Quark Watch (2003)
September 6, 2003
"Torcon 3: Some Assembly Required", "Nolacon North", "Nolacon + 7% GST". The easy quips will, one fears, fix the 61st World Science Fiction Convention's image in fannish history, much as the dyslexic "ConDigeo" became indelibly attached to the 1990 NASFiC. That fate would not be wholly unfair, but the convention deserves better. It was not the best of Worldcons, but neither was it close to the worst. Any fan with a mild tolerance for rough edges had an enjoyable time. The others wouldn't be happy at Heavencon.
But let's start with a few of the memorable blunders and misfortunes. To the former category belong the late mailing of the final Progress Report (very few members received their copies before the con) and chaotic scheduling (it was essential to pick up the daily program grid each morning). In the latter should be placed the late delivery of pocket programs (Thursday afternoon) and souvenir program books (Saturday morning) and art show hangings (scheduled for Tuesday, at the Convention Centre at about noon on Wednesday), none of which was within the committee's control. Partaking of both misfortune and blunder was the inability to arrange easy transit across the border for merchandise and art, resulting in an abnormally small dealers' room and art show. It is no surprise that the con sparked a record three hoax newszines. A sample from the Dam Rong Dilly-Dally ("Yesterday, Slightly Before Mid-Morning But Not Quite Early Morning Either, August 32, 3002"):
Calling it "by far the best pure fiction we've come across in many a year", the fans of Rotcon 3.14159 awarded the Hugo for Best Novel to the convention's own Pocket Program. This is interesting for two reasons: A) It wasn't even on the ballot; B) It hasn't shown up yet (it's expected to be delivered in time for Closing Ceremonies. . . ).
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It is not actually possible to exit from the room where the Hugo Awards Ceremony was held, contrary to the precise directions we printed in DRDD#109. We apologize to all the fans who will spend the rest of eternity in Hall SeaQuest DSV of the Confusion Centre.
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The souvenir book will be here when gelid conditions prevail in the netherworld, not when the members of the Rotcon 3.14159 committee forgive each other, as we reported in DRDD#2. Since the latter will never happen.
Yet there was no air of demoralization or panic. I remember very distinctly the moods in New Orleans in 1988 and San Diego in 1990, where attendees were angry at the concomm and eager to stay away from the convention as much of the time as possible. A famous button from 1990, "Your name is ConDigeo - You killed my weekend - Prepare to die", was only very slightly in jest. In Toronto, by contrast, attendees were relaxed, unperturbed and generally happy. After the Hugo ceremony, I heard constant variations on George R. R. Martin's joke about "The Big One" (see below) but not a single complaint about the constricted exits from the hall. When fans don't grumble about crowd control, you know that they aren't in a state of serious discontent. John Hertz (about whom see more below) aptly opined that the convention showed how fandom's greatest organizational faults, viz., lack of planning, foresight and communication, are largely offset by amazing resilience.
Resilient or not, it looks like the Torcon committee will be able to sleep soundly. Though at-the-door attendance fell a bit below expectations, treasurer Larry Hancock told me that the convention has more than enough funds on hand to meet all of its bills and should be able to pay traditional reimbursements. There may even be a smidgeon of residual cash for future Worldcons. The "warm body count" (members present at the convention) was 3,725, comparable to the 3,570 at the last Worldcon held in Canada (1994 in Winnipeg).
Here are some of the noteworthy highlights, lowlights and sidelights of the event:
The disarray in program scheduling, while scarcely on a level with Nolacon or Aussiecon 3, was occasionally distracting. For instance, two panels were scheduled at the same time and place as the reception for Hugo Award nominees. The pocket program was not at all reliable, so the concomm printed a grid showing each day's real schedule and distributed copies in the convention center lobby. So far as I could discern, the grid was reasonably accurate (leaving aside cases like the Hugo reception conflict). Having it available was a good idea that future Worldcons may want to copy; the grids in pocket programs are generally too cramped for legibility. It's unfortunate that it was in this instance a necessity rather than a luxury.
The Hugo Awards ceremony was one of the best of recent years. L.A.Con's in 1996 was the last that I enjoyed as much. At a few minutes over two hours, it was on the longish side, but I doubt that anybody noticed. For the second year in a row, a speech by the Toastmaster was part of the program. Spider Robinson's monologue this year, like Tad Williams' talk at ConJosé, was a success, but future concomms ought to be wary of turning this practice into a tradition. The ceremony already has plenty of extra matter, and not all TM's are scintillating speakers. If we want to make the TM's role more substantial, it would be better to return to the old custom of having the Toastmaster present all of the Hugos Awards. As a side benefit, the event's organizers would be relieved of the burden of finding and prepping 14 presenters.
One of the traditional bits of Hugo ceremony "front matter" is the presentation of the First Fandom Big Heart Award. It's sometimes a lugubrious moment, but administrator Dave Kyle pulled off a memorable stunt in awarding this year's honor. As a preliminary to announcing the recipient, he asked John Hertz, wearing white tie (he was designated acceptor for an absent Hugo nominee and looked the part), to come up on stage, doff his top hat and demonstrate the proper way to wear a beanie. John was happy to oblige. Dave then began reading the award plaque. This year's recipient was - none other than John Hertz himself. John was quite visibly gobsmacked but recovered to make a brief and elegant acceptance speech.
Author Guest of Honor (or "Honour") George R. R. Martin presented the Hugo Award for Best Novel, in the process adding a new term to the fannish lexicon. George has won four Hugos but lamented that the girls don't flock around him the way they do Joe Haldeman. He said that he had asked one femmefan why that was and received the reply, "You don't have The Big One." You can guess where he went from there (e. g., "Gardner has a dozen little ones."), and this silly trifle may well be what is longest remembered about Torcon. Years after the last gripe about schedule changes has faded away, fans will know that "The Big One" has nothing to do with either World War II or the hydrogen bomb.
