Worldcon: A Love Story

I want to write this down before it slips out of my memory. I sometimes feel that a lot of my occasional horrors are down to the fact that I find it hard, caught in deadlines, to remember the good times. And travelling to Reno, with my wife Caroline, for Renovation, the 69th World Science Fiction Convention, was a really good time. In fact, it was a whole row of them, going off like a chain reaction, producing a lot of happiness. Mixed in with that there were a lot of other emotions: anxiety and anger and doubt. As in any love story. Because me being part of science fiction fandom is a love story, of a rather troubled and difficult love. Hopefully the following will demonstrate some of why that's so.

I'll describe it in snapshots, because I hate convention reports that start 'we left the house...' and because that's all I've got left in my head.

That's Lee Harris, the Angry Robot editor, on our first night, in a diner by the Peppermill Casino Hotel, exclaiming, wide-eyed, that he's just used his first American bathroom! He's flown over with us, and this is his first time in the USA, and he keeps noting the firstness of things. Caroline and I have just walked over from the Atlantis Casino Hotel, a twenty minute hike between two enormous neon monoliths. We enjoy the heat of the night, but aren't so keen on the True Blood tang of Reno. The diner seems like an oasis of wonderfully normal America. But then we see it has slot machines at every seat on the bar, driving us away from sitting there.

(Never again for a casino hotel. Never again, please, Worldcon. Yes, we all thought beforehand: hey, kitsch; charming; could be fun! But it's just grinding grimness, a cloud of cigarette smoke across breakfast, fruit machines growing everywhere like ugly coral, at the airport, between reception and the elevators. There were lost people doing evening things at every time of day. We walked through it all, we never touched it. We went into Reno too, and found there was no town there, just parched streets between casinos. All this is the opposite of what Worldcon is. At least, what it is to me.)

'No!' I'm saying that rather too loudly to James Bacon and company when someone tells me that the writer of the (great, but initially a bit buggy) Renovation iPad app has been getting flack from people who are treating his software as something produced as a professional product, 'no, we should be after people treating us like that, we should aspire to professionalism!' And I've only just walked into the convention hall, two days early, to, you know, walk the ground. I never like to see fans giving themselves the excuse that we're just hobbyists. Because that displays a chasm between fandom and how every author I know drives themselves. And there are plenty of fan organisations that drive themselves that way too. Like James and his gang, who do amazing things for the comics presence here, to bring in young fans, to promote the UK Worldcon bid. There's just something about a certain sort of SF fandom that... likes shoddiness... but no, let's put that aside, enough of that. That emotion came boiling to the surface just like that, bloody immediately.

(Professionalism is, to a large extent, the order of the day at this Worldcon, though. The convention committee and the hotels have done great things in terms of organisation, with registration opening early (!), SF-related specials like the 'There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch' massage (with free lunch) and even... banners at the airport!)

Photo by John Picacio.

(It's like we're a real event that makes waves in the world, outside our little bubble. And just like that, by doing it, by believing in it, we are it.)

Relax. Relax. Here's Bill Willingham, creator of Fables, lounging in the seat next to us at the Lake Tahoe Shakespeare Festival. Gypsy Kings music is playing during the interval of Twelfth Night. Bill was given some free tickets and wanted company, so was kind enough, on our free night before the convention starts, to drive the two of us and Lee up to this most gorgeous lake, with rocks to stumble about amongst and crevices to watch birds hop into, with an open air stage in front of it, to the front of which we made our way as the sun went down. It's like the antidote to the city of Reno, helpfully nearby.

Bill is possibly the most sociable man I know, and he's content right now. He seems to love the mass of people for their own sake, his defining characteristic, I think, being his unwillingness to judge them. We've just seen the first half of a brilliant production of Twelfth Night, which centres on Maria's cunning, and makes the trick played on Malvolio seem just the latest chapter in an ongoing below stairs conflict that's light-hearted enough not to be cruel. It made me hopelessly wish for another episode, Thirteenth Night. (Somebody's probably written it. No, I don't want to know.) This play seems designed to say 'we're all here to have fun, and nothing bad is going to happen' and it once again does. And that's what I need to hear. Bill sits there delighted, the opposite of entitled, not expecting anything from the world, wanting others to expect just as little. It's not where I am, ever, but being near it always makes me feel good.

I'm sitting on the Iron Throne from Game of Thrones. Though George R.R. Martin isn't a Guest Of Honour here, he's a pretty formidable presence. (George himself would say, I'm sure, being as he's a stickler for the wonderfully socialist traditions of Worldcon, that he was just another badged attendee.) From this viewpoint, I can see a laughing security guard, the Drawing Of The Dark fan bar, people wandering past the Hugo Awards displays, heading for the nicely large dealer area (this time at least dominated by booksellers).

Look at that guy, there's someone who has too many opinions.

I'm heading into a panel I'm moderating. I run into John Scalzi, who's doing a presentation in the room next door. 'You'll hear the enormous roars of continuous laughter through the wall,' he tells me. So I ask, when they're good and warmed up, for our audience (and panelists Melinda Snodgrass, A.C. Crispin and Dean Wesley Smith) to make just such a roar artificially. There's a moment of stunned silence from the room next door. Then we get a roar back. The panel is about 'working in other people's universes', something I've done too much. Ann Crispin has an enormous Pirates of the Carribean prelude novel out, The Price of Freedom, that bestrides the spinoffery/literature boundary and has a cover to match, and is, I think, a new thing in the world. She also runs the fabulous Writer Beware website that aims to warn prospective writers of who lies in wait, aiming to take their money. Dean is a bestselling thriller writer under another name that he won't tell us. Melinda is a good friend who, like me, doesn't want to be known for just her TV work. We have a lot of fun. It's not a panel with a row built in.

