Monday, September 30, 2013

To Your Scattered Panels Go: LoneStarCon 3

It's been nearly a month since Worldcon flared to brief and blazing life down in Texas over this past Labour Day weekend, but it feels like it took weeks for the echoes to start settling down. You may have heard about it in blogs or Twitter in connection with renewed concerns over the greying of the membership and the ongoing problems with diversity in the science fiction and fantasy field. if not, well, you might as well start off here!

What's Worldcon? It's the World Science Fiction Convention, held yearly since 1939 except for 1942, 1943, 1944, and 1945 due to some unfortunate unpleasantness, and was historically the big get-together of the science fiction and fantasy community--though history tends to give way to the future, which is the source of so many of its present issues. Unlike other major conventions like Dragon Con or San Diego Comic Con or so on, Worldcon doesn't put down roots; it's a roving convention that hops from city to city every year. In 2012 it was in Chicago, in 2014 it will be in London, and so on. Despite the name, which was coined out of analogy with the 1939 World's Fair in New York, most have been held in the United States. This one was held in San Antonio, Texas, at the Henry B. Gonzales Convention Center and the Marriott Rivercenter and Riverwalk hotels.

What'll you find at Worldcon? A goodly number of people, for one--while it isn't the tens of thousands that you'll find at Dragon Con or the major comic conventions, over the past couple of decades Worldcons have settled into a steady attendance of three to four thousand. It's enough for the convention to be busy, with multiple program items running concurrently from morning to evening, but not so crowded that it's impossible to do anything but stake out a spot in a line and hope for the best. What you won't find at Worldcon is a strong media presence. Sure, there are panels here and there, but the overwhelming focus is on the written world. There isn't much cosplay either. I never went to the masquerade, but through all the rest of the con, I encountered one person cosplaying as Vanellope from Wreck-It Ralph and that was it.

Unless you count the guy with the remote-controlled K-9 and Dalek. But then they're not costumes, are they?

There was one major, inescapable presence at LoneStarCon 3, though--Texas itself. I knew what I was getting into from the first time I checked the San Antonio temperature charts, but there's a difference between knowing something and living it. I will say that the weather conditions in late August were tolerable, but only because every square inch of the convention space was air conditioned. On my longest trip outside of the conditioned air--a morning journey to the Alamo and back--I felt like the air had sucked every joule of energy out of me. The conditions were generally comparable to standing next to the heat exhaust of a transit bus. When I stepped out of the convention center it felt as if the hairs were being singed off my arms. One of the most important lessons I took away from LoneStarCon 3 is that I am not built for life in Texas.

Nevertheless, LoneStarCon3 was a very Texas convention. To put it into perspective, there more than twice as many attendees from the Lone Star State as from the entire world outside of the United States. Granted, this is nothing new; generally speaking, wherever Worldcon lands, a substantial proportion of the membership is going to consist of people who live within a few hours' drive, and in San Antonio's case, "a few hours' drive" is Texas with a slice of northeastern Mexico. It was strongly evident in the program; aside from the launch of the new Rayguns Over Texas anthology, there were nearly twenty program items dealing with Texas in general, and a dozen dealing with Robert E. Howard specifically--that latter focus, incidentally, drew some heat on Twitter later, and seems to have come about because of a near-total lack of Howard-related programming at LoneStarCon 2 back in 1997.

Though this does cut close to one of the issues Worldcon is wrestling with: the nature of the attendees. There are those who follow Worldcon from city to city, but due to the expenses inherent in airline tickets and hotel rooms, many of them tend to be either closely involved in the scene themselves--writers, editors, what have you--or people who've been going to Worldcons for decades, and have the free time and money necessary to do so. The expense issue alone excludes a lot of potential attendees; hell, if I'd have been aware of the existence of Worldcon back in university, when I was first starting out toward science fiction, the 2003 Worldcon in Toronto was the only one I could have even begun to consider attending, and that only because I was living in Toronto then. Going to San Jose or Boston or Glasgow or Yokohama as a broke-ass student? Forget about it, mangs.

Now then, on with the meat of it.

