Worldcon 2003: Torcon3

For a lifelong Ottawa-area Science-Fiction fan like me, the accessible Toronto setting of the 61st World Science Fiction Convention was a unique way to check out this quasi-legendary event without breaking my budget. Almost certainly the biggest yearly event in literary SF, the Worldcon seemed like the obvious step up after nearly a decade of small regional conventions. What follows is a report of my experiences in Toronto during this event, from August 28th to September 1st 2003.

While previous convention report of mine were usually arranged in chronological order with short summaries of just about every panel I attended (see, most particularly, my 2001 World Fantasy Convention report), this particular report will be a little bit more free-flowing, as -for various reasons- I only attended a dozen panels, certainly not enough to warrant a chronological write-up. So let’s begin by…

Vertiginous recursive portrait of the author going down an escalator between two mirrore surfaces
Self-portrait of the author in a reflective mood.

1. The City

As a stay-at-home Ottawa-area resident, it had been more than a decade since my last trip to Toronto. So this Worldcon was a perfect excuse to slip out, walk a little bit and explore the city. While I must have accumulated some five or six hours of pedestrian tourism throughout the five days of the convention, I didn’t venture as far as I had hoped; my expeditions were neatly delimited by the Spadina/Bloor/Yonge/Waterfront quadrant, which still left quite a few things to see.

Naturally, Toronto is not Ottawa. It’s much bigger, far more urbanised and, truth be told, not quite as aesthetically pleasing, especially in the downtown core I explored. It’s a bizarre mish-mash of cool new buildings and disgusting old ones, thrown together without much harmony. Car dealerships sit next to office towers, power transformation stations are barely masqueraded by artistic billboards and side streets sort of spring out of nowhere. I’m not sure if there’s an urban development plan. We didn’t drive a lot in the city for a good reason: the traffic signalisation is atrocious with unreadable street signs that seems randomly placed somewhere at intersections. Go figure.

Rather nice shot of the CN Tower
The jewel of the Queen City: The CN Tower.

All of which is a shame, because as a city, it’s remarkably clean, safe and somewhat efficient. There are terrific pieces of architecture, and the new steel/glass condo buildings built next to the waterfront look like they’re straight out of science-fiction covers. The CN tower rightfully dominates the landscape (it looks quite a bit more solid in person than on pictures), but other building don’t fail to impress; the Roy Thompson Hall, the Skydome, the City Hall are all wonders to behold.

 time of the Toronto City Hall
The Toronto City Hall.

But leaving aside the buildings to focus on the people, I was pleased beyond belief to see for myself the vaunted ethnic variety of the city. Yonge street during the evening is a testament to the success of the new Canadian society: Races and religions intermingle with scarcely a worry. Interracial couples are plentiful. Everyone seems happy. This, in many ways, is the city of future: people have fought to create places like this, and what do you know –it works. This diversity of humanity is not unique to Toronto (among other places I’ve visited, downtown Ottawa, Montreal and New York seem well on their way to become as multicultural), but there it seemed far more natural in T.O. than anywhere else. Good stuff; it made me proud to be around.

Shot of Spadina Street
A glimpse at part of Toronto’s Chinatown.

Otherwise, well, I simply ran out of time to visit the good stuff; didn’t make it inside the Royal Ontario Museum (currently being renovated; you may want to wait until 2005), Queen’s Park or even the World’s Biggest Bookstore. Next time, next time!

Weather was fine and sunny for the whole duration of the convention, at the slight exception of Friday, which was cloudy, foggy and devastatingly humid.

Photo of round condo towers under construction
Rising up in the sky; 2003-vintage towers

2. The facilities

Torcon3 was split between two facilities: The enormous Metro Toronto Convention Centre (MTCC) and the posh Royal York hotel. The two places were a block and a half away from each other, requiring on average a ten-minute walk from one panel to another in the other facility. Generally speaking, the usual daytime panels took place in the Convention Centre, whereas the evening activities (the MTCC closed down at 22:00), parties, opening/closing ceremonies, kaffeklatches and filking/masquerade program streams all took place in the Royal York. It worked just about as well as you may expect in those circumstances: While going from one building to the other was indeed a pain and a time-waster, the inconvenience was reduced to a minimum by the careful division of events between the two. Had I been a party person, I probably would have loved the concentration of such events in the Royal York after hours.

