The Redcoats Were Coming – A Review of Up in the Aether Steampunk Convention

Good evening, gentle readers.

I do hope that you have been enjoying the slow stroll into summer. It does seem that some days are warm and sunny while others are chill and grey, but such is the wont of Mother Nature particularly in Canada.

I simply must, and need, to let you know of an event that I attended recently that has reset the bar for all Steampunk fetes. I have attended many many conventions over the last three plus decades and DJed nearly countless events in about the same amount of time but Up in the Aether [UitA] has created new expectations and hopes for all such Steampunk Conventions [and I do need to attend more to see if they are ALL so incredible]. Both as a guest and as an attendee I found this convention to be incredible.

The weekend after our Victoria Day, accompanied by my noble and trustworthy soundman and fellow DJ, Danr, I traveled over the world’s longest undefended border to the city of Detroit to attend and DJ at Up in the Aether. I had recently relocated cities and so found the trip would now take a further four to five hours and, combined with my temporary financial situation due to moving cities and seeking common employ, I initially turned down the offer of being a guest. Mr. Wiggins, however, was very insistent and did a fantastic job of convincing me to set out on this adventure, and I am glad that he was so persuasive. And so we journeyed off to this four day happening as it was the weekend our Southron neighbours call Memorial Day Weekend.

There were occasional issues throughout the convention and I am sure others discovered challenges which I did not but it was how the convention folk dealt with these small things that made all the difference.

After a rather lengthy trip, with gratitude to our road construction workers and all those other drivers who felt a need to be on the road with no knowledge of how to drive properly in order to keep traffic flowing well, we arrived on the Friday evening at the Double Tree hotel in Dearborn, Michigan. Our room keys were presented promptly though, being guests, it took a touch of walking about and asking after various people to ensure we were properly tagged and badged and ready to enjoy the weekend.

They had wisely booked all of the DJs and bands together at one end of a hallway that we could make as much noise as we desired and so Saturday night we hosted a three-room room party with the Steampunk Mixologist and a reasonable bar [which shall grow next year] as well as music and conversation throughout the rooms and hallway.

It is estimated that between seven hundred and one thousand attendees accompanied us though due to the layout of the hotel and the large selection of panels, workshops, concerts and other attractions it never truly felt crowded: my own guess was that perhaps four hundred or so had strolled through the door.

There were, methinks, about a half dozen or more tracks of panels and workshops including writing and publishing [with readings by several authors], clothing and fashion [of course], food and alcohol and tobacco [with sampling], a well supplied makers’ room with ongoing discussions and teachings, Steampunk socials, a Port Party, a room dedicated to Self Defence particularly as regards sky pirates, and many, many more. There was constantly something interesting happening. Outside in a spacious tent was a near constant line up of incredible musicians, bands and DJs including Voltaire, Eli August, and many others ranging from Steampunk duets to a Steampunk Heavy Metal band.

The dealers’ room simply must be mentioned: it was a reasonable size to not take an entire afternoon to explore, was never so crowded that one could not walk comfortably and was filled with such high quality fare end to end that I boggled. The offerings were varied and diverse and of exquisite craftsmanship. Incredibly desirable. I believe I spent my entire month’s pay-cheque seven times over, fortunately only in my thoughts but next year I shall attend with a large amount of coin of the realm.

There was a kaleidoscope of clothing from the simple day-wear to intricate evening fare. There were uniforms [it was VERY pleasing to find three others sporting the Queen’s Scarlet besides myself and my companion], work clothing and sporting-wear, brass and steel bits, and a very wide range of appearances.

If you desire then you can find the pictures here:
https://www.facebook.com/djthelf.thelf/media_set?set=a.10152869105880024.1073741827.797510023&type=3
[And do note that though ’tis my Facebook all pictures are set to public access so everyone can enjoy them! I would also like to state that I am not a photographer but I do try]

The DJing was extremely fun particularly when all four guest DJs faced off on the Sunday night at Midnight to provide hours of dancefloor energy. It was an honour, a privilege and a definite pleasure to work with gorgeous and talented DJ Psycubus, the genial and skilled Doctor Q and the intense, brilliant, and accomplished Vorteque. I have played with, for and beside many great DJs in North America but these folk, these incredible, artistic people, in a modern vernacular, bring it!

