Worldcon 2006: L.A.Con IV

[A memoir of the 64th World Science Fiction Convention. Companion piece to my Los Angeles 2006 Trip Report.]

L.A.Con IV Badge

1. Introduction

Science Fiction fandom is a big family, and its biggest yearly reunion is the World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon), an event that tries to bring together all types of SF fans for a five-day excuse to talk, learn, share, gawk… and party. Traveling around America and, increasingly, around the world, Worldcon is the convention to attend if you can only make it to one SF convention per year. From afar, it looks like one big event, but look closer: Worldcon is really a dozen very different conventions taking place at the same time and place: It’s entirely possible for a group of people to enjoy the entire convention and never be at the same place at the same time.

I first joined the Worldcon circuit in 2003, as the event made its way to Toronto (practically in my backyard, globally speaking), and then on to Boston in 2004 (not much farther away, also globally speaking). 2005’s Glasgow location proved a bit too expensive, but 2006 finally gave me a good excuse to head south for the Southern California sun: Taking place in Anaheim, next-door to Disneyland, L.A.Con IV often felt as if it was located in an entirely different universe –at least to this Ottawa-born observer.

Welcome to the Anaheim Convention Center
Between the palm trees and Disney: L.A.Con IV

What follows is a general appreciation of L.A.Con IV, seen from the perspective of a literary hard-SF fan from Canada. Readers interested in seeing where I’m coming from may want to take a quick look at my Torcon3, Noreascon4 and Westercon58 essays for previous convention reports. My general observations about my week in Southern California, Los Angeles and Anaheim can be found in the more tourism-oriented Los Angeles 2006 trip report.

2. Facilities: Anaheim Convention Center and Hotels

If any place in the world can be described as “Worldcon-proofed”, it’s the gigantic Anaheim Convention Center (ACC). Not only has it hosted the event three times, but it’s capable of doing so while accommodating another event simultaneously. (Few Worldcon participants noticed, but the “South California Home and Garden Show” took place at the other end of the facility, with practically no contact between the two events.) Our section of the ACC came complete with an exposition hall, several meeting rooms and an arena fit for the Masquerade and the Hugo Awards.

Typically for a facility designed to host large-scale conventions, the ACC gave the impression of a well-oiled machine: The meeting rooms were clustered in alcoves (which helped minimize the enormity of the Convention Center), while there was almost always enough free space to move easily from one end of convention to the other. Taking place over the northern end of the ACC, L.A.Con IV was spread over two floors linked by one looong escalator. The first floor accommodated registration, information, some programming, the arena and Exhibit Hall A (which featured the fan exhibits, dealers’ room, art show and the fan lounge.) The second floor was almost entirely devoted to programming, including meeting room 204 (1,000+ places) which accommodated the convention’s bigger events.

Crowd
Saturday evening at L.A.Con IV.

Many of the more peripheral programming of Worldcon overflowed into the nearby Anaheim Hilton, including gaming, readings, filking, fanzines, babysitting, furry fandom and video programming. The Hilton was also designated as L.A.Con IV’s official “Party hotel”, thanks to the neat “Lanai” fifth floor, which featured access to a few open terraces that allowed people the luxury of moving from party to party without negotiating the hotel corridors.

But neat concepts don’t always equal success: Some of the convention’s recurring problems were due to the Hilton’s less-than-intuitive layout, which required some further explanations that were not always obvious. (I spent something like ten minutes to find the meeting room where the WSFS Mark Protection Committee meeting was held. It ended up being on a third floor that was unreachable by the escalators going from the second to the fourth floor. From other convention reports, I know that my experience was far from unique.)

On the other hand, getting to the Hilton from the ACC was simply a matter of walking across a short courtyard. The convention also did its part in addressing some of the problems: One pair of custom posters led partiers from the ground floor to the stairs leading from the fourth to the fifth floor. If you followed the instructions correctly, you even got a joke for your trouble.

Yes, Stairs
Oh good.

Not being much of a party animal, I ended staying at the Anaheim Marriott across the street, reasonably close to the action and an excellent value for the cheaper price of the rooms. (It also marked a third Marriot in as many American conventions for me, having ended up at Marriotts for Noreascon4 and Readercon 2006) I was very satisfied by the Marriott, but other convention-goers weren’t so lucky: Due to problems with the electrical system of the hotel, one of the hotel’s two towers (not mine!) had to be vacated by everyone on the convention’s Saturday.

Farther afoot, let’s just say that Disneyland was a block north and the shadow of Mickey Mouse loomed large over the surrounding areas. This, combined with the Californian car culture, meant wide avenues, palm trees, hotels profiting from Disneyland tourism, and few walking-distance distractions. Even the L.A. in L.A.Con was more than forty kilometers away: Once you were at the convention, few other things competed for your attention.

These days, virtual location is almost as important as the physical surroundings, and the Worldcon’s puny purchasing power proved no match for the ACC’s business savvy: No wireless was available, given the costs quoted by the ACC if the convention wanted to have access to the Convention’s Internet infrastructure. ($30,000: Clearly, they’re used to big conventions.) Internet access was restricted to either a number of wired laptops in the fan lounge, or user-paid hotel connections. In the Marriott, that amounted to $10 per 24-hours-period from noon to noon. Trying to restrict my charges, I ended up paying on alternate days. (Which turned out to be a good strategy, given the ridiculously low amount of free time left during my entire stay.)

Food-wise, the ACC might as well have been placed in the middle of nowhere: “Walking distance” in Anaheim is a meaningless concept for values of “less than an hour away”, and so the convention offered few choices to those who were car-less: The convention center’s concession food, the hotel restaurants, the nearby Downtown Disney tourist trap theme restaurants or the few fast-food places on Harbor Boulevard. The absence of any food court was deeply felt. Fortunately, I traditionally rely on groceries at conventions and so was able to sidestep the Breakfast Problem. For dinner, I ended up at the Harbor/Katella Subway more than once, while my sole expedition to a nearby Indian restaurant ended up a considerable disappointment. Quite a change from the rich restaurant ecosystem of downtown Toronto or Boston!

3. Around the Exhibit Hall

As with previous Worldcons, L.A.Con featured a number of fascinating fan exhibits, though little consideration was given to putting them on a map of any sort. Adventurous souls wandering around the Exhibit hall could see a photo gallery, Hollywood conceptual paintings (a lot of great stuff in there; shame it wasn’t seen by more people), a special Howard Devore exhibit, a ribbon display, many costumes, fake sci-fi weapons, several NASA exhibits and the usual fan tables. People entering the Exhibit Hall were greeted by a gallery of robot replicas.

Concourse Robots
Jessica Rabbit may not be a robot, but she’s holding the rest of them in line.

People with cash and without cameras could step into some of the more lucrative exhibits (from the Batmobile to a replica of the original Enterprise’s bridge) for pictures of themselves in famous SF scenarios.

Concourse Star Trek
Wax replicas of the Enterprise’s original crew, standing by for photos.

