smaller literary conventions where the real die hard fans like to gather. As much as I love many of the media representations of science fiction and fantasy, I fell in love with the genre through books.
Last weekend, I made the drive from my central Indiana home up to Dearborn, Michigan, for ConFusion. I lived in Detroit for 4 years and attended ConFusion several times during that period, but moved away over a decade ago and have only been there a couple of times since. Twice I was fully prepared to go, but mid-January weather caused last minutes changes in my plans.
This year, the weather cooperated. The drive took about 4 hours, and I wasn’t alone. This time it was a family trip, with my wife and two sons (9 and 5 years old) along for the adventure. We typically devote a day as a family to GenCon, but I’ve avoided bringing my kids to the more literary conventions. ConFusion has historically had a pretty solid kid’s track, KidFusion, including a Saturday night pizza/pajama party. It’s definitely one of the more kid-friendly conventions, so we decided to give it a try as a family this year.
Weather allowing, ConFusion is a great convention for those in the Midwest to attend, both for those who love to read and those who love to write. It draws a lot of fantastic authors, including a regular stream of top names in the field, authors that regularly appear on award nomination (and winner) lists.
Interstellar Economics and Other Panels
I also love the diverse range of panels at these conventions, which seem to draw on much more eclectic subject matter than you get at GenCon. Specifically, the science-related panels are a favorite, if only because it gives me an opportunity to actually participate! On Saturday, I was on a panel about time travel devices and one on time travel impossibilities. In other words, I was on one panel that focused on how we could pretend time travel might work and another panel to remind us why we had been pretending in the previous panel. On Sunday, I was on a panel about how science fiction technology was showing up in the real world and one about how extreme weather manifested in science fiction. It was, as always, fun to be on these panels, but the panels that I’m on, the panels where I am at least a nominal “expert” in the subject, are never as interesting to me as the ones where I have no expertise about the subject matter!
One of the best panels I attended was on “Interstellar Economics.” Moderated by John Scalzi, this panel also featured Guest of Honor Karen Lord, Ted Chiang, and Aaron Thul, and it was definitely interesting to watch. For one thing, Ted Chiang threw the panel’s premise under the bus right out of the gate by pointing out that pretty much all stories of interstellar trade are stories about intercontinental trade, told through analogy. In fact, he argued that there was really no feasible way that interstellar trade could make economic sense. As if reading my own mind, Thul tried to argue against this a bit. He lives in Vancouver, and pointed out that trees are cut down in Vancouver, transported via ship to China, processed and manufactured into tables, then shipped back to Vancouver and sold in stores with labels that they are “Made from Vancouver hardwood.” If this sort of nonsensical system is economically feasible, surely one can imagine something similar making interstellar trade feasible.
Despite this valiant effort, none of the panelists was really able to come up with a good, rational economic justification for it. Trade between continents happens because modern shipping containers and transports make the shipping cost essentially negligible in the overall cost of things, and the cost savings in labor more than make up for the additional cost. When you have a civilization that can create spaceships that can economically travel between star systems, it’s hard to imagine that there isn’t some more-cost-effective means of using local resources and manufacturing. It would seem that the most realistic systems would be largely isolated civilizations, without strong trade relationships between them.
But that, of course, is where the world-building and speculation comes in. As Karen Lord mentioned during the panel, we know from history that major economies have been built around such unnecessary items as sugar, rum, and opium, so one can imagine a rare resource sparking a similar interstellar trade situation, like Dune‘s spice. Scalzi discussed an upcoming book where the trade is driven, in part, by irrational local fads, like one planet having a large population that believes that food from this one specific other planet is somehow better than local food. Imagine a future where interstellar ships are bringing gluten-free foods to the planet Celiac!
Lord also discussed the economic system from her new book, The Galaxy Game (Amazon). I heaven’t read the book yet, but as she describes it, her world has two parallel currencies: a monetary currency and a social currency. The monetary currency is egalitarian, distributed roughly equally among all, so no one lacks for the basic necessities. However, the social currency is a sign of the ultimate meritocracy, where an individual’s contribution to society is “objectively” determined and they gain currency accordingly. While everyone can buy a house, living in certain neighborhoods would require the expenditure of not only monetary currency but also social currency. I’m soon to begin the first book in the series, The Best of All Possible Worlds (Amazon), but even without having read anything by her I was really impressed by the clear care that she’d put into her worldbuilding. Looking forward to it.
