Con Review: Balticon 48

Balticon48by Rob Balder


Balticon 48
May 23–26, 2014
Hunt Valley, Maryland

Balticon has long been a mainstay convention of East Coast fandom. As fandom has changed, some traditional literary SF cons such as this one have had to adjust—diversifying and expanding their programming. In recent years, Balticon may have seen a disappointing attendance figure or two, and heard some grumbling from attendees. But this year felt like a clear uptick.

The heart and soul of Balticon is still the printed word, but the guests and programming again included extensive media and new media tracks, a big art show, film, music, and costuming tracks. Panel topics in all tracks were fresh, interesting, and contemporary. There were events for all ages, such as the Lego challenge in the con suite, so attendance was not only strong, but included lots of families and the full spectrum of ages.

And hey, our con bags included a massive softcover copy of The Way of Kings, by Author Guest of Honor Brandon Sanderson. Sanderson was a big draw, and this was a really nice bonus.

So we had as much of a blast at Balticon 48 as ever, and we can’t wait for 49. Long live Balticon!


Con Review: Balticon 45, pt. 1

 Balticon45by KT Pinto


Balticon 45
May 27–30, 2011
Hunt Valley, Maryland

A few months ago I received word from my publisher that my new book Beer with a Mutant Chaser was being premiered at Balticon, so I was asked to change my plans of going to Ohio. My editor got in touch with the head of literary programming to see if I could be given panels. She was told that I could be on panels, but that it was “too late” for me to get a guest pass. Already I started to feel bad vibes about going…

I sent an e-mail to the programming chair thanking her for letting me participate, and asked her if I could have a list of available panels.

No response.

A week before the con, my publisher sent me the list of panels that had space on them; I still hadn’t heard anything from the programming chair. I chose some panels and sent it to our contact.

No response.

So, I get to the con. I was not mentioned anywhere, I was not given any panels save the panel my publishing company hosted… I didn’t even have my name on my badge! It said something like “Darkon 2”; I was a non-entity.

Never one to blend into the woodwork, I went in search of panels that I could crash; I was rather disappointed as I went through the program. My author compatriots had little to no panels, and my favorite topics—sex, vampires, villains, and flirting—were non-existent… on the literary track.

That’s when I noticed that almost the entire con was overrun with “new media” panels. Anything relating to sex, taboos, or vampires was all put aside for “new media”. When I went to my first Balticon in 2007, I was on panels like “Romance, Love, Sex, and Erotica,” “How to Get Laid at a Con,” “Sexy Vampires?” and “Creating the Perfect Villain.” None of those panels existed in 2011. Now such topics had been reduced to things like “Erotica… Iron Chef” and “Alien Sex: What Could Go Wrong?”.

Author Michael A. Ventrella commented, “…many participants were willing to do more panels but the convention had no place to put them, and as such some panelists had decided it was not worth the trip and expense to show up only to be on one or two panels.”

On top of all that, there were no late-night social events. The couple of events that were planned were more dance classes than socials. There were no other parties, no gatherings… only a late-night hula-hooping event. This is why I spent most of my Memorial Day weekend in my publisher’s hotel room, reducing their alcohol supply.

Summing up the situation, author Stephanie Burke said, “As always, Balticon is a lovely four-day endurance trial… But it is the people, open, friendly, and beautiful, that makes this a con to remember.”


Con Review: Balticon 45, pt. 2

Balticon45by Rob Balder


Balticon 45
May 27–30, 2011
Hunt Valley, Maryland

I’ve been a frequent program participant at Balticon for a number of years running, and there was a time I was starting to get a bit worried about it. A few years ago, it looked like the more established literary cons were running out of steam. Attendance was falling, room parties were fewer, and there was a sense of less energy to them.

If that had been true, then this year’s Balticon was a definite uptick. Attendance seemed to be up, the program and night life were lively, and everyone seemed newly recharged.

