Arisia 2011: Bigger, better, and building up to Boskone


This past weekend, Arisia returned for its 22nd annual year. It's a sci-fi and fantasy convention that happens in Boston every year, and ... yes, this sounds familiar, doesn't it? Sounds a lot like Boskone, the sci-fi and fantasy convention that is slated to take place in the exact same location -- the Westin Boston Waterfront -- on February 18-20.

Don't worry. These two cons aren't in direct competition -- well, not exactly. Possibly inaccurate con legend ahead: Boskone and Arisia used to be the same con, but they got too big, too rowdy, and above all, too sexy for the hotel they normally booked for the event. So, Boskone became the con for stiff, serious sci-fi and fantasy fans, and Arisia was for the fans who wanted to strut about in corsets and garter belts ... while still having serious conversations about sci-fi and fantasy, mind you -- okay, and also sex. Many fans attend both cons, both cons' names are references to the Lensman novels by E. E. Smith, and now they've both grown so big that they actually take place in the same hotel just a few weeks* apart -- and not even the same hotel that kicked them out the first time around, mind you, but a much bigger one. One wonders why these two cons don't just combine forces and take over the entire convention center, but perhaps their history has more nuance than we know ... or more likely it would just be too much of a sensory overload.

After all, Arisia is a sensory overload as it is. All good cons are, of course, but Arisia overwhelms your hormones as much as your wits, since half the panels are about the best ways to bang. The con took place over MLK weekend this year, which made it into a four-day fest of freaky fun, and the new location at the Westin meant more room for more events and less claustrophobia. All in all, a great success.

I wasn't looking for love at Arisia, but the friends of mine who were on the prowl had no trouble, uh, making ends meet. Different events cater to each of the age groups looking to meet fellow geeks; the 8-bit and demoscene dance nights are best for the college set, the Barfleet parties are a better fit for the older Trekkies, and the constant shadow-casts and film screenings make for a great con "date" once you find someone to ask. If all else fails, there's always the annual renowned "Flirt Like A Pro!" panel, where you need only look around the packed room to find fellow flirters.

Last year, I felt so overwhlemed by the con's unabashed focus on sexiness that I almost felt like Arisia wasn't "for" me. It's still true that much of the con caters to the polyamourus circuit and BDSM practitioners in particular, but this thing has gotten huge enough that even the most conservative sci-fi geeks would find panels they'd enjoy (although, walking through hallways full of sheer shirts and nipple tape might be too much for a truly conservative geek).

Arisia had 640 events over the course of the weekend, which included panels, plays, shadow-casts, screenings, and miscellaneous meetings -- and that's not including all of the informal meet-ups at the hotel and surrounding areas. Needless to say, some events are better than others. Here are the highlights:

Friday night, I attended Dr. Who: The Starship of Madness, a live radio play by the Post-Meridian Radio Players about H.P. Lovecraft meeting Dr. Who. The rest of the characters were original -- as far as I know -- and the whole thing was hilarious. I'm a pretty casual Dr. Who fan, but I still got all of the jokes, and the Lovecraft interludes were a nice touch.

On Saturday, I went to Take Back the Sci-Fi, in which Genevieve Iseult Eldredge, Catt Kingsgrave-Ernstein, Ken Kingsgrave-Ernstein, and Trisha Wooldridge talked about science fiction's employment of rape as a plot device. Shira Lipkin moderated, taking careful note at the outset to explain that this wasn't a panel meant to discuss survivors' personal experiences, as last year's panel apparently went left field into triggering territory. This year's panel took a step back and talked about various books and television shows with a more clinical eye, which was appreciated given the violent subject matter. Two of the panelists were certified to work at rape crisis centers, and all of the panelists were writers and/or readers of science fiction themselves, so they all had examples of both "right" and "wrong" depictions. Arisia has many panels advising would-be writers and creators how best to structure their stories, and having a panel about the notorious overuse of this particular plot point made sense and was skillfully and carefully handled by the panelists.