Related to what went on at the Hugos was an incident at the closing ceremony, for a description of which I turn to next year's Worldcon chairman, Deb Geisler:
For those of you who were not at Torcon 3's Hugo Ceremony, George Martin apparently made much ado about the Best Novel Hugo being "the big one," and he bemoaned the fact that he didn't have a "big one," but that Connie Willis did. . . .
This led Ruth Sachter to utter to me the really dangerous (and hysterically funny) suggestion that we take one of the 7' tall inflated rockets we had been using as party decorations, and present it to George so he could have his own "big one." Thanks to Ruth (for her evil little mind) and Pam Fremon (for toting the big one around and bringing it up to the stage at Closing Ceremonies), N4 managed to give George a "big one" of his very own.
His posing with it added to the amusement (although perhaps not the sophisticated elan) of closing ceremonies.
A postscript on the big one: as it is unlikely that George was able to uninflate the big one and get it home, Mike Benveniste and I plan to send him a new big one. (These are actual model rockets that can have rocket engines mounted on them.)
Then it's up to him to get someone to blow his big one up.
Which reminds me that the Orlando in '92 Worldcon bid used an inflatable space shuttle as a party prop. At one of our early parties, I innocently asked whether there was anyone present who could blow up the shuttle. This was, of course, not long after Challenger. . . .
This was the debut year for the new Hugo category "Best Short Form Dramatic Presentation" (90 minutes or less). The nomination statistics suggest that the category is viable, if somewhat marginal. Two hundred eighty-four nominating ballots were cast, the lowest of any category except Best Related Book (262) and Campbell Award (259). Twenty-two nominations were needed to make the final ballot, tied with Best Short Story (a category in which votes are highly scattered: 263 stories received at least one nomination, compared to 176 short form dramas) for least. Given the immense quantity of television watched by the Hugo electorate, these numbers suggest that current TV fare doesn't arouse a lot of excitement. Contrast the Long Form category, where there were 539 nominating ballots (second only to Best Novel) and 130 was the minimum for a spot on the final ballot. Also indicative is that "No Award" got 71 first place votes, by far the most of any category. (Best Fanzine was second with 34, despite the fact that far more fans watch television than read fanzines.)
In its first year, the Short Form Drama category underwent its first controversy. Lilo and Stitch runs 85 minutes and thus falls into Short Form. Almost all of its nominations were, however, in the Long Form category, and the Hugo administrators exercised their discretion (provided for in the Hugo rules) to move it there. As a result, it fell four nominations shy of appearing on the Long Form final ballot. Had they instead kept it in Short Form and transferred its Long Form nominations (also a permitted option), it would have had the most Short Form nominations by a large margin and would very likely have taken the award. (L&S received 126 Long Form and an undisclosed number of Short Form nominations. The top Short Form nominee, the "Carbon Creek" episode of Enterprise, had 72.) The administrators' decision is quite defensible. The fact that it had to be made indicates that the electorate is confused about what the Dramatic Presentation categories mean. The advocates of the new category repeatedly insisted that they did not intend to create "Best Movie" and "Best TV Episode", yet that seems to be how the voters interpret it. Might it not be wise to modify the theory to match that reality?
In keeping with their absurd and dangerous pattern of efficiency (which, as a former, much less efficient Hugo administrator, I naturally deplore), this year's administrators, Michael Nelson and Kent Bloom, have already posted all of the Hugo Award statistics that any fan could wish to peruse.
I didn't see a great deal of Toronto, as I never find time for playing tourist during the Worldcon, but I must make note of one sight: One of the hot dog wagons parked in front of the Toronto Convention Centre sported an American flag decal. Its grilled sausages were first rate, too.
There were two site selection contests this year: for the 2006 Worldcon and the 2005 NASFiC (because that year's Worldcon is outside North America). The favorites won both races but by surprisingly narrow margins. Los Angeles defeated Kansas City 754 to 680 for the Worldcon, while Seattle won the NASFiC over Charlotte by an incredibly thin 204 to 198 on the third round of counting (after redistribution of write-in and "No NASFiC" votes). According to reports from credible sources, eight members of the Charlotte bid committee attended Dragon*Con instead of Torcon and neglected to cast site selection votes. If that is true, it is better than poetic justice.
By all standard criteria, particularly intensity and quality of campaigning, the winners should have romped through. The most plausible explanation is that geographical factors swayed a large number of votes. Members of Torcon were disproportionately from the Midwest and East. The conventional wisdom has long been that propinquity is a minor factor in site selection outcomes, but that perception is based on races conducted under the now-abolished zone system, where, among North American bidders, differences in distance were not spectacular. (Voters obviously are willing to disregard distance when considering overseas bids; otherwise, none of them could ever win.) If geographical bias proves to be a genuine and persistent force, it could lead to the emergence of a quasi-zone system or, less happily, to a tendency of Worldcons to bunch year after year on one side of the continent or the other. A partial parallel is "northern zone" Westercons, which never move south of Portland.