My time focused on the music/filk track—put together with the usual care and brilliance of Gary Ehrlich. Concert space and sound tech were fantastic, and the combination of regular and new musical acts (particularly Norm Sherman and Filk GoHs Bill & Brenda Sutton) made the whole thing just a blast.

Part of Balticon’s energy has to come from their embrace of podcasters and new media, a track run by Balticon podcast host Paul Fischer. Some substantial and forward-looking panels and hands-on work with the pros and semi-pros in new media rewarded fans and creators alike.

But the big treat for me was my panel with Author GoH Ben Bova, about A Duel in the Somme, the comic that he and I put together with Bill Holbrook. The room was packed with happy and admiring readers, Ben was jovial and entertaining, and I just mainly tripped over my own tongue. But it was a wonderful moment in space and time, and afterwards people lined up for a signed copy. Balticon remains a literary con at its core, and their fantastic choices of author guests will always be a prime reason to attend.


Con Review: Balticon 39

Balticon39by James R. Stratton


Balticon 39
May 27-30, 2005
Baltimore, Maryland

Once again, me and mine attended the annual science-fiction convention of the Baltimore Science Fiction Society over Memorial Day weekend. The Writer Guests of Honor were Stephen Barnes and his spouse, Tananarive Due, the Artist Guest of Honor was Bob Eggleton and the Filk Guest of Honor was Jordan Kare. This was the fifth year that Balticon has been held over Memorial Day weekend with an expanded, four-day schedule, and I can truly say they have handled the transition beautifully after some initial growing pains.

My son and I arrived at the Wyndham Inner Harbor Hotel midafternoon on Friday. Check-in was quick and painless. My son, a gamer, spent the bulk of the weekend running between the computer room (participating in networked online tournaments), the gaming room and the anime room. My interests on the other hand are focused on writing. I started off with a panel on fanzines moderated by Nth Degree’s own Michael Pederson with great visual aids and stories supplied by Steve Stiles, followed by a panel on “Creating Realistic Species,” and finished off the evening with a panel on “Humor In Science Fiction” moderated by Bud Sparhawk. I also managed to watch a few episodes of anime and visited the Dealer’s Room and Art Show. The topper for the night was a presentation by local TV personality Count Gore De Vol, dressed in full vampire regalia. The Count was in good form as he introduced a number of independent films.

Saturday started off early for me with the Writer’s Workshop at 9:00. This workshop, moderated by writer Steve Lubs, is a teaching workshop and this year he focused on creating believable characters. With a room full of aspiring writers, we had lively discussions on how to create compelling characters for our stories. The art show was in especially good form with a whole section devoted to Bob Eggleton’s work as well as dozens of other artists. My favorites were Moifa’s Chinese-style brushwork, and Mark Rogers’ fantasy artwork. I first saw Moifa’s work at Philcon several years ago and have watched as her sparse watercolors have gone from being a steal to the point where I can no longer afford them. The rest of the day was spent in various panels, including one on “Breaking Writer’s Block.” This panel was especially comforting as it helped me to appreciate that writer’s block among authors is as common as Klingons at a Trek convention. I just wish they had some magic bullet for curing it.

After dinner, my son and I attended the Masquerade. As usual, the competition was hosted by Marty Gear in his vampire persona, with roughly twenty entrants. My favorite was a humorous presentation ably assisted by Marty. He reminisced fondly about visits from the tooth fairy when he was a child. She removed the tooth painlessly and paid you lots of money. The lights then came up and out on the stage walked another fairy, wearing a white fright wig and carrying a three-foot hypodermic. Marty advised us that now that we’re adults, we will receive visits from this person, the root canal fairy. She will cause you great pain as she extracts teeth, and will leave only after you have paid her lots and lots of money. It was a scream! As lighthearted as this presentation was, it still managed to take two of the top prizes of the night.

After the last presentation, my son headed back to the gaming room and I headed to the room parties. Sadly, this year the number of parties was quite low. Nth Degree had the most popular party of the night, dispensing its own special brew of “tea” in the much-sought-after glow-in-the-dark cup. But aside from a party hosted by the Philcon con committee and another hosted by the Chicago in 2008 bid committee, that was it (at least that I could find). Understand, this is quite unusual for Balticon, as there are usually a dozen or more parties to choose from all weekend.

