The best science-fiction conventions plunge you, for a few days, in a parallel universe where everyone you meet has read the same books, where everyone grasps obscure TV show references, where everyone is fascinated by odd pockets of knowledge. For a few days, weirdness is the norm, SF industry professionals are available for conversations and the future of the human race is seriously discussed.
Westercon58 was a good science-fiction convention. Held in downtown Calgary from July 1st-4th 2005, Westercon 58 (“Due North”) attracted more than 750 fans, readers, viewers, authors or publishers of science-fiction and fantasy stuff. Ranking solidly in the upper middle-class strata of SF conventions, Westercon58 was big enough to provide four solid days’ worth of entertainment for all types of SF fans.
What follows is a free-form report of the convention. Parts of it were culled (and edited) from a now-defunct travel blog updated throughout the convention. Other chunks previously appeared on the French-language group blog Fractale Framboise (see Part 1 and Part 2). This is not meant to be an exhaustive report of the convention: For one thing, I certainly didn’t try, let alone manage to experience everything the convention had to offer. For another, my track record with conventions is clustered either around the high-end of the scale (see my Torcon3 and Noreascon4 reports) or the low end (as a faithful participant/organizer of the French-language Boreal conventions), leaving a gap where Westercon-sized conventions should be.
Being from the Ottawa area, a question obviously arises: Why go 3,000 kilometers west to Westercon? The answer ends up being a combination of factors:
- Worldcon being too expensive to attend in Glasgow this year, Westercon offered a “big, but not too big” compromise for my annual SF convention indulgence.
- “Due North” was also slated to be one of Canada’s biggest conventions of 2005, featuring the Prix Aurora Awards ceremony and a number of Canadian SF professionals.
- Then there was the growing embarrassment of calling myself a “Canadian nationalist” while never having been west of Toronto: what better city than Calgary as an anti-thesis to Ottawa?
- Westercon being the roving convention of the West Coast, it also offered an opportunity to meet and talk with fans traditionally absent from the eastern convention circuit.
Pack up all of these reasons together, and Westercon58 seemed like a really good idea.
A bit of tourism: Calgary and the Canadian Rockies
(If you’re reading this strictly for the SF content, skip to the next section… This will be just a random string of tourist impressions about the host city.)
Let me preface the following section by saying that I have not seen the “real” Calgary except in the most cursory sense. The convention took place in the middle downtown area during the week leading to the famous Calgary Stampede, and that certainly leads to a skewed impression that probably doesn’t match the reality of the area.
Heck, from my limited perspective, downtown Calgary felt exactly like downtown Ottawa. Newer, certainly (the downtown core was largely built after the oil boom of the seventies; everything feels new and shiny), but not very different. Whether they’re working for the federal government or corporations in the oil industry, white-collar workers act like white-collar workers: Regardless of cowboy hats, they commute, work, have lunch, work and go home. After five o’clock, only homeless people are left in the downtown area. Now imagine a three-day Canada Day long weekend and Westercon almost took place in a deserted city.
Weather was sunny and cool during the entire convention, quite a pleasant switch from the ultra-humid 30C+ heat wave that hammered Ottawa during the summer of 2005. There was a bit of rain on July 1st, but otherwise it couldn’t have been better. Calgary being farther north than Ottawa and closer to the edge of its time zone, the days stretched until the sun set down at around ten o’clock!
In theory, one of Calgary’s most attractive feature is the “+15” system of elevated passageways linking together the second floors of buildings in the downtown core. Neat idea, but the execution can be frustrating: Not all city blocks are linked together, there isn’t as much redundancy as would be ideal, and the system can often end up feeling like a twisty maze of hallways all alike. The lack of a link over Central Street seems particularly cruel. Renovations in the +15 took place just south of the convention hotel, leading up to some initial confusion. This being said, the usefulness of the system grew with my understanding of it, and seasoned veterans of the downtown area can probably use the +15 far more efficiently than I managed to.
