Convention Review

The 2015 World SF Convention

The 73nd World Science Fiction Convention was held in Spokane,
Washington State (USA), 19th – 23rd August 2015. Peter Tyers reports.


Two years ago when Sasquan won the bid to run this year’s (2015) Worldcon there was some consternation in some circles as to whether the folks running it would do a good job as the bid, or parts of it, were deemed weak. It was a three-way competition; the bid for Disney at Orlando was seen as the worst option whereas Helsinki’s former 2015 bid was looking good, but it is said by some that strategic voting was encouraged in some American circles to ensure that the Worldcon did not leave the States … and thus Spokane came to win. With these thoughts in mind I was wondering just how Sasquan would turn out - would this prove to be a Worldcon I would have better avoided? The answer in short is No, it was OK though not great.

The Guests of Honour were David Gerrold (author), Vonda McIntyre (author), Leslie Turek (fan), Brad Foster (artist), Tom Smith (musician), and, from orbit in the International Space Station, Dr. Kjell Lidgren.

The convention was based at the Spokane Convention Center with a few items in the DoubleTree Hotel, to which it is joined by a short corridor. The Masquerade and the Hugo Awards Ceremony were held in the INB Performing Arts Center which, whilst being to all intents and purposes a separate building, shares a roof with the convention centre (so at least you would have kept dry had it rained). The evening parties were held in the Davenport Hotel, one of the main con hotels and about ten blocks away. For those not wanting to walk, there was a 24 hour shuttle bus service between the Center and the Davenport. (The principal [categories with over 1,000 nominating votes] category Hugo nominations are here and the winners are here.)

One of the first things one noticed about the Convention Center is that it sprawls, with groups of rooms here and groups of rooms there, and there was lots of walking to do; indeed, at the first panel I attended someone commented that he had already clocked 25,000 steps on his Fitbit and it was only halfway through the first afternoon. As I understand it, the Convention Center has been extended several times and this shows in the way that you get round the building as surely nobody would have designed the whole thing like that from scratch; it has become banana-shaped and gently curves more than halfway round the DoubleTree. As a result there are now long(!) corridors and one needed to allow plenty of time for getting from one item to another; indeed most items were intended to be 45 minutes in length so as to allow 15 minutes to get to the next one. Furthermore, the ground floor is not contiguous so there was lots of going up and down to the next floor in order to get from one end to the other; fortunately the several sets of stairs had accompanying escalators or lifts (elevators).

Sasquan reported having 5,232 warm bodies, which is quite a good turnout. The convention centre was large enough to accommodate them and there were not the large queues and crowds which marred last year’s Worldcon (Loncon 3). However, the long corridors did tend to clog up a bit at times as there were tidal surges of folks trying to get from the rooms at one end of the building to the rooms at the other end and, of course, other folks surging the other way.

Throughout the event I found the staff to be very friendly and helpful; they were noticeably very approachable and always willing to stop for a chat. In fact, I found everyone in Spokane to be friendly and helpful and it really left me wishing I had allowed time to include a holiday there instead of merely attending the convention.

The site’s catering, on the other hand, was certainly nothing to be proud of. The main snack bar, in the area by the Exhibit Halls (and therefore a natural gathering place), was the worst I have encountered in some time. The States in general has a well deserved reputation for not catering for vegetarians and others with particular dietary requirements; here the fries (chips) were the only hot food they offered that was not meat. When I enquired if they had any dish at all that was not meat-based they replied “yes, turkey sandwiches” followed by “and chicken salads”. Yes, really! Fortunately, the coffee and sandwich bar at the other end of the building was a little better supplied as they also had tuna sandwiches (until they ran out) and they were friendlier and had much better coffee!

The Con Suite is often a place to get light snacks but this year the con did sterling service in providing not just trail bars and the like but proper dishes including tray-fulls of hot food and salad items; they called it the Tempus Fugit Café. They even had a separate room where you could get vegan food though I cannot say I thought much of it (it was nice to see they tried, but I wish they had tried harder). On the downside, the Con Suite was basically just a suite on the top floor of the DoubleTree and it was often unpleasantly crowded and with long queues outside.

Outside of the Convention Centre things looked up as there were many good restaurants. My favourites were the Azteca Mexican Restaurant (conveniently across the road from the DoubleTree), the Herbal Essence Café (very friendly and a good menu), and especially Frank’s Diner (based in an railroad car – or railway carriage to us Brits – and winner of several awards including 2014’s 'Best Casual Dining' from the Washington Restaurant Association).