As far as the internal design of the facilities went, the Royal York had all the aging charm of a luxurious hotel somewhat past its prime. The ballroom could certainly use a touch-up, but I can’t really find anything nasty to say about the rest of hotel mostly because I spent so little time there. Torcon2 reportedly took place in the Royal York, which must have evoked memories amongst old-time fans.

Dark photo of the Royal York lobby
Opulent, dark and mysterious: The Royal York main lobby.

The enormous MTCC was something else, though. The convention was spread out on three big floors, with extra spill-over facilities (such as the anime room and the Internet Lounge) in the adjacent hotel. The location of the fan exhibits, art show and dealers’ room on the third floor made a lot of sense, especially given how easily access to this top floor could be choked away by simple surveillance (or blocking) of the escalators before 10:00 and after 22:00. I wasn’t so keen on the control exerted over Exhibit Hall C where the Hugo Award ceremony and the Masquerade took place. A complicated scheme was required to allow all thousands attendees to exit through one single door (and a different door than the one we’d all entered through, at that), prompting many to pre-suppose that this was all a sadistic experiment in crowd psychology. (We presumably passed, as we obeyed and no incidents were recorded)

The allotment of the panel rooms seemed hastily thrown-together as some rooms were over-attended even as nearby halls were left empty. Go figure. Otherwise, well, you probably know the story if you’ve ever been to a convention: uncomfortable chairs, cool air-conditioning and no clocks anywhere. At least, the audiovisual equipment seemed to work properly most of the time.

Photo of the entrance to the MTCC, with TorconIII on the electronic display
The enormous MTCC says “Hi!”

3. The “other stuff”

Panels may be the bread and butter of any convention, but the fun doesn’t stop there. There are parties, art exhibits, fan histories, autograph sessions and plenty of ways to spend your money in the dealers’ room. Torcon3 had plenty of those distractions, and even if, as mentioned before, I didn’t actually attend any parties (what can I say? I like to sleep), I can testify about the rest.

I’m not a particularly difficult customer when it comes to art shows (just about any spaceship can make me happy) but the Torcon3 display seemed to be lacking, especially given the calibre of talent we could expect at the Worldcon. Better-informed acquaintances offered an explanation for the paucity on display: Apparently, passing art at the border is a time-consuming process involving undue paperwork and much patience; then there was Dragon*Con, taking place the same weekend in Atlanta, which may very well have drawn many artists away from the convention. Among what was left, I was quite impressed by the works of Jean-Pierre Normand and James Beveridge (among others I can’t remember.) But frankly, I recall equally-impressive displays at the 2001 World Fantasy Convention and even at one of the smaller Montréal Con*Cepts. Oh well. At least it kept my attention for a few minutes.

The fannish history exhibits were, indeed, more interesting. I particularly enjoyed the Hugo Awards display case, which showed the evolution of the award throughout the years. (This year’s design was especially striking, combining the traditional silver rocket with the outline of a maple leaf) Examining everything on display would have been impossible given the sheer amount of stuff available (hey, we’re talking about sixty years of Worldcons) so a basic browsing had to suffice. Interesting, but as other more experienced acquaintances once again pointed out, this was pitiful compared to other Worldcons. We’ll see about that next year, I guess.

“Pathetic” was also heard when discussing the dealer’s room. The difficulties of passing stock at Canadian Customs were highlighted as a particular impediment. One should also point out that, for Canadians like me, the inconsistent application of Canadian and American prices were another source of confusion. (And, note, it’s an unforgivable offence to put up a sign saying “If a book has both American and Canadian cover prices, you’re going to pay the American one because I purchased the books in American dollars.” Well, sorry, waaa-waaa-waaa, I won’t even bother you because, you see, those two other dealers over there are accepting Canadian cover price.) Still, there were indeed new books (I stocked up on two NESFA Press books unavailable up here), used books (I scored a signed first hardcover edition of Karl Schroeder’s Ventus for less than 10$C, sweet!), art books (some of Foss, Eggleton and Walotsky’s work came back with me), specialized presses (including those Scientology people), jewellery, buttons, DVDs, some anime, some gaming stuff and other miscellanea. Used book-dealers were also on-site, though those were mostly an occasion to gasp at some outrageous collectibles. (Price of a signed first edition hoardcover of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash? $1500 buckaroos, presumably American. I shuddered and didn’t even check the price for a boxed hardcover edition of William Shatner’s Tekwar…) All in all, a disappointment nonetheless; I spent the last hour of the convention trying to get rid of an excess $50C burning in my pockets… and couldn’t bring myself to buy anything. It’s at that point that I knew I was ready to go back home. At least I managed to bring home a freebie copy of the excellent SFWA bulletin.

