Someone please tell Ben Bova that ascots aren't the neckwear of choice for style-conscious males this fall.
Actually, scratch that. A former Harvard University instructor, network television analyst and popular fantasy novelist, the silver-haired, ascot-sporting Bova is the designated toastmaster at a Friday-night banquet featuring honored guest George "Mr. Sulu" Takei of Star Trek fame and some really mediocre dinner theater. And at a dinner-theater performance, especially a dinner-theater performance wedged amid a three-and-a-half-day science-fiction convention, the fashion police are, understandably, off duty.
Way off duty.
To the point where a callow, painfully self-conscious dork with a Frankenstein hairdo and thick eyeglasses can sit in the same room and freely ogle the beautiful blue balls atop Empress Inebria's head.
And so this cat -- let's call him "Mark" -- contemplates doing something he normally doesn't do: talk to a woman. Never mind that Inebria's boyfriend, Admiral Delirium Tremens, is seated directly to her right, his bulbous antennae just as prominent as those of his steady mount. A simple exchange of pleasantries will give Mark all the human contact he requires in order to tough out the 365 days before he can return to a white-clothed table in a corner of Collinsville's cavernous Gateway Convention Center and recharge anew his one-man blue ball admiration society.
"I really like the balls on top of your head," Mark finally blurts.
"That's enough, pal," shoots back the shrill, domineering Empress.
The come-on having tanked, Mark's gaze reflexively shoots toward the floor. Taking a sip from an almost-empty glass, he mutters something about how he used to play professional soccer for the St. Louis Steamers (hard to believe) and narrowly missed making the National Hockey League's Blues (bullshit).
Well, maybe he'll get lucky at the after-party. This is Archon, after all, the most decadent little science-fiction convention in the Midwest.
"More geeky nerd types have gotten laid at Archon than ever would in the outside world," Empress Inebria says of the annual confab, which transpired at the Gateway Convention Center and adjacent Holiday Inn this past September 30 though October 3. "It's Fear and Loathing in Collinsville."
"If you can't get laid at a science-fiction convention, you can't get laid," seconds Victor Milan, an Albuquerque-based science-fiction author and the regular master of ceremonies for Archon's annual masquerade competition. "It's a refuge for the shy to meet other socially inept people."
Inebria was first dragged to Archon at the age of eighteen by a group of gay friends, whom she refers to as her "fairy godfathers." A chef at a ritzy Clayton retirement home in the "mundane world" -- geekspeak for everyday life -- she is by her own assessment a stout, witty, not spectacularly attractive woman in her early thirties. At Archon she "walks the line between cool and geek."
Where that line blurs -- literally and figuratively -- is after 10 p.m. at the Holiday Inn during each of the convention's three nights, when the hotel's entire first floor becomes a writhing bacchanal of unscrupulous consumption on par with the biggest Greek-system costume-themed bash ever.
"I go because I was told it was a four-day party," Inebria's blue-suited sidekick, Duchess Libatia, explains. "You can run around in a costume and act like a fool and nobody minds. At work I have to be respectable."
Rounding out the quartet is Intoxicatia, the Duchess of Vodka. Together they form the "Drink-Ons," an alcohol-themed antidote to Star Trek's Klingons. Each Drink-On is clad in a blue spacesuit, silver gloves, boots and shoulder straps, with blue spaceballs extending from the top of their heads. Inebria sports a blue wig, Libatia a green wig and Intoxicatia a purple one; only the six-foot-four-inch Admiral Tremens goes au naturel. Instead of guns and bullets, the Drink-Ons' bandoliers are holstered with hard packs of Camels and lined with test tube-like clear plastic containers of premixed vodka concoctions called zipperheads that taste like cough syrup. Affixed to the Drink-Ons' backs are neither rocket packs nor munitions, but rather plastic bladders filled with coconut rum and Pepsi, inhaled through suckle-tipped cords. Their bloodstream, you see, is not awash in plasma: The Drink-Ons subsist on liquor and liquor alone. To take away their coconut rum is to stop their hearts cold.
The Drink-Ons are greeted by camera flashes from their fellow revelers as they enter the ground floor's vast, crowded hallways. Room after room is packed with masked marauders, most of whom would be branded "insufferable dorks" in the mundane world. But this is their playground, and they've got less than 48 hours to roll around in the safety of its sandbox before the confab shuts down, returning the vast majority of Archon's 2,500 party mutants to geek status.
