Sasquan: Not a Convention Report

Well, this report has been some time in the writing. Jetlag kicked my ass and it’s stayed kicked for a week and counting.

The other week, I was at Sasquan, the 73rd World Science Fiction Convention, in Spokane, Washington.

My long-time reader may remember how in 2013, I worked on the Helsinki in 2015 bid that ultimately lost the site selection vote at LoneStarCon 3 (and if the previous sentence contains unfamiliar concepts to you such as “bid” and “site selection”, I recommend you go back and read the LoneStarCon report for the explanations). Well, this was it, and we were back.

This is not going to be much of a convention report, since I did not actually see much convention. The Helsinki 2017 bid owned me for the duration, so my time in the convention centre was spent behind and around our bid table, telling passersby about Helsinki, Finnish science fiction literature and fandom, and other stuff that was asked of me.

I think the strangest question I fielded was about the genes of Eero Mäntyranta.

My time at the parties was mostly spent cleaning up and tending bar, except for a short while on Friday night after dinner, before the news about site selection results broke. I was on my way to the Dublin in 2019 bid party, when I was waylaid by a member of the DC in 2017 bid committee, who started pumping my hand and offered his congratulations and condolences.

It’s like they say. Losing a Worldcon bid is horrible. Winning it is terrifying.

For my part, I am happy that this vote stood in stark contrast to the other one at this year’s Worldcon. The competition between the bids was friendly, clean, fair, and fun. My condolences to the other bid committees – I’ve been there. I know how it feels.

And now, they say, the hard work begins. I’ve travelled abroad three times for this thing already and I’m only middle management at best. I think it’s been pretty hard already. At least I get to keep to my own time zone for most of this.

I managed to witness precisely two program items: the Hugo Award Ceremony and the first twenty minutes of Saturday’s business meeting, where the site selection results, already public since the previous night, were officially ratified.

I was at the ceremony as the plus one of Hanna Hakkarainen, who was the designated acceptor should our friend Ninni Aalto win Best Fan Artist. This came complete with access to a slightly awkward pre-ceremony cocktail reception and a somewhat awkward Hugo Nominees’ Reception where I was talked at by a remarkably grumpy gentleman who had just lost a Campbell.

Oh, and the Hugo Losers’ Party. Which was awesome. George has the details.

The actual ceremony was excellent. It could have been as awkward as the events that bookended it, but it managed to be warm, positive, and funny. Though there were all kinds of glitches, David Gerrold and Tananarive Due kept the show going on and at no point did it lag. Likewise, Robert Silverberg and Connie Willis are fixtures of these ceremonies for a very good reason. There was song, there was dance, there was a Dalek, a man announced his presidential candidacy, a woman thanked the patriarchy, entertainment was had, and some rockets were actually given out.

Don’t take my word for it, watch the recording! The actual ceremony kicks off at around 1:06 in the second video.

For the record, I disagree with some of the results, mostly in that the Editor categories got nuked. However, I believe we have now seen exactly what voting slates are good for, so could we please dispense with them in the future?

The business meeting is also online. It is much less exciting, though watching Kevin Standlee do his thing is pleasant in the way that watching the work of someone utterly competent often is. Also, some of the debate-heavy parts, such as Sunday, cause my will to live ebb.

Next year, MidAmeriCon II. In 2017, Worldcon 75. See you there.

The Beauty of Loncon 3

Finncon was big. Ropecon was bigger. The 72nd World Science Fiction Convention was the biggest. I attended Loncon 3 at the tail end of a two-week holiday trip to London and, as prophesied by the late Iain Banks, it was great fun and a total hoot.

As last year, I worked with the Helsinki bid for Worldcon. Though we suffered narrow defeat last year running against Spokane, we have come back stronger than ever and are targeting 2017. More on that in a later post.

What was different from last year, though, was that with the Worldcon located in Europe, we had vastly more boots on the ground than last year and I felt more comfortable with not being on call or on duty all the time or at every party. This resulted in me seeing probably more programming than in all the other cons I’ve been during the entire previous year put together.

Emmi Itäranta signing her novel Memory of Water at the Helsinki tent

Emmi Itäranta signing her novel Memory of Water at the Helsinki tent

The convention was at the ExCel Centre in London, a ginormous convention centre from which even the ten-thousand member Loncon only took over one half. The convention comprised a couple of larger auditoriums, around 17 upstairs rooms for panels, one very large exhibits hall featuring the art gallery, vendor area and Fan Village, and some other spaces. It was big, and it was easily a five-minute brisk walk to get from the Fan Village to watch a panel. Longer than that if it was a busy time of day. I literally walked so much I destroyed my shoes. And I’d only had them for three months, too…

The Fan Village, then. Last year, and I gather normally at Worldcons, the parties thrown by the different bids and other instances are in suites at the convention hotels. This year, the con committee had arrived at the alternative solution of placing everyone in a large exhibit hall in their own tents, where they promoted during the day and threw parties in the night. I actually prefer this solution to the hotel suites, since everyone is in the same space, there’s more air to breathe, you don’t have to switch floors to go to another party, and there’s no issue with other people trying to sleep in the vicinity.

Along with our competitor the DC bid and the 2016 Kansas City bid, we were in one of the largest tents, having bid parties for three nights of the weekend, with one on Sunday night for Archipelacon, where the convention also announced its third guest of honour after Karin Tidbeck and Johanna Sinisalo. It’s George R.R. Martin.

The Hugos

I suppose I should say a few words about the Hugos, since I held forth at such length on them before. I even went to see the awards ceremony, which I missed last year at San Antonio.

