Convention Review

Aussiecon 4 – The 2010 World SF Convention

The 68th Worldcon in 2010 was held in Melbourne, Australia.

[ Monash climate utopias | Registration | Venue | Programme | Guest of Honour | Parties ]


The 2010 Worldcon was Australia's fourth crack at holding the Worldcon, and so with much experience under their belt many were looking forward to something special.

Melbourne is a modern, albeit young city (but then to Europeans most cities elsewhere seem young) with a vibrant economy and equally vivacious social life. The convention centre and con hotels were located a few yards from Melbourne's principal rail station that also was conveniently the terminus for the connecting airport bus shuttle. In short getting there was all rather easy.

I had booked into the convention recommended hotel nearest the station as not only did it facilitate my arrival, and though despite it being the furthest from the conference centre, it was nearest Melbourne University and the zoological gardens where I had a number of engagements both separate to and loosely connected with my genre Worldcon reasons for coming to Melbourne.  I say 'I booked' because the convention's own accommodation service was so poor (had a crap fax printer that could not read its own accommodation form, could not accept direct money or BACS transfers etc., etc.,) that I quickly decided to sort my own accommodation, which turned out to be a brilliant decision that delightfully ended up with my being charged a lower rate.

Changing the Climate: Utopia, Dystopia and Catastrophe – Monash U.
Many months before coming to Melbourne I had been contacted by someone who years ago had been to one of my climate talks and who told me that there was to be a climate change and utopia conference run by Monash University. His notion was that I might perhaps inject some actual climate science into the proceedings. And so I duly contacted the Monash U. organisers. However I was informed that really there was no place in such a conference for a science contribution, but they were interested in my involvement with SF2 Concatenation and would I be prepared to contribute something genre-related in that capacity? I respectfully declined (there are others far better suited to artsy perspectives) but I gratefully accepted an invitation to their end-symposium reception.  Then not long after Tom Moylan got in touch asking whether I would contribute to a Worldcon panel that was being spun out the conference and would I provide a science perspective to that. This I was pleased to do.

And so it was that, days after New Zealand's Au Contraire, we (a posse of Au Contraire alumni) arrived in Melbourne. It soon became apparent that a number who had come direct from N. America had also arrived early to do tourism and shake off their several hours jet lag. Meanwhile I began my own science engagements. These were all in the other direction from the convention centre, which enabled me to get a broader feel for Melbourne. One SF shopping gem I discovered was the downstairs Minotaur bookshop at 121 Elizabeth Street. It was a version of Forbidden Planet London (that's Dark They Were in old money), only Minotaur's book layout was infinitely better: Hugo, Locus and Clarke Award short listed titles were flagged on the bookshelves and the new title shelves were arranged alphabetically by author (at FP new-title books are just thrown on to the shelves any old way and so making it impossible to properly check out for favourite writers if one is in anyway time-pressed).  The only downside to this shopping experience was that book prices in Australia seem to be about 50% more expensive than in the Great Britain.

The Monash U. Climate / Utopias reception was the evening of my 2nd day but at the far (east) end of Collins Street: a good 20 minutes walk but I got to see a transect of downtown Melbourne. The four-day 'Changing the Climate: Utopia, Dystopia and Catastrophe' conference was the fourth Australian conference on utopia, dystopia and science fiction. The papers ranged from those with clear titles such as 'It's Alive: Climate Change Replaces the Monster in the SF Disaster Film' and 'Utopia in the Age of Climate Change' to the (ahem) somewhat pretentious such as 'Eucatastrophe and Co-inherence in the Utopian Vision' and 'New Possibilities for Collective Life: Counter-Apocalypse, the Peaceable Kingdom and an Ethics of Survival'. Similarly, some of the papers' abstracts were clear, while others peppered with terms such as 'depth-hermeneutic' and 'traceur'. One abstract even (re-)invented the term 'fantastika'; that presentation had perhaps better be modified if ever given in Russian states. True, in (climate and environmental) science we have specialist terms such as 'anthropogenic', 'ecosystem', 'biome', 'global warming potential' and 'carbon isotope excursion', but these each have a clearly defined and precise meaning. Conversely, much artsy nomenclature does not have clear definition and, should you doubt this, you can easily see this for your self by 'define' Googling the afore arts and science terms for yourself. The bottom line was that for me this event did rather demonstrate that both of C. P. Snow's 'Two Cultures' were very much alive, well and quite distinct.