Saturday night, I checked out the 12-minute Game of Thrones preview. I've written about this upcoming HBO fantasy drama before, multiple times. In my most recent post, I fretted that the new trailers were focusing too much on action and not enough on dialogue. I've read the series by George R. R. Martin on which the show will be based, so I already know how I want this show to look and feel. Although I'm trying to lower them, my expectations are damn high. I ended up enjoying the preview very much, and I felt more confident about the show's progress afterward. The twelve minutes included more interviews with the actors about how they saw their characters, as well as more dialogue, and some really neat new shots of costumes and sets. This preview was clearly meant for the detail-obsessed fans like me, whereas the action-packed trailers are meant to interest the unfamiliar.

Saturday night was the Masquerade, which was all well and good, but I think I've been spoiled by the big to-dos at Anime cons. Arisia focuses more on costuming and walk-ons than on sketches and dance skits, which some people prefer, but I would've liked to see some more comedy bits in there. Maybe I'll have to enter one myself someday, and start a trend.

On Sunday, I attended Scientific Consensus vs. Scientific Truth. Needless to say, global warming came up a lot, but other theories were discussed as well. Even huge advocates of the scientific method occasionally make rhetorical slip-ups about this type of thing, and I thought it was enlightening to hear from a panel of Real Live Scientists about disagreements in the scientific community. Said scientists included Thomas A. Amoroso, Terry Franklin (moderating), Steven Hirsch, Ken Olum, and Jason Schneiderman.

Immediately after, I went to a completely different but equally excellent panel called Running Great Games. Geneveive from the Take Back the Sci-Fi panel was a panelist here as well, this time talking about her experiences running tabletop RPGs and more specifically, taking part in LARPs, which seem to come with their own interpersonal dramas. A panelist who went by "DKap" talked about his experiences running RPGs that have lasted 20 or 30 years; you have to read huge reams of text if you want to join up with his games. Adam Nakama was the "youth" on the panel, and he spoke about how he likes to run more emotional, dramatic games and encourages intense role-playing from his players by rewarding experience points to the best actor of a given game session. The moderator was Mike McPhail, an Air Force vet who likes military strategy games and who was hands-down the best moderator of any panel I saw at the con. McPhail was so good at his job that audience members could scarcely think of any questions to ask that hadn't been answered; this is an impressive rarity at Arisia, where audience members love to ask questions and pipe up during panels.

On Monday, I checked out Post-Antibiotic SF, which included both SF writers and medical professionals discussing bacteria. The panelists didn't talk much about fiction or writing at all, nor did they discuss bacteria or antibiotics in science fiction as I think they were supposed to, but it was a fantastic panel nonetheless and I never would have expected to learn so much information about bacteria and antibiotics at a convention. The panelists included Thomas A. Amoroso (who had also been on the Scientific Consensus vs. Scientific Truth panel), Amy Chused, Justine Graykin (moderating), Seanan McGuire, and Sarah Smith. McGuire stole the show by reciting excerpts from a song she wrote about the Black Death (lyrics here) and telling an audience member seeking health advice: "Well, don't lick things."

The last panel I attended at the con was The Future of Etiquette, with Christopher Davis moderating and David Larochelle and Mistress Simone as panelists. Simone, being a professional dominatrix, has had a lot of experience dealing with unprofessional customers, as well as issues of online privacy and modern etiquette. Chris Davis and David Larochelle had less specific concerns, although the conversation kept veering away from etiquette into privacy issues. I mentioned Blizzard's Real ID controversy in a question, and I was surprised to find no WoW or StarCraft players present, and thus I was forced to remember: no, I am not at a video gaming convention. Much as Arisia loves its LARPs and tabletop and board games, video games don't seem to be as well-represented here for whatever reason.

Lastly, I'd like to extend a special thank-you to whichever con staffer decided to use a smartphone app called The Conventionist to provide Arisia's maps and schedules to attendees. The con's new home at the Westin meant an unfamiliar and larger lay-out, so both newbies and prior attendees alike needed easy access to maps in order to make sense of the new place. Arisia provided paper schedules and maps, signs with directions, and this fantastic app. I strongly hope that other conventions take note and use The Conventionist for their own cons. We're looking at you, Boskone!

* Boskone and Arisia are not two weeks apart; they are five weeks apart. My apologies for my apparent inability to perform basic math.

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