We're having dinner with Tor and Locus editors (including ladies and gentlemen the fabulous Liza Groen Trombi, pronounced with an i she keeps telling me and I keep getting wrong), John Picacio, Lou Anders, Jon Strahan and Gary Wolfe (because I always run while listening to their podcast I tell them I now have a Pavlovian urge towards exercise at the sound of their voices), Alistair Reynolds, Ian McDonald, and Tara O'Shea, who's vibrating in fear because of her Hugo nomination for Chicks Dig Time Lords (while the others nominated vibrate more stealthily, but yes they do vibrate, apart from Ian who just laughs heartily but a lot) in a steakhouse that's in one of the minor plush purple organs of the body of the casino, for your convenience.

We return to the only good night of everyone in the same bar, where we can look around and feel the warmth of our peers until the early hours. (The next night, the Atlantis realises their mistake and shuts this bar at 10pm, leaving Worldcon with no central bar, and peers scattered into casino corners, annoyed and still not playing any slot machines.) I meet, stumble into conversation with, Robert Silverberg, for the first time. I'm nervous, because I'm on a panel with him in a couple of days that is an invitation to a row (about the generation gap in fandom, whether or not many different fandoms have evolved 'by cohort' of age, without reading each other's texts). This is one of the many emotions of a Worldcon: there is a quiz, you know, between the drinking. You will be marked in front of your potential and actual audience. You will be asked to perform a dance. You will be judged by and against your peers. So I take a deep breath and I put forward the core of my argument: 'I feel sometimes like this movemenent, this fandom, is dying of old age! Have you seen some of the Hugo nominations?! Some of those could have been written in the 1940s! And where are all the kids?! At other conventions, that's where!' Ah, but, actually, that wasn't the core of my argument at all. Not for that panel, that's only slightly related to that. That was a nightmare I have about losing the thing I most love: the Hugo Awards. No, sorry, of course, I mean Worldcon. No, sorry, I mean SF Fandom in general, of which Worldcon and the Hugos are a part. I think. So it's just as well that actually I don't say any of that at all. I just say 'Mr Silverberg' a lot. He's been at every Hugo ceremony. He talks about watching Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke walking across a Worldcon floor and wishing to be with them, and then being with them and seeing some kid author across the way watching and being his younger self, and I think here's someone who knows something about time that I'm only just getting to the fringes of understanding. What will I actually say to him on that panel? What's the way to pass that test? Would someone who'd bought into amateurism care about that test as much as I do, as much as any pro would?

Later. The later early hours. You have to understand: we spend most of our working lives alone. To be with our peers feels so exciting that sleep would be a waste. I'm wandering with a whole gang of folk trying to find Lauren Beukes and Lee (who we find out the next morning were actually tweeting their locations at the other hotel, which made the whole walkabout eerie in a parallel universe casino sort of way). I'm with Mary Robinette Kowal and Stephen Segal and Lou Anders and Mary's puppet troupe, who are going to actually perform a show at Worldcon, twice in one day. We find one of the many isolated bars amidst the casino and it's miraculously empty of gamblers and smokers, and we settle and talk loudly into the night, and at one point I find myself a side of one against everyone else on the table about some fan debate or other, and there are suddenly raised voices, that uncovering of the emotion and tension that puts the spice into why we're all here, and Mary, always the peacemaker, waits until I've fought for a while and finds a compromise and buys me drinks. And then we all keep talking for another few hours and the sides change and change and change as we all keep on figuring out, every moment, who we are and what we stand for.

Caroline and I are marching across the 'skybridge' that separates the Atlantis from the Reno Convention Centre with Sheila Williams, the editor of Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine. We're going to lunch with her in the same bar as we were all in last night, but we discover that it's now closed for lunch too, as if it's still hurting from too many guests last night. So we sit down outside it and talk about how the magazine is booming, how Sheila deals with her massive reading pile for every issue, and how she 'wants more action adventure' like the Hamilton stories, aware with every choice she makes that she may be limiting the magazine's style as well as defining it. I like her a lot, and I'm glad there's such a kind but steely hand on the tiller at my favourite fiction magazine. She has never won the Hugo, and is, annoyingly, still regarded in some quarters as being in the shadow of her predecessor, Gardner Dozois. We talk about how Carol Emshwiller is emerging as the new Bradbury, a genre of her own, mostly through Asimov's. I tell Sheila I'll send her more stories.

I'm reading the prologue of my forthcoming novel, Cops and Monsters, and the first part of 'The Copenhagen Interpretation' to a room with, surprisingly, quite a lot of people in it. I do voices. Which is new for me, and something I surprise myself by trying, and the opening of the book seems to do okay under this test, because, for the first time, there's nothing I find myself editing out of the reading. 'You started too fast,' says my wife afterwards, 'but you slowed down and got there.' I normally read everything too fast, like I'm aware there's only so much time to pack everything in. Like I treat life. I even did my Nicol Williamson impersonation, because the Smiling Man in the novel should have his voice.

