Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Confessions of a Geek: Minicon 50 (Amended)

This week, I'm going to try something a little different, taking a quick break from the all-beer-all-the-time JABlog programming.  After a recent trip to Minicon I felt the need to talk about geekery.  This post is part autobiography, part commentary, and part critique.  So here goes…

For those who regularly read my blog, you probably know that I'm a beer geek.  As a guy who writes a beer blog, I am pretty much that by definition.  What some people may not know about me is that long before I was a beer geek, I was just a plain old garden variety geek.  Not the kind that bites the heads off chickens for circus sideshows, but the type who lives/eats/breathes the science fiction and fantasy genre.  OK, if you've been reading my blog, you probably have picked up on this before...

Growing up, I was very shy, with just a few very good friends.  My mom introduced me to science fiction novels when I was quite young (2nd grade or so) and I devoured them like candy, finding entertainment and wonder within those tattered pages.  Despite my parents not really "getting" what I was into, they were always very supportive and bought me all the books I could want.  I was that kid who would sit at a restaurant or school desk surreptitiously reading a book.  I was also that kid who would finish my homework or school reading in mere minutes and spend the rest of my class time copying (poorly) dragons and space ships from book cover illustrations into the margins of my notes.  Think Superbad, but dragons instead of...well, you know.  In those books I discovered places that no one else I knew had experienced.  I learned about magic, epic battles, good and evil, utopias, dystopias, dragons, the wonders and ills of high technology, and much more.  This was also an escape or safety valve to shelter me from many of the things I hated about my young life--notably poor performance in sports, bullys, and at least one physically and emotionally abusive teacher.  Sorry, that just got a bit too real!  Moving on...

When I discovered a group of friends in Junior High that had many of the same interests, I finally felt like I had finally found My People.  Our group bonded tighter than most at that age and I still have strong friendships with most of them.  Now one of those guys, Peter Lee, is living the geek dream and putting out games like Lords of Waterdeep and the newest edition of D&D!  

Over my college years I continued to read genre fiction, but at a slower pace due to time consuming pre-med studies.  I read a lot of Steven Brust, Emma Bull, Neil Gaiman, Robert Jordan, and Charles de Lint.  Interestingly, many of my favorite authors lived in or near Minnesota.  In typical poor timing fashion,  I only discovered most of them once I had left for school in Atlanta.   I joined a group in college who would role-play and spent a lot of time with Adam Lipkin playing Magic The Gathering and exchanging books and comics of various types.  I thank (and blame) Adam for really widening my horizons and getting me into a lot of new authors.  Junior year I took an elective class focusing on Science Fiction--this is where I met my future wife.  They never offered the class again, but I owe our professor my eternal gratitude…even if she did make us read a book that we all ceremonially burned after the class was over.  Seriously.  Even Ray Bradbury would have approved of that decision.

Fast forward to (evil) medical school in Chicago.  Now I'm studying constantly, chronically exhausted, socially isolated, dirt poor, and generally unhappy.  I did find one friend who turned me on to Babylon 5, but mostly I was again on my own when it came to my interests.  I discovered a local science fiction bookstore, The Stars Our Destination, run by Alice Bentley, where I spent most of my limited money on books to break up the the tedious monotony of study.  During that time I read more Brust, Bull, Robert Jordan, as well as horror novels by Richard Laymon.  I watched a lot of Mystery Science Theater (also from my hometown of Hopkins, MN.)  Those silly robots were almost as good as real friends...  I also began homebrewing my own beer, using my science background for something fun and evil.  Eventually I met up with my college crush, Sarajo, again and soon she moved to Chicago to be with me.  Things became much better after that!

Next we move forward again in time to Residency.  I was back in Minnesota, even more sleep deprived and stressed out, but with an end in sight!  By the time I returned to my home state, almost all of the local authors I loved so much had either moved out of state or stopped writing entirely.  Talk about poor timing again!  Sj and I visited our first Minnesota CON in 2002--the year the World Fantasy Convention was held in Minneapolis.  Our eyes were opened to the wonders of the local (and national) sci-fi scene, but it was 2005 before we returned to the CON scene.

A quick word about CONs.  There are conventions for everything these days.  In the time before instant Internet communication and cell phones these in-person get-togethers were often some of the only opportunities for discussion and knowledge dissemination for more fringe hobbies and interests.  Being a generally more reserved and nerdy bunch, fans of sci-fi, horror, and fantasy have used this method more than most as a way to get together with others of the same ilk.  These events vary quite a bit in scale, quality, and programming--every one is different and will appeal to a different crowd.

 It was another several years until at the urging of some friends (Jody Wurl and Peter Lee) we went to the local CONvergence convention, held in Bloomington, MN.  That CON was big, chaotic, flashy and wonderful.  Sj and I felt a little intimidated, but our friends showed us the ropes and we have been going back nearly every year since.  As a card-carrying and official Outsider, I have never truly felt comfortable around groups of people.  While I have a lot of interests in common with the folks at these gatherings, there are a lot of cliques, in-jokes and "rules" that a stranger doesn't understand.  It takes a while to get comfortable with the social conventions of each CONvention.  (OK you can slap me for that one!)  Despite some difficulty getting to know people, I will say that all of the Minnesota CONs we have been to have made huge concessions to include fans of different genders, sexual preference, age, and disability.