A major development in Worldcon politics was the WSFS business meeting's approval of a constitutional amendment to cut the lead time for site selection from three years to two. If the amendment is ratified next year at Noreascon Four, there will be no site selection vote at the 2005 Worldcon (in Glasgow), and the 2008 Worldcon will be chosen in 2006. As a corollary, votes on NASFiC sites for years after 2007 will be taken only one year in advance. (If a 2007 NASFiC site is needed, it will be chosen at the Seattle NASFiC in 2005.) The vote on the amendment was 90 to 83. I spoke against it and will elaborate my objections in a future post. The essence of my argument was that the combination of a two-year election cycle with the no-zone system introduces a large new element of uncertainty into a process that was radically changed only recently. (This year's site selection was the first in which the old zones played no role.) If the amendment is adopted, cases will arise in which committees will not know until only four years before a particular year's convention whether their city is eligible to bid. The effects are not completely foreseeable. The most likely, I think, is that deal making among would-be bidders will largely supersede contested races, a development that may be considered positive in some quarters but strikes me as detrimental to the overall quality of the convention. I ended my remarks with the excellent apothegm of the otherwise unmemorable Second Viscount Falkland, "When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change." This particular change, ostensibly motivated by nothing stronger than fear that "committees can't hold together for three years" after winning the right to host the convention, is quite unnecessary. Unfortunately, it seems to be extremely popular among Boston fandom and thus will be hard to defeat at a Worldcon held in that city.
The possible change in lead time had an immediate impact on the just-announced Chicago bid, which had intended to run for 2009, with the possibility of shifting to 2008 if Kansas City won the 2006 convention (making Chicago ineligible, since it would be within 500 miles of the site of the vote). The amendment came before the business meeting on Saturday, before the site selection vote. It was thus possible that Kansas City would be chosen for 2006 and Columbus for 2007, which, with a two-year lead time, would knock Chicago out of both the 2008 and 2009 races. The amendment's proponents offered a grandfather clause, but it was so convoluted that much of the audience was left bewildered. Kevin Standlee, the business meeting chairman, tried to explain it. Then I tried to explain it. Then Kevin turned my explanation into a substitute grandfather clause and put it to what should have been a noncontroversial vote. To my astonishment, it failed, largely because a phalanx of L.A. in '06 supporters voted solidly nay. As I was trying to comprehend this development, Craig Miller rose to move that the motion be postponed until Sunday, and all became clear. The "Space Cadets" figured that pro-Chicago midwesterners wouldn't dare vote for Kansas City if there were a prospect of blocking all Chicago Worldcons for the rest of the decade. The motion to postpone passed overwhelmingly, thanks to the alliance of the Angelinos and the befuddled. By the next day, Los Angeles had won, and Dina Krause, the chairman of the Chicago bid, was willing to forgo grandfathering.
Bearing in mind that changing the site selection rules could lead to additions and subtractions, here is how the future Worldcon and NASFiC races look at this point:
2007 Worldcon (to be voted on in Boston in 2004): Yokohama ("Nippon in 2007") and Columbus ("ConColumbus") are competing. The Japanese bid has a sentimental advantage (a world science fiction convention should, many fans believe, venture outside the Anglosphere more often than twice in 60-plus years) and throws excellent parties, but the bidcomm has nil experience outside their home country, and it isn't clear that trying to turn a Japanese National Convention into a Worldcon will succeed. Language and cultural barriers and the high cost of travel to Japan are further handicaps. The offsetting handicap for Columbus is that its committee's Worldcon experience is only slightly above nil. When the question was raised at the business meeting, bid chairman Kim Williams could cite no one who had held a higher level job than head of children's programming. The bidcomm's credentials are based primarily on their local convention, Marcon, which, like the Japanese National, is a big event that bears only a passing resemblance to a Worldcon. Columbus does have excellent facilities, and it may be able to take advantage of Japan's negatives. Nonetheless, I think that Nippon is the favorite at this point. (But bear in mind that I thought in 1964 that Barry Goldwater had a realistic chance of winning and in 1980 that Ronald Reagan was a forlorn hope.)
2007 NASFiC (to be voted on in Seattle in 2005, if Yokohama wins the 2007 Worldcon): The Columbus committee insists that it will not run for the NASFiC if it loses. Of course, it would say that. A year ago, I believed that a NASFiC was its real objective. Now I'm not at all sure and am inclined to take the disclaimers at face value. Meanwhile, Rich Zellich of St. Louis has announced a bid to combine the NASFiC with Archon, the St. Louis area regional convention. For the past several years, Archon has been held in Collinsville, Illinois, in early October. I can't imagine that Collinsville - not the grimiest, most corrupt town in southern Illinois, but a strong contender - could defeat "No NASFiC". Since Rich knows that, too, the con will be in downtown St. Louis if the NASFiC bid is successful. The precise facilities haven't yet been announced.
2008 Worldcon (to be voted on either in Glasgow in 2005 or Los Angeles in 2006): After the tempest over the site selection amendment, bid chairman Dina Krause announced that Chicago would bid for 2008 without waiting to see what happens at next year's business meeting. That was not an especially popular decision among the bidcomm - two prominent members resigned in protest - but Dina didn't want to run the risk of being shut out of 2009 by a Columbus victory and was strongly advised not to wait another 12 months before selecting a year. Up to this point, prospective bidders have treated 2008 as if it were tainted by some strange fan-repellent disease. Opposition to Chicago thus is not very likely. Immediately after the site selection vote, numerous SMOF's had been urging Kansas City to pick itself up and try for '08, but, if its committee decides to run again soon, they will presumbably look at the now-empty '09 slot.