Overall, I found the town itself to be very pleasant with wide, airy streets which were easy to cross, especially as the traffic was light. The weather was generally very pleasant and the walk to the Convention Center, mostly under blue skies with only a few small, fluffy white clouds and with a delightful freshness in the air, was a good start to the day (unlike the unbearable, humid heat of LoneStarCon 3, the 2013 Worldcon in San Antonio, TX, or the hot, desert dryness of Renovation, the 2011 Worldcon in Reno, NV).

The Spokane River runs along the side of the Convention Center and one just has to saunter across the King Cole bridge into the Riverfront Park. The con made good use of this and from late afternoon on the first day there were a number of First Night events in the park. This was a great idea and it was nice to see the park made use of; activities included music, games, con bid tables, a beer garden, and food (including free Ben and Jerry’s ice cream courtesy of Leslie Turek) and soft drinks. It was, however, rather weird in a totally unpredictably way - despite the sun still being high in the sky it was a sulking red in colour and the sky itself had become deep orange. The whole event felt surreal, almost as if on another planet. The reason was simple: there were forest fires raging some 80-100 miles away and that evening their smoke was high in the atmosphere above the town.

The programme listed over a thousand items and, from my attendance of some of them, I wonder if Worldcons are concentrating on the quantity rather than the quality. Indeed, looking through the programme I would sometimes choose what was simply the least-uninteresting looking item or else decide that this would be good time to tour the dealers’ room or the art show. There used to be a time when I found that programme items invariably had people on them who were interesting, knowledgeable, and worth listening to; of recent years I have become increasing aware that many of the items are not worth the effort of attending as they have little structure and those on them have little of value to say. Some panellists’ only 'claim to fame' seems to be their recent, self-published book (which they just happen to have with them).

The programme book, or Convention Guide to give it its official name, was very tall and not very wide, which meant that it fitted easily in the back pocket of my jeans (though it stuck a long way out and could be easily lost). It had a glued spine which made it a little difficult to open and read - using a spiral binding is so much easier! It would have benefited from making it clearer which items were in which programme streams and the film programme really ought to have had a section of its own as the very long list of short films scattered throughout the programme really cluttered it up. Likewise, it would have been useful to list the music items separately.

Looking through the programme book after the event, when things are calmer and less rushed and I had the chance to sit down for several hours in the comfort of the easy chair, I saw that there were items that now looked at least a little more interesting than when reading the programme book on the fly. I know that putting the programme together for an event as large as a Worldcon is a formidable task and, due to its size, figuring out what to attend is not easy. I think that the answer is to make a point of finalising the programme well in advance (after all, there are some professionals who need at least three months notice in order to make their business arrangements, such as authors meeting with publishers). At present, the programme is often released a few days before the con starts but this often requires the use of an app and the appropriate equipment on which to run it, equipment which we do not all have. I would like to see the programme released at least two clear weeks before the con starts and, what is more, to be released in a way that (or ways that include that) it can be easily read by almost anyone, such as a PDF or an MS Word document, thus allowing the opportunity and the time for everyone to plan in advance and then just get on with enjoying the con whilst there. It reminds me of a friend who arrives a day early just so that she can sit down in her hotel room for a day to study the programme book and make her plans.

I also have to comment that the audiences are not of the same calibre as they used to be; these days certain folks deem it perfectly acceptable to interrupt and voice their own opinions when neither requested nor wanted. I cannot be the only person who has noticed this trend as the first edition of Sasqwatch, the convention newssheet, devoted half a page to 'Panel Rules' (reproduced for reference at the end of this article). Whilst poor moderation is on the increase, it also, I think, represents a change in the thinking and indeed the manners of the audience. It happened rarely but I was heartened to hear one moderator (an older and very experienced fan) very firmly insist that a particular audience member ask a real question and, when he insisted on instead stating his personal opinion, she firmly slapped him down and told him to keep his peace. Hooray, more of it I say!

I would add to the above that many people seemed to spend half their time on their smartphones or tablets during panels and their glowing screens are most distracting. If they are not listening, why are they there? I do not mind people taking notes; the sound of pencils scratching on paper is somehow rather reassuring.

