Thursday, August 20, 2015

Plain Sf and Media Sci-Fi

For this re-run I am putting the Afterword first, because my local convention has risen like a Phoenix and broadened its wings to include writers of romance, mystery and more; and I don't want your eyes to glaze over before you read down to that fact.

The term "media" includes movies, TV and comic books: Everything except the printed page. Meaning: If you have seen every single Star Trek episode, you still know diddly squat (nothing) about science fiction. The printed page is not moving pictures, not chewing gum for the eyes.  (as Harlan Ellison said of TV)


Update: A man I regard as an "insider" later told me that people "in the know" during the last convention were not buying the discounted tickets for next year, because they were afraid they would lose their money, that there would be no next year. They were right. Partly because media guests are too expensive, partly because... (My contact gave me a laundry list of what was wrong)

Happily, those of us with library cards, we real nerds, who don't even wear costumes, had our own 2011 convention for readers, writers and publishers... a con with librarians on the panels. The con name is a pun on the old Philip Wylie novel, (made into a movie) When Words Collide. It was a success, and my contact expects tickets to be all sold out before the next one, in August of 2012. I've bought mine already!

Update 2015:
Speaking of media autographs, today at the convention we learned from a credible source, a writer, that the actor who played the fellow on Star Trek in the wheelchair, the guy who was cast only because he looked vaguely like Captain Pike of the Enterprise, the guy that did nothing but sit totally motionless, and beep once for yes and twice for no, recently signed an autograph for fifty dollars. We all laughed.

Down the years the convention has truly spread out to include other genres, not just sf. In fact, this weekend I attended poetry seminars (plural) and a talk, with slides, about Sherlock Holmes. And from the president of the Alberta Romance Writers Association I heard a fascinating lecture on theme…

I've just come home from the Mid-August 2015 When Words Collide, and found that someone has been on this post in the last 24 hours. Nice.

The Canadian equivalent of the U.S. Hugo awards is the Aurora awards. We have won the Aurora  for our well organized convention, and next year we will host the Canadian awarding of the Auroras. I've already bought my membership. This year the tickets sold out in early June, so don't delay.

Plain Sf and Media Sci-fi

It was Prometheus who, after bringing the gift of fire to Earth, said it would be a good servant or a bad master. It was the Federation who, to prevent such “gifts” in the future, came out with the Prime Directive. Now the longest running “f and sf” convention in Calgary, “CON-Version,” is poised to become good or bad. We have gifted ourselves, this year, with not one, not two, but five media guests from Star Trek television. Namely, the holo doctor, Neelix, Counselor Troi, Q, and a lady who had several guest spots with the Ferengi. …Quite impressive.

Judging by a few conversations I had in the "con (vention) suite" over chips, coffee and beer, the people were pleased. Nevertheless the Prime Directive, for CON-Version, is being bent.

Back in the 1980’s, after the CON had been running for a few years, I interviewed the founders. They told me that all over North America fans put on “f and sf” CONs, and that there would always be CON as part of the title. They told me that some of these were relax-a-cons. In contrast, CON-Version was intended to have substance. Namely, science and the written stuff.

From day one the CON has featured big name authors while having several programming rooms going at once. Sometimes there was enough fan interest to have one “stream” of writing related things all weekend. Sometimes a guest would do a slide presentation on ancient archeology or his paleontology trip to Mongolia. Mostly there would be panel-and-audience discussions on everything under any sun. Once an old guest writer, L. Sprague de Camp, commented “I can’t imagine fans of nurse stories (pre-TV) having a CON: What would they talk about?” And of course these lively one-hour panel topics included Star Trek and other media shows.

One year Robert Silverberg told us, “Don’t lose your innocence. Down in the States the CONs have become a media three ring circus.” At the time I thought he meant bringing in outside TV news crews to see the costumes. As years went by I came to sense how the opposite of CON-Version is not a relax-a-con: it’s a “media” con, replacing writer guests with media guests. The media being Hollywood and comic books.

