Science fiction conventions are strange and World SF conventions are stranger than most. For starters these so-called WorldCons are usually held in the USA. Of the 61 to date, only 13 were held outside the USA. They are predominately attended by people from the USA—even when they’re not held there. I swear there seemed to be as many folk from the USA as from Canada at this year’s WorldCon. But those gentle folk of the United States of America have long had difficulty with the meaning of the word "world". Apparently they think it’s a synonym for the USA or possibly North America. How else to explain "World" Series baseball?
At least WorldCons have an excuse for their use of the term "world". The first World SF convention was held in New York City in 1939, borrowing the title from the New York World’s Fair of 1939-1940. The Fair really did involve people from countries all over the globe. More than 60 nations were included: Chile, Portugal, Venezuela, France, Brazil, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Canada, Argentina, Ireland, Norway, Italy, Romania, Turkey, Sweden, and Japan.
Increasingly WorldCons are earning their title, shifting from one non-USA WorldCon a decade, to four in the nineties (The Hague, Winnipeg, Glasgow and Melbourne). So far this century there’s just been TorCon 3 but in 2005 it will be Glasgow’s second chance to host a WorldCon, and if the eligible voters show any sense, the first Japanese WorldCon will be held in Yokohama in 2007.
Almost all of the 200 attendees of the first WorldCon were US citizens. They were all white and possibly as many as five of them were female. The majority were eighteen years old. At this year’s WorldCon there were around 4,000 of us. I hung out with people from Canada, Australia, Japan, Spain (hello Alejo!), the UK, and France. Many of them were female and some of them weren’t white. There were attendees whose time alive was numbered in weeks, and a few creeping up on a century of living.
Two attendees, Dave Kyle and Frederik Pohl, also attended the very first WorldCon (and many, many, many of the ones in between). Well, sort of, Fred Pohl was actually banned from attending the actual convention along with some other naughty New York Futurians. But he did hang out in the bar with the professional writers and claims that was far more fun than the official convention anyway. Based on my experience of conventions I don’t doubt it.
WorldCons are really many different cons all held at the same time. There’s filking (making up science-fiction related lyrics to well-known songs and then singing them), costuming, and media (film and television fans) and I’m sure many other streams I’m not aware of.
The days are filled with programming. Readings: if the reader is Terry Pratchett, Connie Willis, Kim Stanley Robinson, or China Mieville expect a room filled past bursting and hot as hades even with the AC on high; if it’s anyone else expect an icy room sparsely populated by the reader’s family and friends. I have known writers who got married and had children solely to ensure that they always have an audience of at least two. The magical moment happens on that one fine day when you give the first reading you’ve ever given where there are faces you’ve never seen before in the audience, expectant, waiting to be read to. That’s glorious.
Autograph sessions: an event where writers who aren’t those named above pray that they’re not stuck sitting next to them, twiddling their thumbs while poor Stan Robinson’s signing hand cramps so bad it looks like amputation may be the only remedy.
Then there are panels. These consist of three to six people sitting with microphones behind a big table in front of an audience that often knows as much, if not more, on whatever the topic is than the panellists. One of the panellists acts as moderator. A good moderator will only speak themselves if there’s a lull in the discussion. She’ll make sure all panellists get an equal crack at talking, coaxing the silent and keeping the brakes on the over-effusive. After 15 minutes or so she’ll open it up so the audience can take part, but not take over, unless they turn out to be more interesting than the panellists. Never moderate a panel on Buffy the Vampire Slayer or anti-Americanism. Never allow anyone shy or so self-obsessed they can’t shut up moderate a panel.
The best panel I attended at TorCon 3 was on baseball and science fiction. Who knew there was a connection? I attended in my dutiful spouse capacity fully expecting to be bored out of my skull. Instead I learned a lot about baseball, about sf baseball stories, and was able to convey—along with other helpful cricket afficionados on the panel and in the audience—that yes indeed, there is another sport that’s inspired a great deal of fiction and that’s complex, riveting and has many centuries of history. Frequent debates broke out as to what particular moment led to particularly disastrous "World" Series results. Though sadly the only names I recognised were Babe Ruth (baseball’s Don Bradman) and Joe DiMaggio (the guy who married Marilyn Monroe).