Still, fandom -- the broad-brush term used to describe science-fiction enthusiasts and their multitiered subculture of brethren, from gamers to furries to filkers (think Weird Al Yankovic spouting Lord of the Rings and Buffy-related lyrics set to Eminem and Spice Girls melodies), medieval masqueraders and role players -- commands at least a smidge more respect than it did back in the day.
"In the '70s and '80s, talking about science fiction immediately got you labeled a geek," says Steve Swope, a costuming enthusiast who appears alternately as Peter Pan and Captain Spandex, the latter a kaleidoscope-caped take on the Green Hornet. "Now it takes five minutes."
Some of the grudging acceptance can be chalked up to the original Star Wars trilogy, which introduced the world to cinema's coolest hero dork, Luke Skywalker. But save for a canny Boba Fett replica and a yummy little vixen dressed as Slave Leia from Return of the Jedi, Star Wars characters are in noticeably small supply in this 28th iteration of Archon. Ditto the cast of Star Trek, stereotypical fandom's Great White Way. Most conventioneers are dressed up as avengers, scoundrels and nymphs drawn from their own imaginations, with unique superpowers, quirks and fallacies.
"If you weigh 400 pounds and want to dress as a flag officer from a nonexistent future military organization, by all means you can," says Milan. "People will generally accept you on your own terms."
"Any particular cliché is in the minority," adds Swope, a computer programmer by day.
This doesn't quite explain the mahogany-skinned man in the courtyard sporting a velvet cape and nursing a tall can of malt liquor. The ultra-smooth party animal is none other than Lando Calrissian, underappreciated Star Wars alum and captain of the S.S. Happy Hour, the Drink-Ons' mythical celestial cruise ship.
It is a supporting role Calrissian accepts reluctantly -- but one he may ultimately come to embrace.
Actual quotes culled from workshop participants, panelists, gamers, flyers, merchandise and role players during daytime programming at Archon 28:
"When a baby is born, it's nothing but an eating and shitting monster."
"I love my cat dearly and she loves me, but I don't count her as my totem animal. It doesn't mean I love her any less."
"Nobody cares how big your ass is when they're looking elsewhere."
"Did women wear drawers? Pretty darn likely. Did men wear corsets? Pretty darn likely."
"In my book vampires are the oppressed class. They do the jobs that are too unpleasant for real humans to do, such as menial labor and sex trades."
"Get your geek on, my precious."
"Did anybody see I, Robot and notice that you had a black man treating robots like black men? It was brilliant."
"Vivo tiel vi. Vi falas, vi grimpas, vi rompas, kaj vi ricev -- as tion."
"Some women used to put on their bathrobes and stay home all day. Sounds good to me!"
"You all saw Mars Attacks! Tom Jones is God."
"Hands...in new places...use them wisely. They can successfully fondle lots of parts, such as a cheek, the neck, a shoulder, the waist. Move them occasionally."
"Everything I ever needed to know I learned from gaming."
"Hi! We're here to talk about underwear!"
"Thank you, but I'm also twice your age."
"It's hard to be prejudiced against other nationalities when you're talking to a Klingon."
"Split up! We can obviously do more damage that way."
"One time, when I was driving to my sister's house in Wichita, I completed an entire children's book in my head."
Archon drew a crowd of 253 to its inaugural convention in 1977, held at Stouffer's Riverfront Towers (now the Millennium) in downtown St. Louis. At the time daylight programming (this year centered on workshops with titles like "How to Host Your Own LAN Party," "Knickers and Knockers: An Overview of Underwear" and "Hey Sexy Momma! How 'Bout You and Me Kill All the Humans!") was the confab's central essence.
But before there was Archon, there was the infamous 1969 WorldCon at the Chase Park Plaza Hotel. (The Olympic Games of science-fiction fandom, WorldCon still draws an annual crowd of 6,500 multi-genre enthusiasts from around the world to cities -- which engage in a competitive bid process, just like the Games -- as varied as Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Toronto, Melbourne, Glasgow and Yokohama. "Comparing local and regional conventions to WorldCon is like comparing a school newspaper to the New York Times," says Archon organizer Michelle Zellich.) Owing largely to the tumultuous political terrain of the late '60s, the St. Louis WorldCon proved to be a raucous event that saw thousands of counterculture types overwhelm the posh Central West End hostelry and its facilities.
