Coming to grips with contemporary conventions
I do not want to be one of those people who spends their time griping about the rapid pace of change in the world. If anything, there are a lot of places where change isn’t coming fast enough. But my beat is pop culture and especially the sci-fi and fantasy quadrant. I’m trying to figure out where I fit in, a quarter of the way into the 21st century.
I recently attended Fan Expo San Francisco, a catch-all event for “the next level of pop culture.” The show offered photo ops with TV and film celebrities, cosplay competitions, and a host of comics, anime and gaming attractions. It was a very inclusive affair, with folks of all ages, interests, and backgrounds gathering to let their geek flag fly in a safe and welcoming environment. Everyone around me was smiling with enthusiasm and bouncing in anticipation.
So why was I feeling a little uncomfortable? It wasn't because of any stuffy, clammy costume—I was years away from the liquid latex scales and synthetic fur bodysuits of my youth. There was no urgency about finding any limited edition collectibles or meeting any celebrity. In fact, I came to rekindle the old feeling of belonging—but I felt strangely apart.
I can trace these feelings to adolescence. I understood from an early age that the stories most interesting to me were simply not the most popular ones. I wasn’t drawn to tales of wartime heroism or inspirational achievements. Unless, perhaps, the war being fought was with the weapons of super-science against the vanguard of a Martian invasion. Or if the achievement was discovering the lost city of Atlantis on a Journey to the Center of the Earth. Something evocative of strange new worlds and (one hopes) a better tomorrow.
It’s true that our childhood experiences are always more vivid. The things we discover at a young age leave a lasting impression. But still, there was something else that heightened my interest in sci-fi and fantasy. Something that made it seem intrinsically more interesting, exotic and thrilling. The stuff that excited my imagination was a much smaller part of the entertainment landscape than it is today, and I had to go the extra mile to find it. That effort made every discovery seem more precious.
In 1973, for instance, there were four significant science fiction films playing in theaters, none of them classics. There were a few fantastical TV shows on that year, to be broadcast once or twice before disappearing into the void. There just weren't many places I could witness, say, an epic battle between man, mutant and apes for the future of post apocalyptic civilization. (Twitter wasn’t invented yet.)
I was the kind of kid who grabbed the weekly TV Guide magazine as soon as it arrived in our mailbox. I’d pull out a red Bic pen and carefully underline every movie of interest in the listing. Most of them would be broadcast at odd hours, usually after midnight, and I would set my alarm to wake up in the middle of the night to see them. The movies were rarely memorable, but I never forgot the effort involved to find that out. The rare shows of interest broadcast during prime time were even harder to watch—simply because the rest of the family outvoted me.
I had to travel far and wide to find my people. In 1974, when 12,000 fans showed up for one of the first Star Trek conventions in New York City, it was newsworthy. Like a freak show full of pointy-eared weirdos parked on the outskirts of town is newsworthy. Folks were curious, but mostly kept their distance. It was not cool to be uncool then, it was a mark of ridicule. Like wearing a sign that said ‘kick me.’ And often, that’s what the other kids did.
We showed up at those early conventions to get our fix. To feel safe in a group of like-minded dreamers who wouldn’t judge us. We would lock arms in solidarity and celebrate a better tomorrow, under the banner of the United Federation of Planets. The Committee responsible for those first gatherings had high-minded principles—they were doing it for the true believers, who carried the torch for a show that had been canceled years earlier.
Behind the scenes, the early conventions were chaotic, held together with spit and stardust. Guests were not compensated, city fire marshals threatened to shut them down for overcrowding, and the shows barely broke even. It wasn’t a sustainable model, but they managed to complete a five-year mission. Better still, the relative success of those shows helped bring Star Trek back from the dead. 1000 episodes later, we can say “mission accomplished!”
Forgive me if I’m a little jealous and resentful of today’s crop of fans who have an unlimited number of new and old movies, comics, TV shows and books to consume. Even more crucially, they have no reason to feel shame or embarrassment because we live in a multiverse of entertainment. There’s something for everyone.
Watching the crowd surge into Fan Expo last week, I saw three-year olds in pigtails and Wonder Woman skirts next to overfed teenagers in VR goggles and tie-dyed t-shirts. A parade of Japanese girls in candy-colored wigs and iridescent tutus twirled past a man in black leather with a chain saw where his head should be. A stern-faced Starfleet officer examined the 3-D printed blaster of a Red stormtrooper. No one was embarrassed. Everyone was smiling. Except me.
I’m reminded of an encounter from 30 years ago. I was art director for a Silicon Valley tech magazine, where much of the staff was comprised of grizzled veterans of early computing. It was after hours, and I was finishing a page layout on my Macintosh. Alan was a forty-something programmer in the classic California mode. He looked more like he belonged on the beach than in the office, stringy blonde hair cascading down a faded Santa Cruz t-shirt (It’s no coincidence someone coined the phrase “surfing the web.”)
Anyway, he stuck his head in my office and asked what I was doing. I obliged him with a quick demo of my work in Photoshop, showing how I was able to manipulate images in a way that still seemed like magic. He snorted. “People don’t deserve this.” He caught me up short, and I took my hands away from the keyboard. “I hate Apple. They’ve made it so easy for anyone to use a computer. It’s not fair.” At this point I rolled back from the desk and turned to face him in the doorway. He raised his hand to stop me.
“It’s not you. You have a job to do. But when I think about all the hours that I spent, building my own motherboards, typing in the operating system one line at a time, and now you just have to open a box and turn it on… Pathetic.” He turned in the doorway and left shaking his head. I didn’t know what to say to him.
Now, as an elder of sorts, I kind of understand where Alan was coming from. He paid his dues for sure, and helped to make our future a reality. But his bitterness kept him from enjoying the fruits of his labor. Is it really better to keep burning your fingers with a soldering iron than using them to explore new possibilities?
Today’s conventions are well-oiled machines, designed to provide a weekend’s entertainment in exchange for a few bucks. They may not be as high-minded as those early cons, and fans don’t have to run a gauntlet of shame and secrecy like some of us did. Who am I to rain on their parade? I’m glad things have gotten better. At the very least, sci-fi and fantasy should offer a little escapism.
Here’s hoping that this generation is also looking to make a better tomorrow. Then we’ll all have something to share.
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If you enjoyed this story, perhaps you would also enjoy my graphic memoir entitled When We Were Trekkies, now available online from Birdcage Bottom Books