In Spite of Setbacks, San Jose Comes Through for Worldcon 76

The World Science Fiction Convention, which started in 1939 and has been held continuously since 1946, is the ancestor of almost every geeky convention. Like many others, it is a volunteer-run event, run as a gift to fandom. But because of its long history, the event otherwise known as Worldcon is organized differently from many other cons.

Each year’s Worldcon is organized independently—in a new city with a new team and new facility. There are traditions, but every year is effectively a first-year convention and a reinvention. Even if the con is returning to a city or a venue that’s previously hosted it, it will have been over a decade since it was last in that location, and the staff will be different. This year’s Worldcon, the 76th edition, was held in San Jose, California, and over 5,000 fans and creators from around the world gathered at the McEnery Convention Center.

Convention Flyters

Convention fliers from all over.

In many ways, the convention feels similar to CONvergence, Diversicon, Minicon, and other science-fiction cons in the Twin Cities. It’s primarily focused on literary sci fi, though it overlaps with all of the related areas and interests as well. You won’t see paid photo shoots with actors, but if you want to see the top writers in the field, like N. K. Jemisin, George R. R. Martin, or John Scalzi, you’ll have a chance at Worldcon.

The convention’s centerpiece is the Hugo Awards, one of the longest-running awards in the genre. While there is much about the Worldcon that celebrates the history of science fiction, fantasy, and their fandom, the Hugo ceremony is where history is made. The awards are chosen by the members of the convention, both attending and supporting, with the categories defined and refined by the World Science Fiction Society’s Business Meeting, which is a part of every Worldcon and something every member can participate in. This year’s awards ceremony was very efficiently emceed by artist John Picacio, and Felicia Day introduced the new award for best young-adult novel, which went to Akata Warrior by Nnedi Okorafor. Among the highlights were Rebecca Roanhorse becoming the first indigenous Campbell winner as best new writer and N. K. Jemisin becoming the first person to win the Hugo for best novel three times in a row. Their thank-you speeches were among the best I’ve seen.

The 2018 Hugo Award Winners

The 2018 Hugo Award Winners

Going into this year’s convention, there were a couple of controversies. As a consequence of changes to the Hugo rules several years ago, we’re no longer seeing groups like the Sad and Rabid Puppies being able to dominate the finalist ballot, but when the initial programming was announced, there was a lot of discussion that the programming didn’t adequately include the Hugo finalists for this year. Despite the finalists list having a stronger representation of authors of color and LGBTQAI+ authors than in past years, that diversity wasn’t reflected in the makeup of the programming. This draws attention to an important point: convention programming departments need to be more inclusive not just in what the topics present but in the voices that are reviewing and putting together items, and and they need to be even more representative and responsive to their community. However, in this case Worldcon responded well to feedback, and I found plenty of entertaining panels with a variety of perspectives.

The year’s second controversy was a political protest held outside of the convention. Worldcon 76 took a harassment threat seriously and refused someone from attending the convention because of it, and that person responded by bringing out a protest and counterprotest. Worldcon has always had elements of political controversy, going back to the very beginning, and this is just the latest iteration. The protest was, from my observation, uneventful, though it did mean that badges were checked just a little bit more than might be traditional at this con, and there was a period of time when security directed people to alternate exits and you saw a number of very bored police and security forces.

George RR Martin at WSFS Business Meeting

George R. R. Martin announcing at the World Science Fiction Society Business Meeting that Worldcon will be in New Zealand for 2020.

The programming I went to this year was all quite enjoyable, and I found several items that appealed to me. One of my favorite parts of Worldcon is meeting and making friends with people from around the world, and the panels on both international fandom and online fandom had great international participation. I saw some examples where program items either were turning people away or could have handled a smaller room, but fortunately, there was frequently something else to do if you couldn’t get into your first-choice event.

As mentioned, one of the few mandatory program items for every Worldcon is the WSFS Business Meeting. The Business Meeting is deliberately designed to be deliberative, and it requires a motion to pass in two business meetings to change the constitution. It’s direct democracy, and so it goes very slow—and trying to speed things up frequently slows things down even more. One of the challenges is that some of the participants have been doing this for decades, so it can be intimidating at times to speak, and head-table staff needs to work at trying to recognize people who are speaking less or for the first time. One recommendation I’d make is that the chair shouldn’t recognize someone by name until they give their name to the business meeting, even if they are well known to regulars. This year did a lot of shooting things back and forth to committees, as it is an organization resistant to change by design. It did confirm the Lodestar as the name of a new award celebrating young-adult science fiction, one of the most significant visible changes in years.