If you are interested in knowing what songs I, personally, played throughout the weekend then you can find them here:
https://www.facebook.com/pages/DJ-ThElf/324307224252503?ref=hl

Those who spent time in the Music Tent enjoyed the offerings muchly, particularly Voltaire on Saturday night and the “Steampunk Rave” on Sunday night. The dancefloor was wonderfully delicious.

The staff: the organizers, the wranglers, the helpers, the committee; were to a single person the most incredible group I have ever had the joy of working both for and with. Nothing was impossible. We were treated like royalty, truly. The Guest Wrangling Matron, an exquisite lady I knew only as “V”, had a team who were beyond awesome in being informative and helpful. Any issue, anything requested, any question or need was met by V’s motto: “I Have This.” She owned her department and every situation that came her way. Her staff would stop, in passing in the hallway, even as they were arms-loaded with items to ask if there was anything we needed or any way they could assist. I am oft treated very well but V and her people offered a level of service that was beyond stunning. And throughout the convention I saw this style and level of service provided to guests and attendees at every level and in every capacity.

We left tired and sore from watching the sun rise each and every morning, from dancing like fools and maniacs to many bands and DJs, from learning at panels and watching incredible low budget/high production independent movies and from the high energy socializing. We left leaving behind friends and new family. We left knowing that in a year’s time we will return and nothing can stop us from doing so.

I do not know that I have enough positive and glowing adjectives to properly convey how amazing this convention was.

Next year, good reader, when you are planning your convention schedule and wondering where you should visit and what you should commit to pen in your daytimer I must insist that you give Up in the Aether your strongest and most serious consideration. Do come find us and I shall happily hoist a glass with you at the most amazing event of the year.

H.A. Higgins-Keith

Toronto’s Best Kept Convention Secret

I attend many conventions through a regular year. Most of the conventions that I frequent are, naturally, Science Fiction/Fantasy affairs and most occur in Canada though I am always happy to amble across the border to enjoy our southern cousins’ offerings.

There is one convention, however, which I find to be an absolute favourite. Not an easy thing to select given the enjoyment, the entertainment, the wonders and the peoples that I find at all the conventions which I am able to attend, but this one particular convention seems to have the rightness that I, personally, look for in a gathering: Ad Astra.

Ad Astra is a general science fiction/fantasy convention with a very heavy focus on the literary side of things. Thirty-two years of age, she has had her lean years and her fat but she has always offered an incredible experience and this year no less so than any other.

First of all one must look at the people and the social adventure. The folk are friendly and welcoming, they are fun and intelligent and always up for an intriguing discussion. There are many many room parties as well as a convention hospitality suite of a large size and excellent placement and, for the special guests, a green room that offers a wonderful place to sit and chat. Alcohol is abundant but handled in a very mature manner [and for those visitors from the United States may I note that our drinking age here in Ontario is 19!] Conversations break out in rooms, hallways, the smoking area, the parking garage and anywhere that two or more fen meet. It has a relaxed atmosphere which encourages an atmosphere of greater fun and less stress than some conventions I have been to.

Ad Astra is one of the few conventions at which I enjoy meeting the special guests as none here are pretentious or standing atop a pedestal and all seem more than pleased to be able to chat with anyone and everyone. This year’s included Jim Butcher, Stephen Hunt, and Ben Bova as well as a host of other wonderful people among which were to be found Guy Gavriel Kay, Julie E. Czerneda, Kelley Armstrong and Robert J. Sawyer. And many were the writers and creative peoples of all ilk and diversity.

The dealers’ room was well layed out and balanced, presenting books, collectibles, jewellery, clothing and many other items in a neat, compact area. Selection was varied and prices were more than fair.

There are readings, tastings, anime screenings, and gaming as well as a broad selection of panels including relevant fashion design [from corsets to costumes], quite a few on writing [from how to write to crowdsourcing to promoting to finding an agent and more], several steampunk topics, some science, prop making and current trends and topics.

Two items of special note:

The masquerade is well run and not at all large with, generally, about a dozen entrants. This is the perfect place to strut your stuff for the first time in front of an audience who loves to be entertained as well as a great venue for showing off your masterpiece to a very focused group. With Ad Astra occurring at the start of the SF Convention season it’s also the perfect place to test drive your new costume and presentation.

The karaoke on Friday night was just pure fun and those who know me also know that I tend to dislike karaoke quite a bit. However the host, the song selections and the singers made it a perfect way to wrap up the evening before hitting the room parties. I must admit that I truly enjoyed it.