It’s a measure of how many things were happening at L.A.Con that I never quite made it to the art show: By the time I finished procrastinating, they were already tearing it down. (I was a bit surprised, however, to find out that the art show had been put in an area that was still visible from the rest of the Exhibit Hall.)

The Dealer’s table was, as usual, a place where it was possible to spend far too much time and way too much money. Despite my best intentions, I ended up bringing back a dozen books, two magazine subscriptions and a number of freebies magazines.

Dealers
Set your wallets on “stunned”: The Dealer’s room.

One of the small surprises of the entire convention was the absence of movie-related freebies –especially when compared to the boxes of movie posters in Boston. Fortunately, there was still a lot of sweet stuff to grab, including a foam rocket that caused no end of sibling shooting back at home.

One of the neat ideas of L.A.Con IV was “the fan sign-in wall”, which offered a visual overview of sixty-plus years of SF and allowed fans to sign under the year they “joined” fandom. It made for a unique, and sometimes-sobering sight.

Concourse
Charting the progress of fandom: The fan sign-in wall.

The fan lounge, placed in the space between the Exhibit Hall and the Arena, accommodated a modest canteen, dining tables, the computer lounge, a stage fit for filking and… the kaffeeklatsches tables. While the one kaffeeklatsche I attended didn’t suffer from sound contamination from the filking, it was basically impossible to speak without raising one’s voice, and I can only imagine what happened later at the convention when the filking really started. This was perhaps the only obvious blunder in the convention’s setup.

4. Panels

Some people go to Worldcon to see their friends. Others go to parties. Others for the gaming, the filking or the costuming. Me, I go to panels.

The best panels teach you something, challenge your beliefs, let you hear interesting people and make you laugh a bit. Panels can be dismal when they don’t feature the right people (which often happens at local conventions), but this is Worldcon. By definition, the event attended by everyone who’s anyone. Worldcon programmers can enjoy the luxury of picking their panellists from the best pool of talent in the business.

So that’s how you end up with a blockbuster panel on Space Opera featuring people like David G. Hartwell, Gardner Dozois, Charles Brown, Wil McCarthy and Alastair Reynolds. (With plenty of digressions on exploding starships.) Or a panel on the Hard-SF renaissance with Robert J. Sawyer, John Barnes, Alastair Reynolds, Gregory Benford and Allan Steele. While the discussion isn’t always scintillating, it’s a real treat to hear those professionals talk about the field from their own privileged perspective.

Sadly, those blockbuster panels always had “those guys”, lesser popular writers out to promote their own books, but who don’t contribute much to the discussion. Here’s a tip, convention programmers: If you have five best-selling hard-SF writers on a panel, that’s quite enough: there’s no need to burden the panel with two other people who don’t measure up. (Put those writers on other panels where they at least have a fighting chance to contribute something interesting to the conversation.)

Other blockbuster panels included a chilling and fascinating look at “threats we can’t see” starring David Brin, Gregory Benford, Greg Bear and special guest Vernor Vinge: four very smart guys (with plenty of hush-hush connections) discussing future threats that could kill a whole bunch of us. Amusing quote from David Brin: “Thought experiment will allow you to eliminate 99% of deadly threats. Or, if you’re a male, 93% of deadly threats.” Also, though I forgot who said it: “The threat that most directly concerns SF writers is their own poverty.”

There was also plenty of stuff to like during the hour-long discussion between Gregory Benford and Kim Stanley Robinson on Global Warming. It featured interesting interplay between the humanism of Robinson (“Global Warming is a political problem”) and the rationalism of Benford (“We have a technical solution that could reverse parts of the problem within years”) I found myself agreeing with Robinson most of the time: it helps that his perspective on science (“a way of dealing with people, a set of ethics”) is one of the best I’ve seen from a non-scientist. His take-down of global warming sceptics was a classic (“It’s such a simple issue with unequivocal evidence that even I, an English Major, can understand it.”) As you may expect from a crowd this size, there was one inevitable contrarian who kept pushing his point well after it had been discussed and dismissed. He was eventually shouted down (quoth the crowd, “SIT DOWN!”), which was rude but not nearly as rude as refusing to acknowledge that his time was up. Even though Benford claimed to have a cheap, efficient, progressive plan to reverse part of global warming, it’s Robinson who scored the most cogent points (“All is connected: You can reverse global warming by educating women around the world.”) Similarly, Benford’s cynical libertarianism seemed hollow after Robinson’s rich idealism and fearless enthusiasm. (“Government is not ‘them’, it’s the people, it’s us.”) People curious about Benford’s proposed solution should search for “carbon sequestration” and “seeding micro particles in the Arctic”, while those who love Robinson’s ideas should rush to buy his “Science in the Capital” series. A good, panel, perhaps overlong and too politically charged (which showed in the audience questions), but very fulfilling.

While we’re on the subject of progressive national treasures, I really couldn’t miss the hour-long “Kevin Drum on politics and the future” panel, given how “Political Animal” Drum, of washingtonmonthly.com, is just about the only political blogger I still read regularly after overdosing on the concept in 2004. Given that he’s an Orange County resident, L.A.Con offered him a few panels, including a special “One hour with…” excuse to speak his mind about whatever he wanted to.

Panel Kevin Drum
Kevin Drum shrugs and discusses the state of the political blogosphere.

Unlike what you could expect, there really wasn’t much partisan content to the discussion: Drum was perfectly in his element discussing blogs in general (including how size affects trolling), their relationship to politicians (with a lengthy digression on how easily bloggers can be spun) and the link between blog popularity and frequent posting. There were a number of Pluto references, in-jokes for readers of the blog (including the famous “female bloggers” kerfuffle), and the intriguing thought that political blogging may be levelling off, having already reached all of its natural audience. Celebrity blogger Kathryn Cramer wasn’t just spotted in the audience, but actively participated in the discussion, offering a view from her own experience. Alas, the panel was marred by the disruptive presence of an obese femmefan who thought nothing (even as Drum was not using a microphone) of playing with a crinkly plastic bag, letting her cell phone ring and -my favourite- loudly cutting her nails: SNIP SNIP SNIP.

I showed up late to “Why are we wild about SF?”: While the subject didn’t seem too promising, the quality of the panellists warranted a look. I was not disappointed: nominally discussing why SF readers are so passionate about their favourite genre, the panel had turned into something different by the time I walked in. Soon after I sat down, John Barnes explained how he, for a brief time, had fallen away entirely from fiction in general, not just SF in particular. John Kessel told of something similar, practically abandoning SF during college as his Eng.Lit. teachers and colleagues were telling him that the genre was just no good. One of the panel’s participants, well-known fan John Hertz, made a impassioned speech about SF fandom’s diversity (“A useful currency for information-sharing”) and how “Fandom truly loves people for their mind”. This led Eric Van and Barnes to argue (though not against each other) that fandom might not be as broad as it pretends to be: As Barnes -who came back to his first convention in seven years with L.A.Con IV- said, “Fandom is as narrow as any other specialized interest group, and none of them think they’re any less important overall”. (And boy did he have a point: I wanted to stand up and clap.) Without seeming to, this panel actually started touching upon a number of issues I started thinking about during the convention, and about fandom’s often-inflated opinion of itself.

