Best Sci-Fi Convention 2012 | LepreCon | People & Places | Phoenix

Robert F. Kennedy once famously waxed: "Some men see things as they are and say, 'Why?' I dream of things that never were and say, 'Why not?'" The optimistic sentiment, paraphrased from George Bernard Shaw, is something likely shared by the slew of speculative-fiction scribes who attend and appear at LepreCon each year. While most of the geekazoid gatherings and conventions taking place around the Valley each year include science fiction and fantasy content, such topics take a larger focus at this event, particularly literary renditions of worlds that never were. As such, the lineup of special guests at LepreCon, which has been around since 1974, has included award-winners like Elizabeth Bear and Darrell K. Sweet. Meanwhile, hundreds of panels and events are held, featuring info on getting into the sci-fi book biz, discussions about the metaphors involved with aliens, public readings, and the possibilities of getting fan fiction published. Hey, it worked for that chick who wrote 50 Shades of Grey, which started out as a piece of Twilight fanfic.

When artist David Therrien first purchased this 9,000-square-foot warehouse south of downtown Phoenix in 1999, it was in disarray. Formerly the home of Arizona Testing Labs — which examined and analyzed crime evidence for the Phoenix Police Department, as well as water and soil samples — the building contained broken equipment, trash, and a few homeless folks. "Back then, the old St. Vincent DePaul was across the street, so when I got the building, there were people and their stuff everywhere," Therrien says. "It wouldn't be fair to describe them as squatters, since squatters tend to fix up a place a little. It took me a few months to get things to where I wanted." Eventually, Therrien transformed his own personal laboratory, conducting all sorts of artistic experiments and helping incubate culture. Initially dubbed ChemLab (and currently known as OP-Tic), it became legendary for hosting intimate photography shows and ginormous installation pieces, as well as sound-generating equipment and quirky technology-based events in which man battled machines. One of the more recent artistic experiments happened in February, when Therrien featured a stunning exhibition of large-scale paintings by Yuko Yabuki, a bizarre butoh performance by CoCo Katsura, and noise art from Noncommunication. And the results of this latest arts experiment? Stunning, to say the least.

It was pitched to the world as one of the grandest scientific ventures of all time, but ultimately wound up being nothing more than a titanic joke mired in scandal. In 1991, the much-ballyhooed biological experiment known as Biosphere 2 was launched outside Tucson, sealing eight people inside a $200 million self-contained, glass-enclosed airtight habitat that essentially was a 7.2-million-cubic-foot terrarium stocked with flora and fauna. It was hoped they could grow their own food, maintain the environment, and live in harmony. Too bad it was a disappointment on nearly every level. Animals started dying off, the air became unbreathable because of an overabundance of carbon dioxide, infighting developed, and everyone became malnourished. By the time they were released two years later, the organization that built and ran the place was revealed as a New Age cult and its so-called scientific findings were deemed bunkum. In the two decades since, Biosphere 2 was bought by Columbia University and later sold to the U of A (its current owner), both of which gave it a modicum of respectability as a biological and climate-research facility. Basically, it's an ant farm on steroids that's become an interesting footnote in Arizona history.

Security is phenomenally tight at both of the sprawling high-tech facilities owned by Orbital Sciences Corporation in the East Valley. It's so tight that even Tom Cruise in full-on Mission: Impossible mode couldn't penetrate either of its buildings. Given the sort of top-secret stuff being designed and built inside, such security is to be expected. As the company's name portends, the technicians and engineers of Orbital Sciences create rockets, missiles, and other flame-spewing space projectiles for NASA and the Department of Defense, as well as a number of satellites. Inside the clean rooms at the Launch Systems Group building in Chandler, workers assemble the Taurus XL and rockets from the Minotaur series, both of which are used to launch satellites beyond the atmosphere. Over in Gilbert, OSC's Space Systems Group assembles orbiting devices that do everything from analyze the polar ice caps to facilitate worldwide communications. Per the Orbital Sciences' website, the company's currently hiring but requires an extensive background check. Better make sure you take care of those traffic tickets.

It's hard not to feel awestruck when gazing up at the 103-foot Titan II missile that's housed underground at this submerged former nuclear silo in southern Arizona. Truth be told, had things gone differentially during the Cold War, neither we nor the rocket (nor many like it) would be around right now. Thankfully, World War III never happened and the silo never got to fulfill its intended purpose. Instead, it became a tourist attraction after being decommissioned by the U.S. government in 1982. It's the only museum of its kind in the nation, as each of the 32 other Titan II launch facilities around America has been destroyed, sold to private interests, or turned into condos. Visitors can descend more than 140 feet to explore the adjacent command bunker, where a simulated launch sequence is run during tours and one can get an up-close view of the inert weapon of mass destruction.

As each year passes, British billionaire Richard Branson seems to be inching closer to making his dreams of providing jaunts beyond the stratosphere a full-fledged reality. According to the website for his space tourism company Virgin Galactic, however, booking a ticket aboard a sub-orbital vehicle like the VSS Enterprise is expected to cost a hefty $200,000 per person. In other words, zooming well beyond the Kármán line, the sky-high boundary where the atmosphere ends and the rest of the universe begins, is likely going to be well beyond the means of your average person. Those seeking a more frugal foray into the final frontier (albeit of the faux variety) oughta consider an excursion to the Challenger Space Center. Besides housing a collection of space-related exhibits, astronaut ephemera, and monuments to the shuttle program (RIP), the Peoria attraction allows patrons to play the role of astronaut for a couple of hours. You can serve as a member of a flight crew manning a high-tech nerve center that mimics NASA command and control facilities or hop inside the "Earth Space Transit Module" for a simulated voyage to mockups of either a Martian colony or the International Space Station. It's nowhere near the same as actually slipping past the surly bonds of gravity and admittedly requires plenty of imagination to fully enjoy the experience. Then again, stretching the imagination is what led mankind to consider traveling into the cosmos in the first place.