Now please do not get me wrong. I had some interesting chats at the reception: albeit on occasion having to ask folk to go back and simplify what they were actually saying. But I did get the impression that while the conference had seen some interesting points made as to how and why climate change is presented in speculative fiction the way it is, that other papers made a complex-sounding statement elucidated with important-sounding techno-babble before ending with a rather straightforward, if not obvious, conclusion.  The comparison with science symposia (where frequently we start with complex situations and then seek to tease out a straightforward and, importantly, a testifiable conclusion) seemed stark. Indeed, the ability to replicate results, let alone test them against contrary hypotheses, use quantity scales (hence have measurability), or identify error (type I, type II, confidence intervals etc.,) was totally absent. Now all this is fair enough: arts and science are different. However I did feel somewhat uneasy that an arts symposium should attempt to explore a subject area that is underpinned by science (climate change) without any recourse whatsoever to that said science. Anyway, who am I to comment?

At the end of the reception, a score or more of us went around the corner to Little Collins Street and a music pub (a bar apparently regularly frequented by musicians). At this point I asked the dozen seated closest whether the symposium had come up with any conclusions? I was told that psychology and culture present perceptual filters on climate change issues. Further, that to improve understanding of climate concerns, scientists and artists should work more closely.  It was at this point that I offered my services as someone with a little knowledge of climate change science who was happy to answer any climate science questions anyone had. This sparked the best part of an hour's Q&A, before Bacchus' influence suggested a change to less challenging topics. A couple of hours later still and a rather pleasant evening came to an end.

Worldcon registration usually begins the day before the convention proper (so as to ease potentially long queues). Sadly only a few could be so accommodated as Melbourne's Convention Centre had been taken over by the end of a UN biomedical conference whose accompanying security forbade access, even though there was plenty of space available within the Centre for the Worldcon organiser to sort out their registration packs. This was unfortunate, and not anything about which the Worldcon organisers could do. What it did mean was that the next day there were long queues both due to the numbers and because hardly any of the registrants packs had yet been assembled. Furthermore half the registration desk seemed to be staffed by the extremely elderly, unduly ponderous, and somewhat uncertain staff who might perhaps have better served sticking up a sign telling us to try again at such and such a time.  Anyway, while we waited and our queue chatted to itself, I did wonder how long it was all going to take as I was under the impression (from pre-convention correspondence) that I might have a climate science panel in an hour's time. At this point a voice behind me announced that its owner was a scientist and in the same boat. Wondering if we were on the same panel, and what sort of climate science this person specialised in, I turned to enquire. The individual (Greg Benford) announced himself to be a "physicist" and "we can do anything!" Oh, how we laughed.

Melbourne Convention Centre
The Melbourne Convention Centre turned out to be one of the best conference venues I have been to in the half dozen Worldcons (or indeed dozen Eurocons) I have attended over the past three decades. There were three major halls, one of which I suspect could hold a thousand or so, and a score or more smaller rooms that each could hold up to a couple of hundred. Each room had PowerPoint projectors and a couple had DVD projectors. There were two exhibition halls, one of which was part cordoned off for the art exhibition (yet again I missed it). The dealers area and fan stalls also used these facilities as did a rather basic but over-priced cafeteria.  Everything was bright, worked well, and even there were nods to environmental sustainability: the escalators moved only at an energy-saving snail's pace until someone stood on them and then they moved at a normal speed.  In short, catering aside, a very good venue.

To cut to the chase: this began as an absolute disaster and so the original programme was largely ditched (and so the spiral-arm bound programme booklet was completely useless), but a new programme was pulled together during day one's Thursday afternoon largely by the sterling efforts of just two or three hugely dedicated souls. The original programme schedule booklet was saturated with errors, people inappropriately assigned to panels (for example, I was put on one exploring the difference between Australians and New Zealanders though I hail from neither's nation, and until then never been to Australasia, and also I was not on a single science item) and so forth. And so a replacement sheet for that half-day was quickly issued and then the next day we got sheets for the remaining four days. In short, the two hundred page, printed, spiral bound programme schedule booklet was ditched within the first few hours of the convention and from then on in everyone relied on the pink sheets for the remainder of the convention. The labours of the unsung heroes who re-worked the programme need to be recognised as they literally saved it! Meanwhile, the affair could have engendered considerable bad feeling, yet folk quickly came to the realization that little would be gained by dwelling on problems but instead got stuck in and having a good time irrespective of any committee shortcomings. And so disaster was averted.