As a guy who reviews way too many books, I really couldn’t miss the “Reviewing SF&F Literature” panel, especially given how it featured Gary K. Wolfe, David Hartwell and Charles Brown. Subjects touched upon included the amount of background knowledge you must have before starting to review effectively; the difficulty of praising a book compared to condemning it; and the difference between reviewing and criticism (Lawrence Pearson: “a critic will tell you if it’s art; a reviewer will tell you if it’s worth twenty-five dollars”). I really enjoyed Pearson’s off-the-cuff recommendations to reviewers:

  • Never review a book you think you’ll hate;
  • Read book 1 and 2 before reviewing 3; and
  • Never review a book by someone to whom you’re afraid of telling the truth –or had sex with.

Pearson, who really got all of the best lines of this panel, later followed these recommendations with “becoming a reviewer for the money and the fame is like becoming a Trappist monk for the kinky sex and hard drugs”.

Silliness reigned supreme on Thursday morning as Isaac Szpindel led a group of SF writers on “No, really, that makes sense”: an event where they took questions from the audience and tried to explain that no, really, those dumb things you thought were mistakes in SF&F really made sense. If computers spark so often in Star Trek, it’s because their batteries are supplied by Dell. If continuous radiation isn’t an issue with Star Trek captains, it’s because most of them are Canadians and enjoy a 20% exchange rate. If there are so many humanoid aliens in TV shows and movies, it’s because the SAG is closed off to non-humanoids. On the other hand, the best excuse anyone could find for a flaming sword was the instant cauterisation and reduced battlefield gore. The panel was rife with groan-inducing puns (invisibility explained by “male pattern blindness”) and running gags on chain mail bikini, and sometimes both as Robert J. Sawyer asked us to think about a really good pun about “chain male bikini.”

But you don’t necessarily have to have bestselling names and killer subjects for interesting panels. Sometimes, even two out of four panellists can sustain a subject beyond anything you could expect. I was very impressed at the way Elizabeth Bear and John Barnes discussed cyberpunk, even despite lacklustre participation from their co-panellists.

I went into the “World Government” chiefly to hear Karl Schroeder, but was very impressed by moderator Tad Daley and co-participants John Barnes and Brenda Cooper. Interestingly enough, both Barnes and Schroeder felt that trans-national urban agglomeration (like Seattle/Vancouver or San Diego/Tijuana) could end up overpowering national government. Crunchy good sociopolitical stuff.

Another panels that clicked well thanks to participants I didn’t know particularly well was “In defence of escapist literature”, in which podcaster Stephen Eley, Campbell nominee Brandon Sanderson and editor Lou Anders debated the merits of genre fiction as non-realistic. As you could expect, there wasn’t much dissention in their unanimous praise of escapist literature. Eley’s expertise led him to a number of interesting insights in the need for plot-driven prose when read aloud or heard on an iPod: “Podcasts have to have things happen: It’s easy to take as much time as you need to read Gene Wolfe.” Lou Anders’ own philosophy on the subject (“smart fun”) is obvious from the books he picks for publishing at Pyr. As for Sanderson, he had fascinating things to say about his struggles in academia, and how he eventually triumphed over sceptical mainstream colleagues by out-writing his mundane colleagues.

Another panel I really liked was the Pyr Books presentation, in which the publisher hyped their recent and upcoming publications. I certainly came away from L.A.Con IV as a Pyr devotee. I knew about the publisher before the convention, but seeing publisher Lou Anders and his stable of authors work at handselling the books was awe-inspiring. Anders is both very smart and dedicated to a vision of SF that is both recognizable and progressive.

Panel Pyr
The Pyr publisher’s presentation event.

Pyr’s publishing choices reflect that: their books are usually quite interesting, and Anders has mastered the art of the cool one-liner designed to make you want to rush out and buy the entire stock. Samples from the presentation (approximately quoted): Infoquake: Author David Louis Edelman: “It’s a novel about meetings, sales pitches and, ah, product launches.” Editor Anders, interrupting: “And now, to speak excitingly about Infoquake, it’s editor Lou Anders! Think of the book as ‘Dune meets the Wall Street Journal!'” Martin Sheckley’s Structure series: “A Baen book filtered through an S&M club” Mike Resnick’s Starship: Mutiny: “A Military SF novel in which only two shots are fired.” Joel Sheperd’s Cassandra Kresnov series: “About a manufactured soldier who just wants to write code, have sex and live it up. Front loaded with sex to hold your attention before the politics come in.” Kay Kenton’s next novel: “Flash Gordon meets The Man who Would be King“. (Kenton actually saw her cover art for the first time at this event: she was quite impressed, and requested seeing it again before proceeding.) Ian MacDonald’s upcoming Brasyl has “Jesuits fighting in a church, quantum archery… And the superhero fetish sex: I forgot about that!” Finally, Justina Robson’s Keeping it Real was hyped as “William Gibson with sex and chocolate.”

The panel on “Trends in contemporary SF” was only sporadically interesting, mostly because only three of the five panellists had interesting things to say. Most of what was said was obvious (Trends are only apparent in retrospect; they’re co-opted in the mainstream; they’re often based on camaraderie; the singularity trend is interesting given how it’s aimed squarely at hard-core SF genre readers) This leaves only the good quotes: Lou Anders on the prototypical (bad) slipstream story: “My sister has a chicken’s head, but she’s turning into a tree so I came out of the closet and now sit next to the highway to keep her company”, before adding “I love Kelly Link but hate her children.” Gary K. Wolfe: “Almost all fantasy is entry-level fantasy: almost no SF is entry-level SF” and “Media-SF books aren’t written as much as they metastase.” Heh.

More specialized panels that caught my attention included “Butchering Sacred Cows”, a panel by and for SMOFs about the need to keep all sorts of often-expensive events that may not be enjoyed by all convention participants.

I also ghoulishly enjoyed the “Hugo Nominees in Review” panel, if only to hear the panellists ripping into the Hugo-nominated stories. I couldn’t stay for the entire panel due to other commitments, but it was a good thing that some authors weren’t in the room, or even the state, at that moment.

Worldcon is notable for the quality of its panellists, but some substandard ones still pass through the programming sieve from time to time, and so it was that two or three authors really made fools of themselves on panels. One of them, in particular was such a no-name idiot with nonsense interventions that I started avoiding panels on which he was listed. (Don’t worry: you won’t recognize his name and probably never will.) Fortunately, those people are very rare, and can be avoided with some care. Still, it drove home one of the lessons of convention panel attendance: pick panels by participants, not by topic.