Sunday started for me at 10:00 with a panel on “Writing as a Second Career,” with a number of authors—including novelist Robert Chase—participating. This panel was the highlight of the weekend for me. As I am an attorney like Bob Chase, as well as a fledgling writer, I asked how he dealt with the ticklish ethical question on how to keep your legal career separate from your writing career. Attorneys have strict ethical requirements as members of the legal bar not to mix their legal careers with any other public endeavors. Our discussion continued after the panel was done, and he took me to the Green Room to continue our chat. We were joined shortly by Analog Mafia member and noted Heinlein historian Eric Kotani (Yoji Kondo) and by David Silver, also an attorney and the President of the Heinlein Society. Our talk covered a number of topics and lasted for the rest of the morning. Wonderful! Contact with important writers in the field is what I come to cons for.

Sunday was another busy day attending panels, watching videos, bidding at the art auction, participating in the voice auction that followed and then collecting my prizes. The day was capped off with the Second Annual Balticon Film Festival. Although still a new feature of the con, they received more films than they could schedule on Sunday. I understand that many of the films that Count Gore De Vol presented on Friday actually were submitted for the film festival, but could not be presented because of time constraints. As you would expect, they ranged from truly awful to quite good.

Monday was the final day of the con, but was still very active with panels, video presentations and of course the Dealer’s Room. I had visited several times throughout the con but was surprised to see the room still packed with dealers eager to do business. One dealer later explained: At most cons, you do little business on the last day so many dealers pack up and leave as soon as they can. For some reason, most of the dealers were doing better business Monday at Balticon than they had the rest of the weekend, and nobody was leaving.
After making my round of good byes, I packed my car and headed out. Next year will be yet another transition for Balticon. After over a decade located in Center City Baltimore, the con committee decided to relocate to the Hunt Valley Marriott outside the city. From its web page, it looks to be a beautiful facility, so I guess change is good. See you next year!


Con Review: Balticon 38

Balticon38by James R. Stratton


Balticon 38
May 28-31, 2004
Baltimore, Maryland

Balticon is the annual convention of the Baltimore Science Fiction Society (BSFS), and this last Memorial Day weekend marked its 38th year. Balticon is considered a large regional convention with attendance in the range of 1500 to 2000 members each year. The Writer Guest of Honor this year was Lois McMaster Bujold, the Artist GoH was David Seeley and the Musician GoH was Heather Alexander. This year’s convention marked a turning point for the con organizers. Until a few years ago, Balticon was a three-day con held over Easter weekend. In 2001, BSFS opted to move the convention to Memorial Day weekend and added a fourth day of programming on the Monday holiday. After suffering some growing pains, I’m happy to report that BSFS has made the transition to the expanded schedule successfully.

My son and I arrived at the Wyndham Inner Harbor Hotel midafternoon on Friday. Check-in was quick and painless. My son, a gamer, was off to the computer room as soon as we were settled, and he split his time between the computer room and the main game room, with the odd side trip into the anime room. Over the weekend he participated in competitions on the networked computers for Unreal Tournament and 1942, and tournaments in the game room for Mage Knights and Hero Clix. My interests are focused on writing, often leading to several schedule conflicts. I started off with a panel on research and writing, with Ms. Bujold, Josepha Sherman and Bud Sparhawk offering some lively discussion. At 6:00 I joined your own merry Nth Degree crew at a meet and greet panel, at the same time passing on panels on what to do once you’ve completed your first novel and a reading by Scott Edelman. This was common for me throughout the weekend, and I won’t dwell on it here. At 7:00 I caught part of a panel on mythology in genre fiction and then headed to the video room for a special showing of the extended version of The Fellowship of the Ring.

