Doxacon was a success on its fledgling run over the weekend. I attended the events on all three days, and it was time well spent. The following is an inelegant exposition of some thoughts and reactions.
On Friday, I took the long Metro ride to the Franconia Springfield station. I realize that suburbanites and exurbanoids may appreciate the location, but it is ridiculously far from the city. Unless the hotel was significantly cheaper than lodging options closer to D.C., a more central location would have been better. Having the conference hotel on a direct path from Reagan National Airport, however, was wise, though it was a bit of a hike to the hotel. I was fortunate to catch the complimentary shuttle Friday evening, but I had to walk Saturday morning. A derelict mall stands between the station and the Hilton. One of the attendees said that gang violence had frightened shoppers away. The feral, sub-savage underclass—liberal society’s gift that keeps on giving. The hotel lobby and conference facilities were fine, though.
Surprisingly, there were not many vendors at Friday’s event, and the available vendors did not have a large stock on books. Matushka Donna Farley, for instance, was on hand to talk and to sign books, but she had few to sell. I do not expect writers who travel by plane to bring books with them, but it may be a good idea for future Doxacons to pre-order a selection of books by their featured speakers so that attendees may buy books to have signed.
Fr. David Subu of the sponsoring parish, the Protection of the Mother of God, gave a warm and clever introductory talk. He described his parish, noting that it is a diverse community where no ethnic tradition predominates, despite the fact that it was originally Romanian. He said that the culture that the members share is common American culture. He also said that the community tends to be well educated, which holds true for all of the Beltway Orthodox parishes. They thus skew geek. When the parishioners hang out, they tend to discuss and make references to the popular geek culture that they all share. Fr. David therefore joked that Doxacon’s attendees had been tricked into attending their parish’s ethnic festival—a Christian celebration of fantasy and science fiction.
The first chief speaker was George Washington University’s Dr. Alison Scott, who heads the G.W. library’s collection department. She explained the need for academic libraries to preserve popular literature. She spoke at length of the history of series romance novels as a popular parallel to fantasy literature and science fiction. Since the Second World War, series romance novels have comprised half of published book sales, but academia and pretty much everyone but the books’ hordes of female readers despise the works as trash. Still, Dr. Scott maintained that future ages will not be able to study the phenomenon of series romances because the books disappear, despite being published in the millions. No institution that keeps books purchases such works. Public lending libraries exist for circulation, not preservation. The popular novels get checked out until they disintegrate and get thrown away. Dr. Scott said that such a fate lies in store for much popular science fiction and fantasy, too, despite their popularity. Apart from respectable authors such as Tolkien and Lewis (whose non-scholarly works, by the way, were long derided by the establishment before they were finally accepted into the literary canon), popular fantasy and science fiction are not seen as worthy of preservation.
One of the audience members objected to Dr. Scott’s plea, remarking, “Garbage is just garbage . . . but studying garbage—well, that’s scholarship!” He noted that we cannot save everything. Scott agreed that not every institution can safeguard every cultural remnant, but she noted that different libraries specialize in their collections. She argued that there was a place for academic repositories of popular fiction for the sake of future scholarship.
Even though I am far from a democratic egalitarian, I agree with Dr. Scott. Social history is worthwhile. I do not dismiss the traditional focus on studying great men, great thoughts, great art, and the rise and fall of nations, but a full understanding of a civilization requires consideration not simply of the great but of the whole. I agree with Nietzsche’s image of philosophy as being a conversation among giants through the ages, but no thinker exists in isolation from his general society; such is obviously true for the ancients, but it holds just as well for those quirky and incomprehensible Germans. The same must be said for authors and artists, and I do not thereby historicize or relativize genius absolutely. I think that knowing a man’s historical context assists us in understanding him and his work without reducing them to that context. Plato could never justly be reduced to the conventional beliefs or perspectives of an age—his own or any other—but knowing about the degeneracy and collapse of Athens during the fifth and fourth centuries enlightens the study of the dialogues. Moreover, man as such, in all his diversity and peculiarities, high and low, is worth study. Surely men in future ages will be curious about our mad epoch, and they will want to understand how such a seemingly advanced and victorious civilization could have imploded so spectacularly in so short of time. They will examine the great wars, revolutions, and ideologies of the time, but will they really grasp what happened without access to what the masses read and watched—without an idea of how people lived, what they valued, and what they believed? Series romance novels may betray the idiocies of their readers, but idiocy manifests in multiple ways—and knowing the particular type of idiocy is historically informative. I suppose that a study of popular women’s fiction throughout the twentieth century would reveal quite a bit of our society and its development, especially through and after the “sexual revolution” and rise of “feminism.” When scholars in the twenty-eighth century want to know how the Anglosphere fell into chaos after having conquered the entire world, they may find the answers in series romance novels. If you remain skeptical, then consider this. What scholar of antiquity would not readily give up a well paid university post if he could discover and study a vast collection of lost popular dramatic works from classical Greece? Harvard would gladly spend millions of dollars to find such a treasure—a treasure that our medieval ancestors judged not worth saving. Some likely found the satyr plays of the Dionysia to be “garbage.” Unlike those manuscript societies with limited time and resources—there were only so many copyists in monasteries—our society, for now, at least, has the luxury to preserve even Mills and Boon.
