Tue
Aug 23 2011 10:32am

Worldcon 2011: Renovation

This past weekend was the 69th annual World Science Fiction Convention, though that name hardly does it justice. It’s far too small to represent the world and sci-fi only comprises a portion of the attendee interest. It also hosts the Hugo Awards for the best — or most popular, depending on who you talk to — science fiction and fantasy of the previous year. My convention experience has been limited to an X-Files convention I went to as a kid for my birthday, one Nova Albion, and two San Diego Comic-Cons, so I had absolutely no idea what I’d be walking into. Now that I’m home, I’m still not entirely sure what to make of it, but I know I had fun and cannot wait for Chicon 7.


There are several things that made Worldcon different from other conventions, the most noticable being the attendee age range. Comic-Con, which generally attracts an audience old enough to remember when Thundercats was on the air but young enough to have only listened to disco ironically (not to mention kiddies galore on Sunday). Worldcon, on the other hand, was populated mostly by middle-agers and seniors, with a smattering of twentysomethings for good measure. There were very few children, and most seem to be there solely by virtue of their parents not having babysitters. Maybe the age gap rests in less-than-stellar advertisement, maybe because it’s such a long-running con (every adult older than me — of which there were plenty — had attended for several years in a row, often decades at a time), and maybe because of the nature of the con itself.

That last point was the most disappointing aspect for me. I’m a huge moving pictures fanatic. I live for the stuff. Yes, I read a lot, but I watch television and movies A LOT. My Netflix queue is nothing but TV shows, movies I was too much of a frugal old woman to pay $15 for, and Buster Keaton DVDs. And Worldcon didn’t offer me anything except some kids movies, a few anime, and some shorts which were shunted off into the darkened, virtually abandoned corners of the convention center. Not that every con needs to be as Hollywood as Comic-Con, but to outright ignore the small and silver screens felt a bit elitist.

The costumes were also more interesting than other cons. If on Friday and Saturday you weren’t dressed in historically accurate Regency wear or historical-accurate shunning Steampunk you were the odd one out. Wildly successful published authors were approachable and pleasant; no one sat in their ivory tower or refused to talk to a fan. Hell, there were at least three con-related weddings. But mostly it came down to the subtle difference that people at Comic-Con love the spectacle of the convention while people at Worldcon love the people at Worldcon. At the former, you attend panels for the celebrity sightings and “firsties” cred. At the latter, you attend to see old friends, make new ones, and hang out with wonderfully creative people.

I attended some fascinating panels (expect a For Writers recap in the offing), and met some truly amazing people (there was nary a fight or asshat in sight). The con was small enough that by Friday I couldn’t walk the halls without getting stopped for chats by at least five people, though to be completely honest, some of that had to do with people recognizing me from the panels I was on. Introducing yourself to your seatmate on the shuttle, the person next to you at the panel, or behind you in line is standard op. And every single person was brimming with niceness and excitement. I don’t think I could ever attend Comic-Con without accompaniment because no one mingles there, but the only times I was lonely at Worldcon was in my big, garish, en-mirrored hotel room.

The thing about Reno, Nevada is that it’s a very strange little place. It has a long and storied history full of quirks, eccentricities, and downright creepiness. It’s isolated yet vaguely connected, depressing yet engaging, frowzy yet unique. All of which makes it the perfect setting for Worldcon. What are geeks if not random pockets of interconnected weirdos passionate about their anomalous cultural communities who do what they love while both forsaking outsider scrutiny and commercializing on their oft-mocked behavior? Reno and nerds have far more in common than I think either would care to admit.

To see pictures from Worldcon, click here. Also, Ian Tregillis is made of win and awesomeness.

Panelist Recommendations (in no particular order)

  • Last Call - Tim Powers
  • George R. R. Martin’s Wildcard series
  • Works Progress Administration’s 1935-1942 Federal Writers’ Project state guide books (48 in total)
  • And the Devil Will Drag You Under - Jack Chalker
  • Witch’s Business (aka Wilkins’ Tooth), The Time of the Ghost, Deep Secret, and The Tough Guide to Fantasyland - Diana Wynne Jones
  • Dangerous Visions - edited by Harlan Ellison
  • Castle Waiting - Linda Medley
  • Whipping Girl - Julia Serano
  • Venus Plus X - Theodore Sturgeon
  • The Fortunate Fall - Raphael Carter
  • Master of the Five Magics - Lyndon Hardy
  • Sanderson’s First Law
  • Vellum and Ink - Hal Duncan
  • Small Gods - Terry Pratchett
  • The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms - N.K. Jemisin
  • The Name of the Wind - Patrick Rothfuss
  • The Magicians and The Magician King - Lev Grossman
  • Bitter Seeds - Ian Tregillis
  • Moxyland and Zoo City - Lauren Beukes
  • Writing the Other: A Practical Guide - Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward
  • Fangland - John Marks
  • The Lies of Locke Lamora - Scott Lynch
  • I Am Not a Serial Killer and A Night of Blacker Darkness - Dan Wells
  • Stormlight Archive wiki
  • Magic, Inc. - Robert A. Heinlein
  • Shades of Milk and Honey - Mary Robinette Kowal
  • Little, Big - John Crowley

Alex Brown is an archivist by passion, reference librarian by profession, writer by moonlight, and all around geek who watches entirely too much TV. She is prone to collecting out-of-print copies of books by Evelyn Waugh, Jane Austen, and Douglas Adams, probably knows far too much about pop culture than is healthy, and thinks her rats Hywel and Odd are the cutest things ever to exist in the whole of eternity. You can follow her on Twitter if you dare.