What caused it all was revealed at the next day's 'feedback session' (inappropriately titled 'whinge session' as that implied that there might not have been positive feedback had things gone well or that if there were complaints that they would be unjustified). At it co-chair Perry Middlemiss handled questions calmly with dignity and, importantly fully without ducking anything. Perry cited four reasons as to the programme cock-up. They were: i) the programme organising timeline started late; ii) they relied on a computer package and this package did not allow multiple remote users; iii) documentation went missing; and iv) one of the key programme managers was distracted working for another convention. In short they got the wrong person for the job who: started late, relied on the wrong tools, was disorganised, and was not dedicating sufficient time to the task.

The feedback session also revealed four weeks prior to the convention that the masquerade co-ordinator had resigned. Perry had asked around (some 10 or so people) but nobody wanted to take on the role and so he was doing it himself.

Perry's calm, frank honesty certainly won him over with those present and he came across as someone who had been let down and left in the lurch.

As for the programme itself. There was the usual mix of panels and talks covering SF in all its forms, SF publishing, media, gaming, and of course science over about 13 parallel streams. The balance was good and most items were reasonably well attended in the 150-200-people sized rooms. Then there were the kaffeeklatsches, book signings and usual ancillary happenings.

One very positive side to the programme – especially given its dearth the past one and a half decades of Worldcons – was the film programme. Yes, there was one! And amazingly it was rather good. Apart from a couple of golden oldies (Fantastic Planet and Silent Running) there were offerings mainly from the last couple of years as well as the past decade. Importantly (for a Worldcon) the offerings included a many from a number of countries including: Canada, France, Germany, Great Britain, Hong Kong/Thailand, Switzerland, Japan, US, and, appropriately, Australia. There was even one session of international SF shorts as well as another for animated shorts and one for Western Australian shorts.  Alas there was so much on across the programme that I missed seeing the award-wining hard SF horror Cargo and SFnal Earthling (that is twice I have missed the former at a fest). I was less concerned about missing the Australian premiere of Pandorum as, while that had had some genre-buff interest prior to its British and N. American release, subsequent reviews by genre film buffs were only so-so. (Of course it was an Australian premiere and had I not had something else on then catching such a film at a convention, rather than the expense of a cinema, would have been welcome: so it was a worthy screening.)  But I did catch the low-budget, science-fantasy, comedy horror Pontypool in which a zombie-type infection is spread by the sounds of English words. Brilliant. Future Worldcon organisers need to seek out whoever sorted out this year's film programme (Grant Watson possibly?) if only for ideas. My one and only minor grumble being that films might have been screened twice to avoid some participants facing programme clashes (some cons have found this a very useful trick).

The film programme also included some black & white amateur coverage of the 1987 Worldcon in Brighton, Britain. This was a delight to watch; though how young we all seemed was rather worrying (I do so hate the personal implications of the second law of thermodynamics). One thing is that, despite having attended half a dozen Worldcons over the years, I have never attended the Hugo Award ceremony (it is generally a far too long-winded an affair) but I do not mind subsequently seeing edited highlights, and so at last it was great after 13 years to catch up with the 1987 Hugo ceremony which had as its Master of Ceremonies one Peter Nicholls (co-compiler of The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction fame). Now, one meets many SF personalities at Worldcons, and Aussiecon was no exception. However I must mention one encounter. Having spent an hour watching various goings on from the '87 Worldcon, I went outside for a coffee and who was there but Peter Nicholls himself. Having briefly explained that I had just seen him MCing the Hugo ceremony (and explaining it was not this year's ceremony), Peter surprised me by recounting with some clarity the raison d'κtre for the themes of his 1987 speech.

