Hello g33ks, m33ks and anyone else who finds themselves temporally displaced. Welcome to my breakdown of what has become one of my top three cons of the year. The Steampunk World’s Fair is a gathering of cosplayers, amateur inventors, alt-history enthusiasts, obscure martial artists and regular people drawn in by all the pageantry. This is an event that has garnered quite a reputation as one of the must-attend events of the year–not just for New Jerseyans, but for Steampunk fans across the nation and around the world.
On May 18-20, 2012, two hotels in Piscataway, NJ, were inundated with wave after wave of geeks, nerds, and fanboys of one of the hardest-to-define subcultures in the modern world. For the uninitiated, Steampunk is a genre that features an alternate history version of Victorian England, Feudal Japan, or The Wild West where technology is powered by steam and clockworks. It is basically the future as imagined by someone from the late 1800s, powered by the cutting-edge machinery of their day. In practical terms: if you can dream it and are willing to put in the work to make it a reality, there is a place for you at this convention. One of the best things to do is to talk to someone with a costume you admire and ask them about how they put it together. You’ll hear stories of late-night trips to Home Depot, the piece they found at a flea market or the hours spend with craft foam to build some of the most intricate and amazing props imaginable. They love to share the stories of how their creations came together, the pitfalls they experienced, and ideas for how to add more in the future. I saw people I’d seen the previous year with a new version of the same costume…but this time there were moving parts, new armor, better boots and hats. These people had invented backstories and life goals for these characters they were now portraying. It is an amazing live-action role play that lasts three days.
So you rent out two hotels and invite attendees to fill them up. What do you do now that you have several thousand nerds in one place? Vendors, lecturers and entertainers packed one of the fullest schedules you’d ever see outside of NYCC or Pax East. Every hour–from early in the morning until late into the evening–was full of classes, panels, parties, dances, high teas, absinthe tastings and more. That doesn’t even cover the spontaneous performances that would occur in the lobbies, hallways, parking lots, courtyards and restaurants. I don’t think I’ve ever been to another event in which participants hoped it would rain because they had an outdoor rain performance planned if it did. I spoke with people who took a series of lectures during the course of the weekend and learned about poetry, history, alt-history, fashion, costume design and more. Others took fencing, bare-knuckle boxing and bartitsu classes. Others still spent the weekend shopping, watching live performances, or just people-watching.
For those that wanted to splurge and have a more indulgent experience, VIP events were available. These events featured premium extras like full dinners, meet-and-greets, or special themed performances. Highlights of the weekend were The Absinthe Tasting and The Goblin Market. The Goblin Market is a feature of the events run by this particular convention group; they theme the event and then performers and vendors put on a show that goes with it. The theme this time around was The Carnival Obscura, and it was meant to take place during 1910 with time travelers, gypsies, and mythological creatures. Its an exercise in controlled chaos as barkers hawk their wares and performers take the stage. Somehow, the event works, even with all the distractions. I know there are plans for the event to continue, so it is definitely worth attending if you are able. (Personal note: I do not drink, but from the level of high spirits and rosy cheeks of those that did attend, I’d guess The Absinthe Tasting was also a MAJOR hit.)
Overall, there were several highlights of the weekend. The lecture courses were actually very fun to attend, and although I didn’t follow a full track, it was a worthwhile way to spend the weekend. Many were so full that the rooms could not handle them, and I have heard that the convention will be expanding their space next year. Once again, Professor Mark Donnelly’s Bartitsu classes were incredible. If I had to pick a standout from among them, I’d suggest Ladies’ Self Defense–watching someone fight with a parasol while in a petticoat, corset, and heeled boots is something to see. The Sideshow Midway featured all manner of talented circus performers. And Emperor Norton’s Stationary Marching Band, whether marching through the hotel or throwing one of their classic parking lot parties (this time as the entire hotel emptied due to someone pulling a fire alarm), remains one of the most fun shows at any convention.
This event remains one of my top three conventions to attend all year. It features the full schedule and hecticness of NYCC with the fun and relaxed attitudes of PAX. It proves that a small, local convention can become something larger and still maintain that “local con” feel. I always have a good time at this event; over the years, I’ve brought people who don’t attend conventions normally and they’ve enjoyed themselves as well. If you’re looking for a con to add to your schedule–or a first convention to bring someone to–you should really consider this one.
– Mr. Khon