Seasoned Worldcon attendee Peter Tyers
I have been attending World Science Fiction Conventions (Worldcons) for about forty years. For most of that time I have found the experience well worthwhile; I got to meet and listen to many authors, to experts in the fields of science, to film makers, and to so many others - in short, ‘my heroes’. I came away feeling stimulated, that I had learnt many interesting things about many aspects of life and science, and my mind would be buzzing. I got to meet other fans and many of them; in particular, I made many friends from other countries and from many walks of life. I feel my life has been considerably enriched by all these experiences.
Of recent, though, I have found Worldcons less rewarding.
Oh, the friends (both old and new) are still there, and I still greatly enjoy meeting up with them - but is the charm still there? The excitement? The mental stimulation? Or have they become formulaic and offer little more than repeats of the same old stuff? Especially - are they still worth my money?
Worldcon 76 (San Jose in 2018) gets much negative mention in this article and you may be mistaken into thinking that this is an attack on it. IT IS NOT. However, it was the last Worldcon I attended and illustrates many of the points and concerns I wish to raise. You would, though, be correct in thinking it was the catalyst for actually writing this article, which had already been rumbling round in my mind for a while.
Are they worth the cost?
Take, purely for my most recent example, Worldcon 76 (2018). I paid US$160 (≈£121) for an attending membership and that seems a very reasonable amount for a five-day event. However, Worldcons deliberately attract members from all round the world (the clue is in the ‘World’ bit of the name) and that means that many of its members will have considerable distances to travel and that comes at a high cost to them. By the time I added the cost of travel to California from my home in England and allowed for six nights (bed only!) in one of the convention’s hotels, the basic cost of attendance had shot up to about £2,000 (US$2,640). My spending did not, of course, stop there. There were necessities such as meals; ignoring the expensive menus in the hotels, I found that breakfast in the local cafés came to around $15 (£11.50p) and dinners in nearby restaurants could easily rack up $30-50 (£23- £38) a time. Drinks came to about $3-4 (£2.50p - £3) for a decent coffee and $7 (£5.50p) or more for a decent beer. I found that budgeting up to $100 (£76) a day for ‘nutrition’ was not far off the mark (unless I spent my time scouring the area for the cheapest places and forewent the company of my friends). Then there is shopping; at a convention am I going to ignore the Dealers Room? Not buy any books? No new T-shirts? Not buy any of those other very tempting goodies that no fan should be without? Before I know it, the Dealers Room has racked up another couple of hundred dollars (at least - but so easily more!) And I have not yet mentioned the Art Show and its many temptations.
If attending a Worldcon costs me less than £3,000 (US$3,930), in 2020 money, then I have done well. Think what else I could do with the money! It would be very helpful towards that new car, for example. So I find myself asking the serious question of whether attending a Worldcon represents good value for money given that, like most folks, my finances have limits and there are essential costs of living that must come first. To put it another way, a Worldcon had better provide me with a really great experience and a week’s worth of fun and pleasure if it is to justify its cost.
And, of course, it probably does not stop there. I am more than likely to tack on some tourism while I am ‘over there’ and that is another stack of money - car hire, extra flights perhaps, hotels, more cafés, diners, and restaurants, and maybe a few entrance fees and essential souvenirs (plus, of course, gifts for the folks back home). The extra cost of tourism may add at least another thousand pounds (and quite possibly a lot more). Adding it all up, if I am honest in my accounting, a grand total of £5,000 (US$6,600) is not beyond expectation.
I used to think that Worldcons did offer that value-for-money and I have many very fond memories of some great times and great people. More recently, though, I am doubting that I am getting the same payback as I used to. The events are lacking in originality, becoming too homogenised. The panels in particular often have little to offer these days; so many are lacklustre and feature mediocre panellists discussing uninteresting subjects. People are still a joy to meet up with but the ‘bang for my buck’ it is not there like it used to be.
