Worldcon 2004: Noreascon4

In a few decades, when they will ask me to share my long-time fan Worldcon memories at a panel transvirred across the known system, there will be a collective shudder when I will admit that my first Worldcon was Torcon3.

By then, I suspect that Torcon3’s mild problems will have become the stuff of legend. Cursory readings from the wreckage of the Firstnet will provide tales of panelists huddled together, reduced to burning useless Pocket Programs to provide enough light and warmth for the half-dozen people in the audience. My audience will gasp in unison and ask incredulously through the thonnels “And you came back?”

Well, yeah. Because I didn’t know any better. Because, as Torcon3 unfolded, jaded friends and trusted acquaintances all said the same thing: This is all right, but this isn’t a real Worldcon. All weekend long, they raised their eyebrows at the panels. They scowled at the art show. They scoffed at the dealer’s room. (“Pathetic!”) They shook their heads at the attendance figures. No, for a real Worldcon, they kept saying, you have to to the United States.

Cheap shots aside, it is true that the 2003 Worldcon, Torcon3, was a smaller-than-usual affair. Taking place in Toronto, Canada, it couldn’t hope to attract as many participants, dealers and artists as usual, sometimes for valid reasons (sale tax issues for dealers crossing the border) and sometimes for more nebulous ones (A number of people simply won’t cross national borders, even if the destination is friendly Canada). On top of that, Torcon3 was plagued by organizational issues, from bad programming to disastrous planning. The gory details are available elsewhere, but it’s not as if I could distinguish a good Worldcon from a bad one from a sample size of one. Still, it got me thinking about the next real Worldcon, which just happened to take place in Boston, within driving distance of my Ottawa-area hometown. Oh, what to do…?

So that’s how I found myself in Boston, from September 1st to 7th 2004, ready and roaring to experience a real Worldcon. Among my weapons of choice: A digital camera, a wi-fi laptop and a mini-blog begging to be updated. This report is largely based on notes taken during the convention and put up on the web site during the entire trip. The images are all straight from my HP r707 camera.

Photo: blogging within the Boston Public Library
Your author at work inside the Boston Public Library

How did it turn out? Keep reading. But first, a few words about…

1. Boston

Brainy, civilized and expensive: In short, a perfect match for Worldcon. One of the oldest city in America, Boston has a rich history and a distinctive profile.

Photo: Hancock Tower seen from Charles River
I already want to go back.

Not that it’s a finished city by any means. The only constant throughout our visit was the amount of construction. Stuck in the final stages of the “Big Dig” urban renewal project, Boston was busy tearing down the elevated “Green Monster” highway that used to cleave its downtown in half. Good… except that in the meantime, it was impossible to walk downtown without massive inconveniences and a view littered with construction equipment. Hey Boston, why don’t you call us back when your city is done?

Photo: Unfinished Bridge
It’ll be a beautiful bridge once this is all over

More seriously, we had been warned about the traffic in Boston and (also) told that it was a pedestrian’s town. Reality validated those assertions with a twist. Roll the tape, mister city planner: Important traffic indicators covered by trees. Inconsistent lights. One-way mazes. Twisty little streets all alike. Traffic is indeed awful, parking is impossible, and the pedestrian signalization is either inconsistent or missing. Jaywalking is not simply commended in Boston; it’s required if you even want to get from point A to point B. Pushing on little “Walk” buttons does unpredictable things: Each crossing is an adventure based on contradictory information. No wonder if the city has such a bad reputation when it comes to driving: the current state of things promotes open warfare between pedestrians and drivers. We only dared driving in the city to get in and out of it; both times, an ill-advised wrong turn resulted in lengthy delays trying to get back to where we had made our mistake.

Photo: Pedestrian Park
This soothing moment of calm in the middle of the city was brought to you by the Commonwealth Avenue Mall.

Unlike sleepy government town Ottawa, Boston (despite a roughly similar profile) is definitely not an egalitarian city: walks through Beacon Hill and the Back Bay revealed more BMWs, Audis, Porsches and SUVs than we’d ever seen outside of a car show. A brief passage through (part of) Beacon Hill was a lot of fun. Tiny narrow streets, with uneven brick sidewalks and rows of cars parked bumper-to-bumper: This is a neighbourhood with personality. (It’s also the home of John Kerry: yes, we walked in front of his house; no, we didn’t loaf around) The same went for the Back Bay area: Pricey automobiles, vintage homes, foliage-covered churches, extravagant flower beds and people walking their dogs: this is how civilized America lives, provided tons of money. A quick trip down Newsbury Avenue on Saturday evening showed us such a party atmosphere packed with pretty girls and fast cars that we half-expected a Hollywood crew to show up and start filming. Heck, we even saw a Segway leaning against a lamppost. Later, a stretch Hummer.

