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Friday
Sep252009

Con (A Tale of DragonCon Past)

I didn’t exactly lie.  I just let them believe what they wanted to believe. 

So, according to my esteemed colleagues, I missed work that Thursday and Friday (years and years ago) to drive all the way to Atlanta, GA, to meet the great American writer Ray Bradbury.

Sure Bradbury wrote science fiction, sure he wrote fantasy, sure he wrote horror – but that didn’t matter.  You see, Bradbury had reached that iconic status where he was actually taught in classrooms.  Pick up sophomore or junior high school textbook, and you will more than likely find a Bradbury story.  In the mainstream American mind, he had made it.  Never mind that he was good.  He was important.  He was a success.

So off I went.

Maybe I should have explained it more thoroughly.  Maybe.  I just couldn’t quite imagine something called Dragon*Con to be the ivory tower affair they did.    Don’t get me wrong – I have enjoyed and admired Bradbury’s work since, well, high school I guess, but I had made arrangements to attend the con well before he was announced as one of the guests of honor.  When folks asked why I was driving approximately eight hundred miles there and back, however, Bradbury’s name seemed to satisfy their curiosity.  I suppose he made the trip legitimate in their eyes, especially for a high school English teacher.

Dragon*Con is a what you would call a science fiction convention – a con in fanboy lingo –  but it is so much more.  It is annual gathering of the best and the brightest among the science fiction, fantasy, and horror community.  The guest list spans across every form of media: print, film, music, internet, games.  If it’s genre related, chances are it’s there somewhere.  Me and Craig, a friend and fellow fanboy since high school, went every year and have rubbed elbows with the likes of David Prowse (who was the man inside Darth Vader’s suit in Star Wars), Brinke Stevens (who screamed mightily in films like Nightmare Sisters and Slave Girls from Beyond Infinity), Stan “the Man” Lee (who created Marvel Comics, along with the Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, and such), and Jefferson Starship (yeah, the rock band, who were actually nominated for a science fiction award for their first album, Blows Against the Empire). 

Don’t get me wrong, I was thrilled Bradbury was coming this year.  Giddy as a fanboy could be.  He was scheduled to head a special seminar that Saturday, which was to be followed by a special autograph session, so I carefully packed away my copy of The Martian Chronicles.  The smooth, worn cover flaked slightly around the edges, and the well-read pages had browned somewhat.  I could have gotten a better copy, sure, but we had a history together.  I can fondly remember sneaking it into English classes when we were supposed to be reading whatever it was we were supposed to be reading.  I’m pretty sure the teacher knew, too, but she never confiscated it.  I think she was just happy to see somebody actually reading.

Saturday arrived.  To kill time, Craig and I wandered around the dealer’s room, amazed by some of the things we saw.  It was just like out of the pages of a monster magazine or comic book.  We counted ten brooding vampires, nine different anime characters, eight barbarians, seven “dark” fairies, six flocks of Goths, five demonic beings, four aliens, three musketeers, two mad scientists, and one thing that we couldn’t quite classify.  The fans that didn’t dress up usually wore dark colors and/or t-shirts advertising their favorite TV show or movie or displaying some saying that they, at least, found amusing.

Overall, it was a festive occasion.

The dealer’s room was quite nice.  It was like being in a maze of memories you could buy, sell, or trade.  Every book, toy, and game I had ever owned or had ever wanted to own was right there.  I laughed, I cringed, I spent much cash.

Overall, it was a festive occasion.

For me anyway.

Unfortunately, Craig’s fanboyness was not up to par.  He started to crack under the pressure of all the fandom and general weirdness surrounding us.

“Freaks,” he shouted from the balcony overlooking the dealer’s room where we had perched to patiently await the coming of Bradbury.  “Freaks.  You’re all freaks!”

I guess the proper analogy to fully illustrate the irony of Craig’s sudden declaration lies in the 1956 Vincent Price film The Last Man on Earth.  In that film (based on the even better Richard Matheson novel I am Legend), a plague transforms the human race into vampires.  The Price character stakes vampires during the day and struggles to survive by night.  Among the vampire community, however, Price has become the monster, and in the final agonizing scene, he dies shouting, “Freaks!  You’re all freaks!” oblivious to the obvious irony.  I, therefore, did not point out that our pocket-tees and blue jeans were as subtle as the first gross and gooey mutating appearance of the Thing in Carpenter’s classic remake.

