I almost skipped Anticipation, the 67th World Science Fiction Convention, even though it was held right in my hometown this year. There were pragmatic reasons of scheduling, but the main reason was that I’m a fairly lapsed sci-fi fan. Aside from the novels of Iain M. Banks, the comics work of Warren Ellis, and, of course, television, I haven’t kept up with the state of sci-fi since those voracious years in high school spent discovering Robert A Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert and Philip Jose Farmer. I didn’t know if I was fan enough to really enjoy the convention.
All it took was one walk down a crowded hallway filled with chattering folks talking excitedly about their last/next panel discussion followed by a quick about face when I realized that I had just walked right past Neil Gaiman to rekindle that fannish spark.
I could only spend one day out of five at WorldCon, and Sunday was that day. I tried to make the most of it and take in as many different types of panels and presentations as possible – and there still weren’t enough hours to see everything that caught my eye. For everything that I could see, I took notes:
10:30 – I found parking right outside the Palais de Congres in Montreal, and then wandered through the two floors dedicated to the Convention to get my bearings. Saw lots of parents and kids, as well as one Klingon. This looked promising.
11:00 – First panel discussion: The Singularity, O RLY? A quartet of writers spoke about the Singularity as originally envisaged by Vernor Vinge, where the technological imperatives of self-reproducing machines suddenly transforms organic culture and consciousness into bewildering and unrecognizable forms (This was my first exposure to the concept, and I might not have entirely wrapped my brain around it.) There was an interesting side discussion about an alternative form of “bootstrap singularity” where humans gradually modify themselves to a point of no-return, but at a pace that still allows the culture to maintain a sense of continuity of identity. Ideas about what type, rate and breadth of change would constitute a singularity were bandied about, leading one panelist to observe that that the singularity, like puberty, might only be recognized after it as happened. We will not see it coming.
12:00 – With my mind sufficiently blown by the singularity panel, I visited the Dealers’ Area to see what manner of books, collectables and paraphernalia were available. I wandered past a spinner rack shaped like a rocket ship and had an engaging conversation with Ric Connors of Apogee Books, a Canadian-based publisher of books on space science and exploration. He described how the company works directly with NASA archives to create pocket guides on the Apollo missions and enhanced DVDs of the lunar landing using the actual footage.
Then he told me about a fascinating project called Kids to Space: A Space Traveller’s Guide, by Lonnie Jones Schorer. US schoolchildren were invited to submit three questions about space travel, which were then collated and answered by experts in the appropriate fields, from retired colonels to university professors. I would have snapped up a copy on the spot, but, being Sunday, the book was one of their best sellers.
12:30 – Second panel discussion: SF Theory without Tears. English and Cultural Studies professors talk about sneaking science fiction into reading lists, teaching science fiction using theoretical tools, the casual reader’s possible fear of theory, and the antagonism between fans and critiques. This promised to be an exciting discussion, except that it was swiftly derailed by an off-topic audience complaint that “theory” had somehow turned her favourite show, Battlestar Galactica, from innocent science-based adventure into something unrecognizably grim and gritty. Leaving aside the question of how much science there was in any given original BSG series, the moderator and panelists bravely tried to use the question as an example of fear/antagonism towards theory, and tried to show the similarities between the jargons of fandom and criticism. The conversation spiraled out of control when the original questioner tried to restate her original question. It was a little like watching a forum debate unfold in real-time.
I left early, and headed back to the Dealers’ Room to pick up a book that was recommended by the panelists: Paul Kincaid’s What It Is We Do When We Read Science Fiction at the Tachyon Publications booth. Sitting right next to that stack of books was the equally intriguing The Inter-Galactic Playground: A Critical Study of Children’s and Teens’ Science Fiction, by Farah Mendlesohn.
It turns out the thwarted conversation about theory was enough to cause me to search out theory on my own. Or perhaps I’m quite suggestible.