This being the Science Fact & Science Fiction Concatenation, special mention must be given of the science in the programme. Typical of Worldcons, there was a good mix. These included only a few talks (briefings) on a topic by someone from the field (Worldcon organisers could arguably do more here), but there were plenty of panels. These included both hard-core science topics as well as areas of science that engender some public debate (such as the bioethics of terraforming), plus (of course) genre interest science (how the science is used in SF). Items covered: astronomy, biology, computer science, environmental science and physics. Of personal interest was a talk, as well as separately a panel, on the Fermi Paradox, both filled out a 250-sized room. The panel (Jim Benford, Dirk Flinthart, Gerald Nordley, Alastair Reynolds, and Gord Sellar) covered most of the relevant points. Alastair Reynolds suggested that maybe intelligent life was not old in the Universe (and maybe we are among the first). Gerald Nordly counter-suggested that maybe intelligent life arose 10 billion years ago but is rare and that astronomical distances were so vast that we do not see them. Jim Benford opined that technological civilizations only had to be in excess of just a 1,000 light years away for them to be effectively invisible to us (and of course we would be to them as we have only been broadcasting for a century).  Then there was engineer Jim Benford's own talk on SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence): Jim being the aforementioned physicist Greg's brother. Indeed, due to the Worldcon programme cock-ups, he ended up giving his talk twice! His was an interesting review and he gave his own take as to what we should be trying to do, namely: to look for transient EM pulses on a square kilometre array, to look around 10GHz and not the water hole around 2GHz, and look more towards the galactic core and galactic plane (which means a southern hemisphere array would be preferred). Anyway, it was a fascinating talk even if my own views on the subject differ. We had chat later on and despite our differences of opinion (or because of them?) there was sufficient mutual interest that Jim revealed he was due to go to Britain next month and wondered whether we might meet up there. This we duly did with the British Orion interstellar probe designers, at the London Circle, but that is another story.

My own contributions to the programme were all, as you might expect, science related. They began with a science and environment and SF panel with: Kim Stanley Robinson (this year's Worldcon Guest of Honour); Glenda Larke (fantasy author); Tom Moylan (Irish English literature academic); and John Clute (SF encyclopaedist (cf. Peter Nicholls earlier). Stanley noted that SF has a long tradition of dystopias. In terms of timescales he pointed out that major climate change has taken place over a thousand or so years, but climate flickers of a year or two have been found in Greenland ice cores and that the Young Dryas transitions took decades to a century or two.  Glenda said that most genre stories were idea driven and that environmental messages tend to be in the background, and that much genre related environmental fiction looks at the effects and social consequences of environmental change and not the cause.  John Clute considered that we are entering a world of which we do not the tools to describe/consider in fiction. SF should be doing this but is not except in a cartoon way, and he wondered whether any fiction genre could do this?  My own contribution was: that SF has an influence encouraging youngsters to study science, that currently the World is going through considerable environmental change (citing Beddington's 'Perfect Storm') which will supply much grist for the SF mill, and that combining these two facets among other things means that SF has a real and valuable role in the greater environmental debate in society and generating (albeit indirectly) solutions.

My presence on other panels was more ad lib and not pre-prepared due to the afore-mentioned programme organization difficulties.  However I did appear on panels on: 'Medical Ethics in the 21st Century' (a rambly panel that tended to focus on a couple of the panellists' preoccupation, albeit worthy, with disability); 'Make Room, Make Room' (that addressed the (false) premise that 1970s environmental SF overly emphasised global overpopulation disasters); 'The Limits of Science' (that covered the borders of science fact and science fiction, ethics, and the quality and quantity of data); and 'Climate Change: Possible Futures of Planet Earth (which was a kind of follow-up to my first climate panel and again with GoH Kim Stanley Robinson).  My drop-of-the-hat contributions to these panels would have been less efficacious were it not for the kindness of a lady in the convention ops room who lent me her laptop so as to enable me to create 5-minute PowerPoints for each. Many thanks, alas I did not catch her name.

