Worldcon 2012: Fragments

September 12, 2012 at 5:17 am | Posted in Essays | 11 Comments

Last week, I flew to Chicago for the 70th World Science Fiction Convention. It was my first Worldcon. Among other things, I was looking forward with the chance to talk to other people who read science fiction.

It’s Wednesday evening and my roommate, a veteran of more than ten previous Worldcons, is unpacking the books he hopes to get signed. He has brought 10 Robert Silverberg books. I break the bad news about the signing policy (only 3 books per trip through the line) and then, with some embarrassment, I admit I haven’t read any Silverberg. He suggests a novel that would be a good place to start, then asks what I’ve been reading lately. I tell him I read and enjoyed Kameron Hurley’s God’s War on the flight to Chicago. He’s never heard of it.

A week and a half later I am writing the first draft of this post and trying to figure out what novel he recommended, but I didn’t write it down. I have Silverberg’s Wikipedia article open in another tab. My monitor is not even close to large enough to display the published novel list on one screen. Reading Silverberg’s backlist would probably take me multiple years. Just reading the ten books my roommate wanted signed would put a substantial dent in a year’s reading schedule.

According to a post by Gary K. Wolfe, in 2008 alone Locus recorded the publication of 254 science fiction novels and 436 fantasy novels. The rise of electronic publishing and the erosion of barriers to self-publishing seem sure to increase these numbers by an order of magnitude or more soon if they haven’t already.

For the most part this is a good thing. As the genre fragments, readers can find novels aligned to their specific tastes, novels that wouldn’t be viable if less SF was published. Although more bad novels are published, more great novels are published as well. None of this is in any way unique to SF, or even literature. The same process is much further along in music and not as far along in movies and television, but entertainment of all kinds is moving in the same direction, or rather, is moving in all directions simultaneously.

Yet if you like talking about genre fiction as much as reading it, shared context is harder and harder to find. As Wolfe puts it elsewhere in the same post: “To claim a title as the best SF or fantasy novel of the year seems to me to imply a core readership with a common set of values and assumptions, but as far as I can tell that readership has been dismembering itself into various caucuses for several decades now.”

It is Wednesday afternoon, the day before the convention starts, and I have just registered and am putting mental breadcrumbs between important locations in the labyrinthine hotel. As I walk the hall, I hear the words “fen” and “mundanes” used unironically for the first time in my life. The big nametags make it easy to identify other people here for the convention, but in most cases it isn’t necessary. Convention people dress differently, talk differently, and act differently from ordinary guests. I’m amazed that people from all over the country, and indeed in some cases all over the world, seem much more like each other than they are like the people I see every day in my normal life.

From the outside, Chicago’s Cloud Gate presents a coherent (if in places distorted) skyline.

Over the next few days I will revise this first impression. Certainly the sample was skewed by the day of the week, as for a variety of reasons the people I saw on Wednesday afternoon crowd were older and much more “fannish” than the actual convention average. But also I soon realize fan culture isn’t as monolithic as it seemed at first, something I should have realized just from reading the program. How many people at the convention were interested in filk? In costuming? In table gaming? In anime? These and many more hobbies could be pursued to the exclusion of anything else if the attendee desired. Alternatively, one could (and I did, I’m afraid) ignore them entirely.

Beneath Cloud Gate the image splits into diverse but overlapping fragments.

In the convention’s pocket program, the convention chair’s welcome message included the following reassurance: “I promise you, there are several folks you haven’t met yet who are *exactly* the kind of geek you are.”

In this day and age there’s no need to settle for being friends with someone who is almost the same kind of geek you are. It’s not just entertainment that’s fragmenting, it’s culture.

On Sunday morning, I am listening to a panel titled “Historical Reality in Fantasy”. Two of the panelists turn out to have run pen and paper roleplaying games. When they spend a few minutes discussing fantasy roleplaying game settings and answer a question about them from the audience, another audience member raises his hand and objects that while he enjoys roleplaying games, he comes to Worldcon to hear about literature.