Anyway, that’s when I saw him down in the dealer’s room.

The orange Hawaiian shirt flashing from beneath his striped polyester jacket was the first thing I noticed.  Then the bright, white pants.  How odd, I thought, odd being a relative term, of course.  Then I saw the man wearing it: sixtyish, balding, thick glasses, ear-to-ear grin.  It was him!  The one and the only.  That’s right, I was staring down upon the grandeur and greatness that was Forrest J Ackerman.

Forrey was, is, and will be the archetypal fanboy.  He has the largest science fiction, fantasy, and horror collection in the world.  People travel from all over the world to visit and tour his home.  Filmmakers have asked him to do cameos in their works, he has edited and published some of the biggest genre names, Bradbury included, and he created and published one of the most famous and influential genre magazines ever:  Famous Monsters of Filmland.

I had read Famous Monsters as a teenager in my insulated hometown to find out all kinds of neat stuff about sf, fantasy, and horror films.  My friends and I loved it, couldn’t get enough of it, but most importantly, most adults hated.  I remember my ENG III teacher peering over her winged-tipped glasses while confiscating copies and chastising us for being “rude, crude, and socially unrefined.”

I don’t know how conscious I was of the connections ticking off in my mind at the moment, but I did realize I was standing in a hall full of people staring at a strangely dressed old man like a teenage girl gawking over a rock star.  But I didn’t care – it was Forrest J Ackerman!  Craig and I even followed him for a while.  I think we tried every way possible to convince ourselves it wasn’t him, but the truth could not be denied.  Here, indeed, was the man, the myth, the legend.

We finally managed to calm down enough to introduce ourselves.  I honestly couldn’t tell you what I had imagined talking to the Ackerman would be like back in high school, but I’m sure it met every expectation then went way beyond them.  Basically, he was a lot like any fan.  The three of us spent the entire afternoon wandering around the dealer’s room looking around and talking fan stuff.  And he could come up with some of the greatest – worst? – puns I’d ever heard.  

He had a story to tell about any old toy he touched.  Just by watching him, you knew he was seeing everything he told you; it was almost like out of a story, like he had the power to actually look back in time to when science fiction had just begun to flourish.  He told us how it was more vibrant back then, more alive.  Yeah, the stories weren’t scientifically accurate and the films didn’t have the best special effects, but the stories were – well, there’s no better way to say it – good.  Writers didn’t need brooding heroes that weren’t heroic, and filmmakers didn’t need CGI to create gianormous explosions.  The stories were good.  They made fans want to know what happened next; they had genuine emotion.  I had gotten a glimpse of it by watching the old movies and reading the classics, but here was a man – THE man – who had lived it, even helped shape it.  Fandom would not be what it is today without him.  Science fiction and fantasy would not be what it is today without him.

I missed Bradbury that con, so in honor of Mr. Ackerman, I guess I should say that’s my con-fession.

I heard Bradbury’s panel was great.  He delighted and dazzled the audience.  I watched highlights on the souvenir video I got.  I didn’t get my copy of The Martian Chronicles signed either.  Much to the astonishment of my colleagues, I wasn’t disappointed.  And they didn’t seem to care too much about Forrest Ackerman either.  The kids in my junior English class got a big kick out of it, though.   

Of course, they were all rude, crude, and socially unrefined. 

Monday
Sep212009

My Belated DragonCon Blog; or The Unexamined DragonCon is Not Worth Visiting

I had good intentions. 

I was at DragonCon.  I had my laptop.  I had wireless (after I paid the $10.00 for twenty-four hours at the Sheraton).  I had my schedule highlighted and color coded.  I was going to do lots and blog the heck out of it.

Of course, none of that happened.

Day 1 . . . well, I don’t really remember everything I did.  There was that Babylon 5 panel I had planned on going to, but it got booted because of the Shatner/Nimoy thing.  From there, things sort of just took on their own strange existence.  All the color coding blended into one  . . . blended color.  There was so much to do and so little time to do it.  Should I try to do it all in one big miserable, marathon of a time?  I could have, and in years past I would have.  But that was then.  So, that’s when the revelation arrived.  Echoed in my mind was that famous line you always hear somewhere during your educational experience: “the unexamined life is not worth living.”  DragonCon 2009 proved to be, for me, the kind of situation one needs to jog the flotsam and jetsam of the mind.