I did catch Guest of Honour (GoH) Kim Stanley Robinson's talk entitled 'Climate Change and Utopia' which again was one of the Monash U. conferences spin-outs. I was looking forward to this not just because of my own interest in climate change but because I had read Stan's trilogy of climate novels (Forty Signs of Rain, Fifty Degrees Below and Sixty Days and Counting).  Now, from my personal perspective, this could so easily have gone tits up as one should pick one's heroes well to avoid disappointment: despite having read his works for many years I had no personal knowledge of Stan (other than my brief encounter with the author at the Monash U. reception and on the earlier panel). He made numerous points but alas I only have space to recount a few here (though I filled a couple of notepad pages on the day). As a genre novelist he noted that standards of environmental utopian novels have dropped as these days an optimistic utopian environmental novel is one in which humans have survived in reasonably good condition. He urged the audience to be aware of wilful climate obfuscation and recommended Naomi Oreskes book on this subject (and I would point you to her seminal paper on the climate consensus). He suggested we particularly look to the wealthiest 2% (1/50th) of the global population as well as the poorest, both of whom do the most environmental damage: the top 1/50th because of over consumption and the bottom 1/50th who are so desperate as to be unsustainable (cf. slash and burn farming etc).  Stanley spent a lot of time exploring wealth not being equivalent to happiness, which is the opposite to what politicians and business/commerce people tell us. Along the way he noted (with examples) how stressful our lives were; indeed so stressful that we needed an annual holiday detox. But even here the commerce people tell us that to properly detox we need the stress of airports, travel, and visiting a strange place where we get ripped off to sit in the sun, but – Stanley pointed out – the sun is free and we could do this at home and enjoy our known (or should be known) local community.  Notwithstanding he did not have the in-depth technical knowledge that environmental scientists would expect, his science-related comments (touching upon nuclear power and GM crops) were bang on message that would not have been out of place among those made by my peers at the Institute of Biology or physics counterparts at the Institute of Physics. From my own point of view, his talk was the best Guest of Honour speech I have ever heard and if you have concerns as to our modern way of life and what we are doing to our planet then you might want to consider inviting Stanley Robinson to come and speak to your convention/community/college. For my money, he was a great GoH.

Aside from panels, films and talks within the programme there was, of course, much else going on. The Australians held their Dudcon. This was their annual convention given that the Worldcon swamped much Australian convention organising that year. Dudcon was spirited and the organiser had used its registration fees to get pins made for all those with previous Ditmar nominations (just like the Hugo pins).  One programme item, that attracted a good few hundred in one of the major halls, was Norman Cates item on the visual effects of New Zealand's Weta company. Absolutely fascinating, and I could not resist asking Norman whether Weta would be providing the audiovisuals for the New Zealand 2020 Worldcon bid? This got a cheer from the audience.

And, then we had the 2010 Hugo Awards. Few surprises there for SF2 Concatenation regulars as yet again one of its recommendations for best SF novel and also best SF films of the year both won Hugos. True to personal form I did not attend the awards ceremony but was gratefully accepting generous hospitality of dinner that evening with a small band of N. Americans and just a couple of us Europeans.

The parties
Worldcons are noted for their parties in the evening. Among these the Worldcon bid parties were among the best and of note there was party for Texas 2013 and London 2014. In amongst these, space was kindly provided for the latest bid to be announced which was for New Zealand in 2020. This last bid only became manifest a few days before the Worldcon as it came out of New Zealand's Au Contraire 2010 national convention the previous week.

The parties by and large went well. The London 2014 party saw single malt whiskey, while the Texas 2013 party had a selection of cold meats.  However, while everyone attending them had a good time, the party organisers were stung with hotel charges. The Crown Plaza Hotel had reportedly reneged on their contract with the Worldcon and insisted on additional corkage and catering charges. Alas on the day there was not enough time to sort this out which left the respective Worldcon bid teams having to either pay up or cancel their promotional events. They each paid up sums that were the order of a few hundred Australian dollars, but the fallout has meant that it is unlikely that Melbourne will be chosen for a major SF convention, or the Crown Plaza Hotel used for a regional one, for the foreseeable future.

And so after five days of intense SFnal activity, socialising and a smidgen of tourism, we came to the closing ceremony. Once again co-Chair Perry Middlemiss was left to front this (by this time I suspect many were beginning to feel a little sorry for the guy who had been doing much to simply keep things going). There was a re-run of the opening ceremony's video: a rather neat animation I had missed at the convention's start. Then the various guests and fan fund sponsored participants came to the stage to say their farewells. Finally, there was an announcement that the end-convention volunteers party had been cancelled. Whether or not this was fallout from the earlier party-hotel problems I do not know nor care: I had half the planet to navigate getting home.

Jonathan Cowie

SF2 Concatenation's initial summary report of the event is on the autumn 2010 news page.

Naomi's seminal paper on the solidity of the climate science consensus is:
Oreskes, N., (2004) The scientific consensus on climate change. Science, vol. 306, p1686.

[ Monash climate utopias | Registration | Venue | Programme | Guest of Honour | Parties ]


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