Photo of the Dealers' Room
At the entrance of the Dealer’s Room: Be still, my beating heart.

Which brings us to the freebies table, without whom no discussion of the “other stuff” would be complete. The usual assortment of convention flyers, author promotional material, bookmarks, fanzine samples and such were available in ample quantity. I was particularly chuffed at being able to score paper issues of Ansible and The Devniad. Higher-grade goodies included Bantam Spectra and Roc samplers, as well as a bunch of movie posters for THE ORDER, JEEPERS CREEPERS 2, UNDERWORLD and MASTER & COMMANDER. A few romantic-SF books were thrown on the table on Saturday and disappeared almost immediately. A similar fate awaited Baen’s CD-ROM Library #2 and hilariously professional “bootleg” DVDs of a “sick” scene in THE ORDER. (The stacks of “bootleg” DVDs sort of gave the game away, as did the silk-screened “marker” inscription, the pressed DVDs and the huge posters just besides the DVDs.) I also finally managed to complete my collection of all Torcon3 Progress reports, including the delightful PR3, featuring the Beavernator on the cover.

Photo of the Freebie Table
Freebies!  Woo!

4. Autograph sessions

Yup, Worldcon features authors. And these authors are sometimes encouraged by their editors (or by their sense of community) to hold signing sessions. I came prepared, having spent some time at home before the convention, studying the signature programme and selecting books to bring along. I made certain rules for myself; only authors I liked, only books I liked, only hardcovers and only one book per author. I still ended up stuffing a box full of books in the car.

Everyone I travelled with expressed disapproval at the number of books I brought along, and that in turn made me consider why I thought it was so important to get those books signed. After nearly a dozen signature sessions, I think I’ve got my answer.

It’s certainly not about the money. While I’m not blind to the financial advantage of a signed copy over an unsigned copy, the issue is academic to me given the fact that I don’t intend to actually sell parts of my collection. Indeed, the most annoying group I met during Torcon3 were booksellers who were carrying around waist-high piles of books by the same author in signature lines. Worse; they actually tried to press extra books on singleton-carrying bystanders in order to go around the three-book limit imposed to make the lines flow more smoothly. Call me old-fashioned, but I think that’s just wrong.

Signatures are certainly worth it, in part, for love of books: the privilege of getting thirty seconds of an author’s time, simply to tell them that this or that book simply rocked. To tell Mike Resnick that “your books are all pretty good, but [Widowmakers] was just pure candy.” Or the chance to tell Wil McCarthy that Bloom was a major step forward in my impression of his work. Or to ask Geoffrey Landis if there’s another novel on the way. The trouble with fandom is that it often masks the real reason we’re SF fans; the stories. If I can take a few seconds to express my thanks to an author who should be properly appreciated, what better way that to humbly ask for an autograph? I thought it was a bit shameful that legends such as Hal Clement sat alone, ignored by most fans who should know better. (But then again, that gave me ample time for a chat, and to thank him many times over for his books.)

Then again, in some cases, autographs are worth it purely for sentimental reasons. The first two SF books I distinctly recall owning/reading were Heinlein’s Space Cadet and Silverberg’s Time of the Great Freeze. (In French, no less) While Heinlein died a decade before I even became a neofan, I managed to get my very own copy of Time of the Great Freeze signed by Silverberg himself. (I’m not even sure he even remembered the book. as he took the time to leaf through it.  He didn’t say much more, but by that time he’d been steadily signing for forty-some minutes.) I also managed to get David Brin to dedicate my copy of Earth, the first hardcover SF novel I even bought. Sweet, and no –you can’t buy either of those books from me. Ever.

Things got weirder with some authors, such as when I met Allen Steele:

[He stares at my badge] –We’ve met before.
[Me, shaking my head] –That’s impossible.
–Your name is familiar.
–Well, I have put reviews of your books on my web site. [Pause] Though maybe we shouldn’t talk about that.

As it turned out, we did talk about it, more specifically the fact that his King of Infinite Space truly pissed me off. He’d heard that before. We parted on excellent terms, and Steele improved his spot on my short-list of good hard-SF authors.

