Convention Review

Renovation — The 2011 World SF Convention

The 69th Worldcon was held in Reno, Nevada, USA, 17th-21st August. Peter Tyers reports.

Guests of Honour
Ellen Asher (editor)
Charles N. Brown (in memoriam, 1937 - 2009) (fan editor)
Tim Powers (writer)
Boris Vallejo (artist)
Special Guests
Trick Pixie (music)
Bill Willingham (fan)

OK, that is the list of important people, but what of the con itself? Well, fundamentally, I enjoyed it.

The number of attendees fell just short of four thousand, which is a little light for a US-based worldcon; whether that is a reflection of the general economic climate or the location is open to debate. On the downside for the location you can certainly say that Reno is a casino city that seemed to have little else to offer (the only reason many of us would ever think of going there was because of the con) and being in high desert in summer meant that it was very hot, very dry, and the air was somewhat thin. Indeed, we were constantly warned to take account of the altitude (somewhere around four and half thousand feet, depending on who you asked) and to ensure we kept well hydrated (and for once that did not mean plenty of beer). Along with the Convention Guide and souvenir book, we were each given a (suitably decorated) plastic drinking bottle, to be filled from the convention centre's water fountains, and they were much in evidence throughout the con. On the upside for the location, well, I am a bit stuck to think of anything unless you happened to want to tour in that area; for instance, Virginia City and the splendidly scenic Lake Tahoe are not too far away. There were also comments that moving the con away from the traditional Labor Day weekend (a three-day break in early September) to a normal-length weekend in mid-August was not appreciated.

Another big disadvantage was the split site. The majority of the con was held in the Reno and Sparks Convention Centre and that proved to be a good site in itself. It is connected by the Skybridge (an air-conditioned walkway over the road and car park) to the Atlantis Hotel/casino/resort, known to us as the main con hotel. The latter actually housed little of the con other than the consuite and a few con offices (such as the newsletter) but did provide bedrooms, a collection of restaurants and eateries, and the location for official room parties. The remainder of the con was at the Peppermill, another hotel/casino/resort about a mile away. This was home to a few programme items but was mostly used for the two biggie events - the Masquerade and the Hugo Awards Ceremony. A shuttle bus ran continuously between the two sites from 8 am until 3 am though many elected to walk as the queues were considerably long at times; we were assured that there would extra buses at peak times but that did not appear to be the case judging from the complaints I heard. Admittedly the Peppermill offered lots more bedrooms than the Atlantis, and those rooms were very much needed, but splitting the site like that was a bad idea.

Having checked into the Atlantis the evening before the con started, my first, and very pleasant, task was to be the Official Guest at the marriage of Martin Easterbrook and Margaret Austin, the other wedding attendees being Alice Lawson as the Bridesmaid and Vince Docherty as the Ringbearer (resplendent as always in his formal kilt). The ceremony complete, we repaired to the London in 2014 bid party to cut the wedding cake. The bride and groom were later seen resplendent in their Just Married T-shirts.

The first programme item kicked off at 9 am on the Wednesday, there being a whole thirty items to keep us entertained before the Opening Ceremony at 3 pm. In this, con chair Patty Wells welcomed us to the event and introduced the guests. This could have been handled a little better; to start with, the tech desk was only partway back and so obscured the view of the stage for a whole section of the hall - which would not have been too bad if only the tech folk had sent the feed from their video cameras to the giant video screens! Special guest Dr. Demento extended the introductions in his loud, sonorous, and theatrical way and this would have been an excellent addition had he not insisted on talking through the applause so that we missed most of his delivery. The guests were then interviewed though this added little and served merely to extend the event.

All told there were a little shy of a thousand programme items and a lot of them looked very good, and that is quite an achievement. Indeed, I was most frustrated at the number I had to miss simply because I was already going to something else. They said that there were no programme tracks, only “areas” (a strange term to use) that recurred; I beg to differ - there were very definitely tracks and it would have been very helpful if the Convention Guide had indicated them clearly. (There was a “schedule by area”, but you had to find it then cross refer to the programme.)

Whilst on the subject of the Guide, every con has a go at making its guide both useful and different. Renovation's Convention Guide was a tall, thin book that fitted easily in pockets (a plus point) but which was difficult to open due to its thick spine and consequently uncomfortable to read (a negative point). On the whole, the discomfort won out and I thought they could have done better.

I started most mornings by joining the "Stroll with The Stars", so called because various of the guests and well known folks would join us each day. We would meet at 9 am in Walgreen's car park and enjoy a leisurely one mile stroll along some of the quieter roads and back to the Convention Centre. It really was leisurely, the sun was not yet too hot, and everybody was happy to chat with whomever they happened to find themselves alongside of. It was a very good idea and a nice start to the day. Maybe London will take it up in 2014 (though we must remember to carry our brollies, rather than water bottles, just in case).