Worldcon Exhibits

Various exhibits from the convention floor.

In addition to its setup of each year’s event being organized independently, another way Worldcon differs from many of Minnesota’s fan-run conventions is that it frequently uses a large convention-center exhibit hall for its dealers, art show, fan exhibits, and social areas. The precise makeup varies from year to year, and this year had fantastic exhibits celebrating the con’s guests of honor as well as a sizable display of costumes. Many of these exhibits celebrate the history of Worldcon and the community centered around it, so you can see old Hugo Awards, collections of old fanzines or art, and photos of professionals in the past.

Guest of honor John Picacio’s exhibit.

The exhibit hall also has a variety of fan tables. One of the tables celebrating fan history was collecting photos of people showing how long they’d be in fandom, and we had one group that collectively had over 1,000 years in fandom, all built out of people with less than 50 each. But there were also people who had well over 50 years in fandom, people who built the foundations of the communities that we have all built upon. There were also groups representing future Worldcon bids, like the groups advocating for the convention to be held in Washington, DC, in 2021, Chicago in 2022, and Nice, France, or Chengdu, China, in 2023.

1,000 Years of Fandom

A collective 1,000 years of fandom. Photo by Lisa Hayes

Michael with Chinese SF Fans

Michael Lee, center, with some Chinese sci-fi fans.

As at most conventions, there was a con suite. I don’t think it was particularly well advertised—there was minimal at signage for it, and I needed to hunt for it. It was mostly useful for the occasional bagel, hardboiled egg, coffee, or soda. I think that made it feel a little less successful as the social heart of the convention that the con suite is at others, though I felt the organizers managed that very well with some well-targeted food and drink stations with groups of tables both in the exhibit hall and near the programming area. When done well, a Worldcon provides a place to run into various friends, both old and new, as well as professionals and people you may only know online or in print.

One of the things that recent Worldcons have struggled with is room parties. Conventions outside of the US don’t really have them at all, and increasingly it has been difficult for American conventions to have parties like the ones that people recall from the past. That was the case again with this year’s Worldcon, as some nights the hotel was more difficult about how many people it would allow into a room. The parties were occasionally advertised as “socials,” trying to use it as sort of euphemism. I think much of it was smoothed over, so some nights were easier. Many of the parties are based around past, future, and potential Worldcons, and I spent a fair amount of time at the thank-you party for last year’s Worldcon, since I worked on it.

Socials in the South Tower

Sign directing people to the “socials.”

I was slightly disappointed with the final night’s social scene. After the Hugo Awards there is a traditional Invite-Only Hugo Losers Party, and there wasn’t much else to do if you weren’t going to it. I think that’s unfortunate; I respect the celebration and time for the Hugo finalists, but there should be some more visible place for those people who aren’t even Hugo nominees, as that’s most of the membership. Part of this was that I was unfortunately disappointed with the service at the Fairmont lobby bar and so didn’t want to spend time or money there. This is one thing that has varied more year to year, depending on the location and also whether or not the day after the Hugo ceremony is a holiday or a regular weekday.

Speaking of the Hugos, you can see this year’s award ceremony online as well as the list of winners. Worldcon also releases a lot of data about the nominations and final vote counting, as final voting counting uses a variety of ranked choice, and nominations use an algorithm designed to reduce the influence of slate nominations.

This year's Hugo Award

This year’s Hugo Award.

Worldcon is the one convention where it’s not at all unusual to be at a stoplight with George R. R. Martin and an actual astronaut who has been in space. More than any other convention, this is one that gives you the excuse to travel to new places and meet people that you might not meet any other way, and it never really is the same convention twice. (Next year’s convention will be in Dublin, Ireland, and the year after that in New Zealand.) I enjoyed Worldcon 76, as it was a chance to connect and reconnect with friends and fans from around the world, and a chance to visit the Bay Area of California.

Michael at Worldcon 76 in San Jose, CA

Michael at Worldcon 76 in San Jose, California.


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