In the ever-expanding, loosely connected universe known as fandom, the 60-year-old tradition of the science fiction convention has become an increasingly important venue for like to seek out like. Last week, the nonprofit San Diego Speculative Fiction Society hosted its own small version of such a gathering: Conjecture II.
With the pop-culture fest that is San Diego ComicCon International still fresh in memory, Conjecture II chairman Adam Tilghman opined that ComicCon is increasingly organized around shuffling tens of thousands of people through a giant exhibition hall and attracting big-name film actors and producers to its far from intimate program sessions. The much-cozier Conjecture puts greater emphasis on interactive panelist-audience discussions on imagination-stimulating topics.
And as opposed to the predominantly media-based following ComicCon attracts, Conjecture seeks to create an environment for which literary fans can feel ownership. Crossroads exist between the two fan types, but Conjecture attendees get a heavy dose of science, history and publishing programs.
"These folks read," fantasy author Lee Martindale said. "Most things here are well-grounded in the literary end of things-books, magazines."
A young woman wearing plush cat ears more brashly asserted, "We're much smarter." Although she wasn't the only person in fanciful attire, the most common word used by both male and female attendees to describe themselves was "geek."
Also in attendance were numerous writers of science fiction/fantasy novels, including local best-selling author David Brin, who discussed, among other things, the ethics of "uplift" (human ability to enhance the intelligence of our own or any other species), a theory he created and has explored in a good number of his books.
Over three days, Conjecture II hosted roughly 50 panel discussions. These ranged from, When Your Body Is As Changeable As Clothing ("With cheap medical and cosmetic nanotech, will anyone choose to keep what they were born with? ... You can usually recognize fans at a distance by the body fat and glasses. Will we keep those out of nostalgia?") to the late-night "Alien Sex Toys" (during which, at one point, panelists fell into a discussion about what they deemed George W. Bush's execrable poetry to Laura).
Throwing real science into the mix, two university professors gave a lecture on The Physics of Time Travel. Down the hall, the complexities of spintronics and quantum computing were examined by an IBM researcher-wearing an outfit that evoked a purple Sherwood Forest theme.
The preparation level among panelists varied wildly, and despite program guide descriptions, the hour-long panel discussions took pretty much any direction panelists and audiences wanted.
Case in point: Cheesy Consumer Tech of the Future, whose panelists included Martindale, a self-professed Luddite, a self-professed anti-Luddite gadget freak and a computer historian, the Rev. Dr. Chris Garcia. Moderator Garcia claimed to love and collect cheesy consumer technology. ("I got the "reverend' from the Universal Life Church through the Internet," said Garcia, 28, adding that the "doctor" came through a group in the Santa Cruz mountains, where "you go for a weekend, and they give you a fully recognized, accredited doctorate.")
Garcia asked what-with all the possibilities of nanotech, artificial intelligence and so on-would be the first thing cheesy tech items consumers would clamor for?
"A toaster hooked up to Internet that will burn the weather forecast on your toast," the Luddite offered.
"Holographic, pornographic spam," Martindale countered.
Ideas flowed-automobile paint in colors that reflect a driver's mood (such as road rage red); a television remote control activated by blinking; a vegan Atkins diet.
After one panelist noted how three years ago, French scientists, through the efforts of transgenic artist Eduardo Kac, used bio-manipulation to transform an albino rabbit into the world's first green fluorescent bunny, the future started to look a little less dignified for companion animals. Hearing about the glow-in-the-dark rabbit, a female audience member said it would be great to be able to go down to Wal-Mart and buy a kit that could make the family cat paisley, or any combination of pattern and colors to match an owner's home decor or clothing.
"I compete in obedience trials," another woman said. "If I could have something that would make a dog sit when you say sit, every single time, I'd do that."
The anti-Luddite observed that the next logical step would be to extend that concept to children "so when you take them to a restaurant, you can blink at them, and they'll suddenly be quiet and eat their peas."
"I teach ninth grade. I could think of a few other applications," an audience member mused.
Yet another in the audience speculated on what it would be like if cars could be wired to allow everyone to star in their own reality show while behind the wheel.
Too late, the Luddite responded, "Everybody in Los Angeles already believes that."
Then, reflecting on the future, he concluded: "We've not begun to imagine how cheesy it's going to get."