Con-Volution 2016: The Age of Monsters Report

convolutioncon-volution-2016conflogoWhen I first saw the theme of this year’s Con-Volution, I thought it wouldn’t have many connections to me. After all, I’m not much of a horror reader/watcher, mainly because I internalize what I experience. However, the more I learned, the more I realized I love monsters. Maybe not the traditional jump out and tear you apart kind, but definitely those like Godzilla who is born of human arrogance and comes to warn us to change our ways. That’s the angle I approached the theme, and it fit well with a lot of the panels as well as the wonderful hallway discussions.

As usual with any convention, I only managed to catch one other panel besides the ones I was on, not because there weren’t many fascinating topics, because really there were. Instead, I’d plan to go to something and get caught up in a fun hallway conversation, cross paths with a friend I usually only see at cons, or be drawn into whatever distraction that caught my attention.

This year, I spent a lot of time in the Dealers Room because a friend was hosting my books at her table, called Lucrezia’s Delight (Fine Millinery and Decorative Hair Goods for the Discerning). I dropped by to chat, to admire, and to sign books for those who wanted a personalized copy.

I also ended up enjoying many an amusing or interesting discussion in the con suite after hours, a perfect place to see the cosplay as people wandered in and out. Besides, they put out puzzles, my favorite downtime activity.

As you can probably tell, I had a great time. My only real regrets come in the form of people I wanted to catch up with but missed, those who I saw for a second and we said we’d cross paths later, or those I knew were around somewhere but never saw at all. It happens. There’s so much going on in so many different places, it’s impossible to be everywhere at once. I did manage to chat with some of the folks I was looking forward to seeing, even though it meant being coherent in the early morning ;).

People come to conventions for a variety of reasons, but for me (and something I put into words this time thanks to Matt who staffed the con suite), it’s all about both the panels and the hallway conversations. I knew that was my favorite part, but I didn’t quite realize why. I grew up in a tight-knit, reasonably intellectual community (diplomats and ex-pats primarily). Complex discussions were the heart of my experience as I was too young to drink, and I’ve spent my whole life searching for that open contemplation of the “big thoughts” only to find it at science fiction and fantasy conventions.

Con-Volution 2016 lived up to that hope fabulously, as you should be able to tell from the notes on my panels below:

My first panel was titled: No Really – Robots Are the Scariest with a description focused on a terminator-infected future. J. L. (Jim) Doty moderated with Tory Parker and Bill Welden joining me as panelists. We were in a small conference room that filled well beyond its capacity, with folks standing and sitting on the floor when there were no more spaces at the table. Jim treated the panel more as an open discussion where he would start a topic and encourage participation from everyone in the room.

The topic might have been geared around the scary tech gone wild in the form of machines trying to kill us, but the discussion went further into motivations and mechanisms. This included exploring what kind of programming would lead the machines to determine humans to be the problem, but also looked at the impact of tech advances like automated cars. Even better, we got into the root causes and risks that are not just movie magic but rather a direct case of people taking shortcuts and/or not thinking through the complexity of a machine’s interpretation of human fluid meanings.

It was both lively and fascinating, touching on tech phobia and all the things that would be lost if we let that perspective win.

My next panel was the first late-night panel I’ve been on. I had no idea how well it would be attended, especially on a Friday, or if all the panelists would be alert. Since I’d pulled the moderator card, I had some real concerns about how manageable it would be.

Well, the panelists for Monsters in the Mirror, Emerian Rich, Robyn Bennis, Sumiko Saulson, and Setsu Uzume, explored every possible aspect of a topic that fell into my sweet spot (but was actually Setsu’s idea. She’d asked not to moderate so she could talk).

We looked at how TV, movies, and books influence the perception of the populace along with the risks of demonizing a people for entertainment because there are real-world consequences. We explored ways to make groups who are traditionally othered more understandable to counteract the demonizing as well as the risks of trying to change this balance from the outside looking in when it could be appropriating aspects of another culture in an intrusive, negative way. Basically, if there was an angle to societal fears and their presence in genre fiction and media, we touched on it.

