Convention Review


LoneStarCon 3 — The 2013 World SF Convention

The 71st World Science Fiction Convention was held in San Antonio, Texas,
29th August – 2nd September 2013. Peter Tyers reports.

 

The first thing to say is that Texas is hot in August - really hot. The best part of 40 degrees centigrade. And very humid. And therefore very uncomfortable. You really do not want to be in Texas in the summer! One soon learned to plan every journey in terms of minimising on-street time and maximising time in air-conditioned buildings.

Before looking at the convention let me start with San Antonio itself, seeing that the location, and therefore tourist aspects, of a Worldcon is also important to many members. From the brochures, it seems that San Antonio has a lot to offer though you really do need to be there during a cooler period to appreciate it; the Tourist Information Center recommended April or October.

One of the city’s greatest attractions is the River Walk and that, along with the Alamo, is about as much of San Antonio as most members saw. The San Antonio river passes through the downtown area and, some decades ago, the city decided to utilise this as an attraction. There is a loop of about a mile that circles east into the central area as well as a short extension further east. Both sides of the river and its extensions feature pedestrian walkways at river level - this is the River Walk. Being some twenty feet or so below street level it is a touch (but only the slightest touch) cooler and, most importantly, is lined with restaurants, diners, and bars, all of which seemed to serve excellent food, as well as a few shops. Furthermore, the convention was located at the east end of the River Walk.

The Alamo, the complex around the Mission San Antonio de Valero, is the city’s main claim to fame. It was there in 1836 that about two hundred Texans died, to the man, trying to stop Mexican General Santa Anna and his army. Frontiersmen Jim Bowie and Davy Crocket were amongst the Alamo’s heroes. Now only the Mission and the Long Barrack remain and it this that most people understand as the Alamo. It was visited by many members of the con and was one of the first things I spotted from the balcony of my hotel room. Having seen two films whilst there and read several books and accounts of the events, the one thing everyone is agreed on is that no-one is exactly sure what really happened. Thus are legends born!

Now for the convention's location. The majority of the event took place in the Henry B. Gonzales Convention Center but it also used the two nearby Marriott hotels for both events and the main accommodation. As the Marriotts became full, the Hilton Palacio Del Rio was appointed as the overflow hotel (a few minutes walk away along the River Walk).

From the Convention Center one exited into the baking, humid heat of the street and crossed straight over and into the Marriott Riverwalk; this was the 'quiet' hotel and hosted only the kaffeeklatsches and a couple of other small items. Having cooled a moment, one exited through the side door and along a few yards of path to the next baking, humid street and again crossed straight over before heading the few yards into the Marriott Rivercenter. The latter was the larger hotel and hosted the fan lounge, the Masquerade, the Hugo Awards Ceremony, the film programme, filk sessions, and the room parties. It also had the larger bar and, in the evening at least, this formed the main social meeting area.

From the Marriott Rivercenter there was direct access to the Rivercenter Mall and its many shops, restaurants, and cheaper eating places, all in one large, multi-storied, air-conditioned building. It also housed an I-Max cinema and had a door leading out to Alamo Square and thus to the Alamo itself.

Whilst this is in fact a very compact area (Convention Center - cross street to first hotel - cross next street to second hotel) it seemed much further. Firstly, the heat was seriously off-putting, secondly the streets were four lanes wide, and thirdly the pedestrian crossing facility kept us waiting for long periods. As well as the usual white man ('cross') and red man ('do not cross') indicators there was audio for those who are hard of seeing; we all got very used to hearing the mechanical voice repeatedly order: "Wait!", "Wait!", "Wait!".  For those who understandably wanted to avoid the heat of the concrete pedestrian pavements and the long wait they could exit the Center at the River Walk level, pass under the delaying roads, and walk straight into either hotel (both of which offered entrances at this lower level).

The Convention Center had been extended in recent years and sprawled somewhat, with two wings (one either side of the River Walk) and three levels, and good navigation around the place was not obvious. For example, the obvious route to one set of rooms involved going out in the heat, along a bit, and then back in through another set of doors; after a couple of days experience one realised that one could avoid the heat by instead going into the vast hall used for the art show, dealers, etc., through the plain, white, unmarked, utility doors along the side, and so straight to the desired rooms. The Pocket Program included maps of the building but they were so small and indistinctly printed that they were of no real use; furthermore, the convention's information desk had nothing better to offer and were equally bemused as to where certain rooms were or how to get to them.