2009 Worldcon (to be voted on in Los Angeles (or, strictly speaking, Anaheim) in 2006 or in Yokohama in 2007 or in Columbus in 2007): With Chicago out, no one has announced for this year. A Washington, D.C., exploratory committee has just been formed, preferred year not specified. The big obstacle faced by the D.C. area is a lack of suitable facilities. The new Washington Convention Center is bereft of accessible hotels. The Sheraton Washington (site of the 1974 Worldcon and prospective site of the unsuccessul 1992 bid), combined with nearby hotels, is feasible but difficult to obtain. A mundane group snatched it away in 1992, leading to the demise of that year's Washington bid. Arlington County, right across the Potomac, is discussing the construction of a convention center at the Crystal City hotel/shopping complex, which would be ideal but is at the moment only an idea. If nothing comes out of Washington (or even if something does), Kansas City's strong showing in the 2006 race may prompt it to enter the fray (but it will be ineligible if the two-year amendment passes and Columbus wins for 2007). Correction: S. Roberts chides me, quite rightly, for not checking the distances: "You state in your recent post that if Columbus wins the 2007 bid and the 2-year rule passes, that Kansas City would be ineligible because of the 500 mile/800 kilometer restriction. Better get yourself a map! It's about 630 miles from KC to Columbus, and I don't mean driving distance. KC would indeed be eligible for a 2009 bid under those conditions." I'm delighted to be set straight, both because the K.C. bidders impressed me greatly and because a Columbus-Chicago-Kansas City sequence would neatly illustrate one of the flaws of a two-year/no-zone system (not to mention putting paid to the Midwest's "wimpy zone" monicker).
2010 Worldcon (to be voted on wherever, whenever): The Australia in 2010 candidacy that non-Aussies midwifed at ConJosé became a real bid at Torcon, after Stephen Boucher talked enough of his countrymen into going along. Melbourne is the virtually inevitable site, as Sydney is too expensive, Perth too distant and Brisbane too short of facilities. According to ancient fannish legend, if the World Science Fiction Convention is not held in the Southern Hemisphere once each decade, the Earth's magnetic poles will reverse, causing a vast global cataclysm. So it looks like a shoo-in. . . . except, what about those South Africans who showed up at the "Worldcon Bidding 101" panel?
Parties were overall very good. The Los Angeles and Kansas City bids took very different approaches, the former spreading out over four suites with a plethora of gimmicks built around its "Space Cadets" theme, while the latter featured home-made cakes, cookies and other edibles. Unfortunately, the daily newszine, a fairly bare bones production, lacked party reviews, so this aspect of the con wasn't memorialized. My favorite, I may as well mention, was a private (but crowded) gathering Friday night to mark Leah Zeldes Smith's Thirtieth Fanniversary. Leah's very first convention was Torcon 2. Her husband Dick festooned the walls with memorabilia of her neofandom, including a blow-up of her first letter to a prozine, in which she asked Amazing editor Ted White to explain "what is fandom?"
May 24, 2003
Let's proceed to the Hugo Best Novelette nominees, where, I must confess, I was sharply disappointed. The novelette is a natural length for science fiction and is usually a strong category. This time, what I regard as the best on the list would have been in the middle of last year's pack, and none of the others is competitive with 2002. It would be overly harsh to call them mediocre; "underdeveloped" is perhaps the proper word. Good ideas have been pushed too quickly onto paper.
1. The exception to the preceding lament is "The Wild Girls" by Ursula K. Le Guin (Asimov's, March), a tale of ghostly vengeance. Its setting is, as one expects from this author, an exotic society with strange customs but familiar human reactions. The central strangeness of the "City of Earth" is caste exogamy, which compels noble males to take slave women as their wives. The prime source of suitable mates is impoverished nomad tribes, whom the City dwellers raid for attractive young females, the "wild girls" of the title. The plot develops economically from this starting point. Less stems from the ghost's rather puny supernatural power than from the interaction of the virtues and vices of human beings.
As in any proper tragedy, nothing very terrible would happen if none of the characters were good. Here the tragic flaw is excessively protective sisterly love, which leads the older sibling to save the younger from marrying a man she dislikes, only to see her given instead to one she loathes, leading ineluctably to the expiation of her betrothed's crime against the ghost. Sophocles could have put the story on stage.
Also noteworthy (and not entirely expected from a writer of such strong ideological convictions) is the sober view of the City's mores. The "Crown people" are not caricatured oppressors or the "Dirt people" a proto-proletariat. The slaves have reasonable motives for being content with their lot, and the masters are ordinary human beings with a normal mixture of virtues and defects. Some readers will doubtless see the social framework as the source of the heroines' misfortune, but that is a conclusion that they must reach on their own, not one forced upon them by the author.
Verdict: Well-wrought tragedy in the mode of the "old" Le Guin.
2. "Slow Life" by Michael Swanwick (Analog, December) either invokes or abuses the "sense of wonder", depending upon the reader's point of view. I expect that most fans will be more impressed by the realistic portrayal of the environment of Titan than put off by the gross illogicality of the central wonder, created, so far as I can reckon, solely for the sake of surprise. Surprise is an excellent literary device, but it ought to grow out of, rather than contradict, the premises of the story.
Nonetheless, credibility is only one virtue. Lacking that, "Slow Life" possesses others.
If NASA ever explores the Saturn's largest moon, the expedition will be much like Swanwick's. Both physically and psychologically, the description rings true, particularly as the protagonist, astronaut Lizzie O'Brien, endures a slow motion disaster, trapped in a runaway balloon over a methane sea. Naturally, her colleagues and the team back on Earth become more and more fatuously upbeat as they run out of ideas for saving her life. Lou Grant would not have liked Lizzie. ("You have spunk. I hate spunk.") Happily, Titan's alien(s) take to her personality.
Verdict: The likely winner, because voters will admire the chrome and ignore the square wheels.
3. "Halo" by Charles Stross (Asimov's, June) takes place in the same universe as "Lobsters", his nominee from last year. This time cybernetic genius Manfred Macx is off stage. About a dozen years have gone by. The marriage that was in prospect in "Lobsters" has broken down (no surprise), leaving an embittered spouse and a rebellious daughter in its wake. The daughter runs off to the moons of Jupiter, where her native ingenuity and a host of digital marvels thwart her mother's bizarre attempt to enlist a Moslem qadi (misspelled "quadi") as a truant officer.