I also managed to corner Cory Doctorow (one of my latest SF superheroes) before his reading and get a dedication on my copy of Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. To Doctorow’s eternal credit, he actually pronounced my name correctly.

If ever you stumble across an author at a signature session and s/he’s not signing, don’t be shy and start up a conversation; they love the attention. I had perhaps my best chat of the whole convention with Karen Lowachee and Joel Champetier/Paul Levinson as they were momentarily unoccupied. (Though in both cases, it may not count as Joel is a pal and I’d met Karen and her family at a previous signing in Ottawa. I’m pretty sure I’m the only Torcon attendee who said to her “Say hi to your mom for me!”)

Of my crate of books, only a few came back unsigned: The lines for the Robinsons (Spider and Kim Stanley both) were horrendously long (even though Spider gracefully extended his signing hour to two) and it’s almost certain that I’ll meet both again in future conventions. I was also unlucky enough to miss Fred Pohl’s and Charles Robert Wilson’s signing sessions.

5. The major events.

There are roughly four major events at any Worldcon: The opening and closing ceremonies, the masquerade and the Hugo award ceremony. A good dinner with friends stretched long enough to actually stop me from making it to the opening ceremonies, and a tight driving schedule also prevented my attendance of the closing ceremonies. On the other hand, I did drop by the masquerade and the Hugos. Interestingly enough, given the fragmentation of the programming, these were the only two events to truly give a good idea of the size of the Worldcon. Being the only activities that plan ahead for an audience of thousands, they really show how many people are at a Worldcon. Those two activities took place in the MTCC’s cavernous Exhibit Hall C, with the afore-mentioned difficulties and delays in exiting the area.

The Masquerade didn’t rank as a must-see event given my general lack of interest in costuming, but I’d been told that it was worth the while. I’m still not completely convinced that this is always true given the uneven quality of what we saw at Torcon3, but it certainly had some interest. Depending on the presenter, craftsmanship, concept and sophistication, costuming can be flat-out impressive, or head-scratching. Fortunately, the able performance of Gord Rose as the sarcastic (and libidinous) Master of Ceremonies more than tied everything together. I wonder if the sarcasm was unique to Torcon3 or just a general shtick? (Update: Trusted sources say it’s his usual shtick, and they hate it.) In any case, there were interesting things among the tediousness of some costumes. I recall a fairly good dry-ice-breathing dragon, a number of red or white dresses (no points for complexity there), an impressive group effort based on Roger Zelazny’s Amber series that may have made more sense had I actually read the series (it did garner the best-in-show award) and a really really really long tribute to Canadian costuming. Many of the presentations were structured as humorous sequences; some good gags here and there (“The Canadian Scientist”) and some lame ones (“Captain Torcon”) as well. My chosen seat wasn’t the best one (thanks to a tall video-camera-wielding moron blocking even the giant projection of the proceedings.) and the length of the presentation started to annoy me by the end (especially given the late start of the event), but what do I know? It was the first masquerade I attended.

(On the other hand, one thing that did make the masquerade worthwhile was the special presentation of, I believe, a 1973 CBC news report on Torcon2. Many howlers (“This is a… computer.”), outdated hairstyles, a bit of nudity, a glimpse of Isaac Asimov and plenty of other assorted oddities in this time capsule…)

The Hugo Awards ceremony was, again, something else. As someone who cut his SF teeth by reading the whole list of Hugo-award-winning novels, my attendance had a quasi-mystical importance. I wasn’t particularly disappointed. The pomp surrounding the proceedings may seem excessive, but they felt just about right as far as I’m concerned, given my ranking the Hugos slightly above the Oscars in terms of personal significance. The show started on time, rolled smoothly, contained its part of big laughs and was all over in less than two hours. Wonderful! Everything started with a bang as toastmaster Spider Robinson delivered a dynamite speech tying together filking (“Fifty Ways to Lose a Hugo”), nationalism (“they gave him the Trudeau Salute”) and the core beliefs of SF in one hugely enjoyable opener. The rest also had its moments, whether it was the presentation of an adorable Japanese award-giver as “a big fan of slash fiction”, Peter Jackson’s pre-recorded acceptance speech, Neil Gaiman’s reprise of his famous 2002 acceptance speech, and George R.R. Martin’s “best long presentation” of the novel award. It was also quite cool to see fellow French-Canadian Jean-Pierre Normand (a guy I know!) presenting the “best artist” award and David Langford finally get to accept one of his Hugos on North-American ground. As far as who won, well, a few of my choices were there, and a few weren’t. For reference, no, I didn’t vote for Robert J. Sawyer’s Hominids for reasons of not having read it yet; but even the most dedicated anti-fan of Sawyer’s work couldn’t fail but be impressed by his heartfelt acceptance speech. This, ladies and gentlemen, is why Hugos should go to people like Sawyer rather than J.K. Rowling. It means something to us. It sure means something to me.

