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
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.
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.
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.
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.