Shenaniganator – or – Philcon 2015

It’s been a week since I participated in Philcon 2015. I have held off a week in writing up my review partially because it was Thanksgiving week and that meant a busy schedule and partially because I wanted to take some time to consider how best to write up my thoughts on the whole venture. For anyone who has been with me for a while here at the Pretend Blog, I did remember my socks this year.

Last year was the first time I’d attended as an invited guest and I was a little surprised to have gotten another invitation this year ~ not through any misdeed or indiscretion, I just hadn’t really given it much thought. Thankfully I was able to secure a room and once again have the fantastic option of riding with my friend Mary. Travel and check in were smooth sailing.

There were a number of friends in attendance, but a more than significant number of friends that were not this year. The lack of attendance was palpable to me. There were empty seats in the lobby, empty seats at the hotel bar, empty seats in the gaming area and lots of empty seats in the panel rooms. I missed seeing many of my friends. I had commented last year on how the attendance felt really low to me, and this year seemed worse to me. Once again, I don’t have numbers to back me up or any kind of data for that matter. It’s just a feeling, but a feeling based on simple observation like: I could put my arms out to my sides and not hit anyone or anything in the dealers room. There wasn’t anything even vaguely resembling a crowd even in the middle of Saturday afternoon. Not encouraging.

Panels were totally up and down. I had six for the weekend and they all subjects I could speak to with some form of knowledge. I think that says good things about programming. Yes, the information about the panels arrived a little later than one might want (it was plenty of time for me as a non-moderator), but I did not ever encounter the “well I have no idea why I’m on this panel” person.

I really enjoyed the first panel called “Judging a Book By Its Cover” on Friday. Ray Ridenour was a good moderator and the panel was quite diverse. It was nice to have all the bases covered with Ray’s insight as an artist, a publisher and an author on the panel. I was really hoping to meet the editor that had been scheduled to be there, but he didn’t make it.

I also learned a great deal from the panel Military Culture In Science Fiction. It was easily the best attended panel of mine for the weekend. I did my best to have solid input to this panel but frequently found myself listening and getting caught up in what the others were saying.

I’d have to say the first was probably the best for the weekend for me. Most were decent. They did not all go well in my humble opinion. I’m not going to detail each panel, but when an audience member approaches you and another author after the panel and offers to buy you both a drink just for getting through I suspect the reviews wouldn’t be stellar.

The small panel attendance did have one big advantage. I had the chance to really chat with both the folks I was on the panel with and some of the folks in the audience. It was really good to meet others that are fans and genuinely interested in what others were working on. I might have even gotten folks to check out Watch The Skies so we can keep the connections rolling through the rest of the year.

Lastly, and I think somewhat sadly, I came to the conclusion over that convention weekend that I am no longer a Shenanigan-ator. I am not really even a good participant at this point. After really talking up and enjoying the memories of Defend The Pizza I know that Sawney HattonTheLoot was disappointed when nothing even remotely resembling a brawl happened on either Friday or Saturday night. The room parties on Saturday night were… not exactly what you would normally see as a party I think. We (and by we I mean the people I was with) decided we needed something to happen – and so the great game of Elevator Roulette was invented. I genuinely laughed the hardest at the convention goers that exited their elevator cab cane first much to Sawney’s chagrin. The details are fuzzy. I really enjoyed watching that, but was somewhat relieved it wasn’t my elevator that opened. I don’t think I would have carried things off as well as the others there. I am sure they would have been disappointed then and I know they were disappointed when they moved ahead with the “something needs to happen” concept. I will totally own the simple fact that I decided not to crash the reception that was sharing the hotel. I don’t know when I stopped being the shenanigans guy – but it was pretty clear this past weekend that I am no longer that guy. Maybe I’ll come back around to it some day.

Someday. As I typed that I had to genuinely wonder how many somedays Philcon has left. I don’t want to be the pessimist here, but this year didn’t convince me the downward slide has stopped. I do hope they pick up next year. I also hope they’re willing to invite me again and that I’ll have the chance to once again see friends and find out who the Shenanigan-ator will be.

Low Culture?

Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture ManifestoSex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto by Chuck Klosterman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I have to admit that hearing the author speaking in a radio interview about something completely different failed to improve my mental image of him… using his method of comparison, he strikes me as the kid who got bullied and developed his intellect to compensate. This alone wouldn’t be an issue. I had a great many fistfights with bullies in my distant youth. The problem is that he is now relatively successful and gives the impression that deep in his core he believes he is super witty and important. I use the term believes on purpose. It’s a position to be stated and defended much like the agent in the movie Serenity without the gravitas. My feelings on the author are only important because this book is his ‘manifesto’ (still no gravitas).

I don’t normally read the cover blurbs because they are either paid or from a friend of the author and don’t actually help anyone decide a book is worth reading. I should have read the back cover material this time ~ particularly the part about “exasperating”.