A man in the audience of the ebook cover art panel is shouting 'fuck off and die, asshole!' It's that low serotonin time in the afternoon, and Twitter is showing me comments from other fractious panels across the convention. That emotional experience again. I don't think people who haven't been to Worldcon or the San Diego or New York Comic Cons understand it: how forward should you be, in representing yourself? Did you really find a whole you somewhere in all that lonely writing, who's now ready to strut like a character amongst all these thousands of people? You could create that character, sure, but they're going to be tested. This is an assault course as well as a holiday. Honesty might be the best policy. That acid test applies to everyone in different strata: authors; artists; singers; fans. John Picacio, whose passion can be set to hard when needs be, is suddenly very calm on the panel, and offers to 'see him outside'. The man marches out. He was trying to argue that mainstream publishers offer no publicity to authors, a claim which is both vastly untrue and possibly the product of his own life experience, and not much to do with anything on a panel that's got a very obvious row written into it (the one about ebook pricing, the one that most underlines to gap between fans and pros), one which isn't being had. It's like the elephant in the room suddenly decided to trumpet, but came out with the wrong noise. Lou starts meandering in his fun way, something about socks in a dryer, nothing to do with anything, and the panel becomes fun. And the afternoon becomes evening, and everyone eats some sugar, and the coffee wears off, and it's time for the beer again.

(The other lows I hear reported from that moment in the afternoon include a couple of reports from media panels where the panelists were presumably mainstream SF fans who knew a bit about Joss Whedon and presumably thought, not unreasonably, that it might be fun to chat happily on a panel about him, and had therefore signed up, only to be met by an audience who really knew about Joss Whedon, and came along, again, not unreasonably, expecting panelists who were more expert than they were. 'I think,' said one tweeter, 'you should at least stop calling him Josh.' Perhaps in future there should be some sort of quiz. 'What's the correct surname of the man who played the Fifth Doctor?' Damn it, how about 'What's the production code of 'Face Of Evil'?' We sit in at the back of the 'which Doctor was most influential?' panel, and there's only a little of that, but there is some, with the audience bellowing the answers to some gaps in the panelists' knowledge, and absolutely stunning them with an audience vote that concludes it was Pat Troughton. Caroline tells me some of the anime panels were a bit like that too. It's difficult to find experts outside of a fandom's tradition, but it sometimes feels that Worldcon thinks it's graciously kneeling when it deals with the popular, I mean young, I mean media fandoms.)

It's night, and we're hauling ourselves through the corridors upstairs at the Atlantis, pushing past body with a plastic cup of merlot after body with plastic cup of merlot. There were queues for the lifts. It isn't just the room parties that are full, the corridors between them have become one big, packed, room party. It's been like this, on and off, at several Worldcons now. Fans like to come and (hide?) in this warren, pros like a big central bar. Because the warren may be 'ours' and it may be free but it doesn't work so well any more. We just pop in to offer support to the parties run by Tor (my publishers), the London 2014 Worldcon bid (because it's London and they're doing a great job and they've put up fictional tube map destinations round the walls) and Texas in 2013 (where I can't yet say why I'm hanging around, keeping the secret until my Toastmaster status is revealed on the Saturday morning). Unlike almost everything else at a Worldcon, the room party crush feels like something only a teenager could love.

I think it's at the Texas party where I run into Tor editor Liz Gorinsky, a fiercely intelligent academic who's hosting that panel with Silverberg that I'm now very nervous about, and I start talking to her, and I say: 'I feel sometimes like this movemenent, this fandom, is dying of old age! Have you seen some of the Hugo nominations?! Some of those could have been written in the 1940s! And where are all the kids?! At other conventions, that's where!' And fuck, this time I actually say it. She starts defending Worldcon. I start immediately agreeing and backing off. I realise, I realise every time I say this or even think it, that if someone else said it to me, I'd reflexively start defending Worldcon.

(It's like this is the nightmare and we mustn't give voice to it, or people will start believing it. I think there's some truth to it. But only some. There's some evidence that the size of the SF Fandom community has remained stable always. That people come to it in their thirties and forties, so the influx is never obvious. It's a terrifying situation, but it always has been. There are parallels with the Anglican church. That's the rational part of me talking now, and talking then as I back track. I let the blasphemy out because I don't want what I love to end, and because in that arrogant moment of characterising myself I'm thinking of myself as delivering a dire and urgent warning to my friends, so proud, this someone who has too many opinions. But in letting it out I know, always, that I'm also that thing I hate, someone who's bought into the apocalypse, who's started to desire the end of something that's flawed. But everything is flawed. And only depressives desire the end of love.)

We've hauled our way out of the sweat and the pressure of the party floor, and found the big spaces of the dealers' room after hours, the Drawing Of The Dark bar. Me, Caroline, Lee, podcaster Mur Lafferty and her friend Mignon Fogarty (who podcasts as Grammar Girl), are playing Apples to Apples. Mur is wonderfully drunk and fighty. 'You're actually arguing that "Pocahontas" was "less intelligent" than "an amoeba"?' I say. 'Listen!' growls Mur, 'she made some really bad choices!' I wonder about having an arm wrestle with her, but I suspect I'd lose. I tell her she should really record an edition of I Should Be Writing while intoxicated, and the next day she says she's up for that.

We're having breakfast with Melinda and a movie producer who not only knows and loves the ways of the SF fan, but takes a turn around the bars later in his steampunk duds, with ornate mock steam powered watch. Here's someone who knows who we are, who's happy to come play in our world. I've said, earlier this weekend, that it's notable that 'the fangirl and fanboy' have just lately become an utterly reasonable lifestyle option to mainstream folk, a badge, these days, actually of attractiveness, rather like 'the hippie' once swiftly infiltrated the norm(s). One no longer has to be an outsider to be one. Or is it that, since we won the culture wars (please, please, fandom, realise that we won), mainstream kids are now enjoying expressing our central brand idea: everyone is a fan of something? Our ghetto walls must really be pretty strong to keep so many interested young people out. But no, but no, no, I don't believe that, not entirely.

