I spent most of the first week of August in Las Vegas at the annual Star Trek convention at the Rio hotel, and a couple weeks before that, my wife and I spent five days at San Diego Comic Con. Now, to any who’ve read this blog, I tend to go on a bit about how attending a convention is like going home to ‘our tribe’ and how despite the noise, the crowds, the time pressures, etc. there are few better places on Earth. Well, I want to reiterate that. No, I want to go a step further; I wish the ‘real’ world could be more like a science fiction convention. Not for of all the cool toys, the cosplayers, meeting celebrities, or the wonderful geek-carnival atmosphere.
No, I wish the real world could be more like a convention because I often see the best behaviors of human beings at these events.
At some of the panels I attended in Vegas, there was a young man who was in a motorized wheelchair who struggled with his speech; but that didn’t keep him from asking some very intelligent and interesting questions during the Q&A portions of the panels. Questions to the actors about their methods/processes, about how they approach a role, etc. This young man’s name I later found out (via Twitter) was Victor Griggs. I was really struck by this young man’s seeming uncanny ability to ask the very questions (or better questions) that I might’ve asked if I were up at the mic. After one panel, I briefly met him in one of the auditorium’s aisles and had a chance to thank him for his intelligent questions. He wore an infectious grin. Hard not to like this guy…
I meant to mention him in my previous entry on the Vegas Star Trek convention, but the more I thought about this, he deserved more than just a casual mention.
And my thoughts about him seemed to segue into something more universal that I’ve observed in more than 16 years of science fiction/fantasy convention attendance. I see a lot of different kinds of people; younger, older, differently abled, all shapes, sizes and colors. All of them sharing a passion; not just for science fiction/fantasy, but also for each other and the richness and diversity around them. No one cares about your social/economic/ethnic/religious background at these places. No one really cares if you’re too young/old, heavy/thin, whatever. But nearly everyone at these events seems to be collectively sharing a dream for something greater than what we have today… a better world.
Now, that may sound like a fairly grandiose way to describe a science fiction convention (!), but so help me, it’s true.
Even if we never reach the stars in giant starships with occasional alien crew mates, the dream of Star Trek’s IDIC (Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations) may be the single, greatest takeaway from the series. Far more so than Original Series’ flip-top communicators inspiring Motorola cell phones, or Next Gen’s PADDs leading to real-life pad computers. Trek fans (and many other types of fans) seem to be trying to graft that better, more inclusive world right onto our own world of today. And for a few days at least? They succeed.
Despite the huge crowds at conventions, you rarely see fist-fights, boorish drunks (well, maybe a few of those; especially in Vegas…), or other such negative behaviors you tend to see a lot more of in our ‘real world.’ Yes, there are some negative behaviors at these events; grotesque price-gouging (no shortage of avarice), a few very vocal complainers, habitual rule breakers, line-cutters, the occasional creep trying to take upskirt photos of scantily-clad cosplayers with their phones, etc.
^ And yes, I’ve also encountered loud, obnoxious, far-right, fire-and-brimstone protesters outside of the conventions (usually at WonderCon and at Comic Con). These folks seem to feel that we attendees are a bunch of irredeemable heathens worshiping false idols, blah, blah, blah. But these protesters (who have every right to protest, of course) are usually met with indifference or gentle mocking at most. The majority of attendees simply walk right past them. To me, these protesters are missing the point; convention attendees aren’t dismissing a greater love… they’re reveling in it. Big difference.
By and large, these negative behaviors represent an overwhelming minority of convention attendees. Most fans at these events are some of the nicest people you could ever meet. Strike up a conversation with just about any of them, and I can pretty much guarantee you will have a pleasant and/or interesting/informative exchange; or at the very least you will make a ‘line buddy’ (someone to watch your things while you quickly leave a queue to use the restroom, etc).
Maybe I’ve just lived in bad neighborhoods, but there aren’t too many places in the real world where you can safely do that.
Most of the time, I seen/met people from literally all over the world (Australia, Russia, Netherlands) coming together at these events to share in a mutual fandom/passion; to partake in the dream of living in a better reality than the one we’re saddled with. To engage in a new reality where you can dress all day as your favorite superhero or starship captain whether you’re six or sixty-six years old.
