Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Con Report: Aetherfest, San Antonio, 2012

So here's the first of a triplex con report! After my Fantastic Narratives conference in Halifax, in which I delivered my paper on Avatar: The Last Airbender, I flew down to the Austin airport on Thursday. The flight was especially pleasant because one of my fellow flyers was a guy I recognized from my time as a SMU Drama Society rabble rouser.... he was one of the campus security commissioners and I have many memories of having to calling down to unlock something or another, or turn off alarms, or something.

My flight was delayed by about an hour, but when I landed, Sixpence was there, with Aetherfest staff member Jasmine, because they had picked up Erica "Unwoman" Mulkey just an hour before, and thought to hang around for an hour instead of driving into San Antonio and back out.

This is Aetherfest's second year, and it's headed by Mr. Saturday and Sixpence (Pablo Vasquez and Cameron Hare). I met them at Steampunk World's Fair 2011, where I got to hang out in their room party the night I arrived, and ate some free pizza on Pablo's dime. Special Guests this year included Doctor Q of the Artifice Club, the aforementioned Unwoman, Marquis of Vaudeville, writers O.M.Grey and Lia Habel, and the Wandering Legion of Thomas Tew.

Con chair Pablo at registration desk
One of the few pictures where he's actually smiling
Click for more con reportage and pictures!

Aetherfest is also incredibly, so small the locals describe it as a family reunion, rather than a convention. If it's a family reunion, it's a family that gets bigger each year. When I asked Ay-Leen how many handouts I should make for the Steam Around the World presentation, she told me, "Aetherfest is wicked small. I wouldn't make more than 20."

Which might have worked, except this year, Pablo and Cam had decided to limit the panel programming to one track, so people didn't have to feel like they missed a lot, which is what happens when there are several tracks concurrently running awesome events at the same time. This means far from the 20-odd people in my presentation, I had something like, uh, 40. Whoops.


Steam Around the World was one of the first items of the day, and although I had asked for two hours, I got only an hour. I would like to reiterate for all and sundry that unless you are going to give me two panel items for this one subject, this is a presentation that takes forever to do. The first two sections, if we talked really quickly, could be finished in twenty minutes to half an hour. The third section, for maximum usefulness, needs to have the rest of the time opened for members of the audience to ask all the questions they want. This assumes that all the tech has been dealt with before the item even starts. Which it was not.

Nonetheless, the presentation went well. Before I set out on this marathon, I'd also tweaked a couple of slides in the third section (the one where we talk about the Tough Stuff). (We're also thinking of adding a third slide, so keep coming back!) We had to revise our slides and handouts defining racism and cultural appropriation, since we've already had three years to condense all that we've learned, and it was about time to start doing so in order to make the topic more accessible at 101 level.

This was a very different crowd for me, too, because when I asked, "how many in this room identify as POC?" a lot of white-looking folks raised their hands. I think it's very important to reiterate that the term "people of colour" is chosen. It's a political identification, not an ethnic marker. There are a lot of people of colour who look white, as a result of long on-going colonialism--indigenous folk, overlapping with Latino folk, overlapping with black folk, all can appear white, with white names, and still very much be embedded in POC cultures.

I took most of Friday easy, just chilling and meeting people, as well as renewing acquaintances with people such as Kevin Steil, Airship Ambassador, and meeting new people such as JoSelle Vanderhooft, editrix of the Steam-Powered series! She was my roommate for the Friday and Saturday nights, and I wasn't sure if she was showing up, and I'm so glad she did!

Doctor Q and
Steampunk Boba Fett
Darwin Prophet
In the evening, I had dinner with VIP pass holders on the Starlight Terrace. The food was decent enough (I daresay the vegetarian dishes looked tastier, and I can't eat vegetables). (I also heard that there weren't enough dishes to go around. This is the first of many stories I heard about hotel management being shitty to Aetherfest.) The performances were better: Darwin Prophet and Eli August played, while Doctor Q and Steampunk Boba Fett em-cee'd.

Eli August, wearing wool trousers in 35'c weather

Lucreatia Dearfour, O.M.Grey, Baron Von Lahey and Kevin Steil
socializing on the Starlight Terrace

It was sad-making, because this means I had to miss the Steampunk Radical Pub Night, with performances by Bones Jangle, and my friends Magpie Killjoy (performing as Best Before 1886) and Unwoman! I hear there were shenanigans going down: namely, that the pub management weren't told by the hotel management that steampunks and steampunk musicians were going to raid the regular ol' pub night and play acoustic. O.M.Grey and I dropped in anyway, just to say hello.

