Monday, July 12, 2010

So You're a Nerd After All: Jeremy Messersmith delves into geek culture at the CONvergence Convention

by Jeremy Messersmith / photos by Stephen Stephens

As I watched a hundred person dancing train led by a cardboard robot wrap around me, I wondered if these people were really nerds.

Yes, they were dancing to the theme song from Speed Racer and yes, they were being led by someone in a robot suit with glowing LED eyes, but this sort of alcohol-infused, hormonal dance party was something I associated with downtown dance clubs, not Bloomington hotels filled with science fiction/fantasy lovers.

CONvergence is a science fiction convention held every year over the 4th of July and features geeks of all strains and walks of life. For 4 days, people gather to model home-made costumes, hobnob with fantasy authors, participate in creative panel discussions, and drink generous amounts of booze. CONvergence fashion culminates in a Friday night masquerade of hand crafted costumes of intricate design.Theme rooms line the interior of the garden plaza; one decked out like a vintage Star Trek lounge, another a Hogwarts chamber; each suite a honey trap for wandering attendees. Panels sport vibrant titles like "Practicalities of Living in Space", "Men are from Tatooine, Women are from Naboo", "Is Roller Derby the Ultimate Geek Sport?" or "Sci-Fi Made Me Gay."

"Why are you wearing a Des Moines t-shirt?", a bespectacled man asked. I mounted a half spirited defense of Des Moines and all things Iowa before the questioner stopped me. "I'm from Des Moines and if you want a good job you should move there." he explained. At CONvergence you are what you wear. T-shirts bearing the emblems of superheroes, xkcd comics, and snippets of computer programming languages all battle for the ultimate blend of instant humor, detached irony, and geek cred. If you dress as a well known character (let's say The Monarch from The Venture Brothers) prepare to be in character and keep your catchphrases handy.

My first panel, titled "Supervillain Smackdown", pitted super villains against each other in a fictional world cup of badness. Moderated by a panel of 7 experts, the victors seemed fairly clear cut. Or at least they did until we got to Voldemort vs Khan, which pitted the burgeoning female nerd population vs the classic middle-aged Trekkies. Khan was victorious, but it did highlight the fairly even gender ratio: CONvergence has just as many female attendees as males, unusual for an event like this.

"So you are a nerd after all!" my friend Raymond exclaimed as I made my way through a room labeled "Soup" the following day. "Yep. I guess so." He had been playing shows with his band Triple Depresso at one of the music venues at the hotel. The musical acts at CONvergence are eclectic- some revive centuries old song forms and styles, while others sing of fictional civilizations far in the future, but all are entertaining. (note for later: need sci-fi musical side project)

I made my way through several panels, "Atheism in Popular Culture", "Misconceptions of Evolution", stopping to refuel in rooms labeled "Rice", "PB & J", and "COF2E2." For a group of people dressed as comic book superheroes, there is a strong emphasis on reason and skepticism. Later that evening, I downed a concoction of tang and vodka at the Skepchicks party room. With test tubes raised high, we saluted with a toast appropriate to the occasion- "To science!"

At its heart, CONvergence feels like people at play. Assuming identities of fictional characters, they explore all sorts of ideologies and fantastical cultures. Science fiction without the lasers and spaceships is merely speculative fiction. It's a precise method for isolating values and placing them in a sterilized container for further analysis. When society is shouting for a return to some supposed values or reminiscing about what used to be, nerds are the people who are constantly exploring what could be; geeks living bravely on the edge of what is possible.

For a full gallery of pictures by Stephen Stephens click HERE.

1 comment:

echoegami said...

Nice article. I have one correction for you - the masquerade happens on Saturday not Friday night. cheers!