Saturday, May 29, 2004

The Sublime and the Ridiculous: LV as a SF/F Destination

All pictures by John Blocher, May 16-19th, 2004*

*Update, three years later: a By the Way entry reminded me today of this old AOL-J entry of mine, and I went looking for it. I still like the words, but man-oh-man, the photos look amazingly bad now, especially in the default Ken Burns mode from the recent AOL-J upgrade. So what I've done here is this: I removed the single worst photo and added new edits of eight more. Nothing can completely hide the fact that the photos were taken with a Mavica, and are terribly low-res and grainy by today's standards. After all, these photo files - the originals, mind you - were small enough that twenty of them fit on a single floppy disk. Still, newer photo editing and leaving the result as large a file as possible seems to help a bit. So here you are. Will anyone but me even see this? - Karen

*Update, Nov 2008: AOL Pictures is going away, so no more Woodoo. This is now a Picasa slideshow, which lacks the Ken Burns effect. Phooey.

In recent years, Las Vegas has, almost accidentally, transformed itself into a genre destination. Star Trek fans can run from the Borg, horror fans can explore Dracula's castle, and amateur Egyptologists can pose with a Sphinx or gaze upon the tomb of Tutankhamen. Fantasy fans can stay at a camped-up version of King Arthur's home, watch sirens cause trouble, or check up on some talkative members of the Roman pantheon. If you want to gamble, there are I Dream of Jeannie slot machines. Want souvenirs? Buy a tiny dragon, a full-sized sword, or your very own tricorder. Like motion simulator rides? There are at least half a dozen to choose from, more likely a few dozen.

How did all this happen? I have a theory about that.

I think it's partly an accident, partly a matter of market forces, and partly a demographic shift. In the past thirty years or so, the once-marginalized sf/fantasy fan has gone mainstream. Las Vegas, of all places, is well-suited to capitalize on that progression.

Let's approach this from the demographic angle first. My generation, the baby boomers, was born into houses full of bright plastics, watched Glenn and Aldrin on tv as well as Kirk and Spock, and played advent.exe on University mainframes in college. People thought we were weird as we read Lord of the Rings or wrote about Star Trek, but all that started to change with Star Wars, Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, and eventually the Internet. Science fiction no longer seems far-fetched, because we're living in the future ourselves. Fantasy no longer looks hokey, because ILM and WETA can do things nowadays that would have made Ray Harryhausen weep. People who watched the Enterprise on tv in the 1960s went to work for NASA later, or possibly for Berman and Braga. People who knew how to confuse Eliza ("IS IT BECAUSE YOU'RE A LITTLE TEAPOT THAT YOU CAME TO SEE ME?") later wrote games for Sega or Electronic Arts. And here's the kicker: the most important trade shows that unveil each new crop of tech gadgets, games and killer aps take place in Las Vegas.

Here's a short history of Las Vegas over the same time period. By the 1970s, the Rat Pack was no longer holding court, and organized crime was socially acceptable only in Puzo novels and Coppola movies. Las Vegas had a seedy, adults-only reputation, which was no longer attractive to most Americans. People with kids were far more likely to go to Anaheim or Orlando, or possibly King’s Island. Even that Las Vegas mainstay, gambling, became less of a draw as Indian casinos started to open around the country in the 1980s.

So Las Vegas reinvented itself as a family destination. Circus Circus was the first family resort, soon followed by Excalibur, and Treasure Island. And it worked. Excalibur had zillions of rooms, but they filled up every night. Hotels from the Sinatra era were torn down to make way for ever-more elaborate themed resorts: Luxor, Bellagio, The Venetian, the Mirage, New York New York, Paris, and I'm probably forgetting a few of them. Other hotels, such as Caesar's Palace and the Hilton, were upgraded. Caesar's got an indoor mall with talking gods and a changing sky. The Hilton got Klingons and the Borg. And after all, why not? Las Vegas used to be about the fantasy of show girls and high rollers, but that was a different era. Now it's about different fantasies, ones that appeal to the tech geeks and their families. These days, a chapel on the Strip can throw a Star Trek wedding for you as easily as an Elvis one. Kids can ride roller coasters, mall rats can ride a gondola between shops, and History Channel buffs can hear what a fictionalized Howard Carter has to say about King Tut.

It isn't all good. Those little chapels on the Strip still remind me inevitably of Marty McFly's Chapel-O-Love, and the Excalibur, let's face it, is silly-looking. Disneyland's castle is far more realistic and evocative, and doesn't half-deafen you with hundreds of slot machines. Still, Las Vegas has definitely gotten better at the themed destination business with each new resort or attraction. The Luxor in particular is as amazing as Excalibur is disappointing. Check out the pictures on this post for examples of each.

If you're a fan of sf, fantasy, horror and technology, and you've already seen enough of Disneyland and Universal for this year, Las Vegas is well worth a look. After all, they’ve built these hotels for us: the baby boomer and younger, technophile, genre-watching geeks.



beckerb6 said...

LOVED this entry for the first time I want to go to Las Vegas.

bgilmore725 said...

Like I said in my previous entry, I am looking forward to visiting Las Vegas now. I am concerned, though, about the increased population of homeless in LV... I don't suppose you know anything about what the city is doing to improve that situation? I remember reading the journal recently of a man named River,

and how he was living homeless on the streets of LV. He was able to make his journal entries via the library computer/internet access. He said there were over 15,000 homeless people in that city of entertainment. I suppose it is the mild weather that attracts these homeless. I wonder if they lived in LV, then became homeless, or if they became homeless first, then moved to LV because they'd heard it was easier to sleep on the streets at night? I don't know. That's a lot of people needing shelter and food. Amidst a population who has money to spend. How can one enjoy one's vacation when surrounded by such poverty and imperilment? I haven't done a search, but I am going to add it to my list of things to search, to answer the question "Why?" I'd still like to go to LV, but I am concerned about what I will see, and what I will do when I see it.  Bea