I sympathize, but he is one person out of an audience of a hundred or more. Should his concept of the panel prevail over that of the person sitting next to him? By the relentlessly democratic logic of Worldcon his opinion is, by itself, without import. Had he asked for a show of hands, the panel might have paid attention.

It’s Sunday evening and I am sitting in a room with several thousand people waiting to hear the results of the genre’s most prominent show of hands, the Hugo Awards. The Hugo Awards ceremony is the only event without anything programmed against it (on Thursday I went to a panel instead of the opening ceremonies), yet the entire convention population isn’t there. Not even close.

Still, it’s a large group, and toastmaster John Scalzi uses this to make an appeal to unity. The Hugos, he says, bring everyone together. He then builds a description of the breadth of the genre community out of allusions to the nominees. It’s a clever and well-delivered little speech, but do the Hugo Awards really bring everyone together? Is that even possible?

It’s earlier on Sunday evening and I am in the same big room with almost the same number of people twenty minutes before the Hugo awards ceremony will begin. I am saving the seat beside me for my sister, but on the other side of me are two middle-aged men. When I notice they are talking about Ken Liu’s short story “Paper Menagerie” I begin eavesdropping on their conversation. They seem like old friends, and after they both agree Liu’s story was their favorite, they go on to discuss this year’s Hugo-nominated novels. Deadline is faintly praised, Among Others is agreed to be fantastic, but then it turns out one of them hasn’t read a single China Mieville novel even though Embassytown is another of the ballot’s novel nominees.

It is the Friday after the convention and I am back home plowing through an enormous Google Reader backlog. I get to popular British blogger Adam Whitehead’s short post about the Hugo awards. After listing the winners of some of the categories, he takes a backhanded swipe at the fact 2,000 people voted, a number he seems to feel is too small to justify the awards’ reputation as the most prestigious in the genre.

In fact, not everyone votes in all categories. Only 1664 votes were cast for Best Novel, for example. We can’t know how many of those votes were cast by people who, like the man sitting next to me at the awards ceremony, have only read some of the nominees, but it seems safe to assume it was a significant percentage. The numbers are even smaller when one considers ballots cast for nominating works to the short list: only 958 in the novel category. The novel nominated the most times, Jo Walton’s eventual winner Among Others led the field with 175 votes while Hannu Rajaniemi’s debut novel The Quantum Thief received 70 nominations and missed the short list by a single vote.

So Whitehead actually overstated the size of the voting population, but that’s not to say he’s right that the small scale of the voting, and the small breadth of the voters’ reading, should decrease the awards’ prestige.

It is Sunday evening again and the Hugo ceremony is nearly over. Jo Walton is accepting the award for Best Novel. Afterward the talk about her speech will center on her thanks to disgraced Readercon volunteer Rene Walling for suggesting “Among Others” as the title for her novel, but her first words at the microphone are an apology to George R. R. Martin, as if she has received the award through some irreversible clerical error and not the will of the voters. People laugh as if this is a joke, but she may not have been joking.

If the Hugo voting population was greatly expanded in the way Whitehead implies would provide greater legitimacy, it seems safe to say A Dance with Dragons would have won. In sales of actual books, the most democratic measure of a book’s worth, there would be no contest. Longtime genre award watcher Nicholas Whyte noted in April that even among users of the site Goodreads, a group surely biased toward reading more widely than the general population, four times as many people owned A Dance with Dragons than the other four nominees combined.

The only possible solution to this tangle is to be content to have multiple awards for the best genre novel of the year, each determined by different means. Prestige can then accrue organically. Happily this is already the case. One could argue that the Nebula Awards, given to authors by other authors in a manner similar to the Oscars, ought to in fact be the most prestigious awards, but strange choices and an even more problematic voter pool make them a distant second to the Hugos.