In retrospect, the first panel I dropped into foreshadowed the whole "aging" question. Dangerous Visions: Are They Still Dangerous?, held on Thursday afternoon when attendees were still trickling into San Antonio International Airport, wore its subject in its title--Harlan Ellison's groundbreaking anthology Dangerous Visions, published in 1967 to widespread acclaim, and followed by Again, Dangerous Visions in 1972 and The Last Dangerous Visions in 1973 1975 1976 1977 1978 1980 1982 1984 1990 2007 bwahahahahahaha I'm just kidding, that thing is never coming out. If you've never heard of it, Dangerous Visions was an anthology intended to collect the sort of stories that couldn't be published anywhere else--or, at least, couldn't be published anywhere else in 1967. One of the included stories, Norman Spinrad's "Carcinoma Angels," arrived after having been rejected by Playboy--at the time, the highest-paying fiction market in the United States--and is entirely innocuous today. As I understand, it was dangerous because... it acknowledged the existence of cancer?

In all, no surprise that this was focused in history. I suppose some might say that Worldcon's whole problem is that there's too much focus on history. Things were different in my first Friday panel, Schmoozing 101 with Mary Robinette Kowal, which unfolded in front of a full room. You'd think some of the things she went over--being able to find common ground in a conversation, not trapping people in a conversation, being physically pleasant through such innovations as bathing--would go without saying, but the sad truth is that they don't. One bit that stuck with me was her demonstration of the three types of movement, aggressive, passive, and regressive; a simple statement like "What did you say?" can have *vastly* different meanings if the speaker is leaning toward the subject, standing still, or recoiling.

At the What-If Moments in History panel, presided over by panelists Vylar Kaftan, David Liss, Harry Turtledove, and Jo Walton, the audience filled the chairs and spilled out into standing room only. While a lot of the panel went over the same sort of things I've seen in alternate history panels before, I did find one of Jo Walton's statements intriguing: that is, the notion that AH is an "anti-providential" literature, and so inherently subversive because it undermines the notion that there is some kind of historical plan. Thinking about it now, that makes AH seem like the next great genre to be officially condemned in some authoritarian thought-control state. Perhaps I could get a plot out of that.

I was also a bit flummoxed by the audience member who claimed that a major issue with AH is that we don't know how people in the past talked, acted, or looked like. It sure is a good thing writing and photography were finally invented in 2011, eh?

I was also heartened by Harry Turtledove's assertion that using historical figures born after an alternate history's point of divergence--say, a story about Napoleon Bonaparte in a world where the Carthaginians crushed Rome to powder--is "cheating." I've been saying this all along! Honestly, though, it would be stronger if Turtledove was not guilty of that cheating himself.

On Sunday, The Future Two Hundred Years Out likewise played to a full room, this one considerably bigger--it may be because Kim Stanley Robinson, one of 2013's Hugo nominees, was one of the panelists. He didn't mince his words on the panel, saying that "the Singularity is bullshit," with humans continuing to be the primary agents of history, and I can't help but lean toward his thinking. There wasn't much real disagreement from the other panelists on that; Joe Haldeman argued the Singularity to be a slow-motion convergence of technological and social trends that began around 1960 and will continue evolving for decades, for one. Other topics tackled here included the common failing of not taking social changes into account (N.B.: according to Sheila Williams, Asimov's does not see nearly enough examinations of the technological and social implications of technological advance, so get on that, writorbs), what will replace capitalism (nobody could really figure that out, though Robinson described present-day capitalism as "liquefied feudalism"), and that dystopias at their core all tell the same story: we can fuck up.

It was the last panel I attended, though--Have We Lost the Future?--that I think put an endcap on the whole experience. In a way, it served as a bookend complementing the Dangerous Visions panel in its historical focus. About midway through, panelist Willie Siros made a statement that bowled me over, that the space age "came and went" in his lifetime. I suppose this is true if you define "space age" to mean "humans landing on Luna." In every other dimension, though, I think things have been accelerating, and the speed of change isn't letting up. As I write this, it's only been a few hours since I watched, live, the launch of a rocket from a webcam attached to its side as it left the atmosphere, built by a company whose CEO has made it clear that he intends to die on Mars. One of the Voyager probes has left the solar system. We've seen 4 Vesta up close and there discovered an equal to Olympus Mons. We have detected nearly one thousand exoplanets!

The Space Age hasn't gone--it's barely even begun!