Overall I must highly recommend this convention to anyone who is interested in being a writer, to everyone who enjoys a good social weekend and to all fen who just like a darned excellent convention. I would, and do, offer Ad Astra a very solid 8 out of 10 with their expressed intent to continue improving until they reach the pinnacle.

H.A. Higgins-Keith

[For more information do feel free to visit their website at http://www.ad-astra.org/ ]

One Must Always Watch One’s Words

Good evening, mesdames et monsieurs.

I do thank you for your patience. Life, once again, has gotten away from me. But enough prattle and whine…

Recently I attended a Comic Con held in my new city of residence. It was well attended, boasted quite a few excellent guests, offered an expansive dealers’ room and some very interesting panels. Among the superheroes, the stormtroopers, the apes and daleks and robots and graphic novel characters there were some extremely wonderful steampunk folk.

I ensured that I made it to two of the panels on steampunk: Steampunk 101 and Steampunk Clothing.

I have a slight issue with Steampunk 101 classes having been involved with such for six years and counting at this point. Where are the following courses? Where is Steampunk 201 [So You’re Steampunk, Now What?], Steampunk 301 [The Devil IS in the Details] and the advanced Steampunk 401 [Etiquette Both Personal and Social as Embedded in the Steampunk Subculture] as well as the off shoots into the -02. -03 and onwards? Steampunk has been embraced by the media and the mainstream, something oft heard complained about, and most everyone knows what it is at the basic level: that which is taught in the 101 courses.

I was very pleased with some of this particular course as it did wander through the geo-centricity and temporal focus of the subculture and kicked those doors wide. But there were two points that niggled.

The smallest of the pair, which bothers me only a little, is when people talk about the ‘punk’ in Steampunk without experience or proper knowledge of the punk period and movement. Having lived through it, in it, and around it myself, I must admit that it rankles when Steampunks offer their ‘expert opinion’ on the ‘punk’ facet without actually having a solid grounding in what they are speaking of. But this part of the 101 was easily passed through and over.

The large, and by large I mean elephantine, shock was a statement made by one of the presenters; a gentleman from Montreal. He said, and I paraphrase but it is very close to his exact wording as I remember “The only way to do Steampunk wrong, I tell people, is to buy the box of prefab Steampunk outfit made by the big mainstream corporation with the Steampunk label stamped across the box.”

And to this I must say: Nonsense! Piffling nonsense. Nonsense from both sides and the middle. And unfortunately some people new to Steampunk may have listened to him and will now have the wrong approach.

It is indeed possible to “do” Steampunk incorrectly without buying in bulk. I often tell people who wish to experiment that they should try things and see how others respond. If it is met with frowns and whispers then hie thee back to the drawing board. If it is greeted with smiles and applause then it is successful.

And those boxes sold in chain stores, filled with plastic and cheap fabric bits, with the brazen “Steampunk” stamp boldly printed across the cover? Yes indeed, do feel free to purchase one of those if ’tis your first foray into the community.

It is apparent to me that the gentleman I have paraphrased has never heard the term ‘gateway’.

The goth/industrial subculture was little known and less understood until Trent Reznor’s “Closer” and Marilyn Manson’s stage theatrics and marketing creation. While both are pooh-poohed by most members of the g/i community it did introduce new blood to the clubs and the coffee shops, it brought new folk to the music and the fashion, it continued to inject life into the genre and the aesthetic.

The most common reason I hear for why someone has not made a steampunk gather is that they do not have an outfit. If buying a prefabricated outfit in a box allows them to make that first step into the community, if it allows them to walk into their first gather then I say huzzah to the retailer who supplies them this needed item. From that first step in the new entrant can THEN be offered advice, can learn of sources and styles, can begin developing their own aesthetic and build their own wardrobe. But without that first step, without the gateway then the new blood will not be maximized.

The speaker obviously did not consider access, income and creativity which is not offered equally to all people. He, perhaps unwittingly, has set up a group of steampunks for ridicule: those ‘poor’ folk who start with a box kit. He has pretty much said “you, you ‘real’ steampunks, may look down your nose at those people who purchase it as a boxed set, as they are doing it wrong.”

Can one do Steampunk wrong? I think yes, though I would more use the term ‘incorrectly’ than to say wrongly. Is what is wrong to be found in a box in a large retail location? I do not think it is that easy.

And again I say stuff and nonsense.

H.A. Higgins-Keith