Required Summer Reading for Geeks: Lost at the Con

When I'm not doing my best to keep things sane here in Austin, TX as a part of Public Citizen, I like to kick back and relax with a good book, graphic novel, etc. This is a change of pace for me, but I highly recommend this novel to anyone looking for a little geeky levity with an undercurrent of a self-improvement.

For many of us geeks, including yours truly, no summer is truly complete without a pilgrimage to San Diego for Comic Con. For most people, this is an alien world, full of strange geeks, nerds, dweebs, etc of all types. And it is this alien culture author Bryan Young attempts to fathom and tell a fish out of water story that should resonate with both geeks and "civilians" alike -- Lost at the Con.

His story centers around a washed-up cynical drunk of a political reporter named Cobb working for a two-bit "magazine"/website (think FHM meets TMZ) whose life hits rock bottom when his editor sends him to cover Griffin*Con -- the Mardi Gras of sci-fi conventions. While there he is introduced to an underground world of sex, drugs, and the strangest nerd-based depravity you can think of. If you've never heard of "Snarry" porn or slashfic (please don't Google it -- just read the book!), you will be introduced to it and other wry looks at geek culture in this fish-out-of-water story.

Young's style is terse and crisp. He writes in a way that compels you to keep flipping pages as you delve deeper and deeper into what is either the strangest of cultures you will ever enjoy or something warm and familiar to all geeks who go to these types of cons.  In fact, those of us who go to SXSW Interactive will find a great deal of familiarity in many of these pages. Young writers with a familiarity of this subject in a way that blends the best of gonzo journalism with comic book/pulp sensibilities wrapped with just a tiny bit of a noir vibe -- perhaps that comes from the omniscient first person narrative style. But if I had to compare it to anything else, I'd call it Hell's Angels meets Breakfast of Champions meets Amazing Spiderman

Also refreshing is a consistent and fun style. Since the main character is charged with writing a dozen or so stories from the con, many of the chapters are interspersed with his transmissions back to his publication. The cynicism just bleeds off the pages as we empathize with Cobb's lot in life.

It's also the perfect length for a novel of its kind.  Like the miniskirts some of the cosplayers wear at comic conventions, it's "long enough to cover everything but short enough to keep it interesting." It's also a quick read -- perfect for enjoying while on vacation or tucking away for airline reading.

I was concerned early on in the narrative that we'd simply get travelogue and cataloging of various geekery, but not much in the way of character development or progression. And Act 3 completely changed those conceptions.  I won't give away the plot too completely, except for this one snippet  that was really beautiful:

Maybe I didn’t have a great story, but it didn’t matter because I had finally found perspective, which is almost as good as a great story.

My only regret is being already too familiar with his work, as there are precious little moments in the novel where geeks are arguing over the minutia of Star Wars that rang familiar with me... because I've had those conversations before and I've read some of Young's other stories and blogs. (PS -- He is also simultaneously releasing a collection of short stories called Man Against the Future, which I haven't read all of but also suggest you check out)

As the national Star Wars correspondent for the Examiner slate of websites, contributor to the Huffington Post, and editor of Big Shiny Robot, he's previously published some of these same theories/discussions. No, I won't link to them because it's like being exposed to major spoilers of an excellent summer movie. So my only regret is having known some of these things beforehand, so they seemed less fresh.

However, this familiarity also has its upsides, as it allowed me some exclusive access to Bryan, whom I was able to interview.

They say "Write what you know" -- why did you ever decide to tell a story about a comic book and sci fi convention?

BY: I've been attending cons for a long time.  I've been to Comic-Con 10 of the last 11 years, and I've been to a bunch of other cons as well, including Dragon*Con.  And Dragon*Con was such a different experience.  It felt as much like a party like Mardis Gras than a convention and I got to thinking, what would someone like Hunter S. Thompson think of all this?  The cover artist of the book, Erin Kubinek, and I had a really interesting conversation about it and it grew out of that.  I'm not saying this is anything like Hunter S. Thompson at all, though some people have called it Fear and Loathing at Dragon*Con, it's very much its own thing.  Cobb [the protagonist] has no background in the sort of things that take place at a convention of this nature, and he has no idea what sort of people would actually want to attend.  It was important for me to have a character that was new to all of this so that the book would real well to audiences whether they knew anything about geekdom or not.  That and it felt fun. 

How else has your personal life and experience colored your views on this?

BY: I've actually had to leave so much of my geekdom aside to write this believably.  Writing a character that had a minimal interest in the world of geekiness and in some cases an open hostility was hard.  So, I guess in that way my views and experience were colored by it in that I had to actively, consciously, move away from them.

How much of this is real? How much is based on your actual experiences at various conventions?  Like, for instance, the "Snarry porn" -- that's not real, is it?

BY: There are a few anecdotes that were real and for the most part I'll let people decide what might have happened and what hasn't.  They can ask me after they've read the book, but Snarry is a very real thing.  Google it.  Or don't.  In fact, more than you'd ever want to know is in the book, so don't Google it.  Just read the book.  But yes, it is real.  I couldn't make that up if I tried.

Which cons have you attended? Which is your favorite?

BY: I have a love/hate relationship with Comic-Con.  I love it, but it's just too damned big and it's just getting more and more inaccessible.  It's grown too big for its britches.  The best convention I've ever been to was, hands down, Star Wars Celebration V.  I've been to all but the fourth Celebration, but Celebration V was just a homerun across the board.  It was the most organized, well planned con I've ever been to.  The only thing it had going against it was that it was in Florida in August.  