One particularity of the L.A.Con IV schedule was that they programmed all 60-minutes panels inside 90-minutes slots. This allowed panels to run over time if necessary, and yet let everyone go from one panel to another with a minimal amount of hurry. It also allowed people the time to browse around, chat with friends and dawdle around, which is always great during an event as big as Worldcon. As an added bonus, it helped the convention stay on schedule given how the room was almost always vacated before the start of the next event. This “California schedule” (since I hear it’s adapted from the local conventions) may not cram as much material in one day, but it makes the remainder a lot more pleasant. Not every convention is large enough to require that generous scheduling, but it’s worth considering for future Worldcons.

One thing that really didn’t work as well was the single microphone provided per panel room. This of course, had a terrible effect on audibility and panel interaction. In the best cases, the panellists all had to pass the microphone around, which does much to discourage spontaneity. In the worst cases, panellists started thinking of themselves as superheroes and were convinced that they didn’t have to use the microphone (usually accompanied by a shouted variant on I DON’T NEED THIS!), which is seldom the case. In either case, the audience lost. Message to future Worldcons: Spend more money on tech!

Often seen in the crowd: Knitting.

5. Major events

At L.A.Con IV, major events were either scheduled for the Arena (The Masquerade and the Hugo Awards), or the 1,000+-seats meeting room 204. I’ll cover the Arena Events shortly, but several of the other major activities are worth a mention.

Not the opening or closing ceremonies, though. Fans who put together Worldcons are picked for their organizational skills, not necessarily their public speaking abilities. The convention was opened with a whimper, as the script was either ignored or never written, the space cadet theme was hammered in place and the crowd refused to sing along with the singalong song. Thank goodness for Connie Willis, who knows how to entertain a crowd.

Later, the convention closed a bit more appropriately: That’s probably all that needs to be said. The Nippon 2007 people did have some amusing comic material like the ninja checking for threats, or the laser gun-motivated passing-of-the-gavel. It compensated, somewhat, for the presence of the interpreter in order to understand the Chairman of next year’s Worldcon.

Closing Ceremonies
“Hand over the convention, and nobody gets hurt.”

I briefly dropped into the “Trailer Park” event on Saturday, but left after a few minutes: the trailers shown were familiar, the lights were out, it was standing-room only and other events competed for my attention. Amusingly enough, I happened to meet John Mansfield shortly after seeing this and asked him for his opinion of the event. “Good trailers, but not enough swag giveaways” was his quick assessment, and he should know: His own Trailer Park event packed the biggest Westercon58 room twice last year. (Meanwhile, my own Trailer Park event at Montréal conventions regularly turns up a sizable crowd, though in my case I encourage the audience to discuss and talk back at the screen.)

Besides the Hugo Award and the Masquerades, most Worldcon have at least a “third night” of speeches, awards and other special presentations they want to showcase. This year, L.A.Con IV combined a bunch of those activities for the Thursday night “Guest of Honor Event and Special Awards”. The occasion was sometimes sombre, as two of L.A.Con IV’s Guests of Honor had passed away before the convention. Small tributes for Big Name Fan Howard DeVore and “Tom Corbett” Frankie Howard were held to commemorate their accomplishments (with bigger tributes scheduled as their own events.) The Heinlein Awards were given out to Jack Williamson (who wasn’t there) and Greg Bear (who was). I got a special kick of seeing co-presenters Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle take pictures of themselves on stage with a digital camera, like two big kids. Artist James Gurney talked about his career, read excerpts of his fan mail (“Please tell us where is Dinotopia. And don’t lie!”) and gave a preview of his next book. The highlight of the evening came with Connie Willis’ Guest of Honor speech about books and the importance they had on her life. Much like a Willis story, it started as farce, became dramatic and concluded on epiphany. Mike Resnick emceed the entire event with skill and impeccable timing. There was an amusing moment when the con chairman mentioned how sound problems were Tech Services’ revenge for their small budget… immediately followed by a blast of feedback.

I didn’t attend many more events in room 204, but the ones I did were almost worth the trip to L.A.Con IV by themselves: I saw Ray Bradbury and Harlan Ellison.

Harlan Ellison, of course, is an experience. He basically got free reign to fill “an hour with Harlan Ellison” and gave the crowd what they came to see: a hour-long rant laced with obscenities, laughter, top-notch storytelling, a torrent of cultural references and plenty of attitude. Being in a room with Ellison is like being at a show with a shock stand-up comic: You never quite know what he’s going to do in order to get a rise out of the audience. Racial epithets? Insults to a randomly-chosen member of the audience? Dismissal of the crowd’s intelligence? All par for the course.

Panel Ellison
Harlan Ellison and a loaded video camera. What can go wrong?

The hour-long panel (standing-room only) was sheer performance, from practised storytelling to historical tangents to a celebration of Harlan. Rick Kleffel made a recording of the event (Open the MP3 file at the end of the page): It’s exceptional, but it doesn’t give you an idea of the electric nature of the live event. The crowd lapped it up, which photographers swarming around him as he walked up the aisles, positioned himself up on the video camera stand and started insulting people here and there. It’s one thing to read accounts of Ellison and understand that he is a force of nature, a born story teller and a fearless contrarian; it’s quite another to understand to what lengths he will go to get a reaction, and be there as it happens. My ultimate reaction to Harlan Ellison is twofold: First, I feel privileged and honoured to have been in the same room. Second, I never want to have less than fifty people between me and Ellison. I don’t want to meet him, I don’t want to talk to him, I don’t even want to make eye contact: Like idols and rabid dogs, he’s better admired from afar. (Though I’m a bit regretful that I couldn’t have been at Worldcon in the early sixties, at a time where Ellison was at his peak and lived it up with fandom for the entire convention. )

(My first Ellison sighting of the convention, for the record, happened early Saturday afternoon was as I was on the big escalator going up: On the escalator going down, I saw this white-haired guy in a red shirt cursing up a storm while talking to the person next to him and thought “OMG squee! Harlan Ellison!”)

The contrast between Ellison and Ray Bradbury was shocking: Whereas Ellison is brash and, in some ways, still a young punk trying to impress the world, Bradbury has long been a grand elder statesman for the genre, assuming a kindly-uncle persona that fits him well. I almost didn’t attend the “hour with Ray Bradbury”: it didn’t rank in my must-see event. But I still showed up, a bit late, out of curiosity. Bradbury was even later that I was, and was eventually wheeled into the auditorium.

An hour with Ray Bradbury
An hour with Ray Bradbury.

Then he started talking, and it all came back: how this is the author of Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, S is for Space, the MOBY DICK script, “A Sound of Thunder” and so on. How this is a guy whose stories I studied at school. How Bradbury’s career went all the way back to World War II. How, even today, Bradbury is one of the only SF writers taken seriously by the literary establishment. As Bradbury told us about his childhood and early career (in a way that isn’t dissimilar to his brand of magical realism), it was hard not to be moved by the moment, which remains one of my top highlights of Worldcon, if not of my 2006 entirely.