I can’t recall how this book ended up on my reading list but I do remember being interested. I’m not sure I should have been and I’m very glad this was a loaner and not something I purchased. One of my biggest issues with this book is that it is tied so directly to pop culture it becomes tied to (directed at) a specific generation by default. It is unlikely that my daughter will ever watch Saved By The Bell and IF she does it is even less likely it will mean anything to her. For a manifesto this is a major flaw.

One other big issue I have is that I frequently disagree with the position forwarded by the author. Example: The only reason ‘The Real World’ matter is because it exists as a clear, distinct signpost at the end of MTV being culturally relevant. It is the moment they became the punchline “…when they used to play music”.

I will say there are small parts of the book I found amusing and useful as conversation starters. These were offset by my own juxtaposition with other vaguely similar material. I suspect it’s that particular comparison that doesn’t help. I watched a war documentary. In that a soldier discusses the mind numbing boredom that was everything between the shattering adrenaline spikes produced by combat. During those quiet times the men had explored any and all ‘getting to know you’ bits of discussion and stretched to find something ~anything~ to talk about. This lead directly to a six hour argument about who would win a fistfight, Fabio or George Clooney. Who would find this important or engaging? People right on the edge of insanity or people truly desperate for something to do. This author was clearly desperate for something to do.

One of the most maddening aspects of this whole thing is the language of your high school English class being levered into a conversation about cereal and how that directly relates to the meaning of life. It’s bad cereal too (I’ve never liked Cocoa Puffs, even as a kid). There are statements like, “…well suited for conventional moralizing…” when connected to media seem to support his position. All I could remember during these parts was my heartfelt desire to scream out in class, “ALL OF THIS TERRIBLE BOOK IS ABOUT TRYING TO KILL YOURSELF BY SLEDDING INTO A TREE! ARE YOU KIDDING ME?! This is the stupidest thing ever”.

I think that’s really it – if you’re looking for dated material that thinks it’s funnier than it is, this book is for you. I’m left with the ‘are you kidding me’ feeling and I’m more than a bit relived that I can give the book back.

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Spot On

Dead Spots (Scarlett Bernard #1)Dead Spots by Melissa F. Olson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I tracked this book down based on a series of reviews I read praising the author’s work. I’m glad I did. It was fun and fast. I have seen the concept of a null in other places before (most recently in the work of Gail Carriger – if you don’t know her stuff, go look it up) but it was a very interesting take to use a null as a crime scene cleaner.

The main character, Scar as her friends call her, seems to be a very reactive person. It’s really the biggest weakness I see in her. I guess I see her as negotiating from a position of weakness and that is something that always troubles me with a protagonist. It didn’t slow me down much, but I worry that the next book (or books) will cause me to dislike her based on her not taking charge and causing things to happen. I know this is a personal thing for me – there are lots of folks out there that don’t have any trouble with a character like that – but it’s one of those things I have trouble getting around.

All in all I’d say if you’re looking for a light urban fantasy you’ll probably enjoy this one.

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The Grendel Review

The Grendel AffairThe Grendel Affair by Lisa Shearin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this book. It was a light, fun, and fast. There was plenty of action and the characters were engaging. I didn’t feel put off by them. I could give or take the setting – lots of books use New York City as a backdrop. The nice thing was that it felt like the author had a solid concept of distance and the time it takes to get places (and if she really didn’t know NYC then very well done faking it for somebody that doesn’t know the city at all).

I have spent some time trying to figure out how not to compare this book to Monster Hunter International by Larry Correa and failed. I can’t escape the comparison. This book is decidedly lighter on the weapons chat and leans more toward the relationships, but they are very close to each other. If you liked MHI then you will probably like this book. If you like secret monster societies and clandestine quasi government operations with lots of action this book is for you.

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American Football

I’m certain that fans of the game will have differing opinions on what I write here, but I’m actually hoping to reach non-fans on this one. There is some compelling stuff toward the bottom of this – it’s worth a read (and a listen if you pop out to Radio Lab).

American football is the only “reality TV” I watch. No, I don’t watch chef kitchen whatever or survivor island race whatever. Do I know about them? Sure – how could you not in this day and age. Yes football is reality TV – complete with elimination matches and a massive soap opera attached to the players – it just happens to make over a billion dollars a year. It is the biggest, baddest reality TV show on the block and it doesn’t care much what the soap opera players it hires do – unless they can’t perform or they make the show itself look bad (and when I say bad, that’s a relative term). The only folks close to the same level? NASCAR. Believe it. NASCAR just doesn’t have the history that football does.

Football is and always has been a brutal game of aggressive ground acquisition. We are actually watching the fastest, hardest hitting yet safest version of the game ever. Don’t believe me? What if I told you there was a football season where 19 people playing died? Torn ACL doesn’t sound bad compared to dying. This tradition of brutal has carried forward. In recent past years there was a player that had a portion of his finger amputated rather than have surgery to save it so he could get back onto the field sooner rather than later. Who needs that part anyway, right? There are players every year that drive their bodies to a point that most of us would find ridiculous to consider.

