Ari Rockefeller presents Steampunk World’s Fair 2011 — So Familiar, and Yet So Bizarre (or “Rapture? What Rapture?”)

                When the topic of going to a convention comes up, given my experience and journalistic credentials, I assume I’m going to be covering an anime convention. Though, anime conventions are all I’ve ever been to and/or covered. The excursion this weekend was not an anime convention, but it wasn’t dropped me on the last minute. So I wasn’t surprised by it; in fact, I was very much looking forward to it.

                Somerset, NJ was host to the Steampunk World’s Fair convention, a celebration of all things steampunk—crafts, fashion, music, and the like. It was held at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, and as soon as I walked into the hotel, I felt a surprisingly sense of familiarity come over me. After a few moments, it dawned on me; I have been at this hotel before; it was for AnimeNEXT last year! The Doubletree Hotel down the road was where AnimeNEXT was hosted, and the Crowne Plaza was where our group stayed for that weekend. 
                That was the only familiar thing about this weekend for me; once that wave wore off, what followed was a huge load of culture shock.
                I’m used to seeing people in costumes as soon as I walk into a convention or hotel. However, seeing brass accessories, top hats, corsets and goggles as far as the eye can see really threw me for a loop. The last time I felt this out of place was the very first night of Otakon, but even then I was cosplaying at least one day. Despite my budding interest in steampunk, I didn’t have stitch one of steampunk wear. So I figured the only way to tackle the convention was the same way I got into anime conventions—dive in headfirst and enjoy the sights.
                I got there relatively early on Friday morning, so I had ample time to get hold of my pass. After getting a quick lunch, I started wandering around the convention a bit. The guide to the convention came in the form of an antique-looking newspaper, which fit the theme of the convention very well, although I’m more accustomed to it being in a booklet; folding and unfolding it to look through the schedule was a little bit cumbersome. Strangely enough, the “dealers” set up shop…in their own hotel rooms. They were all on the first floor, and had signs outside their doors and flyers and advertisements scattered around the hotel. The hotel rooms were rather small, and they felt even smaller and more cramped if a vendor had lots of stuff to sell. Different, but from what I’ve heard, other conventions also do this.
                The first thing I attended was the opening ceremonies. They started a little late, as some of the people running and performing were stuck in traffic, apparently. The highlights were Queen Victoria given a 21 (Nerf) gun salute, finding out that it was her birthday, and that one crazy scientist had promised her immortality for her birthday. I don’t think I’d be able to match her enthusiasm if I were offered such a gift. There was also a very stunning short film called, “Eye of the Storm,” in which a nameless zeppelin pilot ends up sending his ship into the center of a raging storm. The visuals were fantastic, and the music fit it perfectly.
                The next panel I attended detailed the rules of a scavenger hunt hosted by two very unique characters. One was the Emperor of the Red Fork Empire; the other was A Count Named Slick-brass. If you read that name and you imagined a steampunk version of A Pimp Named Slickback from The Boondocks, good for you, because that’s exactly what he was…right down to the Kat Williams voice… The object of the game was to steal certain decorative accessories (called “eggs”) from one staffer on behalf of another. A total of eight staffers were involved. Every time you returned one of the eggs, you’d get a coin. Three coins could be redeemed for one raffle ticket, which promised very nice prizes. 
                A similar scavenger hunt was the “Dance Card” game, run by a writer/staffer. You had to find nine characters (played by staffers) and get them to sign the aforementioned dance card. The grand prize was a cameo in his story, Tinker. I saw a couple of the characters mobbed by people asking them to sign their dance cards, but I don’t know who won it.
                The situation with the dealers was rather odd. At first, the convention’s gimmick was that every vendor would sell their goods right out of their own rooms. All the dealers were given rooms on the first floor (I’m assuming), and the guests were given free rein to come and go as they please. However, the fire marshal then came to the hotel and put a stop to this. So, all the vendors were relocated to several unused rooms around the convention hall for a more traditional “dealers’ room.” The problem with this was all vendors were ordered to move simultaneously. This caused a massive traffic jam, as people were stepping over other con goers and other vendors to acquiesce to the new orders. The dealers were pissed. There wasn’t a game room in the typical convention sense. The concierge lounge on the 10th floor was for some tabletop gaming and LARPing, but there weren’t any video game setups anywhere to be seen.
                I would’ve loved to have known that there were events in the con that you had to buy a ticket specifically for, because asking about such events made me feel even more awkward than I normally was. Thankfully I got lucky and managed to get into one such event, Professor Elemental’s Tea Party. There was plenty of tea and cake being served, with the Professor giving instructions on how to properly behave when taking tea. He also promised to visit each table individually and hang with everyone. When he got to our table, he rapped for us (we picked one of his songs, which he did an a Capella version of). We were provided with a list of songs, and the consensus was the song, “A Fete Worse than Def.” He’s a very skilled musician, and an overall nice guy to hang out with overall. Elemental also posed for a picture with me; it was his idea that we shake hands like we’ve just bet over a race around the world (or something to that effect).
                Rain was on and off all day, so any outdoor events were officially cancelled. I say “officially” because it didn’t stop anyone from hanging around the courtyard area, in full costume, talking about one thing or another. The steampunk knighting ceremony was to be held outside, but went on in a much more informal sense. Five people were set to be knighted (by a Queen Victoria, no less); two of them which really stood out to me were Prof. Elemental and a steampunk version of Boba Fett, who had one of the best costumes of the weekend. The Queen’s assistant made a not-so-stealthy joke about “that knight being from some old republic…” They were all very happy to be bestowed such an honor.
