Note as of 9/21/2010: Since the posting of this report, I have received feedback that a reader had been offended by my comments below for ignoring the presence of mixed race and Native steampunks at Dragon*Con. I take full responsibility for the offense made and apologize for my oversight. As noted in the comments of this post, I don’t wish to make a marginalized person feel that they have been rendered invisible when they visit this site. The lightheartedness in which I made the comments below in “The Count” about race, representation, and physical appearance ignores the very painful experience of being a person of mixed race/Native descent/light complexion who passes for white, but does not share the same experiences as someone from the dominant culture. I won’t change my initial comments below–because it would be hypocritical of me to cover up my mistakes–and I hope to receive further feedback about how to improve upon my reflections –and in turn, the content of this site– to be more open and welcoming in the future.
My first Dragon*Con experience can be described in one word: overwhelming. Not surprising, since an estimated 60,000 attendees come to this convention every year. Since its humble beginnings in 1987, Dragon*Con has become one of the largest multi-media & pop culture conventions in the US, and there’s frequent debate in the geek world about whether Dragon*Con outmatches San Diego Comic Con.
Though I’ve heard about Dragon*Con, I never considered going because of distance and cost. Outland Armour begged the Wandering Legion of the Thomas Tew to attend this year, however, and so I decided to tag along with my ruffians-in-arms for the journey.
Thus, unlike other conventions I had attended, I had no set plans and didn’t intend to actively scout out the con specifically for steampunkery. I had plans on attending some of the panels listed on the alternative history track, and some other events, like the dark fantasy panels and seeing a couple of performers.
My initial schedule plans shifted, when Austin Sirkin contacted me about speaking on the Race & Gender panel, and Emilie P. Bush (who I worked with for the Race, Class & Gender roundtable at the Steampunk World’s Fair) touched base with me about speaking on the Women in Steampunk panel.
Another twist was added when the Day Job requested that I cover the convention once I told them I was attending. I try to keep a professional distance between my Day Job and my steampunk, especially since the two have so much relevance to each other. My plans for Sunday, though, changed entirely when I was scheduled to interview several authors and film the con. I was psyched about the people I got to interview (most relevant to this blog being Cherie Priest). Because of filming, I missed out on a couple of steampunk events I wanted to go to– most notably, the Steampunk Exposition (though the Peacemaker ended up being displayed in my absence). Sticking to the premise of the blog, though, I’ll only mention the steam events. ^-^
So I had two panels to prep for, along with making arrangements for work, in order to tackle a con I’ve never gone to before (and somehow figuring how to get down to Georgia at a reasonable price!) In the end, my experience was less steam-focused than I intended, but I did learn several valuable lessons about attending Dragon*Con. My list, plus the rest of the report after the jump.
Things I Learned from my Dragon*Con Experience
1) Book a flight. Either that, or plan your Dragon*Con quest as a two-day road trip and not an 18-hour marathon.
1a) Use the “avoid toll option” on your GPS.
1b) On the other hand, GPS is not necessarily your friend, especially if it leads you 100 miles off any main roads in the middle of Virginia at 3 AM.
2) “Go Pro or Go Home.” That’s an expression often used by one of my ruffians from the Wandering Legion, and that was the overall impression I got from attending the convention. The amount of awesome cosplays I saw there was incredible. Props of course, to all the attendees for dressing their best!
2a) If you see someone who looks remarkably like a celebrity, don’t mistake them for a cosplayer. I’ll let you ask the Legion for details about that story. ^-~
3) A $1.50 can of Chef Boyardee can be just as tasty as that $10 dollars you’ll shell out in a food court or the $20 meal you’ll get in a restaurant.
4) Dragon*ConTV is the best thing a con can do for its attendees. When you’re too tired to go to a panel (or fire-marshalled out), it’s nice to know there are other options.
5) Try as you might, you will never, ever get a chance to do everything you want at Dragon*Con.
On Saturday, I sat in for “Steam Queens & Clockwork Hookers: Women in Steampunk” with several amazing women (in order from left to right below): Jana Oliver, Trisha Wooldridge, Leanna Renee Hieber, and Kathryn Hinds, moderated by Emilie (at the right end).
The questions that we focused on the most was the current state of female characters in steampunk literature. Emilie started off with the title question about whether they were only resigned to passive roles or “hooker” types, or, whether they became “men with breasts” when featured in a prominent role in steampunk books.
The general agreement was that judgment about whether female characters counted as “men with breasts” all depended upon several aspects:
1) How that character is portrayed as using female cues when thinking and interacting with characters of either gender. Not to enforce stereotypes about how women think and act versus men, but there are certain writing styles that definitely read more strongly as having male POVs than female.