The story takes a number of clever turns. In the end, though, it is a lesser work than "Lobsters". The pace is slower, the central problem more artificial, the solution less plausible. The quasi-philosophical grounding of the earlier story (admittedly rather woolly) is gone. What remains is essentially a fantasy of adolescent escapism.
Verdict: Podkayne of Mars with up-to-date jargon.
4. "Madonna of the Maquiladora" by Gregory Frost (Asimov's, May; also available as a free download from Fictionwise) is left-wing agitprop - well-written left-wing agitprop, but still the ideology weighs too heavily to be overcome by literary skill. No matter how dexterously painted, the canvas is cardboard: ruthless American corporations, oppressed Third World workers, valiant indigenous revolutionaries, cowardly liberals whose radical creed goes no deeper than words, religion as the opiate of the masses. . . .
A maquiladora is a Mexican factory that produces good for export to the United States, taking advantage of the removal of trade barriers between the two countries. By U.S. standards, working conditions are harsh and wages low. Gregory Frost describes these enterprises and their surroundings in terms that might be appropriate for the Gulag. If he is to be believed, there is a coterie of native photographers who eke out a living by capturing images of the victims of corporate mistreatment and murder (though how they eke out anything at all is unclear if the corporations possess the will and power to suppress all unfavorable information).
The plot turns on a high-tech deception uncovered by an earnest young gringo photographer, who briefly shares the lives of his Mexican counterparts (including, of course, the bed of one of them). In the face of semi-omnipotent opposition, he loses both the story and the girl. As recompense, he gains a purpose in life: to drag the evils of the maquiladoras into the public eye.
While I don't think much of this story's message, I'm confident that my reaction would be the same to any similar piece of right-wing agitprop. A story that wants to score political points is vastly strengthened by a degree of irony and by recognition of the other side's arguments. This one conspicuously lacks both.
Verdict: Steinbeck did it better, in a better cause.
5. "Presence" by Maureen F. McHugh (F&SF, March) is this year's Alzheimer's story. Last year's was Shane Tourtelotte's "The Return of Spring", a lightly fictionalized think piece on the social and economic implications of a cure for the affliction. "Presence" quite the opposite: an intense study of the feelings and fears of a woman whose prematurely stricken husband is undergoing an expensive, experimental treatment that promises healing - at the price of turning him into a different person from the man she loves.
There is the potential for a moving story here, but it is only partly realized. Just as the changes to Gus, and Mila's responses to them, begin to gel into a story, off we veer into Baby Boomer Anxiety Syndrome, and the plot fades away.
On a lesser level, it is annoying when an author drags us through the details of a character's financial planning and then gets basic points wrong. Making up a way to overcome an incurable disease is an SF writer's job; making up the tax consequences of retirement plan distributions is lazy.
Verdict: Ingredients without a recipe.
May 21, 2003
Here is my first installment of comments on this year's Hugo Award nominees. Last year, my picks won in two of the four fiction categories, which is better than I do at horse races. This year, I'll begin with Best Short Story, where I think that the smart money will be on the prolific Michael Swanwick to repeat. My preferences:
1. "The Little Cat Laughed to See Such Sport" by Michael Swanwick (Asimov's, October-November) is another of the author's Darger and Surplus comedies, set in a rococo future where bioengineering is commonplace and cybernetics a bogeyman. (The series opener, "The Dog Said, 'Bow-Wow'" was last year's Short Story winner.) The heroes are a pair of rogues whose get-rich-quick schemes gang aft agley but never quite disastrously enough to discourage them from trying another. In this installment, they are in Paris, touting their "discovery" of the hiding place of the long-lost Eiffel Tower. A dying billionaire yearns to unearth the monument and immortalize his name by donating it to the nation. The billionaire's beautiful young "widow" meanwhile yearns to play bedtime games with Darger, despite Surplus's undisguised hostility (genetically inevitable: he is a redesigned dog, she a cat).
Wonderfully atmospheric and deftly plotted, the story unfolds as many ruses, double crosses and schemes as will fit into its handful of pages. In the end, our heroes do not win, but neither do they entirely lose. We may be confident that they will soon be found in another exotic city in quest of ill-gotten fortune.
Verdict: Sport that will amuse all readers, whether or not feline.
2. "Falling Onto Mars" by Geoffrey A. Landis (Analog, July-August; also available as a free download from Fictionwise) is a condensed future history of settlement on Mars. Taking the form of a family legend narrated by someone who knows (or guesses) the underlying facts, it is reminiscent of Cordwainer Smith, though without the tincture of magic realism.
The Mars presented here is morbidly dystopian: a penal colony that substitutes quite efficiently for capital punishment. Those who survive are very, very tough, but it takes a special and not necessarily admirable degree of toughness to turn survival into civilized existence.
The overall effect is not depressing but romantic, like that produced by similar legends about early Australia. We know, of course, that living through such a period would be miserable. Setting that knowledge aside, our attention is more focused on the characters' courage, ingenuity and perseverance than on their misery. The story does end with a plot twist that, when thought about too critically, leaves an unpleasant taste. Happily, the flaw is minor, and some readers will enjoy the revelation of the real nature of Mars Colony's heroic founding father and mother.
Verdict: A nice place to read about, but I wouldn't want to live there.
3. "Lambing Season" by Molly Gloss (Asimov's, July) is more vignette than story. By reason of including a space ship and an alien, it qualifies as science fiction, but its greatest interest lies in the finely etched portrayal of the mental and physical world of a female shepherd. Whether the picture is true to life - whether lone women really tend flocks of ewes and lambs on upland pastures through the whole of summer and whether constructing tall stone cairns is a shepherd's pastime - I don't know, but this is how such people live if they live at all. What Delia discovers as she roams her ten pastures with her 800 sheep is almost incidental. How she acts is completely in character, and the effect on her life is believable, as well as oddly moving. Still, it is disappointing that what ought to be large causes have such limited effects.
