The Editor’s Rant: Issue #5

by Michael D. Pederson

 

I spend a lot of time at conventions. But that’s to be expected when you publish a magazine that is targeted specifically at con-goers. Travelling from one convention to another every other weekend it’s easy to become jaded and lose your sense of wonder and amazement at the things you get to see over and over again at science fiction conventions. Hordes of stormtroopers parading through the halls, girls in chainmail bikinis, big-name celebrities, toddlers in Starfleet uniforms, Goths, Klingons, and Wookies. Oh my.

Not long ago, a young anime fan cornered me at a convention and asked me why I wanted to publish a con-oriented magazine. I answered him, “How could I not?” It gives me the best possible excuse for spending every other weekend surrounded by fellow SF enthusiasts—gamers, writers, artists, and costumers; friends and peers; intellectual compatriots.

I clearly remember my first con experience, back in the mid-eighties. Sci-Con, Virginia Beach, Virginia. I had been trying to get to a convention for the past few years but I could never find a local one that was being held when I had a free weekend. Finally though, a couple of friends from college insisted that we drive down to the beach for a fun weekend of sci-fi and gaming. So there I was, swathed in brown cloth, trying my best to look like a Jedi warrior. I can still see myself hanging out in the con suite, chatting (and having a drink or two) with Larry Niven (quite the thrill for a teenage fan). And then leaving the con suite and bumping into an old high school friend that I hadn’t seen in three years. He was there trying to sell a comic book that he was developing and showing off his new wife. I met several people that weekend that are still close friends; many of those people help out with this magazine. It was pretty easy to see that I had found the perfect community that weekend.

Other convention thrills: An exclusive viewing of The Crow, hosted by James O’Barr, before it was released to the public. Dragon*Con’s Betty Page look-alike contest (unfortunately they’ve stopped doing that one). Winning Best in Class, Master’s Division, at the Millennium Philcon’s Masquerade. Meeting Roger Zelazny two months before he left us. Having Jack Haldeman show up regularly to several of our room parties in the early nineties. A quiet evening sitting around talking with David A. Kyle and Yoji Kondo in the hospitality suite at I-Con. Wheeling kegs into hotels on skateboards, covered with blankets, and telling everyone that they were R2-D2 models. And so many other great memories.

So, if you’re reading this while you’re at a convention, chances are pretty good that we’re there as well. Stop by our room party and try our Nth Tea. Tell us about your favorite con experience. Meeting new people is one of the biggest reasons we do what we do. I hope to see you all at the next con!

 

Con Review: Philcon 2002

Philcon2002by James R. Stratton

 

Philcon 2002
December 13-15, 2002
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Philcon is the oldest science-fiction convention held in America today, having been held most every year for roughly 60 years, and at times has been put forward as the oldest such convention in the world. Philcon started as a convention devoted to literature in the 1930s, but in more recent years has branched out to include costuming, gaming, anime and movies, genre related artwork, and SF folk music (known as filk). There’s also a large and varied dealer’s room with books, costumes, jewelry, videos, clothing, and gaming supplies. Annual attendance at the convention runs between one and two thousand people each year.

My family and I arrived at the convention hotel, the Marriott Center City, early Friday morning. I always like to arrive early and help set up. For those new to conventions, let me recommend this to you. I’ve been part of Philcon’s art show crew for four years and am now a staff member of the convention. The advantages to this are that I’ve met a number of the people who run the convention and my membership fees for attending are waived.

Philcon is considered a large regional convention and is able to attract nationally recognized writers, artists, and actors each year. This year the Writer Guests of Honor were Connie Willis, Nalo Hopkins, and Spider Robinson. The Artist Guest of Honor was the illustrator Donata Giancola. Spider and his wife Jeannie also appeared as Filk Guests of Honor (they led an amazingly fun Beatles sing-along). And at the last minute the con organizers were able to arrange for Robert Picardo from Star Trek: Voyager to appear. There were also hundreds of other authors, artists, editors, and actors including Catherine Assaro, John Ashmead III, John Gregory Betancourt, Jack Chalker, Hal Clement, Gardener Dozois, Scott Edelman, Laura Ann Gilman, Yoji Kondo, Dr. Paul Levinson, John Passarella, Mark Rogers, Robert Sawyer, George Scithers, Diane Weinstein, and Mark Wolverton.