I have absolutely nothing to complain about. While not all the awards went exactly where I voted them, most of them did and the ones that did not were all well deserved. Congratulations to all the winners, and keep on being awesome.

The Stuff I Saw

An observation about Worldcon programming: it emphasizes panels a lot more than single-person presentations. This is, from my point of view, unusual. I mean, over half of all the items on the Worldcon programme were panels, while if I filter the Ropecon programme for this year, which has four tracks of speech programming over three days for panels, I get a grand total of one (1). This is an interesting difference and the programme is probably easier to put together this way than how we at Ropecon do it due to the sheer mindboggling scale of it all. Loncon 3 had over 1000 programme items over five days and I imagine it simplifies a lot when you can just tell people “you’re gonna be in these panels” instead of negotiating every lecture separately.

This does, of course, require you to have all those warm bodies to allocate to different panels, but I suspect that Worldcon might be one of those “build it and they will come” type deals.

The following is mostly written for memory, rather too late after the fact. The long trip, ExCel’s overenthusiastic air conditioning, five days of convention centre food and proximity to people and bacterial strains from every continent but the Antarctic conspired to lay me low soon after I had returned home on Tuesday and it’s taken me this long to put together anything coherent.

So, instead of going through every damn program item, let me just offer up a few observations.

First of all, Mark Oshiro is one of the best panelists I have seen. It’s a different skillset from holding a presentation by yourself. It requires the ability to improvise, be spontaneous, and work with any number of other people in front of an audience. I’ve seen it done well, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it done this well. His is a rare talent.

The audiences at Worldcon also impressed me. With one single exception, audience comments and questions were good, informed, intelligent, and respectful. Admittedly, I did not go to any panels with a historical topic. Those tend to bring out the armchair historians. I wish they’d just do the honourable thing and sign up as panelists if they love the sound of their own voice so much.

During the Food in SF/F panel on Friday, someone pointed out that during the olden days, water wasn’t really the safest thing to drink, so people primarily drank beer or wine. The appearance of coffee and tea in Europe coincides roughly with the beginning of the Enlightenment – so basically everyone went from being slightly tipsy to being highly caffeinated all the time. (No, historical causality is not that simple, but I find this an amusing coincidence.)

Perhaps the best panel I saw during the convention was called “Sinbad Sci-Fi presents The World at Worldcon: Arabic SF/F”. It turns out there actually is science fiction and fantasy being written in the Arabic world. Harry Potter has been translated into Arabic and is being read, not burned. According to the panelists, there are problems with translating stuff into Arabic, but they’re mostly financial and though there’s a prejudice against science fiction and fantasy, it’s that the stuff won’t sell rather than it offending someone’s religious sensibilities. At least, this is the case in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, where most of the panel hailed from.

From the left: Noura al-Noman, Ibrahim Abbas, Amal El-Mohtar, Yasser Bahjatt, and Yasmin Khan

From the left: Noura al-Noman, Ibrahim Abbas, Amal El-Mohtar, Yasser Bahjatt, and Yasmin Khan

As was also pointed out, talking about “the Arabic world” as a monolith is not really constructive, since there’s like 23 different Arabic countries and they’re culturally, economically and geographically very diverse. Heck, I have developed over the years a certain dislike towards discussing even sufficiently large single states like India, the United States, China or Russia as cultural monoliths.

Of course, the way we get our news from foreign cultural spheres is wonderful at creating the perception of such cultural monoliths. Seriously, when did you last hear a news story from an Arab state that was positive? Because I cannot remember if I ever have. That’s part of what made the panel so wonderful. It dispelled myth and prejudice and served as an important reminder that even in nations whose leaders we think are terrible (And seriously, do we like even our own leaders that much?), there’s this thing called normal people, who live and love and read science fiction. Write science fiction, too. Ibraheem Abbas’s books HWJN and Somewhere! have been translated into English. I missed out on the freebie copies distributed after the panel due to technical difficulties (my phone had died on me and the spare I was using was only slightly more advanced than smoke signals and by the time I got a new smartphone this week, the link behind the QR code had expired), so I haven’t yet had the opportunity to peruse them, but the few Goodreads reviews I of them I can even begin to make sense of look promising.

Also, the publisher Yasser Bahjatt introduced himself as a Spartan Jedi, because he was born in Sparta, Michigan and lives in Jedda. That was probably the most deftly done bridging of a cultural gap I have seen in my life. Here we have a panel looking very much the part of the Other, and then boom, Star Wars joke. Now we’re all on the same page, let’s talk about books. It literally brought a tear to my eye.

The Fan Village, as seen from the dealers' area.

The Fan Village, as seen from the dealers’ area.

These are the things that to me, make Worldcon special. While I can meet my Finnish and even most of my Nordic friends at almost any convention I go to in Finland, and they are great fun, and I think getting involved with running Ropecon is one of the best things that I’ve done, it’s at Worldcon that I can meet, well, the world. According to the con’s website, there were attending members from 54 countries. I made new friends from across oceans. I bought lots of books and talked with the people who wrote them (and now Scott Lynch thinks I’m stalking him). This lasted for five whole days.

I have this thing about conventions that I have mentioned before. When I go to a con, until it’s over I don’t really do anything else except attend the con. When I wake up, I go to the con site and I only leave it to crash for a few hours so I can do the same thing all over again the next day. I am fully immersed in the convention, I am with my tribe. I have no nationality but the convention, and my badge is my only passport.

It’s a hard crash back to the real world after a high like that, but it has never been not worth it. For this, I thank the fandom. For all its faults and occasional capacity for truly mind-boggling amount of drama, it remains awesome.

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!