Apart from its poor maps, the Pocket Program was also criticised by some for not including a programme grid. In addition, I personally thought it suffered from too small a font size; a point or two more would have made it considerably easier to read (especially under poor lighting). It was, though, small enough to easily fit in a back pocket and its spiral binding made it easy to open. However, making it a touch larger would have done no harm and would have greatly improved its readability and, thus, its usefulness.

The first event in the programme was Stroll With The Stars at 9 am on Thursday, a chance to spend an hour or so strolling around the streets with various well known folks and anyone else who fancied a bit of exercise to start the day. This was a daily event and is, I think, a very good idea for a Worldcon (or, indeed, any con). I would have joined them but even then the heat was more than I was prepared to endure.

The programme items started in earnest at noon and had been running for five hours by the time the Opening Ceremony kicked things off officially. Paul Cornell (author and scriptwriter) as Master of Ceremonies (or Toastmaster as they called him) welcomed us all to San Antonio and did so in his very English voice, insisting on anglicising as many Texan expressions as he could cram in (for example 'ye', and indeed, 'haw'). Whilst amusing to start with, the joke soon got thin and by the end of the convention had definitely ceased to be funny. He proceeded to introduce the guests as if they were gamblers or outlaws arriving in a Wild West saloon. They were: Ellen Datlow (editor), James Gunn (author), Willie Siros (fan and con runner), Norman Spinrad (author), Darrell K. Sweet (artist) (having passed away in 2011, he was represented by his son Darrell R. Sweet, also an artist), Leslie Fish (musician - especially filk), and Joe R. Lansdale (author and martial artist). Unfortunately there was only the one microphone and it was badly positioned with the MC's table in the way. Whilst we could hear most of what Paul was saying, the others' comments were often indistinct and went mostly unheard; Leslie Fish sussed the microphone and sung her introduction to good applause. All in all it descended into an exercise in Mumble. It is my belief that an Opening Ceremony should have some Ceremony in it - and Ceremony was sorely lacking.

Once over, most of the audience flocked off to other things, which could be said to be their loss as next up on the stage was the first of the musical concerts that ran throughout the convention. Seanan McGuire and Dead Sexy provided the opening act and very good they were too; with a band that included Bill and Brenda Sutton and Dr. Mary Crowell this was no surprise. When introducing each of the members, Seanan pointed out that they each came from somewhere that was 'not as hot' (excepting the two Texans). The heat was much commented on throughout the convention!

Hot on their heals came the first performance by Leslie Fish, who would go on to provide us with several very enjoyable performances and run her own filk session every evening. For those unfamiliar with Leslie, she came out of the folk/protest scene and has been performing ever since: she is perhaps THE doyen of filk. The convention claimed that she could sing all weekend without denting her repertoire - and I believe them. As she tuned up her 12-string guitar, Monster, she realised she had left her whiskey in her book bag; the flask quickly appearing on stage, she took a drop on her fingers and dabbed it on Monster's neck saying 'water your horse first', took a swig and gargled, then started an excellent set. It is said that Leslie has a song for everything, and a lot more beside. It is the first time I have heard a protest lament on behalf of native tribes decrying the invasion of their lands by foreigners … the invading Incas!

All told there were about a thousand programme items including talks, panels, kaffeeklatsches (sit round a table and talk to your favourite author over a coffee) and literary beers (substitute beer for coffee), the film festival, and the Rangernauts (a convention-long and very interesting programme for children). I cannot possibly list all the items but the general themes were (in no particular order): fannish, readings, culture, literature, films (long, short, and animations), autographs, real world, (writing) industry, authors, Spanish, media, science (including a programme from members of NASA (such as astronaut Cady Coleman)), workshops, music, Texas, art, costuming, and dances.