Friday night, after my son and I finished with the art show set up, we grabbed a bite to eat and headed back to the con. (The Marriott is at the edge of Chinatown in Philadelphia, and just blocks from the Italian market.) My son’s primary focus is gaming and anime so I left him at the gaming room and headed to the discussion panels. A new game called “Mage Knight Minions” was the featured game and my son came away with enough freebies and instructions from the designers to be able to participate in a full tournament by the end of the weekend.

My interests are more ordinary, so at 7:00 I attended a panel discussion on the greatest inventions of the twentieth century. At 8:00 I caught the GOH speech by Nalo Hopkins, then slipped downstairs to catch the tail end of a demonstration by the Artist GOH, Donato Giancola. I also had my first conflict when I passed on the “Meet The Pros” cocktail party at the same time. At 9:00 I slipped into the anime room, then at 10:00 attended a slide presentation by Mark Rogers on his illustrations for the Samurai Cat series. I called it a night at this point although there were a number of parties open to the public in the hotel.

I was up bright and early on Saturday and was back downstairs by 10:00. Saturday is the main day of the con, and the busiest. I’m not going to describe every event I attended (this would take up too much space) but will give you some highlights. I sat in on a discussion of the Klingon language presented by the Klingon Language Institute. I visited the dealer’s room and the art show, had coffee with some friends I’ve met at previous cons, and caught a panel discussion by a number of editors from various magazines—including Asimov’s, Analog, and Weird Tales. The topic was about what trends they see in the market right now—vampires are out, as are terrorist dramas.

At 1:00 I attended the Writers Workshop for aspiring writers like myself. For those of you interested in becoming a published writer, this is a must. Eight of us submitted stories to the workshop in advance, and each story was reviewed and critiqued by a half-dozen writers and editors. The experience is painful, but invaluable. I received comments from six of the leading editors in genre fiction including John Gregory Betancourt and George Scithers. I’m not aware of anywhere else you can receive this kind of feedback in a single afternoon.

I spent the rest of the afternoon getting a meal with my family, shopping in the dealer’s room, and watching some more anime. At 4:00 Connie Willis spoke about her life, her writing, and other things. She’s an excellent speaker and was in good form this weekend. At 9:00 we all attended the masquerade. This is the main costume competition at the con, and is guaranteed to produce some of the best of the costumers’ art in the area. After the masquerade my kids headed off to watch a movie while my wife and I visited several room parties. Charlotte, Seattle, and Los Angeles were all throwing Worldcon bid parties, and Nth Degree was hosting its usual bash.

Sunday was more scattered, as this is the last day of the con and the day when the bids at the art auction close. I caught a panel discussion on the science of time travel, then went to the art show to make a few bids. For the uninitiated, most cons have an art show where artists offer their works for sale by written bid. If an item pulls more than four bids, it goes to a voice auction. Each of us had found items we wanted and placed our bids. The Chinese-style watercolor I bid on went to the voice auction, as did a dragon sculpture my son wanted. The art show closed at noon and we went to the dealer’s room for last minute purchases, grabbed lunch and came back in time for the voice auction. In the end, we won the two items we wanted plus four others that were a steal. I then caught a panel on the worst items editors had seen in their slush pile before we loaded the car and headed home.

Philcon 2003 will be held December 12-14, 2003 at the Marriott Center City hotel in Philadelphia. You can purchase your badge at www.philcon.org. Needless to say, me and mine are already making plans to attend. We each had a wonderful time, and already have our memberships. I heartily recommend this con to you.