"There was very little alcohol and huge quantities of pot and acid," recounts Brock "Dev" Hanke, a medieval enthusiast (and former Riverfront Times contributor) in his fifties who attended the '69 debacle and recalls thousands of participants camping out in Forest Park rather than booking rooms. "The poor wedding parties at the Chase were trapped in their ballrooms. They had no idea what was happening."
Chase brass promptly swore to never again allow St. Louis' sci-fi community to use its facilities. But thanks in no small part to an appearance by Stephen King, the hotel played host to Archon 6 in 1982, attracting a record 1,750 participants. After a subsequent decade-long stint at the now-defunct Henry VIII near Lambert Airport, the burgeoning local convention hit its stride on the east side in Collinsville, where Fahrenheit 451 author Ray Bradbury's presence in 1996 pushed attendance over the 2,000 threshold for the first time ever, at Archon's twentieth-anniversary assembly.
"The early Archons were more hard-core," says Hanke. "The number of sci-fi fans has probably doubled since then, but the attendance has multiplied tenfold."
"The year we moved to Collinsville," Swope adds, "I heard that the week the convention typically happened at the Henry VIII a group of frat boys showed up and said, 'Hey, where's the free beer?'"
With good reason: For the flat registration fee of $45, Archon registrants over 21 are entitled to all-you-can-drink kegs of Busch in the horse brutality (translation: "hospitality") suite all weekend long.
"It's a three-day drunk," says Jim Garrison, a Breckenridge Hills traffic cop and longtime Dungeons & Dragons devotee. "It's hedonism."
If Texas Hold 'Em is hip again, it's only a matter of time before sabacc makes its comeback. The Babe Ruth of this intergalactic 72-card spin on poker is none other than Lando Calrissian, whose hall-of-fame sabacc-playing career in a galaxy far, far away was blemished only when he foolishly wagered the Millennium Falcon on a single hand. His opponent turned over a full house -- and Calrissian reluctantly turned over the spaceship's title to a triumphant Han Solo.
These days Calrissian draws a skimpy following among Star Wars faithful. (Even the vile bounty hunter Boba Fett has his own fan club.) Okay, so Lando sold Solo down a cryogenically frozen river shortly after making his debut in The Empire Strikes Back. But consider that homeboy was boxed: The Empire showed up on his doorstep in Cloud City and said, in essence, "Give up the Allies or it's your ass and the hindquarters of your legion of followers."
To atone, Lando hopped in his long-lost Falcon's cockpit and staged a jailbreak of Leia, the 'droids, Chewbacca and a one-handed Skywalker, who'd been left for dead at the hands of his turncoat, heavy-breathing Jedi father. And in the climactic Part Three, Calrissian utterly redeemed himself by masterminding the daring rescue of Solo from Jabba the Hutt's clutches.
Might Lando's obscurity be attributed to the fact that he's black? Fandom, while far more diverse and dynamic than it's typically given credit for, remains largely a subculture of out-of-shape, socially awkward white males (at least in America). Actually, in light of this, the collective cold shoulder is probably more attitudinal than racial. Lando is anything but out-of-shape and socially awkward: He can pull any of the females these nerds aspire to simply by snapping his well-manicured fingers and asking the sought-after minx if she's heard about his little maneuver at the Battle of Tanaab.
And indeed, says Swope, for a subculture accustomed to being everyone's punch line, the fandom wastes no time establishing its own pecking order, one not dissimilar from that commonly employed in the mundane universe: "One of the dirty little secrets of fandom is that everybody looks down on people who joined five minutes after they did."
The snobbery isn't in-your-face, though -- unless you're talking about gamer discrimination.
"The only open hostility is between gamers and everyone else," says Hanke. "It's like high school on alcohol."
Listed in the Archon program of events under the heading "Gaming Continues," this flock of card-playing addicts deals its first deck in a pair of first-floor ballrooms at the convention's opening buzzer Thursday evening and doesn't stop till the Holiday Inn janitors threaten to turn off the lights and lock them in on Sunday afternoon. A fair number of these Magic- and Dungeons & Dragons-obsessed combatants don't sleep, shower or take a moment of time to mingle with the rest of the Archonite subcultures -- which tends to piss off the nongamers.