Other than Bradbury and Ellison, I didn’t spend much time celebrity-chasing at L.A.Con IV, especially if your definition of Celebrity is “Star Trek Actors”. I did get to see Walter Koenig (Trek’s Checkov, Babylon 5’s Bester) up close as I was passing by the autograph tables, but missed out on seeing Marina Sirtis (Trek’s Troi) given the crowds at her event. But don’t think of me as being all that immune to the appeal of Hollywood celebrity: Let me tell you that I really enjoyed seeing Morena Baccarin at the Hugo Awards ceremony.

Speaking of which…

6. The Hugo Awards.

Well, gee, isn’t there a major event I completely avoided so far? What about that Hugo Award Show, the epicentre of SF achievement, the Ground Zero of fannish excitement? For better of for worse, this year’s Hugo Award even produced a bona-fide scandal that had more to do with the presenters than the recipients. Of course, most of the people who were scandalized weren’t even there when it happened.

But let’s start with the usual pleasantries.

The introduction consisted in a very funny sketch between Robert Silverberg and Connie Willis, as Silverberg started emceeing before being scolded by Connie Willis for taking over the show. Willis is justly famous for the way she can play with the audience, and it’s hard to imagine someone doing a better job emceeing the Hugos.

Before any of the “real Hugos” were awarded, there is always a number of other awards to be given. Those included various fannish awards and the usual presentation of the Seiun Award complete with cute Japanese girls.

Seiun Awards
Ah, the Seiuns…

This was followed by the presentation of the Campbell award for Best New Writer. This one was won by the odds-on favourite John Scalzi, to whom Elizabeth Bear gave the new “Campbell Tiara”. Scalzi’s acceptance speech was a model of graciousness, telling the audience to buy the other nominees’ books.

John Scalzi
John Scalzi, wearing the Campbell tiara.

The night rolled on with the presentation of the fan artist award (and as I was sitting between winner Frank Wu and his friend Chris Garcia, I got an earful of “Wuuuu! Wuuuu! Wuuuu!” right before hearing “Yes! I’ll be sharing a room with a Hugo Award tonight!”)

Some award were entirely expected. David Langford for best fan writer. Locus for best semiprozine. SERENITY for best long-form dramatic presentation. I wasn’t the only who was delighted to see Morena Baccarin come on-stage to accept the Hugo on behalf of Joss Whedon. As you can expect, Whedon had a few choice words read by Baccarin: “When I think back of the horrible pain of working with that cast of homely neurotic divas, it all seems worth it.”

Morena Baccarin
Morena Baccarin laughing at Whedon’s acceptance speech. Aren’t you happy there was at least one beautiful person in the entire auditorium?

But some were surprises. Donato Giancola finally got a well-deserved Best Pro Artist Hugo, and one of the night’s delights was finally seeing David G. Hartwell get a Best Editor Hugo after thirty nominations.

Other winners pretty much left me saying “Ok” without enthusiasm: Doctor Who winning the Short Form Dramatic Presentation Hugo. Best related non-fiction book going to Kate Wilhelm’s Storyteller.

Then Harlan Ellison walked on stage, and things got interesting.

Phase one was his presentation of the Best Short Story Hugo. Being unable to take a stage without using it for his own purposes, Ellison lambasted the audience for not applauding Betty Ballantine enough earlier in the ceremony, insulted the memory of Virginia Heinlein (“Bite me, bitch”), swore up a storm and did his best to offend the audience. No success, though: Today’s cynical and jaded audiences can appreciate the Ellison Show on a purely ironic basis. David Levine finally got the Hugo for “Tk’tk’tk” (not my choice, but eh) and we thought that would be it for Ellison.

But not so fast. Phase Two began, and that’s the part everyone will remember from Worldcon 2006.

What happened was this: The L.A.Con IV decided to give a prize to Harlan Ellison for fifty years of writing. But what’s a prize without an introduction? As Connie Willis placed a hammer and duct tape on the podium, she asked if Ellison was going to behave. Ellison demonstrated that he wouldn’t by sucking grossly on the podium microphone.

Then he groped Willis’ chest.

I didn’t see it: I was looking at the back of my digital camera, trying to see if my microphone-sucking picture had come out right. But then I heard a few gasps, nervous laughter, and the mood of the crowd around me turned from hilarity to disbelief: Incredulous whispers filled in the blanks for what I hadn’t seen. I remember thinking, at the time, that Ellison, even at a time where all crowds are jaded, had finally found the lowest common denominator for offensive behaviour: If you can’t shock’em with words, physical assault will always work.

Harlan
For your viewing pleasure: a Harlan Ellison collage.

Everything is available on Google Video, where you may come to understand why the entire thing was only a ten-second blip during the ceremony: Connie Willis reacted with admirable professionalism and kept everything going. (At least twice during the next day, though, she would reference the event by semi-jokingly asking the crowd to “please sign the petition to keep Harlan Ellison’s [bleep]ing hands off me.”)

What’s interesting is that “Gropegate”, as it became known, really hit the blogs after the convention. I returned home (after a few offline days sight-seeing the area) to a full-blown controversy, made even worse by unconvincing Ellison “apologies” that read more like denials and accusations. Alas, some of the most virulent commentators -those demanding burning books and definitive shunning- hadn’t been at the event themselves: While this does nothing to diminish the validity of their indignation, it led to a curious situation where an event to which I’d been was painted in a very different light. The debate became the scandal. (As for the calls criticizing the entire SF community for encouraging that behaviour… Eeek. I can tell you no one was cheering when it happened.)

But yeah, Ellison is a schmuck. He said this would be his last convention: Let’s hope that future con organizers will take him to his word.

Back to the award ceremony, other big awards were given to Peter S. Beagle for his “Two Hearts” novelette, and to Connie Willis for her “Inside Job” novella. Not my choices in either category, but the award couldn’t go to nicer people in both cases.

Finally, the Best Novel Hugo was given to Canadian author Robert Charles Wilson, for his well-regarded Spin. Despite being a huge proponent of Charles Stross’ Accelerando, I really wasn’t displeased by this choice: It was the first time in a long, long while that the Hugo actually went to a deserving Science Fiction novel. I spent the Hugo Awards ceremony sitting next to con organizer Cathy Palmer-Lister, who had previously managed to get Wilson as a Guest of Honor for the Montréal Con*Cept convention: I just turned to her, shook her hand and said “Congratulations : You just got a Hugo Winner. Well done.”

All in all, a good ceremony that felt fast-paced and interesting. If only Gropegate hadn’t tarnished the entire event…

Hugo Winners
A selection of the night’s big winners.

6. Secrets of a Worldcon Bid Party

Partys
Enough parties to warrant careful consideration.

I’m simply not a party person. I have an aversion to situations where it’s too loud to talk properly, and I’m enough of a loner to be uncomfortable in crowds. After hours at conventions, I’m simply happier in my hotel room, unwinding, watching news and writing down the day’s events.