16 comments
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
1. tnh
Alex --

There's nothing elitist about the absence of an elaborate film and video program. Worldcons used to put a lot of effort into those, back in the days when it was extremely difficult for individual fans to get to see old, obscure, or foreign movies and shows. Nowadays, if there's something you want to watch, it's almost always available, and may even be free, so the amount of good the community gets in return for the effort of putting on a major film or video program is much smaller than it used to be.

The cost and effort are greater than many people realize. Showing movies and videos at a convention is commercial use, rather than individual use. The laws are different, and everything costs more. For example, if you copy and rewatch a television program, it's personal use. If a worldcon shows that same recording, it's a copyright violation.

Also, elaborate movie and video programs are more of a passive spectacle, and less of a community interaction. The worldcon's all about the community getting together to yak at each other. There was certainly no shortage of conversations about video and movies.

In general there's very little actual elitism at SF conventions. Stuff that initially looks like elitism almost always turns out to be something else.
The costumes were also more interesting than other cons.
The fantasy, Regency, skiffy, and steampunk costumes were certainly out in force, but did you notice the sprinkling of Mad Man period officewear? That was new. I liked it -- it was stylish and surreal.
Alex Brown
2. AlexBrown
@tnh: Yeah, I used to work on the sidelines of the film industry, so I'm well aware of the licensing and whatnot. It wasn't just the con runners that ignored (or whatever you want to call it) film/tv but the exhibitors as well. To have almost nothing on the panels, events, or booths was irritating to me, but not enough to ruin the con.

I'm going to have to totally disagree with your comment about movies and videogames being passive and "less of a community interaction". COMPLETELY and VEHEMENTLY disagree. I mean, seriously, have you ever met the Browncoats?

And yeah, the Mad Men stuff was cool.
René Walling
3. cybernetic_nomad
Very few children? You obviously didn't hang out in the kid's programme room organized by Hugo winner James Bacon. My only complaint about it is that I kept being told to come back later when I went to pick up my daughter.

Re: film and video: Theresa's point was that watching films and video is passive. Yes I think by now we've all seen the Browncoats. Did you drop by the Klingon party Saturday evening (on f the best party rooms at the con), check out all the media related hall costumes or attend the media related programming -- those are the kind of interactive activities Worldcon excels at.
Alex Brown
4. AlexBrown
@cybernetic: Kid's program room proves my point. At, say, Comic-Con, the convention itself is teeming with kids, whereas at Worldcon they were shunted off into a room.

I'm not sure how watching or playing are somehow more passive than reading...most people watch tv and movies with other people or talk about them afterwards, and video games by nature are group activities that are played, the word itself proving activity rather than passivity.

You can do Rocky Horror and Dr. Horrible with a crowd, but you don't often see something like that with books. But maybe Worldcon doesn't carry the kind of attendees that would be chuffed about Rocky Horror and Dr. Horrible? I dunno...it's such a minor qualm that I wasn't terribly put out by it...I just felt it was a point that needed addressing is all.
Melanie S
5. starryharlequin
But maybe Worldcon doesn't carry the kind of attendees that would be chuffed about Rocky Horror and Dr. Horrible?



I haven't been to a Worldcon, but judging by the people among my friends who are planning to go to Chicon 7 next year...there's a lot of love for that sort of thing. But I don't think not having a lot to do with TV or movies is a criticism of the con, because I think the con is about literary pursuits by design. You can wish the design were different, but that means you were looking for something different than what it offered, not that the con should change. I mean, that has to balanced against what the congoers want, and there can be other reasons for change, but even if more people would come to Worldcon if there were more movie and TV programming, I don't agree that that's automatically a reason to do it.

(My first thought when I read that paragraph of yours is, "But most of the other cons are about movie properties! Lots of TV shows have their own cons! Why can't we have one just for the book people??" And I could also talk about the changes to Comic-con over the years as I understand them. My own con-going experience is entirely Harry Potter cons, which may be the only single-property book cons going, but which also sort of fail my book-con needs because lots of the people there don't read science fiction at all.)
Alex Brown
6. AlexBrown
@starry: You make some good points. I went into the con expecting all aspects of SFF, not just stuff for "book people". And the fact that there was a little film/tv stuff being offered reinforced that notion (not to mention all the Doctor Who cluttering up the Hugos). So to me it seems like they're trying to play the field without acknowledging the field exists, which is where my "elitist" train of thought came in. But it's just my opinion and clearly isn't one shared by the majority of commenters, which is fine with me.
Evan Langlinais
7. Skwid
Man, I love movies and TV. I watch gobs of both. But why would you ever want to spend your limited time at Worldcon in a darkened room where you can't talk to people or (more importantly) listen to people talk?!