Here, though, is another potential expression of Worldcon's age issue. The fresh new writers of today are young and of a world in which the lunar missions were all history. We didn't live through them. We didn't expect that they would just be the start and that there would be, say, boots on Mars by 2000. Although we share the science fiction field, our formative experiences are staggeringly different from those who entered the community in, say, the 50s through to the 70s. Likewise, it could be argued that science fiction is still figuring out its place in the cultural sphere--but that place may not necessarily be comfortable to those who were with it in the old days.

What do I think the future holds? I'm not sure. Sooner or later, the cold equations of the actuarial tables demand that younger fans get involved in making Worldcon happen from year to year; the question is how many of those younger fans will be willing to? It's a different world now than it was thirty years ago. Things can change from Worldcon to Worldcon--in my personal experience, I had a good time in the gaming room at Chicon 7 last year, but when I went to the Night Gaming Room at LoneStarCon 3, I found a room with a few tables covered in sheets and absolutely nothing else.

The question of what Worldcon would be in future years hung heavily over the Site Selection battle. For the first time in years, there was more than one site with an active bid: in fact Orlando, Spokane, and Helsinki all vied to host the 73rd World Science Fiction Convention in 2015. Parties rich in Finnish flavors rocked the Marriott Rivercenter to its foundations two nights in a row, and the Orlando team struggled valiantly for a convention that promised openness and low cost, for the price of holding it at Disney World during the height of hurricane season, but once the votes were counted it went to the one few had expected--Spokane, Washington.

Personally, I'd expected the real fight to be between Helsinki and Orlando. However, since Worldcon Site Selection runs on Australian rules balloting--that is, you mark your choices 1, 2, and 3, the candidate with the least 1 votes gets knocked out and their voters' 2 votes redistributed, and so on--it became clear that there were two camps: the people who wanted a Worldcon in Helsinki, and the people who wanted Worldcon to stay in the United States. Helsinki got more #1 votes than anyone at first, but when Orlando was knocked out of the running, their voters broke for Spokane over Helsinki by nearly a 4 to 1 margin. What made it so heartbreaking was that Helsinki lost by thirty-five votes. THIRTY-FIVE!

It doesn't surprise me, in retrospect--because Spokane always struck me as the "safe" bid. Helsinki offered the chance to bring Worldcon to an area of the world that had never had it before, and with the 2014 Worldcon being held in London, affored the opportunity for a European Worldcon fandom to arise. Orlando offered a revolutionary take on Worldcon, with low price and openness to new things, even if their latest bid artwork gave the impression they were looking to turn Worldcon into a mini-Dragon Con. Spokane... Spokane offered something unchallenging.

I'm sure that Sasquan, the 2015 Worldcon, will still be a cool thing, and I've already paid for my membership. Nevertheless, I can't help but think that it says something about the Worldcon community that, when presented with options for the new and for revitalization, it went for the safe and the familiar.

Previous Convention Reports

1 comment:

  1. With respect to the site selection, Orlando's bid would have put it in direct competition with Dragon Con, the East Coast's big yearly con for younger geeks, which was slated for the same weekend. That would have placed it at odds with its spoken goal. I know that my girlfriend, who is hugely into the cosplay community but is also an SF book agent, would have solidly bailed on the Orlando Worldcon.

    I loved the Finns dearly, but the problems with the aging of fandom are particularly prevalent here in America, and moving the con to Europe two years in a row (London then Finland) would have made it even less relevant to younger fans in the US for a longer time.

    Now, from my looking about, there are three "traditional" convention regions which are currently vibrant and prone to attracting a more energetic crowd. Those are Boston (of this I speak via firsthand experience), Minnesota (heard by way of rumour), and Seattle (enough has been heard of the Biohazard and Cult of Scott Bakula parties to make me girlfriend and me super excited about risking a plane ticket to go to to Norwescon next Aprl!).

    The upcoming Spokane Worldcon is close enough geographically but not too close in time (as Orlando's would have been) to have crossover with a fanbase interested in a wider range of geek interests. Obviously, of course, placement is only part of the solution, but we're definitely not in a decidedly worse place for fan outreach than we would have been at the other potential sites.

    Of course, it's the only of the three option that will enable the two of us to go, so there is bias in my assessment. But rest assured that if I go, you can totally hop around in my jumping stilts or play with my hoops or whatnot -- I like your style of thinking. :D