How Eastercon and Worldcon fandom
survived lockdown

In 2019 the SARS-CoV-2 virus evolved.
By early 2020 it had spread from Asia to the rest of the World.
In March 2020 much of Europe and N. America went into lockdown.
Yet SF fan activity continued.  Caroline Mullan reveals how.

 

Quick links to sections below:-
                    The world went into lockdown and SF fandom carried on
                    What happened to the Eastercon and other UK conventions?
                    What happened to the Worldcon, CoNZealand?
                    The GUFF Delegate Who Was the Somebody Who Could Do Something
                    What’s happening about conventions elsewhere?
                    References and Acknowledgements

 

The world went into lockdown and SF fandom carried on
In March 2020 the world was forced into lockdown by the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that causes Covid-19.  The speed with which people and countries reacted to the developing pandemic varied.  Italy led the way on 9th March.  In the UK the government made its first official request to stay at home from the evening of Monday 16th, and followed this up with the force of law from the 23rd.  In the US California led the way, issuing the first Stay at Home Order on Friday March 20th.  New Zealand, to be the venue for the year’s Worldcon banned international travel on 19th March and locked down nationwide on the 25th.

Many fans around the world had seen the virus coming and started modifying their public behaviour before lockdowns started to take hold.  One of the first fruits of this was Concellation 2020, which sprang up on Facebook on 13th March, founded by Christopher Ambler and Craig Glassner as a forum for letting off steam as fans started to stay at home.  Within 24 hours the group had over a thousand members, and at time of writing it has over 30,000 from all over the world, making jokes, exchanging information, displaying art, cosplay and merchandise, raising funds for charity, and discussing all things fannish.  This was an early example of the many new online groups and forums that have been springing up to allow fans to socialise, exhibit and share their creativity and thoughts from lockdown.

SF fandom was very quick to start organising virtual events to replace the regular meetings and conventions now inhibited by guidance from their various governments.  Filkers set up the first international Festival of the Living Rooms on Facebook on 19th March 2020, followed by a variety of events allowing performers to collaborate using Facebook, Zoom and other platforms.  In Australia the Victorian Discworld Klatch, one of a network of Terry Pratchett fan clubs around the country, rapidly organised a programme of online events including quizzes, interviews, craft sessions and a costume party, all via Zoom, while continuing with plans to participate in the Worldcon.  On April 2nd Alison Scott (of whom more later) hosted the traditional London First Thursday (the London SF Circle) meeting via Zoom, welcoming fans from around the world.  This was the first of the many UK pub and café meetings that are now running online using a variety of platforms, while the London Science Fiction Association organises film ‘watchalongs’ using the film sharing site twoseven.xyz.  In the US many clubs, including NESFA (New England Science Fiction Association) and LASFS (Los Angeles Science Fiction Association), are running online business meetings and reading groups.

A welcome development has been the ease with which people formerly unable to attend events due to distance, mobility difficulties or lack of means have been able to join their friends and fellow fans at social events online.  Rather less welcome is the (hopefully temporary) loss of some long-term members of our communities who are finding they are not comfortable with, or lack the technical resources at their home, to participate using the new virtual methods.

 

What happened to the Eastercon and other UK conventions?
As the UK moved into lockdown, UK science fiction fans had been busy planning for Concentric, that year's annual British National Science Fiction Convention also known as the Eastercon, scheduled to be held in Birmingham 10th-13th April 2020.  A high degree of uncertainty and worry attended all planning, as Committee and venue waited for government action to force their hands and cancel their contract.  The convention was finally cancelled on the 21st of March, less than three weeks before the event.

The committee had too little time to organise a virtual event, but did organise a Bidding Session online to discuss Eastercon bids for 2021 and 2022.  This resulted in ratification of ConFusion in Birmingham as the 2021 Eastercon, and general relief that planning is in hand for 2022.