2:00 – Author reading. Jo Walton and James Morrow were reading from their latest works. This was a delightful surprise, because I’d been a fan of James Morrow’s books since Towing Jehovah and Only Begotten Daughter, so I was eager to hear his words in his own voice.
Jo Walton had started reading from the prologue of her upcoming novel, Among Others, by the time I found my seat. She described the story as “A SF fan with fantasy problems.” The protagonist is a Welsh teenager living reluctantly among her English relatives, and the escape she finds in her favourite science fiction novels. Many authors and titles were listed during the reading, which earned chuckles of recognition among the audience. There were in-jokes about authors and publishing history that I didn’t get, but I recognized the enthusiasm of a teenaged fan who obsessed over reading everything authoritative, variant, obscure and arcane ever published by a favourite author.
Morrow read the last chapter of his latest novella, Shambling Towards Hiroshima. The novel tells the story about a WWII actor hired to play a Godzilla-style monster who attacks a Japanese coastal city in a US propaganda film, and who then makes a career of monster movies and anti-nuclear activism. Morrow chose the last chapter, which describes a conversation between the actor and the child of a Nagasaki survivor, specifically to commemorate the 64th anniversary of the bombing of that city.
After the reading, Morrow distributed copies of a faux Monster Movie fanzine written up to support the novella. I picked up a copy and, like a fan, asked for an autograph, which was graciously given.
3:30 – Third panel discussion: Adapting Alan Moore. Two authors talked about the movies based on Alan Moore’s work. Watchmen was acclaimed, From Hell was acknowledged as watchable for the performances of Johnny Depp and Ian Holm, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was mocked as often as possible, and V from Vendetta was described as disappointing. There was no discussion of the problems of adapting comics to the screen, or even the specific qualities of Alan Moore’s works that makes them so appealing to film producers and fans, even if there’s no agreement on how the works should be adapted. After all, the critical consensus wasn’t that Watchmen shouldn’t be filmed, but that it couldn’t be filmed. This was just a couple of guys talking about movies they liked and hated, more suitable for a late-night bull session than a full-blown panel discussion, so I left early.
My back-up panel discussion was Economics of the Star Traders, about how trade could be conducted between the stars at realistic sub-light speeds. The ideas ranged from the practical (How would you know what to sell? How would you know what to bring back?) to the fantastical (traders would hitch rides on comets and dump their cargo on designated moons). I wondered why the room was so packed until I scanned the nametags of the panelists and saw Larry Niven was speaking! Like everyone else in the room, I sat glued to my chair.
5:00 – Publisher presentation: The Baen Books Travelling Roadshow. I wanted to see how a publisher worked a room at WorldCon, and this didn’t disappoint. There was a slideshow of upcoming books, each preceded by a teaser image of a cover a key word that was easily recognized by the diehard fans of the series, and then followed by a trivia question for a series of prizes distributed at the end. The hardcore fans obviously did best at the activity. My favorite moment was when the crowd was asked to identify to which series a particular novel belonged, and one fan shouted out the name of the series, and then immediately apologized, because he knew the book more properly belonged to a sub-series, the name of which he couldn’t recall. Now that’s fannish precision and dedication! (and he was still given credit for the answer)
The session also featured authorial interludes, where some of Baen’s authors were invited to the front of the room to sell the crowd on their upcoming projects.
7:00 – Final panel discussion: i09 – Threat or Menace? Author Susan Forest, blogger Abigail Nussbaum and Strange Horizons reviewer Neil Harrison spoke at length about the advantages and disadvantages of internet criticism. Alas, the titular sci-fi news and critique site from Gawker Media wasn’t discussed at length. Fans have been praising, questioning and criticizing since the earliest letter columns, but the culture of modern fan debate has changed primarily due to the speed and relative anonymity/pseudonymity of the criticism. In fact, anticipation of commentary, of changes the nature of the writing, Harrison observed. Nussbaum noted that the ease of online publication has allowed a greater number of voices to enter the critical field, but that there’s no way for the cream to rise to the top, or for the best criticism to rise above the din.
