Convention Review

San Jose
The 2018 World SF Convention

The 76th World Science Fiction Convention was held in San Jose,
California, USA, 16th – 20th August 2018. Peter Tyers reports.


As this Worldcon went, I was not sad to see it go.  I had enjoyed Con Jose back in 2002 and was looking forward to returning to the McEnery Convention Centre in downtown San Jose for another good Californian Worldcon - but this one just did not make the grade.

It ran from Thursday 16th to Monday 20th August. The Guests of Honour (GoHs) were Chelsea Quinn Yarbro (literary), Spider Robinson (literary), John Picacio (artist), Frank Hayes (music), and Pierre and Sandy Pettinger (fans). There were also Ghost of Honour Edgar Pangborn and gHost of Honour Bob Wilkins.

San Jose sits at the southern end of the San Francisco Bay and is often regarded as the capital of Silicon Valley. San Francisco Airport (SFO) is not too far away, Oakland Airport (OAK) is closer, and San Jose’s Norman Y. Mineta Airport (SJC) is just down the road, though connections from SFO and OAK are complex and can be time consuming. The convention posted information on getting from the airports to the event but it was fairly late and only on the website, not usefully in an early Progress Report. It was too little, too late, for those who were trying to plan their trips at anything other than the last moment (most book earlier); after all, Worldcon 76 won the bid two years before it happened and many, many folks would start making their plans right back then. Booking flights, especially intercontinental flights, is something best done as soon as possible, as are many other aspects of building what might be a major and expensive holiday around attending the convention.

San Jose has a lot to offer and next time I am in the area I intend to spend a few days going round its museums (including the Tech Museum of Innovation and the Computer History Museum (at nearby Mountain View)) and a repeat trip round the Winchester Mystery House, as well as visiting some of its parks and the zoo. It has a good selection of restaurants and cafés and a wide range of food types; I give special mention to Original Joe’s and thanks to Dante and Mike for their excellent service throughout the convention period. It is pleasant to wander round the downtown area - though you do have to be aware of the new hazard of electrically motorised scooters (like the little ones we used to ride on as kids) which charge round illegally on the pavements with very little or no regard for pedestrians. They are bad enough in the daytime but even worse at night. These and other similar small, electrically powered ‘personal vehicles’ are rapidly becoming a menace in the wider area and oft complained about by the locals; there are calls for them to be banned.

The convention, all bar a few items, was held in the McEnery Convention Centre and this was a good choice. It has a vast hanger-like area which housed the fan areas, Dealers’ Room, Art Show, and Callahan’s Place (the con bar). Most of the meeting rooms were at one end though there were a few at the other end; the walk really was not that far, just two or three minutes. The Main Hall was vast, way more than big enough to take everyone attending the big events. Unfortunately, though, the air conditioning was always too cold and this was especially noticeable when sitting round for any length in areas which were less than crowded.

The two nearest official con hotels were the San Jose Marriott and the Hilton San Jose; these are integrated into either ends of the Convention Centre so, for those staying in one of these, there was no need to go outside. The other official hotels were the (Westin) Sainte Claire (just across the road from the Marriott), the Hyatt Place San Jose (just across the road from the Hilton), the Fairmont (just a few minutes walk away and home to all the parties), with the AC by Marriott being the most distant at about half a mile away (though a straight walk).

From the outset it was obvious to anyone who has any idea of conrunning that there was poor communication within the committee (in the greater sense) and far too much was left to the last minute. Going back to the day when their bid won the site selection vote (August 2016 at MidAmeriCon II in Kansas City), they did not have a ‘live’ website ready to go, just a blog entry by chairman Kevin Roche added to their bid site saying that they had been chosen to run the 2018 Worldcon.  After a while I e-mailed them to ask if, now that were actually going to run a Worldcon, they were going to post any details of the event, such as, say, their Guests of Honour, and they replied to the affect that that would be a good idea and they would get on with it.  It should have been ready to go from Day One!  Indeed, in this day and age, I would half expect their webmaster to launch their ‘winners’ website from his smartphone during the business meeting as soon as the voting results were announced. From then on, I was left wondering if they would get their act together and sadly I do not think they ever really did.

