DragonCon, the Summer Vacation for Nerds

During my summer vacation I met a Cylon, had sex with Wonder Woman, and uncovered a vast conspiracy to destroy geek culture as we know it. Yes, I spent my Labor Day weekend at DragonCon, one of the nation's biggest science fiction conventions. Since the late 1980s, DragonCon has been attracting more than 20,000 S.F. fans to Atlanta every year for various fannish rituals. It was my first S.F. con, and I have to admit, I've become a convert.

DragonCon is probably the only place on Earth where I could bond with people over rare Godzilla movie soundtracks. Drunk people at DragonCon parties yell, "To the geek life!," and raise their glasses high. It's the only event I've ever attended where people flirt by boasting, "I'm a game designer for White Wolf!"

Gamers, shunned in real life, rule at DragonCon. An entire exhibit hall was set aside for role-playing games. Filled with seemingly hundreds of circular white tables, the hall was packed all day and all night for the entire three-day con. Hunched over boards, cards, tiny figurines, and notepads, the gamers could live inside their own imaginations and roam free.

Strange new superheroes lurked around every corner. I met Danger Woman at the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund booth in the expo room. As a quiet young man with the fund explained how his organization defends free speech for comic book artists, a diminutive woman in a black velvet outfit with a cape and a silver mask piped up, "I love this! You're protecting us all!" Then she zoomed off, arms in front of her, flying Superman-style.

Later that evening I discovered that Danger Woman ó in real life, an autistic-and-proud gal named Betsy ó is a star. Her "Danger Music" show was wild. Singing in a screechy voice about heroism, Danger Woman heckled the audience, scolded a young man with a Mohawk about his manners, and handed out presents. She was backed by a karaoke machine, a band of blue-haired people in lingerie with bells, and a couple of random grunge-looking axemen. It was like nerd-punk filk karaoke. You figure it out.

At a panel about the corporate menace to fandom, I discovered why we need Danger Woman (and any other willing superheroes) fighting on our side. Several fans with S.F.-related Web sites were there talking about how to deal with companies sending you "cease and desist" letters when they discover your tiny Star Wars fan site, or your love songs to Xena online. One woman related how a company called Fandom Inc. (www.fandom.com) threatened her friend's Web site at www.fandom.tv, claiming that it owned exclusive rights to the word fandom. Surrounded by 20,000 members of S.F. fandom, it was obvious how ridiculous this company's position was. And yet Fandom Inc. continues to threaten the tiny Fandom.tv site, as if being a fan were a commodity that someone could own, rather than a state of mind shared by millions.

Wandering through the Hyatt hotel, surrounded by elves and robots and people in Matrix T-shirts, I wondered what separates a fan from a mundane (a nonfan). A mundane might enjoy Star Wars, but she would never strap a life-size Jar Jar puppet to her legs and wander around Atlanta's downtown food court looking for a sandwich. And, if targeted by LucasFilm's legal department for posting pictures of Jar Jar, a mundane would back down immediately. She wouldn't want to hold on to those pictures, to claim them as hers.

A fan possesses the culture she adores. For the fan, tuning in to Buffy the Vampire Slayer every week isn't just a fun distraction. It's part of her identity. She comes to DragonCon to slay demons, to yank her favorite horror show out of the hands of UPN and make it something personally meaningful. And, like Danger Woman, she'll fight for her right to seize control of a powerful fantasy. Who are we to judge what shape anticorporate cultural rebels might choose?

Nobody ever talks about how revolutionaries sometimes look goofy. Sure, we hear about scary, bomb-throwing guerrillas. We hear about serious-minded political protesters. But what about the fans who protect our right to fantasize independently, unmolested by lawyers and managers and commercials? Certainly there are more urgent issues out there: war, hunger, economic devastation. And yet if we don't have the power to own our own dreams, we cannot begin to fight.

At DragonCon the fans are in the trenches, making the world safe for your fantasies. Your play is their subversive work. They dress up in silly masks so you can imagine a world better than the one George Lucas sells you.

Annalee Newitz (fannish@techsploitation.com) is a surly media nerd who will see you next year at DragonCon. Her column also appears in Metro, Silicon Valley's weekly newspaper.

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