Size of venue
Having a large enough venue is a necessity. Not only that, but it needs the right mixture of room types and sizes, and that is not easy to find. Having only lots and lots of small rooms is not the answer as there will be large events, such as the Hugo Awards Ceremony, which will attract at least half the members (i.e. thousands). Having just a few very large rooms is also not the answer as there are many worthwhile programme items which will appeal to only a small audience (albeit a very keen one). And of course there the medium-sized items which will require a room that is not too small but not too big.
Loncon 3 (London in 2014) suffered greatly from the lack of room space; ExCeL’s Convention Centre had space for only about two and half thousand in its meeting rooms yet the convention attracted nearly eight thousand attendees (a problem foreseen in advance). Very fortunately its Fan Village was not only a Very Good Idea but it was huge and swallowed up many of the ‘dispossessed’ who could not get into programme items. Worldcon 75 (Helsinki in 2017) also suffered from a lack of room space and the ‘Room Is Full - Please Do Not Enter’ sign outside almost every programme item became infamous. I did not attend Dublin 2019 but from the outset there were warnings that the convention centre was far too small for a Worldcon and afterwards, unsurprisingly, there were many complaints of long queues and folks not getting into items. Dublin 2019 instituted a system for pre-booking entry for specific programme items and I understand that the convention was pleased at how well it worked - but to my mind I should not have to pre-book items at a Worldcon. To me part of the pleasure is in simply going to what I want to and, if I choose to, moving to a different item instead. Pre-booking - yeuk! Where is the fun it that?
Full rooms at Helsinki.
Due to CoVID-19 and the resultant lockdowns around the world, CoNZealand (Wellington in 2020) was run purely online. How well that worked is for others to decide (I, for one, did not attend). Had it happened in the Real World it would have been spread over three sites, each a moderate distance from each other and involving a lot of walking back and forth in the wintertime wind and rain of the ‘windy city’. This was not something I looked forward to and is one reason why I never intended to attend, despite a desire to return to the country and see more of its many wonders.
These days the reliance is on electronic communication and that takes many forms, often with each form having its own particular adherents, and each with its own pros and cons. This introduces a problem - if all the information is to reach everyone (in the way that PRs used to do) then the same information must go out on all channels and, what is more, in a timely manner. This, though, changes the dynamics significantly. Now it is up to the members to pull in the information, to constantly trawl all their social media and other electronic feeds to find new or updated information. It is extremely annoying to find, say, that one did not sign up for something because it was only announced on, say, Facebook, but nowhere else, such as the email alerts one had signed up for. As a member of a convention, I expect to be kept as up to date as everyone else - and I do not expect to have to sign up to the plethora of feeds for This, for That, and for Everything Else, and then to have to constantly trawl through them all. If I miss out on something because I was not following that particular feed then I feel cheated. As I have paid the same membership fee as the other members, I feel really cheated.
It is up to conventions to ensure that all their members are equally informed of everything and, frankly, these days they do not seem to bother. ‘But it was on Faceache’ is likely to be the reply when one complains, even though one had followed their recommendation and signed up for automatic updates on their Twitface feed.
And, of course, there are those who do not have easy access, or even any access, to such services. Failure to ensure an equal distribution of information to all members is a failure of the convention organisers, but far too many hide behind the idea that it is, somehow, the fault of the member if they are not signed up to each and every method of electronic communication. Surprisingly, one much-experienced conrunner was bemoaning to me, over a convention breakfast, of the problems he experienced working on a then-recent Worldcon simply because there was not a good Internet connection in his area.
Please do not think I am against electronic communications - far from it. It is a matter of realising that not everyone is signed up to everything (and, indeed, might have very good reasons for not being signed up), and that not everyone has access to all, if any, services. Furthermore, the more methods of communication there are, the more difficult it is to keep everyone informed and up to date. It is a growing problem and, unless meaningful action is taken, will only get worse - and that is bad for the membership and, if members give up on it, the long-term future of Worldcons.
Some matters are easier solved than others. For example, it is all very well releasing the programme in advance by publishing to Grenadine, but what of those who do not possess a device which runs such apps? Simultaneously publish it as a PDF to the website!
Personally, I find Grenadine to be very useful, especially during a convention as programme changes are so easily updated. However, it also necessary to have the programme on paper as not everyone has a smartphone or a tablet. And do not forget to post programme changes where they can be seen!
