Kind of like the way wizards in the Harry Potter series call normal people "muggles," science-fiction convention frequenters use "mundanes," a term for those people in the world who just don't get it. At this year's Crescent City Con, held in early August inside Metairie's Landmark Hotel overlooking I-10, Smith sits at a panel discussion in front of 13 people, all of whom seem familiar with one another. They laugh knowingly when she says, "You all know how much it takes to get me drunk."
Smith, a self-proclaimed nerd, estimates that she's attended more than 80 conventions since she started going at age 16. Now 38, she is the programming director for this year's event -- the last installment of the only major sci-fi convention in New Orleans. She's wearing a toga with a rope belt, has long, unkempt red hair and, for the purposes of this panel discussion, has taken the name Dementia. Her voice has the sweet and authoritative tone of an elementary school teacher. She sits next to a friend, who calls himself Hysterectomy and who, like everyone else attending this discussion of "the philosophical and social implications of science fiction," is drinking wine out of a plastic cup.
These people have more in common than a desire to drink -- they all know their sci-fi. At one point, they bemoan Star Wars Episode I because Jar Jar Binks' Gungan physiology would never have been compatible with the climate on Naboo, and one girl almost gets booed out of the room for even mentioning Michael Crichton.
At this three-day convention at the Landmark, they might all know sci-fi, but that doesn't mean there's not a generation gap. While the middle-age sci-fi fans discuss trends in the genre at the nearly 100 different panel discussions in quiet rooms throughout the hotel and pit each other's knowledge of trivia against each other in the lobby, the teenagers blast music, gulp down shots and watch porn on their own floor. The organizers, dominated by the older purists, have decided after this year to end Crescent City Con, the oldest and longest-running sci-fi convention in the Gulf South. Their rationale: They've grown tired of doing all of the work themselves and believe the younger crowd isn't willing to keep up the tradition.
"I'm the last generation of the real nerds," says Rebecca. "The things people used to go to cons for aren't a big deal anymore. They come for the parties."
Many veterans see the shift toward partying as the downfall of science-fiction conventions. With the Internet, DVDs and eBay, cons have become more about socializing with other sci-fi fans than finding rare collectibles or having serious discussions about this pop-culture phenomenon and its books, TV shows and movies.
"I'm really disappointed in the fandom. We don't have a whole lot of young people who want to get involved," says Joe Grillot, one of the original members of the event's board of directors, and who was part of the decision to end the event. Sporting a white moustache and wearing a black hat and vest, Grillot gruffly insists that I take a roll of 12 posters of upcoming sci-fi movies that he's trying to get rid of before speaking to me. "Most of the people running this convention are older," Grillot says. "It's not about hardcore sci-fi as much."
Cheryl Morgan, the publisher of the fantasy and science-fiction magazine Emerald City, notes that nationwide, sci-fi conventions aren't in danger of dying out -- attendance at her hometown of San Francisco's BayCon has been rising every year and the city now also has an annual 5,000-person Anime convention. But, she adds, they are definitely changing. "Many young people today do not see going out to a convention as a communal activity," says Morgan in an email interview. "They see it as a form of entertainment for which they have paid."
At Crescent City Con, a feeling of community exists for both purists and younger attendees. Everyone is startlingly willing to talk to strangers, and people constantly yell out things in a group to no one in particular such as, "I get to stand in the corner of the elevator. Woo-hoo!" or "My cat peed on my costume." The Con has an eccentric crowd, and their long hair, many tattoos and all-black outfits often get strange looks from the mundanes -- the other Landmark hotel guests. The Con goers aren't phased; the woman in the chain-mail bikini, for example, doesn't cover up while waiting for the elevator.
"They're like my family," says Frank Schiavo, one of the event planners and a 10-year Con veteran. "I even met my wife through a convention like this one."
Schiavo sits at a long table in the lobby and welcomes attendees after they buy their name tags. In the adjacent Dealer's Room, Pixie Garcia, who swears that's her real name, proudly displays her dragon figurines that she's selling. She wears a button that insists, "I Believe in Faygons," referring to a cross between a faerie and a dragon. Garcia testifies to the tightly knit atmosphere of these events.
"I'm here now because this is my family," says the 20-year convention veteran. "I think most people at these conventions have had a lot of people be intolerant of them. I think mundanes just don't know how to live in a tolerant world. I first got into sci-fi because I loved to read Anne McCaffrey. She wrote about her dragon world. It was her world, nothing to do with idiots, garbage, mundanes. I think sci-fi brings you into a world."
Even though it's ending, the Crescent City Con lived up to its reputation this year, offering three days of shows, contests, collectibles sales, parties and panel discussions, ranging from "Before You Sign That Book Deal" for aspiring sci-fi writers to the "Muppet Trivia Contest" to "Trends in Comic Illustration." There were even some adults-only themes, such as "S&M (&M) When Good Chocolates Go Bad" and "Techno Erotica: When Science and Sex Combine." (According to several participants, Crescent City Con is supposedly one of the more "family-oriented" conventions.)
