Here we are, in beautiful New Zealand for worldcon! Except, of course, we’re not really, because coronavirus. We’re sitting in our dining room in front of our computers. Virtually, though, we are here! Havin’ a good time—especially when we can navigate the befuddlingly complicated login procedure to get where we’re going. (The price, I guess of running a con on multiple virtual platforms.) We’re learning a new app: Discord. We’re also learning to radically convert time-zones. New Zealand time is 16 hours ahead of us, which means that most of the time, they’re already in tomorrow, while we’re still in today.
Today (my time) was the second day of programming, and I have already been on two of the three panels that I’m participating in, via Zoom. The first was “Staying Closer to Home: Science Fiction in the Solar System,” which I know a little bit about. Just enough to get me into trouble. It was a good panel! The second was “Writers on Writing: The Plot’s the Thing,” which was about, um, plot and character and motivation and story structure, and all that good stuff. It, too, was a good panel! I’ve got one more—on Saturday, America-time—called “Ghosts in the Ships: Sentient Ships in SF and Fantasy.” I hope that one will be good, too. And I’d better do a little research on the subject before showtime.
Wish you could all be here in New Zealand with us! (If you’re sitting at home on your computer, you’re already halfway there.)
This year’s World SF Convention is being held in San Jose, CA in a couple of weeks, and I’m sorry to say I will not be there. It’s an economic decision, not a political one. However, I was also part of the large number of people who got left off of programming this year. It’s a simple calculus: Can I afford to spend a couple of grand attending a convention that could otherwise be fun and interesting, but will net me no opportunity to build and connect with my audience? Not this year.
Side note: Having been to worldcons where I was turned away from programming, I can say that it’s a lousy feeling. In contrast, last year in Helsinki I got to do some great programming, and I came away feeling that I had contributed to the success of the con, and was appreciated, as well.
You may have read about the programming brouhaha this year, where many new writers and minority groups of various sorts felt overlooked by the program committee. I’m not close enough to the action to have any meaningful insight, except to say that, first, they are not the only ones to have felt overlooked. Second, I think any good programming effort has to find a way to make a place for both the young and the old, the bestselling and the newbie, the well-known and the little-known, all with the same degree of welcome. Many conventions do that successfully; I hope this year’s worldcon, with its hurried regrouping, manages as well. I’m sure it’s no easy task.
I’m not staying away in protest so much as disappointment. It just didn’t work out for me this year. Next year it’s in Dublin, and the year after in New Zealand! Here’s hoping!
Every worldcon I’ve been to in recent years has had its own oddities. In Spokane, it was four days of breathing smoke from wildfires on the US/Canadian border. In London, it was staying an hour from the con on a cramped sailboat that had been misleadingly billed on Airbnb as a houseboat. Also, there was Wardrobe Malfunction Day, when my belt broke and I walked around the convention center holding my pants up with both hands.
In Helsinki, it was peeing in the convention center restrooms. The urinals looked perfectly normal, but there was nothing to warn you that they flushed automatically both before and after use. So you would step up to the fixture and before you could even reach to do what you had come to do—floosh!—the thing would flush energetically in your face. (It didn’t spray literally in your face, but it felt as though it was about to.) Granted, it fit with the image of Scandinavian cleanliness, but it was certainly disconcerting.
Startling, too, was the high-speed hand-dryer mounted next to one sink, so close that when you stepped up to wash your hands, you got an instant blast of hot air on your left shoulder.
Perhaps weirdest were the urinals in one restaurant, which apparently had been installed by a very tall Viking plumber—because they were mounted too high on the wall for a person of mere modest height like me to use. I briefly contemplated ballistic trajectories of peeing upward and outward and hoping for the best, but I finally opted to choose other means. I’m sure the janitorial staff thanked me.
We now return you to our regular non-weird programming.
Worldcon ended on Sunday, and as a way of saying farewell, I thought I would post this picture of the welcome sign.
I had a Kaffeeklatch on Sunday that was well attended, and included attendees of various ages from countries all over the world. They had come to drink coffee and ask me questions, so that meant I did a lot of talking. They all seemed to enjoy it, and I know I did. One local fan (I think he said he was Finnish, but it all blurs) did a little video interview with me afterward. I suppose that might end up on youtube someday.
And here’s a picture of one of the highlights for me in terms of programming I watched from the audience. It’s NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren giving a presentation on space medicine based on his experiences on the International Space Station.
Dr. Lindgren is a wonderfully entertaining speaker, and a gracious ambassador for the space program, based on a brief chat we had in the corridor. He’s also a science fiction fan. (At the Spokane worldcon, he presented one of the Hugo awards via Skype from the space station.)
Here’s a picture of him zipped up in his zero-g sleeping bag. Cozy!
Thursday through Saturday were good days for me at Worldcon.
But first, congratulations to all the winners of the Hugo and associated rewards! You can see the full list on tor.com. Women once again dominated in the trophy winning, which might have made some people unhappy, but I thought it was great. It’s about time some of our fantastic female writers got their due. And I’m also glad to see lots of young fans, from many nations, of all and sundry genders.
