Thursday, September 5, 2013

My First WorldCon: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

It was so hot, the sun cooked the skirt
right off of my dashboard hula dancer. 

 LoneStarCon 3 has come and gone, and boy, are my arms tired. It was my first ever WorldCon, and I had zero idea of what to expect. Maybe I shouldn’t have agreed to help out with some of the programming, or agree to curate an exhibit on Robert E. Howard’s legacy, or agree to serve on the ALAMO board of directors, at least not until I knew what I was getting myself into.

The logistics of putting on a WorldCon are not much different from other conventions; there’s just more of them. There’s programming out the wazoo at WorldCon, and multiple dances, and of course, the awards ceremony. It’s a lot like putting on three conventions’ worth of activities in one weekend. This is compounded by the fact that the Floating Temporary Permanent Volunteer WorldCon Committee (hereby acronymed down to F.T.P.V.W.C., or “Fit-Piv-Wic,” with the accent on the second syllable) are attempting to organize the entire thing while literally scattered across the country. This adds a layer of organization, communication, and functionality (not to mention disparate personality types) to an activity that usually isn’t so contentious when people are looking at each other from across the room.

In fact, there’s so much to talk about regarding this first WorldCon from my own limited, biased, and narrow point of view, that I’m going to break it up into areas for those of you who only want to read about my hardships, or maybe you just want to hear my thoughts on the convention in general. Feel free to skim over the topic headings until you see what you like, or just start at the top and slog your way through it all, much like I had to do last week.

My Personal Saga

I’ll spare you the minutiae and cover the high points: on Monday, I had major car trouble that put me six hours behind and over three hundred dollars light. On Tuesday, I found out that the exhibit space I’d designed for was in no way, shape or form related to the exhibit space I got. It was absolute hash. I left it in impartial hands, thankfully, and they were able to make sense of what needed to happen, brilliantly so. But they had to do it all on Wednesday, while I was on a twelve-hour long bus trip to Cross Plains and back. That evening, I ate undercooked bacon at Denny’s and got food poisoning. Thursday and part of Friday was spent in recovery from that—it sapped a lot of my strength, obviously. By Saturday, I was ready to play, but Saturday and Sunday were my busiest days. After panels, and then dinner (and by the way, my system never really recovered completely from the Denny’s meal), I was out of gas completely. Only on Monday did I get any bar time, which was awesome, and all too brief.

Not my best convention, on a personal note. Not by a long shot. However, it was not a total bust.

Name Checking for Fun and Profit

The sheer number of folks I saw and had brief interactions with are legion. Granted, many of them are Texas regulars, but some are not and it was awesome to see them again. My only real complaint was that I didn’t get nearly enough bar time to chill out, have a laugh or two, and be the convivial and charming raconteur that I usually am at these kinds of things. I think we all know who lost here: Texas.

But seeing Jess Nevins, Daryl Gregory, Nancy Hightower, Maurice Broaddus, Paolo Bacigalupi, Caroline and Warren Specter, John Klima, Jayme Lynn Blaschke, Peggy Hailey, Joe Lansdale, Kasey Lansdale, Howard Waldrop, Scott Cupp, John Picacio, Sanford Allen, Stina Leicht, Rhonda Eudaly, Martha Wells, Jessica Reissman, Lillian Stewart Carl, Patrice Sarath, Paige E. Ewing, Josh Roundtree,  Lon Prater,Vincent Villafranca, Marshall Ryan Maresca, Ann Vander Meer, David Spurlock, Chris N. Brown, Lawrence Person, Paul Benjamin, Alan Porter, Derek Johnson, Lou Anders, Don Webb and all the rest of the Southwestern Fans and Friends was wonderful, if all too brief. I got to wave at Steven Brust from a crowded elevator, shout at Brad Denton as we were running in opposite directions, bellow at Paul Cornell, blurt at John Scalzi, and otherwise ping-pong around the parties, spreading the love. I also met a lot of new folks, and talk to a ton of enthusiastic fans. More on this, later.

