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Steam Versus Cyber at ArmadilloCon

Bruce Sterling joins this weekend's sci-fi/fantasy literary event

By Richard Whittaker, 12:10AM, Fri. Aug. 26, 2011

Bruce Sterling: Futurist meets fantasy at this year's ArmadilloCon
Bruce Sterling: Futurist meets fantasy at this year's ArmadilloCon
Photo by Todd V. Wolfson

After 33 years, ArmadilloCon is the little convention that could. Austin's literary sci-fi and fantasy gathering has always attracted big names, and this weekend's iteration is no exception, with cyberpunk pioneer and futurist Bruce Sterling just announced for this weekend's gathering.

However, SXSW regular Sterling is far from the only big name at ArmadilloCon 33, with over 100 writers and publishers in attendance. He also won't be the only winner of a Hugo Award present: Convention programming director A.T. Campbell III called guest of honor Paolo Bacigalupi "one of the hottest writers in science fiction right now. His first novel, The Windup Girl, last year won the Hugo and the Nebula awards, which is pretty remarkable for any book, never mind a first novel." He will get to rub shoulders with fellow Hugo winner Elizabeth Bear, who picked up the 2005 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. "She's only been publishing for five years or so and she's already won several major awards," Campbell said.

Speaking of awards, the designer who created the Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation will be in attendance. Vincent Villafranca creates monstrous rat beasts and antique astronauts in bronze. Campbell said, "For the first many years, our artist guest was always a painter, usually someone that did book covers, but Vincent is a sculptor." That created a small conundrum for the organizing committee, Campbell explained: "Generally the artist guest does art for the cover of the program, and for a while were joking that we were going to have to emboss the cover."

Villafranca will not be the only 3D artist in attendance. Keeping in with the Steampunk theme that is so in vogue right now, there will be a Steampunk jewelry-making demo, a discussion of Steampunk as a fashion movement, plus TexLUG, the Texas LEGO Users Group, will be building something spectacular.

However, the written word remains the backbone of the event. As always there will be a series of readings from veterans like Neal Barrett, Jr. Joe Lansdale and Emma Bull, whose novel War for the Oaks pretty much kickstarted the whole urban fantasy genre. There will also be rising talents like Scott Lynch, whose third book in his Gentleman Bastards series, The Republic of Thieves, is due out in November through Bantam Doubleday Dell. Stina Leicht, who published her debut novel Of Blood and Honey this year, took over running the writers' workshop four years ago. She is finalizing the title to the recently-completed sequel to her first book ("I can't make up my mind, but the majority of the title will be Blue Skies from Pain") but took time to explain the value of the gathering. "Beginning students, who don't normally get much input from working professionals," she said.

"My main ambition has been to keep the quality up," Leicht, added. "Over time, the industry has changed, and it's been kind of challenging keeping up with that because of the pace." That's why the instructors are all writers who are still being published today. "It makes it more relevant to new students," Leicht said, "because starting off looking for an agent is a different situation to what it was ten years ago."

She also had some optimistic words about the long-predicted demise of the printed word. "Writers, especially new writers, are constantly being told that print is going to die and they're just going to be 'content providers' and won't get paid at all," she said. "It's a hysteria, and I think it's important to remain calm in times of change." Rather than bemoaning the end of the printed word, this year's lineup includes panels on the benefits of podcasting and the perils of blogging. Leicht said, "I see the Internet and ebooks as increasing the market for writers. I don't see it as a doom-and-gloom scenario."

For all the changes in the industry, a big part of ArmadilloCon is the tradition, and how many regulars turn up every year: For example, long-time mainstay (and associate of Chronicle cover star Chris Roberson) Mark Finn will be this year's toast master. "He's a hoot," said Campbell. "One year, five years ago, the person who was supposed to be toast master couldn't make the trip, so Mark filled on just a few hours notice and did a fine job. So we thought, 'Well, we should give him a chance to do it right.'"

Expect some big changes in the next two years: In 2012, the convention will be moving from its traditional late August date to July, but it will go into semi-hiatus in 2013. Don't worry, it's not bad news. Everyone will be over in San Antonio for the 71st annual World Science Fiction Convention: Because so many ArmadilloCon regulars are helping out there, the Austin gathering will take a year off. Well, mostly. After WorldCon visited San Antonio in 1997, Campbell said, "We just rented some cabins in a rustic area and had about 30 people hang out and have a restful weekend. Sort of a relaxicon."

ArmadilloCon 33. Aug. 26-28. Three day pass $50, age 13-18 or with college ID $30, ages 7-12 $25. One day passes $20-$35. Renaissance Hotel, 9721 Arboretum Blvd. www.fact.org/dillo.

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