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Monthly Archives: October 2011

Steampunk Days Out-Archon-St Louis’ Premier Science Fiction Convention

http://www.archonstl.org/35/

Every year since 1977 St Louis has hosted a regional Science Fiction convention. Archon is one of the largest fan run events in the Midwest. It is a general Science Fiction Fantasy convention and includes literary tracks, panels on a large and varied range of topics. The gaming department runs over 200 events including multiple LARPS. The Arts show is extensive. One of the crown jewels is the Masquerade, a costume contest with a national reputation. In addition to the formally produced Masquerade hall costumes are both numerous and stunning.

Steampunk has been an increasingly large part of Archon over the last few years. Since costuming is such an integral part of the convention this is one of the places that Steampunk has made its biggest impressions. In hall costuming in particular Steampunk is tremendously popular. Over the last several years a Steampunk Tea has been offered and is a place to showcase Steampunk garbing talents.

The conventional also features a dance each night. In the past this event has had a decided Steampunk feel with large gear decorations and a steampunk themed light show.

The Art show has also been a place with increasing Steampunk represntation.

Gaming had several Steampunk VSF events. These inlcuded Tom Barnes running a very well received Stars of Empire adventure. There were also a number of other VSF games including Space 1889. http://webpages.charter.net/arcgaming/arcgame.htm

The Dealers room saw a lot of Steampunk good, games, gear and books. Larry Smith Bookseller http://sf.stuff.at/larrysmith/ had a very nice selection of books from novels and graphic novels to period references. Larry is extremely knowledgeable and helpful. Its always a joy to deal with his booth.

A very welcome newcomer to Archon’s dealers room was Agape. This is a charity organization’s thrift store. They have been extremely good at selecting items for sale at various events such as The Time Traveller’s Ball and various Civil War reenactments. Archon was no exception. In addition to a fine selection of science fiction toys they had many items for the Steam Punker. http://www.facebook.com/pages/Agapes-Hometown-Thrift-Shop/114272651939387

I was on one panel, a dedicated Steampunk one. For a Sunday noon panel it was well attended and had a lively discussion.

Archon is my personal home convention. I’ve been going since 1980. For the last 25 years I’ve been on staff as security and now am the committee member for that department. This means I really don’t get to participate in many of the events, but I do get to wander everywhere. I’ve been to many conventions over the last few decades and can honestly say we run a very good event. It is my pleasure to work with such a crew of talented people.

The Convention is held at both the Doubletree Hotel http://doubletree1.hilton.com/en_US/dt/hotel/STLCNDT-DoubleTree-by-Hilton-Hotel-Collinsville-St-Louis-Illinois/index.do?WT.srch=1&pSearch=true&_r1b=off&searchdef=2137956&k_clickid=0c7aaaa3-1184-6b88-53f0-0000499b6164&002=002%3D2137956%26021%3D640474&006=7624064654&007=Search&008=&009=e&011={QueryString}&012=doubletree%20collinsville and the Gateway Convention Center http://gatewaycenter.com/

Both facilities are quite good. The hotel was once a Holiday Inn but was sold and has been upgraded. The Gateway Center has always been top flight. The spaces are very well suited for the convention. In addition to the Doubletree there are about a half dozen other hotels in easy walking distance. Some are considerably less expensive than the Doubletree.

The area has numerous places to eat. These include Arby’s and White Castle to Bandana’s (a local BBQ chain of well known magnificence) and a Mexican place called Zapata’s http://maps.google.com/maps/place?rls=com.microsoft:en-us:IE-Address&oe=UTF-8&rlz=&um=1&ie=UTF-8&q=collinsville+mexican&fb=1&gl=us&hq=mexican&hnear=0x8875ff8bce5a1375:0x770cec9a43ed7c6c,Collinsville,+IL&cid=3076870750180974830

At the high price range is Porter’s Steak House http://www.porterscollinsville.com/. Porter’s is still a very good place to eat. Sadly before it was bought by the Doubletree is was a truly AWESOME place. If you were never there in its glory days you will love it. If you have been there in the past its a bit disappointing.

Taken as a whole Archon is a fantastic convention with a really broad range of activities and guests. Being back in Collinsville with its facilities at the Gateway Center and the Doubletree is a perfect fit for the size of the event. There are numerous options for food and lodging. Early purchase tickets are discount priced for a few more months on the Archon 36 Website. Plan ahead and get your membership now, and book a hotel room before they are all sold out.

 

Terry Sofian

 

 

Back to Bristol-Steampunk Days Out

The restored bow of S.S. Great Britain

I wrote for several weeks about the joys of Clifton, a suburb of Bristol. Now let me talk some of that great city itself. This was the heart of Brunel’s Great Britain. He built two of his three ships here. The S.S. Great Britain http://www.ssgreatbritain.org/ has been returned here for restoration and display!