I'm interviewing Brother Guy Consolmagno, popularly known as 'the Vatican astronomer' (though he's one of several) on a panel. Earlier, he met me in the Green Room, and got me to sign Xtinct and Dark X-Men (so yes, there are now copies of those in the Vatican). He impresses me hugely. He's clearly a media pro, with finely-tuned stories that make the audience laugh. He makes much of his ironic intellectual freedom as the only astronomer in the world not limited by the quest for funding. He won't accept a 'God of the gaps' (something cosmology gives me some hope for) but instead insists that God is absolutely outside the universe, can only be found in intuition, in our feeling for subtle patterns. He's a champion in the fight against creationism and literalism. He insists that science and religion being at odds is a very modern and limited concept with specific historical roots, one that doesn't and shouldn't apply. I try to push him to reveal his own religious experience. He expertly deflects me. I have no right to go further. But I do wonder if he thinks that might scare a following (in this mostly atheistic community) who write 'we love you' beside his name on the schedule. Like I think it might scare my readers. I rather hoped he might have a typically cool way around that. But you can't have everything.

I come off that panel feeling I had a religious experience right there. Something about my fraught conception of self, about the opposites contained in me and all these people around me, about the conflict and the needing and the big emotion, is much calmer. Brother Guy, while being his own media creation, is also, obviously, one, real, person. Himself. More than anyone else I've ever met. Bill, in the audience, declares it 'the best panel I've ever seen'.

(I wish now that there'd been a video recording, but here's a bit from elsewhere of Brother Guy doing his thing...)

Me and Bill are talking onstage, immediately after that life-changing panel, about the stages involved in producing a comic, with Winona Nelson, who writes and draws online comics. It's part of Renovation honouring Bill as a Special Guest, and the ongoing attempts of Worldcon to take comics more seriously, but as the Hugo category shows, in both its formation and its results, we've got a long way to go. Still, this time out, panels like this make comics guests (especially ones like Bill, who seem to have come to love this convention and the Hugos) feel at home. The comics stream in general is really well thought out.

Bob Wayne, Senior Vice President of Sales, DC Comics, is tapping me on the shoulder. I turn around, double take, and yell. He's come from my other life to get me! But no, he's long time SF fandom, and he's here for something special.

Me and Caroline and Bob Wayne and John Picacio and his wife Tracy and Scalzi and everyone from Wild Cards and many others have taken cabs into the desert to an inn with a function room, and there we're watching happily in the sunshine as George Martin renews his vows to his lovely recent wife (and long time partner) Parris. They are adorable. Melinda Snodgrass is best woman, in tuxedo with green carnation. There's Led Zeppelin playing during the nibbles. I'm taken aside by Michael Cassutt (who's J.J. Abrams-style reimagining of the Arthur C. Clarke near future NASA novel, Heaven's Shadow, written with David Goyer is, I think, a magnificent attempt to get SF back into the 'airport novel' category) who tells me that Goyer (the writer of The Dark Knight amongst other hugeness) just told him he's a big fan of my work. I'm unable to talk for a little while. I'm told, after we have to head back to be on our next thing, that the happy couple's first dance is the Time Warp.

I get my players together for Just A Minute, which this year is on the big stage (all the way over there at the Peppermill, and how this geography becomes a world that contains everyone you know, after just a few days). They are: Lauren Beukes; John Dowd (the Eastercon UK champion); Seanan McGuire and Bill Willingham. Some of them are terrified. They're going to treat this professionally: it's a performance to entertain the crowd. We get together in an anteroom outside the ballroom where the Masquerade is on. We rehearse. They try to look relaxed for a photo...

And then we're on. I have to do a bit of vamping while the tech crew work things out. And here's that performance in full (the highlight is towards the end, where Seanan makes a telephone call to her Mum from onstage to ask her about Space: 1999)...

Video streaming by Ustream
I think the Masquerade camera crew did a great job with that video. (You can see my enormous badge, formed by the accretion of many ribbons and sub-badges, a kind of cultural marker that must surely have been written about academically by now.)

Caroline ('they call her the Preacher'), Bill and Lee find a poker table. They lose their money. Caroline then heads on to the Rachel Bloom concert. I take the shuttle bus back to the Atlantis (the Atlantis Shuttle, if you will) and fall over.

Saturday is the day of the Hugo Awards. We wake up knowing that. It's in the nervous system of every author, nominated or not, as we go about our nervous panels and nervously declare that we're not giving it much thought, really.

Here am I, stretching in the parking lot of the Wahlgreen's drug store opposite the Atlantis, that Hugo morning. This has become a thing: when Stu Segal organises his 'strolls with the stars', every morning of Worldcon for the last few years, I'll go on one and try to meet every single person who comes along for that pleasant mile-long amble around the convention environs. Guest of Honour Boris Vallejo attracted over a hundred a couple of days back, but today there are only eighty or so. Which is still many more than I've dealt with before. These things are getting popular! Lou, who's walking today (Bill has walked every day) says I do this like a politician, and I guess that's kind of true. But I also feel that if I just walked with my usual folk, that's not different for anyone. At this convention, the walks between things are long and often enough to make me wonder if I'm losing calories this weekend. I start from the back of the line this time, and manage to say hello and shake every hand, working my way to the front, and I hear about the plight of teachers in the US at the moment, and about the International Organisation of Media Tie-In Writers, and by the time I get to the leaders of the pack, having thankfully ignored the emptiness we've been walking through, we're nearly back at the Convention Centre.