Photo: Copley Square fountain concert
Classical music lunch concert at the Copley Square fountain.

Conversely, things go bad quickly once you step off the reservation. West of Fenway Park lies a stereotypical American city packed with gaudy neon signs and cheap commercialism. Walking from MIT to Harvard via Massachusetts Avenue revealed a squalid area littered with detritus, low-lives and cracked pavement. In Boston, the highs are higher, but the lows are lower. I was increasingly disturbed by the growing realization that more than 80% of all service workers I saw (security guards, cashiers, janitors and other jobs expected to pay minimum wage) were of non-Caucasian ethnicity, a trend that suggests a nasty reality just under the surface…

Photo: Boston highway, seen from behind chain link fence
Beautiful Boston… as long as you’re standing on the right side of the fence.

But maybe I’m just projecting stereotypes about America based on merely a few indicators. For despite those stains, Boston proved to be an uncommonly civilized place to stay. Overall, Boston demonstrates a love for its own citizen that far outstrips what I’ve seen of other cities. There are a generous number of public places worth enjoying and the overall feel of the city is quite pleasant. The subway system is good, clean, fast, cheap… and pretty much foolproof even when demonstrating significant foolishness. The Massachusetts State House is worth a quick look. The Charles River Esplanade is a wonderful waterfront urban park with plenty of joggers in the morning. The Christian Science Headquarters sport some fine architecture, with a massive church, a well-designed fountain, a privileged location and a football-sized reflecting pool offering a unique double view of the nearby Prudential Center.

Photo: Reflecting pool
(I’m not actually standing in the pool)

The Boston Public Garden easily ranks as one of my favourite places in the city. Unlike New York’s Central Park or the Boston Common (see below), this is not simply a bunch of trees and a big lawn, but a meticulously evolved, feature-packed public area, crammed with fountains, artificial water bodies, statues, sculptures, melting trees, lush flower beds and so on. Fantastic. If this is Tax-a-chussets, I say Bring! It! On!

Photo: Willows at Public Gardens
Watch out! The tree is melting into the pond!

I wasn’t so taken with the Boston Common, but that’s merely in comparison: a quick dash through it showed us the kind of public park that should be the envy of any city. Wide open spaces, grey squirrels everywhere and plenty of people playing with their dogs or throwing Frisbees.

Photo: Dogs and People in Boston Common
Dogs. People. Common.

The Boston Public Library is a jaw-dropping work of art: I could write pages about my all-too-brief visits, the number of books, the careful arrangement of reading rooms and the unbeatable inner courtyard –with a rock-solid wireless Internet connection!

Photo: Stacks at the Boston Public Library
Gnaaaaaaah.

I was so impressed, I immediately got my library card! Parts of this report were typed in the BPL’s inner courtyard, not fifteen meters away from a fountain.

Photo: Boston Public Library Courtyard
BPL Courtyard: Nice little breeze, plenty of shade… and a high-speed wireless Internet Connection. Jorge Luis Borges was right when he wrote “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.”

A brief visit to Logan International revealed an airport faithful to its city: still under construction and sprawled around (what else?) a massive parking lot. The airport is mysteriously impossible to reach on foot from the “Airport” subway station (free shuttles loops back and forth on concrete ramps until they magically arrives at a terminal or another) but pedestrian travel between the terminals themselves ranges from ridiculously easy to not terribly hard. It’s an interesting airport, relatively modern and clean. Terminal C is the main hub, and is packed with enough commercial outlets to rival a small shopping centre. I didn’t have the guts to take too many pictures given the current attitude toward security, and the likelihood of an unfortunate incident.

Photo: Boston Airport Control Tower
Logan International Control Tower

I quite enjoyed losing myself in the North End and the Government Center downtown area, wandering aimlessly around the wharves, the Fleet Center, the site of the ex-elevated highway, the Faneuil market and so on, all the way (accidentally) to the South Station, at which point I set out back to the hotel. That particular Brownian-motion-inspired trip scored me a fairly good sense of the “working” Boston and a renewed appreciation for the awful maze-like layout of the Boston downtown.

Photo: Downtown Boston
Yup, this is downtown.

I barely had time to walk quickly through MIT and Harvard, just to get a taste of Cambridge. The first week of September was an interesting time to do that; I ran smack into freshmen guided tours in the middle of Harvard and no one looked twice at some guy taking pictures. I enjoyed what I saw there, from the irreverent halls of MIT’s Main Dome building to the stately courtyards of the Harvard campus. Trying to cram tourism in-between the cracks of a major convention isn’t a recipe for total satisfaction. Still, I certainly can see myself going back to Boston before long.

Photo: Charles River Bridge
Cambridge at dusk.