So, I did some reflecting.

This was my umpteenth time at DragonCon.  This year, however, I was carrying around forty plus years and a five year old.  Things were different.  Not worse.  Different.

During previous years, I did the dashes from panel to panel, wandered the walk of fame, fought through the dealers’ room, danced around the exhibiters’ hall, and strolled throughout the art room.  I used to do it all in those four days.  I was a fan of action.

Well, I’m still a fan.  I’m still active.  I’m just more careful with my time.  This year, I learned that the time I was willing to devote to my fannish activities was not the same as in days of yore.  I remember hitting the walk of fame with a fist-full-o-cash and stopping by the table of anyone I recognized from a TV show or film from my youth.  Not this year.  Sure, there were found memories as I walked around, but there was only one I stopped to get: Bruce Boxleitner.  Why?  Babylon 5 entertained me, it moved me, it made me think.  I was willing to invest the time and money because of everything Mr. Boxleitner had given me with his contribution to my favorite TV show of all time.  Oh, don’t fret, I know Peter, Claudia, Tracy, and Stephen were there – I got them several DC’s ago.  This was Boxleitner’s first visit.  Maybe his last.  I couldn’t pass it up.

The same went for Mr. Patrick Stewart.  I stood in line a good hour and a half.  Willingly.  Five or six years ago, I would have done the same thing for Shatner and Nimoy, even though I really don’t care for the original Trek.  They are icons, and their contribution to science fiction is immeasurable.  But now, I had something else to do.  I almost went into hypothermia jumping into the pool with my little girl.  I quickly climbed out, but sat and watched her have a good time.  At that moment in all of history, that was what was important to me.

When Mr. Stewart spoke, my cousin Steph waited two or three hours to get in the hall.  I passed.  I would have liked to have been there, but I new I could watch it on closed circuit TV.  Anyway, I wanted to get in line for Gene Wolfe.  His signing began just as Stewart was finishing.  Mr. Wolfe is one of the greats.  I expected a huge line and was willing to wait.  I got there an hour early and was probably the tenth one there.  Steph stopped by to check on me after Mr. Stewart’s panel, by the way.  When I looked at the line there was maybe forty people, so yeah, I could have gone.  No, I don’t have any regrets. 

I also struggled to stay awake to check out Abney Park Friday night (Saturday morning actually).  Fantastic!  They are such an awesome live band.  Better, I think, live than recorded – which to me, is the sign of a great band.  Anyway, the next morning, there was something I had colored in on the grid, but when I woke up snuggled up to the misses and the little one, well, it doesn’t get much better than that.  We had breakfast and back to the pool we went. 

So, what’s the point, you ask? 

Well, it came down to an either or for me: I could have either done it all (and blogged) or I could have just enjoyed the moment.  I enjoyed the moment. 

You know what?  I can’t wait to go back.  I’m sure it will be different still, but watching my daughter discover the wonders of fandom is worth lots more than any autograph or panel.  Besides, the whole idea of conventions was to bring the like-minded together.  You still get that at a lot of the little cons, and I’m sure it’s true to some extent at DragonCon, but anymore DC, to me, feels more like a commercial event.  I’m not saying I don’t like it.  I will go back, but when I go back, I will be enjoying it in my on way, on my own terms, and on my own time. 

Wednesday
Sep022009

"Voyage of the Dawn Treader" Ready to Set Sail

According to Narniafans.com, production is set to begin on the third Narnia film this month.  IMDb tells us that Michael Apted is at the helm and a December 2010 arrival is scheduled.  During this outing, as most you probably know, we lose some familiar faces - only Lucy and Edmund make this trek.  Filming begins at Cleveland Point, on the Golden Coast of Australia.

 

Thursday
Aug272009

Dragon Age: Origins Hands-On Preview

            Few video game developers have a track record like Bioware. The Canadian development house has quite a string of RPG masterpieces under its belt. Now their next original entry into the dungeon crawling, spell casting, sword swinging, stat tabulating genre is nearing completion. Dragon Age: Origins is set to continue the high production values and deep game play Bioware is famous for. I had a chance to play the XBOX360 and PC versions of the game at this year's Gencon in Indianapolis. I have to say that I'm so far impressed with the game.

