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[whitespace] Dana and Bruce MacDermott Oh, Beehive! Dana and Bruce MacDermott of Berkeley scored high honors for best costume in the popular masquerade ball. Their entry was titled 'The Conference of Sentient Species.'

Photograph by Paul Myers

Geek Central

Do you like science fiction, Yuki-san?


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TO THE DELIGHT of all downtown businesses who made the website list of great places to eat or stay, 5,000 fanatics descended upon San Jose last weekend for ConJose, the 60th World Science Fiction Convention. The fanatics ran the gamut of society, from geeks to scholars, from Renaissance Faire refugees to computer legends. Authors discussed writing techniques, fans dressed up and a guy named Filthy Pierre played "Do You Know the Way to San Jose?" on a miniature melodica.

On a rack of bumper stickers for sale in the exhibitor's hall, one in particular caught my eye: "Migratory life-form with a tropism for bookstores." I immediately took a liking to the phrase and shelled out two dollars. Migration being a key factor, for geeks and other species, I decided to explore the ways and means of ConJose.

In the exhibitor's hall, books, books and more books--most of them science fiction of course--held center stage along with New Age jewelry, magazines, T-shirts, videos, CDs, Druid clothing, swords, historical oddities, Klingon language courses, Tarot cards, fantasy artwork and even plywood model kits of cockroaches. Along with the hordes, I migrated from booth to booth.

"People at [ConJose] all tend to look the same after a while," said Jane Larson who runs Lady Jaynes Books in Tacoma, Wash. "Yeah, there's definitely a convention archetype," agreed husband Conrad, with no concern about whether I would think they were talking about me. Whatever. At their booth, I flipped through a charming 1939 copy of L.W. Laurence's classic Great Book of Magical Art, Hindu Magic and Indian Occultism.

I looked around for "the look" they were talking about. Except for a small contingent of alien costumes, Renaissance attire and XXL-sized people in Hawaiian shirts, most ConJose attendees did not seem to fall under any said "archetype." Sure, there was a predominance of T-shirts with writing on them, casual pants and shorts, tennis shoes and Supercuts hairdos did indeed exist, but the overall variety of human life-forms took me by surprise. All in all, they were a force to be reckoned with, even if reckoning just meant saying "Excuse me" a lot as you circulated around and between them.


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Flirting 101

After praising local cyberpunk science-fiction guru Rudy Rucker on his Transrealism Guide to San Jose, in which he describes several neighborhood locales that he used in his books, I headed to the panel sessions. Every imaginable topic was discussed: alien music theory, genetic engineering, antimatter technology, prosthetics, the future of food, fight scenes, planets, vampires, mummies and the holy ghost.

I chose flirting. Similar seekers jammed into Meeting Room H for panel session number 196: "The Theory and Art of Flirting at Conventions." Moderated by erotic author and unapologetic polygamist Mary Anne Mohanraj, the panel pointed out that differentiating between "flirting" and "flirting with intent" can be a problem for SF (the proper way to identify a science fiction aficionado, not the derogatory "sci-fi") geeks who often live in their own heads and have no capacity to read the real body language of others.

Author and publisher Cecelia Tan talked about the importance of eye contact, and expert back-rub-giver jan howard finder (he insists on keeping his name all lower case) demonstrated how to properly kiss a woman's hand. Apparently, the cues in how to do this are "all in the way she offers her hand forward." In other words, pay attention to the cues, guys.

Despite the carefully orchestrated educational experiences of the day, the real convention experience began at night, where the nighttime festivities commenced with many organizations hosting open (read: free) parties in various hotel suites. In this case, the action was at the Fairmont Hotel.

Many geeks began the night's trek at the top floor of downtown's buff-colored monolith and worked their way down, floor by floor, migrating from party to party, taking in the view, the free booze and the vastly informative social intercourse.

The Japanese contingent, which will be hosting the convention in 2007, gave a warm get-together on the 18th floor. An orgasmic-looking hostess named Yuki was decked out in a snow-colored minidress while a balding SF enthusiast relentlessly hovered over her with the brilliant opener (had he been to the flirting seminar or what?), "Do you like science fiction, Yuki-san?"

More haphazard migration through the hordes made me wonder: What do the authors themselves think about all this fawning fandom? It was bordering on embarrassment. But Gardner Dozois, legendary writer and editor of Asimov's Science Fiction, shrugs it all off: "There may be some fans who get obsessively enthusiastic about the whole thing and intrude on your dinner and things like that, but I think the bottom line is that authors are simply happy that others are reading and enjoying their work."

Karen Michalson, author of Enemy Glory from Tor Books, agrees. "Most writers love it when people love their work in this way. They feel very gratified when somebody dresses in a costume like one of their characters. There's a lot of passion in the fans and everyone responds positively to this passion." So, I guess that means kudos to the guy in the green velvet cape holding the 8-foot scepter.

Illustration Do-It-Yourself Cloning Kits

The next day, I eavesdropped on two conference attendees passionately conversing about belt sanders before invading the Fairmont's Imperial Ballroom, where Steve Wozniak was moderating a panel titled "Personal Computers: What Science Fiction Didn't Predict."

Comprised of individuals who were instrumental in the formation of the personal computer industry, the panel focused on how SF authors, despite hitting the mark on a lot of things, never predicted the rise of personal computers, cell phones, PDAs, GPS receivers, MP3 players and the like. Panel member Dan Sokol quipped, "Fiction becomes science when the tools fall into the hands of everyday people. I'm waiting for the do-it-yourself cloning kit."

Fanatics then lined up at the microphones to pose questions for Woz and the other panelists. Didn't Robert Heinlein predict the advent of the microwave oven? Who financed the first run of Apple I computers? Is 42 the solution for everything or actually just an error code? Woz and company took it all in stride and reiterated the fact that they alone created the personal computer revolution all those years ago.

And, yes, of course, there are the Hugo Awards, the bespeckled and imaginative little brother of Oscar, who stands half as tall and is made out of cadmium instead of gold. Just kidding. Hugo is prestigious as hell in this setting, and thousands filled the San Jose Civic Auditorium to see who would snag international recognition for best science-fiction novel, best short story, best professional artist, best fanzine and much more.

Local author Tad Williams mastered the ceremonies. Takayuki Tatsumi presented the Seiun Awards for non-Japanese language works that were first published in Japanese translation in 2001. A very informal and witty affair.

With so many events going on at ConJose, it's impossible to summarize things or even attempt to convey the passion and variety of the fans. I chatted with a U.S. Chess Grandmaster who has 40,000 SF books in his collection and then with a 7-foot-tall man in a gorilla suit. Go figure.

And the fanatics revel in the puzzling effects they have on normal people. Sure, a slobbering obese man in a propeller beanie shoving a hamburger in his face and chomping away with his mouth open might seem repulsive to some, but, once you hear him espouse the virtues of human-computer interaction and brain-hardware interfaces, you just might change your mind.

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From the September 5-11, 2002 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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