If you want to spend a glorious day steeped in the shadow of the Great Engineer this will be one of the best places to do so.

In the 1970s after decades of service and then more decades of neglect in the Falkland Islands the ship was recovered and towed back to the port and the very drydock in which she had been built. Now she rests in that dock being restored by talented and loving craftspersons.

On one trip we stayed at the Holiday Inn http://www.hiexpress.com/hotels/us/en/bristol/brsct/hoteldetail?destination=BRISTOL%2CUnited+Kingdom&numberOfRooms=1&numberOfAdults=1&numberOfChildren=0&ratePreference=6CBARC right across the street from Bristol Temple Meads Station, which was part of the GWR and designed by Brunel. It is still an amazing station and well worth visiting even if you are not coming into the city via rail.  The hotel is a standard Holiday Inn. It has no character and the only things that recommend it are location and a car park. Although there are a number of eateries in the Temple Meads area the first time Shannon and I came to Bristol we had a terrible time finding food. There was a football match that day and many places were out of food. It also appears that Bristol has a strange tradition of not serving food between 2 in the afternoon and maybe 6 PM. We did finally find a tapis place on a barge. The food there was excellent, or maybe we just hadn’t eaten in 24 hours (long story, having to do with an “adventure” on Britrail!)

Bristol is close enough to Clifton to either walk down or take a cab. I’ve done both. I’ll remind readers that Clifton has many great restaurants as well as a wonderful hotel.

Now back to Great Britain herself, and the museum and new Brunel Institute. Tickets are 12.50 and are good for an entire year. The gates open at 10:00 AM and close at 5:30 PM in the summer and 4:30 PM in the winter. Getting there is easy. It takes 30 minutes to walk from the Temple Meads Station, and maybe 45 down from Clifton. There are a number of buses and ferry boats that stop at or near the ship as well. Additionally there is car parking in the vicinity.

I’ve been to the UK five times and I’ve been onboard Great Britain every time, some trips more than one day. Every time the ship is in better shape, more of it is open and I learn new things about the vessel, her designer and the times which bred them both. Since the early 1990s when I first saw her she the Museum has opened and then been relocated to a new building. Now the Brunel Institute and archives is open as well. It was almost too much for a VSF fan to handle!

The Museum has a huge number of excellent exhibits. Many are interactive. There are excellent photos of the ship at various times in her life and a great short film dealing with her salvage and return to Bristol. Many artifacts from the years of service are well interpreted.

The ship itself is the main attraction. An audio tour takes visitors around the vessel. There is a huge amount to see. The tour starts on the deck and goes deep into the hull. Passenger and crew quarters are fully restored. The first class dining area is amazing. At some point I’d love to go to one of the events hosted aboard. They have holiday dinners and the vessel can be rented for weddings and such. They sound like amazing fun!

The engine spaces have been rebuilt with reproduction engines. The engines don’t power anything any longer but the mechanical parts move. Especially interesting is the huge chain drive. The moving parts are immense and watching their interaction is a joy.

Finally there is the Brunel Institute. All of the Great Engineer’s notebooks are here, as well as an excellent naval and maritime history and technology library. All of the historic documents are digitized which is very nice, but even better was getting to handle the ORIGINALS! Yes I touched the very note books in which I. K. Brunel had drawn the sketches of so many of his amazing projects. The staff there was very helpful. They assisted in locating the specific books needed for the research I was doing (on Brunel’s little known ordnance work) and retrieved them from the secure storage. I put on my archival gloves on and turned the pages. It took all my willpower not to put bare skin on the notebooks, but I was able to suppress the urge (just barely!)

The archives are free with admission to the Museum. To do research you need to email ahead, but the staff is wonderful and extremely helpful.

To round things out the Museum houses both a cafe and a great shop. The shop is one of the most dangerous one I’ve been in. I ended up dropping a large amount of hard earned money and could easily have bought more. The selection of books was wonderful. I also picked up some reprints of period ship rules and menus. Very, very nice but again be warned, visiting the shop can damage a bank account quickly!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Steampunk Days Out-Steamcon III

I apologize for having taken a few weeks off. In those days I have attended two conventions. Let me review the second I went to first, Steamcon III in the Seattle area.