Mind you, I do have some sympathy for some of the panellists. I attended a few items where the moderator had not turned up and the panellists were clearly unsure of what they were there for and what they were supposed to discuss or talk about. This is neither fair on them nor on the audience! A typical example was the item 'How To Make a Decision'; the moderator failed to turn up leaving one of the panellist to run the show. The panel started to discuss con-running decisions they had made until a member of the audience raised the issue that he thought they would be talking about making decisions within the novel one was writing, but then another audience member pointed out that the panel should, as per the Programme, be talking about the process of decision making in general; in the end the panel achieved nothing other than to admit they had all missed the point. Another example was 'The Future of Back to the Future - Where's My Flying Skateboard?' where the lack of a moderator meant that the panellists waffled round with very little to say and, furthermore, allowed certain of the audience to constantly interrupt with pointless comments and opinions.

Whilst still on the subject of panels, I do wish they would provide enough microphones - one for each panellist so that they do not have to keep passing them back and forth, often talking before the microphoneis near enough to work properly. Furthermore, will all panellists please speak up and please use the microphone: believe me, the average voice does NOT reach the back of the room unaided (Brian Blessed - yes,  other well trained theatre actors - yes,  panellists - certainly not). Furthermore, speak clearly, do not mumble, and do not rush. If you cannot be heard properly then what is the point of you being there? It never ceases to amaze me how many panellists are unable to grasp this simple point: if you are going to be on a panel make sure you are heard or else decline the offer.

I also could not help but note that the soundproofing between some of the rooms was inadequate and particularly loud items disturbed their neighbours. Another and frequent disturbance was caused by the banging of doors as people snuck in and out of items; unfortunately the doors appeared to have no damping mechanism to help them snick shut rather than bang.

As usual, Charles Stross proved well worth listening to and his contributions to items such as 'Genre and the Global Police State' were most welcome. David Gerrold spoke well and eloquently whenever I heard him and he had good tales to tell at the Leonard Nimoy Memorial item. When George R. R. Martin arrived late for his interview by Bob Silverberg (I told you it could take a long time to get from one end to the other) Bob started the interview without him and took on both roles to the great amusement of all present. The conversation between Bob and George was particularly enjoyable as they are both accomplished speakers who spoke slowly and clearly and had a lot worth saying - one of my personal highlights of the convention.

I popped into the film programme a few times in the first couple of days and enjoyed a good selection of interesting short films. However, the room was kept in total darkness throughout and the films shown back-to-back, meaning that finding a seat was very difficult and sometimes even hazardous. There should have been at least a little light, other than that reflected from the screen, to ensure safe navigation. Short breaks of a minute or so between items would also mean that the audience was not constantly disturbed by people stumbling round in the dark and getting in the way of the viewers. In the end I decided to forgo the film programme in the interests of not tripping over and having an accident (and I do wonder if the organiser of this event had ever heard of Health and Safety).

I only got to pop in a few times but the Filk stream seemed good, especially as it was in a small but proper theatre with a real stage and ranked seating. In order to keep things moving and allow as many as possible to perform, the time slots were quite short. However, I think the slots were too short as by the time an artist had got set up and got going it was already time for the next one, which was unsettling from the audience perspective. Amongst those I caught and enjoyed, though for too little time, were Kathleen Sloane and Betsy Tinney. I had hoped to see Tom Smith perform but his only such appearance was his concert during the break in the Masquerade, which I had to miss due to a dinner engagement.

The big formal event of every Worldcon is the Hugo Awards Ceremony. This year it was fronted by David Gerrold and Tananarive Due and, as often, the conversation seemed a bit stilted at times but overall they made a very reasonable job of it. Bob Silverberg gave an opening address and, in a veiled reference to the recent controversy over Sad Puppies and the like, reminded us of the Worldcon in Berkeley (Baycon in 1968) where students and the police were clashing violently outside. In order to ensure calm this year he suggested that we do they same as they did in those days - meditate - and then he lead the audience in a round of singing Harri Krishna - it was almost surreal and made a great start to the ceremonies. For those not wanting or not able to get into the event itself, it was broadcast to a large screen in Guinan’s Place, the convention bar; personally I watched it there - easier to get a beer!

Outside of the programme items there was the Art Show and this was deserving of several visits; mostly the work on display was very good, if not excellent. I do, however, wish there were not as many pictures of cats and kittens as I really do not see what they have to do with science fiction - if you want cute animals stick to dragons. The Dealers’ Room was about as normal; it had a good range of bookstores, craft tables, DVDs, CDs, T-Shirts, other items of interesting clothing, etc.

