September 6th, 2012

WorldCon 2012: Chicon 7

Georgie and I decided we needed to economize a bit on our trip to Chicon 7, so didn't go down until Saturday. We were up early and caught the Amtrak to Chicago as we had in the past with no problem, but were a bit dismayed when the train came to a halt a few minutes after leaving the downtown station. We were subsequently informed that there had been a motor vehicle accident involving one of the supports of a bridge the train had to pass over, and regulations required that the bridge had to be inspected before the train could proceed. Fortunately, the Canadian Pacific inspector was evidently on deck, since we were underway again within half an hour. The train made up some time on the remainder of the run, so we got into Union Station only about twenty minutes later than scheduled.

A quick cab ride got us to the hotel shortly after 10:30AM. A room was not ready for us, so we checked bags and went to Con registration. This was eerily familiar, with Registration and the Souvenir sales being in exactly the same spots as the last Chicon. At this off-peak hour, picking up our pre-reg packets went smoothly, and I was also able to pick up my Masquerade documents and identification as a judge.

There were some interesting readings scheduled, so we went over to the West tower for those. There was an immense line to get into the room for Patrick Rothfuss' reading (shortly moved into a larger room--), so we decided to divert to another. We listened to some or all of readings by Todd Gallowglass, Dierdre Murphy, and Nnedi Okorafor before breaking for lunch.

We got lunch at the "Bistro" restaurant in the hotel lobby, which was OK, although I've had a better pulled-pork-barbecue-with-slaw sandwich here in Milwaukee at HoneyPie Cafe. Then, we checked back at the hotel front desk, got our room keys, and went up to change.

Since most of the rest of the day would be concerned with the Masquerade, I changed into the outfit I would be wearing to judge, which was one of my "Steampunk" variations based on my black frock coat. When we took a brief look into the Dealer's Room, I was hailed by Phil Foglio, who awarded me a "Girl Genius" Steampunk hall costume ribbon, which pleased me very much. (I was croggled by the number of badge ribbons some people had, creating bandoliers that rivaled "Doctor Who" scarves in color and length. I at first thought that the concom had run amok in this regard, until I realized that every dealer, artist, author and group had produced their own as promotional material. Fun, I suppose, but it kind of defeats the purpose of using the ribbons as an access control measure.)

I had a 4:30PM panel on Masquerade presentations, which was fun if loosely structured. We tried to give some useful tips for beginners, and I think we did, and come up with some entertaining stories, and I think we did that as well.

The Masquerade green room opened at 6PM for an 8PM 'curtain' and I was ready to begin. My co-judge for workmanship, Carole Parker, was on time as well, and we got down to work as soon as we had subjects to look at. (Workmanship judging at the WorldCon is optional, but most of the contestants did opt to be judged on part, if not all, of their costumes.) I thought Carole and I worked together well. There were some stressors—it seemed like a good idea to have the video feed from the ballroom piped into the Green Room. However, it didn't work out so well when I turned out there was no way to turn the sound down or off, and a lot of the pre-show video was LOUD. Given that this meant that "den moms" and other staff had to shout to make themselves heard, it was sometimes really difficult to conduct a detailed interview with the contestants about their costumes. Granted this wasn't something the Masquerade staff had control over, but it might be a note for future masquerade runners to check on.

Some of the entries, notably "Suzaku the Phoenix," (Sarah Mitchell), "Mad Madame M's Marvelous Machine" (Margaret Gentile), and "The Lady of the Lake" (Aurora Celeste), showed obsessive attention to detail as well as representing enormous amounts of work. These were Best Novice, Best Journeyman, and Best in Show for Workmanship, respectively. We awarded "Leather Sole Airship Pirates" Best Master for Workmanship for their amazing operating backpack helicopter device.

After the Masquerade, we pretty much went to bed, as it was pretty late.
Sunday morning we were up fairly early, and partook of the breakfast buffet at the Bistro restaurant. I had the buffet, which included a pretty nice made-to-order omelet, and Georgie had the cinnamon waffle, which she pronounced good.