When members of the International Astronomical Union downgraded Pluto to dwarf planet status in 2006, we practically heard Percival Lowell spinning in his grave all the way up in Flagstaff. That's because the mathematician and astronomer dedicated the last decade of his life to helping lay the groundwork for the discovery of Pluto, which took place in 1930 at the Northern Arizona star-gazing facility he founded that bears his name. A wealthy Boston socialite who had an affinity for the wonder of the cosmos, he ventured to our neck of the woods in 1894 due to the wealth of clear skies and a lack of light pollution. After building Lowell Observatory, he used the Alvan Clark Telescope to survey Mars, a planet the eccentric millionaire was particularly obsessed with. Although he might've been completely bonkers when he confidently (and quite erroneously) declared there were canals crisscrossing the Martian surface, Lowell was definitely on the money about was the existence of an object orbiting the sun out beyond Neptune and Uranus. Dubbing it "Planet X," Lowell relentlessly searched the skies for it right up until his death in 1916. While, sadly, he never completed this particular quest, Lowell paved the way for his fellow astronomer Clyde Tombaugh to zero in on Pluto 14 years later at the observatory. Some guys have all the luck.

The planets and extraterrestrial phenomena of outer space don't seem as far away anymore, thanks to the wonders of technology and the speed of the Internet. These days, wanna-be astronomers or those interested in seeing what's out there in the cosmos can easily log on to the Slooh Space Camera or similar online skywatching sites and watch both lunar and solar eclipses, as well as witness asteroids and other cosmic detritus zoom through our corner of the galaxy. But as convenient as such laptop cyber-stargazing can be, it isn't as interesting as attending one of the East Valley Astronomy Club's star parties. After all, all those twinkling stars are best seen in the great outdoors, which harks back to something Plato once stated many moons ago: "Astronomy compels the soul to look upwards and leads us from this world to another." And on a number of occasions each month, the 200-odd astronomy enthusiasts who make up the club, which has been scanning the skies since 1987, gaze into heavens using such heavy-duty telescopes as the Takahashi Epsilon-210 Astrograph at the Riparian Preserve at Water Ranch in Gilbert or other rural locations around the East Valley. As they aim their high-caliber optics toward the void, members of the public are invited to squint through the viewfinder at the cosmic bodies populating our own solar system or at far-flung nebulae. If only they'd let us bring out our boombox and blast Holst's The Planets during such sky-watching sessions.

Author and Valley resident Michael Stackpole is a hero to nerds nationwide, likely because he's amassed a slew of achievements that some geeks only wish they could accomplish in their lifetimes. Over the past 35 years, he's designed critically acclaimed tabletop RPGs (Storm Haven, City Book I) and PC games (Star Trek: 25th Anniversary Edition), written popular novels in the BattleTech series, and appeared on the New York Times bestseller list multiple times. In the 1990s, George Lucas let him dabble in the Star Wars literary universe, allowing Stackpole to create some of the more iconic characters in the saga's history. Oh, and an asteroid was even named in his honor in 2008. Kinda makes your so-called feat of finally beating Diablo III seem a little weak by comparison, bro.

Upon first glance, Lance Greathouse looks like a fairly straitlaced guy. He's got a wife, two kids, a suburban home, and a sedate day job as a dental laser technician. Brewing inside the 52-year-old's head, however, are visions of twisted creatures, lethal-looking contraptions, and frightening fire-breathing monsters. Mind you, Greathouse isn't insane but is instead an imaginative cat, and such conjurings are merely inspirations for the kooky contraptions he's been building in his backyard workshop for years. "I come out here when I'm not working and try to think of the wildest stuff I can create," he says. So far, the tinkerer, gearhead, and DIY diehard has constructed robotic scorpions, mechanized skeletons, and wheeled vehicles with fearsome appearances. (A few even starred on TV programs like BattleBots and Robot Wars.)

A majority of Greathouse's creations boast bad-ass propane-powered flamethrowers that emit conflagrations into the air, like the motorized armored three-wheeler dubbed "Lord Humongous." Greathouse's creations are a big hit out at Burning Man in Nevada, which he visits almost every year. He also brings out some of his more benign devices, like the "Ultimate Tailgating Station," a remote-controlled mobile grill and "party on wheels" that includes a barbecue, refrigerated beer tap, stereo system, and yet another flamethrower for roasting vegetables. It was seen on an episode of the National Geographic Channel's reality show Mad Scientists that he was featured on last winter. Viewers also got to glimpse some of the funky motorized wheelchairs Greathouse built for his late brother, who suffered from Parkinson's disease, including one patterned after Dr. Evil's chair from the Austin Powers flicks. "It's appropriate because some people seem to think I'm quite the mad scientist," he jokes. We don't know why they might come to that conclusion, Lance.

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