The panellists were knowledgeable, entertaining and witty, especially Rick Wilber—what a charming man. Eric M. Van moderated with enthusiasm revved to such a pitch that I worried that he might explode. He didn’t, managing to rein in himself, and include everyone else. Masterfully done. There is now talk afoot of putting together a baseball/cricket panel at WisCon, or next year’s WorldCon in Boston. Panellists would all take a crash course in the sport they are not familiar with and then, I fear, spend the panel explaining to everyone why their sport is better.
Typically, there are weddings at WorldCons, and this year being in Toronto, for the very first time there were same-sex weddings. Lots of very happy campers. A joy to see.
Aside from the official programming there’s also a certain amount of business going on—agents courting writers, writers pursuing editors—but it’s a very small part of proceedings. The dread truth is that most WorldCon attendees do very little business and rarely go to more than a handful of panels/readings etc, just the ones they or their family and friends are on. Most of us go to sf conventions to hang out with all those friends we only ever get to see at conventions, to make more friends (who we forlornly hope we’ll be able to remember when we run into them at the next convention), to attend all the parties with their bucketloads of free food and booze and if we’re very lucky hear Connie Willis telling stories. As is amply demonstrated in these photographs and these and these. The advent of the digital camera is a sad, sad thing. Stop already, people!
The big night of a WorldCon for everyone I know is the Hugo Awards night. But in keeping with the many-different-cons-within-a-con the costumers have their own night: the Masquerade where they get to show off their costumes—many of them jaw-droppingly incredible—and win prizes. For the filkers the whole convention is one continuous big night, where they sing their lungs out unendingly. Apparently many have learned how to sign solely to get them through the voiceless days that follow.
The Hugo Awards are given out once a year for different categories of fiction (short story, novelette, novella, novel); professional (editor, artist, semi-prozine and related book: usually non-fiction about sf or sf art books); and fan (fanzine, fan writer, fan artist). They are the sf award that has the biggest impact on sales.
The award itself is a great big rocket ship and everyone I know wants one. If you are merely nominated (and, as we all know, just being nominated is an honour) you get a wee little rocket ship pin. This year they were gold for the fiftieth anniversary of the Hugo Awards. I’m here to tell you that a little gold rocket ship is dead cool (especially when your friends only have the lame silver version) and they’ll be prying mine from my cold dead fingers.
Some of us were nominated and all of us had opinions about who should and who would win (frequently not the same thing). We also enjoyed casting judgement on the performance of the toastmaster (this year, Spider Robinson) and the various acceptance speeches. Spider Robinson was fabulous, opening proceedings with clever filk versions of "Live and Let Die" (Mote in God’s Eye) and "Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover" (fifty ways to lose a hugo—I missed the verse about having a university press book). Jane Espenson accepting for her Buffy script was utterly charming though in truth just showing up would have charmed us. Most Hollywood types nominated for a Hugo haven’t a clue what it is and certainly don’t attend.
I adored George R. R. Martin torturing the best novel nominees with a witty though long (and if you’re waiting to find out if you’ve won an award—a half-second delay is too long) account of his own Hugo wins, lamenting that he had never won the Big One (best novel) only little ones (short story, novelette, novella). One day, I’m sure, he’ll get the full set.
The win that made me happiest was Emily Pohl-Weary winning for completing her grandmother, Judy Merril’s memoirs Better to Have Loved. Emily’s lovely and I happen to know that it was a very difficult, fraught task for her. Judith Merril was, of course, a longtime Toronto icon so what better place for her to be posthumously recognised?
I’m not usually a fan of WorldCons: too big, too hard to find your friends (hello, Elisabeth? Were you really there?), but I loved TorCon 3 and this despite the chaotic organisation—whereabouts and times of programming events changed hourly, gatekeepers zealously checking badges managed to exclude some big name writers like Pat Cadigan and Nalo Hopkinson—I guess I’m just a fan of chaos. Science fiction cons do chaos beautifully.
New York City, 4 September 2003