It’s the Most Nerdi-Ful Time of the Year: MarsCon 2016

Note: All photos herein were taken by me.  I tried to remember to ask folks if it was OK to share them in this venue, but I know I missed a few people.  If you are featured here and would prefer not to be, please let me know and I will remove you.

Honestly, I sort of backed into the whole Original MarsCon scene about a dozen years ago.  Not then a regular con-goer, I was actually a gamer (tabletop) at the time and was volunteering to run events for Steve Jackson Games, along with my husband, at various local events.  I don’t remember who first asked us to come run demos down at this Williamsburg institution (26 years and counting), but I do know that for several years I was more or less unaware of anything that went on outside the gaming area, except for the Saturday night knees-up that generally brought my working hours to a close by making it impossible to demo anything over the chaos of the bagpipes just on the other side of the thin ballroom partition separating the “auditorium” from the “game room” at the local Holiday Inn. Ah, how times have changed.

Over the years, I started occasionally coming out of my hole for a panel or two and eventually the ratio of gaming to Con activities began to shift in the other direction. I gave up my status as an MiB (SJ Games volunteer rep) for good when GURPS 4th Edition came out and screwed up all the roleplaying bits of the game in favor of hack-and-slash, and became a full-fledged participant in all the rest of the madness that is on offer at MarsCon. During that time, it has grown by leaps and bounds, from a small relax-a-con where you knew just about everyone by name to a medium-sized convention that has outgrown two hotels since I first started attending and now features author guests you may have actually heard of. This year was the first to be held at the Williamsburg Doubletree which is the largest hotel/conference center in town.

General Programming:

As usual, there was so much good programming that I didn’t make it to nearly as many things as I’d hoped. Add in time spent hanging out and visiting friends that I see once a year and I probably made a third of the things I had marked off as want-to-dos.  The theme this year was “Women in Science Fiction” (Yes, we’re here.  We’ve always been here, even in the earliest days, though we may have been less visible. We created modern fandom, starting with the Star Trek conventions of the early 70’s. And kvetching about it one way or the other just doesn’t do much for me, when there’s so much else going on. Sorry. If it’s any consolation, I feel the same way about most themes.) but even if that isn’t your thing, there was plenty  to see, covering different fandoms and aspects thereof. No matter your sfnal interests, there was always something going on that appealed. I only saw a small fraction of all that was available and can only speak to the bits I was involved in, I’d love to hear about what others experienced in the comments.

Opening ceremonies this year were particularly touching, we have lost both so many big names in the SF and Fantasy communities, as well as so many members of our MarsCon family this year, and the tribute that was put together to honor them had many of us in tears and made the annual champagne toast mean something much more than just the usual opportunity to score a free drink.  This is also always a great chance to preview some of the entertainment that will be on offer during the weekend and determine which artists appeal to you and which ones you can personally skip. The guests of honor are always on hand as well (this year’s author GOH was Ellen Kushner, artist GOH was Sarah Clemmons) and I am forced to admit that this is usually the only time I ever see them as my interests over the years have generally shifted away from modern literary SF into other areas.  My understanding from other attendees is that both were extremely gracious and interesting speakers and I am now deeply regretting missing Ms. Clemmons’ theremin demonstration as it turns out to have been hands-on.

IMAG0587Doctor Who was well-represented, as it consistently has been since the new series became an international (and, dare I say, mainstream) hit.  One of the highlights of my weekend, as usual, was the Doctor Who tea. Run entirely by volunteers, they entertained in costume and served a variety of tasty homemade teatime treats.  I recommend this as a full meal and would skip the late seating if you intend to go out for dinner later as you will not be hungry when you leave.  A local shop even produced a very yummy custom tea blend for the occasion, which was for sale in the dealers room, but I felt it was too expensive to justify, particularly as I am not a heavy consumer of tea. There were also several DW themed panels offered on Saturday.

Of course, as any of my readers know, my real nerd obsession is cult and B-Movies.  Up until a couple of years ago there was almost never any programming at all related to my particular pet interest.  Fortunately for all concerned, Team Fantasmo has really stepped up to the plate the last couple of years with their fabulous multimedia presentations on different aspects of cult cinema.  Rob and Phyllis do a great job keeping their panels engaging, with use of slideshows and inviting interaction with their audiences.  There’s never any watching-three-guys-sit-at-a-table-and-talk-to-each-other-while-ignoring-everyone-else here. This year I was able to attend their tribute to the late Wes Craven, as well as their excellent presentation on the Rocky Horror Picture Show and how it has evolved from an extremely niche phenomenon to mainstream pop culture. The latter was particularly interesting in that I really feel like it applies to nerd/SF culture in general, which has gone from being something that got you shunned at the lunch table, to something co-opted by the “cool kids”. For me, the jury is still out on how much of a good or a bad thing this is. The panel I was sorriest to miss all weekend was their presentation on the live action Disney films (I assume the ones of the 60’s and 70’s that those of us of a certain age were raised on). Unfortunately, it was the same time as other members of my party were arriving and I was busy herding cats.

