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Geek Chic

The masquerade, where 'Moulin Rouge' costumes are all the rage, is the most popular event at CONvergence 2002
Richard Fleischman

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.

 

4:00 p.m.

"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?

 

4:30 p.m.

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.

 

5:30 p.m.

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).

 

7:00 p.m.

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.

 

8:00 p.m.

Navigator's, the Radisson's cocktail lounge, has come to resemble the cantina on Mos Isley; there are a couple of imperial stormtroopers, a pair of imperial deck commanders, an imperial fighter pilot, a Boba Fett (one of three I spot at the con), a Tuscan Raider, and, incongruously, a Padmé Amidala, hanging out, tipping a few, and smoking. The Padmé is the only "new" Star Wars character I see all weekend. And understandably so. I mean, would you wanna be seen in a Jar Jar suit?

 

9:00 p.m.

The masquerade is over, and all heck has broken loose. As I stroll amid the Moulin Rouge costumes, the Shriners from Uranus, the giant purple caterpillar with no visible human limbs, and the countless Jedi and Indiana Joneses, one fact becomes not-so-painfully apparent to me: this convention is full of women. Like, to the tune of 50 percent. This con is also full of cleavage, with nary a cleavage dragon (or weasel) in sight.

For that matter, this con is full of people from a variety of different worlds. In fact, costumes aside, I've never seen such diversity at a single event. Ages run from just past newborn to 80-ish. I see the smallest waistline I've ever seen in my life (corseted), and what might very well be the biggest (not corseted).

And while the overwhelming majority of con-goers are Caucasian, I do spot quite a few African Americans and a number of Asian Americans. Better yet, they're all mingling, in ways you rarely see in the outside world. Twentysomethings clad in black PVC (a con favorite) are chatting like old pals with fiftysomething hippies in tie-dye, shorts, and sandals. Goths are chewing the fat with professorial looking Jedi. And Joe Lunchbox types are rubbing elbows with dudes in kilts. One thing unites them---a shared sense of geekdom.

 

10:00 p.m.

I make my initial foray into the parties roaring in the cabanas on the first floor and the mezzanine. First time around, my hands-down favorite is the Williamsburg-hip "House of Toast," where you can get free California rolls and, naturally, toast--with any of myriad toppings, including the coveted Nutella, for a suggested donation of $1.00. While I'm wolfing down my snack, some guy who looks like he just teleported from the 22nd floor comes up to me and says, "Want a free book?" I thank him and stuff it into my trusty reporter's bag, which has gained ten pounds. It looks more and more like a geek bag by the minute.

 

11:00 p.m.

If House of Toast equals Williamsburg, Connie's Space Lounge must be the Lower East Side. In these black-walled, black-light-lit environs, you can enjoy free fruit smoothies, air hockey, and live experimental electronic music. Tonight you can even make your own free live experimental music, courtesy of "sensor re:engine" (as in sensory engine), an open electronic jam session with three tables full of gear just ripe for the picking.

When I enter, the session is already in progress. Scanning the gear, I notice that an ancient (1981) Roland SH-101 that looks like it just came out of the box is sitting on a table unattended. It's a groovy little monophonic synth, and one I know well. "Dammit," I think, "I'm sick and tired of just being a chickenshit observer. I'm sure of it now. I am a geek! And these are my geeks! And the time has come to let my geek flag fly!"

I stride confidently toward the unit, assume the position, and, in seconds, the synth and I are one and one with all. The union (let's call it "Drone, With Occasional Air Hockey") lasts until a newcomer starts engaging in some altogether unwarranted wankery. The spell is broken. I head back out toward the cabanas.

 

12:00 a.m.

Floor 16: the final destination. I stop at a security checkpoint just a few feet past the elevator, provide proof of age (you have to be 21), sign a waiver of responsibility and a confidentiality agreement (no outing allowed). Then, after reading the dungeon rules of etiquette, I proceed.  

The "MSDB (Minnesota Stocks, Debentures, and Bonds) Munch," courtesy of a couple of local leather clubs, is in full swing, with some 30 people packed into a smallish hotel room that has the nicest snack spread I've seen at the entire con. A club member in full regalia is showing a couple how to use a violet wand, and some jerk in a Hawaiian shirt keeps whining, "I just wanna see what it feels like."

The violet wand, a medical device invented by geek's geek Nicolai Tesla a century or so ago, remains one of the most potent pieces of geek bait in existence. It hums, its various glass attachments have a purple glow, you can make sparks with it, and it offers a delicious variety of tingling effects. Plus, like everything else in the room, it's perfectly danger-free--if used properly. You are advised, however, never to insert it into any part of the body where a spark might ignite volatile gasses. How do I know so much about this arcane toy? I'm a geek, boss, pure geek-- from the tip of my weevil to the base of my bear.

 

1:00 a.m.

I stop at the mezzanine for one last visit. Everywhere I look, the party's still going strong--as it will, without incident, for hours to come. It's a little anarchist utopia of sorts, a model of civility, mutual respect, self-determination, and free stuff.

As I pass through the lobby on my way to the exit, the elevator doors slide open and a gorilla (okay, somebody in a gorilla suit) steps out, carrying a nearly empty bottle of Tanqueray. I find myself thinking this would be a perfect time for a busload of Presbyterians to roll in. I also find myself wishing I weren't leaving. There's too much I haven't seen, too much I haven't heard, too much I haven't done. Especially since I'm fairly sure this really cute girl back on the 16th floor was giving me the eye.


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