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What's a Worldcon For?
(First published in Chicon 2000 Progress Report #3)

This year the World Science Fiction Convention is 60 years old. Like many institutions, it has grown and has altered vastly in growing, the tree bearing less than an obvious resemblance to the sapling. If anything is nearly certain, it is that none of those who attended (or tried to attend) the first Worldcon foresaw that the convention would become an annual event drawing thousands of fans from around the world and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to cater to their desires. A few of them are still around, and perhaps they remember what they did foresee. For the rest of us, attempting to look at the future of SF conventions through the eyes of overliterate, undersocialized teenagers of the late 1930's is a fascinating intellectual challenge.

More through happenstance than design, the first Worldcon, in New York, was followed by a second, in Chicago, and a third, in Denver. By an immutable law, the third occurrence turned the event into a fannish tradition - a lucky break, since World War II then imposed a four-year hiatus. Curious to note is that this original succession precisely foreshadowed the current East-Central-West zone rotation system. The unimaginative will regard that fact as a mere coincidence. But, in this conspiratorial age, who is so naive as to believe that coincidences arise of their own accord?

The revived Worldcon, held in Los Angeles, took place a few months before I was born, so I sha’n’t favor you with my personal reminiscences. In fact, my recollections of the next several years’ cons are slightly blurry. Accounts by those with more acute memories agree, however, that the World Science Fiction Conventions of the 40’s and 50’s and early 60’s were intimate affairs. According to the canonical statistics, 190 fans showed up for the legendary Nolacon I (New Orleans, 1951), site of fan history’s most famous party, and the 870 attendees at TASFiC (Chicago, 1952) set a record that was not broken, and rarely approached, for 15 years.

Then came Tricon (Cleveland, 1966), to which a reported 850 fans repaired, tied for the largest attendance since TASFiC and well above the existing trend line. Just why Cleveland drew what then seemed like an anomalously large crowd, I don’t know. The cause may have been nothing more than pent-up demand in the Midwest, which hadn’t seen a Worldcon in four years.

Whatever the cause, the unusually high attendance at Tricon changed fannish history. Well, maybe it didn’t. The ensuing train of events was arguably inevitable. But, in this age of spin doctoring, who is so naive as to believe that inevitable events happen of their own accord?

One of Tricon’s special events was a presentation by a little-known Hollywood producer - his previous series, The Lieutenant, was as obscure then as it is now - of the pilot for his next effort, called Star Trek. At the conclusion of the episode, the film room erupted with a standing ovation. And next year’s Worldcon drew 1,500. The days of the small Worldcon, where every fan knew every other one (or at least exchanged ishes with them), were over for good.

Was that a Good Thing? There is a school of fannish snobbery that shouts, NO!, and a school of fannish anti-snobbery that shouts, YES!! The chairman of the 1967 Worldcon berated Gene Roddenberry for having “exploited” fandom at Tricon. He didn’t, however, do anything visible to counter the impact of that exploitation on his own Worldcon, and not one of his successors, so far as I know, ever took a single step to reduce the presence of “fringe fans” and return the convention to its small-scale roots.

So the Worldcon “just growed”. Speeches by whichever pros happened to be in attendance developed into a twenty-track program. Displays of black-and-white prints, leavened with bargain-priced paintings by artists who needed to pay tomorrow’s rent, transmogrified into the world’s largest science fiction and fantasy art exhibition. A few guys selling back issue fanzines became 200-plus tables of SF book dealers and ancillary hucksters. The “masquerade ball” - fans wearing funny costumes - inspired what is now an independent art form.

When I first got involved in Worldcon running, in the early 1980's, a few pundits anticipated, with either glee or loathing, that the convention would soon be attracting ten or twenty thousand people. The basis for their forecast was the “mainstreaming” of SF. Once it was “a proud and lonely thing to be a fan”. Now, albeit on the most superficial level, fans are everywhere. Glance at what your seat mate on the plane or bus or train is reading. The chances are good that it’s a science fiction or fantasy novel. With so many readers (not to mention the even larger horde of movie goers and TV watchers), with so much attention to the genre, how could science fiction’s premier event fail to be at least as popular as, say, the National Square Dancing Convention (attendance c. 15,000)?

Those hopes and fears did not come to pass. Since 1980 Worldcons have remained in the 5,000 to 7,000 thousand range, with deviations on the high end (L.A. Con II) and the low end (most overseas Worldcons) explicable by special circumstances.

Arrival at this plateau suggests that an equilibrium has been reached among countervailing forces. But it is not easy to figure out why. The first difficulty is to discern what the consistency in attendance really represents. There are, broadly speaking, three possibilities:

1.         Both the “pool” of potential attendees and the percentage of that pool that go to any particular Worldcon have remained stable over the past 20 years.

2.        The pool has been growing, due to generally increasing public interest in science fiction and fantasy, but the Worldcon-attending percentage has declined, due either to inept publicity or a more-or-less conscious decision by Worldcon committees to shun the less “hard core” SF audience.

3.         The pool has been shrinking, as fandom grows less open to additions to its ranks, but, as the remaining fans grow older and more affluent, a higher percentage have the leisure and money to travel to Worldcons.