Before I go any further with things that went wrong, let me make it clear that over five thousand people attended the event and greatly enjoyed it. For the average fan, it is difficult to attend such an event and not have a good time.

But let us take a look at a couple of the problems.  First, with hotel booking.  Now that so much is done via the internet, booking a main hotel for the period of a Worldcon has become a scrum with everyone logging on at the earliest possible moment and thousands of bed-nights going in the first hour or two (for this event, I was told eight thousand bed-nights were booked in the first two hours).  Like all members I received an e-mail announcing that hotel booking would open at 1pm Pacific Standard Time the next day so I was sitting at my computer (9 o’clock GMT) waiting for the link to arrive. It popped up at about 9:20 and, credit card in hand, I immediately booked my desired room only to find that the Wednesday night (i.e. the night before the convention officially opened) was already unavailable. I booked what I could and then and there emailed for help concerning the Wednesday night.  Hotel booking was handled on the convention’s behalf by Team San Jose, an organisation which exists to facilitate hotel bookings for such events and which has direct communications with all the major hotels in the area.  Unfortunately, for some utterly inexplicable reason, the convention had decided to open bookings at lunchtime on Wednesday 22nd of November - the day before Thanksgiving - with the result that my e-mail received an automated reply that the Team San Jose office was already closed for the Thanksgiving Weekend and they could not help me until the following Monday - four and a half days away. Yes, *really*!, the convention opened the hotel bookings at the same time as the booking organisation closed for the country’s biggest national LONG weekend!

Hotel woes did not finish there. Shortly before the convention, changed plans meant that I had to cancel a room for one night - only to find that Team San Jose had passed the whole process over to the participating hotels and would no longer help me, telling me to contact the hotel directly.  However, the hotel did not recognise Team San Jose’s Passkey booking reference number and, as it was a group booking, they could not help me either but referred me back to the booking organisation, presumably Team San Jose.  In the end, the convention’s hotel liaison team sorted it out - but it is another example of a problem that should never have arisen.

Back in their early days of bidding, the committee had approached the Marriott and the Hilton (and presumably others) and arranged a block of rooms in each hotel and in all fairness the hotels duly honoured those agreements.  Once the bidding had succeeded, though, none of the hotels were particularly interested in allocating further rooms at convention rates, presumably on the grounds that business was already good and filling them would be no problem, so anybody missing the first batch of rooms was faced with higher prices or finding somewhere cheaper but further away.  Some blocks were later extended a little but neither the convention nor Team San Jose could achieve very much - as one hotel liaison person put it ‘we were rack-rated to death’.

One problem conventions have always suffered from is getting hotels and convention/conference centres to understand the difference between a convention and a conference; the former has members who pay out of their own pocket to attend an event in their own time and for their own pleasure whereas for the latter delegates are sent during work-time and are paid and paid for by their employers.  Surprisingly, this difference so often eludes the providers of such facilities and this often leads to unnecessary difficulties. For this year’s World Convention, Kevin Roche inexplicably always referred to himself as the Conference Chair rather than the Convention Chair, thus adding to such confusions; indeed, some of the official publications also called it a conference.  This confusion really does not help other convention runners and the dichotomy is perhaps symptomatic of the event’s organisational problems.

Also, the convention failed to push information out as they ought to, preferring instead to post to various media and then expected its members to regularly scour such things as their website to see what information had appeared since they last scoured it.  Doubtless, much was posted to twitface and the like but there are many who, for whatever reason, either do not have access to such things or do not wish to be embroiled with them.  I was chatting to a professional media consultant in the con bar and he expressed dismay at the convention’s reliance on its members pulling in information rather than the convention pushing it out to them.  In Ye Days Of Olde, conventions published Progress Reports which actually contained the sort of useful information folks would need to know in advance; they did not rely on members spending hours searching the interweb for it.  Having signed up once for e-mail updates, I expected the convention to send me everything I might wish or need to know.  Instead I found when checking the website during the convention that I should have signed up for this feed and for that feed - now when exactly did each of those appear?  And why have several feeds when surely one should do the job?