Social criticism of another city is always risky, especially when all I’ve seen of said city is three square kilometers of it. Still, two things annoyed me about the Calgary downtown core.
- First is the homeless problem. Calgary likes to boast of itself as one of Canada’s richest cities, which makes the omnipresence of vagrants seem even more shocking than it ought too. Every street of every downtown block has at least one, and they’re certainly not shy about begging. The +15 may have something to do with this: I didn’t notice any vagrants in the +15 and I suspect that there’s a tacit understanding to keep that sort of thing on the streets.
- The second thing that bothered me is what I call “the food court socioeconomic index”. The next time you want an idea of the racial integration of your host city’s ethnic mix, compare the ethnicity of those eating in the food court and those maintaining the place: If you have a severe mismatch, there’s a disparity worth studying. Calgary’s diversity is obvious, but skewed: Caucasian and Asians are well-represented, but other ethnicities are far rarer. Workers in food courts, however, are almost uniformly non-white, hence my discomfort. But enough of that.
Westercon58 ended up in Calgary at a very strange time. For one thing, it began only a few days after the end of one of the worst floods in the city’s history: the Bow River was still well above its usual levels at the beginning of the convention, and city workers were still busy cleaning up the stilt left by the high water levels. On the other side of the convention, Westercon took place in the week leading up to the Calgary Stampede. Throughout the week I spent there, relevant paintings gradually appeared in windows and culturally-relevant exhibits went up around us. (As for our hotel, it installed a number of fake-Western panels over its regular appearance.) I don’t feel qualified to talk about Calgary’s legendary friendliness, but there was obviously a feeling of pre-Stampede polish being applied to the area.
For us Easterners, a visit to Calgary is not complete without at least one day trip to the Canadian Rockies. I was no exception to the trend: The day following my arrival, I rented a car, took the highway and headed west for a look at Banff, Lake Louise and Lake Moraine. I’m not going to bore you with the ooohs and aaahs of that particular adventure, but I am going to inflict on you the next three pictures.
I might as well conclude this section with a note about air travel: Westercon marked my first airplane trip in thirteen years. I boarded with some apprehension: What about the delays, the claustrophobia, the rotten service, the turbulence so commonly associated with airline travel these days? Fortunately, thanks to luck and/or Westjet’s well-deserved reputation for excellent service, the whole experience was painless: Traveling alone, I was seated next to an empty seat on both flights, and our schedule was followed without a hitch. The empty seat did much to alleviate the experience, but air travel itself seems to agree with me: Liftoffs and landings are exhilarating, and by my return to Ottawa I even came to consider turbulences as “the fun parts of the trip”. As for the rest of the flight, I can be happy a long time with a book, a digital camera and a PDA loaded with ebooks and music.
(Tech side-note: For a city that bills itself “the wireless city”, free wi-fi access proved impossible to get in Calgary’s downtown core: Even the Public Library’s limited-access wi-fi was down when I tried accessing it. Desperate, I finally ended up paying the hotel’s usurious daily rate for cabled Internet connectivity, and that didn’t even cover the wi-fi network available downstairs. I had, believe it or not, better luck getting a good cheap wi-fi connection in my hour spent in Banff.)
Westercon58 was located at the Calgary Westin, a hotel located on the northern edge of Calgary’s downtown core, two blocks south of the Bow River. As I suggested earlier, the downtown location posed its share of issues during the long weekend: Everything was closed, and even the superb Westercon58 restaurant guide was less than useful in finding, say, a cheap breakfast nook open early on Sunday morning. (The guide proved more useful in finding dinnertime places: Thanks to it, I found two good steakhouses, and one Indian restaurant serving decent butter chicken.)
The convention was able to use all of the hotel’s convention space, including the basement, ground floor and second floor facilities. While some aspects of the location were less than ideal (getting from the main floor to the second required the use of an elevator or inconveniently-placed stairs), the setup worked relatively well.
