Convention Review

2003 Worldcon Review, Torcon 3

2003 saw the World SF Convention have one of its comparatively rare manifestations outside of the US. Jonathan Cowie reports.

Click here for Jonathan's personal account of the convention as opposed to this general report

Click here for Concatenation's tourist guide to Toronto


Over 4,000 registered for, and more than 3,646 had picked up their programme packs two thirds through, the 61st Worldcon, Torcon 3 in Toronto from August 28th to September 1st, 2003. That non-Canadian participants made it is no thanks to the organising committee whose Progress Report 6 was posted just 10 days beforehand and which was delivered to much of western Europe (including the London region) on the day before the convention (while many of us from overseas were already en route and even if we were not, we would not have had time to read the PR and modify preparations accordingly). Consequently a number of the transatlantic participants were unable to benefit from the PR's articles such as: 'Arriving by Air?', 'From the Airport to the Convention Centre' and 'Hotel Accessibility'. This failure was just one example of an embedded communication problem, worthy of eastern Europe, that was to dog the convention and haunt the committee at the 'feedback' event. Indeed those who dropped by the convention centre to help set up, and register early, found that whilst they could receive their convention packs, their programme souvenir booklet would not be available until mid-convention. This early registration service was further incomplete as packs were only available for non-programme participants: those of us on the programme - and who might have usefully checked panel details, where the programme item was to be etc, - had to wait until the next day. Ho hum.

The convention centre itself comprised three floors and was fairly close to two of the main hotels being used. The ground floor was used for registration and small (100 - 150 seated) programme rooms, the basement had more small programme rooms, while the top floor featured the exhibition area, dealers room and main hall: the latter to be used for the main events (the extravaganzas) such as the Hugos. Unlike at European Worldcons, there was no bar area, though a few of us (including authors Harry Harrison, Dave Langford, Diane Duane and Peter Morwood) found the Texas bar/restaurant opposite the centre most welcoming; I had a number of 'on-the-house' drinks there. Other than the lack of on-site bar, the venue was great and ideally suited to a Worldcon.

The programme itself consisted of up to 33 (though 14 or 15 was most common) parallel programme streams and panels in turn overly dominated these; there were few solo presentations other than Guest items and author readings. Most of these panels worked and this was largely due to the vetting process the committee used for programme participants and the timetable panel descriptors. Indeed the few that failed (that I attended) did so because the panel descriptor was ambiguous, but this was comparatively rare, and only one failed due to panel incompetence (on writing (children's) stories). (Although on the final day I did attend a panel on 'Judges' which from the descriptor I took to be a 2000AD panel, but was actually on masquerade judging (why didn't they use the 'm' word in the descriptor?).

Examples of some of the 300 or so panels included: Written SF: 'Beyond the first draft', 'Day jobs for writers', 'Writing the extraordinary realistically', 'Issues in translating SF', 'Gender biases among SF magazine editors and publishers', 'Publishers and editors views on what sells', and 'SF vs fantasy erotica: Who has the best sex?'Cinematic: 'Adaptations: Not faithful enough or too faithful', 'Exploring the Matrix', 'Books vs movies: Should they be compared', 'Anime genres', 'SF film literacy', 'Hollywood: The Twilight Zone', 'Top 10 SF films of the 20th century (survey results)', 'Dinosaurs: Reality vs the movies'. Media: 'Faster Than Light' (the radio series), 'Space: The imagination station', 'Why did Firefly fail and Angel succeed?', 'Klingon foreheads, dog faces and magma demons', 'The Babylon 5 story arc: Success or failure?', 'Dr Who 40th anniversary', 'Hollywood: Beauty and the Beast', and 'Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Serious literature?', Science: 'Design an alien species', 'Artificial intelligence or artificial sentience', 'Hazards of space', 'Genetically engineered pets', 'The Royal Astronomical Society', 'Direct computer-brain interface', 'The integration of science and religion in SF', 'The Mars Society', 'Artificial life forms and their rights', 'This is a space exploration program (sic)', 'Evolution for the enthusiast', 'Imagining planets', 'Jumping the species barrier: SARS', and 'Bringing science to life through SF'.