Something I would love to see in the future is a real Movie Room focusing exclusively on B-Movies.  Even if it didn’t run the whole con, but only for a set block of time during one day or as a Friday overnight event (when the parties aren’t yet in full swing, but the night owls need something to keep them out of trouble). And before anyone has a smart comment about making more work for other people, I’d even love to run it. I can manage an entertaining slate just using public domain features no-one would have rights issues with and even give some history and trivia to go with the features.

As a very family-oriented event, there was tons on the schedule to appeal to kids of all ages. Saturday mornings particularly have become prime time for kid-oriented programming (probably because all the childless folks are still sleeping in after staying up all night, kids don’t sleep in, especially on vacation, it’s a law of nature or something) and I know there were both a superhero academy and a superhero-themed scavenger hunt on offer that day.  My guys are a little older now, so we forwent those in favor of the aforementioned tea,  lessons on horror movie makeup (Fabulous!) and a magic/puppet show (made entirely of lame dad jokes, painful to parents, but the kids absolutely ate it up).

I do wish that this year’s MarsProm had been more prominently featured on the website.  I only found out about it about a week ahead of time (maybe from the Facebook page, as it certainly wasn’t on the front page of the site) and was working every day between then and the festivities, otherwise I would have loved to have gone thrift shopping for the perfect ridiculous gown to attend in.

I did catch a couple of my favorite entertainers on the main stage.  Luna-C brought their brand of fandom sketch comedy, which is always worth watching, even when they are delving into less familiar waters (look, I gave up cable years ago, I will get the jokes, it’s usually just several years after everyone else).  And Mikey Mason is both a skilled musician and also makes me laugh until my sides ache, you can’t ask for much more than that. It was really nice to have an actual stage and soundboard for performances this year.

Honestly that doesn’t even touch on 90% of what was on offer, just the very small amount I managed to keep track of this time around.  I know there were also workshops for budding writers, panels with the guests of honor, readings, Dalek building, video games, a starship bridge simulator (which I heard great things about), science-y stuff, handcrafts, lots more music and even racing teapots. And costumes of course.

Costuming:

This is something that has really taken off in the MarsCon community since my early years.  When we first attended, there were a few folks dressed up, usually a couple of superheroes, a classic Doctor or two (we’d never even heard of Chris Eccleston at that point), maybe a few pirates or folks in their RenFaire garb and a few hall costumes  relating to whatever that year’s theme was; but very few folks took it particularly seriously. Now there are elaborate costumes for any fandom you can imagine.

IMAG0607

 

Folks are putting huge amounts of time and effort into recreating their favorite characters and it is a real joy just to see what folks are wearing.  I don’t dress, I don’t have the time or the energy for the amount of work it would take to come up with something that anyone would take seriously, but I definitely appreciate the efforts of those who do. The costume contest has gone from handing out a few hall ribbons to folks who had made an effort, to an actual formal event, coinciding with the annual charity auction.

Gaming:

With the new hotel there were a number of small rooms along a hall instead of one big shared space, as a player I thought it was nice for keeping noise and distraction levels to a point where you could focus on the games (I even got to try out some Firefly, despite not really being a board gamer).  The spousal unit was running sessions this weekend and was  concerned that folks would be less likely to just walk by and drop in on a game, since everything was separate, but he said that in the end that turned out not to be a problem at all.  A couple of things I would look at for next year. There were no sign up sheets for events, so if there was something you really wanted to try you had to get there early and hope. Also, I know that at least some planned events didn’t make it into the online schedule as the husband was demoing Cthulu Wars this weekend and about half of his events weren’t listed. A printed schedule for the game room, as has been available in the program other years, would have also been nice. There was one for programming this year, just not for games.  And given that there was no free WiFi available in the convention center and cell service was beyond spotty in the game rooms (we found walkie-talkies to be far more useful than cell phones), it would have been really helpful.

IMAG0571There seemed to be a good variety of stuff on offer, whether you were into RPGs, card, or board games.  One thing I really liked was the board game room with shelves of games that could be checked out for play on the spot.  I thought that was a great and creative way to introduce folks to stuff they may have been interested in, but weren’t ready to buy without trying out. And a nice place to take a quiet break and unwind from some of the noisier activities.