Photo of the 2004 Hugo Award
Best. Hugo Award. Design. Ever.

6. The programming

Amusingly enough, I didn’t actually attend a whole lot of panels at this Worldcon; certainly less of them than the equivalent number at other conventions. Part of it was the number of choices offered (there were often twenty consecutive tracks of formal programming): too many choices is like not have enough; it sticks you in kind of a paralysis as to what should be picked. At other times, other activities (let it be tourism, the dealer’s room or meals) simply intruded. In any case, here’s a very brief run-down of the panels that stuck in memory:

My focus was on socio-technical panels, and that’s why I sat down attentively on such panels as “The End of Money”, one fantastic mind-stretcher featuring Cory Doctorow, Charles Strauss, Walter Jon Williams and Eliezer Yudkowsky (a singularity expert according to whom we should dismantle the sun as quickly as possible because, hey, it’s wasteful!), with plenty of tasty hints of what a post-scarcity economy would be like. Even as Doctorow expressed dissatisfaction at the “Bitchum Society” described in his Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (not enough transparency, accountability and rule of law), participants toyed with the idea that the ultimate currency would become attention. In many ways, this was a sequel to the previous “The Economics and Sociology of Abundance” starring many of the same participants. As socio-technical extrapolation, it was top-notch and a model of how interesting Worldcon panels should be. Another similarly interesting panel featured Robert J. Sawyer, Peter Watts, Paul Levinson and Eric Raymond on why artificial life may not be recognized as such. (though the discussion kept deviating to questions of artificial intelligence.)

Photo of a Typical Panel Audience
Typical audience (“Building Star-Systems” panel, rightmost half of the room)

Alas, that wasn’t always the case. Generally speaking, the level of discussion in panels left me quite dissatisfied and feeling that it was lower than what Worldcon panels should be like. One example would be “Internet: Social Enabler or Disabler”, which turned out to be a collection of anecdotes about communication over the Internet rather than an in-depth exploration of the subject. I stayed because it had some interest, but otherwise it was a disappointment. Quite a few panels were like that, and a few others simply didn’t even have participants: A session on the original 1973 Torcon2 campaign featured a sizeable audience, but no panellists. Another promised “The staff of the movie THE CORE”, but demonstrated once again how Hollywood routinely ignores fandom. (As it turned out, a few fans went up and started a discussion, but after it became obvious that this wasn’t going to rise above “There was a romance. “Yeah, I loved the romance.” “And the pacing was okay.” “Yeah, I loved the pacing”, I quietly left…)

Torcon3’s main problem seemed to be its programming schedule. Changes were so numerous that new scheduling grids were distributed every day. (I overheard someone grumble “well, it’s handled by T___y F__g; what do you expect?”, but then left as the grumbling turned to libellous content.) While I wasn’t particularly affected by those changes (most of the panels I attended took place at the assigned room, with the announced panellists in the pocket programme), others weren’t as pleased. (Update: Turns out the real story behind the programming problems is quite complicated, and cannot quite so simply be blamed on one person. Read Emerald City #97 for a behind-the-scenes Torcon3 report.)

I made it to a few readings; Elisabeth Vonarburg, Montreal-area writers and Cory Doctorow’s exhilarating reading. (He followed it up by a fascinating Question-and-Answer session that seemed to satisfy his crowd of young, hip fans.)

For various reasons, I didn’t attend very many panels on strictly-literary subjects. Heck, I even managed to miss most of John Clute et al’s panel on The Encyclopedia of Science-Fiction‘s tenth anniversary. (Good news, though; they’re currently cautiously investigating the possibility of a third edition, to be published post-2005.)

