We’re a week out from Anticipation, the 67th World Science Fiction Convention, in my beloved Montreal.
Worldcons are fickle beasts, for the sole reason that there is just so damned much to do. We’re talking about thousands of people, hundreds of events, and every facet of this vast and ungainly thing we call “fandom” brought to light in some manner. Even after thirty years of attending cons, I still get little chills thinking about the singular experiences that never fail to pepper the long weekend: lucking into a Kaffeeklatsche; finding an unexpected pin next to my name on the Voodoo Message Board; encountering an author whose book I just happen to have on my person; having a wholly non-ironic conversation about broadcast engineering with a guy in an Elfquest outfit. Only at a Worldcon can you accidentally walk into a lecture about caring for your Stargate bobbleheads, wonder aloud why there are still Sailor Moon fans on the planet, and overhear extended passages from somebody’s “Me and Summer Glau Trapped on a Shuttlecraft in a Decaying Orbit” fan fiction while waiting for an elevator, all in one afternoon.
Even at their worst, Worldcons are magnificent.
I adroitly delude myself that I have the know-how and Con cred to efficiently maximize my enjoyment, but my plans, without exception, get tossed shortly after I grab my badge. Still, there are items and events that always tentpole the convention experience:
- The Panel Discussions: These make up the bulk of a Worldcon. Writers, editors, artists and fans convene in a room and have spirited conversations about genre topics, sometimes very narrowly defined. A cursory perusal of Anticipation’s schedule (pdf) reveals the scattershot nature of the convention’s demographic, with panels on the modern surveillance society, the state of webcomics, the current realities of unmanned combat, origami for beginners, redefining “the canon” (a perennial subject), SF&F tourism, exotic hair braiding, genocide in SF, belly dancing workshops, and the impact of social networking on fandom. Most panels have a Q & A session, and the best topics spill into the hallways and reverberate throughout the con.
These are mostly educational and entertaining, but sometimes the talk gets heated. Really heated. We’re talking Helm’s Deep/Jerry Springer territory. I’ve seen a panel on the best method for brewing beer in zero gravity almost come to blows. One discussion on space technology rapidly morphed into an argument over whether religious fundamentalists or liberal arts majors posed the bigger threat to science. Even when impassioned, these are substantive discourses, something increasingly rare these days.
The downside is that the allotted hour always seems to give short shrift to the conversation, and there will always be occasions where two or more concurrent panels fight for your attention.
- Awards: While I don’t fully agree with Adam Roberts’ recent assessment of the Hugos, I must admit the big award ceremony doesn’t carry a lot of weight with me anymore for a number of reasons I won’t get into here. But the Hugos aren’t the only game in town. Other award ceremonies include the Sidewise for alternate history, the Prometheus for Libertarian SF, and the Chesley for art. Yes, awards are merely symbols and their validity can be debated, but the distribution of awards at a Worldcon is more than that. They are manifestations of the celebration and recognition of SF&F that Worldcon is built upon, the vein of tradition that supports the core of fandom.
- The Art Show: I have yet to see a Worldcon Art Show that has failed to impress me. It’s a Shangri-La-esque gallery that coalesces from the ether once a year. Each art show is a new and exciting museum dedicated to eye candy, distilling Sense of Wonder down to a pure form that you can mainline. Gazing at the originals of book covers I love always stirs me, and discovering new artists is stimulating. Yes, it is true you have to tolerate a good quantity of sexy elves and winged cats, but all great things come at a price. Throughout the weekend, artists and art editors give tours of the show, recall histories of certain pieces and tell inside stories on others. Some artists give demonstrations. You can vote on your favorites and buy prints or originals. It is beautiful and compelling.
- The Dealers Room: You cannot help but stand in awe at the fact that, even in this hyper-connected age, a Worldcon dealers room will always contain goods that you’ve never seen before and probably did not know existed. It is an irresistible force that lures you with plush Kzinti dolls, a variety of brass steampunk goggles, and T-shirts reading “Lie Back and Think of Albion,” then mercilessly separates you from your money. Thriftiness and personal budgets are powerless against it. Take my advice: don’t bother resisting.
My shopping list includes two pillows shaped like twelve-sided dice, Greg Egan’s Oceanic, a Viper Pilot Helmet, an accurate set of blueprints for Moonbase Alpha, and a chain-mail loin cloth. I’m not sure I’ll find Oceanic, though…
- The Masquerade. This is where fandom shows its plumage. Literally. The Masquerade is like Space Opera or Prog Rock: unabashed, over the top, and self-indulgent in the best sense of the word. People spend years (and a lot of money) on their costumes. You see re-creations of book covers and movie scenes, visual puns, and slapstick humor. The costuming segment of fandom is a unique entity, without equivalent analogs in other genres. It’s meticulously crafted, vaudevillian, fetishistic, theatrical, and usually unforgettable.
- Eating/Drinking: There is a weird alt-universe vibe that envelops the vicinity of a Worldcon. You can walk into any restaurant or bar within a five-to-ten block radius of the con, anytime day or night, and find it overrun by SF fans. It’s like Borg assimilation, or the terraforming of an alien world. The local population sometimes cringes at this incursion. This, to me, is where fandom becomes a true community. This is where longtime friendships are fostered, where online acquaintances gather in meatspace, where rivalries and romances blossom. The cliché of fandom consisting of antisocial misfits crumbles. We are very social misfits.
- Parties: You cannot walk down a hallway in the main convention hotels without encountering more parties than you can count. My favorite Worldcon memories are usually at parties: The Atlanta Libertarians’ Prisoner marathon; The Australia Bid party in San Francisco; Louis Wu’s Birthday Party at Noreascon 3; the industrial mini-rave in San Antonio where the bartender invented a series of drinks named after Jack Vance novels; the outdoor post-Hugo bash in Glasgow that was kicked off by a twenty-minute fireworks display set to Jeff Wayne’s War of the Worlds.
Make no mistake, these celebrations have been earned. Worldcons are exhausting. They can drain you intellectually, emotionally, and physically. But they are radiant microcosms where physics and energy conservation cease to exist. They always give back more than you put in.
So, who’s going?