Verdict: A fine mainstream story shoehorned into an SF mold.
4. "Creation" by Jeffrey Ford (F&SF, May; also available as a free download from Fictionwise) is the kind of story that writers' workshops admire: subtle, evocative, nostalgic. Set in small town, pre-Vatican II, Roman Catholic America, it tells of a boy's infatuation with the mystery of God's decision to bring life out of the dust. Able in a small way to imitate God's work, he wonders whether he has merely inflicted suffering on a hapless pseudo-sentience. Yet the reader is left unsure whether his creation is real or merely, as his atheist father would have it, an adolescent daydream.
There is nothing wrong with what workshops admire, but nuance can itself become formulaic. As one reads this tale, one has the impression of perusing a collage shaped from bits of other tales. Is there any fresh angle to this teenager on the verge of pubescence, this narrowly pious catechism teacher, this rough landscape unsullied by man, this hard-bitten, hard-working, deeply disillusioned father? It does not help that a coda sets the date of the main action circa 1981, 20 or 30 years too late for its purported milieu.
Verdict: Deserves an "A" but not a Hugo.
5. "'Hello,' Said the Stick" by Michael Swanwick (Analog, March) is a one-gimmick story featuring an oddball weapon in a futuristic war. The weapon is clever, but, after a pause for reflection, the reader realizes that it would have no serious military value. If he prolongs the pause, he will invent his own lethal variant and will become annoyed at the author for having spoiled the idea. As occasionally happens with an author who writes stories faster than most people can read them, one has the feeling that this piece went too quickly from initial conception to the printed page. Horace's advice about putting manuscripts aside before loosing them on the world has its merits.
Verdict: Don't pick up strange sticks.
April 19, 2003
My first reaction to the announcement of this year's Hugo Award nominees was that Michael Nelson is going to become a hissing and by-word among all future Hugo administrators. Less than three weeks from nomination deadline to finalization of the ballot! Five weeks (what I managed in 1992) used to be acceptable and four good, but now the poor, overworked administrator will be expected to count 500 or so ballots, verify eligibility, secure acceptances from the nominees, and prepare and disseminate a press release in almost no time at all. The only solution is to draft Mr. Nelson as Permanent Hugo Administrator. I think that I shall introduce a constitutional amendment to that effect at this year's WSFS Business Meeting.
As for the nominees themselves, they were surprising only for the absence of big surprises. (Well, nothing by Willis or Resnick on the ballot is a surprise, but neither published much in 2002, so it's a comprehensible surprise.) As usual, almost nothing that I nominated made the final ballot, the major exception being Neil Gaiman's novella Coraline. Neil's Hugo last year for American Gods probably brought it to the attention of many readers who wouldn't usually pick up a very thin hardback that looks like a children's story. I was disappointed that neither Terry Pratchett's Night Watch, the best Discworld novel IMHO since Pyramids, nor Harry Turtledove's Ruled Britannia, successful as both history and alternate history, won the hearts of enough voters. The continuing neglect of Pratchett, in particular, is reaching the point where it ought to be the result of a conspiracy. No other explanation is esthetically satisfying. I can't figure out who the conspirators are or what their motive might be, but that just shows that they are a genuine conspiracy, not only of these penny-ante, open-to-the public Illuminati plots.
Another disappointment was the omission of Lilo and Stitch, which was eligible for Best Short Form Dramatic Presentation. I suspect that too few voters realized that fact. The general presumption seems to be that Short Form is a category for television episodes. I don't watch enough TV (Disclaimer: I really and truly am not a snob and do not look down on TV watchers; I've just never become addicted) to pass judgment on the nominees but note with interest that two episodes of Star Trek: Enterprise, a show that has received reviews ranging from unenthusiastic to scornful, were nominated, as was one of the rapidly cancelled Firefly. How someone like me can cast a rational final vote, unless a pirate DVD of the nominated shows appears, is a mystery.
After a suitable interval for reading and reflection, I'll have more to say about the fiction, and perhaps other, categories.
March 16, 2003
High on a Worldcon chairman's list of fears is running a deficit. High on his list of worries, once bankruptcy is no longer a fear, is how to dispose of a surplus. High on his list of grievances is the pain of dealing with that issue.
After an inordinate delay (caused by the slow resolution of a large potential liability), Chicon 2000 has reached its surplus-dispensing phase, which has been quite agonizing. I sha'n't pretend that I would rather be trying to make up a deficiency, but breaking exactly even would have noticeably simplified my life.
Chicon will wind up just about exactly $80,000 in the black. An account of the back-and-forth about what to do with the money would be interesting only to aficionadi of fan politics, but it has forced me to put my ideas about the topic into some kind of order. For anyone who may face this problem in the future, here they are:
To start with the historical background, 1983 and 1984 saw successively the biggest Worldcon deficit and surplus in history. Constellation, c. $70,000 under water, begged enough money from the rest of fandom to appease its creditors. L.A.Con II, with a rumored $200,000 profit, invested most of it in the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society clubhouse . The juxtaposition of these two events led to the first, and so far only, formal attempt to regulate Worldcon finances. The 1989 Worldcon, Noreascon 3, initiated the "pass-along system", a voluntary program under which each participating Worldcon promises to divide at least half of its surplus among the three following conventions. Since the system began, only one Worldon (Chicon V in 1991) has declined to take part.