We started the Con Day by attending a reading by Carol Berg, author of "The Spirit Lens" and its sequels. She read from a forthcoming book that will follow her "Lighthouse Duet," novels I haven't read but will have to look up.

At 10:30, I was on the panel "Historical Accuracy in Fantasy." This was an interesting and wide-ranging discussion that took off in ways I hadn't anticipated, but enjoyed. The audience seemed engaged as well.
After that, we caught part of the Early Music concert by "Court and Country" which we found very fine and a joy to hear.

Then, we got seats in Crystal Ballroom B early, to watch Toastmaster John Scalzi interview astronaut Story Musgrave. What a man! As the event description says, "Story is an astronaut, surgeon, jet pilot, and landscape architect. As he flew on six Shuttle missions, bred a unique new type of palm tree, and earned graduate degrees in seven different subjects, he has ignored all conventional limits." Besides that, he seems like a genuinely modest individual, and has a good sense of humor, too. I don't recall if he plays any instruments, but, as Georgie noted, he's as much like a real-life "Buckaroo Banzai" as you are likely to meet.

We then went back through the Dealers' Room, and bought a few things, including our friend Sue Burke's translation, "Amadis of Gaul, Book 1".

We finished the program day by attending "Tolkien and Me: How and When I Was First Introduced to the Books, and the Effect it Had on My Life". While in some ways this panel had some interesting information, mainly on the history of Tolkien fandom in the US in the 1960's and 70's, most of the panelist's stories started something like, "I first read The Lord of the Rings in 19XX, and I was hooked immediately." So far, so good, but no one went into why, or what about the books appealed to them. We had to make our dinner connection so ducked out before or if anyone got around to that topic--.

Sunday evening, we skipped the Hugo Awards. All honor to the nominees and winners, but we hadn't really read or seen many of the nominees, so didn't feel that interested. Instead, we went out to dinner at a restaurant called ZED 451, which was a sufficiently interesting experience I've given it its own review, following. Back at the hotel, we hung out until the London in 2014 party opened and partook of their hospitality for a time before retiring. (London got the 2014 bid unopposed. Intriguing possibilities there--.)

Monday morning, breakfast at the hotel again. We checked out of the hotel, no problems, and caught some Chuck Jones cartoons before attending the Ray Bradbury memorial panel, which was kind nice, but kind of formless.

The trip home was not as pleasant as the trip down. Amtrak at Union Station has a 'departure lounge' that was crowded and a bit too warm. Once on the train and rolling, we were hardly to Chicago's north suburbs before we became aware of gravel being thrown up against the floor of our car, a sign that something was dragging. The train stopped, and inspection showed that it was the electrical cable connecting our car and those behind us to the front of the train. The conductors did their best to reconnect it, but the incident had also shorted out the train's power control system, so electricity couldn't be restored. This meant that we had to proceed to Milwaukee with no air conditioning. We survived, but the heat was definitely getting to me by the time we arrived. The train staff did their best, but, as we overheard one say, "Mechanical (meaning "maintenance") had failed" them. We got into Milwaukee, again, about half an hour late, and cabbed home to unpack and recover.

Glitches aside, we had a good time, saw a lot of people we hadn't seen in a long time (and often their new children/grandchildren), and enjoyed some nostalgia of the 'remember when' sort prowling the Hyatt's familiar passages.

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My dinner at ZED 451

We always try to get out and have a nice dinner sometime during a con, if possible. The Hyatt Bistro restaurant is very convenient, but it's boring to eat all the meals there. We might have gone to Stetson's as we have done at previous Chicons, but they were closed for renovations, so I began tolling the Internet for interesting alternatives.