Steamcon III http://www.steamcon.org/indexIII.php is in a new venue for the convention the Hyatt Regency Hotel and convention center http://www.hyattregencybellevue.com/ in Bellevue, just South of Seattle proper. Room rates were extremely reasonable at around 109.00 per night. The hotel was very nice and the staff was simply perfect. They were polite and helpful at all times. The area was flocking with restaurants. Our first meal (lunch) was very good but resulted in a near cardiac emergency when the bill arrived! After that we sought far less dear fare. We had three meals at a passable Irish pub called Paddy Coyne’s http://paddycoynes.net/. Food there was very reasonably priced and quite tasty. I had lamb skewers with peanut sauce and they were excellent. Shannon had fries with gravy and Irish beef stew. Their beer and cider selections were a bit weak but the Jamison ice cream was everything it should have been! The music was actually very good. Service was a bit variable, twice we had great service but once our waiter was a bit confused. The pub is just across the street from the convention center. For best results go at happy hour. Prices are very low and what they call a “small plate” is not at all small. The pub is small though so go early or be prepared to wait.

We enjoyed the hotel’s brunch on Saturday at The Twisted Cork http://www.hyattregencybellevue.com/restaurants. The brunch there was very good as well. They make a darned fine fruit compote. The bacon was thick cut, the sausages firm and with just the right amount of spice and of course the smoked salmon was excellent. Shannon spoke very highly of the corned beef sliders. Sadly the coffee had the nasty burned flavor with which Starbucks has cursed the entire world and most specifically the Puget Sound region.

 

We registered late for the convention but the price was still reasonable at 55.00 per adult. There were a number of add on events such as various concerts and dinners. These ranged up to 45.00 per person for the Airship Awards Dinner. Other events had lesser fees. We did not attend any of these events, so cannot comment upon them directly. We did hear really good things about them though and everyone we talked to had a great time. Shannon  went to Unwoman’s concert on Friday night. The sound quality was great and the show rocked. Her recollection of these events might be a bit clouded by the after party which featured the la Fae Verte serving the green muse.

As with any event there were a few hiccups. One was gaming. The game department manager position was switched out just a few weeks before the convention and the result was a bit of disorganization. The various game masters made the best of it, although Friday was a bit of a lose. My demo that day didn’t go off although several interested parties came by and chatted about Stars of Empire. I was able to play a demo of Leviathan and watched a couple of other ones. I was impressed and will be posting a separate review of the game itself later.

Steamcon has a great identity, it’s staff know very well what they want the con to be about. This showed in the dealer’s room, the art show and artists’ alley. All three areas had participants clearly selected as being core to Steampunk/VSF. The dealer’s room had a large number of costume and gear vendors. It had a good game merchant but I would have been happy to see a better selection of book sellers. The art show was small but has some evocative works. I think I was most impressed with Artists’ Alley. There were some very nice items for sale and display there.

The panel track was excellent. Due to a miscommunication I was not scheduled for any panels but the extremely forgiving and hard working staff were able to get me on three in the two days we were there!

The first panel was on Friday and I was able to participate with several gents from The Rise of the Aester http://www.riseofaester.com/ LARP group. These fine fellows welcomed me as one of their own and we quickly became boon companions. Although the world they have created is very different in alternative history and MAcGuffins from Hive, Queen and Country their process has been very similar to the one that has brought forth Stars of Empire. One of their leaders Marshall used the word “sandbox” to describe the cooperative nature of their group. That is exactly how I’ve described the HQC Yahoo! Group. Their world is extremely detailed and textured and I was tremendously impressed! They were running a weekend long LARP. It was obvious from the level of participation they received that their games are tremendously popular. The level of costuming from the LARPers was amazing. Even more stunning was that even though The Rise of Aester group had really done a great job the general run of dress at the convention was of such a high quality that it was impossible to tell the organized players from the other attendees. Just getting to watch the cavalcade of finely made garb was worth the price of admission!

The theme of Steamcon III was 20,000 Leagues Beneath the Sea. A great many of the costumes were of a nautical bent and again they were fabulous!

The other two panels I got to be part of were both about airships. In the first one I got to speak at the same table as the legendary Mike Pondsmith http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Castle_Falkenstein_(role-playing_game)! He was very kind to let me participate and both airship panels seemed to go very well.

We had very nice feedback from all three panels and all were well attended. It was a total blast and some of the most fun I’ve ever had as a panelist!

The staff of Steamcon deserves major praise! I’ve been staff at Archon for over 20 years and I’ve been to a number of other conventions, including two World Cons and other regional events. The staff at Steamcon is the second best I’ve ever seen (after Archon of course). To have put together an event this well organized after only three years is simply amazing. They had great programing tracks, registration seemed to go smoothly, the number of musical acts was impressive. I didn’t see anyone having a bad time. There were a few glitches and problems but they were handled quickly and efficiently by the staff. They did a great job and deserve a big bravo zulu!

 

I look forward to going back next year, we’ve already reserved our hotel room!