I have my own reason to be nervous today. That panel with Robert Silverberg. I've read Elizabeth Bear's original blog on the subject, but that's my whole preparation. What I've blurted out in my head and to Liz is tangental to what this debate should be. We don't have to have that row. Or any row. But not to have it is just to walk with one's usual folk. It's the performance the audience have a right to expect from professionals.

I'm on that panel. And it's all over the place. The chap beside me, Alvaro Zinos-Amaro, has done tons of research. Ginjer Buchanan avoids any row with anecdotes about the old days. Liz mediates pretty sternly, stopping three audience comments in a row that aren't questions. I spot Brother Guy in the audience. Silverberg has spent the five minutes before the start of the panel hijacking someone else's handicap assistance scooter and trying to drive off on it, to the hilarity of the owner, creating yet another anecdote. He's here to be charming and stand up for the old guard, and that's about it. Not much of an axe to grind, there. He isn't here for a sparring contest, not quite, but I think he wonders if I am. Here, on Jason Snell's flickr stream, you can see the whole sorry bunch of us. 'You're not bloody old,' I tell Silverberg, at entirely the wrong point, entirely too loudly. A lot of the ones who are, I say, are comparatively young in years. 'I think we all agree that gatekeepers are necessary, that a knowledge of the history of the genre is necessary,' I say. 'I still hope for something to come along that'll sweep me away, because I'm too old for the revolution now.' I flail. I bring nerves and not wit. Agreement and compromises are come to. Which seems lacking, somehow. Or maybe I'm just seeking that apocalypse again. I don't come out with my nightmare. Maybe it would have seemed ridiculous in the daylight. I wish I could have said something to Silverberg after the panel, but schedule and audience take us in different directions. I don't know what I would have said. I don't know if the audience got what they were after, or if they knew what they were after. A fictional Robert Silverberg that I'd like to write as having run into that night, (doesn't) tell me later: 'young man, you really should stop taking yourself so seriously.'

I'm part of a packed audience for the Science Fiction Writers of America meeting. Onstage with the rest of the committee, are Mary and Scalzi. The SFWA are a trade guild, basically, who fight for their members. You don't have to be American, hence my membership. We hear tales of negotiations, of support and campaign. We are quorate. Mary is the carrot to Scalzi's stick. David Brin is the loyal opposition with a minority report from the crowd. I'm warmed and calmed to be part of it.

In a taxi, Lauren Beukes is saying to me 'do you think I should wear the New Wave dress tonight?' I immediately shake my head and she hits me. Lauren is every bit as aware as I am about these characters we create, how we're authors in public. She once, almost superstitiously, told me to stop talking about that, like if we talked about it too much we'd fall apart. This weekend she's made the decision to leave her Zoo City faux sloth stole at home. On to the next thing. Me, I've worn a t-shirt under my convention jacket all weekend. The jacket is a sign to myself and others that I'm actually working, that I have to remember that.

And then I'm putting on my cufflinks, I'm pinning my Hugo pins into the lapel of my dinner jacket. I've started to associate the Hugo Awards lately with that Sunset Boulevard song from Glee, 'As If We Never Said Goodbye'. They're our showbiz and our Olympics in one.

We're standing in the Hugo reception, feeling that wonderful fear and horror. There's an ice sculpture of a Hugo rocket...

Lou is dressed in imperial Chinese evening dress. He came second in his category last year, never won. 'I'm starting to worry,' he says, 'that people think I already have.' John was also second last year, nominated seven times, no wins. Ian McDonald, on an otherwise all-female Best Novel ballot, is wearing a kilt, and still laughing. The Chicks Dig Time Lords editors are by now numb with horror.

Here's what everyone knows: that the Heinlein biography will win Best Related Work (the category Chicks is in); that Best Fanzine will go to the (podcast) Starship Sofa; that Connie Willis will win Best Novel. Everyone always knows stuff at a Hugo reception. Sod everyone. The game is on, and everyone's taking photos of each other and picking at the buffet. We're all called over, nominees and those who'll pick up for others, to be photographed in a group for each category. It's another of these little rituals that remind you of where you are, like the unveiling of this year's Hugo Award base design, that underline the walk out to the execution block. You have to stand with your precise peers, in that moment, or awkwardly with someone else's, if, like me this year, you're only there to handle the award if your friend wins. I get to tell Rachel Bloom, nominated for 'Fuck Me, Ray Bradbury', that I love her video.

You've probably seen that before, but it fits in my album of snapshots right there. After all, it's about the collision between mainstream and geek values. 'As if anyone would ever think like that' is the humour of it. And yet here she is, thinking like that, if not to that teen extremity. The entry of the Geek Girl into the mainstream has happened behind a thin veil of comedy, from 'Fuck Me' to The Big Bang Theory.

I have a last minute urgency: nobody on the Hugo side of things seems to know if Moffat has sent an acceptance speech. I thought I'd set this up, that I'd sorted this! It gets quite fraught, with rushings down corridors and lots of tension and last minute searching of inboxes. I absolutely don't want to have to make something up instead of reading out something typically witty from Moffat.

And I'm so ready to blame the amateurism of SF Fandom. It takes me an instant to go there. But it turns out to be down to something getting lost in email communication. So I go from excited to angry to guilty just during the reception. And that's in a year when I'm not nominated.

And then we're told there is no more time, that the hour is at hand, that we must walk out across the acres of carpet to take our seats, that the show we live for every year is about to begin.