Checking first for cuisine's similar to Stetson's, I was shocked by what I found. What passes for a "chop house" in downtown Chicago has prices that put fine dining restaurants in other cities in the shade. One might not quibble overmuch at $54.00 for a steak—if that were for a steak dinner—but it's not. That's JUST the steak. A baked potato on the side is $10.00 extra. So is a salad. So is soup. Given that I'm not a subscriber to the whole "dry-aged beef" fetish, I looked elsewhere.

Elsewhere turned out to be ZED 451. They have one of the most fascinating menus of any restaurant I've seen. (You can see it here: ) Moreover, the "ZED Experience" at $48.00 per person is a great deal. (Of course, tax, drinks, desserts, and tips are not included, but that's the same anywhere--.) The service is a modification of the "Brazilian" or Churrascaria style. At ZED 451, you first visit the "harvest tables," which are loaded down with two soups nightly, a dozen salads and vegetables, ceviche, deviled eggs, rare cheeses, several types of charcutrie, artisanal breads, and spreads (truffle butter!). When you are ready for meats, the chefs come round with small cuts on skewers, and you can sample as many, and as much as you want. Meats on offer Sunday night included several cuts of beef, Moroccan chicken, pork belly with hoisin sauce, salmon, red deer venison, leg of lamb, swordfish, and breast of duck with amaretto and pistachio. Between us, we sampled some of everything, but I think the staff was disappointed at how little we ate. However, we were saving room for desserts, and needed it, since the servings of banana cream "pie" (actually more of gateau--) and chocolate bombe with ice cream were ample and delicious.

The restaurant has an impressive wine list. I sampled the red wine 'flight' and found it very nice. (For non-foodies, a "wine flight" is a sampling of a number of wines for a single price, often paired with meal courses.)

The staff was friendly, cheerful, and helpful. One of the particularly nice perks about ZED 451 is that they have a free shuttle that picked us up at the Hyatt and delivered us back there after dinner. Not only did that make getting there and back low-stress, it makes the meal an even better deal since you save on cab fares.

Everything we had was delicious and of the highest quality. Georgie pronounced herself delighted by it. Highly recommended, we would definitely go there again.
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Gutenberg! The Musical!

On Wednesday night, September 5th, we went to the Stackner Cabaret to see the Milwaukee Rep's production of "Gutenberg! The Musical."

The show is presented by two performers, Eric Damon Smith as "Bud," and Gerard Nugent as "Doug," two ordinary but stage-struck guys who have supposedly written (but not produced)a couple of musicals and are now auditioning their latest effort to the supposed "Broadway producers" in the audience.

Supported by music director Paul Helm at the piano, the two perform all the songs, dances, and characterizations for a cast of several, differentiating their roles by switching ball caps labeled with character names—everyone from "Gutenberg" to "Rat"—and, no, that's not a character nickname, the show calls for singing rats. When singing choruses, they stack all the available hats on their heads.

The reference to singing rats tells you a lot what the show is like. It's a gentle parody of Broadway historical dramas, with musical and scenic references to "Les Mis," and "Phantom of the Opera," plus "Star Wars." "Spamalot" has a lot to do with it to, not just because of the Pythonesque musical plot, but because the writer characters talk between scenes about their creative process and the structure of a Broadway show. (I hadn't heard the term "charm song" before this, but it's a useful concept to know--.)

Since the guys' research process shows "Most of Gutenberg's early life is a mystery." (Wikipedia), they felt free to concoct a pot-boiling plot involving a town full of people depressed that they are illiterate, an evil Monk who wants to keep the people "stupid", and a love interest for Gutenberg named "Helvetica." The sheer bathos* of the script is relieved by the jaunty music. The two men have good voices, but work even harder sometimes singing three different voices in one verse. They also manage a goodly amount of funny dancing as well.

Not great theater by any means, but good, funny, and very enjoyable. "Gutenberg! The Musical!" continues through October 14th.

(*Yes, bathos—not pathos. ba•thosˈ, noun:1. a ludicrous descent from the exalted or lofty to the commonplace; anticlimax. 2. insincere pathos; sentimentality; mawkishness. 3. triteness or triviality in style. )

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