You're a noted Star Wars geek yourself. You've been invited by Lucasfilm to various events, you've been to Star Wars Celebrations. What's been the most mind-blowing experience you've had because of this?

BY: I was invited to come out to the season 3 premiere of The Clone Wars at ILM's Presidio facility and I was able to interview Seth Green and Matt Senreich before we went into the theatre (which is the best theatre I've ever seen anything in, period).  I was trying to get information out of them about the Star Wars cartoon they've been developing for the last couple of years.  All of a sudden there's this familiar voice over my shoulder telling them, "Don't tell this guy anything," and then it said to me, "And don't listen a word these guys say." And I turned to see that my interview had been crashed by George Lucas.  It was hilarious and fun and made for the single best interview I've ever conducted.  Then we went in to watch the episodes and I got to sit next to Joel Aron, one of the supervisors on the show, and directly in front of George Lucas.  It was a great, great time. 

You have a lot of criticism for the media in this book. Do you mean most of it?

BY: I think maybe I mean some of it...?  The character means it wholeheartedly.  

And which do you think is worse? Professionals who blur the line between entertainment and journalism or bloggers and amateurs who cover the "news"?

BY: I think they're both worse insofar as they turn journalism into entertainment.  There's a lot of serious stuff going on and you really need to dig deep to find out what the hell is actually going on and it's largely due to our media landscape.  People like Andrew Breitbart can embellish or twist stories on their ear or publish stories by people that are clearly false like all of James O'Keefe's stuff and it's all damaging to our country.  On the other side you have all of the major news networks and outlets who are basically just shouting into an echo chamber for either side.  Sometimes, the only news I feel I can rely on is my local paper, my local alt-weekly, and NPR.  And I read Huffington Post constantly, but that's more of a news aggregator if you're not counting the blogs, but I can read it for opinion and know it's opinion.  Everything else just muddles the issue.

You edit a couple of blogs -- one where you publish your short stories and also -- does that color your views on this?

BY: You know, the one where I publish the short stories started as a personal thing to keep me writing and it worked.  That's where a lot of the stories in Man Against the Future began or were workshopped.  And as the Editor in Chief of Big Shiny Robot! we understand that we are straddling the line between news (albeit just geek news) and blogging, but we hold ourselves to a standard.  I've seen other sites our size plagiarize other people or just turn into a content farm that regurgitates other people's stories.  I think what makes BSR different is that we break news on our own on a regular basis and when we're bringing readers news of stories that have broken elsewhere we put our own analysis into it and oftentimes bring something new to light with the story.

What made you start an entertainment blog? Weren't there enough of those already? So what does BSR have that others don't?

BY: We started because it was fun and we wanted a platform.  I was already writing for Huffington Post and I had a blog that was a holdover from a film that I'd made and I had grown accustomed to the act of doing it.  And Big Shiny Robot! began as a site that wanted to build a community around.  We are slowly becoming to Salt Lake City what has become to Austin.  We have that community that other sites don't, and we just have a group of people who love the kind of stuff we report on and that passion is reflected in the writing.  When we get excited about something, it comes through.

You wear a lot of different hats besides just writer and blogger. You're also a successful filmmaker. Tell us about that.

BY: I run a video production company that has produced a couple of great documentaries, both political in nature.  (This Divided State (2005) and Killer at Large (2008))  I'm working on a script for a feature film and we've got some other documentary work percolating, but I've really been focusing on writing at the moment.  I love filmmaking and that's really what I want to do, but above and beyond that, I love telling stories, so I'll do that in any way I know how.  With this launch, I guess I just added novels and short stories to my repertoire.

Why did you decide to go the self-publishing route? Is that something you'd encourage other aspiring writers to do? Or should they keep sending their submissions to literary agents and the publishing houses?

BY: Self-publishing was something I was going to do as a last resort, but the more I looked into it, the more sense it made.  I can get my books to people cheaper this way and make more money doing it.  I've had a professional editor go over the book, so that wasn't an issue, and I had an incredible artist and graphic designer do the covers.  The only thing a big publishing house might have been able to help me out with was promotion, but I think I'm handling that okay on my own, too.  I do have an advantage of platforms like Big Shiny Robot! and Huffington Post, but even then, as long as you have an email account, a twitter, and a facebook, you can spread the word capably.  My two inspirations for this model were Mike Stackpole, who has a built in audience from all of his licensed work, and Amanda Hocking, who used social networks to the best of her ability.  I can't guarantee I'll replicate the success of either of them, but I'll find my own way and hopefully the work speaks for itself.

So, besides Lost at the Con and Man Against the Future, what are some things people ought to be picking up? Comics, movies, tv, tech?

BY:Well, my favorite writer in comics right now is Scott Snyder.  He's on American Vampire and Detective Comics and his work in the Batman universe is some of the best I've read ever, and I'm saying that as a lifelong reader and collector of Batman.  As far as TV, people should be VERY excited about this upcoming season of The Clone Wars. It's some of the best television I've ever watched.  You can catch up with it on Blu-ray (and you HAVE to watch this show in HD) and then be ready for the new season come this fall.  Star Wars on television has never been better.  And as much as I love the prequels, some people would say these are leaps and bounds better.



Lost at the Con is available now for the Kindle and will be available in physical format June 18th on Amazon and from the author himself. Happy reading.