Here's the whole thing on video. You won't see that Seanan McGuire changed dresses, one to be herself and present the Campbell, one to be pseudonym Mira Grant, up for Best Novel. You will see: Lev Grossman bending his knee to accept the Campbell; Chris Garcia and James Bacon's insane dance of joy (that reaches such a pitch that it could almost have been choreographed and says everything about what this means to us and made all of us get up out of our seats and yell) on winning Best Fanzine; Lou's moment of triumph and his holding it together to make a speech; the Chicks editors not being able to believe their ears that they'd won and saying 'hello sweetie' to the Hugo; Bill talking about story and standing for an eternity through the trailers; Robert Silverberg keeping an audience laughing with only timing.

And I find myself improvising a speech that's not in Moffat's league. Yet another way in which one could say of Worldcon: 'story of my life'.

And Lauren doesn't win the Campbell, which she smiles about. Oh well.

And Sheila Williams wins the Hugo for the first time.

Some of our friends win. Some of our friends don't. One who doesn't is sitting beside me, and I carefully look straight ahead when the other name is read out, because I know you don't want people fussing in that moment. I try to say 'next time' when we get up at the end, but they can only quickly turn away. Ian keeps on laughing. Gary Wolfe and John Strahan have kept poker faces throughout. Connie Willis wins Best Novel: everyone is right about some things.

During the reception afterwards, and people who go to other awards ceremonies are always stunned to hear this, a leaflet is handed out, showing in the form of mathematical tables exactly how close you came to winning. This doesn't happen to Brad Pitt after the Oscars. Some people grab them and need to see immediately. Bill doesn't want to know, tonight, with Girl Genius again winning Best Graphic Story. He's never going to look, and doesn't want anyone to tell him. What that winning, what Doctor Who beating the short film that won the Oscar, what Chicks beating every scholarly work of reference, what the short fiction wins all said about this community... all that is what makes the Hugos an un-even playing field, a proper battlefield, a game worth the winning.

Here's Strahan and I looking at the walls of the reception room, where the mathematical tables have been pinned up just in case you missed them. He finds that his and Gary's podcast missed out on a nomination by one vote. Gary is pretty sure he didn't remember to vote.

The Chicks editors look miserable all night. They still don't believe it enough to smile. I meet bright young thing Rachel Swirsky, the leader of the oncoming pack of short fiction writers, who I thought was meant to be nineteen. 'I'm twenty-nine,' she says. But from where I'm looking now, from across the room, that's still actually young.

After all that, Sunday is always, frankly, piss easy. Caroline joins Hugo ceremony organiser the Reverend Randy in leading an inter-denominational service, part of what Randy calls a 'mission to fandom'. I'm at a panel on the importance of short fiction with husband and wife duo Jack Skillingstead and Nancy Kress. 'I do read a lot of current short fiction,' I tell the audience. 'I hate it when panelists say "I don't know why I'm on this panel". I belong here.' And that, merely that, gets a round of applause. Which says something about how we all feel to be here today.

I'm joining a line of chairs right across the room, as the many Wild Cards authors present find they can't fit onto the panel. There's some thought as to George Martin, the editor and creator of Wild Cards sitting on the stage above us, like God in a medieval painting. But he, and sanity, prevail, and he joins us in the middle of our long line-up. We're all on the same side, here we are, we're here to entertain you.

And finally there we are having lunch with Patrick and Teresa Nielsen Hayden (Senior Editor at Tor Books) at a seafood bar in the Atlantis, our luggage beside us, ready to run for the airport. Teresa tells us how she's just had an encounter with a yelling and screaming woman in the car park, who kept demanding to know if she was with the convention. Was that woman fan or mainstream? Who can tell? I put my jacket on the back of my chair.

We get in to Albuquerque near midnight, and it feels numb and empty not having panels to be on or a performance to give, or an opinion to have about anything, or the warmth of your peers at every moment. Melinda meets us in her car, and it's the start of a wonderful week of driving around New Mexico, beginning with Melinda taking us on a tour of Santa Fe and its surroundings. We see Los Alamos and the Very Large Array and White Sands and Roswell and end up at another convention, Bubonicon, where we rehearse some of this emotion again on a smaller scale. Because it's like a standing wave created by our whole subculture, it's us defining ourselves against and beside each other, reflecting each other, all the time. It's the opposite of Reno and it's the opposite of death. It's a love story.

Melinda has the best SF author house in the world. It looks out over the desert. It's cool and calm up here. And we're standing there at night at the end of Worldcon. We're finally, definitely, on holiday.

26 Response to "Worldcon: A Love Story"

  • Laurie Mann Says:

    PC: " I'm at a panel on the importance of short fiction with husband and wife duo Jack Skillingstead and Nancy Kress. 'I do read a lot of current short fiction,' I tell the audience. 'I hate it when panelists say "I don't know why I'm on this panel". I belong here.' And that, merely that, gets a round of applause. Which says something about how we all feel to be here today."

    I think I love you! ;->

    Thanks, that SHOULD ALWAYS be the right answer as to why you're on a panel. And, if you don't believe that, tell the Program organizers that you don't want to be on it.

  • Paul Weimer Says:

    A great post, Paul.

    Wish I had attended.

  • Brian Mac Says:

    Wow, that's quite the con report, sir; well done.

    There's only one bit I can relate to, because I've never been to a con, but I have been to Reno several times, always as a result of being stuck there overnight on the way to or from Tahoe. (My wife's family likes to hold family events in Tahoe, a custom that I heartily endorse.) I think you've described the feel of Reno quite accurately, as a desolate place that only exists for the sake of gambling, and the American casino industry would really rather you didn't consider Reno (or worse, Atlantic City) to be typical. That said, the last time I was there, I stayed in a very family-friendly hotel a bit outside of the city, with no slot machines at all that I saw, so the experience of downtown Reno definitely isn't the whole of the area.

