For the gamers: this is going to be one of those long-ass posts about stuff only tangentially related to role-playing games (there were daily RPG sessions at the con and Steve Jackson was there). Nevertheless, I hope it is a rewarding read even if you do not consider yourself an SF fan.
For the sci-fi fans: this is primarily a gaming blog and for the benefit of my audience, I will explain things you will consider obvious. Feel free to skip the section “A Whatcon?”. I will also likely make errors. I prefer enlightenment to ignorance, so if you spot one, feel free to correct me.
The pileup of conventions that has been my past six months is drawing to a close, and I finally have time to breathe a bit and write stuff like convention reports that are running weeks late.
Last May, I was in Scotland doing my language residency, when one morning I opened up my e-mail and saw a message that went, basically, “Hey we bought you a staff membership for Worldcon in Texas, you think you could make it?”
You understand, I receive an e-mail like this usually about once every 18 months. Other classics of past years have been “hey I thought your blog was pretty cool, wanna write us a book?” and “why are you not already a Pathfinder Society Venture-Captain?” I’m getting used to them. So I ran the numbers and discovered that yes, indeed, it was economically feasible. Especially since most of the accommodations were also paid for.
This was a Worldcon, or the World Science Fiction Convention, if you want to be all formal about it. Every year in a different city, host to the Hugo Awards and pretty much the longest-running gathering of science fiction fans in the world. LoneStarCon 3 was the 71st Worldcon. I’d never been to a Worldcon or even had a membership, though by cultural osmosis I sorta knew what to expect. Sorta. I’d also never been outside of Europe, so there’d be that as well.
The reason for the invitation was that Helsinki was bidding to host Worldcon in 2015. The site for a Worldcon is decided two years in advance, and even bidding is a huge project in terms of money, time and nerves. As far as I can tell, the reason the bidding is such an intensive process, usually started two years before the actual vote and requiring presence and representation at multiple conventions throughout that time, including hosting bid parties, is that Worldcon is a tremendously large affair to organize and a would-be organizing committee must demonstrate their capability to raise funding and use it in an intelligent and responsible fashion (as far as these things go…). Also, people like parties. Parties are fun.
Indeed, by certain metrics, Worldcon was the largest convention I’ve ever been to. While the number of paying attendees was around the same as a Ropecon and somewhat less than a Tracon, this was five days long, from Thursday to Monday. At LoneStarCon, there was something like a thousand hours of programming, including a film festival and an academic conference. There are enough guests of honour for three regular conventions, plus a small horde of other people who would not be ill-placed as GoHs themselves, there to attend the Hugo Awards or just because going to conventions is fun.
Also, it’s the most expensive convention I’ve gone to. Ropecon is €28 for three days, Tracon about the same for two, Finncon is free. LoneStarCon 3’s website lists the price of $220 for an attending membership of the whole convention, and that’s before you go into hotels and travel. It was cheaper earlier in the year, but still not exactly pocket money. Also, you get your money’s worth with it. In addition to five days of convention, it fetches you a pocket program, a book of the convention and in San Antonio’s case, a complementary water bottle. Handy thing to have at a con, especially in Texas in August. For 20 hours of work, you’d get your membership fee reimbursed.
Most crucially, though, the membership gets you the Hugo Voter’s Package. It’s downloads of most if not all of the nominated works in the different Hugo Award categories, plus the John W. Campbell Award. That’s free ebooks of works deemed sufficiently good by sufficiently many people to be on the ballot. Novels, novellas, novelettes, short stories, other books, magazines, graphic novels. The dramatic presentation categories have not traditionally been available, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Loncon could prise the inevitable Doctor Who episodes from the iron grip of BBC. I must confess that I did not have time to even read everything, which also means I did not vote on all the categories.
The Con Itself!
As mentioned, it was a five-day con, running from Thursday to Monday. I spent most of my time either staffing the convention photo booth, which netted me a nice t-shirt and reimbursement of my admission fee, or working at the Helsinki bid parties. However, I did have some time to roam the convention, see a few program items and make purchases.
Apart from the scale of everything, the first difference between Finnish cons and LoneStarCon was the security. In Finland, convention security is done by fans who have been trained and licenced to work as security personnel. It is standard practice for conventions to spring the cash for a training course every couple of years to refresh the pool of volunteer security personnel. They’re usually unarmed but, if they have the appropriate training, may carry mace, handcuffs, or similar gear.
At LoneStarCon, security was provided by uniformed police officers. With guns. I must admit my heart skipped a beat when I first saw them, because over here, a uniformed cop at the con site usually means something’s gone royally pear-shaped.
The photo booth I worked at was (I understand) originally conceived at another convention, Boskone. It was overseen by Crystal Huff, who was also one of the co-chairs of our bid. It was mostly thanks to her efforts that I ever made the trip. At the booth, we had a load of props like funny hats, alien penguins, labcoats, steampunk accoutrements and fluffy bunnies. People would pick stuff out from the prop table (or not) and we’d photograph them and print them one to take home. We also offered the possibility of getting all the shots if they brought their own USB stick.
So yeah, I was not only allowed but expected to use a professional photo setup. It was mostly point-and-shoot, fortunately, and even a newbie like me got the hang of the basics pretty quickly.
The other duty I had on the convention proper was occasionally filling in at the site selection table, where we received the ballots for Worldcon voting. There needed to be a representative from each of the bids to ensure the integrity of the system and that nobody would have cause for complaint afterwards. Having played through Papers, Please a week before, I was right in my element checking that people had signed on the dotted line, checked the boxes and whatnot. Also managed to resist the urge to yoink Michael Swanwick’s signed ballot.
Apart from that, I was free to wander, buy stuff, end up in conversations with new people, buy stuff, eat interesting new things, and buy stuff. I also managed to see a program item, one of the about a dozen of Robert E. Howard themed items over the weekend. Howard, you see, lived close by – less than a thousand miles – and half the Howard scholars in the world are Texans. One is French. The item was a panel called “Robert E. Howard at the Icehouse”, with his boxing stories as its topic.
Sports stories, apparently, were a thing back then. One of the pulps that Howard wrote for had stories about all the major sports of the day – boxing, horse racing and baseball. Even the occasional story about polo. I’ve never actually read any of the boxing stories, though I have The Complete Action Stories anthology somewhere (story of my life: “No, I haven’t read that, but I’m sure I have it somewhere.”). I think I had the same problem with them as i have with Howard’s westerns. The voice that the stories are written in and especially the vernacular of the dialogue are foreign to me and I can’t get a feel for it as easily as I do for Conan, Solomon Kane, or Bran mak Morn. The Howard biographer Mark Finn did an excellent reading for one of the stories, though, which kinda points me in the right direction.
I kept running into the Robert E. Howard Foundation people throughout the convention and ended up with a pile of business cards and two volumes of Howard’s letters. The first book of the three-volume set has been sold out and the rest were horrendously expensive, but the correspondence of early 20th-century authors is fascinating reading and well worth the money. Letter-writing as an art form has more or less been killed by e-mail, but in the days of yore, these guys would write essay-length letters to one another. If you think Lovecraft’s literary output looks modest, his surviving correspondence blots out the sun.
The main exhibit hall also featured stuff like Artemis Spaceship Simulator, exhibits like the Israeli-Texas War Memorial, Jay Lake’s genome, a Doctor Who 50th Anniversary exhibit complete with a dalek who’d periodically tour the hall and shout at people, an art gallery, a mechanical bull (of course), and really far too many fascinating things to take it all in.
Next part: strange things done with ice cream, the infliction of Finnish drinking habits upon innocent and unsuspecting Americans, and observations upon the United States, or at least a part of one of them.