It’s entirely possible to spend four days here and not step outside. Not because you’re busy gaming, although God knows enough people are, but because Indianapolis is a town that’s looking to the stars. Or at least, to the second storey. The Convention Center, itself basically the size of every town I grew up in is in turn connected to ever primary hotel nearby. You can leave your room, take an elevator down to the parking garage, take another elevator up to another hotel, walk across a skywalk and end up in the convention center or the mall three blocks down, or in another hotel, or across from a Cathedral or, maybe, in the middle of a group of screaming Morlocks as the Time Traveller frantically tries to explain this is all a mistake and a man with a blue phonebox and a bowtie points and laughs and yells ‘FIRST DOESN’T MEAN LUCKY, NOW DOES IT MATEY BOY?!’
Or that might just be me.
I’ve spent a lot of time off the ground today, making my way between panels, making lunch runs and heading out along the skywalks to dinner at Steak and Shake which serves food as delicious as it does obvious. The whole time I’ve been off the ground, a corpuscle in the geek circulatory system, making my way around the vast organism that is GenCon. I’ve been to conventions before but never one this large and it’s taken me a day or so to work out how best to move around it. The skywalks are it, meaning you’re off the vast central corridor and it’s constant traffic and giving me the one thing I desperately need when surrounded by people in this volume; perspective. Without it, you’re constantly pushed and pulled from place to place here, your attention being dragged from steampunk belly dancers, to demo games, to retail stalls, to the fact that Wil Wheaton has heroically signed things for loyal fans for what seems like days now. You get entranced, you get caught up, you lose perspective.
It makes me uncomfortable.
I’ve worked in geek culture on various levels since I was 18. I’ve run a comic and games store, I’ve podcast, I’ve written roleplaying games, comics and stories, edited a magazine, reviewed everything I could get my hands on and more. If you cut me, I bleed Doctor Who references. If you give me two entirely disparate stories, regardless of medium, I can probably connect them. If you want, I will prove to you that the Fast and the Furious movies are in fact the greatest unrecognised Cyberpunk movie franchise of our time. Don’t think I won’t.
But geek culture, geek communities, make me uncomfortable. I know why too. I grew up on the Isle of Man and one of my most vivid memories of that time was hearing four friends of mine discuss how they were going to get on a ferry, then a train, then stay in a hotel to go see a concert and come straight back home.
Culture, or pop culture, on the Isle of Man, was something you literally needed to find the harbour or the airport to get to. Now think about what it took to get your hands on counter culture; mail order. In a period where the web was exciting and new and didn’t quite work right. Oh and I don’t drink.
Want to stay up all night play roleplaying games and drink? Thanks but no, I’ll be the guy on the dock waving at you as you sail away and whittling myself a passport, or a stake, or some form of social life. I went to my first convention in my late twenties and it was a catastrophe. Anyone who tells you the 2001 Bristol Comic Con was good either wasn’t there, was there and drunk or was there, realized it sucked and wants you to feel bad you missed it so they can share some of the pain. It was an unmitigated disaster that saw me realize I had no chance of getting any work in comics because I didn’t know the right people, didn’t have the right resources and, I now realize, was doing something because I thought I wanted to, not because I did. It was a few years until my next con, unsurprisingly.
Then there’s the fact that you can take the boy out of the comic and game store but you can’t take the comic and game store out of the boy. For seven years I ran the York branch of Travelling Man, and I loved it. The one downside, other than working Saturdays, was the fact that I had to spend a lot of time being dealt with like a piece of the shop that happened to have a voice and arms. Most of our customers were wonderful, but there were some who were openly amazed that I had legs, and others that seemed genuinely affronted by the fact that I had opinions and actually quite liked not talking about games and comics some times.
It took till about six weeks after I got laid off for people to stop asking me what was in their box for them that week.