The first hypothesis is the simplest but the least plausible. Too much has happened in two decades, both in the small world of science fiction and the larger world in which the science fiction world exists, to make it believable that the factors pointing toward and away from going to the Worldcon have mysteriously balanced out, resulting an unchanging potential audience with an unchanging propensity to attend.

Let us begin with the second half of the equation. Supposing that someone has the characteristics, whatever those may be, that make him susceptible to Worldcons, have developments since 1980 made him more or less likely to go?

A number of factors quickly come to mind on the “more likely” side. The country has grown more prosperous, and SF fans have grown more prosperous to a disproportionate extent, thanks in large part to the emergence of computer programming as a well-paid vocation that attracts people with the stereotypical “fannish” personality. Furthermore, the World Science Fiction Convention is a better publicized event than it used to be. Growing up as a voracious SF reader in the 1950’s and 60’s, I barely knew what it was. I doubt that many enthusiastic, or even moderate, readers suffer comparable ignorance today.

Then, too, convention going of all types has increased markedly, and the expansion and improvement of convention-oriented facilities have made the experience more attractive and pleasant.

There are, naturally, a few considerations on the other side. Fans may have more money, but many of them also have less leisure, not only because their jobs are more demanding but also because more of them have family responsibilities.

Also of importance, but hard to weigh on one side or the other, is the skill and energy that concomms put into publicizing the event. If there had been any noteworthy improvement or decline over the years in this regard, it would doubtless have drowned out all of the other factors alluded to above. But here change is so far from noteworthy as to be undetectable. Once in a while, a Worldcon committee tries some new technique for spreading the word, but those efforts are sporadic and marginal. A more common phenomenon is that the concomm is lax in pursuing traditional means, which usually leads to some fall-off in attendance, though no one has so far managed to do a truly wretched job. Attendance at the low end of the standard range is often due more to economic conditions and geography than to any failure of publicity.

All in all, the available data, scanty and underanalyzed though they are, suggest that the propensity to attend Worldcons has been rising. From the general stability in attendance, one infers that the pool of potential attendees must be shrinking, a conclusion that, taken in isolation, sounds alarming. To decide whether it really is, one must look more closely at the Worldcon “audience”.

Conventions come in many shapes and colors, and mere interest in the subject matter is not necessarily sufficient to draw someone into the attendance pool. Relatively few medieval historians (I suspect) contemplate for an instant heading off to gatherings of the Society for Creative Anachronism. About an equal proportion of SCA’ers sign up for academic conferences on Medieval Studies.

There is almost as wide a range of people with an “interest” in science fiction and fantasy. For most, SF is another form of light entertainment, one of the branches of what is commonly called “popular culture”. There’s nothing wrong with that. As Bob Eggleton pointed out in our last issue, popular culture is popular because it is vibrant and alive. Being “entertaining” is not some shameful deformity; it is the first duty of authors and artists and even auteurs.

Nevertheless, the broad popular audience is not a promising recruiting ground for a convention like the Worldcon, which is more expensive that rival entertainments, features few star turns and devotes that bulk of its daily program to “talking heads” - often talking about recondite subject matter.

The group that can enjoy what a Worldcon actually does is, one can safely hypothesize, that fraction of readers and art fanciers and film buffs to whom science fiction goes beyond being “just” entertainment. The original cadre of fans, whose eager desire to talk about and read about and write about science fiction (and often nothing much else) gave rise to fandom, fell preeminently into that category.

Nowadays only a minuscule proportion of the people who go to Worldcons share the SF zeal of a Sam Moskowitz or a Forrest J. Ackerman, but the great majority do find in science fiction a deeper delight than the mere thrill of turning with the next plot twist or gazing vicariously at cataclysmic special effects and exotic local color. That is why they care about such arcana as fidelity to real or extrapolated science and consistent logic in fantasy, issues that are of minimal importance to the surface reader or viewer. It is also why they want to learn how literary and artistic and media magicians pull off their magic tricks, to appreciate the skills by which an author first pulls a rabbit out of a hat, then reveals that the real point is what is in the hat worn by that rabbit. Finally, it is why they are interested in the materials that science fiction and fantasy quarry for building blocks: science, folklore, religion and the like.

If such is the segment of society to which Worldcons appeal, the shrinkage of the convention’s base is not surprising. Serious thought (outside the work place, where economic necessity compels intellectual awareness) is palpably on the decline throughout the civilized world. This is not the place to marshal evidence for that proposition or to debate why such a descent has occurred. The clearest evidence is that the defenders of current cultural trends hardly ever defend the quality of what they champion; instead, they labor to obfuscate the distinction between the serious and the trivial.

Still, one should not be full of gloom and despair. General trends do not cover a multitude of specific cases. The fact that the World Science Fiction Convention survives and flourishes demonstrates that the kind of deeply interested and serious (which does not mean solemn, pompous, petty or dull) devotees to which it appeals is nowhere near extinction. Perhaps fifty years hence, they will be, but I find it hard to be that much of a pessimist.

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