Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Event - MidAmeriCon II, August 17th -21st, 2016: Saturday and Sunday

There are some people who say that Worldcon is too small, and that the convention should work to increase its attendance to five figures worth of attendees. My experience with Worldcon is that it is plenty big already. For every event that the redhead and I attended, there were usually a dozen others that we did not, and this doesn't even consider the other options we had, such as wandering through the dealer hall, playing games in the gaming area, or admiring the many "parks" that had been set up. There was so much to see and do that we didn't even notice there was an Iron Throne or a display of examples of past Hugo statues in the main convention hall until Sunday.

Not only was there a wide variety of events to choose from, all of the events the redhead and I went to were well attended, in some cases, they were filled to capacity or beyond. The lines at the signing sessions were quite long for all the authors one would expect long lines for, and even for lesser known authors there was often a fair amount of traffic. The Hugo Award ceremony was held in a large theater that was filled with attendees. When someone says that Worldcon "should" be larger, I have to wonder what they mean by that. Does Worldcon need to replicate Dragon*Con, or San Diego Comic Con, or some other large media convention in terms of attendance? There doesn't seem to be a need for that to happen, especially given that giant conventions like Dragon*Con and Gen Con already exist. What does Worldcon have to gain from trying to emulate them (and probably being a poor substitute) instead of being what it already is and delivering what it is already good at delivering?

I have been to Dragon*Con. I like Dragon*Con. I will probably go to Dragon*Con again at some point in the future. But I also like Worldcon, and I don't want or need the two conventions to supply the same experience. There is room in the world for different kinds of conventions, especially since some people want the giant media experience that Dragon*Con and the various Comic Cons provide, and others want the more relaxed experience of smaller, local literary conventions, and still others prefer the conventions that fit in between those two extremes. And for every person who loves a particular type of convention, there is probably another person who has no interest in it, but loves a different type. When people who are agitated about the way Worldcon is run say that it needs to change, to expand, to cater to a different audience, they never really seem to have a reason why. They always seem to put forward the notion that Worldcon should be different as if it were self-evident that it should, and that is a proposition that I think is dubious at best.

Saturday: This was another late start for the redhead and I, mostly because of how late we had stayed at the party the night before. At least in our experience, we have to decide if we want to attend convention events in the morning or parties in the evening, because doing both is a schedule that is simply too exhausting for us to keep up with.

The day also got off to a somewhat disappointing start. The first panel of the day that we intended to go to (actually the only real panel that we intended to attend) was The Shipping Forecast moderated by Keith Yatsuhashi, with Jaylee James and Alyssa Wong scheduled to be panelists. When we arrived, we were informed that Alyssa would not be joining the panel. As I figured out later, the reason for her absence appears to have been the result of the harassment she had been subjected to the evening before, and she was still in her hotel room filing her report with the MidAmeriCon response team. But we didn't know that on Saturday morning, all we knew is that the author we had most wanted to see at the panel wasn't there. I suspect we were not the only people who had decided to go to this panel to see Alyssa speak, and came away sad that she was not there. On the list of reasons why harassment is something conventions should be concerned about, this is well down the list, but it is not inconsequential: The ripple effects that follow-on after a harassment incident affect more than just those directly involved - they can, and often do, affect the entire convention. The problems of harassment and disruption are issues that I want to talk about, but I'm going to leave them for a blog post of their own, as I believe that they deserve a comprehensive treatment.

Friday had been a day dominated by magazine reading panels. In contrast, Saturday was a day of attending signing sessions. The first one the redhead and I went to featured David Brin and Greg Bear, who both signed books for us. While we were standing in line, David Gerrold ran over from a nearby booth where he was signing material to say "I guess this is where you come to Brin and Bear it". He then quickly ran away followed by a chorus of groans. I suspect that if people in the group had had popcorn on hand, we would have thrown it at him as he retreated. Both Walter H. Hunt and Fran Wilde were also part of this signing session, but as both of the authors have signed literally every work of theirs we own, all we could do is tell Hunt how much we liked Elements of Mind, and tell Fran how much we were looking forward to the release of her new novel Cloudbound.