Saturday is the main day for the convention traditionally, and it started off early for me with the Writer’s Workshop at 9:00. This workshop, moderated by writer Steve Lubs, is not your typical read and critique workshop. Steve runs this as a teaching workshop, and this year he focused on humor in genre fiction. Sadly, this was less well attended than in previous years with only myself and two other attendees joining Steve. Still, we had three hours of discussion and exercises that I look forward to each year. I met a friend from the Baltimore area for lunch and we made the rounds of the Dealer’s Room and Art Show afterwards. The Art Show was in especially good form with a whole section devoted to David Seeley’s work as well as dozens of other artists. My favorite is Moifa, whose Chinese-style brushwork is always impressive. I first saw her work at Philcon several years ago, and have watched as her sparse water colors have become much sought after. The rest of the day was spent catching panels like Dueling Easels (two artists compete to create a painting based on a selected writer’s work), watching anime and shopping in the Dealer’s Room.

After dinner my son and I got in line for the Masquerade. Balticon is considered one of the prime regional costume competitions. As usual, it was hosted by Marty Gear with roughly twenty entrants. My favorite was actually a practical joke on Marty, who presides over these competitions in the guise of a vampire. When he announced competitor No. 8, the tech crew cut in over the PA.

“Marty, where does a vampire stay when he visits New York City?”

“I don’t know,” Marty replied.

“Why at the Vampire State Building of course!” they said and out walked a gentleman dressed in a ten foot high model of the Empire State Building with large bloody fangs. I was amazed to see Marty manage to blush through white pancake makeup.

The Masquerade is also the time for the Reading Is Fundamental charity auction, an annual event for BSFS. The auction allows BSFS to buy books for middle school children at area schools. Many of these children have never owned a book, but BSFS is able to give away two or three per student with the proceeds of this auction. This year was extremely successful. In addition to the normal array of autographed books and other genre-related items, BSFS received a limited-edition Hirschfeld lithograph of the Star Trek: The Next Generation crew donated by Brent Spiner. Bidding was lively and it sold for over $1000.

My son headed back to the gaming rooms and I headed to the room parties. These rooms parties are put on by various groups like the Japanese bid committee for the 2007 Worldcon, and are always wonderful opportunities to meet your fellow fans. I’m happy to report that the Nth Degree room party was the most popular this year, offering various concoctions in glow-in-the-dark cups that were a huge hit. This party was especially fun for me. I have met most of this merry crew at other cons, but was able to spend time with their illustrator, J. Andrew World, for the first time. If you’ve admired the artwork of the magazine, you’ve admired his work. I stayed late. The drinks were enlightening, the company congenial, and a good time was had by all.

In past years, Sunday was when the con would lose steam. Things would wrap up by midafternoon, with the art show closing at 1:00 and the dealers closing shop by 2:00 or 3:00. This year, BSFS made a special effort to extend the programming and other attractions, with great success.

My day started at 10:00 with a Kaffeeklatsch with author Bud Sparhawk followed by another at 11:00 with Keith DeCandido. I grabbed a quick bite and headed to the art show to put in my bids on some jewelry (for my wife and daughter), and one small Chinese watercolor by Moifa that I had to have. I won all my bids and picked up these items after 2:00, then headed over to the voice auction to watch the bidding on the more hotly contested items. I even bid on a few myself and picked up some small items at very reasonable prices.

After an excellent dinner at the Harbor Lights restaurant at the Baltimore Inner Harbor, my son and I attended the First Annual Balticon Sunday Night Film Festival, featuring eight short films by amateur producers. The competition was judged by the audience, and played to a packed house. As you might expect, the films ranged from truly awful to surprisingly good. My favorite was a film on how George Lucas made a deal with the Devil for the success of his Star Wars movies (Fall of a Saga) which won first place. The festival concluded with a special showing of The Return Of The King. I saw this in the theater, but that was nowhere near as enjoyable as watching the movie in a room full of active and vocal fans who were enjoying every nuance as much as I was.