And yes, of course it’s all make-believe, but the positive feelings it generates are very real. Conventions are a wonderful ‘safe zone’ of personal expression and fantasy aspiration that anyone can partake in (assuming you get a ticket, of course; that’s the only real barrier to admittance, the cost/availability of tickets).
What’s also surprising to me is how many people involved in fandom try very hard at making that dream of personal expression and inclusivity tangible in our ‘real world’ as well.
Actress Chase Masterson (“Leeta” from Deep Space Nine/singer) has an extensive anti-bullying campaign that has actually found an audience with the United Nations (!). She began her anti-bullying campaign upon reading of a young schoolgirl who was bullied for liking Star Wars and wearing a Star Wars t-shirt to school. Masterson got in touch with her friend, actor Peter Mayhew (who played “Chewbacca” in the Star Wars films) and they organized this campaign/site/crusade in the hopes of helping people who’ve experienced bullying from their love of fantasy. The young girl became part of a movement. And now this young female fan can tell would-be bullies at her school that not only is it okay for girls to like Star Wars, but that Chewbacca himself is a personal friend of hers.
The message needs to get out to all of those young fans out there who are stifled either in expressing themselves or in pursuit of their passions. When I was a kid, openly acknowledging love for Star Wars and/or Star Trek could easily get you beaten up or ridiculed within an inch of your life; especially if you wore a Star Wars t-shirt to class. Even in my early 20s (in an adult working environment), I was still a bit ‘closeted’ and only opened up to a select few about my love of ‘geeky’ things like outer space or science fiction. Those childhood cuts run deep. Marrying my equally geeky wife years later would be the sweetest reward…
I’ve seen several of Chase Masterson’s panels on this subject, and I’ve visited her website (PopCultureHero.org) as well. I’m linking it here: popculturehero.org
Well call me naive, but I’d love to imagine a world where self-expression is not cause for a beating or insults, and I truly applaud Chase Masterson for spearheading efforts to make it so.
^ There was also Star Trek actor/activist/internet sensation George Takei’s Q&A panel, where he told moving stories about his younger years spent in a Japanese-American camp during World War 2; a place he was sent to with his family (American citizens all) when he was 4 years old. He also spoke on behalf of the rights of the LGBTQ communities, and how those rights are basic human rights to be shared by all. Takei and his husband Brad Altman were instrumental in helping to defeat California’s Proposition 8; which led to the Supreme Court legalizing gay marriage across America in 2015. He was also very vocal in his criticism of the current president, which drew a small smattering of boos, but Takei welcomed the boos; he said opposition viewpoints are necessary to a healthy democracy. It was a riveting talk, as always.
Then there’s Michael and Denise Okuda. Perhaps they’re not recognizable faces to non-Star Trek fans, but to fans such as myself? They are Mr. and Mrs. Star Trek. They have literally written the book on the subject; “The Star Trek Encyclopedia” (recently appended/revised to include the more recent movies, from 2009 to 2016, and in the years before that they worked on every Star Trek film and TV series from 1986 to 2005, designing graphics (known as “Okudagrams”), props, and all kinds of other vital bits of creative set dressing for the shows/movies.
They were also vital in working with CBS home video in restoring both the original series and Next Generation to their current high-definition luster; adding new visual effects and making painstakingly subtle, almost-invisible changes that enhanced the quality of these older shows without disturbing or undermining their original intent (unlike say, the Star Wars’ special editions with “Greedo shooting first”, etc.). They are the gatekeepers of the Star Trek universe; true ‘guardians of forever’ for the shows. My tattered copy of their “The Star Trek Encyclopedia” is one of the most referenced books in my home library.
And, as I’ve discovered by following them on Twitter, they are surprisingly strong activists for social justice. They’re not just guarding an idealized fictional universe; they are trying (with a bit of grassroots campaigning via Twitter) to help create that better universe in the here and now. I’ve met the Okudas on several occasions (the first time in 2013 at a convention in Burbank), but when I ran into them in Vegas last week I’d just began following them on Twitter and got the opportunity to tell them so. Denise Okuda asked me half-jokingly if I was “one of their warriors”? I said yes indeed, and that it was sad that we find ourselves in a world today where such “warriors” are more needed than ever.