  • Joyce Reynolds-Ward Says:

    Paul--it was so great to meet you at this Worldcon!

    I had gone to school with Bill for a couple of years back in college; was magnificent to see the delightful joy he took in Worldcon. And that his graciousness has not changed. What a neat guy he was and is. Hope to see him at Worldcon in the future; he definitely adds to the deliciousness of it.

    Hope to see you again, especially at cons here in the US Pacific Northwest...

  • Joyce Reynolds-Ward Says:

    A comment about Reno:

    Unfortunately, there are other pieces of it beside the gambling which make it a Big Deal. It is a very big deal in the Western horsemanship crowd; big cowhorse events take place there and it's kind of at the southern end of what some of us consider to be the elite area of Western cowhorse riding.

    I wanted to bring a piece of it to Worldcon, but alas, could never get it together with my scheduling and the con committee. Too bad because there was another event that week which really could have illustrated that part of Reno to folks, especially since so much horse stuff in fandom gets centered around dressage rather than other styles of riding.

    (And now I will be off; as usual I ended up realizing a second additional thought after I posted the first...sigh.)

  • I.C. Finney Says:

    Great post Paul.

  • caddyman Says:

    Lordy, I'm worn out just from reading that!

    I hope you enjoy(ed) the holiday that followed.

  • Sparks Says:

    Greta pice Paul, I'm sorry I couldn't get there...:-(
    I have to agree with you though. there is no excuse for non professionalism in conrunning. Most conrunners are very capable people but I've heard the excuse that because they volunteer we shouldn't criticise and push for better. (strangely enough i've had that conversation with James as well!)

  • drew Says:

    Great review and agree wholeheartedly with the casino perspective (never again!) Although I too had a great time...

  • Kevin Roche Says:

    Paul, you all did a brilliant job on Just a Minute; Andy and I had numerous reports (and he saw buckets of tweets) from audience members who have never stayed to watch the entertainment during the judging interval before and stayed in their seats mesmerized by you all.

    Regarding Reno as a location, while I won't argue with your complaints, the casino industry there at least has no issue with people who make their own entertainment instead of spending money in the shows and casinos. Las Vegas is actively hostile towards our sort of events; I found the staff at the hotels and convention center actively interested in and excited by Worldcon. We made a point of making sure they knew their employee ID was as good as a convention badge for entry into the big events, and they were really happy we routed the masquerade contestants back through the Tuscany lobby so more of the staff could see them.

  • Nolly Says:

    It's not my story to tell, and I only know pieces of it anyway, but I can say that the flaws in the convention app had nothing to do with a culture of amateurishness or anything like that. Things happened; it wasn't what we hoped for, but it was something, and those responsible have a list of improvements so it can, one hopes, grow into a mature app usable by other events.

  • Al R Says:

    Kevin wrote: "I found the staff at the hotels and convention center actively interested in and excited by Worldcon. We made a point of making sure they knew their employee ID was as good as a convention badge for entry into the big events, and they were really happy we routed the masquerade contestants back through the Tuscany lobby so more of the staff could see them."

    Yes, that was my experience. When I checked into the Peppermill (which right now, from the perspective of wet and windy Wales, feels like a zillion years ago and on Mars now) the concierge guy was genuinely excited about being able to check out the dealer's room.

    Excellent report anyway, Paul - and good to see you in Reno.

  • Andrew Trembley Says:

    App griping confused me.

    The team that built the app are professionals, and they donated their services as an opportunity to test some new technology.

    Was the app flawed? Sure. Was it functional? Mostly. Was it cheaper than Guidebook? Definitely.

    But from my perspective in the current center of the mobile app universe, getting a cross-platform app developed and released in a matter of weeks was impressive. Professionalism wasn't the issue, hidden complexities in the development and distribution environments were.

  • Ann Totusek Says:

    You were commenting on the lack of young people- were you aware that the person who organized the post-Hugo reception is 20 years old? She's also the social media director for Chicon, is on staff with San Antonio in facilities, and is on the Spokane bid. Here's a pic of her with Scalzi trying to eat her brainz. She's very interested in getting people her age more involved with literary fandom, using her interest and involvement with broadcasting, social media, and marketing to assist. She's developing a website right now for next-generation fans (next generation in the sense that they're newer to literary fandom and convention running) to help connect them with more experienced convention runners and conventions that could use their enthusiasm and assistance. She wants to help the connect with people who will make them feel welcomed and help them develop their skill set. She's not the only one- you just have to keep your eyes open. The TAFF winner this year was just a year or two older than she is. She's my daughter, and I'm kinda proud of her, because I think she did a great job of organizing the event.

  • Warren Buff Says:

    I've got a few brief thoughts on professionalism, and why I think some fans react so strongly against the idea. I've met some conrunners who seem to view professionalism as an excuse for coldness and distance between themselves and other fans (not many of these around Worldcon, thankfully). To the newer fan getting involved in cons, these folks come off as precisely what you don't want to become, and would prefer not to work with. It's unfortunate when the reaction against this becomes devil-may-care amateurism, but it's the easy response. I think the mature result is to become someone who doesn't do it right because it's the professional thing to do, but because you love being a part of putting together a convention, and are proud of your work on it. I hope we can keep finding the fans who bring that attitude of service to fandom -- I'll try to hold to it for as long as I can.

  • Brian Says:

    "'You started too fast,' says my wife afterwards, 'but you slowed down and got there.' I normally read everything too fast, like I'm aware there's only so much time to pack everything in. Like I treat life."