"It's pointless to pay [the registration fee of] $45 to play a game you can play at home -- with the same people," scoffs veteran Archon attendee Stacy Key.
Vampire author and Archon panelist Elizabeth Donald, who's also a Belleville News-Democrat reporter, agrees that prejudices exist in the fandom subculture, specifically ones directed at traditionally closed-minded institutions in the ordinary world. In fact, on the second day of programming in Collinsville, her workshop deals with that very subject.
"If you were to walk around the halls of this convention with a Christian T-shirt on," Donald says to the crowd of about twenty who've gathered in a small conference room in the Gateway Convention Center, "how many funky looks would you get?"
As many as an overweight schlub wearing a black Lord of the Rings T-shirt and carrying a 128-ounce plastic QuikTrip coffee jug would get from a gaggle of blonde Pi Phi's at a Beta Theta Tau mixer, no doubt. Still, as subcultures go, Archon tends to be about as big-tent as they come: Evidence Inebria's witnessing a gay Klingon civil commitment ceremony, conducted on convention grounds in full Star Trek regalia, a few years back.
"It's where all alternative social groups come to meet," Hanke says of Archon. "Every culture that isn't mainstream is there."
"Thranks have a sense called faz, where they sense air currents," lead panelist Elizabeth Barrette notes, referring to a creation of novelist Allen Dean Foster during a Saturday-afternoon workshop entitled "Real Aliens, Real Abilities," held in the convention center's austere Illini-A conference room. "Of course, they don't develop color vision until after metamorphosis."
Of course they don't.
The seminar's intended purpose is to provide a road map for depicting, in literature and art, extraterrestrial creatures that have attributes grounded in scientific reality. But something more profound is going on here.
Three chunky guys back a trio of chairs up against the rear wall; apparently the back row is too near the front of the room for them to comfortably crawl into their self-conscious shells. For another guy in his forties sporting salt-and-pepper stubble and a blue-and-white-checkered flannel, simply sitting amid the general population is too intense, as he gets up from his seat and crumples into a human ball on the floor behind a pillar in the corner.
Meanwhile, leaning against a wall in a posture of rapt attention is a pizza-faced gentleman wearing a black T-shirt that spoofs MasterCard's "Priceless" ad series: "Enough imagination to play RPG's: priceless."
"RPG's" is shorthand for role-playing games, where pseudo-method actors adopt "fannish personas" and act out a "live action game" based on a pre-set "scenario." If you think this sounds a lot like a pack of five-year-olds engaging in a game of backyard make-believe, that's because it's essentially what "LARPing" is -- only these kids are mostly middle-aged men who've been beaten into social submission by the evil forces of the mundane world.
"My upbringing wasn't as pleasant as I would have wished, which is true for a lot of people in sci-fi," novelist Milan says. "I think the attraction is for those who need a shelter from threatening reality: fantasy as refuge."
But some cases are beyond explanation, such as that of the old fellow in the crumpled blue dress shirt and suspenders back in the "Real Aliens" workshop.
"Large bugs!" he shouts, for no apparent reason.
The room falls silent.
Other Friday- and Saturday-afternoon workshops make it clear that Archon attracts large-bug moments like flypaper.
Take, for instance, "Firearms v. Energy Weapons," a quasi-debate between Ben Bova and a fellow novelist, Joe Martino.
"I find it hard to believe that anyone would choose a firearm over an energy weapon," begins Bova, sans ascot.
"As a target shooter, I am well aware of the problems with firearms," Martino counters. "Energy weapons seem to bypass that, but the problem with energy weapons is they don't exist."
Oh, but they do, Bova assures the assembled crowd of mostly disheveled gun and warfare nuts.
"In February '66, I arranged a meeting of the Pentagon to give them a briefing on optics lasers," Bova continues. "To me, the first and most important use of laser weapons would be against ballistic missiles."
Right, agrees Martino, but "the energy density of a battery comes nowhere near the energy density of gunpowder."