Despite the late hour, or perhaps because of it, everyone, panelists and members, were involved in exploring these questions not in a surface way, but looking deeply into the impact what might seem like default or simple decisions can have. It had its uncomfortable moments, but I feel the discussion may have gotten some people thinking, which is the most important measure of success to my mind. What I do know is everyone in a rather full room seemed engaged and considering the questions I raised (in my job as moderator) fully. We had some good questions/contributions from the members as well, despite the more traditional layout, making it again more open discussion than people listening to us talk.

My third panel was Authors: Going to That Dark Place moderated by Fred Wiehe and including Loren Rhoads, Melissa Snark, Deborah J. Ross, Anne Bishop, and myself.

To be honest, I’d expected this to be a technique discussion. Instead, it was much more personal. This made me uncomfortable in many ways because I don’t like looking behind my own curtain but rather let my darkness out in my writing. However, despite my own discomfort, I appreciated what Fred was going for, and it turned out to be an interesting exploration into what drove each of us to write dark (my published novels so far are definitely not horror, but they do touch on society’s darkness while my short stories are often more twisted). Not only did I enjoy the discussion, but I picked up some titles to check out, both from the panelists and that were mentioned (and this wasn’t the only panel/discussion to offer new authors to try either).

While the next was not one of my panels, I went to was How “Scary” Is Science moderated by Kevin Roche and with Garrett Calcaterra, J.L. (Jim) Doty, Laurel Anne Hill, and Heidi Stauffer. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I like science so I figured it was worth a listen to see what the bleeding edge looked like.

The discussion took many turns, covering both the public’s fears grounded in baseless misunderstandings and what’s going on that is truly scary. It had some crossover with the scary tech panel (as well as one panelist in common), but mostly covered different aspects. The discussion included a segue into the importance of science education and the need to expose young people not just to science but to scientists who looked like them so they’d be able to envision themselves on the other side of the table.

Kevin Roche’s contributions about nano tech were fascinating because they offered a hands-on perspective with little in common to public perception. Heidi Stauffer drew out what causes me shivers in pointing to ethics as the real concern, with the others chiming in with inside knowledge into scientific exploration or decisions that drifted well into the gray areas of ethics from fudging the truth to secure grant money to a person’s right of consent for genetic material collection.

Again, it was an in-depth exploration of all the ways science can lead us right…as well as the many paths were it could go so horribly wrong.

As you can see from the above descriptions, The Age of Monsters theme in the panels I experienced followed more closely to Godzilla and the complex interactions between humans and science than the big scary unknowables out to get us for no reason. These are very real questions that need to be contemplated. Each of us may end up in a situation where we have to make the call between advancement and potential harm. This could be anything from a small scale decision like whether to turn in your Galaxy 7 phone because it is potentially a ticking time bomb to whether cloning of human/animal hybrids should be allowed, and if so, are the proper precautions being taken by everyone involved to avoid things like moral issues and providing bridges for cross-species diseases.

I mentioned I’m in it first for the big ideas and knowledge sharing, but that doesn’t mean I’m immune to the wonders of creativity and art. For a variety of reasons, I didn’t get to wander through the art show, though I admired the paintings I did get to see. I dearly wanted to make it into the DIY room where they were doing all sorts of wonderful things…including crocheted mini monsters…but I did get to see some of the results others carried about. I also had the opportunity to see the masquerade I missed because there’s a couple of videos posted on the Con-Volution Facebook page, so you can see it too. The cosplay varied from familiar figures brought to life to costumes sprung from pure imagination. I’ve already shared Copper the Dragon, who was not in the masquerade based on the videos, but wandered the con meeting and playing with members much to everyone’s delight.

So, I’ve reached the end of my report, and I hope you’re able to see what made Con-Volution 2016 so wonderful. If you managed to make it, please leave a comment about your favorite parts, especially if they’re among those I wasn’t able to experience. Who knows what will end up on my short list of things I really want to do for next year. I hope to see you there, but if I miss you and you do come, I’m sure there will be enough to entertain and amaze that the failure to catch up will be nothing more than a single sour note in a complex symphony of delight.

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