In the same area (the Exhibit Halls) were a number of exhibits and displays including those for Worldcon History, Fanzines, and many other fan items. In particular I noticed a number of Discworld-themed groups and displays; whether this was coincidental or in memory of Sir Terry Pratchett (who we lost earlier in the year) I could not say. Indeed, I have not seen so many references to the Discworld since Terry was a Guest of Honour at Noreascon 4 (Boston in 2004).

In the evening there were the obligatory room parties. Interestingly, they are no longer called room parties but are now 'Meet and Greets'; preferable buzzwords when dealing with insurance and hotels that do not like 'parties'. As usual at conventions in the States, they insisted on carding everyone if they wished for an alcoholic drink; personally I regard this as ridiculous and insulting - do they really expect me to believe that these people are capable of checking my ID correctly yet not seeing for themselves that I am clearly over 21 (by decades). Noticeably, none of the restaurants or bars found it necessary to see my ID when ordering a beer or wine.

The con had provided the Davenport with a list of those fans prepared to have rooms near the parties so as to ensure that other, non-fannish, guests did not get disturbed by any noise or by the constant passage of party-goers. Unfortunately the hotel completely ignored this list when assigning rooms and put holiday-making families in rooms next to the parties. There were a lot of complaints from the 'normal' guests and the hotel has to take full responsibility for getting this wrong.

Earlier I mentioned the smoke from the forest fires. As Friday morning proceeded the wind changed and it hit town at street level and was most unpleasant; it stayed around all day and into the night. According to various sources, it was the worst pollution in town since Mount St. Helen erupted in 1980 and the worst pollution recorded anywhere in the States that day. The convention laid on extra buses so that those with breathing difficulties would have no need to walk through it (though it was not obvious at the time and Friday morning’s Sasqwatch made only a brief announcement about there being air quality alerts). Personally I found it necessary to keep a handkerchief over my face when outside and it left me with a most unpleasant cough for the rest of the convention (and which did not clear up until a couple of weeks after I got home). By Saturday morning the wind had changed again and the town remained thankfully clear for the rest of the con; however, on that day the smoke was now trapped in the buildings! In an unfortunate way, the smoke made it a Worldcon I will never forget.

Eventually we arrived at the Closing Ceremony and this was the usual round of thanks to all those who put so much effort into running the event; necessary but not very exciting (I am sure they could have enlivened it a bit, actually, quite a bit). Then they handed the gavel over to MidAmeriCon II, next year’s Worldcon in Kansas City. It will run from the 17th to the 21st of August 2016. The MidAmeriCon folks showed a really good ad for their event; it was a sort of old-time, black and white, holiday ad'; those that remember the Pathé News at the cinema will know what I mean.

And so it was over for another year. It had been pleasant but not a classic. Now it was time to pack the bags, head home, and, for some, start saving for next year.


Panel Rules (from Sasqwatch Issue 1)

1) Set your cell phone to vibrate or turn it off. If you do have to answer it, tell the caller quietly 'Just a minute”' and exit the room as discreetly as possible.

2) Do not yell out comments from the audience unless you’re called upon. You are not on the panel.

3) Feel free to raise your hand at any time...but moderators are within their rights to ignore you or to say something like 'We’ll be doing a Q&A later in the 45 minutes, but right now I’m going to let our panellists talk amongst themselves for a bit.'

4) During the Q&A, a good moderator will give preference to people who have spoken less than others.

5) If a moderator acknowledges your raised hand, then you can ask a question or give a relevant comment.

5a) Unfortunately, more and more people seem not to understand what a question is. To paraphrase from instructions given for a Q&A with Stephen Sondheim: 'A question is one sentence that ends with your voice going up. This panel is not about you. We don’t need to hear what was the first Sondheim show you saw and how it forever changed your life. Just ask a real question and sit down.'

5b) Similarly, comments should be about the topic, not about you, and they should be brief, about as much as you can fit into a tweet. Moderators are within their rights to ask that you get to the point. Before you raise your hand, honestly consider: 'Does what I want to say add to the discussion, or am I just trying to impress people?' And—don’t forget that the Worldcon Code of Conduct applies to your behaviour as a member of any Sasquan audience:

Peter Tyers


Elsewhere on this site, other Sasquan coverage can be found that includes: brief comment on the programme, film programme and our usual comprehensive listing of science programme items. Plus there is news of the 2015 World SF Society business meetings.

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