I clued in when a short lived glossy magazine, Science Fiction Age, referred to bad blood or a feud or something between media (sci-fi) and the written stuff. (sf) Apparently, extremists for sci-fi claim that an sf fan would rather read a mediocre book than see an excellent TV show or movie, while extremists for sf claim that media fans would rather see a mediocre movie or show than read an excellent sf book. Maybe this feud is merely confined to an earlier decade and, furthermore, to just the New York City ward where Science Fiction Age is published. No one I’ve met ever talks like that. In fact, in the magazine Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction, also published it New York, the gentle old Asimov has nothing but good to say about media. Asimov may have been a very prolific writer of nonfiction and fiction but he still found the time to enjoy Star Wars.

 I can’t see a feud-ish anger serving any purpose besides ego, except, maybe, to provide energy for arguing about steering a convention. I don't like conflict. Maybe for CON-Version, as the “con chair” wrote in his first-page message in the program, we can provide a balance of both.

The scientist in me proposes a thought experiment: If having a media-only CON is bad, then how might that be so? Harlan Ellison, who’s old Outer Limits scripts inspired the Terminator movie, once wrote an angry essay about the behavior of fans, behavior so bad that I just can’t bring myself to repeat it. Ellison wrote that he believed there must be a conspiracy of silence among writers about those awful fans. I am in no position to know, since the only CON down in the States I have ever been to, just once, was here on the Great Plains where people on both sides of the border tend to be friendly and sane. At the CON in Missoula, Montana (MisCon) they had one media guest, the roommate on the TV show Dark Angel, and two big name novelists: Samuel Delaney, whose thick book Dahlgren inspired a choreographed dance I once attended, and David Gerrold who scripted The Trouble With Tribbles.

It was at CON-Version, few years before the Montana CON, that I asked Gerrold about Ellison’s conspiracy of silence scenario. Gerrold was alone at a six-foot table waiting to sign more books; at the next table was one of the old “Pauls:” either Paul Anderson or Frederick Pohl; I’ve been getting those two writers mixed up since elementary school. 

I said “Hi.” Until that day I had never heard of Gerrold’s series of novels, the Chtorr Wars. Now I regard that series as a modern “masterpiece,” complete with recurring themes and symbols. But on that day I pointed to the word “chtorr” and asked, “How do you pronounce this?” 

For a second he looked very tired and said, “Tor.” We talked and I asked about Ellison’s views. 

“I read the same essay,” he said. He mostly disagreed with Ellison. Then he gestured to the nice old man at the next table and said, “Such behavior would happen only at CONs where they don’t know his name.”

I thought: Whoa! Who wouldn’t know his name? And then I realized: The defining factor of many media fans is: they don’t read. After a few years I’ve finally become used to that idea. And I’ve had a thought: If a CON is overbalanced towards media then you might not only have some bad fans, but from the media guests you might have some bad karma.

So far in Calgary we’ve had good karma. I remember when Gerrold sat on a panel, in a big room, on Women in Science Fiction. That was the day I first learned that a lot of males wouldn’t read a novel where the hero is a woman, or maybe not even read any novel written by a woman. Whoa! Incidentally, in Gerrold’s Chtorr War series the viewpoint hero is a male, who gets promotions in the army, but his wife is always two or three ranks higher. 

I made the room roar with laughter when I raised my hand to say, “Oh, I don’t know about that; If the hero is female and the writer is female then I might buy it… because I’m still trying to understand women!” Gerrold really grinned to say how very long term my goal was.

Writers like Gerrold and the “Pauls” attend CONs for the fun of being with like-minded people. Another sf writer, Kurt Vonnegut, once pointed out there are fewer full time writers than admirals in the U.S. navy. (I think society is has become more affluent since he said that) He has also pointed out that sf writers go to CONs to escape their cheap lonely desks for the warmth of the sf and f community. 

The writer guests are volunteers: The CON will pay for their expenses, travel and hotel, but not for their time. It is very common to see writers roped into sitting on panels, common to see them chatting in the lounge. When they autograph your books they do it for free. Meanwhile volunteers on the “concom” (convention committee) will have picked them up from the airport and taken them on trips to things like the Royal Tyrrell (dinosaur) Museum. They will go back and tell their peers how they had a good time. Fun. Warmth. A good time.