    This was actually my impression of the first issue of Stormwatch. It seemed focused on finding ways to pack in ideas, too often by talking about them, to the point where the story itself sometimes seemed like a pretext for filling in background. Mind you, they're good ideas, and, having seen how carefully you structure your work, I'm sure the groundwork is necessary, but I'll be glad when it's out of the way and the story can breathe a bit more.

    There are some wonderful moments, and some terrific lines, that make it clear that Stormwatch will be something special. I eagerly look forward to the rest of the series.

  • Paul Cornell Says:

    Laurie: thanks, very much my own point of view. Brian: I'm sure there was a real town, somewhere out of sight. One of the tracks on Kate Bush's new album is 'Lake Tahoe'! Joyce: I hope to get out there, and my wife being a rider, she'd have enjoyed there. Bill is indeed awesome. Sparks: indeed, but as I took time to point out in the post, James is very professional in his own good works. Kevin: that's good to hear, I liked the hotel staff too, and I touch upon that with the note about the extra services. Nolly and Andrew: and I was one of those who benefited from the app team's professional approach to problems. It was the reaction of others to critique of them that I mention in the blog. Al: great to see you, looking forward to Bristol. Ann: yes, but one doesn't have to keep one's eyes open in San Diego, one trips over them. (And I know, I'd be saying what you are to other people coming the other way.) Warren: I just think that the opposite of 'professionalism' is 'uselessness'. Amateurs often display a huge degree of professionalism. Indeed, most amateur hobbyists pride themselves on it. Brian: I don't think that's an accurate diagnosis, and it makes me feel a bit brrr about having been so open in a blog post. Don't go drawing conclusions! Thanks all!

  • Mike Willmoth Says:

    Worldcon this year was a 4257-sided die. Each side sees a different perspective of the event in all its glory and wonder. Your side was a bit larger than the rest. Thanks for sharing it with us.

    Mike Willmoth

  • Kevin Standlee Says:

    One of the problems with the "professional/amateur" thing is that the words have different meanings in context. The nouns "Professional" and "amateur" are opposites, as are the adverbs "professionally" and "amateurishly," but "amateur" (someone who does something for the love of it, not just because s/he is paid to do so) and "professionally" (done in a professionally manner) are not antonyms.

    It is perfectly possible to be an amateur who does his/her volunteer work in a professional manner, and indeed those of us who organize these events should strive for such professionalism. But as others have pointed out, "professionally," shouldn't mean "cold and detached."

    Some of this also comes back to the casual usage of "fan" to mean "amateur" = "not a professional." That is, if you're a professional within the field, then of course you can't be a fan of it. Since "fan" and "pro" aren't really mutually exclusive states, we get into confusions when people talk as if the two states were opposites of each other. You, Paul, are obvious a professional within our field who is a fan of that field, and that's not a bad thing at all.

    What's sad is watching would-be professionals in the field who have convinced themselves that they "aren't allowed" to be fans if they want to be considered pros.

  • Kevin Standlee Says:

    OTOH, I'd like to stand up against some of the Reno-the-city bashing. It's not Las Vegas (but that's a good thing), and I like the area so much that the day after the convention, I signed a contract to buy a house in the area (30 miles east on I-80). (The two aren't directly related; it was just lucky for me that Worldcon was in the city near where I needed to be that weekend because the house purchase was moving forward.) I could do without the smoke, though. Did we all used to live in those smoke-filled conditions?

    Also, as the weekend of Renovation continued, I realized that paraphrasing Reno's motto makes a good description of why I think Worldcon is better than some of the monster giant fixed location conventions (DragonCon and ComicCon): Worldcon is "The Biggest Little SF Convention in the World."

  • Randy Smith Says:

    Paul, I really enjoyed this con report. In my experience, most fans who work on conventions, particularly worldcons, seek to be as professional as possible. That's what makes the worldcon a good experience for everyone.

    Did I really say "mission to fandom?" "Ministry in fandom" is usally how I think of it. When we first started doing the Sunday services we were filling a need that turned out to be larger than I expected.

    I was good to talk with you during and con and to finally meet Caroline. She will be hearing from me, soon.

  • Paul Cornell Says:

    Thanks, Mike, that's a good way to put it. And that, Kevin, is a good summary of the grammar. And, erm, I don't actually think it *is* better. Or I do. Depends who's asking. Randy: I wish I had your experience, but that's true in so many ways. You probably did say 'ministry'. In my book, those things aren't so different, but I see the dividing line there. Cheers.

  • katster Says:


    It was nice to meet you, even if it was early on Wednesday morning and you and my friend Doug were doing most of the talking.

    It actually came in handy later that night when a couple of friends, who came out of the DragonCon tradition, were talking about what they didn't like. And I said, well, yeah, but it's the sort of con where you can end up talking to somebody like Paul Cornell, like I was this morning. Who's he? Oh, he did some writing for Dr. Who, writes comic books too...and they were just simply stunned to find that somebody like you (a) is running around the convention and (b) is taking time to interact with the fans.

    It was a nice time, and thank you for being just a small part of my convention memories.


  • Paul Cornell Says:

    Thanks so much, Kat. Most writers like to wander about and mingle, wherever they are. I've seen the really famous ones get annoyed that it's hard for them to do that anymore.

  • Brian Says:

    I'm sorry; that was thoughtless of me. It honestly didn't occur to me that I might be taking advantage of your having been open, and, now you've pointed it out, I feel rather bad about it.

  • Paul Cornell Says:

    Thanks, Brian, that's kind of you. Cheers.