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The “other” N-word

by Brian Clarey

Darth Vader goes in the middle. That’s obvious.

And let’s get some of his men here to his left. A stormtrooper. A clone trooper. And can we get one of those TIE pilots?

That’s good.

Let’s get a couple biker scouts over here, and you, the royal guardsman – that red cloak will just jump out over on Vader’s right. Yes.

Back to the left now. Let’s get Boba Fett and the rest of the Mandalorians over here. And you, the female Tusken, yes you…. Let’s get you on the left with the Jawa – is that your daughter? So cute…. And Emperor? If you would, please.

A TIE pilot here, another Mandalorian over there. The Imperial gunner goes here.

And now… can the Imperial officers take a knee down front? You too, admiral…. Good. Now let’s get the Sith lord front and center.

Oh, this is just perfect.

Cars slow down on Main Street in downtown High Point, honking horns and passengers disembark to capture the moment on their cell-phone cameras. A Randolph County ambulance cruises by; a tinny blast from its PA speaker advises, “Trust in the Force, Luke.”

The members of the 501st Legion’s Carolina Garrison, Star Wars fans one and all, chuckle at this one. But really, there is no Luke Skywalker here – I mean, what are they, a bunch of kids? Anyway, the 501st is a national costuming club for Star Wars villains, and Luke Skywalker was clearly a hero. Duh.

Also, the line as delivered to Luke Skywalker by the ghost of Obi Wan Kenobi in the first Star Wars movie, which was actually Episode IV, came when Luke was barreling down the trench of the Death Star like he was blasting womp rats in Beggar’s Canyon back home. And actually, it was two lines: “Use the Force, Luke,” delivered when Luke first dove into the canyon, and then, “Luke, trust me,” which he said just before Han Solo swooped in with the Millennium Falcon and took out Vader’s Twin Ion Engine Advanced X-1.

Just so you know.

Probably anyone here at Stellarcon, the 32nd installment of the Triad’s biggest science fiction, fantasy, horror, gaming and comics convention, could tell you the same, though the crowd is not limited to Star Wars freaks. There are hundreds of RPG – or role playing game – enthusiasts, sci-fi bookworms, memorabilia collectors, movie and television fans, filkers, anime junkies, aspiring writers and artists, working writers and artists, fanboys, fangirls and, in some cases, their fankids.

For three days each year they gather in downtown High Point, during which time it’s not uncommon to see fully clad stormtroopers or trench-coated gamers with colorful plastic weapons walking down the sidewalks, pirates conversing with ninjas, wood elves hitting on anime naifs, crewmembers of the starship Enterprise swilling beers in the bar and Klingons singing karaoke.

There’s more to it than the costumes: Each year Stellarcon lures a couple dozen writers, publishers, artists, game developers, serious fans, musicians and designers to moderate more than a hundred workshops, symposiums, discussions and signings. In two rooms off the hallway of the High Point Radisson the gaming tables roll until 2 a.m. In another conference room, a steady stream of anime bleeds onto a projection screen. Filk artists – musicians who sing a type of folk music about anything and everything sci-fi and fantasy – share songs. And up in the rooms there are parties, business dealings, hook-ups and all-night gaming sessions.

It’s not one of the biggest conventions of its kind, not like Atlanta’s DragonCon which lures more than 30,000 to six square downtown blocks, or Comic-Con International in San Diego, the granddaddy of them all, which annually boasts attendance in excess of 100,000 and has hosted guests like Ray Bradbury (1970), Douglas Adams (1983), Harvey Pekar (1986, 1995), Mickey Spillane (1994), Ben Affleck (2002), Rob Zombie (2005) and the Rock (2007).

It’s smaller, more intimate. And while the list of notables might not be household names, with the event’s core consumers they are more than just infamous.

Monte Moore is an energetic fellow from Denver, a working artist in every sense of the word. He’s sold thousands of drawings for comic books, RPGs, gaming and trading cards, fantasy-themed pin-ups, books and posters. Recently he’s begun a sideline gig detailing custom motorcycles. “It pays ridiculously well,” he says. And he’s the artist guest of honor at this year’s Stellarcon.

