Still Clueless After All These Years (or What I Learned at I-Con 18)

by Christopher DeFilippis

DeFlip Side, Vol. 1, No. 5
(First Appeared: May, 1999;
First Light E-zine, Issue #81)

Okay, so I screwed up. I didn’t get my column in on time last month, forcing E (Elise Tobler, creator and editor of First Light) to wield her godlike powers and shut me out of the April issue. And I can’t say I blame her. A recent HTML course has provided me with some fluency in webspeak and a newfound appreciation of what a pain in the ass it is to revise a site once it’s been laid out. Anchor tabs, tables, framesets—blech! I’ll just stick to shooting my mouth off in a timely manner. It’s a heck of a lot easier.

Speaking of shooting my mouth off, it was probably a good thing that I didn’t get my column in. It may have turned out to be my last. It was nothing earth-shattering, but I did go off on a rail about some of the issues I have with the world of fandom that might be best left unsaid here. It’s not that I’m afraid to share my thoughts; by all means, e-mail me and I’ll tell you what’s on my mind. I just don’t think this is the proper forum, as that particular discussion serves as little more than a platform to display my own prejudices and does nothing to provoke intelligent dialogue. Besides, most of it was just plain nasty.

The whole thing came about after I attended I-Con 18 last month. Held on the S.U.N.Y. Stony Brook campus every year, I-Con is touted as the largest SF/Fantasy convention this side of the Mississippi, maybe even as the largest in the land. All I know is that I found precious little to keep me occupied and maybe it was that frustration that I channeled into last month’s column-that-wasn’t. There were some obvious causes for my dismay:

  • A program devoted largely to comic books, anime, LARP and filk—topics that range from uninteresting to extremely annoying in my mind.
  • Panel discussions on topics that I found boring.
  • An unexplainable insistence on screening The Fifth Element every two hours. If you’re gonna combine Bruce Willis and Sci-Fi, 12 Monkeys is really your only logical choice.
  • Dismal facilities that were just downright insulting. Hey, I-Con guys! If you’re gonna invite the likes of Robert Picardo, Kenny Baker and Harlan Ellison, maybe you should invest in a sound system that works and a stage that isn’t on the verge of collapsing! Just a thought…

Of course, I can’t say I’m surprised at the conditions. Having attended the University for two-and-a-half of my five college years, I feel I can say with some authority that the Stony Brook campus is the Ugliest Place On Earth. Every time I visit that sprawl of crumbling concrete, I think Oh! So this is what Orwell had in mind with that whole Oceania thing. It’s like something out of the former Eastern Block, only without the babushkas.

But as annoying as all these things were, I’ve come to realize that I was just using them as convenient excuses so I wouldn’t have to focus on the essential truth at the heart of my frustration: when it comes to Science Fiction, I’m a moron.

The one panel discussion that I deemed worthy to attend drove this realization home. The topic was “Must Read SF.” As I listened to a group of editors at the head table reeling off name after name after unfamiliar name of essential works and authors that a truly well-versed Sci-Fi fan should have notched on their bookmark, the more pedestrian I felt, both intellectually and as a contending author. Though I’ve dabbled in Wells, Bradbury, Clarke, Verne, Dick, Orwell and some other household names, my knowledge is remedial at best. And to make matters worse, I didn’t think to bring a pen with me (something I’m usually never without) and couldn’t take notes.

The only names I remember now are Albert Bester and Robert Heinlein. Of course I’d heard of Heinlein, but the only book of his I’ve ever read was The Cat Who Walks Through Walls and I didn’t really care for it. Still, I listened dutifully and tried to retain what names I could.

I headed for the dealers’ room after that, head spinning with the new info. But as I perused the gazillion books available for sale, still nothing jumped out and demanded to be read. It’s a problem I’ve been having for almost three years now, not being able to find a book within the genre that has sparked true enthusiasm. At times it seems as if my reading endeavors have become nothing more than filler scraped up to pass the time between installments in Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. After the enthusiasm and verve of the panel discussion, this lack of direction became almost unbearable. It forced me to really evaluate why I’m a Science Fiction fan at all.

Thinking back, it was never really Sci-Fi that I was into, reading-wise. The first books that really sparked my imagination were works of Fantasy. I can remember practically devouring Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea and its (then) two sequels. I must have read the tale of Ged and his shadow about twenty times. My favorite D&D character was named Sparrowhawk, for cripessake! C.S. Lewis’ Narnia series was also a favorite, and Tolkien goes without saying.

