Posted by: wrmcnutt | September 5, 2013

Reflections on Returning to Dragon*Con After a Twenty Year Hiatus


Where to begin?  For those of you who don’t participate in the grand melange that is Geek Culture, Dragon*Con is a gathering about forty or fifty thousand geeky, nerdy, or dorky folk of widely varied and overlapping interest groups.  The ‘Con itself is a for-profit venture in Atlanta Georgia over Labor Day weekend.  The subject matter is wild and widely varied, from “The Bionic Duo – Lee Majors and Lindsay Wagner Reminisce” to “How the US gov’t and the CDC prep for pandemics and other health threats, plus tools to help you minimize these threats and stay informed.”  The VIP guest list this year had everyone from Lucy Lawless (Xena, Warrior Princess) to Ed Asner.  Yes – Ed Asner of ‘Lou Grant’ and ‘Mary Tyler Moore.”  There are film festivals that include marathons of popular works, such as the James Bond marathon, as well as the world premiere of many a tiny short film.  There are late night parties, old friends you haven’t seen in over a decade, a vast and thundering art show by up-and-coming artists in many mediums, and an entire major hotel whose meeting rooms are dedicated entirely to table-top gaming.   And finally, there’s the shopping.

This year what was called in my day “The Huckster’s Room” was moved to two floors of America’s Mart.  If you’re looking for blue jeans, sneakers, or a velvet Elvis painting, you’re probably out of luck.  But there were at least 3 vendors selling light up light sabers, reproduction movie props, and autographs.

My girlfriend and I invested in “Eternal Memberships” about twenty five years ago.  If you got in early enough and, after going to enough Dragon*Con’s to “make a profit” on them, we stopped going, other things took precedence, demanding our time and dollars.  Things like like getting married, graduating from school, starting a career, and the death of my parents.   You know: life.

And so the years rolled by.  A couple of years ago a large number of our very far-flung friends started to attend Dragon*Con and we started talking about flexing those Eternal Memberships and returning to D*C.  Plus – my sister lives near the Marta line, so we could attend for “free,” and had free housing.  All we had to spend was gas money (and eating out).  So on impulse, we decided to go down there.

And the Dragon*Con of my youth cannot be returned to, for it is gone forever.

Oh, it’s not all bad.  But it’s all different.

The single biggest change from back in the day is the crowding.  While the event has four times as much space as it did twenty years ago, it has six, eight, ten times as many people.  On three separate occasions I was literally unable to move in some of the passageways.  We were packed in so tight I couldn’t advance or retreat, and we were body-to-body.  I’m here to tell you, if you have claustrophobia or agoraphobia, Dragon*Con is not the ‘Con for you.  I don’t have either of those problems, but they crossed my mind.  And then I saw the lady in the scooter.  As bad as it was for those of us on our feet, the people in wheelchairs and scooters had all of that going on, and their faces (with noses) were at crotch/butt height. Ouch.  I quit feeling sorry for myself.

And since we’re on the subject, I wish to report that most of the time the legendary “Con Funk” was not very noticeable most of the time.  For the newcomer, there was a time where Science Fiction/Fantasy conventions had a reputation for conventioneers whose hygiene was . . . less than optimal.  Mind you, some folks still got a little whiffy. I still think that Cons should seek out both soap and deoderant companies and sponsors and give away product samples.  But I don’t think that it was nearly as bad as it was back in the day.  As a whole, the entire Con smelled . . . better.

Which brings me to the women. The proportion of women to men is vastly different than it was twenty years ago.  If you were to tell me that as many as 46% of the attendees of Dragon*Con 2013 were women I would not be in the least surprised.

As I mentioned above, Dragon*Con is bigger. It’s now spread to five major convention hotels downtown.  I’ve yet to see any official numbers, but the final headcount floating around Facebook is around sixty five thousand people. The various panel discussions started at eight o’clock in the morning and ran until after ten o’clock at  night.  There were more than a hundred talented artists in an art show so large and complex it rated it’s own five pages of panels.  Painters, sculptors, leather workers . . . the field was huge.  Of course, today the art show rigorously enforces copyright, so fan art is right out.  Back in the day, my bride bought most of her Xena art at the Dragon*Con art show.  Not so much any more.

The prices have gone up.  That’s no big surprise. A full membership to Dragon*Con cost $130 this year.  I think I may have paid as much as $45.00 for my first Dragon*Con membership.  The Eternal Memberships mentioned above could be had for $350.00 twenty years ago when we bought them. Today they cost $2000.00.  Hotel rates have gone up by about five hundred percent, while the cost of food has only tripled.

Lines.  The amount of time you spend waiting in line has gone up, up, up.  If you want to see a popular panelist, such as Lucy Lawless or Jame and Adam from Myth Busters, you will wait at least an hour and a half for a 55 minute presentation.  If you aren’t willing to do so, you won’t get to see them.  The line rules are also entertaining.  You’re not allowed to start lining up for a panel until a hour beforehand.  We did it anyway.  We called them the pre-line lines.  Dragon*Con staff spent a great deal of time and energy trying to shoo us away and get us to disperse if we showed up more than an hour ahead of time.  It was like trying to empty the ocean with a sieve.  We just came right back as soon as they turned their backs.  When I went to see Jim Butcher of Dresden Files fame, the line stretched out of the room, down the hall, along the catwalk, up the stairs, down the other hall, up more stairs, down one more corridor, and then into a room where there was a final queue.  Those of us waiting were stretched across five floors of the hotel.

I think the thing that I miss the most, though, is the access to guests.  One of my fondest memories of attending Cons was running into James Doohan (Scotty from Star Trek) and getting five minutes with him, one-to-one and being able to chat.  In that five minutes I got told to call him “Jimmy,” I was able to move past the “Scotty” persona and come to appreciate him as an professional and a human being.  That was when I learned he’d lost a finger while leading troops on Juno Beach during the invasion of Normandy during Operation Overlord in World War II.  I once met Virgina Heinlein in a meeting room when she came to read some of Robert’s work.  She was a wonderful lady.  I got to shake Margaret Weis’ hand and she gave me her contact information and offered to read one of my novel efforts.  (That came to nothing – I never finished it.)  Personal contacts like that are simply not possible at Dragon*Con today.  The convention venues are vast piles of re-bar and concrete that are riddled with hidden back corridors and staff-only elevators so that the staff can cater meetings without having to drag food and equipment through the guest areas, and it is through these accesses that the VIP’s move so that we don’t mob them.  And I can’t really say that it’s wrong.  If Jimmy were still alive today and only one-tenth of the population of Dragon*Con stopped him in the halls, that would be sixty-five hundred people.  If he spent just five minutes talking with each of them, he’d be standing there for five-hundred forty one hours, or twenty two days.  It’s just not possible.  But it still makes me sad.

I’m glad I went.  It was great to see old friends and make new ones.  All in all, I had a good time, and I’m looking forward to next year.  But I also have to admit – I missed the old days, too.

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