“In the industry I’m known as a marketing guru,” he says. “It’s not that my art is so much better than anybody else’s – it’s basically marketing [that has gotten me so much work].”

At his table in the Dealer Room he’s got prints of his Star Wars and Star Trek illustrations, decks of cards, boxes of a board game he created called Wench: The Thinking Man’s Drinking Game and copies of his book Majestika: The Art of Monte Moore, which he says he dictated while driving from Denver to Los Angeles.

“It’s over at Barnes & Noble,” he says, “and, of course, my website MavArts.com. Ha ha ha.”

He’s been to Comic-Con and Dragon Con, and he’s started to do events like the Sturgess motorcycle rally in South Dakota. This is his first Stellarcon – “I think these guys just found me on the internet,” he says – and he digs the grassroots vibe.

“Very much so,” he says. “There’s more personal interaction. When I’m at a big, monster show, it’s harder to interact. That’s why these [smaller] shows are very refreshing. They’re fun and relaxed.”

Convention Chair Michael Monaghan takes five in the Provincial room off the main ballroom on Friday night. A few hours earlier he opened the ceremonies with the first few sentences of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

“Douglas Adams gave me a great gift,” he said. “Others who ‘got’ my sense of humor and shared my fascination for other worlds.”

Now he’s talking about Star Trek, “Stargate” and the new “Battlestar Galactica” which, he says, “winds my watch.”

He’s been on the festival circuit for 20 years, with a few DragonCons, Fantasy Fairs and Magnum Opus Cons under his spacesuit. This is his fifth year with Stellarcon, and it’s a big one – this year’s event dovetails with Deep South Con 46, an annual fete that changes locations each year.

“I happen to have an astounding preference for this convention,” he says, citing the intimacy and friendly crowd. He also touts that this festival has always been student run, since its inception 32 years ago by the UNCG Science Fiction Fantasy Federation, or SF3. This year, he says, about two thirds of the 27-person planning committee are current students.

“It is a learning classroom,” he says, “a live classroom. For most of them, it’s their first foray into business of any sort.”

Spend any time with this tribe and a troublesome word comes to mind: the N-word. Not that N-word… the other one: nerd.

There are similarities between the two. “Nerd” is a term some people in the sci-fi/fantasy community use freely among themselves to describe their lifestyles and proclivities. You’ll hear it tossed around the convention as a compliment, see it written on T-shirts, watch it deployed endearingly, without negative connotations, and received in generous manner.

But unless you’re a nerd yourself, you probably shouldn’t use the word.

That being said, this place is full of nerds: game nerds, space nerds, rock nerds, goth nerds, comic-book nerds, literary nerds, art nerds, movie nerds, theater nerds, hip nerds, hot nerds, handsome nerds and drunk nerds. There are nerds with great legs, nerds with pocket protectors, nerds with bad haircuts, nerds with girlfriends, nerds with husbands, nerds with kids, nerds with ponytails, nerds with narrow shoulders and wide hips. They are funny and engaging, romantic and moody, passionate and aloof, smart and complicated, weirdly cocky and strangely cool. And in this environment, which is as much a celebration of other-ness as it is anything else, there’s nothing cooler than being a nerd.

“You get a lot of personalities here,” Monaghan says.

Steve Callahan, 39, of Greensboro, stands out on the smoking patio wearing a faded black T-shirt that reads, “Strangers have the best candy.” He’s anxious, as he’ll be performing tonight at the tiny bandstand in the corner of the main hallway, where a couple of video game consoles will continually run the game Rock Star. Then, he says, he’ll have a long night at the Dungeons & Dragons tables.

“I’ve been doing cons since I was fifteen,” he says. “My mom says, ‘D&D for the whole weekend? You’re going. Get out of the house.'”