As a Canadian, it was amusing to see Americans arguing politics. To my (very mild) surprise, fandom at Torcon seemed overwhelmingly liberal when it wasn’t simply libertarian: At the “If This Goes On: A Look at USA 2008”, moderator David Hartwell asked how many Republicans were in the room, and only a dozen out of 120-150 people raised their hands (his follow-up “Okay, how many of you are George W. Bush supporters?” revealed roughly the same number of hands.) Sitting in on these political panels was enlightening, in the sense of eavesdropping on the internal problems of a distant family equipped with truckloads of guns. While most American fans proved to be savvy about America’s reputation in the outside world, some of them proved to be rather short-sighted. Few mentions were made of Canada’s bilingualism on a panel differentiating between our two countries, and one author managed to seriously state “one of the things that annoy me about Canadian media is their tendency to glorify their own citizen, because, you know, if we tried that in America we’d be…” before being laughed at by the entire audience of the “Globalisation and Anti-Americanism” panel.

Quite a few publishers had presentations on their upcoming titles. Pressed by time, I only attended part of the Tor slide-show as well as the Baen presentation. The Tor show was slick, very diverse and stuffed with interesting prospects. Baen was something else; of all the major SF publishing house, they have to be the one with the most readily-identifiable personality. Endless streams of “house authors”, sequels after trilogies after multi-volume series, a strong bias toward military SF and very few cutting-edge material. On the other hand, they have a rabid following, as experienced first-hand at the presentation, where fans loudly voiced their approval at every new exciting follow-up to one of their pet series. Part religious revival and part sheer hucksterism, Baen Books sure knows how to sell books: Unsurprisingly, Tom Kratman’s A State of Disobedience (about a new American civil war) has snuck in on my list as an upcoming buy, along with any CD-ROM enhanced hardcover they care to release.

French-Canadian representation at Worldcon was decidedly lacking (but not by fault of the dozen-or-so French Canadians who were in attendance), so I took every opportunity to go to panels where known French-Canadians (many of them acquaintances of mine) were featured. “Issues in translating SF” turned out, however, to be far more interesting than the usual French/English translation panel staple at Canadian conventions, thanks to the able presence of John Barnstead, who demonstrated (books in hand) the particular challenges of translating EE Doc Smith’s Lensmen novel in Russian or German. (hint: “slurp, slurp, slurp” may very well be untranslatable.) The rest of the panel was quite interesting as well, with both Jean-Louis Trudel and Elisabeth Vonarburg sharing their experiences as working translators between French and English.

Otherwise, well, I was a presenter at the Prix Aurora Awards (by sheer virtue of helping out the committee from time to time, I was picked as the French-Canadian filler-boy and asked to co-present three categories.) If you’ve even been to those long formal award ceremonies and complained about it all, please spare a thought for the presenters like me, forced to remain on-stage for the whole ceremony, trying not to fidget and sticking to a carefully neutral facial expression while staring to a neutral point in space. The words “never again” spring to mind, even though it probably won’t be the case. [November 2004: Indeed, through a strange set of circumstances, I ended up emceeing the 2004 Prix Aurora Awards ceremony.] In the end, Karl Schroeder’s Permanence won the Aurora Award for the best English-language novel of the year, and that’s quite satisfying enough for me.

While prepping up for the Worldcon, I signalled my intention of participating on panels and threw my name in for panels on French-Canadian SF&F. That is how, presumably, I landed on the “Clash of Science-Fiction and Fantasy in Canada” panel along with gurus Jean-Louis Trudel and Candas Jane Dorsey. Facing a “show-me-the-money” crowd, I assumed moderator duties and cleverly let the panellists speak as much of possible. I didn’t particularly enjoy the panel, but then again that might have been because I was on the wrong side of the table. Bleh.

Moderator's view of a panel audience
This is the crowd I had to work with.

A number of panels were ill-placed in inappropriate rooms; usually over-packed even as next door, crickets were singing in completely empty rooms. There didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to how one panel landed in one room or another, but I’m sure someone, somewhere, had the best intentions. Alas, the reality gave the impression of something hastily put together.

Otherwise, well, I caught bits a pieces of panels on Singularities, Philip K. Dick, the design of Star Systems, the George R.R. Martin interview and the book launch of Robert J. Sawyer’s Hybrids. Among many other things. Whew!

But the best panel I’ve seen during the whole convention, the top of the top, the stuff I wish Worldcon was made of was an early-Sunday panel featuring China Miéville and Kim Stanley Robinson in conversation. No moderator, no audio-visual fluff, just two very smart guys discussing their work, politics and the state of the genres. Wonderful. You had to be there.

