The North American Science Fiction Convention, or ReConStruction, invaded the Raleigh Convention Center last week. On Saturday, in a cavernous bunker housing tables of books and T-shirts, I overheard inscrutable comments: "Yes, I do have a pair of silk gloves in my genealogy kit, and yes, I do wear them when I handle 17th-century documents." A little girl wearing a balloon suit danced around the showroom floor with an even smaller girl, on a red leash. I could tell I would learn many things. Here are just a few.
I sat down with chairman Warren Buff—that's right, Warren Buff—to sort out the convention's organizational history, which seemed hopelessly esoteric. ReConStruction was the 10th NASFiC, which isn't annual—the first was in 1975. It occurs in years when Worldcon, the 70-year-old granddaddy of sci-fi cons, is hosted abroad. (This year's installment will be held next month in Melbourne.)
Sci-fi conventions have thrived since teenage fans found each other via the letters columns of Depression-era pulps like Amazing Stories, but never developed an official governing body. Basically, if you want to host one, you say so. Then people shower you with money. "I opened my big fat mouth to some people at DeepSouthCon in 2007," recalled Buff, a fresh-faced 27-year-old insurance industry worker, "and asked what they thought about the next NASFiC being in the South." Suddenly, he was accepting donations and figuring out how to incorporate in North Carolina.
In an auditorium, someone named Tom Erlich sang a chesty a cappella ballad to seven people. I made some tentative inquiries around the hall. Were people saying "filk?" I stood outside the double doors, gently swaying in bafflement. A ponytailed man suddenly materialized. "I hear you've been asking about filk," he said with an air of intrigue.
Chicago's James Filkerson—scratch that, Fulkerson—is a casual filker with a handy definition: "Imagine if Bob Dylan and Weird Al Yankovic worked for NASA, read Tolkien and still wrote music." The term was coined in the late '50s or early '60s because of a typo in a sci-fi convention program. Organized filking really got started a decade later, sprouting its own conventions, record labels and stars. Filk songs can be interpretations of novels or screwball gags. Fulkerson's efforts trend funny. "I made Neil Sedaka's 'Happy Birthday Sweet Sixteen' into a song about someone coming to bed very late after partying at a convention," he explained, with hilarity bubbling in his voice. "Go to bed, it's 6:15!"
There were panel discussions like "Health in Fandom" (watch Doctor Who ... on the treadmill!) and "Crossing Genres." In the latter, author Cheryl Hoyt said memorably of her work, "I got started by molesting Shakespeare." The old pulps balkanized sci-fi by microgenre, but now space opera, horror, sword-and-sorcery and Westerns all mingle freely. This might be the sole way in which sci-fi is just like everything else.
Signs of post-Internet genre laxity were everywhere. I saw a poster for Clan of the Cats, "the story of a girl thrust into the hidden world of magick, vampires, werewolves and sarcastic cats." The convention's guest of honor, Eric Flint, blends sci-fi and alternate history in his best-selling 1632 series. Throughout the "Crossing Genres" panel, a child in a harlequin costume tapped an iPhone held inches from her domino mask. Here was a modern creature entirely at home in the crosscurrents of categories.
"It's the opposite of cyberpunk," explained ReConStruction publicity director Chris Barkley. "Alternate technologies based on steam or mechanical clockwork." Inspired by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, it's been around since the '80s but is enjoying a modern vogue. "It's also an excuse to dress up really spiffy," added Buff, alluding to the genre's distinctive couture: a Gothic sense of Victorian style with mechanical gizmos.
Case in point: Longtime friends Craig Cummings of Zebulon and Charles Schafer of Louisburg wore these incredible homemade steampunk costumes. Laden with gears, gauges and chains, they appeared to be on the best safari ever. Cummings' mad-aviator outfit included brass-and-leather goggles with a double-loupe assembly. Schafer wore an archaic sextant on his hip and spoke ebulliently about steampunk's celebration of Victorian artisanship and adventure. "Phineas Fogg!" he riffed. "I'm going to cross the world in 40 days, instead of 40 hours like we do now. OK, quick, put the balloon down; I've got to ride a yak across the Himalayas!"
These guys really knew their stuff. How long had they been on the scene? "Since May."