            You play as a grey warden, the last of your kind. It is up to you and your comrades to bring balance back to the world of Ferelden and fight off the demonic armies who have returned to destroy the world. At the start you choose an Origin story. This is based around a certain character and class and has its own unique perspective of the events in the game. You’re every action and choice has far reaching consequences for the game world and each Origin you play will have a different feel and perspective within the story. This gives the nearly 60 hour game tons of replay value.

            On the 360 version I played with a party comprised of a human noble, his mother and a faithful, bloodthirsty hound. This being a pickup game starting in the middle of the action there was little context as to what exactly was going on other than a bunch of fools invading your castle, but the game play was my focus at the time. The controls are intuitive enough, select a target and select an action mapped to a button. Your primary attack if selected is executed over and over again until you tell your character otherwise, but you also have some more powerful skills to unleash. These actions have cool down rates like you would see in a MMO, but do more damage or even stun the enemy so you can get a couple of quick stabs in. You can take control of any character at anytime with the push of a trigger button, or pause the game entirely and select actions and targets for the whole party ala Baulder’s Gate 2. I have to say that the hectic action is impressive and engaging without the player feeling that things are out of control.

            This is a bloody game. More bloody than any other Bioware game. Graphically the game has its moments. Characters are highly detailed with blood splattered armor, unique faces and expressions and the environments are large and detailed. Granted it’s hard to judge graphics on an HD monitor when your face is eight inches away since any video image will break down at that close distance, but I think the console edition has some good graphical charm.

            I only spent a few minutes with the PC version, but I feel it may be the way to go for most gamers who enjoy this kind of game. Point and click targeting with a mouse is as intuitive as it gets. This version also features more quick slots for powers and spells that you can select with a keystroke. Graphically, the PC really shows off the game world and its characters. From mountain crags to the alternate reality of The Fade (with really cool light smearing effects) the PC version really takes advantage of added anti-aliasing and higher resolution textures. Don’t get me wrong though; being able to sit on the couch with a console controller in one hand and a bag of cheesy poofs in the other is not a bad way to spend the evening in RPG heaven.

            This is only a small preview and will be followed by a more comprehensive review after the game releases, but one thing that tells me this RPG has the deepness those fans of the genre clamor for is the menus. Tab after tab of stats, items, weapons, spell books and the like fill the screen in a way that most recent rpgs (or those games pretending to be rpgs) don’t offer. The console version doesn’t suffer from the “dumbed-downededness” since all versions have been developed together from the start. With very few offerings this year in the genre Bioware should really make fans of rpgs really giddy this holiday season. Look for this one November 3rd for PC, Xbox 360 and PS3.

Wednesday
Aug262009

2K Sports NBA 2K10:Draft Combine Released on Xbox Live

This just in from 2K sports: NBA 2K10: Draft combine is now available for download on Xbox Live. This is a download only title apparently meant to ramp up interest in the upcoming release of the full NBA 2K10. We've seen a number of these auxiliary releases recently, including a very successful March Madness spin-off from EA last year. The list of features (see f below) is actually impressive, and for 400 Microsoft points ($5.00), it will likely be worth a go. Included in this announcement is news that the Playstation Network version will be released September 3rd for the same price.  

Note that the game does include achievements and trophies (woo hoo!)

 

Here is a cut and paste of the features from the press release:

  • Chicago Bulls’ Derrick Rose as spokesman.
  • Building custom players and increasing their NBA stock through a variety of challenging basketball drills and 5-on-5 games.
  • Over 300 different signature customizations, including player-specific shooting animations, and dunk and dribble packages to give each created player his own unique personal style.
  • Ability to strengthen all parts of the created player's game through a variety of drills, such as shooting, post offense and defense, attacking the basket, dribbling, challenging shots, and boxing out for rebounds to progress through the NBA Draft Combine.
  • Organized games that allow players to gain valuable skill points by offering a variety of specific in-game objectives to be accomplished. A full analysis will be available for gamers to review their player's performance and strategize further improvement.
  • All players created inNBA 2K10: Draft Combinewill wear a special patch on their uniform throughout the rest of that player's career to denote that they have completed the NBA Draft Combine.
  • Online leaderboards to track the highest ranking custom built players, so fans can gauge how their player stacks up against the competition.
  • Opportunity to unlock special achievements on Xbox 360 and trophies for PLAYSTATION®3 computer entertainment system.
  • Fans can take their custom built players fromNBA 2K10: Draft Combineand use them in the all-new My Player career mode inNBA 2K10launching this fall.