Olivia M. Grey, Erica Unwoman Mulkey, Magpie Killjoy

Jasmine, a local black lolita and vintage lover, with Unwoman


Due to various kinda of drama that was not steampunk related, I missed the parade to the Alamo! =((((  I was just a few minutes late, and they were running on time. (On time! What a novelty!) I got to the Alamo just as they were done the group photo, and I'm not too fashed about it, since I got to walk back with Erica and Magpie, as Magpie played his accordion. Magpie and I also were hosting the Social Issues and Steampunk roundtable.

A word about this: Usually Ay-Leen and I try to run it within the usual one and a quarter hour panel slot. I'm pretty lax about how the discussion runs and like to let people decide how it goes. This means getting to know them beforehand, with a round of introductions.

I got HALF AN HOUR for this roundtable. Do you know what you can accomplish with half an hour of conversation about social issues (generally)? That's right, absolutely nothing. This is fucking ridiculous and I hope to never see a repeat of it. (I know that Cameron and Pablo stressed over the schedule, but this is still ridiculous. Yes, I know they came close to crying with frustration over programming too. no1currr.) Until I see more people elevating the discourse of steampunk to hit real-life issues without descending into nonsensical displays of spectacle and evasion of responsibility, panels like this cannot be limited to such a short amount of time.

With a few other people, such as Lia Habel, we continued the conversation in a small corner outside the panel room. I was too annoyed to even continue moderating the conversation, and as a result, three white dudes dominated the discussion, while I, Lia Habel, and Stephanie Warren by and large sat back unless we really felt like saying something.

I did get this great picture of Magpie and Lia, though.
I think it's a hilarious picture of Magpie, quintessential crust punk
sitting at the feet of Lia, dressed to the nobility nines.
I took myself off to nap and prep for the Steampunk Literature panel, and the reading afterward. (There was also a room move, because the stink in our room got too much to handle, so JoSelle got us a new room on a different floor.)

I would now like to have it on record that I really, really, really despise talking prescriptively about the process of writing. So when Ben Hamby announced that yes, we would be answering the questions of How To Write Steampunk, I immediately went HELLS TO THE NO. Because, honestly? When you've been writing for a long while, and reading for a long while, and reading stuff about writing for a long while, you realize that any writing advice you can possibly dish out has already been dished out. And if you think you're good enough to posit yourself as an expert to tell other people how to write, rather than have a conversation about how you yourself write, you're probably a self-centered egotistical jackass.

I do not want to be that person. I'll read your work, listen to your ideas, and tell you where you're going wrong in terms of, "this is some really fucking bad politics that perpetuates terrible ideas, stop". I'll even tell you how I write, as in my personal process. But the path of a writer is not one where you read the roadsigns and have everything paved to the way towards publication. It's a hinterland which you travel by yourself, preferably with machete in one hand and map in the other given to you by the wisdom of others who've traveled the same place, or you travel with others.

And I rather got the idea that people don't want to write something they don't know how to define, so we did get to spend a good bit of time talking about how steampunk is defined, versus how it actually plays out, and what work has gone into drawing out the parameters of steampunk, and who's breaking them already, because fuck rules. But I really wanted to have a panel that squee'd over the current literature, beat down the bad literature, so everyone could leave with good recs and warnings, and also discuss where we wanted to take steampunk literature next. Not a panel where we talked about how we write. I get as writers this is what we like to talk about, but it makes me teeth ache.

The reading that came after went well enough. I read my story from Steam-Powered 2, with an introduction that confessed the origins of the story in a sex-driven Indiana Jones-esque story. Seems like a lot of people really wanted to hear the latter tho, which makes me think, maybe I should have read a steampunk erotica I've been sitting on for a while. Not that I would've gotten very far, since we all only got 6 minutes, with Magpie timing us, and there were 5 of us reading.

But that was done! And it was time to prep for partying!

So remember earlier, when I mentioned how the Social Issues and Steampunk roundtable quickly became a sausage-fest? It was all good, because Lia offered her room for an all-girls' get-together (my room had been dripping water from the air-conditioning vents all day and was thus smelling funky as a result), so, we had our own discussion, on our own terms, and in our own time. We got in two pizzas, and JoSelle and Erica ordered hotel food since they have dietary restrictions, and it was generally marvelous.

From right: Lia Habel, O.M.Grey, Lucretia Dearfour, JoSelle Vanderhooft, Erica Mulkey
It was such a marvelous time, I missed the first act of the concert. Whoops. Which means, I missed Bones Jangle & the Voodoo Island Cannibals. (I feel OK with this, since I'm not entirely comfortable with the band name.) I got in on time to watch the Marquis of Vaudeville, who were terrific as a rock band.

I even took videos, which is always fun, right? I got one with the lovely Unwoman guesting with them, with her new stand-up cello.

And they did an awesome cover of an awesome song!

I had been chatting with someone else when the song started so I didn't catch the first few bars of the song, sorry. But anyway.