Much complaint could be heard day-1 levied against the committee for the apparently extensive programme time-and-place changes from those given the programme timetable booklet. But was this entirely fair? All five of my panels took place as per the original schedule and two others (for which I specifically used the timetable booklet as it had an appendix to track people down) also took place as per the original schedule as did three out of four other programmed panels. A semi random ten out of eleven can't be bad? Though a number of folk told me that I was very lucky... This is not to say that there were not problems, but I don't believe that they were as bad as some made out. What was an oversight (apart from the domination of panels) was the lack of theme streaming. All too frequently fantasy items were up against fantasy items, science against science, fanac against fanac etc, etc,. This could have so easily been avoided and it illustrated the lack of thought that one really does expect in an event of over three years gestation. Another problem was tech support for small programme items necessitating anything other than microphones: often tech support had to be tracked down when slide projectors or PowerPoint was used. One really big failure was the film stream. This was unimaginative, poorly described (even basics such as year, director etc., were missing from the schedule despite there being space) and so this stream was barely attended. I dropped in on the films on three occasions on different days to find attendance in (the low) single figures in a hall that could have easily held a couple of hundred. Part of the problem was the committee's but to be fair another part is that of Worldcon tradition. It is ironic that while SF is a genre of change, the future, encountering the different etc., that it the SF Worldcon is so tradition bound. You see 'traditionally' Worldcons show the 'Dramatic Presentation' Hugo nominations even though logic dictates that if they have been nominated then many of us with an interest have already seen them: and of course this year we had the 'short form' nominations to get through as well. If, for instance you are not that interested in Buffy The Vampire Slayer would you go to see an episode at the Worldcon? Arguably not unless it was the winning short-form nomination and then you might just go out of curiosity. Conversely if you are a Buffy fan then you will have seen the episode and probably have a video or DVD and so would not give up Worldcon time to with the episode. But unfortunately there is this Worldcon tradition so the criticism of poor film choice cannot solely be laid at this specific committee's door (other than, of course, no Committee should dogmatically adhere to tradition without good cause). What appears to have happened is that successive Worldcon committees have failed to realise that for much of the past decade this screening-nominations tradition has become doubly redundant as most households now have video or DVD as well as satellite or cable TV (future Worldcon-runners please note). Much could be learned from, today's successful SF film fests that focus on either old B&W movies for which the experience of a reel-to-reel projection showing is these days very rare, or alternatively on genre movies that failed to attract a sufficiently strong public following to stay long on the circuit and so hardly seen, or on SF art-house movies that again few have come across, or a combination of the afore. All of these, because of the market, are cheap to hire and would provide a genuinely rare SF experience worthy of a Worldcon: certainly comparable to other uncommon experiences which make Worldcons worth attending such as, for example, being able to personally meet such a wide range of authors and specialists in areas of genre interest or for that matter fans from so many countries. Yes, there is a case for showing the film nominations as these have rarely had a satellite, let alone a terrestrial airing, prior to the Worldcon. But for the short form, just show the winner the evening or day after the Hugo ceremony and forget the rest. Anyway, Torcon's film stream was poorly described, unimaginative, and dominated by material we've either seen before or with which we simply weren't interested. The viewing numbers spoke for themselves.

Then there were the so-called 'extravaganzas'. At which point of a Worldcon your intrepid reporter inevitably finds something else to do usually involving people and consumables. Opening and closing ceremonies have little appeal for me, other than for the former in my early days for finding out about the Guests. Masquerades and the Hugo (World Science Fiction Achievement) Award ceremonies have long since lost their appeal. They are invariably overly long and over-managed. Locus usually has a colour spread of the best masquerade entries and as for the Hugos I am really only interested in the bottom line: who won what. Now, I was vaguely tempted to attend the Hugos. This was my fifth Worldcon, having attended all the European Worldcons since 1979, and I've never been to the Hugo ceremony. So in advance I checked out where it was to be held: a soulless hall (reminiscent of a school gymnasium laid out with rows of folding chairs with only the desks missing for examinations). Worse, it appeared that there was to be only one entrance and one separate exit fed by a single escalator which meant that getting people in and out by itself would take half an hour each way and that assuming an almost military-like precision of operation. Assuming the ceremony itself would last for well over an hour (it did) and the best part of half an hour to get in and out, then I was contemplating being tied up for two and a half to three hours. So I decided to give the Hugos too a miss. Both these decisions were, as far as I was concerned, wise (though I'm sure that a number thought the time well spent, and good on them for that). The Hugos did go on, and - since I was in the bar/restaurant opposite e the convention centre - I can say that it was about half an hour from when the first person emerged at the end to the last gaggle (so it did take the best part of an hour just to fill and then empty the hall).

