Con Report: I Was a 40-year-old Worldcon Virgin

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Worldcon is the World Science Fiction Convention. It happens every year. It has happened 67 times so far. This year it happened in a convention center in downtown Montreal.

It’s a big event — 4,000 people or so. Not Comic-con big, but big. The convention center itself was huge, I must have walked its length and breadth like 30 times. My calves are looking hot. They are defined.

This was my first Worldcon, but in spite of being a relative outsider I have collected my thoughts and impressions here. Because when has ignorance or inexperience stopped any journalist, ever?

1. It’s pretty overwhelming when you first walk in. At any con you always have a few people who you know you’re going to see, but you — or at any rate I — also have the impression that every single other person there knows every single other person, and you’re the only one who’s wandering around friendlessly. That impression fades after a while. As at every con I’ve been to, the people are extraordinarily nice and welcoming.

Still, the socializing can be intense. You have to physically leave the convention center for it to stop. If you have any kind of social anxiety at all, you have to take regular breaks or face a saving throw vs. madness.

2. I’m always surprised at how heterogenous fandom is. There were probably four generations of fans there. There was a guy — his name is David Kyle — who was at the first Worldcon in 1936. There are teenage Harry Potter fanatics. Old masters like Robert Silverberg were there. Middle-aged masters like Neil Gaiman were there. Young turks like Catherynne Valente and Patrick Rothfuss were there. I was there. There were costume people, writer people, editor people, artist people, etc. etc. Sociologically speaking fandom seems fractally diverse to me.

Example: I was on a Steampunk panel with, among others, a really nice and clever fellow named Milt Stevens. Milt Stevens is a past Worldcon chair. He’s a retired crime analyst for the LAPD. I’m a snot-nosed ex-comp-lit-grad student. Even with all possible good will on both sides, it was harder than I expected to find a common critical dialect for talking about SF that was mutually intelligible. Same subculture, different worlds.

3. That Steampunk panel. I was surprised at how few overtly steampunk people were in the audience. At Comic-Con the line for the steampunk meet-up was a quarter-mile long. At Worldcon only two people showed up in costume.

I argued that the surging interest in steampunk is a reaction to the state of consumer technology. Essentially the tech around us, even while it’s getting hellaciously sophisticated, is being taken away from us. It’s becoming glossy and smooth. It’s miniaturized and wireless to the point of near-invisibility. It’s mass-produced, and you don’t know where it comes from or what it’s made out of, and you’re not supposed to know. The case is sealed. The code is closed.

Steampunk inverts all of that. It makes technology visible again. You can see the gears and the tubes. You can see the grain in the wood and grease on the gears. It’s not glossy and alien and mass-produced. It’s bespoke and imperfect. You can make it, and if you don’t like what you made, you can hack it.

After that I called for an end to the tyranny of electricity and burned my iPod, Hendrix-style.

4. The after-hours room party scene was kind of epic. Two floors of the con hotel were designated party floors, and various organizations sponsored parties in the various suites, on said floors, and people wandered from one to the next. The atmosphere was hot and sweaty and tropical. The elevators immediately clogged, and entry to the floors was tightly regulated to avoid some kind of F/SF Triangle Shirtwaist disaster. Rock Band was played. I drank some kind of vodka-infused slushy and talked to George R R Martin. Cool.

5. There is a loose and permeable but nevertheless real fan/pro division at these cons, and the pros, while also fraternizing with fans, tend also to frequent a bar designated for all-pro fraternizing. In this case it was a bar that served absinthe. I think you could describe the scene as jolly.

It was there, in the early morning hours, that I drunkenly accosted a very patient Larry Niven, who unlike me was wisely collecting two glasses of ice water at the bar. My sole aim was to confess to him that I’d swiped something from his work. There is a plot device in The Magicians about people tattooing pentagrams on themselves and trapping demons in there, to be released in case of emergency. This is an homage (i.e. a straight steal) from a great Niven story called “Not Long Before the End.”

Anyway, he was very nice about it — about both the accosting and the stealing. God knows he’s probably used to being stolen from. Cough, Halo, cough.

6. The Hugos are held at Worldcon. The warm and generous Lou Anders — who’s an editor at Pyr Books — whom I’d never met before this convention, kindly smuggled me into the pre-Hugos reception, where nominees and their hangers-on (Lou was up for a Hugo for editor, long form) had a few drinks before shuffling into a large auditorium for an Oscars-type ceremony.

You can read the results for yourselves. Dr. Horrible won for short dramatic presentation, WALL-E for long. The Hugo for short story went to Ted Chiang. The Hugo for novel went to Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book.

(Gaiman was also the Guest of Honor this year. He was an elusive, ethereal presence throughout the con, constantly being rushed from talk to talk. I watched him charmingly introduce a screening of Coraline, after which I, and everybody else, watched the Blu-Ray drive crash four times in succession before I gave up.)

At the after-party — into which the invincible Lou also insinuated me — a shy, gracious Neal Stephenson debated the fine points of the Anathem cosmology with awestruck fans. (I think Anathem came second in the Hugo voting.) My record of making an ass of myself in front of my literary heroes went pretty much unblemished. I scored Bill Willingham as well. If I’d been able to track down Joe Haldeman, my triumph would have been complete.