Despite such a choice I attended surprisingly few items. On contemplation, I think several factors came into play: the heat outside was enough to sap enthusiasm even on the short journey to the con, the air conditioning was so excessive in places that I just wanted to leave the room, the lack of somewhere convivial to easily sit down, cogitate, and generally meet up with people was a hindrance, some of the items proved not to be as described (either the moderators were failing to keep panellists on subject or they had all decided they would rather talk about something else), a general feeling that the intellectual content of some items and panellists was lower than I have come to expect over the many years I have been attending such events (is Science Fiction fandom dumbing down? are today’s younger fans less aware of history and, even, general knowledge?), and that many items (despite their titles and descriptions) really were not that interesting. The worst offender, though, was the Pocket Program book. I mentioned earlier that the font size could have been a touch larger; after the con I sat down for a day (yes, a whole day) to read it through and found the small font to be so tiring to read that I realised that most days I had just given up trying to find out exactly what was on offer, perhaps 'randomly' chosen an item to attend, or else just wandered around the convention looking for inspiration. So a serious lesson for the writers of such publications to take to heart -- make it easy and pleasant to read!

There were, though, several items I particularly enjoyed. 'Arouse Is Not The Past Tense Of Arise' was an excellent discussion on grammar and its misuse (and I would like to take this opportunity to remind you all that spelling is checked with a 'spelling checker' and not a 'spell checker'; the latter is used by sorcerers to check that the magic in their spells will work!). Drew Heyen’s talk on 'Firearms in the Victorian Era', whilst having nothing to do with Science Fiction, was none-the-less very interesting and very well given: an excellent speaker who knows how to inform, amuse, and handle his audience. The concerts I attended were uniformly good and the idea of round-robin performances (two singers alternating) worked well, as exemplified by Kathleen Sloan and Blind Lemming Chiffon.

There was also plenty to wander around and see. The vast space of Exhibit Hall A housed the dealers’ area and there was much (though not as much as some years) to browse through (and even buy - again FanTanimals had the pleasure of my credit card for more of their excellent wooden carvings/puzzles). The hall also boasted the Art Show and it was worth visiting several times in order to fully appreciate the many works on display (and there were some prints that could be bought there-and-then rather than being bid for in the auction). The usual fannish exhibitions of past Hugo awards, photographic portraits of writers, fanzines, and other ephemera, were also present.

This year being the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, there was a celebratory exhibit which included a (fan-made) TARDIS, Daleks, Morbius (a character from the Tom Baker days), a remotely controlled, speaking K-9, and the control console from the feature-length special which starred Paul McGann. Next to this was the (fan-made) bridge from the original USS Enterprise (NCC 1701) and I happened to be there when Leslie Fish arrived, sat in the captain's chair, and sang 'Banned from Argo' to a good crowd. Nearby TEXLUG (the Texas Lego Users Group) created many wonders in the familiar clip-together plastic: spaceships, spaceports, cities, railways, and even countryside - and a giant Hugo rocket.

Positioned at the far end of the hall, in a sort of annexe room, were the fan tables. Not only were they therefore distant from the rest of the convention but they were also somewhat out of sight and not visited as much as they ought to have been. It was a shame that they were not integrated properly into the main hall area, especially as these tables are where other conventions advertise their existence and gain members. The table for next year’s Worldcon (Loncon 3 - London in 2014) was positioned to the back of this space and consequently seemed unusually (and unhealthily) quiet! One was left cynically wondering if LoneStarCon 3 did not care about other conventions.

Particularly fannish events included the Harry Harrison Memorial Wake, though as it was not in the programme I only found out about it afterwards, and the 74th Anniversary Worldcon Ballgame (in which the Pros beat the Fans) with the first ball being thrown by David Kyle (who had attended the first Worldcon Ballgame in 1939).

The Masquerade attracted about thirty entries, which is really not that many considering that this is one of Worldcon’s prestigious events. Whilst some were quite amusing, the standard was generally nowhere near as high as it used to be, say, twenty to twenty five years ago. One wonders if many potential costumers preferred to go to Dragoncon, which was running the same weekend in Atlanta, or to dedicated costume conventions. There has for some time been discussion as to whether the Masquerade should be dropped from Worldcon and this year’s outing did little to weaken that argument. Once the display was over there was a mass exodus, with many heading for the room parties. Whilst the judges went to debate their decisions, those who remained in the Grand Salon were thoroughly entertained by songs from Leslie Fish and then by magic from Drew Heyen.