Program directors always have a problem when they have to assign panels to rooms of very different dimensions. All too often, the director’s idea of a popular panel can be different from the thoughts of the convention audience. Westercon58, taking place in big and smaller rooms, suffered its share of annoyance in this matter.
I wasn’t particularly fond of the wider-than-deeper rooms in which the big panels took place, but that proved to be less of a problem than originally anticipated: the audience was usually sparse enough to congregate in the middle. The raised platform on which the panelists sat was a boon during crowded panels, but far too intimidating to the audience during sparse panels. (The problem was usually solved by having the panelists come down from the platform and sit “on the floor”.) During big panels, the background noise made it impossible for the panel to take place without a microphone being used to amplify the panel, a state of affair that traditionally leeches some spontaneity out of the discussions.
The smaller rooms weren’t as problematic, but they were often way too crowded. In appropriately-sized panels, however, they were a joy to use: Panelists could talk without a microphone and audience participation became much easier.
One reference note for fellow audience-members at future panels: If you start messing with the chair arrangement for your own personal comfort, at least replace the chairs once the panel is over. Otherwise, audiences for the last panels of the day have to find a place in what looks like a bunch of randomly-arranged chairs. Thank you.
In retrospect, one of my best decisions of the entire convention happened months before the actual event, when I volunteered to take part in the programming. I ended up on six panels (plus an award ceremony; see below), which gave me something to look forward to, and allowed me to meet people at the convention. It helps that I’ve got a big mouth and a casual disregard for embarrassment: Otherwise, I’m not sure I could have gone through some of the panels I volunteered for.
(Warning: The next five paragraphs are all about “my” panels.)
I was slated to speak about e-books along with another panelist early on Thursday evening. When it became obvious that the other panelist was, at the very least, going to be late, I launched into my well-rehearsed “e-books rock!” rant, which ended up lasting the full hour of the panel. The dozen-or-so members of the audience all stayed until the end. Without a reasonable countervailing view (the other panelist never showed up; scheduling problems, I later learned), I fear that I may have brainwashed a few of them in the “information ought to be free” camp. (At least that’s what one of them admitted after the panel.)
Another panel on an overview of the year’s Prix Aurora Awards nominees went along roughly similar lines: I volunteered hoping to be able to handle the French-Canadian nominees while other people would cover other categories, and ended up being the lone panelist. Fortunately, the smallish audience (half of whom were in nomination for at least one prize) was able to contribute a lot to the discussion and I ended up meeting a number of fascinating people. There was a certain ironic value in gently criticizing works that would go on to win the Aurora only a few hours later.
Fortunately, I wasn’t alone on all the panels I volunteered for. I was lucky enough, for instance, to cover the year’s Hugo-nominated novels along with fan guests-of-honour Cliff Samuels and Eileen Capes, a panel that went exceptionally well: It featured a small but interested audience, a good distribution of opinions, a few good one-liners and some thought-provoking material. (I may have talked too much, but that’s the way things usually go.) A similar good experience also went for the panel on the year’s Hugo-nominated movie, though I somehow ended up moderating that panel. (I also ended up guest-participating on a panel on the year’s Hugo-nominated short stories, but that was partly because there were less than a dozen of us in the audience, and because I had read all of the short stories.)
I was also lucky enough to participate in two better-attended discussions with A-list co-panelists. A panel on forthcoming books pitted me alongside David G. Hartwell and Cliff Samuels for a wide-ranging overview of what was hot and interesting in the “coming soon!” book stack. It’s a strange feeling to say that you’re really looking forward to Karl Schroeder’s Lady of Mazes while the editor of the book is sitting right next to you.