                It was around this time that I had to pick up another member of my adventuring party for the convention. This meant that I had to miss out on the absinthe tasting. Disappointing, but it’s not like there was a difficult choice between that and picking up my friend; I wouldn’t chance driving after even one beer, let alone considering what a dose of absinthe could do to me. We got back and settled into our room, and then parted ways. I had several more panels I wanted to check out Friday evening. The first of which was a comedy routine by a pirate named Blue Beard. Unfortunately he kept getting delayed in his setting up, so I made haste to the last event of the evening I wanted to see—the White Elephant Burlesque Show. This was a lot more straightforward and no-nonsense than the last one I went to, at MangaNEXT. The acts were very energetic and fun. The better majority of the dancers went down to their underwear and pasties, which was undoubtedly pleasing, though there was a belly dancer act that managed to be very provocative despite removing very little. Oh, and there were no less than three guys on stage stripping. That was different.
                The last activity our adventuring party embarked on was dinner. A very late dinner. We found our way to the Somerset Diner somewhere around midnight. There was more than a little snickering from us upon discovering that it was prom night for one of the local high schools, and they decided to hit up said diner as well (they were leaving as we were entering). We ate, drank, and were merry. Many, many jokes were made at the expense of the supposed rapture that was going to happen on Saturday… which became extra hilarious when there was an actual Death cosplayer (complete with steampunk scythe!) at the convention on Saturday.
                The good thing about the Steampunk World’s Fair was that none of the events started before noon. It was an unusual but welcome break from the typical convention start times, as there wasn’t that big of a rush to get to any particular event. We had plenty of time to get a good night’s sleep and go to town on the breakfast buffet (Tabasco sauce on scrambled eggs tastes delicious and will really wake you up). Of course that left me with over an hour and a half of not having really anything to do. Thus, I wandered around the convention hotel and around noon, I caught the tail end of a performance by the band Copal. Their music was wonderful and fascinating, and their dance accompaniment, a belly dancer known as the lovely Rio, was positively ravishing. On a whim, I picked up their first album, eso-terra. I had the album transferred to my iPod within the hour. I highly recommend them; you’ll be blown away by what you hear.
                My next endeavor was another concert, this time by the wonderful Professor Elemental. It was about an hour show, in which he ran through all the tracks on his last album (“Cup of Brown Joy” was used to close out the show), while hyping his new remix album, which also included several brand new tracks. The aforementioned “A Fete Worse than Def” also had the luxury of an on-stage demonstration in which to mock the concept of fetes, complete with audience participation. Two people in the crowd were asked to hold up bunting of UK flags, while two others danced around masquerading as members of the royal family. He would also come off the stage and dance around the crowd during a couple of his songs. Though, the funniest part of the show (which probably was not planned) was when someone had their cell phone out and was idly texting away and not paying attention to the show, when Elemental swooped in and snatched up the phone, all without missing a single beat. The kid got the phone back eventually…only to repeat his mistake and get admonished by the Professor in front of everyone. All in all, a very entertaining performance.
                Later on, I took to the hotel’s pool. The pool was just as nice as ever, but only the indoor section of the pool was used; it wasn’t quite warm enough to warrant swimming outside. Plus there was a huge amount of leaves in the pool, too. It looked rather disgusting. I talked with a staffer who was using his down time to go for a swim and use the hot tub. I ended up switching from the hot tub to the pool frequently; the contrast of hot and cold was very refreshing.
                I took in a panel that promised to be heavy on visitor participation, entitled, “Steampunk as a Community.” Among the topics discussed were that there were many “-punk” offshoots, such as Dieselpunk, Clockpunk, Raygunpunk (a.k.a. Raygun Gothic), among others. More and more, steampunk has been leaking into the mainstream, which has been denounced as the fall of the genre, in a very the-sky-is-falling fashion, but it has given steampunk a greater identity, which went well with the aforementioned offshoots. The fun things about steampunk were notions that the crazier the outfit is, the more captivated your audience is. Plus, in sharp contrast to the hipster movement, there is no such thing as trying too hard. Phoning it in is a problem, but there is more than enough support to get newcomers more interested; that junky monocle or cheap top hat is the first accessory for somebody. They also encouraged people not to get discourage by haters (sound advice). Every community has them, and it’s best to surround yourself by fellow devotees who aren’t assholes.
                Here, my adventuring party got dinner. We decided on Chinese, ordering from a local take-out place. The food was delicious, although I had a very close call with an egg roll. See, the combination platters offered egg rolls; the basic model. They decided to give us shrimp rolls instead. I found out about this…the hard way. Thankfully the end of the egg roll fell apart and I saw a huge chunk of shrimp staring back at me, so I didn’t eat any of it, and didn’t get completely decommissioned by allergies. This wasn’t the first (unintentional) attempt on my life with seafood, and I doubt it’ll be the last.
                One panel I was looking forward to was the “To Whom Does That Line Pertain to, Chap?” panel. You probably read that and thought, “That sounds like a wordy way of saying Whose Line Is It Anyway?”. And you would be right. It was plugged earlier in the weekend by A Count Named Slick-brass, and he was indeed one of the contestants. There were a few problems with the panel, though. It was to be held in the woefully small concierge’s lounge on the 10th floor. There was absolutely no way it would hold the hundred or so people who came to see it. So it was moved…to just outside the entrance to the hotel. What fun. There were hundreds of people out there, all talking over one another, as well as smokers who did not give any concern for the panel and its rather strange setup. The performers had to project, and between the yelling from other people and the people who wanted to see the panel yelling at the others to shut up, not a whole lot could be heard. I stayed around for a few skits, but left after a while. All that background noise was a real detriment to the panel. I’m sure if they were given a much larger room or a place outside with much more cooperative and/or quiet bystanders, it would’ve been much, much better.