On other economic subjects, there were a couple of intriguing panels that my wife, an urban planner specialized in food systems, really got into: the eating of bugs. This is a growing movement, built around the idea that our current agricultural system is unsustainable, and that the environmental impact and cost of growing The person presenting these panels even had little granola-type bars that were partly made from crickets. Not too bad, although I felt that they had a bit of an aftertaste to them, but I can’t guarantee that wasn’t my imagination.
A much more pleasant aftertaste came from the Beer, Brewing, and Books! panel, moderated by Steve Drew, founder of the Reddit Fantasy forum. This intriguing panel of homebrew enthusiasts discussed the lack of brewing in fantasy literature, despite tropes such as a group of adventurers gathering in taverns and dwarven fixations on beer. (One amusing point that had never occurred to me: How do dwarves, who live mostly underground, grow the hops and grain needed for their intense brewing activities?) It was a lively panel and, as someone who has no experience in brewing, I found it very illuminating. Also, for any writers out there who are interested in brewing, know that good literary fantasy that incorporates elements of brewing would be appreciated by Scott H. Andrews, editor of Beneath Ceaseless Skies.
The Gaming Track
Since I go to GenCon annually, I don’t usually spend a lot of time at these conventions gaming, though they usually have a good gaming room and several impressive gaming guests and panels. Thanks in part to some good poster advertising around the convention and prominent booth placement in the dealer’s room, I did learn about one new game of interest.
Netherstorm is a new RPG (released in October 2014) designed around a sandbox concept, where players gain experience for basically everything they do in the game world, including crafting and social interactions. The game is built on a basic percentile mechanic, with an emphasis on skills rather than on enhancements from equipment. When you’re fighting someone, the equipment gives a benefit, but you’re fighting against the person, not against their magically-enhanced gear, which is a nice change of pace. There are no classes in the game, and you build individual characters individually to match the theme that you want for your character.
The game takes place in a Bronze Age-style setting (though some rare individuals know how to work iron). Humans are nearly extinct, living on the fringes of society as nomadic travelers and entertainers, filling a somewhat gypsy-like role within the society. The two major races are the elf-like Sidhe and the Kentrona, a four-armed feline militant race based on the Roman legions. In addition there are the Muera (a mix of satyr and dwarves), the Fae, and the Peuroma, a lizard-based race of scholars. The final race, the Wilderfolk, are unique creatures that have been created by the gods as humanoid versions of wild animals.
The races are flexible, each offering different arrays of Disadvantages and Advantages that you can purchase, so no two creatures of the same race are identical to each other. The Wilderfolk have the most diversity, allowing you to customize your character so that the traits fit with a set of abilities suitable to your chosen animal.
The game is designed to be highly customizable, but the creators are particular impressed with their spell-creation mechanic, which allows you to tailor pretty much any individual spell by looking through the various tables. A vampiric touch spell, for example, would be created as a spell that has both a damage component and a healing component, with a touch attack range. If you wanted to siphon life energy from a distance, on the other hand, you would craft a similar spell, but with a longer range.
While Netherstorm caught my attention the most, it wasn’t the only game represented there. Monte Cook, one of the key architects of 3rd edition Dungeons & Dragons, was present to promote his newer roleplaying games, Numenera and The Strange. These are two very different games, but both use Cook’s Cypher System. Unfortunately, when I showed up in the gaming room to see a demo of Numenera, no one was running it. Scheduling conflicts throughout the weekend resulted me in never making it to any of Monte’s panels, so I don’t know much about the game. But it looked interesting and I’ll definitely see about getting my hands on a copy of the rulebook to find out more about Numenera and hopefully review it soon.
Party Like It’s 2015
One other point about these smaller conventions is that, due to the smaller scale, there is a lot more ad hoc evening entertainment. The room parties at the smaller conventions are a ton of fun, and flyers throughout the hotel direct you to parties with different themes. A Friday night room party included a sing-along of the Buffy: The Vampire Slayer musical episode, “Once More, With Feeling,” and then followed it up with Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. That same night, a party celebrated the 30th anniversary of DC Comics’ Crisis on Infinite Earths. On Saturday night, free drinks were provided at a party with dancing and a television set up re-running episodes of Firefly. It’s like dying and going to geek heaven!
If you’ve never been to a science fiction convention, or if you’ve only been to the bigger media-driven cons, then I recommend you take the opportunity to find a literary convention near you. One good place to start is this Wikipedia listing of science fiction conventions.
And if you do already go to conventions, and are anywhere near Michigan in January, you might want to add ConFusion to your itinerary.
Andrew Zimmerman Jones is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. In addition to being a contributing editor to Black Gate magazine, Andrew is the About.com Physics Expert and author of String Theory For Dummies. You can follow his exploits on Facebook, Twitter, and even Google+.