2) How a female character is portrayed in comparison to other female characters as a whole. If there was more variation of character qualities between several different female characters in a book, then it would be less likely to think that certain character would be ID as a “man with breasts” as opposed to a women with more “masculine-associated” traits.
For instance, I think how Alexia Tarabotti from Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series can be interpreted as “masculine” in her cold logical quality, practicality, and tendency not to be overly sentimental, but she still comes across as being distinctly feminine in her awareness about her place in society and how she “should” act. The same can be said about Briar Wilkes from Boneshaker of Deryn from Leviathan. In the case of Deryn, she could fall into the realm of “man with breasts” by her character’s situation (pretending to be a boy in the air ship fleet), and she is very tomboyish, but her inner monologue–especially her thoughts and concerns toward other characters–reads as especially female to me.
We also talked about examples of good female steampunk characters and books. Along with those mentioned above, we also included Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines Quartet, and Karin Lowachee’s The Gaslight Dogs.
For “Race & Gender Inequalities in Steampunk,” on Sunday, I was joined again by Kathryn Hinds and also Skylar White, with Austin Sirkin moderating. That panel we had a chance to talk about how to write the Other in fiction realistically and the challenges of acknowledging one’s one privilege when doing so (especially if you are a white writer writing about non-white cultures.) This had been territory I had covered on panels before, but I also got to mention about a book that I hadn’t had a chance to bring up on previous steampunk panels but should be on the top of anyone’s alternative history lists.
When someone asked a question about how to write military aspects in steampunk, I mentioned one of my favorite series, that, although not steampunk, turns imperialism on its head while also staying very true to historical attitudes: Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series. In a nutshell, it’s a historical fantasy set during the Napoleonic wars in a world where dragons exist. This is a game changer that twists various sociopolitical dynamics throughout several world civilizations, and I love how Novik uses historically-accurate mindsets of several countries (especially towards gender roles, slavery and colonialism) and how those are underminded. Plus, the dragons are kick-ass.
Another book I usually mention in panels about writing sci-fi slipped my mind entirely, though. So I’m mentioned it here as a must-have for all writers, especially in sci-fi & fantasy: Writing the Other by Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward. This is a practical, down-to-earth guide about writing the other that really speaks in layman’s terms about the subject and I highly recommend it.
Not only that but I met some great steampunks after that panel, including Capt. Anthony LaGrange of the Airship Archon. He especially wanted to make sure the Peacemaker was in the picture, which was quite flattering! And the Viceroy had to take a spot in there too.
A Word About Cherie Priest
Earlier that Sunday, I had the pleasure of interviewing Cherie Priest about the Clockwork Century books for the Day Job. Among other things, we ended up talking about the various historical aspects of Boneshaker, and I had asked her what historical aspects & people she enjoyed writing the most.
One she mentioned was the Native American character Princess. She is actually based on an actual historical figure: the Princess Angeline, daughter of Chief Seattle who remained in Seattle in defiance of the 1855 Treaty of Point Elliott, which had forced the rest of her tribe out of the city and onto reservations. Cherie kept her fictional Princess’s backstory the same as the real Princess Angeline, who in real life also had a daughter who suffered domestic abuse after marrying her white husband. Although the real Princess was only known as an eccentric, though well-respected local character, Cherie wanted to “give her the justice she deserved.”
When the video goes live later this week, I’ll be sure to post a link to it here. Hopefully, my fangirlness hadn’t spilled itself all over the celluloid. That said, Cherie is an absolutely darling to talk to, and I want to especially thank her and the folks at Tor for helping to arrange the interview.
The Photoshoot & The Count
The other major event I attended was the Guinness World Record photoshoot for steampunks. A count of 510 steampunks were there. Below is a picture of part of the crowd behind me.
I wondered how many steampunks of color would appear at one of the largest conventions in the country based in a city that is about 66% African American (according to the 2000 census). My count: 6 African-American steampunks and 5 Asian-American steampunks, counting myself.
This isn’t a criticism persay, but a very, very pointed observation about who is attracted to steampunk and why that is, points that I had touched upon in my recent multiculturalism in steampunk essay. Below are a few notable pics from that shoot.
My time at Dragon*Con had to be cut short with another 18-hour drive back to New York on Monday. Overall, though, I enjoyed myself immensely. I met several wonderful people there, and now set my sights for presenting at next year’s con. ^-^
A Note about the Salem Invasion
To end, I’ll also give a shout-out about another event that happened this past weekend: The Steampunk Invasion of Salem. It started off as a casual idea from the Legion with help from Dr. Phobius for a day of fun and wandering about a very historical town. The event quickly bloomed into a 100+ gathering of steampunks from Maine to New York. Pictures from the event are below and more can be seen here.