Good communication is vital; bad communication is infuriating. All convention committees should remember that they are trying to give their members a good time - not an infuriating one.
Problems - do they learn?
There is no doubt that all Worldcons have had their problems. Any event the size of a Worldcon is a complex beast and is going to have its problems so there really should be no surprise there. However, each should learn from its predecessors and mistakes should not be repeated year after year. Major mistakes should be limited to the unpredictable and perhaps purely local phenomena. Simple mistakes should be learnt from and naturally disappear.
Sticking with Worldcon 76, it certainly had its share of problems and the programme of events was amongst them. The programme organisers made many mistakes, amongst which was the tardiness of finalising the programme. As should be well known to all such organisers, many professionals like to have their commitments finalised at least three months in advance so that they can organise their time around them (meetings with other professionals, etc.), yet that was far from the case. The convention was far from unique in this failure and I have long heard professionals bemoan such occurrences - but this particular Worldcon was tardier than most. The draft programme was only circulated a very few weeks before the event and, following complaints from certain vociferous participants, it was rewritten in a hurry at the very last moment. The programme was so late that some participants only received the final version - which included their commitments - when the convention was already underway.
Registration at Worldcon 76 was another problem. First it was going to open the day before the con started; this was to test the system and at least get a few people registered and out of the way before the next day’s big rush. Then it was not going to open until the next day. Then it did open, but only at the end of the day. There was much obvious confusion amongst those working on it. ‘Well nobody told me that’, ‘I never said to do that and I’m the one running it’, ‘what do you mean it was e-mailed out to everyone - I never got it’, ‘I kept asking to be on that circulation list but she never put me on it’, ‘I was asked last year to do this so I don’t know why he then asked you to do it and didn’t tell me’, and many other complaints that I heard from far too many of the staff trying to cobble it all together in a workable fashion at the last minute. They never did put up many of the necessary signs; the Guest/Participant Registration, for example, was never labelled and its location (or lack thereof) caused confusion most days. I even heard of two Guests of Honour complaining of the problems they had had on arrival with not being expected nor helped when necessary - and what convention does not treat its Guests of Honour with, well, honour?
I could go about Worldcon 76 but, as I said earlier, this is neither a complaint nor an article about that particular con. It just illustrates the sorts of problems which should not exist in this day and age, especially given all the Worldcons there have been and all the accumulated experience that exists in the running of them.
OK, many of the people working on conventions are new to the game - but many are not! Advice and help is there for the asking. What I have seen too often of recent years, though, is the same people in the same senior, or reasonably senior, posts making the same mistakes in the way things are run. Worldcons are not looking at their predecessors and learning what works and what does not. They are not picking up on simple, easily fixed errors. They are perpetuating errors, many of which should never have seen the light of day.
Perhaps part of the problem is those same people who get involved in running Worldcon after Worldcon. Some people are naturally observant and learn by their mistakes, others seem incapable of judging themselves and are doomed to repeat their mistakes time and time again - to the continuing detriment of the conventions’ members. As ‘Mike’ asked ‘Why do they keep making the same mistakes? Why do they never learn?’ To that I would add: why does the senior management never notice? One answer to my question is that sometimes the senior management are amongst those that do not learn, those that do not monitor their own performance, those that do not look, those that simply assume that everything is going well. Simply having done a job many times does not mean one is good at it; repeating the same mistakes year after year is neither progress nor good management.
Beware the organiser who reels off a long string of events they have worked on. Ask yourself not how many events they have run but whether they ran them well?
SMOFS and the Floating Worldcon Committee
SMOFs are the Secret Masters Of Fandom. There is in reality no such organisation, it is a fannish conceit. You do not join SMOFs - you are, or are not, a SMOF. A SMOF is simply somebody who has run a convention at a meaningful position in the event’s organisation and/or has attended a SMOFCon. There are therefore thousands of SMOFs around the world. There is therefore much good advice to be had if one asks the right people for it.