 

Con Review: MarsCon 2003

MarsCon2003by Michael D. Pederson

 

MarsCon 2003
January 24-26, 2003
Williamsburg, Virginia

The late 1990s was a rough time for science fiction conventions in the state of Virginia. When both Sci-Con and Disclave folded up their tents, MarsCon was left standing as one of the largest cons (along with Technicon and EveCon) in the state. It’s no surprise then that MarsCon is beginning to show some signs of wear-and-tear. This year’s attendance was close to 500 and everyone seemed to be having a great time. Some of us old-timers were a little bored though. Every year at MarsCon LARPers flood the halls playing Machiavellian Madness, classical guitarist Robin Welch is guaranteed to be playing in the con suite, Luna-C will be hamming it up for their comedy show, and Women of Whimsey always give an enjoyable filk performance. I didn’t have a chance to get to much of the programming, but I did hear some grumblings about the need to expand the schedule. As Relax-a-Cons go, this one draws a great pool of talented guests each year, including Bud Webster, Rikk Jacobs, Daniel Trout, and John and Jason Waltrip. With attendance dropping off at conventions around the area it might be time for the con chair to think about trying to freshen up this old favorite a little. Either way though, I’ll be there next year. A date for MarsCon 2004 hasn’t been set yet but it will be posted soon at www.marscon.net.

 

Con Review: SheVaCon 11

SheVaCon11by Catherine E. Twohill

 

SheVaCon 11
February 21-23, 2003
Roanoke, Virginia

The 11th occasion of the Shenandoah Valley Convention in Roanoke, Virginia was lush with programming, attendees, and games beyond measure. While SheVaCon is not promoted as a pure Gaming Con, at any time of the day or night you could find a game of Munchkin, Fluxx, or your favorite LARP running and the players clearly enjoying themselves. SheVaCon’s Writer GOH was also the Grand Master, Hal Clement. Mr. Clement was joined by Artist GOH, Daniel Trout, and Master of Ceremonies, Rikk Jacobs. In addition to this illustrious roster, over thirty other guests supported a programming schedule of nearly forty different sessions within three different tracks. It was amazingly rich; the organizers of SheVaCon have much to be proud of. Keep up with plans for SheVaCon 12 (February 27-29, 2004) by bookmarking www.shevacon.org.

 

Game Review: Haiiii-Ya!

Haiii-Ya!by Chris Tompkins

 

There is something unabashedly entertaining about cheesy martial arts combat, and Haiiii-Ya! (published by A-I Games) manages to capture this feeling exceptionally well. Haiiii-Ya! is a hybrid of a miniatures game and a role-playing game, and can be played effectively in both formats. Either way, the result is a fast and funny game that prides itself on its own ridiculousness.

The game is most similar to a role-playing game, as players make characters and control them throughout each session. However, Haiiii-Ya! is as much about style as it is about substance, so some seemingly unimportant things can have a significant impact on your character. Your character has such traditional role-playing components as statistics, movement, and powers, but the fun comes from the non-traditional aspects. Each character must choose a “side”—Good Guy, Bad Guy, or Ronin. Each “side” has certain advantages and disadvantages. For example, a Bad Guy can summon nameless thugs at any time, but always becomes overconfident at the end of the fight and has bad luck. In addition, your character has a Signature Quote and a Signature Move. Your Signature Quote can be used to stun opponents, but can’t have more words than your Brains attribute. Similarly, your Signature Move gains a bonus to attack that’s equal to the number of words in its name, which the player must shout out when he uses it.

Though the game does have solid combat mechanics, its best feature is its sense of humor. It is designed around having quick, ridiculous battles with outrageous powers, and it embraces this fact. You will laugh when you play this game and you will enjoy it. Pick up a copy today.

