I'm walking into the 61st world Science Fiction Convention with a $60 shoebox tape recorder and a SNAP disposable camera, feeling like one of William Gibson's lo teks skulking into the neon-and-wetware sprawl of Chiba City, 2020. I should be calibrating my ocular implants for photography and dictating my copy sub-vocally from a transmitter in my jawbone. I mean, it's 2003. Aren't we in the future yet?
There is still no moon colony, but the Mars Society is conducting mission simulations in desert and Arctic habitats, complete with habitat module and space suits.
I have a Pure protein bar in my pack, so at least the concentrated meal tablets, cubes, etc, imagined by futurists and cartoonists are on sale at variety stores. Meanwhile, a mile-wide asteroid is on a collision course with Earth.
Dismissive, titillated write-ups have been published about overweight Klingons and barbarian outfits at these conferences. The Globe and Mail's sassy 1948 piece on TorCon 1 began, "Put down that ray-gun, Buck Rogers, I've got you cold. So I let him have it with my 25th-century rocket pistol (zap, zap) " and so on. The 1973 headline for TorCon 2 wasn't any gentler: "Three thousand sci-fi fans are here, and they're weird, just weird."
Beyond their sideshow reputation, WorldCons are a panoply of discussion panels, art exhibits, trade shows, readings, film screenings, autograph sessions and "filk-singing" (so named for a misspelling of "folk"). You realize, after being here a day or so, however, that the kick of the whole event is talking yourself blue.
If you've been desperate to find someone to discuss comet impacts with, or the patent impossibility of faster-than-light travel or why Buffy The Vampire Slayer is serious literature, this is the place. Ideas are the Con's most intoxicating fix, especially in a setting where most of the parties only stock cookies, pop and chips.
On the first night, I end up on the second floor of the Royal York at a fondue party. The elevator opens onto a hall thick with people, noise and motion. Most of the doors are propped open, and the atomic bonds that separate one party from another have almost entirely collapsed; the bonhomie is spreading with the efficiency of current through metallic hydrogen.
Somewhere down another hall is the reception for at least one of four gay fan weddings that have been celebrated at Torcon. In a genre where, back there in the 50s, writer William Tenn posited a polyamorous species that had seven discrete genders, the issue of same-sex unions is almost retro.
The only cultural slurs I hear among the masses refer to "the mundanes." As in "muggles": the ones who don't bother to take those extra couple of mental leaps, but remain stolidly on the other side of the pale, fingers in their ears - "La-la-la-la...."
No other book genre has so elaborately generated its own subculture, replete with native language, folkways and historians. Some admixture of Western pop culture, the civil rights movement and a century of unbridled technological change has somehow generated a fandom that's equal parts debating society, alternate reality and social movement.
There are now around 800 fan-made publications in circulation, innumerable Web sites, historical databases and physical archives. Science fiction conventions are the primary engine of the culture.
In 1939 about 200 SF fans and writers decided to get together on the 4th of July, and named the occasion a conference. SF enthusiast Forrest Ackerman (who later coined the term "sci-fi" because it sounded like "hi-fi") showed up in space pilot drag, writing the dress code for all future cons.
In 1953 the fan community established the Hugo Awards, named for pulp mag pioneer Hugo Gernsback. The Hugos remain the highest honour bestowed on sci-fi talent. This year, the silver rocket of the award statue is framed by a maple leaf shape rising out of the base.
Leaving the Royal York, I pass a group of smoking bellhops, and I can't help but overhear, "Too spacey for me."
Another, "Space - the final fuckin' frontier." Guffaws all around.