Dealer’s Room:

Moving into the new hotel meant that there was lots more room for the dealer space, which was fabulous.  There were not only more vendors, but there was actually enough room to walk around the hall while looking at things. Lots of neat nerd swag along with more mundane items. Personally I bought cute shoes and some nice yarns (OK, I did buy a Korean DVD edition of Lifeforce, you can’t always fight your inner nerd girl, but I left the autographed photo of Caroline Munro on the table, which has to count for something, right?), while the hubs got a good deal on a very nicely made utility kilt. My only issue with the room (and not the fault of the Con) is that the lighting in that ballroom sucks! It made it very hard to get a good feel for any of the jewelry items on display and made it even more difficult to accurately judge fabric or fiber colors for clothing or yarns.  Next year I will bring a handheld white light of my own to better see what I am looking at.

The New Hotel:

The Doubletree was very welcoming. Not only were a lot of the staff in costume, it wasn’t just generic off the rack stuff either.  When one of the desk staff is dressed as Ford Prefect you know you are dealing with our sort of people. They also had costumed staff roaming the hall at night selling Jello shots (it’s like they knew their clientele). The food is some of the best hotel food I have ever had, period.  And the markup wasn’t too awful. I can highly recommend the grown up mac and cheese, which is big enough to share with a friend, and the pizza, which is amazing (and I am uber-picky about pizza) and big enough to share with two friends. The service was a touch slow, which only mattered because the restaurant/bar is cold, bring a jacket.

Parking is still at a premium, particularly given that both the Con hotel and the overflow hotel were booked solidly, but unlike last year’s location, there was overflow parking in the immediate area once the hotel lot filled up.

I did run into a few problems related to the fact that we always bring a lot of our own food.  The hotel fridges are very small, not just dorm-sized, but the kind where the bottom shelf only goes back halfway, so there was very little room.  I brought my own microwave, but might have also brought my own cube fridge had I known how tiny they were.  It wouldn’t have been such a big deal as it’s January and I usually just use the balcony to store refrigeratables instead, except the staff apparently decided that my bag of leftovers were trash and threw out the food I had planned for Sunday night’s supper! I was a bit displeased, to say the least. Otherwise they were generally helpful, and free cookies at check in are always a plus.

Growing Pains:

There are always hiccups the first year in a new venue and this was no exception. The setup is much bigger than the old hotel, and there is lots of room to grow. It never felt over-crowded in any of the events I attended, despite the increase in attendance this year. This is a good thing. I particularly loved having such huge spaces for the Auditorium and con suite (fully capable of keeping body and soul together all weekend, as per usual), but the two story setup for the convention area is a bit more complicated to navigate and the hotel’s peculiar system of room identification (some have letters, others numbers, and their seemed little rhyme or reason to which was which) was confusing.  I’m sure that it will be easier next year as folks will be more familiar with the layout, but MarsCon staff could have helped here by putting maps in the paper programs. Both maps and signs pointing to different activities did eventually go up on the walls, but not until well after things were under way.

IMAG0579_BURST004The other significant issue this year was not having a specific “party floor” designated as I believe has been done in the past to give the sleepers the opportunity to book rooms away from the noisy up-all-nighters. I am well aware that room parties are a Con tradition (and anyone who has ever seen me show up with The Bar knows that I’m the last to cast asparagus at those who choose to indulge), but there were some exceptionally disruptive and rude drunks wandering the halls this year near certain party locations and next year I’d like it if the front desk had some idea what folks were talking about if they ask to be booked on a quiet floor. But those things, and the minor issues I saw with gaming, were really about the extent of it and almost all of the issues were more the result of working out the kinks in a new setting rather than failures of the all-volunteer staff, who were busting their butts as usual to ensure that the rest of us had a good time. I also thought the new handwashing signs were a fabulous idea, and they must have worked as I haven’t had a touch of con crud this year.

Final Thoughts:

MarsCon continues to be one of my favorite events and I would put it up against many of the bigger shindigs out there. I think it’s a great choice if you’ve never attended a Con of any sort and want to know what the fuss is all about, as it’s big enough that you can find something that matches your interests, while not so large as to be overwhelming. It’s also a great event if you have fannish kids in tow as the staff go out of their way to make sure the event both stays family friendly, particularly during daylight hours, and has lots of engaging activities for the littles. Even as the event has grown, the welcoming nature of attendees and the feeling of being part of a family have never changed.

More about The Original MarsCon here.

NEXT TIME:

B-FEST IS BACK! And I will be making my annual pilgrimage to the icy shores of Lake Michigan to share my pain with you as I indulge in 24 hours of the best of the worst. By request I will once again Live Facebook the event before returning with my thoughts on this years festivities.  You can see last years’ write up here.


Disclaimer: I am not compensated to provide opinion on products, services, websites and various other topics. The views and opinions expressed herein are purely my own. Any product claim, statistic, quote or other representation about a product or service should be verified with the manufacturer or provider. All content herein is my own save for stock photos or quotations shared under Fair Use guidelines. Please don’t steal it without asking nicely first and linking back here to help make me really, really famous.

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