 

Game Review: Showbiz Shuffle

Showbiz Shuffleby Chris Garcia

 

Every now and again, you accidentally find yourself in the perfect place for the perfect event: you find a dropped 100 dollar bill in the middle of the road, a diamond in your Campbell’s Soup, or end up in the path of a Home Run ball worth 3.81 million dollars. I had a moment like that in Philadelphia this past December, where everything lined up and I got to be present at a party where a group of game designers were showing off their first presentation: a miraculous game called Showbiz Shuffle.

I had come out from California for Philcon to be on a few panels and down a few Philly Cheesesteaks, no idea that my life would be changed by attending a party. There, the designer—the uproarious Joan Wendland—and friends who had play-tested the game sat me down and taught me the basics of Showbiz Shuffle (2-4 players): try to assemble an actor, director, and some supporters. The first thing you notice are the cards, featuring caricatures of Hollywood personalities, past and present, drawn by professional caricaturist Lar deSouza. It’s fun just to test the knowledge of those you play with to see who can name the most stars from their pictures, a game in which I am the undoubted Sunnyvale, CA champion. The cards though, aside from being pretty, also contain the essentials of the game: point values used to determine the success of a finished film, and a color-coded section which tells you the genre of films the player can appear in. Some cards, such as the Studio Favorite (which I believe is Mr. Martin Scorsese) tell you to draw a Biz card, allowing you to improve your movie, or hurt others by doing things like winning Oscars, or causing their stars to be Upstaged. The cards are classy, but how do they play?

Each turn is like taking a meeting in the classic Hollywood boardrooms of the Studio era. Who do we cast to star in our new romance picture? Who in the stable can direct a family film? What’s that Wood fellow doing casting Clint Eastwood? You keep a hand of five “Bod” cards, contract players who are potential stars, directors or supporting players. There is a Cattle Call of five more Bod cards that every player can pull from on their turn. Every turn, you can cast one Bod from the Cattle Call and two Bods from your hand into your latest opus, but they must be able to fit into the genre of film that you are making. You can also play one of your Biz cards each turn, allowing the fun to add up. You can only have one director, two Stars, and a pair of supporters in each film, which makes casting harder as there are lots of supporters, while directors are precious indeed. When you have completed the five Bods needed, you total up the points from your actors, Biz cards, and any of the little bonuses, such as playing the Classic (Kate Hepburn) with the Final Bow (Spencer Tracey), giving you +2 to your film, and write it down (though, recently we’ve been using poker chips to keep track, mostly so we have something to do with the poker chips we got for Christmas). After you have run through the cards once, the player who draws the last card plays and then every other player gets one turn to complete the movies that they have in the works. If you fail to complete a film, the points you put into it count against you, since your studio blew all that cash on casting and got nada out of it. The one with the most points wins, just like in Hollywood.

Now, the room in Philly where I ended up was a Blood and Cardstock party where they were teaching folks to play the game. As soon as I started playing, I knew all of my friends back west would want to get a piece of the action; after all, Cali is where a good Hollywood game would be most appreciated. It’s a blast, especially as folks start to screw their friends by playing Drug Problems on others stars, or sticking their films with the dreaded NC-17. The power of the game is the simplicity, the fact that you can complete a game in half an hour, and there is just enough room for movie fans to make cinema references and talk trash, which a film geek like me specializes in.

Showbiz Shuffle is the first game from Blood and Cardstock games, and they are planning an expansion deck featuring the golden age of Hollywood. You can order the original at www.blood-and-cardstock.com. Their next card game—Counting Sheep, the surreal game of dreams you play while you’re awake—will be released this fall.

All in all, a great game for anyone who loves card games or movies, and the perfect game for those of us who live in both worlds.