Panels are where the Worldcon magic happens.
Caitrin
8. Caitrin
Man, I was so mad! I had planned a trip down to Vegas to visit my brother the same damn time as the convention. I actually live in Carson so it was basically in my backpocket! Sounds like I missed a bunch!
Alex Brown
9. AlexBrown
@skwid: Exactly. I didn't want to sit in a dark room and watch movies; I wanted to participate in a group watch and share an experience with my fellow film nerds.

@caitrin: You missed a shit-ton of fun, m'dear. It was a grand time indeed.
M F
10. Madeline
The one time I went to a Worldcon (the recent one in Denver), I came away with the impression that it was a con for people who were fans of Worldcon-style fandom, the traditional fandom that Jo Walton talks about in _Among Others_. My impression is that Jo Walton is near the youngest edge of people who were welcomed into that fandom, and for the past couple-few decades, people who suggest how Worldcons could change are met with a "they are perfect as they are" response.
Alex Brown
11. AlexBrown
@madeline: I didn't find it quite that exclusive, though there was a touch of that from some of the more traditional older fans. But that was overwhelmingly the minority, and I didn't let it get to me. I've heard some interesting theories on the population that came out to Denver (Google it), and that seemed to be more of an anomaly than other cons. And I think the "perfect as they are" feeling comes from the fact that Worldcon is created and run entirely by volunteers rather than a corporate entity, and it's harder to see the warts on your own baby. However, those warts didn't ruin the experience for me or make me never want to go back.

Worldcon is definitely a fandom con (and heavier on the SF than the F), but everyone I met was warm and welcoming and didn't really care about who was a "better" fan. Come to Chicon 7 with me next year and I'm sure you'll find that attitudes have changed.
René Walling
12. cybernetic_nomad
Let's look at it objectively, opening the Renovation programme, I see the following items:

1) A genre film festival featuring over 80 films
2) Screenings of films and TV shows (including anime)
3) Panels on the same

Plus I remember seeing a really nice exhibit of concept art from a variety of films and TV shows (near the Art Gallery)

I'm not saying those things can only be seen at Worldcon, but I think that's paying more than just lip service to genre media.

As for kids being "shunted off in a corner" I think we're having an English language problem: I am talking about kids, human beings aged 12 or so and younger. I have the feeling you're talking about teenagers. I wouldn't let the former wander around the convention without supervision. Whereas the latter group usually dislikes being refered to as kids usually because they are in the process of asserting their independence.

I agree with starryharlequin: Yes there is a strong literary tradition, but Worldcon has something for everyone. When was the last time Comiccons were criticised for not having enough literary programme.

@madeline: unlike most conventions, each Worldcon is run by a different committee (there is overlap, but a large proportion of the organizers change from year to year) so if Worldcon comes to your neck of the woods, do give it another try. Just saying that while there are commonalities, there are also differences between each Worldcon
Pamela Adams
13. Pam Adams
Milo1313@9,
Exactly. I didn't want to sit in a dark room and watch movies; I wanted to participate in a group watch and share an experience with my fellow film nerds



Cool! While it's something that I might not want to spend my Worldcon time doing, I'm sure that there are others who would. I recommend that you put that up as a programming suggestion to ChiCon 7. An offer to volunteer wouldn't be amiss... If there are costs beyond the normal level to the convention, you might try the KickStarter model. That's how Mary Robinette Kowal's puppetry company got there. Fans who were interested helped pay for it.
Caitrin
14. Dan Kimmel
I'm a movie critic and an author and I was at the World Con promoting my book "Jar Jar Binks Must Die... and other observations about science fiction movies" which sold out in the dealers' room. I moderated a panel on "Fringe" and another on movie franchises that failed, and was MC for both editions of "Trailer Park" where we showed more than an hour of trailers for upcoming movies to appreciative crowds. I don't go to World Con to watch movies, since that's what I do for a living, but I think the media track an active one. What is it that you think it was lacking?
Alex Brown
15. AlexBrown
@Dan: I missed the Fringe thing (mostly b/c I still haven't gotten around to watching it), and watching trailers or movies isn't something I'm that terribly interested in since I do it so much anyway. And congrats on the books! Maybe it was just a scheduling problem (too many times like panels were scheduled opposite each other). Or getting more showrunners/filmmakers on some panels (yes, I know Paul Cornell was there and he's awesome and totally cool). I dunno. As I keep saying, it wasn't a huge problem for me, just something that stuck out. No sing-alongs makes Alex a sad bunny.

@Pam: Those are great ideas, and someone with more free time than I should get on that...
Kristen Templet
16. SF_Fangirl
I wasn't there, but my impression is that the Worldcons are literary SF conventions so I'd expect the heavier focus to be on books. Guests of Honor are usually authors and not directors, producers, actors. That's what Comic-Con, Dragon*Con, and media cons are for.

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