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Chasing the Dragon 

How the world's largest sci-fi Con is making the world a better place, one panel at a time

The best science fiction is never really about the future; it's about the here and now. Be it Mike Judge's vision of mankind's evolution into stupidity with his 2006 film Idiocracy, or Gene Roddenberry's altruistic space truckin' adventures in "Star Trek," what ties the genre together is an appeal to make the present a better, more tolerable place. Dragon*Con falls somewhere in the middle, I suppose. This hit me Saturday afternoon at the "Trapped in the Delta Quadrant" panel discussion with cast members from "Star Trek: Voyager." There, an audience of hundreds, roared with laughter as Garrett Wang (ensign Harry Kim), Robert Picardo (the Emergency Medical Hologram), and Tim Russ (Tuvok the Vulcan) relived some between-take moments from the set when they held a boom mic up to Russ's ass to record a particularly epic gas attack. I'm sure Roddenberry is doing warp speed somersaults in his grave right about now. But I digress ...

Like the universe of fictional characters, legacies, technologies, and alternate timelines that Dragon*Con's attendees worship, there is a timelessness about Atlanta's — if not the world's — largest gathering of geeks. While carving a path through the sea of costumed madness that filled the Marriott Marquis later Saturday eve, en route to the Hilton to catch a panel on just what the Higgs Boson really is, fielding texts about the outrageous Dragon*Con Craigslist posts going up (see Thomas Wheatley's Fresh Loaf post, "Dragon*Con missed connections ... and casual encounters"), it felt as though I was living out a misanthropic sci-fi adventure in real time. OK, so maybe the misanthropic part is an exaggeration. I'm more interested in taking this journey than I am in laughing about it. But suppressing those instincts while navigating a crowd of more than 50,000 costumed and deranged party people is an art form.

Six years have gone by since I made my first intrepid journey into the belly of the beast, and I haven't missed a year since. It was 2006 — Dragon*Con's 20th anniversary — and there were a mere 22,000 people in attendance, which means it has more than doubled in size. I have to admit, back in '06, I wondered if I'd missed the boat already. As with everything in life, there are naysayers telling you how much cooler it was back in the good ol' days. My verdict: not a chance.

There's something magical in the air at Dragon*Con, an ecstatic joy that overwhelms you as you walk amid so many people, from Denver to Denmark, crammed into a few city blocks, having the time of their lives. In the words of Obi Wan-Kenobi, "It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together."

Chasing that feeling is what keeps myself and thousands of others coming back. That and the fact the programming is world-class — after six years, I'm never at a loss for something new to take in.

Sure, the Dragon*Con 2012 experience had its problems, not the least of which were the mile-long lines to get into panel discussions with Alice Cooper and his perennial right-hand man James "Amazing" Randi, or any of the "Star Trek" panels for that matter — but such challenges are expected. However, MARTA has absolutely no excuse for picking this weekend to shut down the escalators at the Peachtree Center train stop — the longest escalator in the Southeast. Seriously? Try climbing those stairs with any composure while you're wearing a heavy latex costume that you've spent weeks putting together, or after even a modest amount of drinking.

This year I stuck mostly to the Science and Skeptic tracks, checking out mind-blowing photos of Saturn and its many rings and moons sent back from the Cassini spacecraft. (Did you know that Enceladus has volcanoes made of ice, and when they erupt they spew liquid water into the atmosphere?) And as stuffy as the Skeptic tracks may sound, anyone who fancies her- or himself a journalist should do this. Sitting in on Benjamin Radford's (no relation) Scientific Investigation Workshop was truly enriching. The guy investigates Bigfoot sightings, claims of UFO abductions, and photos of lake monsters. The cards are stacked against him in terms of maintaining credibility, so by design he has to adhere to the strictest set of critical standards. Even if he bursts your balloon, his methods are admirable.

Other personal highlights from this year include listening to Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura of "Star Trek: The Original Series") talk about the time when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. paid her a visit on set, and how much he inspired her not to quit the show even after she'd written her letter of resignation. A chance encounter with Amazing Randi during which he tried to read my mind was pretty cool, too. He handed me a book and asked me to pick one word from the first sentence that I read. The word was "fact." He couldn't guess it, and blamed it on the updated edition of the book. It was a joke, of course. Randi has an open-ended challenge to pay $1,000,000 to anyone who can demonstrate paranormal abilities under laboratory conditions, but the psychics all claim that they can't do it when he's around because skeptics, like him, generate "bad vibrations" that interfere with their abilities. Whatever.

But all of these personalities — along with their stories, panels, and indeed their very presence at Dragon*Con — are about furthering humanity, and making the world a better place. For me, that's what Dragon*Con is all about.

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