 

Movie Review: Kurt Russell Retrospective

Kurt Russellby Brandon & Susan Blackmoor

 

Kurt Russell is one of the most talented, most versatile actors of our era. He convincingly portrays everything from good-hearted buffoons to hardened lawmen with equal aplomb. Russell’s early career had him cast as the all-American nice boy in such Disney fare as The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969) and The Strongest Man In The World (1975), but he is one of the few child actors who succeeded in making the transition to adult roles. The last twenty years have showcased Russell in a number of films where his range as an actor has placed him in a league above that of action stars like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Steven Seagal. Interspersed with comedies like Captain Ron (1992) and Overboard (1987), and psychological dramas like Breakdown (1997) and the recently released Dark Blue (2003), Russell has starred in an array of action films that have endeared him to science fiction fans. Lucky for us, most of them are available on DVD.

“I heard you were dead.”

Escape From New York (1981) is one of the best examples of the late twentieth century’s visionary dystopian films (a genre which includes such SF masterpieces as Blade Runner, Road Warrior, and The Terminator). In 1997, the island of Manhattan has been turned into a maximum security prison. When Air Force One is hijacked and crashed on the island in an act of protest, the United States Police Force recruits former war hero Snake Plissken to infiltrate the island and rescue the President.

Russell is spot-on as the intense and cynical Plissken. He is quick with a quip, deadly cool under pressure, and at least as violent as the world that he lives in. Many films have featured an ex-military antihero since Russell’s grizzled gunslinger, but none have matched the sheer cool of Snake Plissken.

“Why don’t we just wait here a while… see what happens.”

Unlike the darkly humorous Escape From New York, John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982) is a completely serious film: the story of an Antarctic scientific outpost which encounters a shape-changing extraterrestrial. While The Thing is a classic horror film—on par with classics like Alien and The Fly—and the groundbreaking special effects have aged remarkably well, the main themes of the film are isolation and paranoia.

The tension in The Thing doesn’t come from clumsy jolts or the menace of a stalking madman. What makes The Thing so frightening is the unknown: who is human? Who can we trust? Is the man next to me a man, or a monster? If I were the monster… would I know?

The Thing features Russell as helicopter pilot MacReady, a man who likes chess, whisky, and solitude. MacReady is a loner among loners, even more reclusive than the other men who have come to the end of the world to find peace. Russell is at his best as the reticent MacReady: he is the everyman, the person we would like to think we would be if placed in an impossible situation. He does not have Snake Plissken’s grace under fire or wise-cracking cynicism, but he does the best he can to keep things from falling apart as it becomes clear that the extraterrestrial poses a threat not only to the men at the research station, but to all of humanity. He is a likeable, believable character, and the fact that Russell makes it look so easy is a testament to his skill as an actor.

“There are many mysteries, many unanswerable questions, even in a life as short as yours.”

Equally likeable but far less believable is the fabulous Jack Burton, the adventurous truck driver who runs afoul of the Chinese underworld in Big Trouble In Little China (1986). Jack Burton is fearless and unashamedly brash no matter what he’s facing. An ancient Chinese sorcerer? Bring him on! Vicious slack-jawed trolls? No problem! High-jumping, lightning-throwing martial artists? Make it three!

When the fiancée of a friend is kidnapped by Chinese gangsters, Jack Burton vows to help rescue her (and rescue his truck, the Pork Chop Express). Little does he suspect that it’s all part of an ancient sorcerer’s plan to regain a material body. But does that slow him down? Hell, no. Give him a machine pistol, a magic potion, and a six-demon bag, and he’s ready to rock and roll. Besides, he never drives faster than he can see.

Big Trouble In Little China is as slapstick as The Thing is serious, which is probably the only thing that keeps it from being painfully bad. Just when the story is in danger of going over the top, the director John Carpenter raises the top! And Russell is with it every step of the way. Truly a great film, and an excellent example of Russell’s comedic skills.

“I’m going to kill them all, sir.”

Soldier (1998) is one of Russell’s least-appreciated roles, and possibly the last action role that Russell intends to play. A soldier trained from birth to be the perfect killing machine, Todd 3465 is eventually replaced by a more advanced model, and discarded. He is dumped upon a garbage planet and left for dead, but he revives and manages to befriend (just barely) a settlement of refugees who crashed on the world several years earlier. How does a man who has known only war fit into a community once his role as a warrior is taken away?

