Everybody wants to be a geek," Big Brain Comics proprietor Michael Drivas tells me. "Everybody wants to have a command of some cool specialized body of knowledge." As someone who walks the geek walk 24-7, Drivas should know; he's also just given me some idea of what to expect when I attend CONvergence 2002, a science-fiction convention that takes place at the Radisson South every Fourth of July weekend.
But there's more to modern geekdom than meets even Drivas's eye. It moves fast, you see. The top-button-buttoned, pocket protector-wearing geeks of 50 years ago are all but forgotten. Which makes even Bill Gates, the world's richest geek, outmoded. Nowadays geeks tend to be sleek, almost chic--like the good guys in The Matrix. They have cachet. And more and more of them are women.
Take Windy Merrill, communications director for CONvergence 2002, where I'm set to spend eight straight hours. When we meet for a pre-game chat at Peter's Grill, I discover she's got this double-life thing going: smooth, capable corporate type by day; supergeek when the sun goes down. I also discover that the theme at this year's convention is "adventure." There will also be free stuff and thrills galore. Suits me fine.
"Abandon all cash, ye who enter here!" commands a burly swordmonger in a gray wool buskin or jerkin or gherkin or whatever as I swing into the "Dealers' Room." I've got a half-hour to kill, and this is my best chance to check out the weapons, books, corsets, crystals, leather goods, CDs, videos, and assorted trinkets. As with the majority of temporary retail and dining facilities in Minnesota, it bears a strong resemblance to something you would find at the State Fair.
The most curious item is on a pewter dealer's table amid all the wizards and gnomes and whatnot. Known as a cleavage dragon, it sits on a tapered cylindrical base that's meant to be inserted into the cleavage of a corset or bodice. A sharply dressed fellow who looks to be in his late 20s or early 30s suggests that "cleavage weasel" would be a catchier label. I admire his reasoning, and find myself wondering what the male equivalent would be: The urethra weevil? The plumber's bear?
I decide to hit a panel discussion, "The Science of Sound." Panelist Chris Strouth comments, "There are far greater geeks in this room than me," then throws a glance in my direction. I can't help but wonder: Am I a geek? I've never really thought about it before. Sure, I've picked up a little information about this and that over the years, but it was all acquired accidentally, through reading and movies and cruising around online. As I consider the question, a hippie-looking dude asks the panel if there was a transition point between single-sound instruments like the theremin and more sonically mutable synthesizers. My hand shoots up. "The Trautonium," I answer eagerly, "first exhibited by its inventor, Dr. Friedrich Trautwein, in the early 1930s." Suddenly I feel like there's a big scarlet G on my forehead.
I duck into Cinema Rex, the con's official movie theater, to grab a free cookie and plot my next move. It's cool and dark, with a big screen and comfy furniture from some geek's living room. It's also emblematic of CONvergence's expansive agenda. According to Merrill, it all started back in the mid-Nineties, when the folks who ran Minicon, the mother of all Minnesota science-fiction conventions, decided to cut the art, gaming, music, and masquerade from the program and focus on literature. Why? Minicon, with more than 3,000 attendees, had outgrown the Radisson. It had also become, in Merrill's words, "a huge bacchanal."
The downsizing scheme worked. It also left a lot of people who dug the art, gaming, music, and masquerade--in short, the bacchanal--out in the cold. In 1997 a handful of Minicon renegades formed a nonprofit called MISFITS (Minnesota society for Interest in Science FictIon and fanTaSy), an all-volunteer organization that now numbers nearly 150. They raised a buttload of cash, cut a deal with the notoriously fan-friendly Radisson South, and in 1998, on our nation's birthday, CONvergence debuted; approximately 1,500 people attended--not bad for a maiden voyage.
Attendance has grown steadily since (this year it'll top 1,800). And the film and video program has kept pace. In addition to Cinema Rex, the con features Theater Nippon (a nonstop anime room), and a host of unofficial screening rooms. Offerings range from the predictable (Star Wars) to the obscure (The American Astronaut).
The masquerade, CONvergence's most popular event, is about to begin in the Radisson's ballroom. It's meticulously produced, with elaborate costumes, well-rehearsed skits, and a complicated system of judging. It's also packed to the rafters. I decide to pass. I'm still trying to get in touch with my inner geek. I head up to the 22nd floor, to the absolute inner sanctum of geekdom: the gaming suites.
This is the quietest floor at the con, with a half-dozen suites devoted to computer games--provided gratis by a local distributor--and half to role-playing games (RPGs) like Dungeons & Dragons. It's also the only floor where everybody is dressed in regular street attire. In fact, everyone is so dressed down that I feel like an alien simply because I'm wearing all black. Plus, I've never been much of a gamer. I decide that if I am a geek, then these are not my geeks.