This past weekend we went to Minicon, the 50th anniversary in fact!  This was one of the original fan conventions and started before I was even born.  Sometime around The Millennium Minicon had grown to an uncomfortable size and had started to spread from just literature and art to movies, games, TV, and more.  There was a planned schism where Minicon retained their literary core, while CONvergence started and invited more widespread fandom events.  Minicon has shrunk over the years while CONvergence continues to grow unchecked.  This year Sj and went to Minicon mainly because of the great guests of honor they hosted.

With Minicon being a smaller convention (normally 500-700 people, but this year up to 1100) there is a more intimate feel to its events.  There are less events going on at once--only 3 or 4 panel discussions--so you miss less things.  You can easily be sitting three feet from one of your favorite authors and feel comfortable going up and asking a question after a talk.  That is is you don't freeze and blubber uncontrollably when faced with one of your childhood heroes.  Not that I'm speaking from experience.  Meep!  This year we got to meet several awesome celebrities:

Brandon Sanderson--the author who finished Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series that I started reading in High School.  Also the author of the Mistborn series, The Rithmatist, and the Stormlight Archive, amongst others.  I was impressed with what a good public speaker he is, and the fact that he has a recognizable love for the genre.

Jane Yolen: Author of over 350 books, many for children or young adults.  A modern day Hans Christian Anderson.  Seriously, if you haven't read anything by her, you really should.

Adam Stemple: Jane's son!  An accomplished author in his own right, but he also does collaborations with his mom.  He is also one of my favorite musicians and has performed solo, and with the Tim Malloys, Boiled In Lead, and Cats Laughing.  Seriously Adam, record some more music for me listen to in my car!

Larry Niven: Author of Ringworld and countless other hard sci-fi classics.  I've read several of his books over the years and it was great to see him talk about the history of the genre.

Michael Whelan: The artist guest of honor for this year.  Remember when I said I would copy/sketch dragons from book covers?  Yeah, those were his dragons.  Way cool!

Tom Doherty: The man who created Tor Books, one of the best publishers of fantasy and science fiction.  His stories and take on the changes in publishing were really interesting!

Steven Brust: Yup, another guy who's books kept me sane during my schooling.  And we read one of his books in that college class where I met my wife…It wasn't the one we burned.

With all these great artists around (including Emma Bull, Lois McMaster Bujold, and more) one could barely spit without hitting one of them.  Not that I did that.  Let's just say that "I got my geek on" this weekend!

Mostly we went to panel discussions and interviews during the day.  One evening we were able to get to the Cats Laughing reunion concert, which was great fun but the trippy lightshow gave me a migraine.  We also got to have a wonderful dinner with Jody Wurl and Susan, one of Tor's amazing editors.  The CON had a free bar with Surly Furious, Summit Porter, and several trial batches from upcoming Sidhe Brewing available for us to try.  One of the biggest differences between Minicon and CONvergence?  The free beer would have been gone in an hour at CONvergence!  Most of the Minicon room parties were smaller as well--more excuses to hang out in a room with people you already know rather than invite in strangers.  Instead of crazy costume contests and comedy improv shows at CONvergence, there was quiet board game play and solo book reading.  Don't get me wrong, I had a good time at Minicon, but the feel and focus is very different from what I have become accustomed to.  While there were fans from all ages, in general the crowd was older and more sedate.  I missed the discussion and viewing of movies and TV.  I missed the costumes.  I missed the ENERGY!  By 11 PM, it was just time to go to bed, rather than time to start going to room parties and drink strangely colored shots of alien liqours.  I think it is obvious which of the CONs I like the most, but I will say that CONvergence over the past few years has reached an almost unmanageable size where the press of sweaty costumed humanity (and aliens) can get quite claustrophobic.  Not to start up some trolling smack-talk but I think they should finally cap the number of attendees to get this in hand...or perhaps move to a convention center with more room.

Addendum:  I rarely do this in my entries, but I'm actually going add a bit after some feedback I've received since posting my original version of this entry.  My impressions overall are not changing, but there were some things that I failed to mention to give a more balanced and complete review of the event as a whole. There actually was a film room room at Minicon, showing mostly short films or those by local directors: I wasn't as interested personally in the movies they were showing--but they were indeed there!  When I mentioned the CON bar--I really was pleased with how this was run and appreciate that it was not a drunk-fest.  I was just shocked that more people weren't taking advantage of free craft beer!  I'm also at work doing an interview with the brewer from Sidhe for future publication on my blog, so appreciate the contact.  And the CON suite (where one can swing by at all hours of the day or night and gather sustenance) was perhaps the best I've seen.  Plenty of good food to fit many diets and inclinations!

Minicon did have a whole room and dedicated programming track for the younger kids and from every time I walked by there, they were having a ball!  I also enjoyed the art show and dealer room (where I bought a couple of books and shirts for future use.)