I got to have dinner with Ray Guns Over Texas editor Rick Klaw and his wife, Brandy, the most, along with my old friend and program participant Weldon Adams (also my roommate for this little odyssey). And of course, Team REH: Paul Herman, Rusty Burke, Bill “Indy” Cavalier, Dennis McHaney, Jeff Shanks, Dave Hardy (with serious help from wife Julie and daughter Brigid), Damon Sasser, Rob Roehm, and all the way from France, Patrice Louinet.  This was my home base, and these folks more or less kept me sane, hydrated, and made sure I was wearing pants and not running late to any panels. Thanks a million, folks.

Robert E. Howard

Some of you may have noticed that there were, ah, a few panels on Robert E. Howard and his legacy. This was completely intentional. When I was asked to help out with the programming duties, I was told that there were absolutely zero panels on Robert E. Howard at the last Texas WorldCon, in 1997. This is not surprising. The 1990s are something of a Dark Ages for Howard Studies, with no copies of Howard’s own Conan books on the shelves and no real intentions to do so. It wasn’t until around the late 1990s that Wandering Star entered the picture, with their desire to produce authoritative texts of Howard’s work, in deluxe hardcover editions, and with high end illustrations. That was the start of the REH Renaissance, really. So, a lot has happened in the thirteen years between Texas WorldCons. A lot.

That track of programming was a corrective, and it was extremely successful. We had large crowds for most of the panels (the poetry stuff was a bust, frankly, and no one could find the film programming to come see “Barbarian Days”) and lot of participation. But in particular, I slanted the panels to hit the older fans. When I came down for the big meeting in April, I had two people pull me aside—older men, both—and tell me how pleased and excited they were to see that REH was going to be on the panels this year. They were big fans, they told me, and read all of that stuff in the 1970s. I asked them, “Have you been keeping up with what we’ve been doing in the past fifteen years?” Oh, no, they said. They just read the books and really enjoyed them, but they haven’t looked at them since the seventies. Heh. Okay, guys, this panel’s for you.

I intentionally loaded the topics to entice the older fans. We had an obligatory Conan panel, and that room was packed. Even better, it was a smashing success. I opened it up to talk about pop culture Conan, and everyone stayed right on Robert E. Howard’s Conan the whole time. Fantastic. And the more we talked about corrupted texts, bad biographical practices, ulterior motives, and the complicated relationship between the fans and L. Sprague de Camp, I saw more light bulbs going on behind these guys’ eyes. Oh, there were a few of them who wanted to debate the point, citing de Camp’s standing as a gifted and talented author, and blah blah blah. I told one of them what I always say, which is that de Camp was great for Conan, but really lousy for Robert E. Howard. That pretty much ended the discussion.We opened a lot of eyes and changed a lot of minds over the four day weekend.

The Robert E. Howard exhibit got a lot of traffic, as did the Robert E. Howard Foundation Table. Lots of books were sold, memberships handed out, and we all had a ton of great conversations with people who were genuinely interested in REH, his works, and what we were doing there. It was everything that we wanted WFC 2006 to be, and more.


San Antonio, invaded by Martian Walkers. Cool.
My non-REH programming was great. In hindsight, I wish I’d had more of it. But I was on a mission, so, you know... It was a scandal-free WorldCon, for which I am terribly grateful, even though now in the various armchair reports coming out, the very same issues are coming up: more parity, more youth, more inclusiveness, etc. I don’t disagree with any of those comments. This year’s convention attendees looked old. They just did. I say that with grey in my temples, too. It was an old, white, sausage fest. And yet, there were a number of interesting contradictions that reared up during the show.

The kid’s programming was hands down the best kid’s programming I’d ever seen in 20+ years of going to conventions. It was awesome. All of it. Make your own lightsabers? Jet packs? Steampunk nerf guns?  Captain America shields? Intro role-playing lessons? Good Lord, I wanted to do all of that, and more. Our REH Camp Mascot, Brigid, was in and out of the kid’s programming all weekend, constantly showing us the new thing she’d built. They let the kids pour metal figures, for crying out loud. How freaking cool is that?

