Culture

A bigger Silicon Valley Comic Con searches for Planet B

With a wall of March for Science signs outside, techies and sci-fi fans were asking: What can we do?

Tania Gonzalez

Environmental protection. Funding for science and education. Advocating for diversity. Silicon Valley Comic Con 2017 wasn't just about escapism; people were looking to get to grips with this world today.

In its second year, Steve Wozniak's local con was again a relatively small, homey place where people of all ages could share geeky interests and get closer to celebrities than at a big show like San Diego Comic-Con. The Silicon Valley theme meant things like a STEM section for kids, a NASA booth and free VR demonstrations outdoors.

There were actors ("Star Trek: The Next Generation" cast members and Grant Gustin and Tom Felton of "The Flash," among others), comics legend Trina Robbins, writers, artists, former MythBusters and so on.

You also had your comics, collectibles and a nice range of cosplay, from professional-looking teams to those people who would have been wearing unicorn onesies anyway. Last year's big costume was Deadpool; this year there were several Negans (from "The Walking Dead") and at least three women dressed as Captain America, one in a NASA backpack. (Plus I found myself dodging "eye contact" with more than one Deathstroke. Or was it just one really creepy Deathstroke circling?)

But where one theme of SVCC 2016 was imagination and empathy -- the ways sci-fi and comic books help us see potential in the future and ourselves-- this year the recurring question was, what can people like us do right now?

Jessica Coon, linguistics consultant for last year's "Arrival" (which, she cited a headline saying, made linguistics "almost cool"), gave a fun talk on syntax and universal grammar, while explaining that it helps children to have a connection to their indigenous language and the importance of cataloging these languages. At the end of the talk, she brought up ways that types of people you'd expect at the con could help, such as working on free, open-source language app platforms, promoting indigenous artists, donating translation rights to comics and -- the easy one -- supporting the Endangered Language Fund.

At the NASA panel on Mars, where panelists talked about glaciers, methane, the NASA research plane Sofia and possible drone exploration, the audience cheered at a mention of the March for Science. Attendees asked about the state of funding for space exploration and many questions about colonizing Mars, often seen as an escape option, aka "Planet B."

The panelists had their own takes on how to get involved; scientists encouraged those able to pursue a passion in astronomy, astrobiology or geology (as the geology booster pointed out, any astronaut who lands on Mars is guaranteed to be collecting a lot of rocks).

Closer to home -- and something you can do tonight without a degree -- is taking a look at Mars Trek, where NASA posts high-res images. "We don't have time to look at them all," panelist Brian Day explained. (The schedule doesn't give much information, so I originally couldn't identify him beyond "man with fine head of hair.") He encouraged everyone to "help us out" by combing through them and reporting anything interesting. (CNET's own Amanda Kooser tried trawling NASA archives for faces, though that's probably not what he had in mind.)

A casual panel discussion of "women in gaming" dodged most of the collective trauma around those three words, but still raised the question of how to advocate for change in video games given the inertia of the industry systems by which they're made. Reportedly, even William Shatner was talking about climate change.

So while some people came home with autographs and photos, I scored a list of book recommendations and websites to look up. But also the memory of seeing a guy dressed as The Flash helping a guy in a NASA polo shirt get his photo taken with a live, giant snake.