The convention ran into problems with serious overcrowding, because attendance wildly exceeded expectations. Tons of people registered at the last minute, or showed up without preregistering or hoping for day passes, which they had to stop selling. Combined with this, the local authorities strictly enforced the fire laws, so that no standing room was permitted in any of the rooms. The result was crazy long lines, lots of folk not getting into panels they wanted to see, and plenty of hair pulling. The con committee rallied, worked with the convention center, and got some of the more popular events moved to larger rooms, and even added additional panels at the last minute. It was a tough recovery, but I think they did a good job under difficult circumstances.
My own panels over the last few days included one on keeping yourself motivated in writing, a topic that drew plenty of interest. Friday we were on for writing space opera and writing collaboratively, and both were well attended and fun discussions. I was moderating both, so I was revved up keeping things moving.
Today I had two big panels that I was not moderating, one on the future of physics, and one on world building. Both were a lot of fun. Here’s a sort of blurry picture of the world building panel, with (from left to right) Jon Oliver, Alex Acks, me, and George R.R. Martin. The audience for this one was huge, as you might expect. It was a lively and interesting discussion, I thought.
There were lots of camera flashes, so if anyone out there has a clearer picture and would like to send it my way, please do!
We arrived in Helsinki, Finland, early this morning for Worldcon 75, this year’s World Science Fiction Convention. At the moment, sleep deprivation and jetlag are making things somewhat of a blur. (Finland time is seven hours earlier than Boston time.) I think half the people on our flight from Iceland to Helsinki were on their way to the con.
Tomorrow, I start things in earnest, with a signing session at noon, and a panel on how to motivate yourself when writing is tough at 15:00. (Everything is on the 24-hour clock here.)
Friday I’ll be moderating a panel on space opera, and another on writing collaboratively. Saturday, I’m the one non-physicist on a panel on the future of physics (I guess I’m the wild card in the deck), and participating—in my last panel—on one on world-building, a panel that might or might not include George R.R. Martin, author of Game of Thrones, depending on what listing I believe.
Once the worldcon is over, we’ll be taking a few days to see Helsinki and Finland, and then a couple in Iceland on our way home.
I’ll try to post some updates, but don’t hold me to that. Things can get pretty crazy at a worldcon. I’m looking forward to seeing many friends!
It takes a good sense of humor to attend a worldcon. Last year, at Loncon, we procrastinated too long in getting a place to stay, and we wound up camping on a sailboat moored somewhere off the Thames. This year, we put in for a room early, and requested a room on a quiet floor of the main con hotel. (No more schlepping an hour each way to get to the con for us!) What did we get? A room two doors down from the con hospitality suite, open 24 hours a day!
To our surprise, it worked out okay. The soundproofing was good, and we were rarely bothered by the noise. And when we got the munchies around midnight, we just had to throw on some pants and shoes and go down the hall.
If there’s one thing (most) science fiction fans have in abundance, it’s a sense of humor. When I saw this T-shirt at Sasquan (just weeks after my attendance at the Schrödinger Sessions for SF writers), I knew I had to have it.
Wanted: Schrödinger’s Cat
After Sasquan, we visited relatives in the Puget Sound region, and got a further look at the extreme drought conditions currently afflicting the U.S. Northwest. The grass is brown, and even many bushes are brown. Here’s picture of a rhododendron that’s surely alive… and dead… all at the same time. (Not unlike some con-goers I saw early Sunday morning.)
One personal highlight of the con was at last meeting my friend Ann, who for years has been helping me format my ebooks—yes, those same ebooks I’ve been flogging (not too relentlessly, I hope) for almost as long as I’ve been writing this blog. Ann lives in Washington, and all this time our communication has been by email. She’s a fan who offered to help, because it’s fun! (!!!) At last, we met face-to-face, and Allysen and I got to take her out to dinner, as a very small thank-you for all the work she’s done for us. (But was I smart enough to take a picture? Noooo…)
Finally, here’s some of the quirky fan art that accompanied Sasquan. I love fan art.
During the lead-up to the worldcon and the Hugo Awards, there was a good deal of commotion about the attempt by the Sad Puppies coalition (consisting largely, but not entirely, of conservative white male writers), joined by the more toxic Rabid Puppies, to hijack the awards and stuff the final ballot with their choices of candidate works. I say “attempted,” but in fact they managed to overwhelm several of the major categories. (You might have heard about it on NPR, or read about it on Slate.com, or seen it elsewhere on the net, where it seemed to be ubiquitous. Personally, I tried to avoid spending much time reading about it, because life is short and mean-spirited drama is long.) If you’re unfamiliar with the controversy, those links will bring you up to speed. The bottom line: A group of conservative-to-rabid voters organized to game the awards this year. In response, a couple of thousand more convention registrants than usual showed up to vote, in defense of an open awards process.