Finally (as far as “my” panels go), the “why genre fiction never gets any respect” panel was shaped by the late-minute arrival of a lady who said to us “They told me I could crash any panel I wanted. Is it okay if I join you guys?” It took only one look at her name tag to quell any objections: Connie Willis. I’ve heard stories about neophyte panelists struggling with self-doubts as they suddenly find themselves alongside Big Name Celebrities. Those stories are true: Professionals like Connie Willis are simply smarter, funnier and better-educated about the subject than you can possibly be. But Willis’ reputation for being one of the kindest people in the industry is well-deserved: She easily meshed into the fabric of the panel and made the rest of the panelists look good. (Plus, later during the day at another event, she even tapped me on the shoulder and said she hoped her arrival hadn’t been a problem. Heck, no!)
Given that attendance at panels varied so wildly, chances of being engaged in an active conversation with the panelists were high whenever the total audience dipped under twelve people. I may have blathered too much during some panels, but that’s the spirit of SF conventions. It’s hard to say no when the entire audience is actively solicited by the moderator…
As you would expect from a Science Fiction convention, Panels about SF were plentiful. I sorely regretted being unable to catch more than the last half hour of the “Space Opera” panel with Ed Willett, Kathryn Cramer and David G. Hartwell. Interesting material discussed, including the political implications of the neo-classical “space opera” genre.
On the other hand, I didn’t miss most of the “Tor Books: Past Present and Future” panel and was glad I didn’t: Publisher Tom Doherty’s knowledge of the SF industry is invaluable, and it was a real treat to hear him discuss the industry in general, and Tor Book in particular. (On the other hand, my chances of publishing through Tor disappeared when I questioned Tor’s recent decision to split some works in two volumes. “Some critics didn’t know what they were talking about,” said Doherty before passing the microphone to David G. Hartwell. Ooh, burn!! (Hartwell then spent the next few minutes explaining that Gene Wolfe’s Wizard/Knight books were delivered months apart, and that even if Watts did not like the market-driven decision to split Behemoth, he still agreed to. Nothing was said about Stross, but the lesson remains the same: Tor had a good economic reason to split the volumes and the authors went along with it.)
Literary content aside, SF conventions are at the crossroads between science and art, so one could follow a technical programming track, an artistic track or both.
As far as scientific panels are concerned, I was very impressed by Dr. Gerald Morrison’s one-man, one-hour overview of “Emerging Technologies”: He had the entire audience going “huh!” at times, as he covered twelve cutting-edge technologies likely to make an impact over the next five-to-ten years. Fascinating stuff! (I won’t bother explaining them here, but if you’re curious, google away the expressions “airborne networks”, “quantum wires”, “silicon photonics”, “metabolomics”, “magnetic-resonance force microscopy”, “universal memory”, “bacterial factories”, “enviromatics”, “cell-phone viruses”, “biomechatronics”, “ultra-fast charge portable power” and “multi-core processors”.)
I was amazed by the level of discussion at the “Future of Energy” panel: This being Calgary, the audience was packed with energy industry experts and the ensuing conversation between panelists and audience was illuminating. The consensus of the participants was simple: The future of energy will be far more diversified than today’s reliance on oil. Sadly, many of the steps required to implement this diversification require political leadership that, the panelists felt, is in short supply.
Also featured on the science-fact programming stream: “Evolution: Fact or Fiction” (Can you guess which side was most favoured by the audience?)
On the artistic side, there were panels for artists, costumers and writers. I’m not a costumer myself, so no comments about those panels –though it was interesting to witness a room full of costumed Jedis shuffle out of a “How to Build a Lightsaber” workshop! I attended a panel on art direction out of sheer curiosity and was richly rewarded with a peek at a side of the industry I knew little about.
Panels by and for writers are always a staple of any SF convention’s programming, and so I didn’t miss a chance to hear about “How to complete your first novel”, “Ask a pro anything” (starring Robert J. Sawyer and Edo van Belkom), “Great Openings” and “Are you sure you want to go there?”, a discussion between S.M. Stirling, Marie Jakober and Dave Duncan on the ickiest stuff it’s possible to write, and what happens when you decide to push the envelope.