This conversation would strike most people as wonky, over-technical and dry. But nothing could be more stimulating for the Jack Black doppelganger seated in the second row, who enthusiastically -- really enthusiastically -- asks Bova if he's heard of a developing law-enforcement laser capable of coiling to a getaway vehicle's undercarriage and shorting out the car's electrical system.
Bova nods vacantly. Clearly he hasn't got a clue what J.B. is talking about.
A Goth in the back catches the author's drift.
"Forgive me," intones the Goth. "But isn't that a little Batman-ish?"
Well, yeah. But are such fantastical speculations any less dorky than, say, hard-core baseball fans discussing the merits of the latest in sabermetrics? To the uninitiated, a couple of geeks clad in capes discussing the historical accuracy of a lawn joust just completed are probably no stranger-sounding than two dudes debating whether Cardinal head case Matt Morris should start at home or on the road in the postseason. It's all foreign and pointless to most, which explains why baseball stat junkies and sci-fi fanatics seek venues where their level of knowledge is appreciated and nurtured.
On Saturday night Lando Calrissian enters the Gateway Convention Center in a mesh Colt 45 trucker hat, powder-blue shirt, brown polyester pants, East German marching boots and a black velvet cape with gold clasps. He is escorted by a newly acquired piece of arm candy, Princess Enfuego of Oaxaca, a visually alluring medieval facsimile of Emmylou Harris clad in a purple gown and head wreath.
Before they can get in line, the pair are stopped by an agitated young man who insists upon taking their picture. They oblige, only to find the shutterbug abandoning post-photo diplomacy in favor of chasing down Slave Leia for his next shot.
Calrissian and Enfuego join the Drink-Ons, who are seated toward the back of the main banquet room, home to tonight's climactic masquerade competition.
All heads swivel at the sound of an upright warrior's scream. "Hey everybody, Con virgin!" the man shouts, pointing at a young lady seated next to him.
"Let's sacrifice the virgin!" another warrior yells.
That ought to win her over, guys.
Milan opens the masquerade with a swift, humorously mean-spirited monologue, verbally flogging a late-arriving angel.
"I see someone with a halo entering," he chides. "You must be in the wrong place."
The room erupts in laughter. The lights dim. Caitlin and Molly Cook, two sisters of primary- and middle-school age, glide across the stage in cute little medieval gear.
"It is glorious to be here!" they say in unison.
Plenty charming, to be sure -- at least at first. A somewhat perplexed Calrissian has reservations about this kind of culture being foisted upon youngsters at an early age. Shouldn't parents at least give a kid a chance at acceptance in the mundane world, rather than slot her in as the odds-on favorites in the Kentucky Derby of nerdhood? Then again, Lando has never sired an offspring (at least not that he knows of). True to form, he turns his attention back to his brown-eyed girl.
The highlight of the masquerade -- a juried competition split into multiple categories based on the era and/or genre of costume -- proves to be a pair of Transformer-like robots, Imperial Fist and Thousandson, with the sultry obliqueness of "1450s Italian Woman" running a close personal second for Calrissian.
With competition closed, Lando and Enfuego join the herd heading back to the Holiday Inn for a final night of indentured benditude, taking only a brief side trip to the Drink-Ons' command post for a pre-function libation. Not surprisingly, the Drink-Ons prove the most popular partygoers in the horse brutality suite, where the booze bladders and Busch are flowing far more freely than ever.
"You have to induct my girlfriend," a man in chain mail says to Intoxicatia, who obliges by pouring a zipperhead down the damsel's throat.
Just then a thunderous chorus breaks out from the barroom, where a throng of Vikings has assembled, intent upon raising goblets of mead and ringing in what for them might as well be the Apocalypse.
I've had many lovers, my morals are loose
But I've never had anything quite like the moose!
The hour is late. Tremens prepares to live up to his name; Inebria wobbles a rummy wobble. In fact, many superfans are exhibiting a tendency to grab a piece of wall and hold on for dear life. "This is it," they must be thinking, "We're never letting go!"
A well-lubed Lando can hardly blame them: Their circumstances are their circumstances, his are his. As Saturday turns to Sunday, he escorts his medieval princess to the Holiday Inn's glass double doors, gliding, not walking, into the chilly ether of a starry Southern Illinois sky.
When they will return to earth is anyone's guess.