As a side note, as easy as it is to point to a few books and call them bestsellers, it is preposterously difficult to determine what the bestselling genre books of a given year actually are, and someone with access to those numbers could do the field a service by providing the answer. Unfortunately Amazon treats sales numbers the way dragons traditionally treat treasure, so this may be impossible.

It is Thursday evening and I am in the hotel bar surrounded by people with access to at least some sales numbers. My sister, a fantasy author whose first novel was published last year, arrived in the afternoon and has been introducing me to her friends, almost all of whom are authors here primarily to promote their writing and network with other people in the industry. There are exceptions in any group but for the most part they rarely attended conventions before they were published, have few of the cultural tics of longtime fans, and when pressed most admit that since they began writing they hardly have time to read.

One might think that being an author at a literature-oriented convention would be glamorous. Perhaps it is for superstars, but I don’t meet the superstars. Most people I meet are authors who have published their first novel in the last three years or so. These are the 99% of authors, the ones for whom the exposure of sitting on a panel, even if it’s a panel about writing attended almost exclusively by authors and people aspiring to be authors, might make a noticeable difference in sales. Although the names often strike me as familiar, in almost every case I haven’t read anything they have written.

Introductions work differently in this networking-oriented population. People don’t merely say the person’s name, they add something to indicate why people should care about them. Typically it goes “X, author of Y” but there is a “spouse of” present in addition to me, a “brother of”. After an hour of this, I use the fact I have published all of four reviews with Strange Horizons to promote myself to “Matt, reviewer for Strange Horizons“. My sister deservedly laughs at me for being status conscious, but I think I detect a change. Not in the willingness of people to talk to me, for everyone is surprisingly friendly and easy-going, but in their comfort level at the initial introduction. An author’s brother could be anyone: a writer, an agent, an editor, or…just a brother. A reviewer is known quantity.

Later, I am introduced to SF Signal’s John De Nardo. I don’t really know him, but I feel like I do, for his links to SF Signal content made up 90% of my Google+ feed even when I still checked it regularly. Unlike everyone else I’ve met so far, he at least pretends my name sounds familiar. Perhaps it does: I commented on one or two of those Google+ items, and while I’m not sure I think he might have linked to my blog once or twice. But even at Worldcon this blog is obscure enough that I expect to meet no one who reads it.

It’s Friday night, and I’m waiting for an elevator with Strange Horizons editor Niall Harrison. While vacationing in the USA he has been rereading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy and tells me that he was reading my review of it on my blog. He very much disagrees with it, he adds, in the friendly manner of someone hoping for a stimulating discussion.

I blink. I reviewed the Mars trilogy? I know I read it in the late 90s, and thankfully for all of us I wasn’t reviewing books online at the time, but all I recall is that I enjoyed some of the political machinations but found the prose drier than I would have liked. Ever courageous of my convictions, I mutter that I’ve been posting reviews online since 2003, that I’ve become a lot more sophisticated as both a reader and as a reviewer since then, and in general I throw my past self and his opinions directly under the bus.

On Saturday morning I am using Google to locate the review Niall mentioned, half-expecting he had me confused with someone else. It turns out I did review the Mars trilogy in 2006. Reading the review in 2012, the language is recognizably my own but much of the content is new to me, in particular the half-hearted discussion of the role of executives in the story. I think I was trying to say that no matter what one thinks of executives, accurately presented most of their activities make for dull reading, but I can’t say for sure. The review reads like something dashed off in thirty minutes and posted without being read over, which was generally my practice at the time.

In one sense, I “know” Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy. When it comes up in conversation I have things to say: I have read it, I can describe features of its narrative and style, I can name elements that some people find attractive and elements that some people find alienating. But it is a shallow knowledge, the sort of knowledge people write guides for faking at dinner parties. The details are lost to me until I reread it.