In short, I found that the ad-hoc method of putting this here and that there on the website and expecting people to find it was totally inadequate. I am not against websites, far from it as I think they are powerful and very useful tools if used well, but the key is in understanding how to disseminate information well and this convention did it badly. Sadly, I think this is becoming the way of the future and Worldcons will be all the worse for it. From the brief look I have taken at CoNZealand’s website (for the 2020 Worldcon) it looks rather like Worldcon 76’s, and this does not inspire my confidence in that event either.

You may be forgiven for thinking that I am just an old fogie resenting change (my first Worldcon was nearly forty years ago) but I found I was far from the only one making such comments and many of them were from folks noticeably younger than myself. Oft heard comments included ‘why do Worldcons keep making the same [obvious] mistakes, year after year?’ and ‘why do Worldcons never learn from each other?’. To me it seems that many of the mistakes are because organisers have stopped looking in detail at previous events, stopped learning from others’ mistakes, and have decided to start from a position of optimism and continue on that path. I also heard ‘a triumph of distributed convention running, conference calls, and endless e-mails’ in a voice that made it clear that the experienced conrunner concerned meant exactly the opposite; that conventions should be run by groups of people who actually live close to each other and frequently meet in person. These days there seems to be a belief that having the right software and concentrating on websites and social media is all that is required to run a good convention - believe me, there is far more to it than that!

But enough moaning (at least for now).  Let us take a look at the event itself.

The convention reported over four and half thousand full attending members plus nearly eight hundred day members, i.e. over five thousand warm bodies, which is not bad but nothing special (I have twice asked the organisers for the final figures but they have not been forthcoming). What with the fannish areas, Dealers’ Room, etc., the convention centre absorbed the numbers effortlessly. It could seem a little crowded during the tidal surge when folks moved from one programme item to another, but generally the place felt very roomy, indeed quiet at times.  There was plenty of sitting/lounging space scattered all round the building, so finding somewhere for a quiet spot of socialising was never a problem.

There had been a deal of controversy over the programme in the weeks leading up to the event.  Many folks, especially professionals, like to know their commitments at least three months in advance (they have business meetings to arrange and so on) but, despite requests, the programme was only announced shortly before the convention. There was then something of an uproar from some of the participants, often on the lines of ‘is that all I get?’. This resulted in some very red faces on the Programme Team and an admission from the convention that the programme needed rewriting, which was done speedily at the last minute.  When I say ‘at the last minute’, I heard from some programme participants that they only received their final list of commitments after the convention was under way.

Once finalised, the programme had over a thousand items; this represented about half of the items that had been suggested or volunteered (according to Kevin Roche at the Closing Ceremony). Between them they featured about a thousand participants, less than half of those who had volunteered their services. (Again, I have twice asked for the exact figures that Kevin quoted but they too have not been forthcoming.)  The Programme Book itself fitted easily in a back pocket but had a couple of layout problems: the day name was printed along the outer edge of pages but the text needed to be large enough that it could be read easily, and the time (e.g. 11 am, 4 pm) needed to be at the top of every page as otherwise you just did not know which hour you were looking at. I would have thought that these points would have been obvious to Publications the moment they looked at the first test print!  Furthermore, Publications had decided that a programme grid was not needed - a decision which was oft criticised. For those with the technology (and not everyone does), the Grenadine App was a very useful way of keeping on top of the programme, especially as it let you know every time the programme had been amended and would update it at the touch of a virtual button.

There was a small restaurant guide and the same information could be accessed via the AppSheet app, though this was uninspired and not easy to use.

I arrived on the Wednesday afternoon and found that the registration desk was working well and quickly, though the next morning the queue was predictably long. I had hoped to sign up for a few of the kaffeeklatsches (where a group sits round talking with a ‘famous’ person, e.g. an author, over coffees) but the queue was enormous; I suspect that might have been because they did not make it clear in advance (or even early on) that you had to sign up the afternoon before each event, not for everything the moment you arrived. The signing in the area, The Hub as they called it, was poor and I noticed they never did put up signs up for things like where the participants and guests had to register.