In passing, I should note that the travel guides that proved to be the most useful were, in planning the trip, the Frommer and Doris-Kingsley Boston editions. In the city itself, my sister and I relied a lot on the Moon Metro “Unfold the city” (despite misleading traffic map information) and the ultra-neat Popout Map Boston edition.

As the photos above demonstrate, we were blessed with exceptionally sunny and mild weather throughout the entire time of the convention.

Photo: Charles River Esplanade
Charles River Esplanade: A favourite place for joggers and cyclists

2. Location, location, location: The Hynes Convention Center and the hotels

As it happened, Noreascon4 took place at the Hynes Convention Center, smack in the middle of the Back Bay. Price-wise, it’s obvious that we were staying in one of America’s richest neighbourhood: Aside from the pre-marked items such as books, Boston could boast of some of the most expensive prices yet seen by this unseasoned traveller. Food, even in the nearby Shaw’s supermarket, seemed priced higher than it should have been. (Even with the somewhat favourable 76/1.32 exchange rate, we Canadians knew we were in trouble when we kept asking ourselves “Is this in American dollars?”)

Generously located within walking distance of just about everything worth seeing in Boston, the Hynes Center proved to be an excellent hub from which to explore the city. An enormous facility, the Hynes was built in the seventies as, I guess, an homage to the imperial majesty of the Roman Empire. Part of the first day was spent just making sense of the place. Not an easy thing to do, seeing how it’s spread on three floors, a rotunda, elevators, stairs, rooms small and big, oh my! Stark white-and-black marble designs (at the exception of a red third-floor hallway) reinforced my uneasy gag about attending “a Worldcon in the Empire States of America”. Faintly creepy… but fortunately quite effective in hosting a major 5600-attendees convention. Hallways weren’t too small once Noreascon4 got going, and the panel rooms allowed for plenty of elbow room in all but the most crowded panels.

Photo: Empty Convention centre
Roman imperial chic.

While the Hynes could boast of five major halls, only four were used by Noreascon4: Hall C served as a concourse, Hall D as the Dealers’ room, the Auditorium as the scene of the “major events” and Hall A as a registration area and space for other “big weird program items” such as martial arts demonstrations and the “junk wars” event. Panels were held in the two dozen smaller rooms scattered here and there on the Hynes’ three floors.

Photo: Empty Small Panel Room
One of the smaller panel rooms

There was some spill-over in the nearby Sheraton Hotel, as it was designated “the party hotel” and hosted the kid’s programming, gaming area, readings and the Con Suite. Fortunately, all was linked through the ConCourse and Dealer’s Room, which at least offered one more excuse to go through both of them from time to time!

The Hynes and the Sheraton had the added benefit of being linked to the upscale Prudential Center Shopping Mall, which came complete with a food court, a large Barnes & Noble and plenty of high-end shops, not the least of which was a Saks Fifth Avenue. (Imagine the slickest, classiest shopping centre you’ve ever seen, then double the classiness of that. Even the Dunkin Donuts has an engraved golden sign.)

Photo: Fancy Dunkin Donut
Gilded Donuts!

An overpass farther away led to the Copley Place shopping mall, which could boast of even more shops, an unbelievably expensive second-run movie theatre and the second official hotel of the convention, the Copley Place Marriott. That’s where my sister and I stayed for duration, and we don’t have much to say about the hotel: Registration was quick and painless and room prices were reasonable for such a primo location. Complete cluelessness on our part actually resulted in a decent parking place next door to the hotel, for not as much money as we thought we’d pay for hotel parking. (That not as much, for reference, was 28$US per night rather than 37$US per night for hotel parking.)

Photo: Hotel Welcome Sign
Awww. This almost makes up for the cost of parking.

Wireless Internet access ended up being a minor challenge throughout our entire stay. Needless to say, hotel Internet access came at an usurious price: 10$US per day. Not an option. Noreascon4 promised a wi-fi connection through the convention centre, but that ended up being of limited use: Stable telnet connections were limited solely to off-peak moments –and there were no off-peak moments given the hundreds of fellow nerds at the convention. The number of people using the wi-fi connection, plus the Internet lounge (half a dozen computers arranged in a row; no chairs) meant that the bandwidth was always saturated. Results were variable: it often happened that I couldn’t get a decent signal in the ConCourse next to the wi-fi access points, but had solid connections from panel rooms located on the floor above. Ironically enough, my crude blogging mechanism (hacked from a guestbook script) ended up being ideal for this type of low-bandwidth, high-latency situation. As the convention went on, I learned how to depend upon the Boston Public Library and Marché Movenpick as my reliable morning access points.