In cognitive science there is a concept of a working set, the amount of information we can hold in short-term memory at once for use in solving problems. How many novels can I recall enough about to discuss in depth? Not very many. It was to avoid the loss of this information that I began to write reviews. By writing down what I think, I can have access to those thoughts in the future! The brief, incomplete nature of this site’s older posts derives partly from their intended use merely as notes to stimulate recall. But whenever I revisit my reviews from before the last couple years, I run into the problem that I am no longer the same person. Six years ago I was someone else, a person who remembered different books than I do today. It’s not easy for us to have a conversation.

It’s Friday night and I am at the Night Shade party having the most free-flowing conversation I will have at the convention. I am talking with reviewer and anthologist Rich Horton, and I can cite stories and novels by name and continue to make my point without worrying he might not have read them. Eventually while discussing K.J. Parker I bring up historical fiction author Dorothy Dunnett. Even this succeeds, for like many genre readers he’s also a Dunnett fan, and we talk about her Lymond and Niccolo series. It’s only when we move still further from the genre that we run aground on the contextual rocks: I haven’t read Raymond Carver and he hasn’t read Faulkner.

It is Monday and I am flying home. I am thinking of the conversation with Horton, and how while I was able to toss out the names of short stories and be perfectly confident he would know what I’m talking about, he was not in the same position. Me talking to Rich Horton about short stories is like the friend at work who talks to me about science fiction having only read Ender’s Game and Dune.

This line of thinking develops into the beginnings of an idea for an unusual sort of convention wrap-up post, a present tense narrative that jumps around in time while following thematic threads. I have a hazy idea this is a standard form for feature articles in magazines, but I don’t read enough conventional magazines to have a good feel for the way such stories are written. I know that if I write it, I will end up aping the Doctor Manhattan issue of Watchmen more than respectable journalism. I decide that while this resort to genre is slightly embarrassing, it’s also more than a little appropriate. Doctor Manhattan’s narrative is intended to underscore his inhumanity by illustrating his nonlinear experience of time, but this is not as foreign from the human experience as we tend to think.

First person novels typically present us with a linear narrative, but this is a conceit that is nothing like how the human memory functions. Not only can I not reproduce the exact words of a conversation I had last week (the way first person narrators often authoritatively provide exact words for conversations taking place years in their past), I have trouble even remembering when in the sequence of half-remembered events a conversation happened. In writing this post I frequently had to resort to the convention program just to determine the day on which something happened. The experience was linear, but the memories that endure are only fragments.

It is Monday morning, the last day of Worldcon, and I am packing. “How was your con?” my roommate asks me. His phrasing is considered. We have been at the same convention, yet my con is not the same as his con. In five days of programming I ran into him outside our room exactly three times: twice at the only two panels we both happened to attend and once in the aftermath of the Hugo awards. In almost all respects, we have been at two different conventions superimposed on one location: different panels, different readings, different conversations, different parties. And there are far more than just two: each attendee experiences a different convention. But how could it be otherwise? Each attendee has been reading a different genre, though they are all called science fiction.


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  1. While there’s plenty to unpack out of that post I just wanted to say that that was an astonishing piece of writing. Thank you.

  2. Thanks for the thoughtfull post about your worldcon expierence. I’m very aware that, even at much smaller conventions, the convention I attend is very different then the same con a writer or fan attends. Your emphasis on the splintering of the genre/culture is an important point that I grapple with daily, both as a publisher, and as someone who feels deeply engaged in the genre’s “long conversation.”

    It was nice meeting you, if only briefly. Hopefully you will find your way to other conventions, and be able to provide compairsons and contrasts to world con. Id love to read your impression on world fantasy, and/or readercon, or wiscon… all of which are radically different than worldcon and each other.

  3. Thank you, Matt.

    I particularly like the photos of Cloud Gate, too. I’ve been curious about it ever since SOURCE CODE.

  4. Wonderful post. I feel cons have always existed in a kind of fragmented continuum (how’s that for an oxymoron) in which the gamers might never meet the costumers who might never meet the filkers, and yet somehow it all weaves together to make up conspace. There’s just enough crossover from subgroup to subgroup and just enough commonality of sources to make it one fabric and not just a patchwork quilt.