But I also happen to know many of the members of the Anticipation 2009 (Montréal) Worldcon bid. While hanging around their fan table, René Walling suggested that if I really wanted to help, I should drop by the suite during the masquerade and help them set up the bid party.

I tried going to the masquerade. I really did. But as I was late, I entered the darkened auditorium and my massive indifference abruptly reminded me of why I vowed (back in Boston, then in Calgary) never to undergo another masquerade if I could help it: It’s just not my thing. I lasted two costumes before leaving.

So, faced between the masquerade, party setup and going back to my room at something like 20:30, I decided to help out the Anticipation bid. I (of course) lost myself on the fifth floor of the Hilton, ended up knocking at the door for the Australia 2010 (“Sorry!”) and found the Anticipation room a few moments later, where they wasted no time in accepting my offer to help. My problem was that I was well-meaning but clueless, never having attended a party and having only theoretical notions of how they should work. Fortunately, far more experienced people had a clear idea about what I could do: John Mansfield directed the Anticipation crew like a pro.

Preparing a Worldcon bid party ends up being quite a logistical feat: the room has to be set up to allow constant movement, a conversation pit, easy access to food, restrained access to alcohol, crowd control and other mutually contradictory objectives. Decorations have to be put up; bathtubs have to be prepared then filled with ice; food has to be prepared and positioned; schpiels must be memorized. (You never know, after all, when people will ask about the dates of the bid, or what the elements of the Montréal flag actually mean.)

Ninety minutes later, shortly after 10:00, we opened the doors. I was shanghaied to act as the bouncer for the lanai-side door, which is hilarious if you know about my utter inability to project menace. My actual job was “sticker/greeter duty”: I had to check that everyone who entered the party had a Worldcon badge, welcome them to the Montreal Anticipation 2009 party and hand over stickers to those who entered. (There’s actually a good rationale behind the sticker giveaway: it allows party organizers to gauge how many people actually came at the party.)

I proved singularly useless at the “keeping out people without a badge” part, as people who wanted to enter simply entered (often saying “I’m with this guy!”), and the only person I managed to keep out was a cute red-haired girl who spent a few moments flirting with me. (Obviously, I still have much to learn about this stuff.)

The Montréal bid had obtained respectable quantities of Quebec alcohol and chocolate, two things that are guaranteed to draw a crowd. I ended up giving around 200 stickers in roughly three hours, though some amount of double-stickering was inevitable given the two entrances and the fact that the party was packed from beginning to end.

I’m not much of a SMOF-spotter, but I did see a number of Very Important Fans disappear in the closed-off room for discussions with Senior Bid Members about subjects we can only speculate upon. I even got to sticker Kevin Standlee (who was in full uniform) and thank him for his blog and its focus on the administrative side of Worldcon. I was less successful in stickering everyone graciously, but those things can’t be helped given the time, chaos, amount of alcohol and fannish dysfunctions running around.

If I proved a disaster at bouncing and an amateur at stickering, I did a bit better on the greeting side of things once I had perfected the expected patter (“Welcome to the Anticipation 2009 Worldcon bid party (…blabla…) Bienvenue à Montréal!”) I got the chance to put in some zingers, a few good flash-conversations and a number of “self-deprecating Canadian” routines that inevitably proved a hit with Americans.

He: “So, how closely related to Torcon3 is the Montréal bid?”
Me: “As little as possible.”
He: “Oh, good answer!”

René Walling relieved me of my functions at 01:00, at which point I probably said (it’s hazy in my mind… OK, not really) “Whatever I say afterward, it was fun.” And it was: I’m not used to be in heavily social mode, let alone for three hours at a time. Helping to assemble the party was an excellent look at the mind-boggling logistics of a major Worldcon bid party, and I got to see the party itself (and the behaviour of its guests) from an observer/organiser perspective.

I also got the scoop fairly early on: The 2008 Worldcon would take place in Denver, beating out favourite Chicago by a heart-breaking 12 votes (out of more than 1,300 votes). This, more than anything else, was the big topic of conversation during the party: Some people appeared shocked by the event –or loudly feigned being devastated.

I dropped by the party again the following day, after the Hugo Awards, to say hi, announce that Robert Charles Wilson had won the Best Novel Hugo and check how things were going from a more mobile position than the small area near the lanai door. Eugene Heller handled the lanai-side stickering/greeting duties on the second night, doing a far better job at it that I ever could hope to accomplish.

From what I heard from the Bid Committee members afterward, the two-night party was a decent success, and even my presence failed to kill the bid.

7. Other stuff

So, what else is left to discuss?

Oh yeah, the badges: L.A.Con IV decided to use plastic badges along with single-point top attachments. Given that most participants often opted for the lanyard badge holder rather than the simple clip-on, this resulted in a Worldcon where, at any given time, roughly a quarter of everyone’s badges were flipped over to the blank side. The only people immune to the effect were the obese, since their badge could rest comfortably on a slope. Other Worldcon participants were amazed at the sight of a badge doubling as a propeller every time they went outside in the wind.

If the badge was a bad move, I can’t say enough nice things about the pocket program guide, which finally managed to put an entire program in a pocket. Exquisitely well-designed, peppered with jokes and actually interesting to read, it was -by far- the best pocket programme I’ve ever seen at a Science Fiction convention.

On the organizational side, I also have only good things to say about registration. Granted, I was there early on Tuesday, but everything was handled quickly with a minimal amount of fuss. Quite a change from Torcon3, but roughly similar to Noreascon4. From other L.A.Con IV reports, I gather that everyone had a similarly pleasant experience.

As for events that I haven’t found a way to discuss above…

Out of curiosity and a lack of competing options, I attended the Prometheus Award ceremony despite not being much of a libertarian myself. The ceremony started late, which was a good thing given how it had been located at the very end of a corridor on the fourth floor of the Hilton, and the audience held steady under a dozen for a long time after I got there. Someone, upon sitting down, loudly exclaimed something like “Ah yes, the Prometheus Award ceremonies: Six guys in a room no one can find.” The awards themselves went to SERENITY (Joss Whedon had sent a written statement), V for Vendetta (accepted by the artist, who told what I thought was a fairly good anecdote about choosing to step in the surf) and Ken McLeod’s Learning the World. (accepted by Patrick Nielsen-Hayden, offering the unique spectacle of a liberal editor accepting a libertarian award on behalf of a socialist writer)

Also out of curiosity, I decided to attend the “WSFS Mark Protection Committee Meeting”, a procedural Robert-Rules meeting that offered a look at parts of the inner business working of Worldcon. Sadly, I was very late and had a hard time finding the room: By the time I did, the meeting was halfway over. But the bigger problem is that business meetings are not exactly crowd-magnet events: I found myself alone in the bleachers while the meeting ran between people who manifestly were old pros at this. Interesting stuff (yes, truly), but there was an embarrassing moment at the end when the crowd turned at me and pretty much asked “Who are you?” Somewhere, there’s a copy of this meeting’s minutes with my name on it.