Food-wise, I’m sorry to say that I’m not much of a restaurant hound, and so didn’t mind depending on the perpetually crowded Prudential Place food court for lunch. Prices were in-line with the rest of Boston, which is to say… well, you get the idea by now. Dinner expeditions were no cheaper, but unearthed an interesting variety of restaurants. For breakfast, we eventually came to rely on the Marché Movenpick in no small part thanks to its free wireless Internet connection. Also worth noting: After years of hearing about them, I finally ate my first Krispy Kreme doughnuts while in Boston. Oh. My. Oh my. Ohhhhh myyyy.

3. The Panels

Panels are the meat and potatoes of any science-fiction convention. They’re rarely the most flashy events of the con, but they’re filling and (in theory) the reason why you attend those events. As with Torcon3, I ended the convention wishing I’d attended more panels than I did: It’s just too easy to be sucked in the ConCourse, the Dealers’ room, conversation with other people or just plain goofing around. Add to that a brand-new city to explore just outside the convention centre and it’s hard to remain focused.

There is an art at picking program items, and I think that I’ve made some progress in it. The key is that picking panels by subject is fine, but picking them according to participants is even better: You can rely on past experience with some participants (that’s how I ended up seeking panels with Walter Jon Williams, Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross) or pick them according to whoever you really want to hear (in my case, Sean McMullen, John Scalzi and Paul DiFilippo.) It seemed to work: This year’s discussions were generally more satisfying than at Torcon3.

So here are a few highlights:

As an apprentice critic and reviewer, one of the highlights of the entire convention was the panel “This Book Sucks: How and How Not To Write Reviews”, starring Analog‘s Tom Easton and Science-Fiction Weekly’s Scott Edelman, with the incomparable Don D’Ammassa in the audience. Interesting reflections on the responsibilities of book reviewing, an area I tend to gloss over when I go overboard with sarcasm in some of my less positive review. “Here’s a useful tip”, said Easton, “no author likes a bad review, no matter how well-intentioned you are.” I felt as if the panel stopped just as it got going, which is my own way of asking for more, more more. And how about inviting someone from the New York Review of Science-Fiction, next time?

Lack of representative panelists certainly wasn’t a problem during “The Best Short Stories of 2004”, a panel featuring no less than four of the leading genre anthologists (Jonathan Strahan, Gavin Grant, Kathryn Kramer and Ellen Datlow) talking about how “best-of” anthologies are assembled. It took a while for them to finally consent at giving their choices for the remarkable stories of the year (so far) at the very end of the panel. But the glimpse at the life of a working anthologist was unusual, and the way they discussed the craft between themselves, I believe, unprecedented. But that’s what Worldcon makes possible: So much expertise in one place is bound to give rise to uniquely well-informed panels.

Literary criticism of another sort was exhibited during “Writers we don’t understand”, a panel in which participants discussed all facets of not understanding a work, from jargon to vocabulary to literary writing to psychological subtlety to high-end scientific concepts. Again, it took a while for authors to name names (and some did with surprising humility, Paul DiFilippo even admitting that Dhalgren is best re-read twenty years later), but by the time Stross, Egan, Delaney and Miéville had been mentioned, it was obvious that this wasn’t a mean-spirited denunciation but a honest discussion of what happens when the text can’t be completely grasped by a reader. Fine performance by moderator Matthew Jarpe on this panel.

There was a darn good panel on “The End of Copyright: Can the Arts Survive the Digital Age?” featuring rock-star SF author Cory Doctorow (whose fans gave him regular rounds of applause after particularly spirited intervention from behind his omnipresent Apple iMac), lawyer Charles Petit and a few others. I was particularly impressed by Petit’s interventions. Even if, at the beginning, I was ready to hiss when he introduced himself as Harlan Ellison’s lawyer in the Ellison v. AOL case (long story), he quickly became a crowd favourite after a few very good points. Grrreat stuff.

Photo: End of Copyright Panel
“End of Copyright” Panel: We can’t stop staring at Cory Doctorow!

I was fascinated by a panel on the peculiar nature of “Writerly Friendships” (how writers bond, how their bond is tested by success and so on), which was packed with plenty of good words from George R.R. Martin, Ann Tonsor Zeddies and James Patrick Kelly. The best line of that particular panel came when Martin explained that since the “girls were let into the club”, an added level of difficulty has emerged given how “some writers collaborate together and some other writers… collaborate together.” Plenty of good personal anecdotes and unique insights that, once again, it would be difficult to get anywhere but in the rarefied environment of Worldcon. (How many other places in the world can tell you offhand about Clarion rosters of yore, and who’s still writing amongst them?)

Photo: Writerly Friendships panel
“Writerly Friendships” panel, in an appropriately bright room.

Another hour-long panel I attended was about the dark side of Internet communications. While they didn’t mention my name (whew), they did talk about malicious rumours, spam, misleading web sites and scurrilous personal attacks. Charles Stross and John Scalzi (of scalzi.com/whatever fame; go read him) were the panel’s standout speakers.