Returning to Doxacon, Saturday’s session began with a divine liturgy at Saint Mary’s, but most people began the day with an akathist service at the hotel. I had never before heard the akathist—“Glory to God for All Things.” It was perfect for the convention, expressing, as it does, gratitude for the Lord’s many gifts, even in suffering and darkness. Such captures the heart of the fantasy and science fiction works that we love—the world, in its simple and profound things, is good and a beacon to the Good that is its source. Therefore, it is worth living, fighting, and dying for, as our heroes do in their stories, struggling through their temptations and set backs to emerge victorious at the end. Of course, I think of Samwise’s stirring speech in The Two Towers; he speaks for every soul that loves the good, true, and beautiful.
I found the akathist quite moving. It captures, for me at least, the Christian religion in general and Orthodox Christianity in particular superbly well. I hope that the non-Orthodox attendees found it edifying. From the opening akathist at the Hilton to the prayers before the meals to vespers Saturday evening and the divine liturgy Sunday morning at Saint Mary’s, the consensus was that the conference integrated opportunities for worship quite well.
The first speaker was Thomas Bertonneau, whom I have read online on such sites as View from the Right, The Thinking Housewife, and The Orthosphere. He delivered an academic lecture about Olaf Stapledon, of whom I had never heard until Bertonneau mentioned him on The Orthosphere. Evidently, Stapledon was a brilliant writer whose works inspired a good deal of the twentieth century’s fantasy and science fiction popular works, though he is not widely known to the general public. I wonder how that happens. It is curious. Bertonneau stated that Stapledon’s works were not really novels but their own thing; perhaps the man was too unconventional to be appreciated by a wide audience without first being digested by other writers. It was good to see Dr. Bertonneau in person at last, though I did not speak with him privately. There was never a moment when he was not surrounded by interested and interesting folks, and I am not one of public lectures’ many, many pushy people who take to question and answer sessions like prima donnas to the stage (with thanks to Andrew Lloyd Webber for supplying that most fitting image). You know the type—the one who “asks a question” by delivering an incoherent sermon of disconnected ideas with only the slightest tangential relation to the topic at hand. Fortunately—and somewhat shockingly to me—there were very few of those folks at Doxacon. Besides, I am a very strong INTJ Myers-Briggs personality type, and I prefer to be a wall flower (initially). Had I the chance, I was going to tell Dr. Bertonneau what occurred to me on the Metro ride to the conference Saturday morning. I thought about how people affiliated with Alcoholics Anonymous ask if someone is “a friend of Bill” as an in-group way of detecting others in A.A. Likewise, I was going to suggest to Dr. Bertonneau that we traditionalists could ask someone who seems to have “reactionary” opinions whether he is “a friend of Lawrence.” It is a minor tribute to our late friend.
Following Dr. Bertonneau’s speech, the conference separated into “break out” sessions that attendees could choose. I was displeased that, due to travel complications, two sessions that I wanted to attend were held at the same time—Fr. David’s talk on Dune and Dr. Jonathan Jacobson’s session on Battlestar Galactica (the “re-imagined” series). It appeared that more people went to attend the discussion on Herbert’s work; so, I chose to stay with B.S.G. I hope to watch a recorded version of Fr. David’s remarks if it ever becomes available. Dr. Jacobson did a fine job with the Battlestar session, and he pointed out the religious symbolism in many aspects of the show that I had never considered. Without giving out any spoilers to those whom I have repeatedly encouraged to watch the show (you know who you are), let me just say that I never considered the resemblances between the Lord and the child Hera—though they are obvious once they are pointed out to you. I especially appreciated Jacobson’s discussion of Gaius Baltar, who may be the most fascinating character on the show (even though Kara “Starbuck” Thrace is my favorite). It was too bad that it ended so soon; I could discuss the show for hours and hours. I think that such was the same for all the attendees. We are “those kind of people.”