SMOFCon is an annual event where SMOFs gather to discuss convention running. Amongst the programme items at a SMOFCon is the so-called Fannish Inquisition whereby every would-be Worldcon committee puts forward its bid for running their Worldcon and answers the insightful questions of their fellow SMOFs. With the amount of effort and the seemingly never-ending to-ing and fro-ing that goes on with SMOFs and SMOFCon there should almost be a guarantee that every Worldcon could be nothing other than perfectly organised. However, I remain surprised how much can go wrong at a Worldcon given all this expertise.
I sometimes question whether SMOFs actually achieve anything useful or whether they simply spend all their time and efforts on simply being SMOFs and engaging in SMOFing (whatever you may interpret that as being).
There is also the Floating Worldcon Committee, as some refer to it. This, like SMOFs, is not an actual organisation, it is simply a collection of people who not only attend Worldcon after Worldcon but who get involved in running Worldcon after Worldcon. ‘John’ might be Head of Finance at Worldcon 90, Treasurer at Worldcon 91, Purchasing Officer at Worldcon 92, etc., whilst ‘Mary’ might be Deputy Head of Programme at Worldcon 90, Head of Extravaganzas at Worldcon 91, Events Co-ordinator at Worldcon 92, etc.. In other words, although each Worldcon is held in a different place, sometimes in a different country in a different continent, it is often run by substantially the same people.
I personally think that having so many people involved in running Worldcon after Worldcon has given them all a sameness, a drabness; each committee almost being pre-ordained to do what the previous committees did. I believe that what Worldcons need is for each committee to be unique. If a Worldcon is held in, say, Okalahoma then it should be run by people from Oklahoma, not by people from all round the world. Likewise, if a Worldcon is run in Paris it should be run by people from Paris, or at least from France; again, not by the same bunch of people from all round the world. That way each Worldcon would be significantly different, it would have local flavour, it would have new ideas, it would have a vitality. This does not mean that help and expertise should not be sought from those who have it, far from it, but it does mean that the concepts, ideas, and themes would be different and fresh.
I would like to see Worldcons where each has its own character and represents something of its home area rather than simply being the-same-as-last-year-but-in-a-different-place. In fact, I would like to see Worldcons like they used to be - each with its own feel and flavour.
Gender and other political correctnesses - is the Tail wagging the Dog?
I am finding that I am expected to respect a person because of, say, their ethnicity rather than simply because they are a nice person who I naturally respect. I feel I am not free to choose to respect a person because of who they are but must do so because of the group they represent; I have to respect them purely because of their gender, their seχual persuasion, their whatever. This leaves me feeling threatened; at times very threatened. Can I no longer like somebody because of who they are rather than what they are? And, very importantly, can I simply not like somebody because of who they are as an individual without it being taken as an insult to their group? Without the freedom to like, or not like, a person for my own reasons then I feel my fundamental right to hold my own opinion is threatened - and if I am not free to think for myself then what is fandom achieving? Is it really still fandom? Is it worth being a part of?
I have a growing feeling that these groups are taking over fandom and taking all the fun and pleasure out of it, and indeed the simple decency out of it. These days we seem over-concerned with whether there are enough women, enough ethnic minorities, enough genders, etc., etc., etc.. I am even tempted to ask if there are enough small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri? The Worldcon used to be run by fans, for fans; now I wonder if it is being run by gender politicians for gender politicians, by ethnic politicians for ethnic politicians? (Or small furry creature politicians… ?) And, at Worldcon 76, by Hugo short-listers for Hugo short-listers.
Let us take a look at gender in the English language. The first and second person pronouns are delightfully devoid of gender, as is the third person plural; it is only the third person singular that causes a problem. ‘He’ or ‘she’ - the language has no ‘official’ alternatives at the moment; as far as it is concerned one is either male or female. If life were that easy there would be no problems but these days we have to acknowledge that some people regard themselves as having been cast in the wrong gender, some as both genders, some as genderless, and some have other options. Even in normal writing such as reports and manuals it is a problem; how often have I had to use clumsy constructs such as ‘(s)he’ or ‘his/her’? We need a commonly-agreed genderless word but one is not yet forthcoming, though I notice more and more the use of ‘they’ even in official publications. Perhaps that is the answer? Just as ‘you’ can be either singular or plural, perhaps ‘they’ could be either singular or plural?