A popular spot for breakfast was the Purple Parrot at the Atlantis with its typical diner-type meals; you could be pretty much sure of going in there at any time and finding somebody from the con. Personally I preferred Toucan Charlie's Buffet, also nestling amongst the Atlantis' slot machines, as this was a pay-once-eat-what-you-want affair. By the end of the con, though, the American portion sizes were catching up with me and I found that dropping into the consuite for a few minutes on the way past provided me with a couple of trail bars and a coffee, all I really needed after last night's more-than-adequate dinner, and a moment to sit down and read High Space Drifter, the con newsletter.

Once arrived at the con each morning there was the task of deciding what to attend and that was not an easy one. To make matters worse, I often got delayed by meeting this or that person that I missed the beginnings of some of the items I did head for. Unfortunately, as also commented on by a number of people, some of the panels soon departed from the stated subject, or even never really got going on it, and several times I found myself disappointed and so moved on to the next item on my list. However, that apart, there were some very interesting talks and panels. In particular, Tim Powers gave an excellent and amusing GOH speech. He was oft seen around the con - and he was very approachable!

An early panel was Welcome To Reno by some of the locals - our chance to find out what the city had to offer outside of the con (if anything). I also tried for the Tour Of Historic Nevada talk but sadly this failed to mature. The first day also heavily featured a stream on Teaching SF, which I was pleased to see. I think it is so important, especially with all the other distractions in this day and age, to get kids reading and SF provides such interesting stories to catch the imagination and interest. And for those with a wide appreciation for disbelief, John Scalzi took us on a most amusing phototour with his Trip To The Creation Museum - see herds of humans and dinosaurs roaming together across the vast plains of, er, history?

I'll not list everything I attended, there was just too much of it. There was a lot on technology (the future for space telescopes, the way the Amish assess and decide what technology to adopt, for example), the humanities (for lack of a better term) (such as the psychogeography of ideals, and what is consciousness?), humour (what else would you expect of the Ask Dr. Genius panel?), and of course good old Science Fiction (time paradoxes, the everlasting relevance of Philip K. Dick, and the like).

I particularly enjoyed a panel on novellas with (amongst others) Gardner Dozois and the ever entertaining and forthright Bob Silverberg. Gardner admitted that the reason why books have so many more pages (but little more story) these days is that publishers simply see this as providing better apparent value to the reader as it gives them more pages per dollar (see my article Should there be really thick SF novels?). Another speaker well worth listening to was David Brin; his appearance on the SIGMA (the Science Fiction Think Tank) panel added to an already fascinating discussion on technology and the government's use, understanding (and misunderstanding), and adoption of it. Doctor Who items cropped up a number of times, and there was a lively discussion on whether it had jumped the shark under Steven Moffat and just how much should Russel T. Davis take the blame. [For those not familiar with the term, the expression Jumping The Shark refers to an episode of “Happy Days” when the series took a step from which it could not return.]

The younger fans had their own stream and it kept them busy all day. Judging from the times I wandered in they were well entertained; there was such a noise and buzz to the place that it left me wondering just how far I could lie about my age. The steamboat races (yes, build yourself a candle-fired steam-powered boat and race it down a trough) was a lot of fun, and their item on blood spatter analysis involved a real-life spatter analyst and the chance to splatter lots of blood (OK, a bright red liquid) all over the place using a variety of implements and learn something at the same time.

I have to congratulate the con for the way music fans were so well catered for - you could be forgiven for thinking the con was just a music event as, apart from the usual late-night filk gatherings, there was a strong series of concerts throughout. Tricky Pixie provided a good set on the opening night; the music was well played and quite haunting at times. Kathy Mar reminded us why she has been popular for so long, and Jeff and Maya Bohnhoff (and offspring) entertained us with yet more of their rock/filk parodies and some serious songs as well (sigh, yet more CDs for my collection). If only I had had the time for all the other artists ... . Dr. Demento played to packed audiences in all of his appearances, much of it iconic music (and sometimes videos) from the 60s, 70s, and 80s, as well as SF-themed songs, and I was sorry to miss his item on Frank Zappa. For those (such as myself) unfamiliar with the said gentleman, he was very well known and much loved by many there; although he is very different, I would say that he filled a spot in American popular music radio culture somewhat akin to the Brits' Kenny Everret.

Now for the big events. The Masquerade was on the Friday evening and had 28 entries, which struck me as low. Phil and Kaja Folio did a good job as Masters of the Ceremonies, pleasantly bouncing off each other with light humour and marital familiarity. The figures on stage were diminutive but the giant video screens none the less allowed us to get a good look at the costumes and clearly a lot of work had gone into them. It would have been very nice if the costumers had mingled with the crowds afterwards so that we could get a close up look at all their efforts but sadly only one team did so - and that is, I think, a crying shame. Whilst the judges retired to make their decisions, Paul Cornell lead a spirited session of Just A Minute (the humorous panel game from BBC's Radio 4). I had wondered if this would succeed or flop but my worries were in vain! Newcomer Seanan McGuire soon picked up the mantle and swept to a decisive victory. [For those unfamiliar with the game, each panellist has to speak for one minute on a given subject, without hesitation, repetition, or deviation, and points are awarded accordingly for successful or unsuccessful challenges, or whatever else takes the quizmaster’s fancy.] However, the pace slowed to a crawl when it came to the announcement of the winners and this rather dragged as we had to wait for each winner to get themselves together and make their way onto the stage.