Walking the hallways: a guy in a cowboy suit, a woman with a leopard pattern tattooed on her back (like a Trill!) and ears pointed to look like an elf’s, a curvy pirate, a space chick, a kid who’s paired his cargo pants and button-down with a chain-mail hood, a crew in trench coats and sunglasses, a Klingon jester, more than a few officers in the United Federation of Planets, this kid with a giant – I mean giant, like four feet long – knife made out of duct tape and foam that he’s named Kyle, anime character Victorian Romance Emma and a few dozen representatives of the Star Wars universe, most from the aforementioned Carolina Garrison of the 501st Legion.

One of them is Cheralyn Lambeth, this year’s fan guest of honor, who hails from Chapel Hill. A Star Wars fan from back in the day, Lambeth has gone on to a successful career as an actor, writer, costume designer and drama teacher at UNC-Chapel Hill.

And as the commanding officer of the Carolina Garrison, she’ll get up in her Imperial officer costume for sure this weekend.

“I’m also a stormtrooper,” she says, “but I spend a lot of time as Princess Leia.”

Next to the garrison’s table is a handmade suit of Mandalorian armor, made lovingly by a man who identifies himself as Novall Talon, a Mandalorian himself, of the Talon Clan.

“Clans are named after their founder,” he says. “Kind of a traditional thing. That’s the way Mandalorians work.”

The Mandalorians are a warrior culture inside the Star Wars universe made up of many different species, Talon tells me. Boba Fett and his father Jango, both human, were Mandalorians.

Novall, as you probably know, is half Zabrak and half human and was introduced to the Mandalorian way when, at 10 years old, he attempted to stab Rhydin Tal to avenge his mother’s death.

He made the costume himself with molds, fiberglass and resin, and though the weaponry arrayed all over the suit doesn’t actually work, it does beep and blink enough to look pretty cool; with a remote he can electronically lower his comlink device on the helmet.

“You can take it as far as you want to,” he says, and as far as copyright infringement goes, “George [Lucas, creator of Star Wars] doesn’t not want us to do this; he just does not want us to make a profit off it.”

Alex Wilson, AKA TB-3346, an Imperial biker scout, sweats beneath his armor. From the ground up he’s wearing rubber shrimping boots (“I’m working on the others,” he says), a boot holster with a ray gun, knee pads, a utility belt, hip armor pieces, a thermal detonator strapped to the small of his back, a cloth drapier around his midsection, chest and back armor, a shoulder belt, shoulder armor, elbow pieces, forearm guards and gloves. His E-11 blaster rifle looks real enough to bulls-eye a womp rat.

Actually, though, the T-16 Skyhopper in which Luke Skywalker said he blasted womp rats in Episode IV was an airspeeder and, as such, came armed with its own repeating blaster. So, you know, nobody was blasting womp rats with an E-11.

In a corner conference room, at a talk entitled “Star Trek Comeback?,” a discussion unfolds about the possibility of a resurgence in Star Trek fans after the release of the new movie, Star Trek, in spring 2009. Triad writer Dan Johnson moderates with Tony Finklestein, a producer, and Steve Long on the panel. The first two are simply avowed and knowledgeable fans of the title. Long has the most expertise – he’s written several Star Trek RPGs and developed the Deep Space Nine line. He’s this year’s gaming guest of honor. And he’s also deeply pissed about what Paramount, which owns all rights to Star Trek, has done to the Star Trek canon.

“Paramount has no rules,” he’s saying. “They’re telling a good story this week. They’ve made it perfectly clear they don’t care about the fans; they don’t care about continuity. The movie’s gonna blow chunks. The only good thing is Nimoy’s voice-over, and we’ve seen that in the premiere.”

It is agreed that “Star Trek: The Next Generation” was pretty good, but that was because Gene Rodenberry was still on board, and it is opined that the newest series, “Star Trek: Enterprise,” tried too hard to fulfill quotas in regards to race and gender. Somebody counters that the original series was itself politically correct in its day, citing Pavel Chekov, the Russian navigator who appeared in shows that aired during the height of the Cold War. This is acknowledged. And it is agreed upon that “Star Trek: Voyager” sucked.