And then there are the media guests. They charge you to enter the autograph room, and charge you again for the actual autograph. The prices are not token but steep, very steep. At CON-Version this year if you paid the price of an autograph,  $25.00, for a dinner, then you could watch the stars singing for their supper, putting on a dog and pony show. Incidentally, a gourmet told me the food was mediocre.

My favorite drinking buddy for the CON, Rob, was at the dinner. Rob told me enthusiastically how for him this was the best CON he had ever been to.

For me the question around karma is: if you are a star who is here making money then are you really a “volunteer?” I feel doubtful about the whole thing. I don’t suppose the media guys see themselves as fellow nerds, so no panels, or even as fellow fans, so no lounging in the halls to chat. 

I wish the actors well. I like Hollywood; I buy entire seasons of television DVDs. But here’s the thing: For watching an episode for the second time, using the commentary voice over, I’ve given up on actors. There is a reason why these people are called, in the industry, the “talent.” I have enjoyed listening to directors, scriptwriters and even producers. I learn things. But as for the talent, it’s as if they know little of society or industry, let alone the film industry, and little of history, let alone film history. What grates on me is how more often than not I hear the actors giggling. I don’t mean sharing laughter for the sake of encouraging and sharing with the DVD audience. Rather, the commentary somehow feels forced. If they know they have little to offer then it's no wonder they giggle. 

I was once very pleasantly surprised to hear actor Peter Weller holding his own with the director as they shared the commentary for an episode of Odyssey-5. (A short-lived series I liked) And I shared this with Sheldon, a fan who sells old books at CON-Version. He then told me Weller is a university teacher. It figures. As for the rest of the talent—giggles.

At CON-Version there was a half hour “Q and A” where the five Star Trek guys sat facing a room of starry-eyed fans. A young man stood up to ask one of them, “What was your favorite episode?” For a brief moment the actor might have looked pained or tired before answering, “78. Episode #78.”

The fan persisted. “I mean, any anecdotes, practical jokes or something that stood out: Your favorite episode.”


The fan then asked, “How about your favorite on (a different Star Trek series)?” 

So an actor at the far end leaned forward to look down the table and say to his buddy, “That was #78 too, wasn’t it?”

“Yep. 78”

It’s important to realize that, in context, “you had to be there,” not one of us scorned that young fan, nor did we scorn the actors for—get this—occasionally making farting noises. There was warmth in the room. Nor were we judgmental about an actor’s rude line that made us really roar. At the end of the show an actor stood up and planted his feet. “Don’t tweet that line, since it would not be read in context. Seriously, no tweets.”

Knowing my fellow nerds, I know that no one tweeted. I’m glad we could accept what the talent could offer; I’m sorry we were asking them for something they could not give us. Let me put it this way: In the years to come at the CON, while I am a fan of Odyssy-5, I don’t expect to ever see Professor Weller as a media guest. 

Now, like Sarah Connor at the end of T2, we are going down a dark road to an unknown future. I hope we at CON-Version keep our balance.

Sean Crawford
on the lone prairie
August 2015
and October 2010
Stardate 2015point48

Footnote: Someone has just clicked on my old essay Jetpacks and TV News archived June 2012. Oops! I guess I should have footnoted that piece when I posted. It offers another look at sf and sci-fi, as an entry into looking at the effect of print news being replaced by moving pictures, a new thing that affects our body politic. 


  1. You have once again interrupted my narrow thought patterns to open up a pathway I have never explored. Your writing makes me think! And there is no going back.

  2. Hi Cindy.
    For readers wanting accessible sf, the guy I have been linking to lately, John Scalzi, said he writes so his mother-in-law can read it.

    It was David Gerrold, another writer I keep mentioning, who famously said in a dramatic voice, "Six landing crew beam down to a strange planet, one is wearing a red shirt. Guess who's not coming back?"

    Scalzi won the Hugo for his thoughtful amusing parody, Redshirts.
    One of Scalzi's Old Man's War series, Zoe's Tale, is written from the point of view of a girl his daughter's age. Named Zoe.

    I like the series, and just picked up his latest, in yuppie hardcover, because I just couldn't wait for the frugal paperback.