The intense competition of football gives us genuinely compelling stories. It is fascinating to see the inspiration, the rage, the horror and the joy all generated by a group of men trying to push a ball in one direction or another, televised weekly but only a few short weeks out of each year.

A friend of mine pointed me to this really interesting article on Radio Lab about the history of football. They talk about some of the origins of the game (if you’ve heard of Pop Warner football leagues, did you know there was a man behind that name?) and the things those men did to push the game to become what it is today. They bent the rules or exploited the not yet a rule situations to win. Do you want to understand why it takes 15 minutes to play out the last 30 seconds of game time? It’s because we’ve had a hundred years of little boys standing in the grass yelling,


This is the heart of the game and now the results mean the difference between winning and losing on a multi-million dollar stage. Brutality and bending the rules to gain any possible advantage. Don’t believe me? Listen to that Radio Lab article. It tells about the little things that changed each year because of the things the men running the teams did in order to get any little advantage. Guess why you can’t paint the ball to match your uniform jersey – because somebody did it. Puts a little inflation argument in better perspective? The Radio Lab article also discusses the Carlisle Indian School and their influence on the game. History right in our area – close to my family actually. I hope to get down to see the historic marker soon. I also hope that when the film makers tell the story of the Carlisle Indian school they do it justice. There’s a lot of history there and I would love to see it done well.

There’s a local college that houses a lot of information about the Carlisle Indian School. It’s a story worth checking out.

Keep the picture in your head of two little kids on the playground arguing next time you see football being played, just put that attitude into grown men. It put a bit of a different spin on things for me once I figured it out. I’d love to hear what you think – do those never ending final seconds of the game make more sense in that light?



I was very happy to be invited as a guest to the Philadelphia Science Fiction Society’s annual convention. I have commented on this before, but I hesitated to post anything more until it was all ‘official’.

Now it’s official!

Here’s my schedule for the weekend:

Fri 6:00 PM in Plaza IV (Four) (1 hour)

[Panelists: Ray Ridenour (mod), Maureen O. Betita, Gail Z. Martin,
Andi O’Connor, Eric Hardenbrook, Ty Drago]

A cover shapes the expectations the reader brings to the book. What
if it is deliberately misleading? Can a deceptive cover bring the
book to its audience? How hard is it to appreciate a story based on
its own merits when you’re comparing it to the story you thought it
was going to be

Sat 11:00 AM in Crystal Ballroom Three (1 hour)

[Panelists: Todd Dashoff (mod), Eric Hardenbrook, Deborah Stanish,
Joan Wendland, Carl Fink, Gary Feldbaum]

People with broad taste choose from many different story types. On
what basis do we make these choices? Why do some readers focus on
one sub-genre or one writer

Sat 12:00 PM in Plaza II (Two) (1 hour)

[Panelists: Mike McPhail (mod), Christopher Weuve, Eric Hardenbrook,
Jack Hillman, John Skylar]

How accurately is it depicted in SF literature, and how has it been
extrapolated into future settings? Who is writing it believably

Sat 5:00 PM in Plaza V (Five) (1 hour)

[Panelists: Tony Finan (mod), A.T. Greenblatt, Joan Wendland, Eric
Hardenbrook, Muriel Hykes]

Despite being an intersection of innovative storytelling formats,
fantastic visual artistry, audio dramas, and community interaction,
Gaming’s place in sci-fi, fantasy, and horror is often overlooked.
How do card, board, video, and other games continue to influence the
way genre stories are told? How else has Gaming affected the nervous
system of fandom over the years

Sat 9:00 PM in Plaza II (Two) (1 hour)

[Panelists: Steve Wilson (mod), Phil Giunta, Eric Hardenbrook, Chris
Fuller, Victoria Janssen]

Before online social media, before and AO3, before
podcasts and youtube, fandom’s creative outlet and primary method
of keeping the lines of communication open was the humble fanzine.
The advent of the Internet may have seen a downturn in their
production, but not in our desire to create and communicate. How did
fanzines get us where we are today? How much or our heritage still
lies bound between those now-musty pages, and what’s being done to
preserve it? Where do we go next

Sun 10:00 AM in Plaza II (Two) (1 hour)

[Panelists: Evelyn Leeper (mod), Rodney Somerstein, Eric

How do you propose a title in a way that makes people want to read
it? How does one run a successful book discussion group in general

I’ll be a panelist and not a moderator for any of these topics. I’m looking forward to the discussions and interesting tidbits I always pick up during these discussions. IF you’re in the area, get out to the convention. I love to go to these and if you’re a fan I’m betting you’ll love it too.