Monday was the final day of the con, and I started it off with a panel on the differences between authors and editors in judging the quality of fiction, moderated by Nth Degree’s own Mike Pederson. The discussion was lively, even if we did have trouble getting into the room initially. My son and I made one more sweep of the Dealer’s Room, and were shocked to see most of the dealers still present and happy to dicker over prices on this last day. We then hit the Art Room for a special showing of genre related artwork on display from a local collector.

As you can see, there was hardly a slow moment for me throughout the entire weekend. I credit this to BSFS working hard to ensure the added day of the convention was worth while. Understand, the above description glosses over several completely separate tracks of activities that were running throughout the weekend, like Regency dancing, art-related panels, panels for costumers, filk music concerts and a Live Action Role Playing (LARP) competition. In addition, BSFS provided a separate track of children’s programming for the young fans. Needless to say, there was more going on here than any half-dozen people could have followed. I left with regret, and look forward to returning next year. See you there!


Con Review: Balticon 37

Balticon37by James R. Stratton


Balticon 37
May 23-26, 2003
Baltimore, Maryland

Balticon is considered a large regional con, like Philcon in Philadelphia or Albacon in New York, with attendance between 1,000 and 2,000 members each year and offers a wide array of activities to satisfy just about any fan. This year the Writer Guests of Honor were Sharon Lee and Steve Miller, the Artist Guests of Honor were Sheila and Omar Rayyan, and the Filk GOH was Steve MacDonald. In addition, there were dozens of SF luminaries including Jon Ashmead, Joseph Bellafatto, Tobias Buckell, Hal Clement, Brenda Clough, Ann Crispin, Keith Decandido, Scott Edelman, Laura Anne Gilman, Eric Kotani, Paul Levinson, Mark Rogers, Tony Ruggiero, George Scithers, Bud Sparhawk, Laura Underwood, and Diane Weinstein. Understand, this is only a partial list.

My son and I arrived at the convention on Friday and checked into the hotel with a minimum of difficulty. For those of you who have not visited the Wyndham Inner Harbor, this is an excellent hotel with extensive facilities just blocks from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. The opportunities for good food, shopping, and entertainment are too extensive for me to discuss here.

My son attends conventions with me so that he can participate in the gaming track and watch lots of anime. Balticon did not disappoint him. The con had set up a networked computer room with about a dozen stations and ran tournaments all weekend. My son spent a great deal of time competing in Unreal Tournament, as well as playing the World War II computer game “1942.” He also spent time in the gaming room set up by Looney Labs, a local gaming company, and purchased several card games. When he tired of that, he visited the anime room, the art room, and the dealer’s room. The anime started at noon on Friday and ran continuously until 3:00 PM Monday, so he (and I) had ample opportunities to visit. The biggest problem I had with my 15-year-old was getting him to eat and sleep.

My interest differs substantially from my son’s. I read and write genre fiction, so my time was spent in the writer’s tracks as much as possible. My first panel on Friday was put on by the publishers of the fine magazine you are presently reading. The panel was entitled “Nth Degree: A Fanzine Meets the Fans” and was hosted by Mike Pederson, publisher and editor; with Cate Twohill and Rob Balder, administrators and contributors. Those of you who write certainly understand how valuable it is to be able to meet the people who publish the magazines you read and submit to. The rest of the evening I sat in on panels relating to various writing topics, such as “How to Make Nonhuman Sentients Really Alien” and “New Trends In Publishing: Print On Demand,”and ran into the Nth Degree crew again at the “Fanzines and SF Fandom” panel. I finished off the night with a presentation of the classic movie, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Saturday, I was up early to attend the writer’s workshop, one of the main reasons I attend these cons. Balticon’s workshop is put on each year by Steve Lubs, with able assistance this year by Diana Weinstein of Weird Tales magazine and author Ann Crispin later in the morning. For those aspiring writers out there, I strongly recommend these convention workshops to you. I am aware of no other venue where you can get direct comments from editors and authors on your writing.