Social change is an important part of SF, and so Westercon58 offered a full slate of socio-technical discussions. Fascinating panels took place on “Privacy versus security”, “The end of copyright”, “Who mourns for Gutenberg? (The rise of self-publishing)” and “What’s wrong with the skeptical movement?”, this last panel being closer to a well-rehearsed 30-minutes rant by Robert J. Sawyer on the dogmatism of CSICOP. I like to say that I was skeptical about Sawyer’s skepticism about the skeptica
l movement (it basically stems from CSICOP’s objections to his novel Calculating God), but he makes an interesting point that can’t honestly be dismissed. (Though it can be argued.)
SF conventions naturally love discussing SF conventions, and so I attended a panel on “The Graying of SF Fandom”, where I got to hear a number of well-regarded con organizers talk about renewing fandom. Interesting material, especially given the pedigree of the fans present: I’m not sure about the exact count, but I think there were at least three Worldcon chairs and five other Big Name Fans in the room.
Other inside-business material about fandom included a panel about “Anticipation 2009“, the Montréal Worldcon bid. It goes without saying that we, at www.christian-sauve.com, already pre-support this bid and urge you to do the same. I even briefly dropped by the Anticipation 2009 room party, breaking my longstanding “Me party?” policy.
To these events, I have to add what I call two great “fannish indulgence” panels. One, late Sunday afternoon, asked fans to confess to their “Guilty Pleasure”: with strong participation from the audience, it worked more like a group therapy session. The second indulgence, titled “Panels from Hell”, was the very last panel of the convention and it allowed the audience to vent about horrible panel experiences, including some at Wetercon58 itself. I wasn’t singled out (whew!), but other people expressed a number of gripes about events I had witnessed, including what we shall refer to as “the breakfast-eating panelist” incident and the perennial “crying baby” convention fixture. (In the interest of fairness, however, one should note that the breakfast-eating panelist had non-negotiable health and programming obligations and said as much at the panel.)
Generally speaking, I have seldom spent a larger proportion of a convention at panels than at Westercon58. Part of it had to do with the lack of competition for my time: Being alone in a foreign city that I had already explored prior to the convention, I had few other distractions keeping me away from the programming. But it’s also true that Westercon58 had, at most times, a good variety of interesting programming. I could almost always count on something worthwhile taking place.
The level of discussion at panels always depends on the quality of the guests. If, early in the convention, I felt as if the discussion had trouble rising above banalities, it only took two or three gifted panelists to make me change my mind. The golden rule of panel selection still hold true: All else being equal, pick panels based on the panelists, not the subject. (Proof of this assertion was in the small audiences showing up to my panels!)
Westercon obviously believes in dedicated hands-off moderators: People without any stake in the discussion gently steering the discussion rather than allowing the participants to set their agendas. But one thing I still haven’t figured out about Westercon’s programming is the way moderators were assigned to panels, or not assigned, or assigned-but-not-announced. Sometimes, panels would feature an uncredited moderator. Other times, panelists were left to fend for themselves. (Other conventions often designate the moderators in the program, minimizing such surprises.) It wasn’t much of an issue, but it introduced another element of uncertainty in the convention. At some point, you have to ask “is this extra moderation worth it?” given the way most experienced panelists can self-moderate.
(Some panels did show a tendency to veer off-topic, though that more often happened when you had Very Famous Guests at the table: Some people tend to cease upon this occasion to go and ask anything to the guest, regardless of how tangential it is to the topic at hand.)