Meanwhile, Eastercon fans organised a virtual thank-you card for the Concentric Committee, who had to manage such a thankless and frustrating situation, and a virtual Toast via a Facebook group to Fan Guest of Honour Alison Scott.  Disappointed, but undaunted, and with a few weeks experience having shown that Zoom provided a practical tool for online socialising, Alison and other fans sprang into action, and a four-day Zoom party provided an online hangout over Easter weekend for some of the fans frustrated at losing their annual celebration.

Other UK conventions planned for 2020 have met various fates: so far very few have opted to run virtual events.  TitanCon in Belfast and FantasyCon in London are among those that have cancelled altogether.  Some have postponed in hope to 2021: Satellite 7 in Glasgow, originally slated for May 2020,is now scheduled for February 2021, and Novacon 50 (Britain's second longest running SF convention series) in Birmingham for November 2021.

 

What happened to the Worldcon, CoNZealand?
The big question of the year was what would happen to the 78th World Science Fiction Convention, CoNZealand, scheduled for 29th July – 2nd August 2020 in Wellington, New Zealand.  When New Zealand closed its borders in March it was obvious that the Worldcon four months later could not happen as planned.  All eyes were on the international committee as it deliberated, and on 15th April the committee announced it would collaborate with The Fantasy Network (a free-to-watch video sharing service, based in Seattle, USA ) “to bring the 78th Worldcon to an interactive, virtual platform”.  Then they went ahead and did it.

This was an enormous amount of work, requiring new decisions, skills and approaches deployed at very short notice to allow the convention to happen.  All credit and applause is due to the many volunteers from many countries who put in the hard work necessary to run a hugely complex international event at very short notice.

Someday someone will write a book about organising the virtual Worldcon from a standing start, and what was done, and why, and how.  Some of the volunteers who had previously been involved decided not to continue following the change of focus, others pivoted into new roles, and whole new teams were recruited with skills that had not previously been needed.  Some members who had joined earlier dropped out, either doubting the virtual format or unable to manage activities to a schedule that conflicted with lives in other timezones, but new members joined who had not previously been able to consider attending.  Ultimately, the convention had about 2,300 attending members, of whom at least 1,900 participated with the event itself via the various platforms.

The convention was scheduled on New Zealand time. It used Zoom to participate in and The Fantasy Network to stream programme events; Discord for social interaction; and Wordpress for the convention members’ website, where dealers, artists and exhibits were available to members via their browser.  In addition, for fun, a 3D model Exhibits Hall was developed and offered, again in the browser, where members could stroll the art show and dealers tables, encounter other members represented by their CoNZealand badges, and click to visit artists’ and dealers’ webpages in another tab.  Based on the original plan for the TSB Arena in Wellington, this was decorated with banners (such as ‘The World Science Fiction Society’ under whose auspices the Worldcon is run and which is hung at every Worldcon, and ‘Black Lives Matter’), art by Guest of Honour Greg Broadmore, the major constellations of the southern sky, and a spectacular colossal squid. Grenadine, the software platform used to organise and publish the programme, was enhanced at short notice to allow the convention to manage virtual programme events and displays.

Twenty-nine dealers and fifteen artists exhibited.  There were also over twenty displays covering Guests of Honour, New Zealand fan history, culture and libraries; the Hugo, Sir Julius Vogel and Big Heart awards’ bases and histories; and the Fan Funds roadshow.

The Opening Ceremony was addressed by Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand.  Guests of Honour Mercedes Lackey and Larry Dixon participated via Discord.  A virtual Hugo Awards Ceremony with George R. R. Martin as Toastmaster comprised a mix of pre-recorded presentations and live-streamed contributions, and was publicly broadcast in its 3h 35m entirety via The Fantasy Network as a live-stream and which is still available.  The Fan Funds Auction used a Discord channel to raise NZ$2,190 for GUFF, TAFF, DUFF and SF FANNZ, with additional funds raised after the convention on the TAFF Facebook page.  Worldcon Site Selection ballots for 2022 were available online to elect the 80th Worldcon, which will be Chicon 8 in Chicago, USA.