And so on and so forth. When you attend a half-dozen panels per day (and those are slow days), they all start to blur together unless you’ve kept careful notes. I can still (barely) recall good fulfilling panels on social-technical issues such as “Are we living in a science-fiction world?” (the methods of the SF field have been adopted by other fields, the microwave as a tremendously important technology that freed countless hours spent preparing food), disruptive futures (predictably filled with plenty of political subtext, like many of this year’s discussions), Big Ideas (Great participants; average panel), Declining Authors (which wimped out when came the time to name names –except for Heinlein–, but did a nice job explaining the factors leading to an author’s increasing foulness), a book launch/group reading for ReVisions (Ed. Czerneda & Szpindel) and other stuff like that. It’s impossible to catch ’em all!

My last panel of the convention was appropriately titled “When fans die, what happens to their collections?” Good discussion of the role of eBay in disposing of huge fan collections. Strong audience reaction as Andrew Porter described the inglorious end of a fan’s collection through water damage (“..and so we had to take the first-edition signed Heinlein hardcovers and throw them in the dumpster.”) Joe Siclari described the FANAC project (which seeks to put on-line the content of fanzines decades past). More horror stories (collections trashed, etc) were told, with one overriding lesson: Make a will! Don’t leave the disposal of fan material to the good will of your mundane relatives! Once again, where else but at Worldcon would such a specialized subject be discussed –let alone attract a sizable crowd as it did?

Unlike Torcon3, the program published by Noreascon4 days before the convention ended up being the program that actually took place at the convention. Few changes were made (most of them cancellation from participants who couldn’t be there) and everyone seemed generally pleased by the program. (Some exhausted charges of overbooking were made.) On the other hand, there was still a problem in matching panels to the size of the rooms and the size of the audience. Nearly all panels I attended in smaller rooms were crowded. I recognize that trying to predict how many people will show to any given panel is an impossible exercise, but there were still some obvious mis-matches: All of the publishers’ panels, for instance, were put in the (smallish) room 107: I tried attending them twice, and the audience was already spilling out in the hall both times. Oops.

4. Major Events

Every day had its own major event, the type of things where about half of the convention is expected to show up. In roughly chronological order…

Registration: The difference between Torcon3 and Noreascon4 was obvious from the very first moments: Whereas 2003’s Thursday registration desk was a circus without a ringmaster, 2004’s registration process went smoothly and quickly. Granted, I registered on Wednesday… but the system looked as if it could scale up without too much trouble.

Opening Ceremonies: I only managed to attend the last half of those, and they were roughly what you’d expect from such events. Announcements of great things to come, presentation of the guests of honour and assorted speeches (including a video greeting from astronaut Pamela Ann Melroy (Colonel, USAF)). Painless, as far as those things go, but hardly essential. I mistook the stage backdrop as representing a span of the (ex-) Elevated Highway, but later learned that it was meant to be the Harvard Bridge. (see photo below)

First Night: Adapted from Boston’s January 1st festivities, this series of fun-fun-fun events seemed custom-designed to drive me away. Dance? Music? Games? Eh. So I went for an extra-long dinner with friends. But passing through the area hours later, even curmudgeons such as myself found it hard to resist the event’s sense of fun (and, er, the belly-dancers). Still, I had my fill after only a brief passage through the ConCourse. (It was a carnival. No, really.)

Retro-Hugo Ceremonies: Combining this special event with the guest of honour interviews was a splendid idea. I stumbled in the auditorium’s upper floor during the last half of the (very funny) Terry Pratchett interview by Peter Weston. Is Pratchett indeed the funniest man alive? You would have sworn so after the interview (“…and all of those puffins are obliged to do whatever I tell them to!”). I was lucky in that I caught both this discussion, Pratchett begging for a Hugo and the most important part of the 1953 Retro-Hugo Awards: Clarke (“Nine Billion Names of God”), Blish (twice, once for “A Case of Conscience”) and Bradbury (Fahrenheit 451) were the big winners. Emcee Bob Eggleton did a nice job tying the whole ceremony together, despite trying just a touch too hard.

Photo: Guest of Honor Interview
Weston/Pratchett Interview, along with the Harvard Bridge backdrop.

Hugo Awards: Well, there’s plenty of things to bitch about when it comes to this year’s results, a mix of the depressingly familiar and the Just Plain Wrong. The travesty perpetrated upon the “Short Dramatic Presentation” category. The fact that yet another fantasy book walked away with the “Best Novel” Hugo. But a few things also went right: My absolute favourite news of the ceremony was that Cheryl Morgan got the Best Fanzine Hugo award for her work on Emerald City. Wooo! I could live with most of the other choices, even though no ground was broken by giving Yet Another Hugo to Dozois, Eggleton, Langford, Gaiman and so forth. The ceremony was more than overlong at 140 minutes, especially when compared to Torcon3’s less-than-two-hours total. Technical problems also kept plaguing the event, up to and including an overeager tech revealing the winner of two awards on-screen before the envelope was even opened. Neil Gaiman’s performance as emcee was satisfactory, if a touch on the formal side. A good speech by Robert Silverberg served as half-time entertainment, as he reflected on fifty-one years of Hugo ceremonies (He is said to be the only one to have been to all fifty-one!)

