Arts, Science, and Celebrities

You know how much fun it is when someone combines elements that you really love? Like raspberries are great and brownies are scrumptious, but brownies with raspberries are sublime? Or looking at fish is neato and swimming is fabulous but snorkeling is heavenly? Well, there's an event this weekend that kind of tops all of this. Every year the Baltimore Science Fiction Society sponsors a convention called Balticon. Past guests of honor have included Samuel R. Delaney, Anne McCaffrey, and Isaac Asimov. This year the guest of honor is Neil Gaiman, the artist guest of honor is Lisa Snellings-Clark, the musical guest of honor is Lorraine a' Malena and the special guest of honor is Gene Wolfe. Did I mention the wonderful fantasy author Peter S. Beagle is also going to be there? It's almost too much, a sinfully rich concoction of guests designed to make even the most cynical fan lightheaded. But there is even more; programming for children, gaming, (live action, board and computer), live action films, anime and real, live scientists. It's positively swoony.

Finding the events starring the various guests of honor is usually easy because all you have to do is follow the sound of many voices or find the crowds of people lining up. There are enough special events that you could get your money's worth just by going to them but if you do that you will miss out on quite a lot. Balticon is billed as a "Four Day, 24-hours-a-day Extravaganza," running from May 26 - 29, 2006 and, like many larger conventions; it runs several tracks at once. In other words if you want to be an artist or you want to improve your skills, you can take part in the artist track and attend classes and panels throughout the event. You can go to a panel on drawing a dragon, check out something called Dueling Easels: Comic Artist Edition, or sit in on the Seven Deadly Sins of Illustration. If you're the right age for children's programming, you can make brains with Lisa Snellings-Clark, or at least have fun with brains while making sculpture with Lisa; it's almost the same thing. You can also put aside your dreaded perfectionist tendencies and indulge in some "Kamikaze costume making" and make something for Saturday night's Masquerade Ball right there at con. There are also more practical sessions for artists like a panel called The Business of Being an Artist.

What do you do if you are not so much into art but love the sciences, the harder the better? You head off to a panel called No Really: Things Really Do Work That Way! with the likes of astrophysicist Yoji Kondo (aka Eric Kotani) or take part in his Astronomers Seduced by the Dark Side talk. That almost sounds a little too good; you probably want to leave your kids at the Silly Interactive Stories panel for this. You can check in with Dr. Thomas Holtz, vertebrate paleontologist, and find out the latest dinosaur gossip or you can learn about the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project with Dr. Mike Cranfield.

When your brain is completely full of science and you can't possibly learn anything new about art or you'll burst, you can take a break and visit con suite, the land of eternal snacks, drinks, and people who are tired and putting their feet up. You can find an interesting variety of food available in most con suites but be aware that not all is always as it seems. A couple of years ago my middle son picked up a handful of what he thought were m and m's but were actually wasabi peanuts. To this day he does not trust anything that's green and looks like candy.

The gaming room is an excellent place to learn how to play new games and meet people. Last October at Capclave (a wonderful convention with the slogan "where reading is not extinct") my family ended up playing a card game that involved a guillotine and the French aristocracy. I have also noticed that invariably there will be panelists playing games and you can usually continue whatever discussion you were having during your panel. This is a great way to find out about current thought regarding raptors and exactly how many feathers they have. The computer and video gaming is also quite popular; last year a game called Dead or Alive Extreme Beach Volleyball was getting a lot of attention, as was a hallway setup of Dance Dance Revolution. Shiny Pebble, a member of the Quality Time Team, won the Halo II tournament and will be competing again this year. Also returning is the fourth installment of a long running LARP (Live Action Role Playing) that sounds incredibly complex and takes place in the Star Wars Universe.

Monday morning at ten am you can see one of my very favorite films of all time, Hayao Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro. This wonderfully charming animated feature by the creator of Princess Mononoke and Howl's Moving Castle was unavailable in the United States for far too long. The opportunity to see it in a theater setting with other people shouldn't be missed. It's not just delightful, it's also educational; you'll get to expand your vocabulary with expressions like "Totoro pack" and cat bus. Totoro is the story of Satsuki and Mei, two girls who move to a strange new house in order to be closer to the hospital where their very sick mother is staying. They gradually meet many different kinds of forest spirits and witness strange and wonderful events. This movie appears to be deceptively simple but like all of Miyazaki's work is secretly filled with layer after layer of crunchy goodness that will keep bringing you back for more.

Can't make it to this year's con? You can listen to podcasts from Balticon 39 and 40 at this site. As we go to press you can listen to an interview with Lisa Snellings-Clark, a reading from Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman, a plug for a feast with Admiral Burad of the Imperial Klingon Battle Fleet, and many more, including an interview with Yoji Kondo. If you pay attention to that particular podcast you can find out exactly what will happen to a spaceship shot down while in orbit. Will it fall straight down or spiral down through the atmosphere? These are important questions and you never know when you'll be called upon to shoot down an offensive alien spacecraft so you should absolutely know the answers. You'll also learn the difference between rocket scientists and astrophysicists, a bit of knowledge I'm thinking will win you plenty of bar bets.