As the stoic Todd 3465, Russell has relatively little dialog, making it difficult to develop the character. Almost everything we know about Todd is conveyed through his actions, his facial expressions, and sometimes just his eyes. Despite this limitation, Russell manages to create a complex character with whom we not only sympathize, but also empathize. Russell’s portrayal of Todd 3465 is subtly nuanced, and far surpasses similar efforts by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Terminator films or Jean-Claude Van Damme in his Universal Soldier films. Few actors can so convincingly evoke the humanity of a man who is as machine-like as the military could make him, and precious few actors of such skill deign to make action films. More’s the pity.

 

Book Review: Prey

Preyby Michael D. Pederson

 

Prey
Michael Crichton
HarperCollins, 367 pp.

First up is Michael Crichton’s Prey. Crichton has always been a modern-day Mary Shelley, preaching about the possibility of losing control of advancing technologies. In Prey, nanotechnology becomes his Frankenstein’s monster, with shades of the Body Snatcher cliché thrown in for good measure. Our hero this time is Jack Forman—unemployed computer programmer and stay-at-home dad—whose wife, Julia, is working for the mysterious Xymos Technology corporation. When Julia begins to act strangely and starts working late, Jack naturally suspects that something is wrong. Believing his wife is having an affair, he accepts a consulting job with Xymos so that he can snoop around. Needless to say, he quickly stumbles onto the fact that Xymos has accidentally created an out-of-control swarm of nano-particles that wants to destroy the research facility. Within forty-eight hours he single-handedly discovers the problem, reveals an evil conspiracy, and saves the day. As usual, Crichton’s scientific details are mostly believable but his plots are getting thinner with each new book. Sadly, this time around his characters are mere cardboard cutouts, wandering aimlessly through an anemic under-developed mess of a plot. Further reminder that it’s been a long time since Andromeda Strain.

 

Book Review: Deuces Down

DeucesDownby Michael D. Pederson

 

Wild Cards XVI: Deuces Down
edited by George R.R. Martin
ibooks, 325 pp.

In all fairness, I thoroughly enjoyed Wild Cards XVI: Deuces Down. This is the latest in a series of shared-world novels that enjoyed a great run in the mid-eighties and on into the early nineties. For those that missed it the first time around, the series is being reprinted in a quality trade paperback format with new illustrations. In its prime Wild Cards attracted some amazing talent (such as Roger Zelazny, Walter Jon Williams, and Stephen Leigh) to work in what was conceived as a believable, gritty world where superpowers are commonplace. Earth has been ravaged by an alien-created plague known as the Wild Card Virus. Those infected with the virus are either killed by it (drawing the Black Queen) or else transformed into Aces (humans possessing amazing powers) or Jokers (grotesquely disfigured creatures). This new collection focuses on an underrated group of characters: deuces—Wild Carders that have been gifted with very minor abilities. Although this book lacks (and some would say this is a good thing) the darkness of the original series, it still captures the underlying angst of a world where puberty can bring a horribly painful death. These new stories are at their most interesting though when elevating minor characters from the original series to star status in their own stories (John J. Miller’s “Four Days in October” and Melinda M. Snodgrass’ “A Face for the Cutting Room Floor”). My personal favorite, Michael Cassut’s “Storming Space,” chronicles mankind’s first flight to the moon—Wild Card style. It’s been over fifteen years since the Wild Card series debuted and Martin proves that the series still has some life left in it. The stories in Deuces Down are alternately quirky, amusing, poignant, and exciting. Despite all this praise, I do miss the continuity of the old series. These new stories, good as they are individually, have no underlying plot linking them together. They plug some holes, fill in some gaps, and tie up some loose ends but in the end leave you missing the Wild Cards of old.