The next signing session we attended featured Mary Robinette Kowal and Jo Walton. The redhead and I now have a complete set of the Glamourist Histories series, all signed by Ms. Kowal, and a copy of What Makes This Book So Great signed by Walton. Also at the signing session were astronauts Stan Love and Jeanette Epps, a fact that pretty much turned everyone present into star-struck twelve year old children. Some of the authors expressed an interest in abandoning their own signing sessions so they could go and have a fangasm over the two astronauts. Sarah Pinsker, who was signing at the table right next to Love and Epps, took a hilarious selfie with the astronaut table in the background. We ended up with signed pictures from both of them, and the redhead got to take a picture with each astronaut. All good things must come to an end, and before long the astronauts had retired to be replaced by the next collection of authors. We got books signed by John Scalzi and Ferrett Steinmetz, both of whom were exceptionally funny to talk to. We also got to speak with Sarah Beth Durst, who is scheduled to be the Guest of Honor at our "home" convention of CapClave in October.

The big event of the day was the Hugo Award ceremony, which started at eight in the evening, but for which we got in line shortly after six. At Worldcon, even waiting in line is frequently enjoyable, as you are always surrounded by people who have just as much of a passion for science fiction as you do. As part of a conversation, I brought up the line "[t]he sky above the port was the color of a television, tuned to a dead channel", and everyone knew exactly what I was referencing. Our conversation wandered across a variety of topics, but mostly centered on time travel scenarios and how we would (or would not) successfully cope with technological limitations if we were sent back to relive our teen years knowing what we know now. There are very few places that you can have that sort of conversation with a random group of strangers in a line, but Worldcon is one of them.

Once we got into the Pat Cadigan Theatre, things settled down as everyone took their seats. Many of the attendees had dressed up, and the redhead and I were no exception - she had made herself a very attractive dress decorated with text from The Hobbit, and had made me a matching kilt, also adorned with Tolkien's prose. Among the men, I believe that Scott Edelman stole the show with a fantastic suit covered in stars (although John Hertz in a tux and tails complete with a top hat gave him a good run for his money on that front), while Lynn Thomas and Alyssa Wong appeared to be competing for the Hugo Award for Best Dress. Pat Cadigan served as Toastmaster, assisted by Jan Siegel, and they hosted a magnificent ceremony. Through the night, Cadigan and Siegel were funny, especially when joined on stage by Ellen Datlow and Robert Silverberg, but most importantly, they kept the ceremony moving at an energetic pace. The Hugo Awards have a lot of categories, and it would be easy for them to bog down (and I have watched previous ceremonies in which they dragged at times), but Cadigan, Siegel, and the other presenters kept things moving and the entire show just flew by in what seemed to be no time at all.

As anyone who follows this blog probably knows already, I have thoughts on the Hugo Awards themselves, and how the voting turned out this year. I intend to talk about those topics more fully in a later blog post, but for now I will say that I am mostly pleased with the results. Worthy works won, and, with a few exceptions, things that deserved to finish behind "No Award" did so. The speeches by the winners were all excellent, but the true highlight of the night was when Andy Weir won the Campbell Award for Best New Writer - not his winning (he wasn't my first choice, but he was my second), but rather who accepted the award for him. Weir didn't come to the ceremony due to his reluctance to use air travel, so instead he had the astronauts in attendance accept the awards on his behalf, and Stan Love accepted the Campbell for him. For those who do not know, the Campbell Award comes with a tiara, and Love happily knelt to receive the shiny headgear from presented Elizabeth Bear and proudly wore it as he delivered Weir's acceptance speech. To Stan Love - you are the best of sports, and the most securely manly of men.