Just two events were organised with people actually present in person: the business meeting of the The World Science Fiction Society, as mandated by its constitution; and the Sir Julius Vogel Awards presented by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Association of New Zealand (SFFANNZ).  A majority of all programme items were recorded as they ran, and recordings were made available to members via the Fantasy Network for a week after the convention before being archived.

The convention was a very public event.  Although its own platforms were available only to members, very many people – both members and others - engaged from afar, before, during and after the event, on Twitter and Facebook, on news- and blogsites, and in contemporaneous podcasts.  Much discussion was around how well the various platforms worked, or, as was inevitable, at times failed.  Some members had trouble logging on; about 1,900 used Grenadine, Wordpress and Zoom; about 1,700 logged on to Discord, and those that succeeded still had some difficulties interacting with other members.  It is an inevitable feature of the internet that sound and visual quality was sometimes poor; and a feature of the current state of the various technologies in use that integration between platforms was not always all that could be desired.

More traditionally, “all fandom was plunged into war” on several counts.  The Site Selection pitting the (ultimately failed) bid from Jeddah in Saudi Arabia against Chicago, USA to run the 2022 Worldcon was discussed in the context of human rights abuses in both countries.  Some felt that opportunities to showcase New Zealand science fiction and fantasy on an international stage had been missed.  Others were similarly concerned about opportunities for Hugo Award nominees.  Most notably and acrimoniously, there has been criticism of the presentation of the Hugo Awards, to the extent that two versions of the ceremony, with and without Toastmaster George R. R. Martin, are available to view online.  A common theme in these discussions is the extent to which SF fandom, and the Worldcon in particular, makes welcome its new participants from round the world and traditionally marginalised communities.  This welcome is perhaps compromised by a continuing willingness on the part of some individuals to honour and perpetuate its history of racist and discriminatory practices and people.

 

The GUFF Delegate Who Was the Somebody Who Could Do Something
One of the Worldcon’s most notable attendees was this year’s Eastercon Fan Guest of Honour and GUFF delegate: Alison Scott – and she kindly agreed to be interviewed for this article.  Alison’s fannish career encompasses winning Fanzine Hugos as part of the Plokta collective, chairing and staffing numerous Eastercons, and staffing Worldcons, most notably as Deputy Division Head for Hospitality for Loncon 3, the 2014 Worldcon.  Along with John Coxon and Liz Batty, she has a podcast, Octothorpe dedicated to commentary on science fiction fandom.  And since lockdown she has been a prime facilitator of fannish activity online.  All of this perfectly fitted her for the role of GUFF delegate.

GUFF – the Gone Under/Get-Up-and-Over Fan Fund – was founded in 1979 and exists to provide funds to enable well-known fans from Australasia and Europe to visit each other's national (or other) conventions and to get to know each other's fandoms better.  The 2020 race for a delegate to CoNZealand was launched in 2019, and the result announced in April 2020, when it was already clear the winner would not be able to travel in July.  Alison had already been disappointed as the Eastercon Guest of Honour, due to lockdown cancellation, now it seemed she was to be deprived of another opportunity.

Alison, who works from home running her own small business, has health conditions that meant the government advised her to minimise trips out of the house.  She thus found that, along with her planned trip, her social life of meetings, parties and gigs had vanished, and she needed new ways of socialising online.  She discovered that she had the motivation and the ability to help fandom develop its social occasions in the virtual world.  Or, in her words, she was the “somebody who could do something” about all of this.  Not content with her podcast and facilitating online occasions, Alison embarked upon a virtual GUFF trip.  Virtual travel allowed her to visit multiple time zones across Australia (including Eucla, with its special quarter hour time zone) and gradually shift her sleep patterns to New Zealand time to participate fully in the virtual Worldcon.