Photo: Hugo Award stage
Welcome to the 51st Presentation of…

Masquerade: Truth be told, I’m just not very enthusiastic about masquerades in general. (Not being a costumer, I hardly enjoy them, I can’t appreciate the work and I’m stuck wondering when it will end.) This being said, I must compliment emcee Susan de Guardiola for a hilarious “I’m not funny” matron shtick that masterfully played the audience and kept me interested in the show long after the costumes all started blurring into a stream of Pratchett/Tolkien references. (I will note that I got to see “the time machine” on display in the concourse the day after, and was quite impressed by the level of craftsmanship for the device.) The masquerade’s half-time show was “The Star Wars trilogy in thirty minutes”, but even Charles Ross’s hyper-energetic show came long after I’d stopped caring. It didn’t help things that the masquerade started quite late. Oh: I also had the rare pleasure to see a passing acquaintance sitting in from of me get busted and thrown out of the auditorium for (accidentally) using flash photography despite stern admonitions not to. Heh. Heh-heh.

Photo: Blurry Masquerade audience
Upper-auditorium audience for the Masquerade (and a ghost)

Closing Ceremonies: Once again; needlessly long. (Either that or Worldcon brought my attention span to a maximum of roughly thirty minutes) Some funny bits, though the “one man Worldcon recreation” seemed uneven. Plenty of drums-and-bagpipe music (too much, actually). Worldcon is off to Glasgow!

5. Meet the authors

I will cheerfully admit it: I’m a fanboy at heart. So when you offer opportunities to meet authors, let them be signature sessions or kaffeeklatsches… I can hardly resist.

Like with Torcon3, driving to the convention meant having the luxury of bringing along a box of books for signatures. But my autographing technique has improved a great deal since last year. Gone, the lengthy waits in line. I optimized my selection of books in function of author popularity and signing schedule: Not only did I avoid trying to have anything signed by big-name authors (as you would after seeing the unbelievable lines for Pratchett and Gaiman), I tried to get to the signature session at least thirty minutes after they’d begun, at which point authors are usually a bit less harried. As a result, I had some short but interesting conversation with personal favourites such as John G. Cramer, David B. Mattingly, Karl Schroeder, Robert Charles Wilson and Michael Whelan. Not having read their work yet, I was sorry that I couldn’t discuss more profoundly with Sean McMullen and Jeff Vandermeer (who was, quite unfortunately, stuck between lines of fans for Bujold and George RR Martin), but I was impressed by their willingness to field silly questions from just a fan. Still, interestingly enough, I think that the best time I had at an autograph table at Noreascon4 was with Isaac Szpindel (great guy!) and I didn’t even make him sign anything!

Photo: Autograph Lines
A scene oft-repeated: Signature lines for Terry Pratchett (or was is Neil Gaiman?)

But autograph sessions are only a decent way to meet favourite authors. They’re good for maybe two or three questions-and-answers, unless you’re truly lucky and can take the time to chat with the author without any pressure. No, to spend a bit more time with authors, you have to sign up for their kaffeeklatsches, those hour-long seminars limited to a few people.

I was particularly happy to be able to find, against all odds, a spot on the John Clute kaffeeklatsch, where The Man himself enlightened us about Real Years, the essential theme of doubles in horror fiction, genres (“fantasy is about how we cannot age peacefully”), the proper pronunciation of China Miéville’s last name (Meyville, as I heard it) and all sorts of other goodies. Wonderful! Plus, I didn’t make a complete pest of myself.

I was similarly impressed by Jon Courtnay Grimwood, a formidable British author who deserves a much, much bigger audience. Happily or unhappily, there were only three of us around the table, including the author. Plenty of time to learn about him, his novels and his approach to the craft. I started his kaffeeklatsch as a mild fan but I ended convinced of his brilliance.