I once again neglected to check out the gaming, filking, costuming, anime, furry or fanzine component of Worldcon, and though you may assume I’m being sarcastic in saying such things, the truth is that I should at least make an effort to attend at least a bit of what Worldcon has to offer besides literary SF stuff. A little bit won’t hurt, and I may even learn something interesting.

8. Meetings and Greetings

(Warning: I have tried to keep the rest of this report free of name-dropping and fawning author sightings. This section will be different: You may want to skip to the next one if that type of stuff bores you.)

It seems that at every convention, I get to discover, or rediscover an author. For L.A.Con IV, I discovered Brendan Sanderson (whose intervention at a panel really had me thinking that I should read his stuff) and rediscovered John Barnes, who simply got all of the best lines during the entire convention. Here’s a sampling of “quotable notable” John Barnes:

  • Discussing the spirit of hard-SF: “We’re supposed to write ‘The Cold Equations’, not the story where they land the ship, save the girl and find out how to make more medecine on the way.”
  • About his “Cyberpunk” co-panelists’ early plans for the event: “We thought we could just show up in mirrorshades and say nothing for an hour.”
  • On the relationship between cyberpunk and romanticism: “One of the characteristics of romanticism is that it doesn’t age very well and it doesn’t give you a second act: You gotta get off the stage pretty quickly after that”
  • Joking about he reading habits of the younger generation: “Reading in order is fascist: it imposes the writer’s will on the reader.”

Beyond simple quotes, I have to add that John Barnes is simply fascinating. His day-job keeps him abreast of the strangest social trends, and I kept jotting down references and recommendations whenever he talked. (He even got me to read Chris Genoa’s Foop!) Barnes is also sufficiently distanced from fandom that he can be merciless in giving perspective to the often-insular SF community, a trait that gave a fabulous boost to the “Why are we wild about SF?” panel. John Barnes, basically, is now part of my short-list of people who can make a panel interesting regardless of its subject.

I was lucky enough to meet Barnes for a few moments during the convention, and exchanged a few hurried words thanking him for his interventions (especially his balanced look at fandom during the “Wild about SF” panel), and promising to take another good look at his books. (“You will either love or hate Gaudeamus“, he promised.) Improbably enough, he claimed to recognize my name as “a prolific fan writer.” Uh-oh.

The other big discovery of L.A.Con IV was Lou Anders in specific and Pyr books in general. Anders is a frightfully effective hand-seller, and being at a kaffeklatch with him was like being pleasantly brainwashed into buying the entire Pyr line. His first-ever kaffeklatch was an occasion to promote his Pyr imprint, and he found a natural audience with a bunch of geeks (all male, all hardcore SF readers or writers) hanging on to his words. Anders was enthusiastic, wasn’t afraid to ask as many questions are we did, used the opportunity for small-scale market research and had the uncanny knack of pitching his books to perfection: Everything he mentioned sounded intriguing. I managed to slip in a few questions, including one about anthologies, which resulted in Anders dumping a small stack of anthologies on the table for us to take. There were fewer anthologies than people, but I managed to get the last one. Woo, free book! No doubt about it: Anders is a smart, smart guy and SF should consider itself lucky to have him in his current position, as the head of a genre publisher that definitely brings some energy back into the genre.

The Pyr book presentation was no less effective in showcasing the formidable esprit de corps that reigns among Pyr authors. It’s also a comfort to see someone like Anders picking up the torch of modern SF. I ended up not only buying four Pyr books in the dealer’s room, but stopping Anders between panels to show him what I’d bought and congratulate him on doing such a good job as a promoter. (After the convention, I was amused to see him refer to the event and similar others on his blog: “Overall, I felt that the excitement for Pyr was palpable, with people coming up to me all through the convention, or – as I rushed past from panel to appointment – opening their bags and backpacks to show me the Pyr books they’d just bought at the dealers’ tables.” That’s me!)

Other people who made quite an impression when glimpsed from the back of the panel rooms were Locus reviewer emeritus Gary K. Wolfe, up-and-coming author Brenda Cooper as well as fascinating scholar and activist Tad Daley –whom I had the occasion to briefly meet again at the Anticipation party.

One of my best moments at Worldcon happened as I was heading to a panel, turned a corner, and found myself staring at a curiously familiar face. My brain clicked: this was David Marusek, author of the flawed-but-fabulous novel Counting Heads. I quickly introduced myself and thanked him for the novel, which I had enjoyed a lot. I said that I was very surprised to see him at Worldcon, especially given how his name wasn’t on the program. Much to my dismay, Marusek explained that the L.A.Con IV programming team hadn’t given him anything to do despite his requests, which seemed very weird given Marusek’s hot-hot-hot status at the moment. At least I got to meet him and exchange a few words.

An equally cool moment happened after the Pyr panel, when I moseyed at the front of the room to congratulate a number of people whose work I admired. My first target was artist John Picacio, who I congratulated on his first art collection and particularly on his design of the book. I must say that Picacio is a master at accepting a compliment: He beamed, shook my hand vigorously a second time, thanked me with almost laser-like intensity and generally made me feel as if I’d said the nicest thing in the world. He also looked at my badge and seemed to recognize my name, which still creeps me out when it happens. Very cool guy.

Then I moved on to Ian McDonald and warmly thanked him for River of Gods, and added a number of other compliments about the novel, which I thought was the strongest SF novel of 2004. He, too, looked at my badge and recognized the name. (“Ego surfing” he explained, confirming my doubts.) He graciously accepted my compliments, then started talking with me and Joel Sheperd about their travels to developing countries and other adventures. I managed to get Sheperd to sign my copy of his novel Crossover and discussed with both authors for a few minutes until Anders cleared the room for the next panel by enjoining everyone to come to the Hilton bar to continue the conversation. (McDonald and Sheperd extended the invitation to me, but I had to decline, as I really wanted to attend the “Killer Bs” event.)

As a Canadian doing the Ottawa/Montréal/Toronto triangle of conventions, I’m familiar with a number of authors and fans from the area, and I had fun meeting them again during L.A. Con IV. Among the pros, Isaac Szpindel is still one of the coolest guys out there, I feel honoured every time I meet Karl Schroeder and Robert J. Sawyer deserves a medal for tolerating me so graciously year after year. (For some reason, I always end my conversations with Sawyer feeling like an absolute idiot for wasting his time. This isn’t due to deliberate malice from my part or anything less than perfect professionalism and friendliness from him: it’s just that I always feel as if I’m bothering him, acting like a moron or saying the wrong things. For now on, I’ll try to stick to one greeting per convention, and then polite distance for the rest of the event.)