It was fortunate that I had to choose between Fr. David’s and Dr. Jacobson’s talks, however, because I otherwise would not have had the great pleasure of listening to the Wrights. John Wright and Jagi Lamplighter presented the next session that I attended, “You Got Your Christianity in My Science-Fiction!,” and they were a hoot. Brilliant, funny, and quite comfortable in their skin, this husband and wife duo was an unexpected joy. They covered so much, but one thing that I most appreciated was Wright’s emphasis on making a good story and not preaching. He said that some people like preaching, mentioning Ayn Rand’s occasional screeds in her works that preach effectively to the choir. However, most readers are not in that choir. Instead, a writer should focus on the story. He mentioned one of my favorite passages in the bible (paraphrasing): “Consider, for example, the parable of the prodigal son. Its structure is so well designed. The story is so vivid. There is not one extraneous word. It is almost as if a divine mind came up with it.” I smile even as I type the line. I hope to see the Wrights again. They were stellar presences.
Next came quite an attractive lunch spread by Hilton. During lunch, I tried to listen to various fascinating side conversations by the speakers with their con-groupies. Following lunch, there was the final choice of sessions, and I elected to attend the one on Firefly, possibly the best show to be cancelled in the history of television. The session was the only one that was not perfectly executed. There were technical difficulties, and the speaker Leslie Banta appeared not to be comfortable speaking in front of a large group. However, I was happy to watch clips from the show, despite the problems. I was also touched when the speaker choked up a few times during the presentation. She apologized, somewhat embarrassedly, for how she felt about certain characters in the show, but she reckoned that the crowd would understand. I do not know if an average audience would understand, but we certainly did. I cannot imagine loving a book, film, or a television series without having strong emotions about the characters. I recently mentioned that I had finished Middlemarch. I teared up multiple times throughout the book, especially in the scenes with the Garths. From the few critical essays that I have read since I finished the book, it appears that most people find the Garths boring and pointless, and they dare to criticize Eliot for their inclusion in the story. In contrast, I love the Garths. They are my ideal friends, family, and neighbors. How beautiful, how terribly awesome these “insignificant” folks are. They represent the salt of the earth, whose very existence justifies God’s creation of the world. Did I mention that I love the Garths—and everything about the Garths? So, I understood Banta’s reaction. Anyway, when Banta offered side comments about the show, it was interesting and engaging, but the thematic exposition of the session (“Browncoats and The Beatitudes”) was not strong. Later, I listened to Banta’s talking about the show in a more intimate setting, and she was confident, well spoken, and informative. I think that she just needs to work on her public presentation skills. I sympathize. It is much easier for me to discuss matters in a small group of interlocutors than to lecture to a group. They require very different skill sets, and folks are sometimes gifted in one and not the other.
The last event at the Hilton was a talk by Matushka Donna Farley, “A Spell for Refreshment of the Spirit.” She used Lucy’s encounter with the book of spells in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader as the background for an excellent talk on how fantasy draws us to consideration of higher things—especially the greatest story ever told. With a lovely slideshow and fitting patristic quotations, Farley made a masterful defense for fantasy literature before those who would dismiss it as irrelevant or even dangerous. C.S. Lewis would be (perhaps is) proud. I found the talk rather moving, especially as it reminded me why I love men like Tolkien and Lewis so much. I thought of last week’s readings for the feast of All Saints of Russia:
The eye is the lamp of the body; so then if your eye is clear, your whole body will be full of light. . . .
Their eyes are fixed on the light, and their consequent works manifest such and thus give spiritual nourishment to their readers. How grateful we should be for them. As the akathist that we sang has it,
The breath of Thine Holy Spirit inspires artists, poets and scientists. The power of Thy supreme knowledge makes them prophets and interpreters of Thy laws, who reveal the depths of Thy creative wisdom. Their works speak unwittingly of Thee. How great art Thou in Thy creation! How great art Thou in man!
How fitting! Like a good story, it just ties together so well. Doxacon expressed this sort of harmony again and again.
After Matushka finished her talk, the various presenters held a panel session. A few other presenters praised Matushka. I believe that Jagi Lamplighter said that she was tearing up. I was reminded again that I was in good company. The panel discussion was great. The Wrights expounded their earlier session remarks about writing a good story, and the panelists took turns describing their creative process. It was interesting to hear, and I found much of it familiar to my own experience. As before, Mr. Wright showed himself to have a great wit. He had mentioned earlier in the day that he was an atheist until well into adulthood, and he had the same knack for destroying shallow materialism as others who have escaped from its cave. A wonderful kind of company, indeed.