The session wrapped early so the audience could bolt to attend the Hugo Awards.
8:00 – 10:00 The 56th Hugo Awards Ceremony! The tuxedos and evening gowns worn by some of the nominees and the hosts were offset by the cosplay characters scattered throughout the audience – this was no stuffy awards show, but a giddy affair, like a high school prom. The event began with an admonition for the audience to reserve their applause until all nominees were names, presumably to keep the running time down. I’m glad to say that everyone ignored this directive, and celebrated every single nomination. We’re all fans together.
The first presentation was the Forrest J Ackerman Big Heart Award, which is given to a fan who personified selflessness and good deeds in fandom. This year’s recipient was Andrew Porter, who received the plague and red, heart-shaped badge with good humor.
A tradition of the Hugo Awards is that the host city designs a new base for the trophy. This year’s base featured a piece of blue pearl granite shaped to look like an asteroid from which the Hugo rocket is launched. The maple leaf flame motif in the blast pit was stunning – all the winners admired the base when they received their trophy. Click here to see the pictures.
I took a couple of test snaps with my tiny digital camera, saw that it wasn’t up to the task, and decided to sit back and enjoy the show (while taking notes, of course). The winners were:
The John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer – David Anthony Durham
The prize comes with a tiara, passed from winner to winner.
Best Fan Writer – Cheryl Morgan
Morgan asked to be removed from the competition next year. Looks like the Hugos suffers a bit from repeat-Emmy syndrome.
Best Fan Artists – Frank Wu
Wu rushed the stage and made blast-off sounds while playing with the trophy. He also asked the voters to give other nominees a chance to win.
Best Fanzine – Electric Velocipede, edited by John Klima
Best Semiprozine – Weird Tales, edited by Ann VanderMeer & Stephen H. Segal
Best Related Book – Your Hate Mail Will be Graded: A Decade of Whatever, 1998-2008, by John Scalzi
Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form – WALL-E
TV and comics scribe Paul Cornell stole the show as a presenter, and managed to turn the lengthy production credits for the dramatic presentation into an exercise in oratory. Never has the lengthy pause between “directed by” and “Guillermo del Toro” seemed so dramatic.
Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form – Doctor Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog
Cornell added another well-received dramatic pause while reading out the winner’s name in this category. Joss Whedon’s project was up against two separate Doctor Who episodes.
In his emailed acceptance speech, Joss Whedon joked that any competition that had room for an internet musical to win had perhaps a few too many categories.
Best Editor, Long Form – David G. Hartwell
Hartwell was the third award-winner to ask not to be considered for an award next year, though he was grateful for the award.
Best Editor, Short Form – Ellen Datlow
Best Graphic Story – Girl Genius, Volume 8: Agatha Heterodyne and the Chapel of Bones, by Kaja & Phil Foglio
Neil Gaiman presented the awards in this and the Best Professional Artist category. Each WorldCon city is allowed to create two new categories of their choosing. Gaiman wryly noted that, given the troubled history of comics and the Hugos, a separate category was a far more appropriate solution than what was done for The Dark Knight Returns, which won Best Non-Fiction.
Kaja and Phil Foglio published their acceptance speech online. Read it here.
Best Professional Artist – Donato Giancola
Best Short Story – “Exhalation” by Ted Chiang (Eclipse Two)
Best Novelette – “Shoggoths in Bloom” by Elizabeth Bear (Asimov’s March 2008)
Best Novella – “The Erdmann Nexus” by Nancy Kress (Asimov’s October/November 2008)
Best Novel – The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman
After the final awards were given, the winners and the presenters gathered on stage for group photographs. I joined the fray, taking as many snaps as my tiny memory card would allow, and drove home with new authors and book titles on my mind.
WorldCon has remade a sci-fi fan of me.