Panels aren’t the only thing going on at conventions. Opening ceremonies, dances, costuming contests, award ceremonies often take center-stage as the must-attend events of the convention. I scrupulously avoided many of those (me, dance?), but here’s a run-down of the major events I did manage to attend:
Given that the Prix Aurora Awards ceremony was one of my reasons for attending Westercon58, I was pleased as punch to be asked to present the “Meilleur livre en français” award. While, in retrospect, I should have canned the patter and proceeded directly to “the nominees are…”, the whole ceremony went well once you exclude my own intervention. Robert J. Sawyer emceed the ceremony with his usual flair, never missing a single occasion to instruct the sizable audience on Canadian SF through the Prix Aurora Awards. It was a shame, then, that only two-and-a-half winners were present to accept their award (a third one was at the convention, but found himself at another panel as his prize was announced.) Nevertheless, I was glad to be there. To my growing consternation, I got suckered in accepting the “Meilleur Livre” for the missing winner, which led to me holding the Aurora Award for the official group winner’s photo, which will lead to an unfortunate appearance in the next issue of Locus. Hopefully, not too many traumatized readers will cancel their subscription…
Speaking of Locus, Westercon58 hosted the Locus Banquet, which revealed the winners of the annual Locus magazine readers’ poll. Attendance was limited, pricey (C35$) and held on the splendid 35th floor dining room of the neighbouring International Hotel. The winners’ identity wasn’t much of a secret (winners were notified in advance, the latest Locus edition announcing the winners came out just before the convention and the Westercon58 souvenir book even has a publisher’s ad congratulating its winners…) so the banquet wasn’t suspenseful as much as it was a pleasant gathering of industry professionals. Emcee Connie Willis started with a crowd-pleasing “Please forgive me, but I’m an American” introduction and deftly kept the ceremony going despite Locus publisher Charles N. Brown’s best disruptive efforts (it’s a well-practiced shtick, I gather). I had the good fortune of sitting with a good table of fans (whose names I unfortunately forgot), and if discussion was made difficult by the high noise level in the room, a fine time was had by all. Obviously, this event is organized and attended by a self-selected group. The in-jokes ran fast, and the rest of us were left wondering “errr?” more than once. People unfamiliar with Charles N. Brown, for instance…
Let me say it up-front: I don’t care much for the masquerade, regardless of the convention. It’s not something that appeals to me, and if I can recognize the work going in the presentation and laugh along at the jokes, I would rather attend something else and save you all the pain of my lack of interest. The problem usually is that conventions (Worldcon included) often schedule nothing against the masquerade, making it the only possible choice. So I went to the thankfully short ceremony, appreciated the work, laughed at the jokes and went away as soon as it was over. I gather that the mid-time show was a fan recreation of Buffy’s (in)famous musical episode. Not being a Buffy fan, it’s perhaps best if I have nothing to say about this. Fans of SF convention masquerades will note that this one also started late, though this time an electrical breaker was the culp
rit of the delay.
While technically a panel, What’s New at Tor Books turned into one of the must-see events of the convention if only due to the sheer star-power of the assembled panelists. Once every Tor author had been called up on the stage, the line-up was one of the most remarkable group I’d seen together behind a single table: Kathryn Cramer, Marie Jakober, Tom Doherty, Connie Willis (as “a honorary Tor Books author”), S.M. Stirling, Larry Niven, David G. Hartwell, Robert J. Sawyer and Dave Duncan. Whew! While the discussion of Tor’s new books was interesting in its own right, it wasn’t quite as fascinating as seeing these professionals contribute to the discussion. Robert J. Sawyer led the “we love Tor Books” brigade, but plenty of good information about the inner workings of the publisher was revealed during the panel, including some thoughts about the SF industry by Tom Doherty himself.
The Trailer Park is also technically a panel, but given the attendance at each of the event’s two showings, it’s a fair bet to say that this is a bit more than “just a panel”: John Mansfield managed to pull together a bunch of trailers for current and upcoming movies (including one of the first public looks at Harry Potter 4, I believe), and the thrill here is to watch those trailers with a hundred other SF fans. I was disappointed at the lack of audience participation (though there was an interesting intervention after the SERENITY trailer), but that could quickly get out of hand in such numbers. The trailers were followed by a distribution of free movie-related T-Shirts and caps. Interestingly enough, the only “new” trailer that stuck in my mind as “Hmm, this may be interesting” was the oddball inclusion for the musical adaptation RENT. Strange!