And yet, there were so few kids and parents there for the duration. Granted, there were a number of one day passes with moms and girls, but that’s not the issue. That programming track was brilliant, and no one knew about it. That should be an up-front feature for WorldCon: “Bringing the Next Generation into Fandom, one Jet Pack at a time!” It needed to be a button on the main page, next to General Info. You want younger kids? Parents? Youth? You’ve got to let them know that stuff like that is already in place.

I know a number of women in Texas fandom, and also creators. My own areas of programming were pretty limited to sausage-y things, but we tried, we really tried, to get women on the panels wherever we could. Granted, I wasn’t working on a Y.A. track, but we did as much as we really could. I asked folks, “what do you want to be on?” and then took those answers straight to programming. And during the con, I asked people what they thought, how the panels went, etc. and by and large the replies were overwhelmingly positive.

Attendance was good. You wouldn’t know it unless you were in a packed panel, because the con was spread way-the-hell-out all over the convention center. I really hate the San Antonio Convention Center (and the Marriot hotels right next to it). Overpriced, overblown, inconvenient, and generally there to fleece the tourists. The last five trips I’ve made to San Antonio have all been to that Marriot and Convention Center. I’ve got good friends in San Antonio, who love the town, but I personally hate the Riverwalk and all that is clustered around it. It’s just so inauthentic, and really lame. A shopping mall, so close to the Alamo, just makes my teeth itch.

This being my first WorldCon, and being on the inside of some things, too, was very eye-opening. Now that I’ve seen one run, and gotten a glimpse at how the sausage is made, I am somewhat mollified. That doesn’t mean that what the other bloggers are saying about how the convention needs to skew younger, be more inclusive, etc, isn’t spot-on, but I’ll do my list anyway, and discuss some of the practical considerations inherent in changing the mission of WorldCon.

Fixing WorldCon for the 75th Anniversary

Everyone wants it fixed “NOW” and well, that’s just not possible. But there are four years until 2017, the 75th WorldCon, and that’s a great deadline to have some of these things in place for a newer, shinier convention that will return it to its former glory.

Fix the Hugos. There’s a list of things that people have been complaining about the Hugos for years, and fixing them would be ideal. The best, easiest example: Add a Y.A. category. That they haven’t done this yet is stupid, and smacks of an answer that I heard often during this process “But that’s the way we’ve always done it.” The success, the popularity, and the importance of the surge in the young adult market cannot be overstated. Embrace it. That’s just one example. But you get what I’m talking about. It’s time to stop being so snooty about science fiction. When it started, it was full of pulps and comics. Let’s never forget that.

Add Media, Gaming, and YA to the programming. This doesn’t have to be odious. I know many of the FiTPiVWiCs and SMOFs that I talked to don’t want the show to get any bigger. Well, not the size of DragonCon, anyway. But consider this instead: how about inviting one or two game creators to the show? How about one or two TV series or movie makers? Writers and artists? Not the whole cast and crew of the Avengers, but what about just inviting Joss Whedon? See, you can keep it cerebral, focused on the written word, and interesting to fans without having Robert Downey Jr. in the Iron Man suit onhand. Now, you’ll probably have to pay for these people to show up, but I think the cost of doing business with them will more than pay for itself. As for Young Adult programming—guess what? That’s hotter than Georgia Asphalt right now. It was a packed panel at WorldCon this year. Why was there only one?  It’s because the FiTPiVWiCs and SMOFs don’t read Young Adult books. That’s why. Simple. 

Here’s a freebie, London: Next year is the 30th anniversary of the film Buckaroo Banzai. Get the director, D.W. Richter and the writer, Earl Mac Rauch, and maybe Peter Weller, to come in and talk about the film. Outside of airfare and hotel rooms, I’m willing to bet you that they are pretty cheap. You’ll get a packed house at the panel, and long lines for the autographing. And who knows? Die-hard BB fans may just come to your show BECAUSE you’re doing it. Granted, it may only be about a couple of hundred Uber-fans of Buckaroo Banzai, but isn’t 200 memberships worth it? But you need to lock it down fast, and then advertise the hell out of it, because otherwise, how will people know? Just listing it won’t get it done. You’ve got to start selling WorldCon from scratch, because there are far more people (like the 60,000 that showed up at DragonCon last week) who don’t know who or what WorldCon is than those that do right now. 