Via her computer, her Oculus Quest 3D viewer, and her various hosts’ computers and phones, Alison met and visited with fans in Perth, Adelaide, Hobart, the Blue Mountains and Wellington, toured Sydney, climbed Uluru, and visited an alpaca farm.  At the Worldcon itself she hosted parties, presented a Hugo by livestream, ran the Fan Funds auction, took part in panel discussions, and sold badges and t-shirts via a webpage in the virtual exhibits’ hall.  Fandom was fortunate in its GUFF delegate, because no one person could have done more in a virtual world to promote the fund or support the Worldcon.

Alison anticipates producing a trip report based on her virtual trip, but also hopes to be able to take an actual, traditional trip ‘down under’ in person as soon as travel conditions allow.

 

What’s happening about conventions elsewhere?
Around the world the majority of conventions planned for 2020 have also been cancelled or postponed, but some very successful conventions have already been organised online.  In May the Maryland Regional Science Fiction Convention, Balticon 54, and WisCon 44 in Madison ran programmes of panels, talks, watch parties, filking, films, gaming and social events using a variety of platforms including Zoom, Discord, Twitch, YouTube and Second Life. Balticon opted to be a free event, open to all comers; WisCon was open only to registered members. Freed from the need to manage the contractual and logistical aspects of meeting in person, fandom has also been quick to organise new virtual events. Claire Rousseau and team created CoNZealand Fringe, without CoNZealand’s endorsement, in the tradition of Edinburgh Fringe and other international collateral events, “as a complementary programming series to the annual science fiction convention Worldcon”; its programme of 15 items is still available online at www.conzealandfringe.com.  A one-day multinational convention, Reconvene 2020, was organised for up to 700 people on 15th of August by NESFA (the New England Science Fiction Association). There was also the NASFIC (that is held in the USA when the Worldcon goes overseas) on 21st-23rd August 2020 (see its Facebook page), Dragoncon 3rd-7th September.

Virtual conventions to replace planned events in 2020 included Futuricon the Croatian Eurocon on 2nd-4th October.  Planned from the start as a virtual convention is FutureCon on 17th-20th September (see https://futuricon.eu/), organised by a multi-national group from Brazil and Italy, with speakers from over twenty countries. Finally, there is FIYAHCon on 17th – 18th October.

British Eastercon and Worldcon fandom seems to be surviving the lockdown very well.  But nobody quite knows what the future holds.  As fannish organisers look forward to 2021 in a world that continues to grapple with the coronavirus, new announcements arrive daily.  Postponements and cancellations are being announced, but so are virtual events of all kinds, as well as a handful of in-person events going ahead as originally planned but with social distancing.  Meanwhile, new groups of fans are forming, conversations are happening, new tools are being developed, and new forms of events are being designed as everyone get to grips with tools and platforms for virtual meetings of all kinds.  One thing is for sure: sf fandom will continue to have fun.

 

References and Acknowledgements
A partial but up-to-date list of conventions and other gatherings, with links, indicating whether they are virtual, cancelled, or postponed is available on the Ansible website at https://news.ansible.uk/#cons

The World Science Fiction Society website is a good jumping off place for news and information about Worldcons, NASFIC, and the Hugo Awards, past, present and future: www.wsfs.org

Further information, discussion and links about all matters discussed in this article are readily available on www.file770.com, locusmag.com, cheryl-morgan.com and other fannish news sites, while on Facebook the JOF (Journeymen of Fandom) group hosts knowledgeable and voluminous discussion.

Thanks to Henry Balen, Steve Davies, Suzie Eisfelder, Alison Scott and others for actual and offered help with this article.

Caroline Mullan

 

Caroline Mullan is a long time SF fan, conrunner, reviewer and fan writer, whose work has appeared in Banana Wings, Journey Planet, and SF² Concatenation.  She can be found at carojmullan.wordpress.com.

 


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