Fandom delights in being open to all and it needs to stay that way. Everyone must be respectful of others, including those that are ‘normal’. Referring yet again to Worldcon 76 (sadly) we were all faced with a display of intolerance by someone short-listed for a Hugo who insisted on being referred to by a third person singular which does not (to my knowledge) exist in the English language and who then got all uppity when his/her/its/their choice was not automatically used by people that knew nothing of his/her/its/their persuasion, or even of him/her/it/they. He/she/it/they demanded to be respected, and that is fair enough, but how about some respect for the language and acceptance of what it is and its limitations? How about some respect for those who in all innocence did not know? As if that was not graceless and bad enough, the convention felt it had to bow to his/her/its/their demands and expected us all to do the same. I should make it clear that I had never heard of this person before his/her/its/their outcry, and I know nothing about him/her/it/they, but I was appalled that any fan should behave that way, considerably more appalled that someone short-listed for a Hugo should behave that way, and downright deeply, deeply disappointed and saddened that the convention caved in to such demands.
So why am I going on about this? Because I simply expect to be able to attend a Worldcon without worrying about such things. So if I make a mistake in gender identification then I apologise, but if it is not clear to me then I expect the concerned person to be understanding. After all, if I am supposed to be understanding then equally they should be understanding as well! When fandom looses its understanding then it has lost that magic which makes it so special.
I would also like to touch on the way Worldcon 76 (yes, again) bowed down to those short-listed for a Hugo as if they were some kind of gods. Winning a Hugo is a Great Thing but simply being short-listed for one, especially with all the recent problems of Sad Puppies and the like contaminating the process, is much less so. The convention sadly decided to give certain preferences to those short-listed for a Hugo rather than existing winners, despite the fact that existing winners, especially multiple winners, are the heroes we go to see, the people we want to meet, the people we wish to honour. Hugo winners have earned their stripes, those short-listed a for a Hugo for the first time have yet to do so. The same applies to established writers and other professionals; they have proven themselves worthy of our admiration whereas those who are still just starting have not got there yet. At that con I asked one Guest of Honour why they were not giving a kaffeeklatsch and received the reply that they, on asking Programming to arrange one, were told that it was more important for fans to meet those short-listed for a Hugo than long-term, well-known writers. I can sympathise with the deep disappointment in the long-time professional’s voice - especially as I was far from the first to have asked them that question and given them the embarrassment of having to explain that, well, being a GoH is not what it used to be. Indeed, the only Guests of Honour granted a kaffeeklatsch were the fan GoHs (and theirs was actually a literary beer)…
Codes of Conduct - and reasonable behaviour
Somewhere along the line such people started to ‘defend’ themselves by saying that ‘correct’ behaviour was not defined anywhere so how were they to know? They needed to see it in writing! And so the Code of Conduct came about.
Yet the problem with any set of rules, as anyone who has tried to write them will know, is that the more of them you write, the more you realise that not every possible circumstance has been covered: so you need to further increase the number of rules, and this can so easily spiral out of control. I have of recent seen conventions where their posted Code of Conduct is longer than the rest of their website put together. And still there are those who say ‘but there was no specific rule banning the insertion of bananas into electrical sockets’. Where do such Codes end? Just how much has to be defined?
Reading some Codes, I have to ask if anyone has checked their legality? I have seen rules that are in contradiction to one’s rights under law. This, at the very least, makes them unlawful and, of course, any attempt to enforce them is illegal. Since when did conventions think they have the power to supersede the law?
Beware of writing complex Codes of Conduct lest they come back to bite you! If you must have them, make them very simple - such as ‘behave yourself, be nice to everyone, be respectful to everyone - otherwise you will be expelled from the event and without any form of recompense’.
A little after Loncon 3 (the London Worldcon in 2014) I was speaking to one of the convention staff who had been helping resolve personal issues reported to the convention. This person was by profession an expert in such matters, both in terms of dealing with ‘clients’ and the provisions of the law. I enquired as to the nature and number of such issues and any conclusions that could be reached concerning problems some members experienced from other members, provisions could be made by future conventions to aid better ‘behaviour’, and so on. Whilst admitting that there were a few genuine problems, in most cases, the professional explained, ‘there are people out there who need to get a life’.