At one of the panel discussions, "Psychic Development 101," Debora Wiles, wearing an aqua and black robe patterned with dragonflies, teaches her audience to recognize the psychic field that stretches out from every person. When saying certain words, she abruptly raises her voice and widens her eyes. She has a special fondness for the word "data."
"We don't always know about this psychic web around us," she says. "But you feel it, don't you? You can feel it. We know when our men are amorous, don't we, ladies? And we take in all the data, we're always taking it all in but we don't know it. So is it important to listen? Yes, it is."
Like most of the panels, Wile's discussion isn't one of the better-attended events at the convention. The younger people rarely go to these panels at all. Other panels, like "Vampires in Comics and Popular Culture" and the Sci-Fi Trivia Challenge -- where questions like "How many episodes were in the first two seasons of Cartoon Network's Clone Wars?" are being asked -- have especially smaller, older audiences. The younger crowd is too busy. While the old-timers and organizers scramble around downstairs, about 200 fans are upstairs drinking in different-themed rooms with names such as "Area 51" and "The Porn Room."
The hotel has set off the 14th floor for these room parties. The whole thing has a frat-party feel, except that now there is a "Sickbay" room with quotations from Star Trek taped all around the walls. Someone cards me before I can go in to sample the shots served in plastic syringes. A young male runs around in his underwear after being sold at the Slave Auction to the "Gay Mafia," a group of all-male sci-fi fans who wear rainbow kilts.
Yet even for the younger set, the Con is more than parties. Earlier in the day, a teenager dressed in a crushed-velvet robe with a toy light saber attached to his belt is enthralled by the Improvised Munitions Handbook that he bought from the Dealer's Room downstairs.
Rachel Warzeski, who walks around with her friends drinking wine from metal chalices, came from Sarasota, Fla., just for this event. "I'm terribly disappointed it's ending," says Warzeski, 20, who grew up in New Orleans but moved to Florida a few years ago. "My parents used to take me to Crescent City Con when I was little. I got my first pair of pointed ears here."
Warzeski and her friends suddenly get an idea and set up two chalices on a table, to mimic a scene from the movie The Princess Bride. The five of them all laugh and recite the dialogue in unison, "Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line!"
Later Rachel heads to the Dealer's Room to buy a pair of custom-made vampire fangs. The room has an old-book smell and features stacks of fantasy books and DVDs along with lots of strange weapons and sex toys, Star Wars costumes, naked Barbie dolls tied up in bondage gear, and random, garage sale-ish items like a copy of the Rick James 12-inch single, "Forever and a Day" and tubes of wasabi.
Even though he's a longtime Crescent City Con fan, Fred Holder hasn't been around as long as the Con's founders. Still, he hopes to carry on its tradition as the chairman for a new convention he calls "N.O. Con-fusion," to be held in July, 2006. "We have some big shoes to fill," he says. "Crescent City Con is a legend."
Holder, 29, who carries his baby with him and hasn't slept for two days, is particularly fond of Crescent City Con -- a "Relaxacon," as he calls it, especially compared to conventions up North. "Our main goal is going to be to provide a network outlet, like this one does," he says. "Southern fandom is particularly tight-knit."
Rebecca Smith worries that even though N.O. Con-fusion will probably offer most everything Crescent City Con has in the past, sci-fi conventions are generally going out of style. "Convention attendance is declining everywhere," she says. "Mid-sized conventions have become small, and small conventions have died."
"Classic science fiction conventions are indeed getting smaller throughout the country," says Kelly Lockhart in an email interview from Chattanooga, Tenn. Lockhart serves on the board of DragonCon, which welcomes more than 20,000 attendees to Atlanta every year. "Most hover around the 300 to 500 attendance mark," Lockhart says.Ê"For a lot of those conventions, that is just fine with them. The majority of their attendees are over 30, and with a few exceptions, very few teenagers are attending."
According to Lockhart, the fastest-growing cons are multi-genre, such as DragonCon and Anime Cons, whose attendees are almost all younger.
"When science-fiction fandom started back in the 1950s, it was very much a geek ghetto," Cheryl Morgan says. "People who knew about science fiction were unusual, even outcasts, and they knew it. These days science fiction has won the culture war. Everybody has heard of Jim Kirk, Luke Skywalker and Frodo. So kids today don't see science fiction as a special way of life. They don't need fandom the way their parents did."
Rebecca Smith still buys into the notion of fandom. "I'm part of the true geeks," she says with a smile. These days, most of her kind stay on the Internet. "A lot of people don't even have to leave their house anymore or ever have to face their anxiety of talking to girls."
Maybe that's why here at the final Crescent City Con so many of them are drunk. And since this is the last chance for a while to go crazy -- away from the mundanes -- most partiers don't plan to go to bed. This means they'll probably miss the closing ceremonies on Sunday morning, an event posted on a sign in the lobby. The event, it suggests, is one part tribute and one part riff on a classic line from William Shatner's now-infamous Saturday Night Live skit: "The Con is over. The end of an era. Go home -- get a life!"