And somebody in the seats has got dirt on the new film.

“You’re not gonna see Spock at the academy with Kirk,” he says, “but you will see Kirk at three different stages of his life, starting with when he was in the womb and Romulans tried to kill him then. I don’t know why.”

He has also learned that Scotty will have a midget sidekick.

“Somebody wanna play ‘Taps’ now?” Finklestein asks the room

Also, it seems there’s footage of the starship Enterprise being built terrestrially, which everyone knows is impossible – “I don’t recall the Enterprise having those kinds of rockets to get out of the atmosphere,” Finklestein says – and talk of landing gear on the ship’s iconic dish, which is patently ridiculous.

“But the dish is detachable,” someone points out.

“Well, yeah,” Johnson says, “it is detachable in an emergency.”

Everybody knows that. It was alluded to in the second season of the first series in an episode titled, “The Apple,” when Kirk ordered Scotty to “discard the warp drive nacelles if you have to.” It was referenced again in the Season Three episode “Savage Curtain,” but wasn’t actually performed until the “Star Trek: The Next Generation” episode “Encounter at Farpoint.” Just so you know.

In a room off the main hallway a phalanx of Awesomes maneuver to outflank the Turkina B of Greg Resnik, of Greenville, SC, on a green felt game board as big as a ping-pong table, strewn with plateaus and foliage, and divided into hexagonal spaces.

The Turkina, Resnik assures, “is a much more advanced mechanism than the Awesomes facing it.” He pulls the battle robot back three spaces, out of range, so that only one Awesome has him in his sightline, and then, after the Awesome misses its shot, Resnik proceeds to fire.

He shakes two pair of dice in his hand, looses them onto the green felt playing field. He needs sevens or better. They face up: three and four, six and one. Two hits. To fire his other weapon he needs nines. One pair comes up 11 for a single hit. The next round of rolls determine where on the Awesome his shots hit – left torso, center torso, left leg, marked off as damage on a laminated sheet with the Awesome’s armor and inner machinery diagrammed on it. Resnick’s working the midsection pretty good.

The game they’re playing, BattleTech, is an old-school RPG that came about in the ’80s, and some of the figures on the scale battlefield are more than 20 years old. They represent battle robots piloted by humans, balanced by gyroscopes and powered by fusion engines in the year 3062.

“They average ten to twelve meters in height,” says Chuck Bryant, owner of the trio of Awesomes, from Colombia, SC. “The smallest unit on the field is thirty tons; the largest is ninety tons. And somehow, in the digital future, the range of attack for a weapon is about the length of a football field.”

The Turkina-B is from one of the clans, Resnik says, disciples of the soldiers who left the Inner Circle…something about a civil war and lost colonies… it’s all very confusing.

At his side Resnik has a seven-inch-thick binder filled with diagrams and maps for the game.

“That’s only parts of it,” he says, gesturing to a pile in the corner: rubber tubs, tackle boxes and luggage filled with BattleTech paraphernalia, more than could fit in the trunk of a car.

Out in front of the hotel, the representatives of the 501st stand at ease, holding helmets, holstering weapons, tugging on collars and shirtsleeves to let some cool air into their uniforms. Pictures are snapped, hugs exchanged, plans laid. CO Cheralyn Lambeth addresses the dissembeled throngthrough cupped hands.

“Dinner is at six,” she says, at Jimmy’s Pizza House down the road a bit.

“We’ll all probably walk down there and get some dinner,” Alex Wilson, the biker scout says. They’ll talk about past gatherngs, catch up on gossip and news, trade patches with other companies of the 501st.

“But mostly,” Wilson says, “what we do is sit there and talk until the place closes.”

A few yards away, a stormtrooper, a clone trooper and a Mandalorian bounty hunter head down the sidewalk in a loose pack.

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