There is no strong fannish consensus on what ought to be done with the half of the surplus that isn't committed to pass-along. In those years when the convention is essentially a project of a strong local club, the money usually flows back to the quasi-sponsor. On other occasions, local groups have been ignored. MagiCon (1992) doled out small sums to Florida (and also non-Florida) clubs but reserved the bulk of its residual cash for the FanHistory Project. Bucconeer (1998) has been gradually dissipating its funds to underwrite the Student Science Fiction Contest. Non-U.S. Worldcons have generated only very small surpluses, and information about what they did with them is not easy to find. To summarize, during the first ten years of the pass-along system (1990 through 1999), six Worldcons were held in the United States. One opted out of the pass-along (1991), three gave their residual funds to local quasi-sponsors (1993, 1996, 1997), and two set up special projects (1992, 1998). So far as can be determined, though the figures are not always clear, none gave more to future Worldcons than the minimum 50 percent pass-along. (My thanks to Bill Roper for unearthing these data.) The 2000, 2001 and 2002 Worldcons have not yet closed their books. My understanding, based on superficial inquiries, is that the latter two were less profitable than Chicon.
If it were possible to forecast convention income and expenses with exactitude, the question of disposing of surplus would never arise. Worldcons would charge less for membership or would spend more on their activities. Chicon could certainly have made improvements in a number of areas had we known that we had an extra $80,000 on hand. Unfortunately, Worldcon budgeting is a guessing game, and the guesses have to be conservative, because we don't want to antagonize the hospitality industry by failing to pay our debts.
In principle, an adventitious surplus ought to be used in the same manner that it would have been if the planning had been perfect. In practice, that can't be done. By the time the amount of the surplus is known, it is too late to buy more goodies for the con, and direct refunds to members (which Chicon V attempted in 1991) are unfeasible. The closest approximation to the ideal is to pass the money to future Worldcons, which can then use it to benefit their members (a large proportion of whom will, naturally, have been members of the earlier con).
A further consideration is that, if Worldcon financial planning is ever to be rational, the institution needs a reserve fund. Concomms could then make realistic, rather than ultracautious, estimates of hard-to-predict items like at-the-door membership sales, without having to worry about insolvency if they are wrong. Pass-along funds can serve the same purpose as an actual, in-the-bank reserve, so long as (i) the concomm treats them like a reserve rather than an increment to general cash flow and (ii) the amounts passed along are large enough to buffer the often very large uncertainties in Worldcon budgets. A useful goal would be in the range of $75,000 to $90,000. We are far short of that figure now. Chicon received a total of $36,000 from LoneStarCon, Bucconneer and Aussiecon 3, and that seems to be about the general level for recent Worldcons. I don't think that anyone has gotten impressively more or is likely to as the system currently operates.
I can see one objection to the conclusion that, at least until pass-alongs build up to a more substantial level, all Worldcon surplus should go to future conventions. With rare exceptions, the majority of a Worldcon's leadership and staff come from the area in which it is held. Shouldn't local fandom be compensated for this drain on its resources?
Well, maybe, but the "drain" may be largely imaginary. Hosting a Worldcon ought to inspire esprit de corps within local fandom, provide valuable training to local convention workers and increase the number of active fans in the area. If it instead leads to burnout, feuds and demoralization, the fault lies with the concomm and will not be much alleviated by scattering dollars among nearby conventions and clubs. It seems to me that a rakeoff of, at most, two or three dollars per Worldcon member will amply compensate local groups for their role in the convention. Giving them a split of the profit creates a conflict of interest without addressing a genuine need.
Here, then, is my concept how a pass-along scheme based on the preceding analysis would operate:
1. Each Worldcon would, if possible, pass along at least as much money as it had received.
2. From the remaining amount, $3.00 per convention member would be allocated, in a manner determined by the concomm, to local fan groups that had made a significant contribution to the con or to another fannish project of the concomm's choice.
3. The remaining surplus would be passed along to future Worldcons, with the proviso that no Worldcon would be expected to pass along a total of more than $100,000. (We want a prudent reserve, not a fannish Fort Knox.) Excess funds could be used for any purpose that would benefit fandom in general.
4. To make it easier for recipient cons to know how much to anticipate from their predecessors, the pass-along should go to the second, third and fourth succeeding Worldcons. Regardless of good intentions, hardly any Worldcon closes its books quickly enough to have timely knowledge of how much will be available for next year.
Let me emphasize that this revision of the pass-along "rules" is my own invention, not the official policy of Chicon 2000. I don't have sole authority over Chicon finances and, in any event, didn't fully formulate my ideas until the surplus division discussions were quite far along. Still, I should like to offer these ideas for the consideration of fandom. Their adoption would, I think, bring about a marked improvement in both the Worldcon budget process and the peace of mind of those responsible for it.
1. Clarification: A source close to the 1984 L.A. concomm informs me that the convention's $200,000 surplus was before customary reimbursements to convention volunteers, which generally exceed $100,000. My source also says that the donation to LASFS was only $10,000, not the gargantuan sums claimed by fannish gossip. It was, however, the legendary number that helped inspire the pass-along system. "This is [Fandom], sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."
February 16, 2003
Sixteen years ago, Boskone left, or some would say fled, Boston. The initial surge of panic took it all the way to Springfield. After a few years, it gingerly ventured back to the city’s outskirts, settling for a long stretch into a castle-like edifice in suburban Framingham. This year it ended its hegira, returning to the Boston Sheraton that last hosted it in 1987.
In many respects this year in Boston was little different from last year in Framingham. The convention looked and felt about the same. The con suite, dealers’ room, art show and the bulk of the programming could have been transported from the old location. The membership included, as usual, the highest concentration of SMOF’s on the eastern seaboard. Missing were the awards banquet – presumably rendered infeasible by big city catering charges – and the sense of crowding. Attendance was up by several hundred but was spread over a far larger area. Since the Sheraton was not overflowing with mundane guests, I felt betimes as if the con had been cast adrift on an empty ocean.