After a long, angry buildup, many con-goers expected to see blood in the hallways of the convention center. It didn’t happen. David Gerrold, one of two author Guests of Honor (Vonda McIntyre was the other), was a target of some nasty pre-con slurring, and he could have chosen to lash out in his GoH speech. He did not. In fact, he delivered a classy affirmation of his love of science fiction and science fiction fandom (transcript here). His only reference to the whole affair was an expression of gratitude to those (not present) who had helped clarify in his mind what he wanted to say. Connie Willis, who had earlier declined to be a presenter, showed up in mid-program to cheer on the process.
David Gerrold and Tananarive Due MC the Hugos
Awards time came, and in five categories that had been largely or completely taken over by the puppies, the voters chose “No Award,” in a clear repudiation of the hijack attempt. You can see the final results here, including the categories voted “no award.” My congratulations to the winners! But it was not a victory without price.
While I stand firmly with the rejection of the gaming effort of the SPs, I feel for those writers and editors who were hurt by the whole affair. Some innocent writers and editors were unwillingly associated with the puppies slate, because the SPs happened to like their work. Other worthy individuals were kept off the final ballot because of the stuffing. Still, the winning novel, The Three Body Problem, by Cixin Liu (translated by Ken Liu), got its place on the ballot because another author withdrew his work after receiving support from the stuffers.
Some say that the Hugo Awards as an institution were strengthened by the voters’ repudiation of the attempt to game the system, and I hope that turns out to be true. But it’s hard to say that there were winners in the affected categories. Those writers who were shut out may get another chance, another year, and then again they may not. Either way, it has to hurt.
For perhaps the most thorough summary of the matter, I recommend this article from Wired, which includes coverage of “supplementary awards,” the Alfies, created and handed out with great cheer by Game of Thrones’George R.R. Martin. In all, I have to agree with his summation, that vindication of the process came with considerable regret.
We’ve returned home at last from Sasquan, the 2015 World Science Fiction Convention. It was a wonderful worldcon, though for much of the time the air in Spokane was borderline unbreathable due to wildfire smoke. Here are a few photos taken at various times, during bad air and good.
The first is a view out the convention center window, when the air was turbid with haze—and a sign that appeared on the doors leading out of the convention center that day. (Later in the evening I looked out our hotel room window over the sepia-colored skyline of the city, and saw a long train of black tanker cars winding through the center of the city. I thought I was witnessing the beginning of the eco-apocalypse.)
The next day the wind shifted, and the air was much nicer. That’s when I took these, on the riverside park bordering the convention center.
There are lots of quirky touches to the park. Sculptures along the river, molded directly into the railing. And the giant red Radio Flyer wagon, with the built-in slide for kids. Not to mention the trash-eating mechanical goat, here being fed a napkin by my wife Allysen.
The programming included a wonderful Guest of Honor speech by David Gerrold, affirming his love of science fiction. (Short version: Reading SF changes the way you view life and the universe. It builds empathy, especially for those who are different from you. Empathy is the first step toward true sentience. Follow this road long enough, and you reach the beginning of wisdom.)
I unfortunately missed the speech by the other Guest of Honor, Vonda N. McIntyre; but I did get to chat with her and to share a couple of program items, including a panel on Book View Café as a model for cooperative publishing by groups of authors. My other panel, on the New Space Opera (sharing the stage with Charles Stross, Hugo-nominee Ann Leckie, and several others) played to a standing-room-only audience. I hope I said something intelligent—but as is my practice, I leave that to the audience to decide. Suffice it to say here that space opera (once a term that was used pejoratively) is now a part of our greater cultural landscape, including not just print fiction but TV and movies, and it’s grown up a lot in the last 60-70 years.
The much-covered Sad Puppies drama played itself out in the Hugo Awards ceremony. That’s next.
We’re enjoying the start of Sasquan, the 2015 World Science Fiction Convention (aka worldcon) in lovely Spokane, Washington. The Spokane (rhymes with can) Convention Center is located right next to the aptly named Spokane River, with a beautiful riverside park. We’ve already seen a number of friends, and I listened to a great talk by a Vatican astronomer on astronomical models that were almost right, but not quite—usually because the astronomers of the time didn’t make the leap from the data they had to imagining the right questions to ask.
The air, however, is a bit thick here. Washington state and neighboring Canada have a lot of wildfires going, and it makes for uncomfortable breathing at times—and eerily red sunsets. My phone camera failed to catch the effect, so I don’t have a good picture. But here’s a map of the fires currently going, and you can see that the U.S. Northwest and Canada are getting the brunt of it. But the smoke is actually carrying all the way across the U.S. on the jetstream.
On our drive from Seattle to Spokane, we stopped off to see the Grand Coulee Dam, and I talked to a U.S. Forest Service guy who had also stopped to see the dam. He was on his way to a fire. I asked what his role was. He said he manages a group of helicopters that takes firefighters in to rappel down close to fires in hopes of cutting them off before they can spread. Gottta hand it to those guys!
Meanwhile, if you’re attending the con, I hope you’ll stop by one of my events and say hello. Today (Thursday) I’m on a panel about Book View Cafe, an author collaborative. Saturday I’m autographing, and also participating on a panel on Space Opera.