  5. Wow, what a fantastic read. I’m three-quarters of the way through, and it occurs to me, “This is reading just like the Doctor Manhattan issue,” (I just read WATCHMEN for the first time last month) “I should write a comment about that.” Then I read the next section and laughed.

    And only as I type this do I notice it fitting right in with your theme of commonality…

  6. As everyone else has said, this is a fascinating account: thank you for writing it. (It reminds me of some things I wrote about my first cons, particularly the point about having a role, being a known quantity.) And so far as the Mars trilogy goes, I think your write up is still worthwhile, or I wouldn’t have mentioned it! You put your finger on some things about the trilogy that are worth discussing — not just the executives and transnats (which I’d argue don’t feel so outdated now, post financial crisis), but the strong sense of national types (which is disconcerting, but which I’d argue is there so that there is something obvious to break down and leave behind as the characters become more natively Martian). So there.

  7. Paul: I went to Cloud Gate expecting to be aloof and unimpressed. After all, it’s just a big mirror. But it is really is cool, and in a way that pictures (though I did take a lot; put two more on Twitter) can’t really capture. I haven’t seen Source Code yet but I’ve been meaning to check it out.

    Jeremy: I may go to Capclave next month since it’s so close to where I live and that certainly would be quite a contrast. However, close though it is, I don’t think I know anyone else going, and I’m the sort of person who needs introductions to meet people.

    Niall: “It reminds me of some things I wrote about my first cons”


    Niall ctd: “You put your finger on some things about the trilogy that are worth discussing.”

    I just wish I’d done more to discuss them then, since I can’t today. Well, can’t do so with any accuracy. I won’t let that stop me, though!

    About the executives, I guess what I would say now is that if you are writing a novel about how humans on Mars evolve toward new and hopefully superior forms than what exists on benighted old Earth, you should put forward and defend a thesis about what those problems on Earth were and why they are no longer controlling on Mars. I don’t remember to what degree KSR did this, but at the time I thought the villains caricatures.

    The national stereotypes are also caricatures, and in both cases I don’t think they are necessary. This isn’t a short story, it’s a trilogy, quite a long trilogy even by modern standards, I believe. Surely there’s time to give the bad guys and the bit characters–and therefore the problems they represent–some depth?

    I guess the answer, to be blunt, is probably no, not when there are massive descriptions of sand taking up so much space. But while I would have liked the books a lot more without so much scenery, I’m sure many people who loved the books wouldn’t love them without it.

  8. Really enjoyed the way you framed write-up; it captures the way cons always feel so dissociative to me. I find the transition from convention time to post-convention time jarring. At the con, I have my schedule grid, highlighted in multiple colors, a clear path through the day, A then B then C then D. Afterwards, it all blurs: did I have that conversation Friday or Thursday? When did I play that game or see that costume or have that book recommended to me–or was it at a different convention altogether? Having the schedule grids on hand to reconstruct my memory is less helpful than I think it should be; so much of what happens is interstitial, not on the page. And the moments of connection–“Oh, you’ve read THAT!”–stand out against a backdrop of almost-but-not-quite-my-tribe. By the next con, they’re all I remember, and I’m enthused again. But immediate after, they feel too sparse, too few.

    If you’re going to a con not knowing anyone, you could do worse than Capclave. It’s at least small enough that you’re likely to run into the same people over and over again through the weekend.

  9. […] genre. Where was it twenty years ago? Where is now? People’s answers will differ, for they haven’t read the same stories. In 1960 people at least agreed about what science fiction was, allowing them to productively argue […]

  10. Belatedly, I wanted to echo what other commenters have said: I really enjoyed this piece. Thanks for sharing it.

  11. […] for a Hugo (Speculative Fiction 2012, nominated for a Best Related Work category, contains an essay from this blog about, er, Worldcon) as well as the first where I’ll be on a panel. I may not […]

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