Unwoman was headlining (as well as she should be), and it was so good to hear her new songs! People out dancing solo-waltzes to her waltzes, and whatnot. She had special guests too! Magpie Killjoy and his friend Ceightie joined her onstage for a classic song about anti-fascism and franchise:

And there was also a Vernian Process member in attendance! Yes, founder and vocalist Josh Pfeiffer was out and about Aetherfest for the Saturday night as DJ Fact.50, and parked his delicious self at the DJ table for the in-between music and afterparty:

And in case you were interested, you can find some of his mixes at MixCloud.
There was an afterparty at the con-ops hosted by Unwoman with DJ Doctor Q providing the tunes. It was a pretty good night, all in all.


I slept in on Sunday, as much as I could anyway, since we had to check out. JoSelle was leaving in the afternoon, and Erica and I had decided to room together for the night, but we weren't sure who was keeping the room. Either way, I moved for like the third time that weekend into a different room, sigh. And was out and about chatting with people before my panel with JoSelle and Olivia.

This was the first time I debuted my panel "It's Mad Science!: Mental Illness in Steampunk." It had a description that indicated a desire to talk about what constitutes madness, how it is portrayed, how pulp fiction depictions have changed over the years.

This..... did not happen.

I should state up front and I hand-picked the panelists for this discussion, JoSelle Vanderhooft and Olivia M. Grey, because I know they live with mental illness. As do I, as I've mentioned on this blog a few times. I've seen how discussions of mental illness go when run by people who don't suffer from it, or do but are trying to front as normal. I'm not about to run a mental illness panel with people who don't understand what it's like to live with it.

And in order to talk about mental illness in any just way, we need to draw our parameters of what mental illness constitutes, and why we are talking about it. Why is this such an issue? Why do we have problems with bad depictions of mental illness?

Which led to a very raw and intense discussion of mental illness, how it affects our personal and professional lives, how stereotypes and perceptions of mental illness create stigmas that make it even more difficult to seek help. Olivia mentioned gaslighting. Some guy tries to make some point about how "we're all crazy! so why do we even have this problem?" which.... SIGH.

None of us reacted very well to this. JoSelle, especially, since it cut close to personal experiences where her illness was minimized and deemed not important to talk about, driving her close to suicide. It's not that I don't understand where this sentiment comes from, or that I don't get it comes from a well-meaning place. But this is what I call, Kumbaya Points. It's when you try to say something that you hope everyone will be on board with because it is apparently so common-sensical, when in fact, all you're doing is simplifying the nuances of the issue and rendering it irrelevant to talk about. Which does not actually help in the long run, because it makes us feel unable to discuss what's bothering us and honestly confront the systemic issues that make addressing these problems in any productive way.

Josh Pfeiffer also had a suggestion of sorts, which is to write or do something creative in response to the illness. Which is not a new nor revolutionary suggestion (and Josh and I had a conversation about stressful living, and I made reference to how poverty exacerbates mental illness, which I know he gets, so it's not like we're not on the same page here; also, I will never listen to The Last Express the same way again), as dealing with depression and mental illness is a pretty personal thing. What works for one person, doesn't work for another.

It was..... you know what, despite any terribleness, the fact that it got so personal, and we all got so angry at certain points, it was a great panel. I am so honoured to have had such great people sit on it with me on such a difficult subject, people who live everyday with the strength that they shouldn't have to have.

O.M.Grey and JoSelle Vanderhooft

Not only that, but the conversation continued. We got out at 1.30pm and eight of us went to the pub to keep talking. There were two major conversations going on, and I could only dedicate myself to one (with Jasmine and Josh), and it was emotionally exhausting. (I'm glad I did it, but that should not be confused for any willingness to do it for just anyone.)

People kept coming up to me afterward, to thank me for the panel, which was apparently very educational. I'm glad it was; having to display pain like that takes a toll, and it is incredibly meaningful to know that it resonated with others, enough for them to talk about it.

I spent the rest of the afternoon hanging out by the pool with Erica and Olivia (who were in it; I didn't bring my swimsuit, so I just sat on the edge and dangled my feet in the water) and listened to them talk about polyamory. This may be a thing next year, folks: Pool-Time Poly Talk.

We missed the closing ceremonies, and the rest of the evening was spent wandering on the boardwalk looking for dinner (me, Erica, Lucretia, Olivia, Magpie and Ceightie), and when the rest of the San Antonio steampunks went to watch The Avengers, I stayed in the lobby of the hotel dealing with my ish.

It was a fine con, all in all. Erica was a really cool roomie, and I got up early to get a ride with Magpie Killjoy up to Waltham. I got to say my goodbyes and it was a good end to it all.