As well as kaffeeklatsches, there were also literary beers (a similar idea but with beer rather than coffee); these were held in a nearby bar/pub, presumably because the beer was better than at the con-bar (Callahan’s Place offered only three ‘premium’ beers - two of which were in cans!). The only GoHs to host such events were the Pettingers (fan GoHs), who enjoyed a literary beer. I was told by one of the other GoHs that a request to host a kaffeeklatsche, a chance to meet the fans and vice-versa, was turned down on the grounds that there were no available slots; apparently the chance for folks to meet lesser-known writers and the like was regarded by the convention as more important than fans being able to meet those established masters of their arts who were being honoured at the event. It was, however, noticed that Chairbeing Kevin Roche found time to host a literary beer.

Whilst on this vein I will continue with a concern I heard from a number of people, some of whom are very experienced con-goers and conrunners (including a past Worldcon chair).  There was a noticeable trend to promote newer writers and similar (wannabies or newbies if you like) over the bigger names.  Whilst giving an opportunity for newer people to blossom is a Very Good Thing, it seemed to be at the expense of the established, successful folks - and it is the latter that many of us travel all that way to see! You could say that priority was given to those who had not yet made it over those who had most definitely earned their places in fannish esteem. After all, it costs con-goers a lot of money to attend a Worldcon (foreign attendees need to budget an absolute minimum of £2,000 just for membership, air travel, and hotel bills - let alone the other usual costs (meals, socialising, purchases, etc.) or additional costs of any further travel or holidaying ‘whilst over there’) and for that price they expect to see their heroes!

The Opening Ceremonies started with a Tongan Ma’ulu’ulu - a sitting-dancing group (though unfortunately they had not been introduced so we were not entirely sure what was going on). Kevin Roche introduced the guests one at time and he made a good job of it.  Artist GoH John Picacio brought recipients of the #Mexicanx Initiative on stage and then read a personal statement about acceptance and solidarity; unfortunately he moved to the centre of the stage, leaving the microphone behind, and most of the audience missed what he said (the text is given at the end of this report).

All told, I had earmarked about a hundred items I was particularly interested in - and that impressed me.  Despite my best intentions, in fact I only got to a few items as there were simply too many distractions.  Top of the list of distractions was meeting up with friends; it is a long way to go just to ignore them!  Next came the Dealers’ Room; no matter how many times I visited it I kept finding new items of interest.  There was a good selection of book stores, including one dedicated solely to the works of GoH Chelsea Quinn Yarbro, and she was often to be seen there signing books and chatting to all that dropped by. As usual there were T-shirt dealers and they offered many very tempting designs (my favourite said ‘Sauron: Making Mordor Great Again’ ... I still wish I had bought it but my suitcase was getting rather too full by then). FanTaminals provided an excellent range of ‘jigsaws’, though these were really Wooden Art rather than puzzles. There were several folks selling jewelry and much of it was excellent (they left me wishing I wore it), as well as music to be purchased on CDs and films and TV programmes to be taken home on DVDs. And there was so very much more besides.

Next to the dealers were various fannish displays and these were worth a good look round; the costume displays were particularly interesting. Then there was the Art Show and this featured some very good work (just a little of which is now hanging on my walls). Whilst paintings are easy to display simply by hanging them (their natural habitat), the three dimensional works such as carvings, models, and jewelry were simply laid out on long tables and this was often not the best way to really appreciate them - Art Shows need to find a better way.

Of the programme items I did get to, I found they were all well attended but I could at least get into the room (unlike Worldcon 75 in Helsinki).  J. L. Doty gave an interesting talk on ‘Movement and Motion in a Rotating Space Habitat’, complete with some amusing diagrams of what can easily go wrong - basically, forget everything you have seen in the movies! We were in space still for ‘The Myth of the Astronaut - Who are the Space Cadets of Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow’, a well-informed panel which included Kjell Lindgren (astronaut and fan) and Sheyna Gifford (a simulated astronaut on a Mars project). The other science (OK, space) items I got to were a panel on ‘The Danger of Near-Earth Asteroids’ and Andrew Fraknoi’s excellent talk on ‘Why Pluto was Kicked Out of the Planet Club and What we are Learning About It Today’, another example of knowledge put across well but lightly with humour.