Make an effort to include more Fans. Granted, fixing the programming above will take care of some of this on its own. But other fan groups need some love, too. The costume contest in San Antonio was non-existent. Oh, I mean, there was one, but for a WorldCon, it was pretty anemic. Why? Because the Greybeards, as they were dubbed during the convention, don't dress up anymore. There should have been four days of costume programming, themed to coincide with each day of the show. And there could be. The facilities were there, in spades.There were two hundred people working on WorldCon. Surely a few more volunteers to get the costuming up to a fever pitch wouldn't have added to anyone's work load.

Stop going toe-to-toe with DragonCon. Just stop it, please. And don't you dare say "well, it's ALWAYS been on Labor Day weekend." Don't you even friggin' think it. Conventions move around. Nothing is set in stone. Go back to early August for WorldCon and stop trying to slug it out with the second-largest Pop Culture convention in the country. That ain't your fight, so quit making it your fight.

This doesn’t have to happen all at once. But I think the groups that just won the bids for the upcoming shows would do well to listen to what paying members past and present, many of whom are professional writers and artists, have said about WorldCon. They are the customers. They are telling you what they want to see at future shows. This shouldn’t be that difficult to figure out. And while the convention itself is non-profit (another mistake, in my opinion), there is still an impetus to make money every year.

Final Thoughts

The Riverwalk, under attack. Note the tractor beam. Neat!
Will I go to another WorldCon? Yeah, probably. I wouldn’t travel to one, unless I was nominated for something, and I don’t have the body of work or the fans to make that happen yet. I would consider helping out with another WorldCon in Texas, but only if all of the above points were addressed—and maybe additionally, only if I were involved with the bid so as to address all of the above, right out of the gate. My single biggest frustration to this year’s WorldCon was not being able to advocate for, say, Dallas or Fort Worth instead of San Antonio. It would have been much easier to plan for and do stuff with a convention and a group of fans that I’d worked with before. But that’s all beside the point. The show was good, and can be a major thing again. It needs a little help, from outside forces, and a lot of leadership and direction from within, if it’s going to make those changes and still be a viable convention.

Me? I’m still recovering. The drive alone has rendered me spent and goofy. It’ll be a month until I’m fixed. But I’m sure I’ll have more to talk about later. Hopefully, it won’t involve any “twerking” scandals. Twerking. Pfft. You ever get the feeling that we’re all being punked by Ashton Kutcher?


Kevin Vinther said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Kevin Vinther said...

Thanks so much for bringing the Howard material and programming to WorldCon! Sorry to hear about the car & bacon troubles. I was glad I got to give you my appreciation for "Blood and Thunder" while passing in the elevator lobby between party floors. ;)

Mark Finn said...

You are quite welcome, Kevin. Glad you enjoyed it. And I do remember our exchange. I truly appreciate the kind words.

Patrice Sarath said...

Mark, I think I waved at you in passing in the lobby too! Sorry you had such a rough convention.

You know, here's the thing -- I was on a science panel about space exploration and I was the only woman on the panel. However, I don't think it's up to the programming committee to be the ones to gender-balance panels. Ladies, put your name in! Say you'll talk about space exploration. It's fun, it's interesting, and you have things to say.

Tex said...

Hey, I'm super late to the game, but it was *awesome* to get to meet you at WorldCon. (I feel even more honored now that I know that it was your only bar night out of the whole weekend!)

I'm still really new to the con scene in general, but I've been interested to read everybody's recaps on this one, what ought to be done better or differently, and so on. Totally agree on the kids' programming. TOTALLY agree on pushing it back to early August, too. I think a lot of those mythical younger folks (and the older ones with kids!) would have an easier time making it down if we didn't wait until two weeks after school started.

Anyway, glad you could make it, even with all the hellacious hassle it ultimately involved. Be glad to ask on your behalf about the DFW Writers Conference if you're still interested (I'm editorial this year, not education, but having a gentleman-scholar such as yourself in our ranks would be a boon all around!) Good luck in recuperating, regardless - it was a bonanza of a weekend, and no mistake!