Friday, April 1, 2011

The 2011 Nova Albion Steampunk Exhibition

by Megan S.

The only convention catering to fans I've ever been to before last weekend was an X-Files one with my dad when I was about 15.  I remember two things about the experience: walking through a stuffy, dark room with cheap black plastic sheeting covering the walls as I looked at depressingly unrealistic props from the show and  seeing the Lone Gunman with the scraggly blong hair and Assistant Director Skinner waiting around by a side door in an alleyway while someone smoked a cigarette.  It was gritty, bleak and smelled like unwashed teenagers. 

The Nova Albion Steampunk Exhibition couldn't have been more different. It was wonderful.

Author Andrew Mayer
Nova Albion was like stepping into an alternate universe.  I was surrounded by hundreds of people wearing costumes featuring mixes of Victorian, Edwardian, and Regency styles along with Russian, Asian, and Middle Eastern influences (reflecting the Wild, Wild East theme of the weekend) and accessorized with fantastical devices all carefully and lovingly handcrafted.  Attendees were friendly, happily chatting with each other and admiring the work each had put into their outfits.  The aristocracy of the weekend, authors like Gail Carriger and Cherie Priest, walked through the crowd unmolested.

The event was housed in rooms throughout the Hyatt Regency in Santa Clara, California and I couldn't help but wonder how the people not there for the convention would react to the attendees.  Surprisingly, no one gawked.  Instead, most seemed to have grins plastered across their faces as they enjoyed spectacles like the belly dancing performance.

Smallish rooms were filled with curiosities and vendors selling meticulously crafted goods.  The experience was what I imagine marketplace scenes such as the floating one at Harrods in Neil Gaiman's Neverwere are like, crowded, dimly lit and each booth filled with strange and beautiful one of a kind items.  The merchants took such care in displaying their goods, creating an atmosphere of wonder.  Two of the most memorable items were a working ticker tape machine that printed out news from the internet via RSS feeds and another, an antique typewriter rigged to automatically type out text messages received from a cell phone. There was even a tea room on the 13th floor with attendants serving tea and women having a polite conversation while knitting.

From the left: Strange, Eddy, Roberts and Mason
I would have happily gone for just that experience but the real draw of the convention were panel discussions featuring authors and enthusiasts.  My favorite was a talk about cults and secret societies of the Victorian era led by authors Mary Mason, Madeline Roberts and Claire Eddy as well as full contact historian Thomas H.D. Strange.  The lively discussion slid seamlessly from one topic to the next as the authors talked over one another, laughed and reminisced about old times.  The audience, too, enjoyed themselves, listening to a wide range of topics including the Hellfire Club, Oneida silverware, Jerry Garcia and cargo cults.

There was so much more that I didn't get to experience: live music, a ball, and a costume contest as well as presentations on how to make items and vulgar language in the Victorian era.  I wish I had been able to go to everything and talk with more people.

The 2011 Nova Albion Steampunk Exhibition was such an enjoyable experience because ingenuity, creativity, individuality and science fiction were embraced and celebrated, a far cry from the convention I attended as a kid.  I can't wait to go back next year.
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