Christopher J. Garcia, in his role as a curator at the Computer History Museum, talked with great enthusiasm about ‘Computer History’; he was, as ever, entertaining in a very off-the-cuff way and also knew a lot(!) about his subject.  On the other hand, Whitfield Diffie’s ‘When Uncle Sam Wants Your Data ...’ was disappointing despite his being supremely well qualified on the subject; it did not help that he had started by announcing that he had offered many talks to the con and they had chosen this one, which he did not want to give, and so he would instead give his preferred talk about encryption.  Personally, I think if you offer to do something you should do what you have offered, not do something else instead - I was not impressed by his arrogance (nor, for that matter, by his talk).

Tom Whitmore interviewed GoH Chelsea Quinn Yarbro and he did so very well, maintaining a light yet meaningful interchange throughout. He kept a very good flow and the Q&A at the end nicely wove Tom’s own questions with those from the audience. It was one of the most relaxed interviews I have attended.

Friday night saw ‘Music of Past, Present, and Future!’ in the main hall.  Spider Robinson kicked off the event, followed by Frank Hayes (who turned out to have written a number of the songs that I have heard so often at filk sessions). Jeff and Maya Bohnhoff treated us to a rockier sound; you already knew the tune but the words were most definitely SFnal.  The show finished with Avalon Rising, a Celtic rock band from Oakland (just up the road from San Jose).

There was a room given over to filk throughout the con but there was no advance information on who was playing when.  This programme strand was organised by Kathy Marr, though it seems she waited to see who turned up and then arranged things on the fly, with the result that many of us only found out afterwards that we had several times missed folks who we had wanted to hear.  The details of the filk programme did make it into Grenadine, but only in the form of the daily updates (and then only if you scoured the programme looking for them).

The Masquerade was on Saturday night and was hosted by Christopher J. Garcia and he proved very good at it.  He approached the task with a strong, firm voice (an affection of an old-style radio announcer’s voice) and was witty, entertaining us all, and covered very well (considering) for the surprising number of glitches (some of them quite long).  Many of the costumes were very good, though of course most of the audience were dependent on the cameras and big screens.  There were only about thirty entries and photographers had to make do with catching the costumers outside in the corridors after the event as there was no photocall.

The final big event was the Hugo Awards Ceremony on the Sunday night, hosted by John Picacio.  It was OK, better than some years, but certainly not a classic.  The ubiquitous mobile phone showed its weakness when Catherine Asaro read an acceptance speech on behalf of an absent winner but it had been sent to her phone and the text was too small - embarrassingly she had to keep stopping to enlarge it. Similarly, N. K. Jemisin had her acceptance speech for Best Novel on her phone/tablet and also had difficulty reading it, getting a little lost and confused as well as reading it badly and unevenly; she also followed the current trend for getting gender-race-political. (The Hugo Awards' principal category wins are here.)

The last morning suffered dreadfully from that running-down, it’s-all-over, feeling. It did not help that the day was lightly programmed, thus implying that the organisers did not really expect many people to still be there or going to anything. Finally came the Closing Ceremony at 3pm and it went pretty well. James Bacon welcomed everyone to the forthcoming Dublin Worldcon next year (2019), complete with an Irish folk band to end the proceedings.

And so it was all over for another year.

For those that wish to read it, here is John Picacio’s speech from the Opening Ceremony:

‘It is impossible to stand together today, as Mexicanx creators, and not acknowledge the pain, turmoil, and terror felt right now by our immigrant sisters and brothers, inflicted upon them by the President of the United States. We unequivocally condemn Donald Trump's decision to tear children from their parents, and we are not fooled into thinking the situation is now over. We additionally condemn any government position of indefinite family detention--to hold families in jails reminiscent of Japanese internment camps, a shameful stain on our history. And finally, we condemn and reject the ongoing criminalization and dehumanization of immigrants seeking safety, opportunity, and freedom for themselves and their families.

‘In the face of such evil, it is difficult to know what to do. As artists, writers, and creators, we know the transformative power of story to shape the course of what is possible in the world. We commit to harness our rage and heartbreak as we witness this injustice unfolding before us into creative works of power and hope, and to channel our actions now to bend the arc of history toward justice.’

Peter Tyers


Elsewhere on this site on our seasonal news page, other San Jose Worldcon coverage can be found that includes: a brief comment on the programme and our usual comprehensive listing of science programme items.


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