The panel was the last event at the Hilton. The rest of the day’s events occurred at Saint Mary’s parish. People carpooled to the parish, which was not very close. In the future, I would hope that the venues would be more accessible for those without cars. Nonetheless, it was good to incorporate the parish building into the events. The parishioners did an outstanding job preparing for the attendees. There were decorations around the property to make the parish look like the scene of Bilbo’s 111th birthday party, such as signs that stated “No admittance except on party business,” an impressively creative dinner menu, and other things hobbity. There was also a whimsical directions pole that pointed to places far and wide in our fond genres, including the great A’ Tuin (the giant turtle on whose back Disc World lies), Hogwart’s (Harry Potter’s school), Narnia, Serenity Valley (where the Independents lost their great cause), and one that I did not know—Westeros (evidently from Game of Thrones). Nothing was from Middle Earth. We were obviously in the Shire; so, I would expect a sign to Bree, at least.
Before the “Fellowship of the Geeks” dinner party, however, we celebrated vespers with Metropolitan Savas of Pittsburgh, who participated in the earlier events at the Hilton. I had never been to Saint Mary’s before, and I found it a charming parish. Two styles of iconography were present—that of the iconostasis and that of everything else. The icon screen’s style was typical of small parishes—adequate but not amazing. The festal and saints’ icons elsewhere, however, were extraordinarily beautiful. They were vibrant and dynamic but still traditional and sober. I loved them. From the narthex with its striking depictions of the ark and of Jonah to the large icons of the feasts around the temple, the small parish was truly theology in color. The parish community was also very active in participating in the services. Most all parishioners sang with the choir, which is sadly not so common in Orthodox parishes. The people are the choir according to the rubrics, and yet the people fail to labor all too often in their liturgy. The parish also provided service booklets for vespers for the non-Orthodox attendees. It was the first time witnessing Orthodox worship for several people. Toward the end of vespers, Metropolitan Savas read additional passages from Romanos the Melode’s kontakia for the feast of Saint Elijah. They are quite powerful, and the Metropolitan had to pause at one point to collect himself. (If you follow the link, you may read the kontakia toward the bottom of the page).
Following vespers, Metropolitan Savas gave the final Doxacon address about apocalyptic themes in popular science fiction and fantasy. He mentioned many fascinating biographical facts, as well, such as having lived on Mount Athos and at Patmos. I was thoroughly impressed. So many Orthodox give the Greeks a hard time in America for their insularity, their ethnocentrism, their modernism, their secularism, and such (and I am among those who cast stones), but Metropolitan Savas seems a thoughtful, loving man. He may not be an economist, but the bishop has obvious excellent qualities and good pastoral horse sense. It was good to have a bishop as an active participant in the conference, and it was doubly good that he was a Greek who crossed that wide jurisdictional gulf to hang out with us barbarians. Axios!
After the Metropolitan finished speaking, it was time for the long-expected party. The parishioners of Saint Mary’s were wonderful hosts, and the dinner was hearty, hobbitish fare. There were mushrooms in several dishes, and, being an enthusiastic mycophagist myself, I was in heaven—or rather Middle Earth. We enjoyed delicious cakes and cobblers as well as fine ale at the Green Dragon—a picnic bar in the yard. A merry time was had by all. Fr. David even broke into Bilbo’s birthday address, which morphed into a not so covert way of praising his hard working wife for her support in the project. Behind every man . . .
The next day, we celebrated the divine liturgy with Metropolitan Savas and the more normal, less geeky remaining members of Saint Mary’s community. They have a bright light burning there in northern Virginia. I wish them well. Following the liturgy, there was a leftover feast followed by a discussion for future Doxacon events. There is talk of having a Doxacon in Seattle, which would be supported by parishes in the Northwest. I think that alternative east and west coast years is an excellent idea, which would allow more people to attend the events and offer some respite to the organizers on each coast. However, it is obvious that the west coasters should have theirs in odd years. There was also brain storming about how to spread the word for future Doxacons, about recruiting speakers, and about facilitating interparochial cooperation so that Doxacon could grow beyond the support limitations of a small parish community. I hope that such seeds come to fruition. There is an audience for an annual conference, and there is much material to mine (as deep as Moria, one might say).
Kudos to the organizers and workers behind this year’s first event! Many blessings to them all. We passengers of Doxacon’s maiden voyage thank them for a splendid adventure. Naturally, adventures cause us to lose respectability, but such has never been a chief concern for Tooks or geeks, thank God. And for everything else, too.