Every other speech was fantastic, from Hao Jingfang accepting the award for Best Novelette with a halting but delightful speech about how she was uncertain she wanted to win because she had been really looking forward to going to George R.R. Martin's annual Hugo Loser's Party, to Best Semiprozine editor Lynne Thomas opening her speech with "Well, shit" followed by fellow editor Michael Damien Thomas opening his with "Love is real!" Neil Gaiman provided the most direct speech of the night, thanking the voters for his win, but rebuking both the Sad and Rabid Puppies in no uncertain terms. Both Nnedi Okorafor and N.K. Jemisin supplied acceptance speeches that emphasized the need for, and the enriching nature of, diverse voices in the genre fiction field. The best, and most powerful speech of the night goes to another editor from Uncanny Magazine, Michi Trota, who pointed out that creating diversity is not merely opening the doors and expecting people to walk in, but also requires seeking out and encouraging new voices from the community of those who have previously been marginalized.

As quickly as the ceremony had begun, it was over. After the Hugo winners had come back to the stage for the traditional group photo, the redhead and I headed back to the con suite area for a snack and a drink and to get hold of copies of the post-Hugo statistics. We sat down with a couple of friends, and then slowly accumulated what seemed like most of the members of the Washington Science Fiction Association as we went through the rankings and the longlist of nominees, identifying who had been pushed off the ballot by slate voting, and figuring out what the ballot in some of the categories might have looked like absent the unethical actions of the Puppies. As I noted before regarding the experience of standing in line before the Hugo Award ceremony, there are few places where one can have an extended conversation about matters of mostly nerdy interest - in this case, a conversation about the nominating and voting stats for a genre fiction award - and have everyone within earshot as a fully on board participant. Worldcon is one of those places, and that is one of the things that makes it such an almost magical event.

Sunday: Sunday was the last day of the convention, and was also a shortened day, with the last scheduled event starting at four in the afternoon. There is always something melancholic about packing up and checking out of one's hotel room on the final day of a convention, but there is also some relief. Conventions are a lot of fun, but they are also exhausting.

We weren't quite ready to head home yet, so we made our way to the magazine group reading for the Hugo-Award winning Uncanny Magazine moderated by Lynne M. Thomas and featuring Scott Lynch, Alyssa Wong, Max Gladstone, and Elizabeth Bear. Lynch opened up the panel by passing out the name cards, deciding that he would like to be Gladstone for the day. Bear elected to be Alyssa Wong, and Wong decided to be Bear, because, as she said "Elizabeth Bear is awesome". That left Gladstone to be Scott Lynch, leading him to quip how great it was to have Lynch's long flowing hair. This bit of silliness completed, the four authors began their readings, quickly proving why Uncanny had won the Best Semiprozine Hugo Award the night before. I know I sound like a broken record, but I cannot recommend these types of multi-author reading panels enough.

Our next panel was Sense8 moderated by Kate Elliott, with panelists Meg Frank, Sunil Patel, and Mark Oshiro, focused, as one might expect, upon the Netflix television program. This panel was the very first one that the redhead and I had put on our schedule when we were first mapping it out, and it did not disappoint. Elliott led an energetic discussion about the series, what made it so very good, what it got right, and also what it got wrong - although the general consensus was that the show hit just the right tone much more often than it suffered a misstep. Every panelist was excellent, but the commentary provided by Oshiro concerning the storylines revolving around Leto was outstanding, as was Patel's commentary relating to Kala's story set in India. This was one of the best panels I have ever attended, which really should not be surprising given the high quality of both the panel and the subject matter.

The final convention-related event the redhead and I attended was Can Hard Science Fiction Be Too Hard? a panel with Geoffrey Landis and Ann Leckie. Even though it was late in the day on the last day of the convention, both Leckie and Landis were in top form, ranging across a wide variety of science fiction topics and works - commenting on works by authors such as Stephen Baxter and Hal Clement, and also contrasting hard science fiction with other modes of science fiction such as space opera. After the panel, we got a chance to talk to Leckie for a bit, and she was just as warm and personable as one would expect a person who wrote a space opera series in which tea was a major plot element. We also met a woman who had cosplayed as several characters from Leckie's Imperial Radch series over the course of the weekend, having taken on the appearance of Tisarwat, Breq, and Anaander Mianaai. I am always impressed by the dedication and creativity of skilled cosplayers, and this woman was no exception.

