The 2020 SF Worldcon
A personal perspective by New Zealander Simon Litten on
ConZealand started life as an in real life event to be hosted in Wellington, New Zealand. However, the plague that is CoVID-19 put paid to inbound travel by non-New Zealand citizens and residents and the event transitioned to occurring in the digital world. So instead of ConZealand being the first world science fiction convention (Worldcon) to be hosted in New Zealand, ConZealand became the first digital Worldcon.
The digital experience was something I was dreading as there were so many ways for the enabling software to be troublesome. Full credit must go to the organisers for selecting a bare minimum of applications that attendees needed to use. I limited myself to Zoom and had no difficulties with the software. My experience may have been enhanced by some familiarity with Zoom from working at home during the local (New Zealand) CoVID-19 lockdown. By appearances, I think the organisers had opted for the paid-for version of the software as there were no session time limits (a feature of the free version), and there were some other features of which I had previously been unaware. All-in-all this worked well. I elected not to install a second piece of software, Discord, for socialising. That decision was part nascent curmudgeonly tendencies and part physiotherapy related: too much sitting results in knee and neck problems (two separate injuries). The feedback from those people I knew who that used Discord was positive.
One of the big advantages of the digital convention was no time lost getting from one session to another and then waiting in a queue for the room to empty. This was convention attendance as General Motors promised driving would be. I found I could easily go from one event and if dissatisfied with my choice slip into another without disrupting proceedings. The digital convention made access much less of a problem for the physically disadvantaged unless one had vision or hearing difficulties.
Technical support for attendees was very good, especially if one was a panel participant. Rose Mitchell, the fan guest of honour and for whom I was guest liaison, had significant technical difficulties at the start of Worldcon but once technical support was alerted to the situation the problems were solved in under an hour. Rose was impressed.
A welcome innovation, made possible by the digital nature of the event, was the chance to watch or re-watch an event afterwards as most of the proceedings had been recorded. Although events considered more of a personal nature, such as kaffeeklatsches, werenít (one canít have everything). I took advantage of this to re-watch the fan guest of honour interview because, somehow, I was left in Zoom limbo waiting for twenty minutes for access to the event. I will note that accessing the recordings was one of the few times the software didnít fully integrate and one had to follow a slightly circuitous path to the full index of recordings rather than accept the listing given in the convention programme.
However, there were downsides. There was no way to get authorsí signatures as they werenít physically present. A casual stroll around and serendipitous purchase in the dealersí hall was also out of the question. Also missing were the chance encounters and in-convention socialising with friends old and new.
This would not have been a modern Worldcon if there werenít a few controversies. The most obvious being the reaction to George R R Martinís master of ceremonies speech for the Hugo awards. For reasons known only to themselves the organisers decided that an event that, if held live, customarily ran for two hours would now be scheduled for four hours. When I saw that wonder of programming, I elected to absent myself from the convention and do my grocery shopping. From the furore that accompanied Mr Martinís longwinded presentation, I appear to have made a smart choice. The charitable view is that Mr Martin significantly misread the appetite of the audience for a rambling trip down memory lane of Hugo award ceremonies the past and personal reflections on science fiction stuff that inspired him. The overly long talkfest was aided and abetted by the organisers who had turned a two-hour event into a four-hour one. If that was a sop for Mr Martin no longer having a Hugo losers party to harangue, then it was a poorly judged sop. The audience was there for the Hugo ceremony, the MC was supposed to be an added bonus. There were also complaints about Mr Martinís inability to pronounce the nomineesí names correctly or even fluently Ė supposedly he was being racist. Having worked and socialised with non-native speakers of English where my own name has been subject to some interesting renderings (to this day I havenít worked out whether a Taiwanese gym teacher was enjoying a pun or just shifting my family name into a variant he preferred to pronounce), I hold the view he was just being lazy. He hadnít practised how he was going to say the names (he claimed he hadnít received the pronunciation guide when he recorded his sections of the ceremony) and stumbled over the unfamiliar too often.
Locally, there was a minor controversy when the New Zealand science fiction and fantasy awards Ė the Sir Julius Vogel (SJV) awards Ė were edited for broadcast. The SJVs were recorded live with nominees and winners in attendance (New Zealand was a couple of months out of lockdown by this point). Some of the eventual winners were unable to attend. In each case, the hosts for the event announced that the winner would be contacted and the award presented at a later date. For reasons unknown a group of American fans had determined that transitioning the local awards event into digital content for Worldcon was beyond the skills of people in New Zealand and asked to take control of that step (the SJVs were conjoined with the Retro Hugos for programming purposes). The Americans elected to edit out all instances where an SJV winner wasnít present; making for a less than acceptable end product. Local fans were annoyed.
Another complaint I heard was from Europeans (Brits included) of the timing of programming. No consideration had been made to schedule events in the late evening NZ time to allow the Europeans to attend in their morning. The dominance of the Americans and Canadians on the programming team had resulted in a schedule that was unfriendly to the Europeans.
A minor surprise was the invisibility of New Zealand fans to the Americans. I suspect they were expecting a higher incidence of visible Maori heritage than actually appeared on screen.
Another minor surprise, but positive for those who noticed, was that the kaffeeklatsches could be booked days in advance. This change in practise was taken advantage of by those who were quick to spot the difference.
My own complaints with the convention related largely with the communications released by the organisers. These notices were not well structured even if they supplied all the relevant information. A long, comprehensive bulletin covering all items could better have been replaced with more frequent but less comprehensive notes and cross-referencing. I experienced reader fatigue from wading through the long emails Ė only to discover later that information important to me was buried at the bottom of the email. While I could appreciate that the organisers were trying to limit correspondence to avoid the implications of spamming participants a more nuanced approach would have paid dividends, for example Dublin Con directed people to the information part of its website and then redirected within there depending on the topic.
In summary, I did enjoy the convention. It was a different experience to a live event but not unacceptably so. However, getting there is part of the convention experience and for a large swathe of people that aspect was lost. For me, I lost the chance to show off my home town. Better luck next time.
Simon Litten is a New Zealand SF fan based in Wellington. His fan writing has appeared in SJV Watch, Phoenixine and SFFANZ Reviews for which he has won Sir Julius Vogel (SJV) awards.