Of course, being at a Worldcon, it’s not necessary to go to scheduled events in order to meet and greet authors. Stuff happens in the hallways and before you know it, you’re just tempted to pepper convention reports with some name-dropping…

6. Other stuff

The art show was, in a word, spectacular. To get to it, you had to undergo a Kubrick moment (it was located on the third floor, adjacent to a corridor painted bright red, the only thing in the Hynes that wasn’t majestic white and black), but it was worth it. At least twice as big as the Torcon3 art show, but crammed it with so much good SF artwork that you had to go back at least twice to take it all in. Not only did it feature the usual exhibition by the usual suspects (most of my favourites were included, even Chris Moore!), but Noreascon4 had, with its retro-thematic focus, included a wonderful gallery of “classic” SF art (1950-1975). Perhaps the biggest surprise about the retro-art exhibit, aside from the pleasant shock in recognizing pictures often seen on book covers, was to note that the state of these classic artwork is often much better (colour-wise, detail-wise) than the quality of the cover reproductions we’re used to see. The current art show was no less a wonder, with material by Whelan, Maitz, Eggleton and so on. (No pictures allowed, of course.) As you may guess, prices for artwork ranged from reasonable to unbelievable: I think that the show’s record asking price went to Michael Whelan’s $30,000 “Passage” wide-canvas piece. But you certainly didn’t need to spend to enjoy the work. I made a note about buying Dave Seeley’s upcoming book; seeing a dozen prints of his dynamic artwork at once made me realize that, hey, this is a guy whose stuff I can enjoy.

Photo: Red Corridor
You take the red corridor, you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.

The ConCourse was very pleasant, what with the dozens of couch modules arranged all over the place. Let me describe the area for you: Start with an auditorium, decorate copiously with SF-themes memorabilia, throw in dozens of comfy chairs, put a tavern in the corner (“The Mended Drum”), many fannish exhibits, a recreation of the Goddard rocket and you’ll start to have a good idea of what became Noreascon4’s Central Square. Other notable elements included a NASA exhibit featuring a Moon rock, tables for upcoming conventions, the Hugo Awards showcase, an homage to EE Doc Smith, a few costumes, a fanzine lounge, an official N4 store (for T-Shirts and such) and plenty of other stuff like that. Yes, enough weirdness, history and food in there so you could spend a significant portion of the convention at the ConCourse without any trouble staying busy.

Photo: Concourse
ConCourse: Mended Drum and Eating Area

Then there’s the dealers’ room. Oooh, yes, the dealers’ room. If there was one place that clearly highlighted the difference between Noreascon4 and Torcon3 (read; a real Worldcon and one that wasn’t so real), it was the dealers’ room. Dozens of booksellers, each with merchandise as attractive as the other one. Early on, I decided to focus on books (no clothing or jewelry for me, despite the dozens of dealers dealing in such) and forgo “the usual” (stuff I could get locally) for “the unusual”. I ended up bringing home a bunch of small-press books (by Langford, Brin, Vandermeer, Clute, Klaw, Stross), a few art-books and some cheap used books (including, I kid you not, a fine first-edition hardcover of Jurassic Park marked down from 100$ to 2$) Damage was significant but not severe. The Monday-lunch end-run was interesting, and could have been even more so had I decided to go for one more trip at the ATM.

It is impossible, finally, to speak of a Worldcon without mentioning the excellent freebies scattered all over the convention. Aside from the cubic ton of paper fliers (to which I ended up contributing a bit despite myself; never mind that particular story), there was a fair number of miscellaneous good stuff: programme books for Torcon3 and ConJosé; boxes of past Aboriginal Science-Fiction issues; sample copies of fanzines and comic books; movie memorabilia and posters (BLADE 3, RESIDENT EVIL 2, THE GRUDGE, THE FORGOTTEN, SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD OF TOMORROW…); reader booklets for Bantam Spectra and EOS; cracked Baen CDs that nonetheless worked like a charm in my computer; and, Monday morning in the ConCourse, a few boxes of books (first books in series; those cheeky publishers!) gracefully distributed to fans. (Clever fans such as myself knew to come back every fifteen minutes!) Paramount knew where to reach sci-fi geeks: The entire convention was flooded with SKY CAPTAIN AND THE WORLD TOMORROW paraphernalia: Posters, bags, even free passes to a September 14th screening here in Boston. (Oh, very useful for an Ottawa boy.)

Photo: Freebies table
Paper! Free paper!

Photo: Freebies Table, posters
Posters, you said?

7. Fandom and the state of the genre

One of Worldcon’s biggest pleasure is in spending a few days hearing, speaking and thinking about not much besides SF itself. Thrown into this bath of genre activity, it’s difficult to avoid thinking about such weighty issues as the future of the genre, the state of fandom today and where it’s all headed. (Aside from the Singularity, of course.)

This first thing I should do is amend my previous Torcon3 criticism of fandom as being depressingly “white, Caucasian, middle-aged and overweight”. While fandom at Noreascon4 wasn’t any less white-washed than at Torcon3, one panelist mentioned in passing how, ethnicity aside, fandom was one of the most ideologically diverse group of people it’s possible to find. While I’m not terribly convinced of this (The political leanings of fandom tend to run one way, for instance), it’s enough to mollify me on the issue until my next fit of pique. The age curve of fandom has been discussed to death elsewhere, but I will note with some relief that there were plenty of younger people around if you looked even casually. It’s not as if I felt like the only guy under forty.