Other author encounters of the weekend included David Louis Edelman, who signed my copy of Infoquake and didn’t recognize me from Readercon, which I took as a good thing. I went out of my way to briefly said “hi!” to Tobias Buckell, whom I had met at Ad Astra a few months before. I also accidentally had the chance to congratulate Robert Charles Wilson on Sunday for his Hugo, as he was sitting in the fan lounge, momentarily alone with his trophy. (But, like an idiot, I completely forgot to touch the Hugo, or ask him if I could.) The Monday following the convention, I impolitely interrupted a hotel lobby conversation between Sean McCullen and David Hartwell to congratulate Hartwell on his Hugo Award. (Hartwell accepted graciously and pointed out that the NYRoSF also did very well. My interruption reminded McCullen to also congratulate Hartwell, so it wasn’t a completely impolite thing to do…)

On the Canadian Fannish side of things, I was very pleased to meet or renew acquaintances with the legendary Lloyd and Yvonne Penney, Charles Mohapel, Andre Lieven, Cathy Palmer-Lister (who would be my director in planning the Montréal Con*Cept convention six weeks later), Eugene Heller, René Walling, Terry Fong, Lance Sibley, Karl and Stephanie Ann Johansen as well as Ann Methe and Jean-Pierre Normand. (As events turned out, Lloyd Penney, Lance Siebley and myself would meet again as the three panellists on the “Fanzine vs blogs” debate at Con*Cept.) I had the good luck of ending the convention with a diner at the Hilton restaurant with a group of Canadian and/or gay fans, and that was a fun conversation for all. (Or at least until the waitress brought back a single bill for the entire group, at which point the dinner degenerated into forensic accounting and bitching about the retrograde nature of tips.)

9. Fandom and the state of genre

Every Worldcon I attend is a good excuse to reconsider my involvement with SF fandom. Not SF itself, mind you: I like the stuff and intend to read it for as long as possible. But SF fandom is another story, at times uplifting and at other times embarrassing.

The “Space Cadet” theme of L.A.Con IV certainly didn’t help in making me feel comfortable. I understand that the theme was chosen half in jest and I do have a strong emotional attachment to the eponymous Heinlein novel, but the expression carries along a musty smell of outdated camp. SF is a lot more than space-cadet stuff, and it may be time to embrace that rather than roll around in past fannish history. The “Tom Corbet: Space Cadet” snippet presented at the opening ceremony showed, the original show was a piece of Z-grade television trash, marred by autopilot scripts, awful staging, fiftyish social prejudices and more sous-entendres than you can stroke a rocket at. Do we truly want to be identified to this retrostupidity?

Even after years attending conventions and three Worldcons, I’m still bemused at some of fandom’s core activities. I, of course, came late to the party: the traditions that have evolved during Worldcon history have nothing to do with newcomers, and I’m still one of those dangerous know-nothings.

Crowd
Fans, fans, fans.

Worldcon is now increasingly selling itself as the gathering of the multiple tribes of fandom, and that can either be good or bad, depending on your degree of xenophilia in exploring strange new splinters of fandom. There’s certainly no trouble in attending just “your” convention: literary hard-SF is still well-represented at Worldcons, and one can enjoy an excellent sub-convention that way. But at some point, the scattered nature of Worldcon is problematic: In trying to be everything to everyone, it may be spending a ton of energy for little return on investment. Attendance at Worldcons is either stable or slowly declining: there may be a Big Breakup in the future as the older fans die (several are doing so already) and the younger ones are fractioned in splinter fandoms.

It’s no accident if I ended up walking up to Eric Van (Conrunner emeritus of Readercon) between two panels to congratulate him about his convention. After being at Worldcon, Readercon just looks better and better: it’s quieter, smarter, smaller and more tightly focused on what I want from a Science Fiction convention. This isn’t a call for casting all of the heretics out of Worldcon: it’s just an acknowledgement of my own preferences within fandom, and Readercon’s extraordinary ability to fulfill those needs. My Worldcon is like a Readercon, and I do like the added entertainment of having all of those other conventions going on at the same time. But not all the time.

Seeing the patches of grey hair in the crowd during the opening and closing ceremonies, it was hard to avoid the conclusion that I may never attend as big a mostly-literary convention as L.A.Con IV. Unless there’s a spectacular revival in SF (which seems unlikely, given how everyone “knows” SF these days), the big conventions are going to be anime or comic-driven. At 5,000-6,000 people, L.A.Con could count on a big local contingent, easy air travel and finality for a number of people. (As in “this will be my last Worldcon”, a sentiment often heard during and after the convention) It’s possible that Worldcons will never be as big as this one, especially given the location of the next few upcoming bids. If so, I’m pretty happy to have been at L.A.Con IV: SF conventions may be right-sizing, but sheer numbers have a quality of their own.

More generally speaking, it sure looks as if genre publishing is doing well, whether your beat is SF, fantasy or horror. Few pronouncements of doom were heard this year, and the number of new and continuing initiatives suggests that the field is stable and self-sustaining. I don’t even think there was an “Is this the End of Something?!” panel this year.

But coming back to thoughts of fandom and conventions, L.A.Con IV continues to crystallize the thought that I’m not all that interested in just being a fan. I love to be a reader, an observer and a reviewer of the field, I enjoy the bit of organizing I do for French-Canadian conventions, I really want to be someone who contributes original thoughts to the genre, but simply being a fan is something that holds little appeal, and least for the current definition of fan.

(It doesn’t help that there are always the few asocial morons who will ruin it for everyone else. Next time, I want a sign on a stick that says “Being a fan is no excuse for being unpleasant.”)

And yet, as much as I may balk at the “fan” label and tut-tut the excesses of certain segments of fandom, I’m still finding plenty of value in fandom. The conversations are stellar, the ideas are provocative, weirdness is accepted and it’s a good way to find people who share many unusual core assumptions. Fandom, for me, has led to a number of invaluable friendships, peak experiences and days where, for lack of a better expression, I’m happy from beginning to end. Add to that the confession that I’m using fandom as an excuse for self-improvement (traveling to faraway cities, reading better books, meeting new people, refining my writing) and I come to a familiar conclusion: In terms of social families, I may criticize SF fandom, but I’m doing so from the inside. It may be a dysfunctional crowd but -darnit- it’s my crowd.

10. In conclusion…

The general consensus about L.A.Con IV was that it was an unspectacular, but well-organized and generally solid convention. From my own limited perspective, I can only concur: Despite the two or three problems mentioned above, the convention went well and rolled on smoothly. In my still-fragmentary experience with Worldcons, I will probably rank it slightly below Norseacon4, not because it was in any way inferior to the Boston event, but because Boston had the extra “wow!” factor of being the first true American Worldcon I attended.

As the World SF convention makes its way to the shores of Japan in 2007, I bid it farewell for a year: Costing the Yokohama Worldcon made me realize that I could attend seven other conventions for the amount of money it would cost me to make it over there, not to mention the time off required for the travel and the opportunity to visit Japan properly. I’m simply not ready for such a trip at this moment in time. Apparently, I’m not the only one to think like this: Scuttlebutt around the convention was that the NASFiC and World Fantasy Convention would be unusually well-attended by American professionals in 2007.

But unless something dramatic happens, I will definitely be part of the group of fans heading for Denver in 2008. See you there!

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