In its first years of exile, Boskone was timid about parties. It forbade alcohol at open events and introduced copious late night programming as a counter-attraction. In Framingham, the party schedule showed signs of filling out, and the alcohol ban fell into desuetude, but that trend did not continue this year. The complete party list on Saturday night, leaving aside a few private gatherings, consisted of two Worldcon bid parties, two NASFiC bid parties, the Tor Books reception (which reportedly had difficulties getting its bheer and wine past the hotel watchdogs), a party for something called “Buffycon” and one for a software company looking for job applicants (a leading economic indicator, folks). On the positive side, the parties compensated for quantity with quality. There was also a memorable incident at the Tor party that I have been sternly instructed to forget.
The big programming innovation was the insertion of a number of 30 minute items, mostly with one speaker addressing a topic that he found of particular interest. For example, Rob Sawyer did half an hour on how the “skeptical inquiry” movement is growing hidebound and dogmatic, much like the nutty groups that it criticizes. The concept of short, tightly focused program items is interesting, but no one with whom I spoke thought that it had worked well. The time was too short for interesting subjects and still too long for dull ones.
One admirable Boskone tradition is good attendance at the Guest of Honor speech. David Brin spoke on Saturday evening to a large, crowded room (about 350 people by my estimate), exhorting SF fans to do more to spread the word to high schools and colleges. His best paragraph was about San Francisco’s “Change of Hobbit” bookstore. “When it opened, it drew a big high school crowd. A few years later, there was a surge of college students. Four years after that, the number of grad students hanging around was remarkable. Then it began to cater to junior faculty. . . .” When the clientele came to consist of senior faculty, there weren't enough of them, and it went out of business. The speech began with an allusion to the Shakers and ended with a request that the school teachers and librarians in the audience stand up, so that we could all rally ‘round them and approach the next generation as a “proselytizing cult”.
Well, maybe. I, too, reflect occasionally on “the graying of fandom”. But I don’t think that I am the only fan who discovered science fiction all by himself and would not have been helped along by intrusive adults trying to form my taste. The borderline between useful and counterproductive proselytization can be very thin.
Bid parties centered on the races that will be decided in Toronto. Kansas City in ‘06 appeared at Boskone for the first time, trying to make up for past neglect by putting on a really large event this year. The highlight was a raffle for a collection of George R. R. Martin-related books, games, toys and t-shirts. Ira Donewitz of New York City won. Having no interest in games or toys, he turned those items back to the bid, keeping only the clothing and books.
Los Angeles in ‘06 piggybacked its party onto its rival’s, taking a bedroom adjoining the K.C. suite. Bid chairman Christian McGuire told me that the reason for keeping activity low-key was that L.A. had two years of vigorous Boskone campaigning under its belt and didn’t think that it could make further inroads. Had I been planning strategy, I would have been more vigorous. Any slackening of effort by the front runner in a contested race is inevitably viewed by fannish public opinion as a sign of overconfidence.
Both contenders in the 2005 NASFiC race also threw parties, taking identical rooms one floor apart. Both seemed to draw about equal numbers. Seattle had a slight advantage in cuisine, thanks to its little salmon-and-cream-cheese rolls.
My odd party experience was a conversation a Chicago fan who had attended Chicon (but didn’t recognize me as chairman – sic transit gloria) and lives within three blocks of my home, but who was completely unfamiliar. The Tor incident would have surpassed that in oddity, but I didn’t witness it personally and anyway have forgotten what it was.
Gossip about other Worldcon races was sparse, though I probably missed some tidbits owing to the energy-reducing effects of the last stages of a cold. The dreadful silence surrounding 2008 continues. Will that become the Year Without a Worldcon? I doubt it but see little hope for a satisfactory stopgap unless the loser of the L.A.-K.C. contest proves willing to step in.
On a happier note, while Australia in 2010 remains undecided about whether it will launch a real bid, it has decided that the party planned for Torcon will not be its last. There will definitely be a Big Party at Noreascon 4 – either a campaign kickoff or a really, really big celebration to announce the bid's demise. I was told that, in hopes of preparing Aussie fandom for playing Worldcon hosts, an Australian group has put in a bid to sponsor a future World Fantasy Con.
The Boston Sheraton, aside from being Boskone’s new home, will be Noreascon’s headquarters hotel. It filled the same role at Noreascon 3, though under different circumstances. Back then, the hotel and the concomm were on less than amiable terms. On the other hand, the hotel’s management knew something about science fiction conventions. This year, relations appeared to be cordial, but one gathered the impression that the hotel was rather amateurish, finding it hard to adapt to an out-of-the-ordinary event. Not only was there the mixup with Tor’s party supplies, but the room configuration was left uncertain until only a couple of weeks in advance and the staff made elementary mistakes in following the résumé. It was undoubtedly a good thing that Boskone was available as a shakedown cruise.
Let me add a few points about the Sheraton that will be of interest to Worldcon attendees two years hence. First, the elevators worked efficiently on Saturday, but that experience was evidently only the product of an exceptionally light load. On Sunday morning, when guests were checking out, the performance was pretty miserable. Be ready to climb lots of stairs at Noreascon.
Second, the Sheraton’s standard rooms are not of uniform size, as I discovered when mine turned out to be barely large enough for a king-sized bed. A couple to whom I talked had worse luck: Their tiny bedroom had a tiny bathroom attached. Other rooms that I saw were of normal dimensions. I don’t know whether there is any pattern or how attendees who value space will be able to make sure of obtaining it.
Finally, the hotel opens onto a fair-sized mall with several good restaurants. The most popular among Boskone-goers – it will bulge at its seams during Noreascon – is called the “Marché Movenpick”, a highly upscale buffet. Chicagoans will recognize the concept as the same as that of FoodLife at Water Tower Place, though its Boston counterpart is more elegant. Make reservations for dinner, or be prepared to spend a lot of time in line.