As could be seen from the sometimes excruciatingly long queues for the lifts (which at particularly busy times required lift wranglers to sort out), the room parties were very popular. I attended these for a couple of nights but found it a not particularly pleasant experience. I look back to a time when room parties were events where you could easily meet people, get to know them, and settle into a quiet corner with a beer and your new friends; these days there are queues to get into them, you have to be carded if you want an alcoholic drink, you are squashed into a herd that shuffles round each room in search of food, snacks, and the aforementioned drinks, and it is very difficult to get to meet new people, let alone make new friends. In future I think I shall avoid them altogether. (Having said that, the plan for Loncon 3 next year is that such parties will not be in hotel rooms but will all be in the large social area in the convention centre - which should make them much more pleasant.)

The Big Event of any Worldcon is the Hugo Awards Ceremony (see [insert link] for the winners). This was another outing for Paul Cornell in his MC roll and, whilst all went quite smoothly, he did make a couple of faux-pas. He chose to make mention of perceived sexual harassment at previous conventions, thus prompting comments that (a) he was less well informed than he should have been, (b) he appeared to be taking sides when there was still much contention over certain accusations and alleged behaviours, and (c) this was most definitely NOT the place to bring up such subjects. He also had a “humorous” go at SMOFs; I suspect he had some of the higher profile SMOFs in mind but apparently without realising just how many of the folks at a Worldcon could classify themselves as such and thus might be offended. [Note - SMOF stands for Secret Master Of Fandom and is a semi-humorous term self-applied to anyone who works in any major(ish) capacity for a convention. I am not sure if “merely” being a gopher is enough to earn one the accolade but attending a SMOFcon certainly does.]

As usual Robert Silverberg got to introduce one of the Hugos and proved once more that he is a master at holding an audience spellbound. Many of the winners found their way to the stage encumbered by Christopher J. Garcia who insisted on leaping up and hugging nearly everyone; there was later a suggestion that there should be a special Hugo award for anyone who managed to get onstage without being thus waylaid.

The five-day convention came to an end with the Closing Ceremony. Once again there was, disappointingly, hardly any Ceremony in it! The guests all said their goodbyes and thanked us for inviting them and Cady Coleman was inspirational in her applause for Science Fiction being that which had got so many people such as herself into the space programme and other hi-tech industries. It was good to hear Randall Shepherd, the con chairman, sincerely thanking everyone for all their efforts – but it went on for far too long. Eventually he handed over the reigns to Loncon 3, next year’s Worldcon. To the sounds of materialisation, a cardboard TARDIS was pushed through the curtains and Alice/Cooper (Alice Lawson and Steve Cooper - the co-chairs) stumbled out and told us what a great time they had had next year and that we should make sure we go to London in 2014 (even though we would have to go the long way round). They showed a short but neat video which zoomed around Europe reminding us of the previous European Worldcons and finishing with the message 'Game of Cons' (no prizes for guessing the inspiration). To the botched soundtrack of dematerialisation the TARDIS was pulled clumsily back through the curtains. And, barring the odd Dead Dog activity, that was it for another year.

The published attendance figures as of the end of the Saturday were: 5,681 total memberships, of whom 4,960 were pre-registered and 721 joined at the door, but just 3,876 actually there.

I do not know if it was the high number of walk-ins, the high number of Texans, or just a change in the general fannish demographics, and without wishing to cast undue aspersions on anyone, but compared to previous conventions I did notice that panel audiences were not as 'well mannered' as I am accustomed to. For example, there was more butting in and plain arguing with the panellists, along with a tendency to thus speak for too long and too often. Many panels finish with a Q&A session, and often to good effect, but this year it often sounded like an audience member was merely trying to talk down a panellist with whom (s)he happened to disagree. Often on such occasions I thought the offenders were out of order and just plain wrong, that I would like to take them outside and wash their ears out so that they could listen properly to what was said, and then take them to an educational establishment where they could learn something of the real world before inflicting their ignorance on us. That is not to imply that I am in any way against an exchange of meaningful information and opinions, which can often add a pleasant bonus to a panel, but if you ever must interrupt people who know they are talking about (why else would they be on the panel?) please make sure that you too make sense and, furthermore, have something to offer and worth saying.