Personally, being the sort of person that actually reads such things, with some recent conventions I have been so alarmed by the ease with which I could innocently break one of the rules in the Code of Conduct that I have been discouraged from attending. I am afraid that I might be evicted from a convention simply because I did not know there was rule about drinking beer in the same building as someone who might have a moral dislike of yeast. OK, I have made that one up, but I have certainly seen rules that I know I (and nearly everyone else) will break because of their unreasonableness. For example, having with you a camera or other device capable of taking a photograph when in the vicinity of somebody who does not wish to be photographed - in essence that means that if you have a smartphone, tablet, laptop, etc., about your person you could, if only in theory, be evicted from the convention. Yet many conventions these days publish their programmes to the Internet and prefer you to access them online rather than via printing paper copies. But you should not be carrying a device which can take photographs… Catch 22 anyone? Yes, I am perhaps pushing this to its limit for the sake of illustration but there will be somebody out there who will push it to the same limit as justification for their complaint of having been ‘made uncomfortable’ or even, to use the recently popular term, had their ‘mental health’ compromised.
Sadly it seems that long Codes of Conduct are here to stay. With various groups and individuals having adopted conventions as a place they can hang out, along with the desire of some to find insult or umbrage where none was intended, it seems that everything about acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in public places has to be spelt out to them in excruciating detail. What happened to education, thoughtfulness, and willingness to co-exist with others?
CoVID-19 and future Worldcons
What of future years? Will an online stream(s) become normal? Among other possible solutions will members expect, or even demand, online streams for those that cannot get there? As I have said above, travelling to a Worldcon can be very expensive and that alone makes a powerful argument for streaming the programme online. Then there is the environmental argument of reducing all the pollution and carbon dioxide caused by travel as we try to save the world from the climate crisis that is rushing upon us.
If there is a move to substantial online streaming and a consequent reduction in physical attendance, how will that affect the financial aspects of running the event? How will it affect the planning and running of the event? The technology involved does not come free but how much will stay-at-home attendees expect to pay? Or be prepared to pay?
If many would-be attendees stay at home then smaller venues would suffice, and that would make for a greater choice of venues. But how will the event feel for those that physically attend? After all, one of the great aspects of attending a Worldcon is meeting people, hanging out together, getting to know them. I just cannot see that one can properly meet new people online and get to know them to the same level. You just cannot duplicate bumping into people in corridors or sitting down for a beer or a coffee and a good natter. Worldcons could end up with a very different feel.
In conclusion …
My feeling about recent Worldcons is that they just are not what they were; they are lightweight and lacking the intellectual stimulus. They also seem to me to lack the fun that abided in earlier Worldcons. I have heard similar comments from other longstanding fans, but are we looking back on the ‘glory days’ of old, of times of course unknown to newer fans? Are we failing to move with the times, or are newer fans and current organisers unaware of what they are missing? With some professionals commenting similarly, I ask if professionals will still be so keen to attend Worldcons? Will authors, certainly ‘older’ authors, continue to regard them so highly as a way of meeting fans?
For years now there has been a move to media conventions and SF cons could become more marginalised. A Worldcon may get about six thousand members but Dragon Con claims over eighty thousand and the San Diego Comic-Con over one hundred and thirty thousand - Worldcon is very small fry in comparison. Will Worldcons simply fade away over the coming years?
Despite all I have said, I believe that Worldcons will continue because there will always be fans and they love getting together. Irrespective of the organisation, it is difficult not to enjoy oneself when surrounded by friends and so many other fans. It will be interesting over the next few years to see the long-term impact of the pandemic on numbers and the move, at least somewhat, to streaming the programme online. One often hears of organisations and events that they are ‘not what they were’ yet the current members still have a good time - though maybe not, and not realising it, the really good time that their predecessors had.
So, will I go to another Worldcon? I have no plans to do so at the moment but I would not rule it out in coming years if, and I do mean IF , the overall package looks good.