On the other hand, it remains to be seen whether this younger crowd was attending the same Noreascon4 as their elders. Worldcon has diversified in fantasy, in anime, in gaming and in (some) media programming. In an attempt to be everything to everyone, it may also be scattering itself in too many directions. I realize that the size of the event makes this diversification a self-fulfilling obligation: How else to pay for the convention facility if you can’t depend on membership money from gamers, filkers, cosplayers, slash-writers and Scientologists? Not that there is anything wrong with any of those groups (well, okay, I do have my qualms about Scientologists), but flip the question over: Do anime conventions have literary science-fiction programming tracks? In its quest to desperately maintain membership around 5000-6000, is Worldcon losing its previous focus on SF? Written SF was the first organized fandom, but now that there is so much worthwhile competition for attention (from, yes, furries, otakus, trekkies, role-players, comic geeks and so on), what are the choices to make in order to ensure that SF fans keep finding what they’re looking for in SF fandom?

You may feel free to laugh at the previous claim, pointing out the fannish ConCourse and the large attendance at the Hugo ceremonies. Yet that merely brings me to a second point, about the tendency of fandom to look back rather than look forward. This, in some ways, was stronger than usual at Noreascon4, with its conscious emphasis on past achievements of fandom, Lensmen, retro-Hugos and all guests of honour over sixty… There is an argument (which may run counter to the one expressed in the previous paragraph) that fandom’s rich history may eventually become a burden slowing down the genre’s evolution. Are we condemned, in this 5-million-web-sites universe, to witness Worldcon become a self-referential shadow of itself?

Oh, so many questions with so few good answers. Notice, however, that there’s one question I’m not asking, and it’s the old cliché “Is SF dying?” More than at any time before, I feel as if SF is alive and well, though one now has to go outside the US to find out the best examples of the genre. Despite the usual pronouncements of doom and gloom (many of those coming from authors who just aren’t selling like they used to), I’m not about to catch up on the number of SF books I want to read any time soon. Worldcon was a good example of that; the dealer’s room remained as seductive at ever before, even while discounting works I could easily find back home.

8. In conclusion…

After two World SF Conventions under the belt, one could almost say “Another year, another Worldcon.” Once again, it was a fantastic experience, packed with memorable moment, interesting discussions, decent food and a cult-like sense of belonging. I was struck, halfway through, at how the Worldcon acts as a multiplier for anyone even remotely interested in SF: Impossible to spend even a day there without coming away with three recommended authors, five interesting short stories and ten books you absolutely have to read…

For authors, it’s a way to meet the public. For critics, a way to study the state of the art. For readers, a chance to let the genre leap from the page to reality. For fans, well, Worldcon is just about the biggest event of the year, five days where weirdness is not just accepted, but encouraged. (As I explained to a mundane lady who was goggling at a few passing harem girls, “Some of us are normal and some of us are… less normal.”)

Technology-wise, this convention has been interesting. My digital camera, PDA and (borrowed) laptop performed flawlessly (and I say this despite my camera’s battery’s tendency to die almost without warning, as happened during the Hugo ceremony). The “wireless” stuff has been a source of frustration at Noreascon4, but simply a wonder to use elsewhere near the Hynes. The PDA proved itself better than the cumbersome “convention guide” in guiding my activities through the day, though daily planning was best done with the paper guide. (Alas, the PDA’s PrgNotes application was a bit buggy, and offered only a tiny view of the program at once.) Best of all, I think, is the realization that, as in all things technological, this is the worst it’s ever going to be: Future laptops will be smaller and (whew!) lighter. Wireless connections will be more reliable and prevalent. My next PDA is going to have a higher-resolutio
n screen. And so on and so forth. But for now, I’m simply chuffed beyond description at being able to read my email in a restaurant, or in the inner courtyard of a heritage building. I compare this convention to others in terms of Internet access, digital picture-taking, etc, and I’m both pleased at the progress since 2001 and 2003, and hopeful for the next trips away from home.

I suppose that I have been lucky to bear witness to two back-to-back Worldcons within driving distance of my hometown. I certainly will not be among those making the trip to Glasgow next year for Interaction, though I may very well look forward to L.A.Con3 in 2006. In the meantime, I’ve got books to read and authors to admire, stories to write and a genre to rule over me…

(You can find more information about the World Science-Fiction Conventions at http://www.worldcon.org/ including next conventions and -as of September 2004-, links to quite a few pictures of Noreascon4 through www.noreascon.org)

Photo: Sailboats on Charles River
Until next time… happy sailing!

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