On the same sort of line, I also noticed an increase in the 'nerdiness' (a term I dislike and which I think completely fails to summarise the knowledge and open-mindedness of the average SF fan) of some of the members; that sort of lack of skill in social interactions that leaves one trying to retreat politely from them and be elsewhere. It actually left me wondering if I am becoming too normal, too 'mundane'; if I had 'grown out' of Science Fiction (or at least of fandom). Or are we witnessing a social change?

Another thing I noticed for the first time was just how many people have written and published novels and were actively pushing them. Nearly every time I sat down for a casual coffee at a table shared with strangers, someone would pass me a card or flier for their novel and extol its virtues. Many of these seemed to be self-published (and there were a number of programme items on such topics throughout the convention) and I was left wondering to myself how many of them were worth the effort of reading. One hopes that the established publishing industry helps weed out the bad from the good, encourages and supports the good as they get better (and better), but one also realises that sometimes the industry supports the bad simply because they think it fits in with today’s immediate trend and will sell well whilst also ignoring new writers who really do have a talent which ought to be recognised and nurtured. We do of course need new talent, and new talent has to start somewhere before it can hone its talents! I merely bring this change to your attention. After all, there was a time when the pundits predicted that the paperback would bring about the end of printed books and we would all forget how to read!

One final comment on changing times - the rapidly increasing number of mobility scooters. As costs have come down, these are seen more often everywhere and must be a great boon to those who need them. Europeans often comment (not always fairly) on the size of (only some!) Americans and cruelly accuse them of being too big to be able to walk anywhere unaided, but in fact many of the users are far from as young as they used to be, and inevitably their mobility has become limited, but with these devices they can still attend conventions and that is a Good Thing. I also spotted fans who were clearly disabled or injured in some way and again it is good that they are not prevented from attending. There is one problem though: the lack of manners and thoughtfulness of some of the users. Take the speed of the devices: the average fan is wandering around the con at maybe one or two miles an hour whilst certain scooterists are charging around and weaving between them at four miles an hour (i.e. the pedal to the metal) which can lead to accidents and injuries. Indeed, one of my local shopping malls has a list of scooterists they have banned because of the number of times said persons have collided with pedestrian shoppers and sent them to hospital for their injuries to be treated. I noticed one particularly belligerent scooterist who, in attempting to get nearer the front at a panel, continuously bumped into an occupied wheelchair in order to push past it - you would have thought that one such user would have had respect and understanding for another such user! So here is a thought for future convention runners: ensure that all scooterists are reminded of decent, thoughtful behaviour, that stewards and security staff are vigilant against offenders, and, if necessary, confiscate the scooters from those who abuse them.

I have been attending Worldcons for nearly thirty five years and maybe I am just getting fazed by them but, all-in-all, I would have to say that this was the least memorable I have attended. There were parts I enjoyed but nowhere enough of them, I had an overall feeling that it lacked anything special, and it just did not provide the fun, satisfaction, and inspiration that I expect of a Worldcon. It is always a genuine pleasure to meet up with friends both old and new and this convention was no exception, but without their company I would have found the con decidedly lacking.

Whilst we were waiting for the Closing Ceremony to get going (it was running late) one of the Daleks came through from the exhibition next door and made its way up and down the isle, demanding loudly in its imperious, highly modulated voice “Waaaait!”, “Waaaait!”, “Waaaait!”. When your abiding memory of a convention is a Dalek impersonating a pedestrian crossing pole, that has to say something!

Peter Tyers

 

Our Lonestarcon 3 news summary was covered in our Autumn 2013 news page as were the principal category Hugo Awards presented at the con.

[Note for those confused by certain spellings: this article uses British spellings except when quoting proper nouns, e.g. the programme was listed in the Pocket Program, the centre for filk sessions was the Marriott Rivercenter.]

For other con reviews see our science fiction convention reviews index.

 


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