7. Fandom and the State of SF Today

Maybe inevitably, going to an event billed as the “largest annual SF convention”, complete with the awards ceremony for the most popular award in the field induces a few reflections on the state of the art and the state of the fans. Alas, these are not pretty thoughts.

Photo of the concourse
MTCC Main floor lobby and first floor Fan Exhibits

The creepiest thing I noticed at Torcon3 was how similar fans were to a common stereotype: White, Caucasian, middle-aged and overweight (not morbidly obese, though there were quite a few of those, but still overweight by at least a noticeable dozen pounds) The contrast with Toronto’s cheerfully multiethnic backdrop was even more shocking, especially when you suppose that Toronto’s influence made the Worldcon even more diverse than usual. This Is Not Good. It means that either SF or the Worldcon is not reaching out where it should be. At least the younger crowd was more encouraging and the gender balance was semi-close to parity, with maybe a 5 to 10% advantage to males.

(Yes, I acknowledge the socio-economic barriers to entry to Worldcon; this was, after all, the first time I could afford to go to one myself. It’s not unreasonable to pre-suppose that the younger crowd doesn’t have the means to go to Worldcon. But it’s no use to pretend that fandom is all-inclusive when it’s so white-washed.)

Photo of WORLD SCIENCE FICTI events competing for space with CANADIAN IDOL
This is what we have to compete against.

While the subject was seldom broached at the panels I’ve been, I’m also noting a growing disparity between what I call the three levels of SF. The bottom level is, of course, the Star-Wars, Star-Trek, shared-universe crap that has no relevance except to fans of the series. Then there’s what John Clute calls “First SF”, the science-fiction stories that relate solely to science-fiction itself, recycling old creaky futures in an effort to placate the fans much like Fat Fantasy Series recycle Tolkien over and over again. Then there’s the cutting-edge stuff, the real SF of our time, the stuff that springs from our present and extrapolates possible futures from now, not from thirty years ago. This new SF is there, but you have to look for it: Bruce Sterling and Greg Egan are being joined by writers like Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross as the leading practitioners of True SF, and the future looks bright if you know where to look.

None of those reflections are startlingly original, but they do come to mind during those five days where all I did, pretty much, was related to science-fiction. Me, I’m a reader well before I’m a fan, and so Worldcon is not about the parties, the masquerade, the filking or the minutiae of fan history; it’s all about the books, the authors and the ideas. For five days, I had a really good excuse to forget all about work, family, friends and the rest of the mundane world. Naturally enough, it was a lot of fun.

7. Conclusion?

After attending this small 61st Worldcon, I’m torn between two impressions that are not quite mutually exclusive.

As amply suggested above, this was a very rewarding event. This chance to rub shoulders with some of the field’s best-known names brought back a lot of the fun of SF conventions, before I got jaded at the regional events I usually attend. My shameless hero-worshipping during autograph sessions is ample evidence of that. The feeling that Worldcon is, indeed, the biggest yearly SF event compensated for a certain lack of organisation and the relative restraint of the event. Yup, it was good and I’m glad I was there

On the other hand, I can now understand the lack of excitement expressed by other more experienced acquaintances. For all of its reputation, this particular Worldcon didn’t exactly overwhelm me with its scale once the first day was over. When contemplating the average level of discussion on some panels, I found myself wishing for something more; in fact, you could say that the level of discussion at 2001’s World Fantasy Convention in Montréal was far more satisfying than Torcon’s. Friends suggested that I was ready for Boston’s Readercon. Others suggested that I make my way to a real American Worldcon. (Others suggested that I finally turn pro, but that’s a bit extreme.)

As luck has it, next year’s Worldcon (Noreascon4) takes place in Boston, and pre-empts Readercon. Given that Boston is within a day’s drive away from Ottawa and given the number of acquaintances also planning to make their way to Noreascon4, it seems almost unthinkable not to attend the 62nd World Science Fiction Convention. We’ll see; check again in September 2004 for another convention report…

Juxtaposition of THESE DOORS ARE LOCKED and THIS IS NOT A DOOR signs
A fine piece of absurdist SFnal humor put up by the MTCC, just to put us at ease.

(You can find more information about the World Science-Fiction Conventions at http://www.worldcon.org/ including next conventions and -as of September 2003-, links to quite a few pictures of Torcon3 through www.torcon3.org)

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