My First Worldcon: LoneStarCon 3, Part II

As I mentioned in the previous entry, the main reason I went to LoneStarCon 3 in the first place was because of the Helsinki 2015 Worldcon bid.

On Bidding and Parties

Bidding for a Worldcon is what you’d call a nontrivial matter. Typically, a bid is announced at least two years in advance of the actual vote, or four years in advance of the convention’s proper date. The Helsinki bid was announced only a year in advance. The amount of time, energy and funding even just to take a shot at getting to host a Worldcon is staggering. I was far from the only person to hop over the big pond to help out at the convention (and I probably should reiterate here that I was not a member of the bid committee, just someone to help out with heavy lifting and light banter at LoneStarCon itself – the really hard parts were done by people like Eemeli Aro, Crystal Huff, Jukka Halme and Karoliina Leikomaa and the rest of the bid committee). We printed posters and t-shirts. A sponsorship deal was struck with Lignell & Piispanen, who supplied us with some of their excellent liquors and fortified wines for serving at the room parties.

Our bar. Ignore the photographer.

Our bar. Ignore the photographer.

Incidentally, our bartenders Kevin and Andy discussed our drink offerings (and our bid in general, and other Worldcon things) on the Nerdvana podcast. It’s all worth listening, but the part about American culture shock when encountering Finnish acquired tastes is around 1:11. The cognac & vodka blend they refer to is called the “noble spirit”, or jaloviina. It’s one-star because it comes in one and three star varieties, dependent on the amount of cognac in the mix, and three-star jaloviina is just bad cognac.

A key element of a successful Worldcon bid, it appears, is the hosting of successful room parties. These were a new thing to me. In Finland, with the exception of Finncon, conventions stay put and the conrunner pool is smaller, so there’s no real competition for the hosting rights and thus no need for lobbying parties. Also, it’s common for Finnish conventions such as Tracon and Ropecon to have programming run until midnight or even later, leaving no dedicated time slot for an abundance of room parties. I was somewhat surprised by this.

The thing about the room parties is that they all (or at least all the ones I visited) had an open bar and free alcohol, which, as luck would have it, is my favourite drink. There’s been a lot of commentary on the blogosphere about how the membership of Worldcon is getting on in years, but in my view, if you’re gonna have parties with free drink, it’s better if everyone has had some years to develop a mature attitude about alcohol.

I spent a good portion of our three party evenings checking people’s IDs and giving them their “this person can drink” bracelets. Local law, as it was explained to me, required that we card everyone we don’t personally know before we can serve them alcohol, so I ended up checking the IDs of several Finncon guests of honour, one Hugo winner and a number of people in the age bracket of my grandparents. I heard a rumour that our ID check was so strict that our bracelets – which had our advertising – were accepted as confirmed drinking age even at other parties. Hey, I get told that something is a legal requirement in a foreign country, I don’t start second-guessing. Every place in the world is funny about alcohol in its own way. This, I take it, was how Texas does it.

Our parties, incidentally, were pretty great. The first night we served ice cream and tar syrup, the second night we had gravlax, and the third night we had crackers with a variety of jams and preserves, like Santa Claus brand reindeer paté. I have no idea where that came from, but I can appreciate it.

We may have had slightly too much ice cream, and a lot of it was left over after the Thursday party. This formed a problem when one of our coolers had apparently malfunctioned during the light and allowed a lot of ice cream to thaw out. The guys solved the problem by dumping it into the bathtub in our party suite. Unfortunately, the plug was not pulled. The result was… well, see for yourselves.

You gotta admit, there are worse scents you can have in the bathroom.

You gotta admit, there are worse scents to have in the bathroom.

So yeah. Friday evening, we were entertaining our guests while in one of the bathrooms, behind the curtain, lurked several dozen gallons of ice cream. Vanilla, ’cause that’s how we are.

I am pretty sure that conrunning is the only hobby where you end up with problems like this. Being able to say “Yeah, we filled the bathtub of the Marriott Rivercenter VP suite with vanilla ice cream” and seeing people’s faces makes up for a lot of stress. Especially when they see the photo.

As for the bid itself, well, we lost. We did not, I hasten to add, fail. For the first two rounds of counting votes, we were in the lead. In the third, once Orlando dropped out with 307 votes, the secondary preferences of their votes took Spokane to the lead with 645 votes against our 610.

A defeat of 35 votes, with 1,348 ballots cast, still rankles a bit. But just a bit. After travelling halfway across the world, I just could not let that ruin the convention for me. I had a wonderful time, met wonderful new people and made new friends, ate portions of food that would have their own area codes in Finland, and had the globe become just a bit smaller for me.

Also, we won half the party prizes, for Best Food, Most Crowded and one we shared with Orlando, Best Excuse for Hosting a Room Party (losing a Worldcon bid). We got enough of these shotglasses that even a minor cog in the larger machinery of the bid like me got one.

VICTORY!

Tastes like napalm in the morning

Overall, my convention experience was a good one. Indeed, it was one of the most fun conventions I’ve ever been to. I can easily understand how some fans will travel to the other side of the globe if need be, just to make it to the Worldcon.

Fortunately, I do not have to. Next year, London!

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My First Worldcon: LoneStarCon 3, Part I

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.

The lobby of our hotel. It is a very nice lobby.

The lobby of our hotel. It is a very nice lobby.

A Whatcon?

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.

SIMBAAAA! Photo by Crystal Huff.

SIMBAAAA! Photo by Crystal Huff.

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.

The book haul

The book haul