It’s a cheap trick: three days of escapism in an air-conditioned hotel, a hologram come to life before your eyes, people sharing mutual space and ideas and caffeine-binges on a weekend devoted to books, computers, Japanese anime, costumes, role-playing games and, of course, sci-fi at the annual Penguicon Convention in Novi.
Try showing up at work one morning wearing some of the things I saw this weekend and you’ll probably have violated several dress codes. You can’t do the things that happen at a sci-fi convention anywhere else without the obligatory stare cutting into your back.
Three days of the zany, the downright weird and the unexplainable? I can’t wait.
The convention is off to a very slow start. Registration lines and hotel check-ins, people trailing suitcases behind them, looking somewhat tired and lost. Laptops are in abundance. I stroll around the hotel looking for odd little details. I don’t have to look far. Six kids gather around a table and open their computers and begin talking in a language only they can understand. With all the black wires and accessories littering the floor beneath their table, I half expect one of them to jack into the Matrix.
A major draw today is the anime room, which looks liked something out of a 1970 sci-fi flick. People are watching films in their original Japanese (with subtitles), staring listlessly at the projection on the wall. No one laughs or moves at all. It’s unsettling. So far, the convention lacks the type of sauce I expected. Where are the staples of the classic sci-fi convention: the costumes, the fake weapons, the fur suits? Maybe tomorrow.
I got sauce, in abundance. I hear a familiar beat coming from the theater. Can’t place it, but I know I’ve heard it before. Wait a minute. Hip-hop at a sci-fi convention? This I have to see.
I’m unprepared for what I encounter when I round the corner. First, it’s an Eminem song playing. Second, it’s not Eminem singing “Cleaning Out My Closet.” It’s a guy pretending to be the hobbit named Frodo singing, “I’m sorry Gollum/I never meant to hurt you/ I never meant to make you cry/ but tonight/ I’m stealing like a hobbit.”
The act segues into a parody of “Stan.” But instead of “Stan,” it’s “Sam,” as in Sam Gangee, and he’s singing about writing a letter to Frodo, because he’s his biggest fan. Aka Gollum then takes the mike to parody “Lose Yourself.”
The crowd sings along, somehow, rocking to the rhythm. It’s silly, geekdom at its finest, but this is what I came for. It’s the kind of underground stuff that commercial radio would never touch.
I have to get an interview with this guy, the singer with the Frodo act, Luke Ski (pronounced “skee,” as in Luke Sienkowski). How does he come up with this stuff?
Luke Ski is from Wisconsin, he looks about 18, maybe 20. He’s blond, maybe 5-foot-6. In reality, he’s 30 and works as a clerk at Blockbuster Video. He’s looking to do song parodies full time, along with cartooning.
“As long as my wife can eat regular food and I can eat ramen noodles I’ll be fine. I mean, I love Weird Al, and that type of song parody you don’t really hear anymore on the radio.”
Convention-goers call this type of sci-fi/fantasy music Filk.
“Filk is normally done in folk style, but I can’t play guitar, and I’ve been a big fan of rap music since I was a kid. So that’s what I do,” says Luke Ski.
His song “Stealing Like a Hobbit” is currently the No. 1 song on “Dr. Demento” (a syndicated radio show featuring song parodies).
Saturday night is the biggest event of the convention, the masquerade.
On my journey through the perils of Middle Earth I spy Obi-Wan Kenobi, Darth Vader, a 12-year-old girl dressed as a nun with a samurai sword in her right hand, and a middle-aged man in rimless glasses who looks like a wardrobe malfunction from the movie Tron.
Death and Death walk hand in hand: the character Death from the Sandman books (a beautiful dark-haired girl with an ankh necklace) and Death, you know, the guy with the scythe.
Two penguins in chains and their redneck sheriff win highest honors for costumes at the ball. Honorable mentions go to Death & Death and the Sea Sprite (a scantily-clad redhead with white nipple-dots who turned up the heat about 20 degrees at the masquerade).
I ask Neil Gaiman (the guest of honor, a New York Times best-selling author and creator of the Sandman comics) about what makes the Penguicon different from the hundreds of conventions he’s gone to. He thinks a moment, sipping on his tea.
He wears a black leather jacket and black shirt and a newly grown beard.
“The fact that it acknowledges this wonderful intersection of SF [science fiction] fandom and computer geekdom,” says Gaiman. “I think it’s great.”
Gaiman has been to hundreds of conventions. I’d take his word for it.
It would seem that as soon as the convention finally gets a little life all its own, the sauce starts to run dry. This is the final day.
People are packing up. The halls aren’t as busy. There’s only a few things left to go to.
I attended a panel called “Pop Me in the Freezer & Thaw Me Out,” a discussion on cryogenics. It’s still funny to be handed a booklet on an actual business that exists to take money from you ($120,000) to insure that your body gets frozen after death, in hopes that one day you can brought to back to life.
I go to the anime room, but there’s no more anime. In the gaming room, no gathering. The weekend is ending, the magic spell has run its course.
It’s a cheap trick, but a good one. As big and strange and mysterious as one of those traveling circuses you see in movies and read about in books. Like them, sci-fi conventions have their creep-out factor, but can be very cool as well.
I’m not saying I’d want to go back anytime soon, but it’s always interesting when you can glimpse the other side, even if it is only momentary, before the hologram flickers out.
For information on next year’s Penguicon, go to www.penguicon.org.Cornelius A. Fortune is a rabid sci-fi fan and freelancer for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org