The Okudas are (in my opinion) fine examples of fandom in action and I admire them very much. Not just for their graphic/designing talents they’ve contributed to Star Trek or for their books, but for trying to bring that idealism we see on their show into the world today. Yes, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s dream of a utopian future Earth without war or famine or crime may seem like an unworkable dream, but when you attend these conventions and meet some of these ‘dreamers’ in person, you realize that there are many others who share that same passion for a better world. John Lennon had it right when he wrote, “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one…”
There’s a reason “Imagine” is my favorite song of all time.
I’ll never forget a nice chat I once had with actor Richard Anderson (“Six Million Dollar Man” “Bionic Woman” “Forbidden Planet” “Seconds”) at San Diego Comic Con 2012. When I asked what he thought of Comic Con, he said he was amazed at the outpouring of fan affection and creativity. He told me that “if they had one of these in every city in the world… there’d be no wars.” Words of wisdom I remember to this day.
Such idealism, passion, acceptance, and even good, old-fashioned kindness in our increasingly cynical world can be a real hypospray in the arm at times…
When you leave a convention, you sometimes get (as my wife once coined it) a case of the post-convention blues. Despite the heat, crowds and some hectic schedule juggling at times, what you usually remember upon leaving is the good stuff; the encounters, the fans, the passion, and the massive love that pervades these places. And you miss it intensely. Yes, conventions can be expensive, and they are sometimes REALLY hard to get tickets for (looking at YOU, Comic Con), but… they’re also a unique, wildly imaginative and safe outlet for self expression and geeky passion.
They’re a Pride Parade for Geeks (and there is a lot of LGBTQ inclusivity at conventions as well).
Leaving these warm, cocoon-like fantasy convention environments and going back into the colder, harsher, downright hostile climate of the real world can be somewhat jarring.
Just a week after the warm glow of my Vegas Star Trek convention experience (with its 5-day long celebration of IDIC-in-action), I turn on the TV and see coverage of modern-day Nazis and other white supremacist groups spewing the exact opposite message during a violent demonstration in Charlottesville. Add to the chaos, a white terrorist plowed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one of them (32-year old Heather Heyer) and injuring 19 more. The counter-protesters were pushing back against the message of hate and divisiveness being perpetrated by the Nazis and white supremacists at this demonstration.
Coming less than a week after I was surrounded by fellow Star Trek fans all dreaming of a better world, I realize that our ‘real world’ isn’t the world I’m satisfied or content with. It can be better. It should be better.
Now, of course I am old enough and realistic enough to understand that the ills of the world can’t and won’t be solved by the actions of idealistic celebrities or throngs of creative cosplayers pretending to be heroes for a day. And it’s quite disheartening to realize that we have such a long way yet to go.
But perhaps the harsh blows of the real world could be minimized if we all tried to practice some of that inclusivity and kindness that I so often see at conventions; from Marina Sirtis’ giving a nice hug to a wheelchair-bound fan, or from the fans of all different sizes, shapes, colors and religions coming together in a mutual dream of a better, kinder (?) world than the one we were dealt.
As George Takei, Chase Masterson, Michael and Denise Okuda and many others at conventions reaffirm, perhaps we can take some of that warmth, passion, love and acceptance we feel at conventions into the real world. It doesn’t have to end at the exit gate with an admittance badge.
I’m not pretending to have any deep or profound answers here. Bullying and cruelty are deeply embedded in human behavior, but they CAN be resisted. And, as a friend of mine recently reminded me; resistance is fertile. We don’t have to simply accept that reality is a marathon of drudgery and intolerance, only broken up now and then by random acts of love and inclusiveness. Each act of resisting such negativity is a step in a better direction.
And perhaps we won’t ever have massive fleets of manned spaceships with effortlessly integrated crews boldly going to the stars (or perhaps we will?), but I think I’d be more than content with a nicely mixed, loving, accepting crew of 7.5 billion learning to be better ‘crew mates’ to each other right here on Spaceship Earth.