For those who did go to the Hugos there were the usual preliminaries of associated awards to get through before the main course. Here regulars will know that Dave Langford (UK) has had his share of 'Best Fanzine' and 'Best Fan Writer' Hugos but normally gets a phone call back in England from some Brit who accepts his Award on his behalf at a US Worldcon after the ceremony. Of course this is usually 3.00 am back in Blighty. This time Dave did not have his sleep disturbed as he was at Torcon to accept the Award in person - though he did confide to me that he had thought of phoning one (fellow) Reading-based fan who sometimes picks up the award for him (and who was also at Torcon). The other win causing a small, but noticeable ripple, was Robert Sawyer getting what was described as "the big one" for 'Best Novel' for Hominids (see the review elsewhere on this site). Now with every respect for Robert Sawyer, a number of whose novels I have read with some enjoyment, my money was not on this to win. Indeed if I had to place a bet then it would have been on Brin's Kil'n People which not only took a solid SF trope (androids) and developed it (photocopying one's sentience into an android) and then coming up with a cracking tale (a detective yarn), but it included so many throw-away spin-off concepts that it is truly a genre treasure, as well as having the core concept right at the heart of the plot. Conversely Hominids science fiction concept (of an alternate universe where Neanderthals survived to a 20th century developing counterpart technology) though it provided plenty of well-researched colour, and a quantum computer solely as the means of transferring the protagonist from one universe to the other, it was not closely bound with the plot's resolution: girl loses boy relative, boy finds another girl, boy loses said girl, and relative regains boy relative. This is not to demean Sawyer's novel which many hard SF fans (including myself) enjoyed but its competition was fierce with novels around like Brin's Kil'n People, or even China Mieville's The Scar of which I heard much praise from a number of others. Having said this I (along with others on the Concat team) can understand Hominids winning the World Science Fiction Achievement Award far more easily than I can say Lord of the Rings or Buffy (the long and short form 'Best Dramatic presentation' Hugo winners) as, excellent as they may be, these are fantasy and not SF! Still, the thing about the Hugo is that it is the vote of SF readers and they spoke, so congratulations Robert, I truly hope that this spurs you on to bigger and better things, and thank you for the interview.

Missing the fancy dress masquerade was also a good move judging from the copious complaints to be heard the following day. The event was 45 minutes late starting and then half way through there was another programme item squeezed in, a fashion show of Canadian costumes from past conventions and then the rest of the masquerade took place. Hours later by the end of the show - but before the judging - the audience, now restless, departed leaving mainly just the contestants to attend the prize giving. Of the comments I heard, much praise went to the young entry of a child medusa who caught sight of her reflection and pretended to turn to stone. Apparently she went quite convincingly rigid as she was carried off. However there were bitter complaints about the fashion show's scheduling and the delays.

Now from all the above you might be forgiven to think that the convention was a complete disaster. This was not so. OK, so the Progress Reports could have been more informative and the last one delivered a couple of months earlier rather than too late. True the registration was a mess and the absence of programme books for a couple of days a pain. Yes, the film programme was dire and the extravaganzas overly long. Agreed, the convention lacked a clear social focus without a bar. Granted the programme was panel-dominated, homogeneous, and subject to a number of on-the-day changes. But did this mean that Torcon was a disaster? Well possibly if you view the event formulaic and no doubt many leading Worldcon fans may grumble (well, boy they did). But did the average attendee have a good time? Despite the problems, smiles, good will and jollity abounded. Virtually all the whinging I heard came from conrunning fans: fair enough they have their standards and my own are pretty high. The only SF professionals I heard complain were those who failed to get into the all-too-often locked World SF Suite: as I found out when one invited me to it. But the convention on the ground largely worked and that is surely what counts. True there were genuine disappointments in that the dealers room had fewer dealers than even, say, at a European Worldcon, largely because hardly any of the US regulars felt it worth the administrative hassle of crossing the border.

Having said this many of the above problems were easily side-stepped by us mortals. The poor film programme meant we did other things. The scheduling changes were sorted by a copious supply of daily updated timetable sheets. The lack of availability of the souvenir books was not a problem provided you received and hung on to your blue ticket until the middle of the convention. The lack of a convention bar (European style) simply meant that the convention lacked a focus for meeting, but there were alternatives and the few rendez-vous I arranged all worked. The exhibition area and fan stalls seemed to be well presented and attended. Both the internet room, the help desks and the green room were hugely successful (particularly well done the volunteers here). The concentration of official room parties on just two floors of one hotel was another success. (The Japan and Columbus parties for the 2007 Worldcon bid were different but as interesting. While the European (Glasgow) 2005 Worldcon party was excellent, and lubricated with fine malt scotches.) As for Toronto, it is largely a clean and safe a city (despite a surprising number of down-and-outs). Above all, the atmosphere throughout the con was friendly. The late night socialising was superb. Hey, I had a great time. I do hope that Canadian fandom learns from their mistakes. I am sure that they will and so I would have no problem in attending another Worldcon in that city. My sincere thanks to all the volunteers and those whom I encountered who helped make it an enjoyable event.

Jonathan Cowie

Click here for Jonathan's personal account of the convention as opposed to this general report

Click here for Concatenation's tourist guide to Toronto

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