The Hugo Award Ceremony followed the next night and had its moments. This time the Masters of the Ceremonies, Jay Lake and Ken Scholes, seemed stiff and over-rehearsed in their humour; it moved with all the speed and spontaneity of thick treacle. The proceedings started with a short video presentation from the Japanese which reminded us of their recent tsunami before moving on to announce their Seiun Awards. Thanks once again to the giant video screens, it was quite obvious that a number of the 2011 Hugo winners were genuinely surprised and emotional about their awards. Arriving at the lectern to receive the Best Fanzine award, Christopher J. Garcia was overwhelmed to the point of speechlessness, sat on the floor and sobbed, and co-editor James Bacon had to say the words of thanks. It may sound corny, but he really was that overjoyed and it was touching to see such genuine, if overstated, emotion. Claire Brialey received her award for Best Fan Writer with the decorum you would expect of a Brit, but I can assure you from speaking to her the next afternoon she was absolutely delighted. Arriving at the Best Novella award, Bob Silverberg did a wonderful job of delaying the announcement and building the tension; to describe it as a master class would be a sizeable understatement, he had the audience dancing at the very tip of his finger tips and they loved it - truly a master at work!

There were, of course, other things to do than the programme. The enormous Hall 2 of the convention centre played home to Dealers' Room, the Art Show, fan tables and exhibitions, a small stage, and lounging areas. There was even a replica of the throne from Game Of Thrones and many fans were photographed sitting in it (some imperiously, others more nonchalantly). However, the hall's vast cavern was not well utilised, there was just too much empty space. The Dealers' Room, or area to be more precise, was down in the far corner and the Art Show was in the adjacent corner (presumably so that they could be more easily closed in the evenings) which left a brightly lit, vast-seeming and mostly empty cavern to be crossed before getting there. I understand the dealers did reasonably well (which is good) and there was the usual selection of books (of course!), T-shirts and other clothing, music CDs, jewellery, and even a jigsaw dealer (well, more wood carvings than simple jigsaws - I was ever so tempted but mostly resisted their charms). The Art Show had some very good art though it seemed to be packed in a little too tightly to fully appreciate, and the sculpture work could have been much better displayed rather than simply being put out on plain tables.

Autographing was set up in front of the Dealers' Room, which put it slightly in the way. It really should have been at the back of the Dealers' Room so that we would be encouraged to stop by and look at the dealers' wares, buy books to be signed, and so on. Integrating book selling and book signing seems such an obvious thing to do!

The fan exhibits, fan tables, and so on were rather lost in all the space, sort of randomly scattered in the general way of those crossing the emptiness; they really should have been better arranged. On one side of the hall was the fan lounge though it was not at all obvious and was consequently underused (there were even people standing nearby declaring their dismay at the lack of such a facility). Next to it was the Drawing Of The Dark bar; again this was not even noticed by many attendees. It was the home to the Literary Beers, a chance to sit down and talk to your favourite author over a beer (though far too many were drinking colas - is that even legal at such an event?). Indeed, having found the bar and sat down with our beers (from excellent microbreweries) we were politely asked to move on as nearly all the tables were reserved for the Literary folks. And when a con cannot run a good fan bar it is more than a little disappointing!

Indeed, the lack of a good bar was much mentioned and the con really missed a very simple trick in not using the vast spare space in Hall 2 to create a large and obvious lounge area that would have provided a much needed focus point and general socialising area. There were so many people I failed to bump into because there was no such facility and I have to say "shame on you" - meeting friends, both old and new, is a major part of what makes a con worth going to!

With the lack of an obvious lounge, the default meeting-up area was by the registration desks, which had been well manned and quietly efficient throughout. As well as a coffee cart (whose coffee was so very much better than the centre's permanent snack/junk food outlet (and junk food describes it so well)), the area was also home to a number of tables and the kaffeeklatsches (where you could sign up to talk to your favourite author over a coffee).

Finally it was time for the Closing Ceremony. Patty Wells took us on a surprisingly brief and uninspired photo roundup of the con, thanked everyone, and handed over to next year's con - Chicon 7. The Chicago folks proceeded to show a rather pointless video that went on for far too long and then presented us with intensely boring waffle until the con was finally over; I can only hope that Chicon 7 itself proves much more interesting!

Incidentally, the 2013 World Con will be held in San Antonio, Texas. The site for 2014 will not be selected until 2012 but so far it is looking good for London 2014; at least, lots of people told me they were looking forward to it and asking my advice on what they should do and see while they were in London. So remember, vote early for London, vote often for London! Oh yes, and for the Brits reading this, get your thinking caps on, send in your ideas - and volunteer to help!!

Peter Tyers


For other con reviews see our sci-fi convention reviews index.


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