So there I was, in the presence of some of my personal heroes.  I had a great time over three days of programming (there were 4 but I missed the first due to work duties,) but was happy to return to my real life at the end.  While I have a lot in common with these fans, I still feel like I'm perhaps an outsider.   Too normal now: not geeky enough to fit in comfortably with many of the groups, but too geeky to share my interests with most people in my daily life.  I revel in the fact that at least I can truly share this geek aspect of my background and personality with my wife.  In this I am a very lucky man.  After the weekend, I'm now stocked up on more books and ready for a chance to read some more.  My geek batteries have been recharged for the next few months--until CONvergence rears its bloated reptilian head in July!

There you go.  A rambling glimpse into my own personal geekery.  As a whole, I had a great time at Minicon, despite any differences or complaints I mentioned in this entry.  No CON can please everyone all the time, but I commend the group who spent a ton of time, energy, blood, sweat and tears to organize this event!  Are any of my readers fellow closet (or out in the open) geeks or nerds?  What do you think of CONs?  What are good ways you have discovered to continue your geekly habits while having a "normal" day job and life?


Kevin Meintsma said...

Love it. I was going to Minicon when you were a toddler. Haven't attended for over 20 years, and lost touch - too bad. Sounds like a great year to have attended and I would have loved to hear Larry Niven.

Thanks for revealing your inner geek!

Kate Norlander said...

Hello from an out-in-the-open geek. Thanks for this post -- my husband was at Minicon (I wasn't). It's fun to hear your take.

I love cons -- Marscon, CONvergence (though, yes, it is overwhelmingly huge), Teslacon (a steampunk convention in Madison), Britcon (went once) and my first ever anime convention this year, Anime Detour (though the crowd tended to be quite a bit younger than me). I actually love cons enough that I've written and am trying to publish a book about CONvergence, and I'll be tooting my horn on the Twin Cities Geeks FB page if it actually becomes an honest-to-goodness book you can buy.

I've always found ways to fit sci-fi and fantasy reading, TV and movies into my life (though, much as I love sci-fi and fantasy, it's not the only reading or viewing I do). I find that as I've started attending cons, I want to do more geeky things. I was never a huge gamer, but I did occasionally play board games or role-playing games in my younger years (I have fond memories of a January term in college spent playing Call of Cthulu). Now I'm starting to feel a tug to get back into playing some games again. I've considered attending some GPS events, too, though I haven't gotten around to anything along those lines yet. There's only so much one can fit into "normal" life, after all!

Thanks again for this blog entry. I'm a little sorry I couldn't make it to Minicon this weekend, but between you and my husband, I feel like I at least got a taste of it.

Opty1 said...

Thank you for your review. If you don't mind I'll mention a couple things. Your comment on the amount of beer drank? We went through a large amount. I don't have final numbers yet but I'll.mention we had 8 more 16's on standby if it became necessary. We ended up with much more donated home brew than we were expecting.

We also had not one single event of over-indulgence where someone got out of control.

You mention you missed the tv and movie discussion and yet did not mention we do have a film room called Cinema Obscura. The name describes a bit of what we show. It has grown in popularity each year.

I'd also like to point out our art show and the artist painting/sketching/digital art demos done on Saturday.

Music, yes Cats Laughing had their reunion concert, it was fabulous. I was extremely fortunate to sit next to Jane Yolen. We also had a great string of concerts all day on Saturday and music circles late as well.

I am very happy to hear you enjoyed yourself at Minicon 50. I invite you and everyone else who reads your blog to join us at my house for our post mortem and Mnstf party. There will be 2 kegs and good food. People are invited to bring something to share if they can as well.
Starts @4p

Joel Phillips Minicon 50 chair
6323 Excelsior Blvd
St Louis Pk, Mn 55416

Looking forward to meeting you all

Ozgur K. Sahin said...

One tidbit of information I'd like to add from a dealer standpoint: This con is much better for booksellers. As you said, the average age of attendees is higher, but so is the average wealth. Dealer tables are VERY affordable, and this crowd is looking to buy books. When I wasn't on panels, I was at my dealer table advertising my Kickstarter campaign for my book, and people were very generous and curious. From what I understand from the dealers who attend both Minicon and CONvergence, books do not sell as well at the latter, and most people aren't looking to spend more than $10 or so unless it is on costume accessories. If you want to discover new fiction, Minicon is perhaps the better bet. For cosplay, CONvergence is a great place.

Scott Jamison said...

I'm a teetotaler, so the free beer and other drinks have never been my thing. Hope your Kickstarter goes well!

dd-b said...

Strange you kids were winding down so early in the evening! :-) Even though I had to be up much earlier than usual at cons for me (I was totally buried in work on the Cats Laughing reunion) I made it through to 2, 3, sometimes further.

Paying for it now :-( .

Sorry the light show was a problem. I know one other person I knew it would be a problem for even before the show (and I was right). Richard's light shows go so precisely to most of the core Cats audience, though, that even knowing a few people would have problems from it, we decided to have it. Still, very sorry you had a migraine!