They were, to be fair, all furious about me being laid off but the thing is, not one jot of that fury mattered because I’d still lost my job and there was nothing I could do about it that wouldn’t cause more pain for more people. I just had to stand there and endure it as a job I’d built my self esteem on was taken away from me through no fault of my own. It crushed me, for a long time.
The end result of this is of course that I’m standing in the Starbucks in Indianapolis whilst my girlfriend charms every other player at the Deadlands Noir premier game a couple of rooms over, so I really shouldn’t complain too much. But the truth is I’ve seen every side of geek culture, from being the rank outsider to a cornerstone of the local geek community and none of it, when it came down to it, mattered a damn.
Except of course, it did. And does.
I’ve had countless good experiences at cons over the last couple of years and two of them landed here, today. The first was spending an hour in the Film Maker’s Meet and Greet panel, hosted by veteran soundman Chuck Budreau. Chuck is an avuncular, incredibly competent man who’s been curating the film stream here for years. He’s passionate about it and it shows, with the stream growing to the point that now, despite a major fan company having a stream of their own this year, the program has the same number of films scheduled. Under his direction, everyone in the room stood up and introduced themselves and I relaxed a little, recognizing someone else from the Press line yesterday. This would be easy, there were other press here, I’d be a happy little corpuscle.
He stood up. He was there promoting his own show.
I was the only journalist in the room and when I mentioned this, every head turned to look at me. Every single one. Chuck joked that people should ‘form an orderly queue’ and they basically did, meaning that I spent fifty minutes after the panel in the room talking to various people and learning more about the incredibly vibrant fan film community here. Everything from Misfit Heights, a zombie puppet musical to Trailer Park Jesus , based on the true story of a student, trapped in a trailer park and having to make his way hoe using only a sheet of LSD. Oh and a documentary about Dungeons and Dragons that’s filming at the con now. And a series about a detective investigating the murder of his own clone that William Shatner’s fond of. And a wild west zombie series. And a Lord of the Rings gamer comedy. And a dozen more. Each of them was unique, each was cheerfully indie in approach and scope and each was utterly, completely unique. I left the room with the business car of almost everyone in there and I can’t wait to follow up with them and take a look at their films and shows.
I loved it, and not just because of what I saw but how people reacted to me. Everyone checked in, everyone spent some time talking with me about their show and whilst all of them did it because of what I do, it was an incredibly positive experience. I’ve spent some time recently re-examining how I view and reconcile my writing and one of the things I’ve found is that I’ve constantly chased recognition without once revelling in the work. I’ve wanted, and still do want, to be recognised for what I do and why I do it and non fiction is something I’ve constantly found myself enjoying more than fiction because I have real measurable success there I just don’t have in fiction. Spending time with those film makers today drove that home; I love working with other people, I love writing about other’s people work and I love playing with the tools and components of narrative more than building narrative myself. That seminar gave me a whole new toolbox and I can’t wait to start working with it.
Then, I spent two hours talking to a group of near complete strangers. There are a bunch of Pseudopod fans here and we organized a meet up on very informal, very fast grounds. We got five people turning up, including Nate Cortright and Steven Saus. Five guys, all busy, all took time out to come and talk to me. The show, why I love it, what I do, martial arts, why I’m in the US, postmodernism, food and the difficulties inherent in using history accurately in your fiction all flew by and the whole time I felt completely relaxed, completely at home. I felt like part of the community.
Now part of this is because like all writers I’m a secret attention freak but most of it because of how welcome they made me feel. I wasn’t the island boy, I wasn’t the fat kid at the disco, or the one who lies to himself about how the little bit of distance he keeps gives him useful journalistic perspective. I wasn’t a Morlock. I was just a guy at a con, having fun.
Right now, I’m a guy at a con, writing on the floor near the only unused power socket in the building. It’s been a good day and a very long one, with the Deadlands Noir game still in full swing. That’s fine, because earlier today, as well proving to myself I wasn’t a Morlock, I did something else; I came down off the skywalks and walked back to the hotel out on the street in the broad, strong daylight that covers Indianapolis.
It was glorious.