Now, other things to talk about:

Aetherfest is a small venue, as I've said before. As such, the vendor room was really small, much like PDX GearCon's. It's not something I'm used to, since to me, steampunk conventions are cornucopias of capitalistic consumerism. I found it quite a relief, actually. I don't think I spent any money on anything, which is fine and dandy, since I had so much more traveling to do. When you travel as much as I do, without transport of your own, you learn to be as compact as possible.

Perhaps because it is a small con, I was struck at how many groups were running around, with several members representin', not just one or two members. Airship Isabella, The Celestial Rogues, Delirium of Grandeur, combining forces with The Wandering Legion, make for a lot of visibility. I usually don't pay attention to airship crews, but they were kind of hard to miss here.

The other thing I was struck by was the number of POC running around. Since this is Texas, and not Whitelandia Portland (or even Seattle), there were a goodly number of folks who were visibly not-white, not just black but also of Latino/Hispanic/indigenous descent. There's enough POC critical mass there to have conversations whereby POC can remark, "huh, never thought [about race in steampunk] before."

There were apparently also other hotel management shenanigans occurring. Besides my shitty experience with the room, whereby the hotel staff had no idea what to do (I don't blame them for it), and hotel management did nothing but move us only after we asked, the hotel management also made it clear that steampunks were not welcome. It's sad, especially since last year, the hotel was really glad to have Aetherfest. However, Wyndham Hotels took over the Saint Anthony this year, and the franchising shows when you have management booking a different group in and cordoning off your group. I also heard alarming talk of managers being rude to con staff, tableflipping in the vendor room, and snubbing the steampunks, generally. (After this, they tried to weasel money out of Pablo even though he pointed out that they breached the contract numerous times, and strong-armed him into staying until he'd written out a check, not to be cashed until Friday, but they did it straightaway, which meant throwing Pablo into the red for a bit.)

When I completed the hotel survey with these complaints, I received an email stating that a different management has taken over the hotel (man that makes it what, the second buy-out in as many years? Someone give that grand ol' place some love). So here's hoping next year's hotel managers are nicer, because the staff were pretty sweet.

So, because my story doesn't end here, but instead ends in a van with Magpie, Pablo and Ceightie on a four-day road trip up to Massachusetts, have some pictures instead:

Alamo Gathering
Gathering at the Alamo
Official Photographer, Jennifer Ytuarte and assistant
Official photographer Jennifer Ytuarte with assistant

JoSelle Vanderhooft, Steam-Powered editor, and Kevin Steil, Airship Ambassador
JoSelle Vanderhooft
and Kevin Steil
Baron von Lahey and Nicki of the Wandering Legion
Drinking with Nikki and Baron von Lahey
of the Wandering Legion
A Celestial Rogue!
Dancing with a Celestial Rogue!
Brittni, NOT Martha Jones as I initially thought
Chilling with Brittni,
who is not Martha Jones
but doesn't she look JUST like Freema Agyeman??

Getting drunk with Erica Mulkey, Cameron Hare and Baron Von Lahey
Getting drunk with Erica Mulkey, Cameron Hare and Baron von Lahey
DJ Doctor Q and Ambassador Kevin Steil
DJ Doctor Q and Ambassador Kevin Steil
Getting drunker with Josh Pfeiffer and Lucretia Dearfour
Getting drunker with Josh Pfeiffer and Lucretia Dearfour
Magpie Killjoy, handsomely kit out in a shirt borrowed from Ceightie (see Unwoman video)
Magpie Killjoy, wearing a shirt from Ceightie
(see Unwoman video above)
A local steampunk shows off his decals
A local steampunk shows off his decals
Unwoman graces us with a song on the hallway piano
Unwoman graces us with a song
on the hallway piano

 Next stop: Watch City Festival, Waltham, MA!


  1. Great con report!

    Re: Steampunk Literature panel
    "I really wanted to have a panel that squee'd over the current literature, beat down the bad literature, so everyone could leave with good recs and warnings, and also discuss where we wanted to take steampunk literature next. Not a panel where we talked about how we write."
    I agree with you here - I find those sorts of panels the most useful in terms of writing advice anyways!

    And I admire your courage in setting up and running the mental illness in steampunk panel. It's not something that gets talked about as much as it should. Hopefully if you have another panel on a similar subject, no one will make the "but everyone is crazy" comment.

    Because: no.
    (I'm sort of glad I wasn't there, because I probably would have blown up at the "everyone is crazy" guy, and that's... not productive)

  2. Thanks so much for all the kind mentions! I had a wonderful time at Aetherfest. I wish I was as good at blogging and recording events as you are, but I'm glad you wrote about it. I was int he audience for many of those panels you're talking about and I completely agree with your take on them. Also, yeah, Pool Time Poly Talk has to happen next year!