After our final panel, the redhead and I met up with a friend of ours from the local area to go out to eat at Jack's Stack, as it is probably a criminal offense to spend any time in Kansas City without having a barbecue meal. And then we drove away from Worldcon, taking with us some books, some autographs, a lot of pictures, and a collection of wonderful memories.

MidAmeriCon II, August 17th - 21st, 2016: Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday

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  1. Replies
    1. @Gary: You're welcome. I'm always glad to learn that people have read what I wrote and have gotten something out of it.

  2. There are generally two reasons put forward for increasing the size of Worldcon. Not everyone is on board with both of them. They are:

    1) To increase the pool of Hugo nominators and voters. This would have the effect of both making it harder for the nominating phase to be gamed (although we're working on that) and of making the claim that the Hugo represents the popular consensus of "the best of science fiction" more plausible. I would like to see more people nominating and voting, and I fully expect that the result would not be the Puppies' predicted overturning of the "SJW cabal" by Right-Minded Fans.

    2) To make Worldcon a better fit for the size of facility it has been using, which would potentially allow membership rates to be lowered due to economies of scale. (Note that AFAIK no one is suggesting that Worldcon should expand to the size of Dragon*Con or the major comic-cons, although that assumption is frequently deployed as a counter-argument. But it's currently in the 5,000-attendee range, and the number I generally see being tossed around is roughly twice that.)

    There are a couple of other approaches which would accomplish that second goal without having to increase the size of the con. One is to stop using giant convention centers and go back to hotel clusters, as was common for Worldcons when I got into fandom. Another is to stop using giant cities and go to more places the size of Spokane, where the convention center was actually a very good fit for the size of the con and we didn't have to worry about some 50,000-person convention coming in and outbidding us for the venue during the selection process (as has happened to multiple bids in the last 10 years).

    1. @Lee Billings: I think (1) just seems like one is pushing the question of "why should it be bigger" off without really answering it. How many voters "should" the Hugo Awards have? How many people makes a claim to having a consensus of what is "best" plausible? Right now, the award gets more voters participating then almost any other genre fiction award (I think the Locus had beat it in numbers in the past). How many more "should" it have?

      (2) seems somewhat plausible, but memberships for the 2017 Dragon*Con currently cost $130, while 2017 Worldcon memberships currently cost $150. That's not much of a savings in exchange for adding 50,000 attendees.

      Gen Con is cheaper - they haven't released the 2017 price, but the 2016 price for pre-registered membership was $90. However, most of the events at Gen Con require tickets, and those cost money. In my experience, you can expect to pay $40 or more for event tickets at Gen Con, which brings its price up into the same general range as Dragon*Con and Worldcon.

      To attend all four days of the 2016 San Diego Comic Con you would have had to spend $200. I just don't see how the claim that having more members would reduce costs can hold up when one examines the cost of the larger conventions.

  3. Thanks, this was really interesting. Glad that you had a good time at MidAmericon and that recent controversies didn't manage to spoil things.

    1. @Unknown: The redhead and I weren't entirely unaffected by the couple of issues that cropped up during the convention, but the effect on us was slight.

  4. As a fellow WorldCon participant I really enjoyed your report. It is always interesting to see these things from another point of view. I thought the con's size was excellent. Enough people to have plenty of different programming options but never so many that I started to feel crowd-anxiety.

    1. @Cat Sittingstill: One thing about "larger" conventions (and I'm lumping Worldcon in that group despite the complaints from some quarters about its size), is that once you get past a certain point in attendance, the experiences of participants are likely to diverge wildly, just because there are so many different options to pursue.