It’s a fair thing to say that I’ve never been to a book launch like the one prepared for Edge’s Tesseracts Nine and The Courtesan Prince: In addition to the expected patter, author reading and book sales, this one featured a magician, a game show and what looked like a metric ton of highly-anticipated chocolate pastries. Any attempt at describing the event will fail (sometimes, you have to be there), so just let me recommend that you attend the next Edge book launch to see what will happen. Two issues marred the occasion, however: For Tesseracts Nine, only two of the twenty-odd authors having contributed to the anthology were present. The author of The Courtesan Prince was present, but the problem with that book is that it’s set in a shared imaginary universe, and they assumed that we were already raving fanatics of that universe. I’m sure than pre-existing fans loved the launch: For the rest of us, however, thin smiles covered a lack of understanding that never quite went away.
I never made it to an autograph session, but I gather that the three-or-so signature sessions weren’t a raging success. I myself couldn’t find two particular authors after buying their books in the dealer’s room, which is just too bad.
I couldn’t make it to the opening ceremonies, but I heard about it elsewhere (the deputy mayor of Calgary showed up, cowboy hats were distributed to the guests of honour), and echoes of it were felt in the closing ceremony. Hats were once more on full display! To the organizers’ credit, the convention closed efficiently, ending maybe twenty minutes in its allotted hour-long slot. The rest of the time was consumed with “goodbye” discussions between convention attendees.
Readers of my other convention reports know that I’ve got a deep and obsessive interest in the free swag being handed over at freebie tables. So here’s the “good stuff'” report: Westercon58 participants could bring home full movie posters of WAR OF THE WORLDS, AEON FLUX and FANTASTIC FOUR, smaller posters for LAND OF THE DEAD and LORD OF THE RINGS, issues of Locus and F&SF, buttons for SHAUN OF THE DEAD, pro-hemp Frisbees, more convention one-sheets than you can imagine, and reams of other SF-related flyers.
The dealers’ room was mid-sized and only mildly interesting. I did find interesting stuff ranging from used books to Canadian SF content to a complete run of Neo-Opsis, but there wasn’t much in terms of small-press publishers typically seen only at SF conventions.
Finally, there were the people: fans and pros and everyone in-between: If Westercon58 made any particular impression me, it was to re-establish Calgary’s credentials as a powerhouse in the Canadian SF scene. Toronto may benefit from a critical mass of writers and fans, but Calgary has Canada’s only two English-language genre publishers (Edge and Robert J. Sawyer Press), along with a good specialty bookstore, a strong group of writers and a dynamic fan community. (It certainly creams Ottawa in all of those areas, especially given the similar population numbers.) Westercon58 offered an ideal occasion to jump into this community and, by extension, the west-coast fan circuit. I’m particularly grateful to fans and writers such as Cliff Samuels, Susan Ward, Blair Petterson, Elizabeth Trenholm, Hayden Trenholm, Paula Johanson and Stephanie Ann Johanson for taking the time to talk with one lone French-Canadian fan lost in Calgary. I hope to see all of those people sometime in the future. I didn’t have much time to talk with Robert J. Sawyer and René Walling (the only two people at Westercon who could recognize me on sight at the beginning of the convention), but it was good to meet them again.
Among the big-name authors present at the convention, I have already discussed the wonders that are Connie Willis, David G. Hartwell and Robert J. Sawyer. S.M. Stirling also joins that group; while I’m no particular fan of his fiction, he’s always a joy to watch at a panel, slinging quips like the best of them. I was also favorably impressed by people such as Derryl Murphy, Ed Willett and Barb Galler-Smith. From seeing him at panels and around the convention, I also now understand the high esteem that Big-Name Fan Kevin Standlee enjoys in the fannish community.