What little Sci-Fi I did read consisted chiefly of Trek books. Sure, there were others, Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker series chief among them. But it wasn’t until I was about sixteen or so that I picked my head up and realized that my library was mainly tie-in pulp. And though I’ve striven to improve both the breadth and depth of the titles on my shelf, the panelists made me realize just what little progress I’ve made. I’m still clueless after all these years.

So what did I do next? Instead of facing facts, I sat down at my little keyboard and I lashed out at all the fans who came to the convention with, shall we say, more than conventional enthusiasm. In truth, I’ll never understand those who venture out in costume, whether clad as a knight or as a Starfleet officer. To me, the whole notion goes beyond lame. But I went beyond expressing this mere distaste. The column made Shatner’s SNL bit look laudatory. It was like I was deliberately trying to cut those fans down in the most hurtful, hateful way possible. In the cold light of day, I can now see why. However questionable their behavior, they come by it honestly. They are comfortable in their genuine enthusiasm. I, on the other hand, am still wrestling with the most basic of questions: Why Sci-Fi?

That I enjoy it is obvious. But does it go deeper? Does it need to? Depends. If you’re talking television, escapism is fine so long as it isn’t insultingly stupid (ala Pauly Shore). Reading is another story. For me, reading at its best is both enjoyable and profound. And the profundity can be in little things; no huge social commentary is necessary. So long as I come away from a book looking at things a bit differently, then I consider it profound. And while sheer entertainment is always more than welcome, it just can’t compete with the mental mainline of being made to think in new ways. I can count on one hand the number of SF books that have truly given me that pleasure.

So how do I rectify this sad situation? Where do I go from here? To all of you, of course. I propose that we begin the FL Readers’ Trust, a repository of recommended titles by loyal ’zine readers. The criteria are simple: select an SF title that has changed the way you look at the world or has inspired you in some way. Send it to me via e-mail along with a one-line synopsis and I’ll post a few of them at the end of my column each month.

Maybe this way, none of us will be doomed to wander hopelessly around the bookstore ever again. If anything, it’ll give you a reason to stick with my drivel until the end. I ask only that we keep recommendations strictly within the original Science Fiction genre. If we don’t, this whole exercise might prove as pointless as a game of dodge ball.

What do you think? I guess the amount of e-mail I receive will let me know. I’ll start the ball rolling this month (see below).

So, enough of this self-absorbed navel gazing already. Next thing you know, I’ll be laying out the twelve steps to a better Sci-Fi experience. Let’s get back to the business at hand: I’ll shoot my mouth off and you listen.

On a happier note, I managed to completely avoid Harlan Ellison the entire time I was at I-Con. From the stories I’ve heard, he’s a real pill (and I’m putting things kindly).

Harlan Ellison

Example: A friend of mine, Howard, hosts a Science Fiction radio show on the Stony Brook station every Friday night. While interviewing Ellison, he called the noted author on the fact that not only did he host a weekly segment on a show titled Sci-Fi Buzz, but that it aired on the Sci-Fi Channel. Until that point, Ellison had been referring to the show as “that show on USA’s channel.” As soon as Howard uttered the words sci-fi, Ellison went silent and walked out, cutting the interview short.

Now I’ve heard nothing but praise for Ellison’s work and he’s probably earned every accolade he’s ever gotten. But I-Con or not, nothing justifies that kind of behavior. Answer me this Harlan: if you’re such a freakin’ purist when it comes to your precious distinction in terminology, why oh why did you accept a job on the Sci-Fi Channel to begin with? All I can say is that any book of yours I chance to pick up in the future better be damned good. Otherwise I might have to show up at your next event and screech the term “Sci-Fi” until you run out of the room crying, you pompous hypocritical jackass.

Kenny Baker, old R2-D2 himself, was so dull that I thought I was watching Return of the Jedi again. He’s a nice enough guy, but if you want to go beyond an account of how hot it was in the droid suit, look elsewhere.

Robert Picardo as "The Doctor" on Star Trek Voyager

The real standout for me was Robert Picardo, Voyager’s irrepressible Doctor. I’ve long felt that he’s the best part of that show and, as it turns out, he’s a nice guy to boot. If ever you get the opportunity to see him, take it. He’s glib, witty and has a ton of Jeri Ryan jokes.

Not much else to note from this year’s con. I can only hope that there’s enough to draw me in next time around. And I hope that if I do go, it’s with a literary arsenal you’ve helped provide. Let’s get those recommendations rolling!

FL Readers’ Trust (May 1999)

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Fireman Guy Montag—whose job it is to burn books—begins to question his profession and himself in this 1950 classic that provides a disturbingly accurate portrait of where society is headed in the information age.

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Billy Pilgrim’s disjointed jaunt through time defies simple explanation; just read the book!