My Saturday evening officially started when a woman in a SeaTac hotel bar intentionally lit her friend's Afro on fire. Everyone at the table thought it was hilarious, laughing wildly as the man patted the fire out and a scowling waitress came over and sprayed Febreze to cover up the perm smell. It was an appropriate harbinger for the wild parties to come later in the night, including a penthouse celebration attended by an inflatable alien sex doll; a wet T-shirt contest; a slave auction afterparty with densely alcoholic punch and people fucking in the bathroom while, in the doorway, bare-assed men in S&M outfits flirted with women in vinyl nurse costumes. It was my first science-fiction convention, and thanks to a not-entirely-abstinent designated driver, I barely made it home alive.
Nearly 4,000 people attended the four-day-long, 31st annual Norwescon over Easter weekend. Their costumes and many of the convention's panels were devoted to television shows and movies, but the level of literary discourse was high: there were seminars that lovingly discussed the work of H.P. Lovecraft or the history of Beowulf (the poem, not the movie).
Other panels were devoted to more esoteric literary pursuits, like fanfic, wherein fans write the further (very often erotic) adventures of characters from beloved sci-fi properties like Star Trek, Kim Possible, and Back to the Future and post them online for others to read. Many of the writers were teenage girls; one of them announced at the beginning of the panel that if it weren't for her Harry Potter fanfic habit, "I probably would've already hurt somebody in my school or killed myself."
The centerpiece of the convention, as always, was the Philip K. Dick Award ceremony. The prize, dedicated to recognizing outstanding paperback originals within the genre, frequently recognizes truly great books; in last week's Stranger, I said that they were "possibly the only book awards in the world that actually do exactly what they're supposed to do." Sadly, this year's ceremony was a letdown: The book that should have won—Jon Armstrong's debut thriller, Grey, which had been shortlisted—didn't. It didn't even make second place. Instead, the second-place winner was the mundane and nearly unreadable superhero satire From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain, by someone who writes under the name Minister Faust, and the top prize went to M. John Harrison's Nova Swing. This can only be justified as a late award for his much better previous novel, Light.
But whatever. You know that moment when you're really getting into a conversation about books and the other person's face lights up? That look that says, "This person has shared my solitary experience, and so I am less alone"? Norwescon is lit with those sorts of faces, of people normally dedicated to lonely pursuits suddenly not feeling alone. At a panel called "LGBT in Fandom," many attendees said that they were more open about their sexuality at conventions than in their real lives, because they felt like they could do anything—from the cross-dressing man to the woman who wanted to hold hands with her female lover and not fear repercussions—in an environment so accepting and safe.
This accepting, ecstatic environment creates a lot of sexual activity, of course. A panel about fandom hookups explained both the basics ("You really must bathe and use deodorant," one female panelist announced, "because if you don't take care of your body, nobody else is going to let you take care of theirs") and the more advanced ("Your hotel room's curtain rods and sprinkler heads are not strong enough to withstand bondage," she said later, adding, "Hotel beds can flip over pretty easily"). Throughout the weekend, furries proudly declared their proclivities, and it was not unusual to see a Stormtrooper heavily making out with a pirate queen in the hotel lobby in the later hours.
There's more to it than sex, of course: On Easter Sunday, after most of the hungover revelers had left for home, some older convention-goers gathered in a small room lit by electric candles to hold a memorial service. They told stories about fellow fans who had passed in the last year, and they also remembered authors who had died: Arthur C. Clarke, of course, but George MacDonald Fraser, too, and Robert Anton Wilson. The mourners teared up and laughed, talking about the departed authors and their friends with equal affection. Near the end, the moderator cleared his throat and said, "I guess we'll see them again one day at the big sci-fi convention in the sky."