I too-briefly glimpsed personal heroes John Varley and Brad Templeton, but couldn’t find time to go and talk to them. (To be fair, Varley kept a low profile during the entire time he was at the convention, being in Calgary essentially to accept his Locus Award for The John Varley Reader.)
One thing that struck me about Westercon58’s fan/pro relationship is probably inherent in the scale of the convention. As mentioned above, I’m familiar with either really small French-Canadian conventions (where there’s such a roughly similar proportion of fans-to-pros that the entire convention feels very egalitarian and everyone is accessible to everyone else) or very big Worldcons (where there are so man
y pros that it’s not that difficult to talk to at least one of them). In Westercon’s case, there were maybe ten fans to a single pro, and so trying to chat with them became very difficult because, well, everyone else was also trying to do so.
Is it useful to repeat, at this point, that I had a good time at Westercon58? I had fun, played tourist as much as I could stand, achieved most of my pre-convention goals and plunged easily in the atmosphere of a well-run convention.
I may have issues with the convention’s early lack of organization prior to the event (it took two email reminders for them to correct my name; it’s still spelled wrong in the souvenir book; programming was finalized days before the convention; the web site wasn’t updated as well as it should have been) and the early registration confusion didn’t portend well, but the rest of the convention appeared –to me, at least- to run smoothly. (To be fair, nearly every convention I’ve been to has suffered those kinds of hiccups.) Congratulations to the entire organizing team, especially those unsung on-site volunteers whose name never makes it in the progress report.
Every convention comes with an epiphany of sorts. Mine was in re-assessing my level of competency vis-à-vis the SF scene. Contributing to SF by writing reviews on the web has a “writing in the void” quality that, without feedback, can make it difficult to gauge a level of competency. What makes the problem worse are unfair comparisons: Struggling SF critics can go crazy comparing themselves to John Clute, Cheryl Morgan or the Locus crew when, let’s face it, there are maybe two dozens such high-end SF critics in the entire world. Participating in SF discussions with average SF fans can do wonders to calibrate your inner self-confidence sensor. I ended up… pleased by the results. (As human psychology has it, though, it’s inevitable that I end up remembering comments about my accent a lot better than the praise I got for what I was saying.) Given that I usually feel lousy about my performance at panels, my overall good impression of the convention either means I’m getting better at this, or that my self-esteem has finally left reality as we understand it.
Westercon58 also provided calibration in the wider world of conventions. As mentioned a few times already, my recent conventions have either been intimate gatherings or Worldcons, with few events in the middle end of the spectrum. “Due North” provided a useful data point against which to evaluate similar events in the future. Simply put, it was good to be in an average SF convention.
(My frustration-meter at not being a published fiction writer also went up a notch seeing people struggle to find what, exactly, were my street-creds in the SF world. Don’t feel sorry for me: stoking that frustration as high it can go is the only way I’m going to self-motivate in sending stuff to editors.)
All told, congratulations to the Westercon58 crew, to Calgary, to area fans and (heck, while I’m at it), the entire SF community. It’s a curious feeling to travel thousands of kilometers and find a comfortable environment more than halfway across the country in the middle of hundred of people you don’t know. Such are the wonders of SF fandom, and that’s well worth a small amount of devotion.
[Update, August 2005: Looking around the web for other Westercon58 reports, I see that “Due North” got more than its share of criticism. Westercon faithfuls found it small and disorganized. Local people missed the usual local traditions, including a “better” con-suite and dance. Volunteers had pretty nasty things to say about organizers. (A Google search on “calgary westercon site:livejournal.com” can be bitterly amusing.) Comics, costuming and anime fans found that the conventions didn’t cater to their own area of fandom. Comments from lit-SF pros and fans such as myself seemed to be generally more positive.]