                Later on, while browsing a Tea and Absinthe booth, I got into a discussion with the proprietor’s sister about absinthe in general. I didn’t know until she brought it up, but they were running an absinthe tasting function in their hotel rooms. Apparently, you had to reserve tickets for this ahead of time…something I was not aware of, and only found out later that you had to register for it on the con’s website (same went for the aforementioned Tea with Prof. Elemental). By a major stroke of luck, I managed to get into one of the tastings at around midnight on Saturday. This was incredibly exciting, because I’ve always wanted to try absinthe but could not readily get a hold of the stuff. I had also been under the impression that absinthe was illegal in this country (for a while, it was), and the most up to date info I had was that you could sell the stuff here, but you could not make it. This was also proven to be false. Apparently the laws regarding absinthe have been relaxed, if not repealed, in recent years; it just boils down to where you can get the good stuff, and at a good price. I enjoyed several unique brands of absinthe, several from various parts of Europe, one made “New Orleans” style in the Philadelphia area, and one endorsed by Marilyn Manson, who has stated he regularly drinks the stuff while painting. The flavors and aromas were all unique and with their own special qualities to them, though our hosts warned us about going for too many brands during the tasting, as even with palate cleansing it would all start to taste like licorice after a while. Still, after my first taste of the drink of artistes, I can safely say I’ve developed a taste for absinthe.

                I tried looking for a few parties Saturday night. And while I did find one or two, they kept getting shut down for the same reason—noise complaints from tenants not in attendance for the convention. Rare as they were, they were surprised to find out that the majority of hotel rooms were rented out by Steampunk World’s Fair attendees. It didn’t change the fact that they wanted some sleep, though. I ended up retiring about 3:00 that night.
                Sunday was a bit on the dull side for me. The night before wasn’t too good for me and I went to bed a little depressed. I got ready for the day and packed up almost unconsciously, like I was just going through the motions. The one panel I wanted to stay for on Sunday was called, “How to Take Over the World – In Style!” It was less of a panel and more of a series of contests, such as thirty seconds to pitch your plan to take over the world, and who had the best death ray, doomsday device, and evil laugh (despite my efforts in the latter, I did not place). The winner of the evil laugh had a laugh that, according to the judge, “made me want to step away from [him].”
                I hung around the halls for another couple of hours before deciding to take my leave of the convention. At around 2:00, our adventuring party decided on heading over to 8 on the Break to close out the weekend at one of the best arcades on the east coast. It was only about fifteen minutes away, and we easily spent several more hours getting lost in gaming and cooling down from the weekend. DJ Ranma was presented with an early birthday gift, too; it was a rare wall scroll featuring the girls from Ranma 1/2. He was exceptionally grateful for it.

                The Steampunk World’s Fair is unlike anything I’ve ever participated in before. I haven’t felt this strange sense of alienation or on-the-outside-looking-in feeling since my very first Otakon in 2004. However, much like my first Otakon, this experience made me want to delve deeper into the whole steampunk scene instead of turning away from it. And not even the threat of global disaster could hamper the weekend for me. Yeah, remember how the world was supposed to end on the 21st? People walking around hold “The End Is Here” signs had plenty of egg on their face when the hour came and the world just kept on turning. It was 6 June 2006 or 31 Dec. 1999 all over again. Hell, the only real disaster that took place this weekend was the surprising, untimely death of “Macho Man” Randy Savage, which, if you’ve been a fan of professional wrestling as long as I have, is the closest you can get to the death of a real-life superhero.

Ari Rockefeller

When he is not training Pokémon and being the very best, the Master of the Written Word churns out convention, video game, anime and movie reviews like clockwork. No one is more productive and dangerous with a pen and paper (or, in this case, a keyboard).

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