The rest of the day was spent decompressing from the workshop and catching panels on every kind of subject imaginable. They included discussions of the Lord of the Rings movies, literary scams to be aware of, art demonstrations by Joseph Bellafatto and Mark Rogers, and a workshop on balloon sculptures. In addition to these, there was a strong science track with lectures on artificial intelligence, time travel, the Hubbell Space Telescope, and surgery in space. Then it was time for dinner.

My son and I made a quick trip to the Inner Harbor for dinner and hurried back to get in line for the Masquerade. For those not familiar with masquerades, the Balticon Masquerade is one of the premier regional competitions for the costumer’s art, and is one of the high points of the convention for me. There is no way for me to describe either the costumes or the presentations, beyond saying I was thoroughly entertained for hours. I finished off the night by visiting a number of room parties put on by Nth Degree, Charlotte in 2005, Seattle in 2005, L.A. in 2006, Capclave, a Buffy fan group, and several others that just seemed to be there for the heck of it. This was a late night for me.

Sunday was another busy day starting with a workshop on improvisation in writing, run by author David Sherman and others. I was introduced to the Malaysian poetry form known as pantooms, which is poetry written in four lines. You then use the second and fourth line in your poem as the first and third line in a new poem and so on. As this is all done on the fly, you’re forced to achieve some interesting imagery. I then put in my bids at the art auction before it closed and won several Chinese-style paintings on silk. The rest of the afternoon was spent visiting various panels, including “Crazy Science Ideas,” “How to Prevent Identity Theft,” and “The Effect of Recent Changes in Copyright Law.” I finished the evening catching a film festival showcasing a number of movies presented by local producers and hosted by Chainsaw Sally, a local horror show maven.

Monday was the slowest day at the con for me. Most of the artists had left after the art auction concluded on Sunday, and many fans had headed home as well. Still, the organizers worked hard to keep the members interested. The dealers were offering deep discounts on many items on Monday only, and were giving out tickets for each purchase that could be redeemed from the con organizers for prizes. The con also had a premiere presentation of The Animatrix on Monday.

I should mention that I partook in a number of other activities over the weekend… I watched the complete anime series Sabre Marionette J, the anime movie Spirited Away, and the very odd anime series Real About High School. I also caught several movies, including Spiderman and The Witches Of Eastwick. Last, but not least, I taught Steve the bartender how to mix my favorite adult beverage, the blue sky martini. He mixed his first ever on Friday and gained great proficiency with repeated practice over the weekend. In addition, there were many other activities that I did not have time for. There is a separate poetry track, an artist track, a media track, and a costuming track. In short, there was more there than any one person could ever hope to experience in one weekend.

Overall, I can highly recommend Balticon to the writers, readers, artists, and just plain fans out there. You’ll find the experience compares favorably to any of the many other conventions held throughout the year. If you attend next year (May 28-31, 2004—, look for me as you wander about. If you’d like, we can chat as we give Steve another practice round at the blue sky martini. Until then, enjoy!


Con Review: Balticon 36

Balticon36by Catherine E. Twohill


Balticon 36
May 24-27, 2002
Baltimore, Maryland 

Presented by the Baltimore Science Fiction Society, Balticon celebrated its 36th year Memorial Day weekend in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Balticon is truly an “elder statesman” of the East Coast Con scene. When Cons can claim to be older than their average guest, you can bet your last drachma that the list of rules for that Con is longer than the autograph line for Phil Foglio. The rule that seemed to most impact Balticon festivities was the enforcement of “no alcohol on site.” Not that the staff of Nth Degree requires a drink in every hand and a bottle on ice but, well, we enjoy hosting social events and inviting our readers to come by for a “sip or two.” Rather than alcohol, we decided to abuse another compound element—HE2. We held our first Heliympics and, quite honestly, we believe it will be our last. We’re still woozy. That said, Balticon has a loyal and significant following. Other, newer Cons have much to learn from the organizers of Balticon. Sometimes rules help keep a reputation intact. Balticon 37 will be held May 23-26, 2003.