Why Worldcons Go Wrong

There are lots of people on social media currently saying things like, “Worldcon is broken, it must be fixed” or “Worldcon is irredeemably broken, we must replace it with something new.” These are all entirely understandable sentiments, but in order to fix Worldcon, or to build a replacement, it helps to know how and why it goes wrong. In this post I want to talk about a couple of specific examples from CoNZealand.

I should start by noting that much of the problem here stems from the fact that fans all over the world, even if they have Worldcon memberships, have no sense of ownership of WSFS or the convention. They see WSFS as a nebulous “Them” rather than as “Us”. And if something goes wrong, “They” must be at fault. But who exactly “They” are, and what “They” could they have done better, is unclear.

In one sense it is absolutely true that the buck stops at the top. When you agree to chair a Worldcon you know this. There is a reason why “Friends Don’t Let Friend’s Run Worldcon” is a common fannish saying. So Kelly Buehler and Norm Cates have been spending a lot of time taking it on the chin and accepting responsibility. Sometimes they did indeed do things wrong, but knowing what to do right is not always easy.

Take the George Martin situation, for example. CoNZealand was selected as a site in 2018, and George was announced as Toastmaster at that time. The Game of Thrones TV series was hugely popular then, and George had a stellar reputation among Worldcon regulars because, unlike many famous authors, he always attended the convention, and put a lot of his own money into it. His work establishing alternative awards, The Alfies, in the midst of the Sad Puppy affair was widely praised. Few people thought CoNZealand’s choice was a mistake at the time.

Warning signs started to appear last year with the fiasco around Hugo Finalists being barred from the Hugo Losers’ Party because it was full, and being asked to stand out in the rain until there was room. George has done most of the work funding and organising these parties since the Puppy affair, and his response to what happened in Dublin was very disappointing.

There may well have been additional warning signs in the months that followed. I’m not privy to the internal discussions of the CoNZealand committee so I don’t know. So there may have been multiple points at which CoNZealand might have been tempted to disinvite George. I would certainly have considered pushing back on Robert Silverberg having any involvement in the Hugo Ceremony.

But what would have happened if they did push back? George might well have been very angry. He might have withdrawn from the convention entirely, which might have resulted in a number of people demanding membership refunds. He might have gone to the newspapers, which would have resulted in the convention being dragged through the mud all over the world. And George’s legion of fans would certainly have waged war against the convention on social media.

If you want an example of how much damage an author with a very high profile can do, take a look at what another successful fantasy author is currently doing to the trans community in the UK.

So as a con committee, what do you do if one of your Guests of Honour turns out to be a problem? If, like George, he is very high profile, you will probably keep him and hope that he won’t do anything too awful. And, if he does, that your staff can keep things under control. That’s easier said than done.

Yesterday Mary Robinette Kowal wrote a Twitter thread about her own part in the Hugo Ceremony. She’s President of SFWA, and the winner of last year’s Best Novel Hugo, so she’s not without power and prestige in the industry. She’d been asked to present the Best Novella category. This was all pre-recorded, and Mary says she’d noticed from the way George introduced her that something was up. In particular he had expanded SFWA as “The Science Fiction Writers of America” rather than “The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America”. That might have been a genuine mistake, but it is also a common Old Guard dog whistle. (There’s a whole complicated reason why SFWA is not called SFFWA). She says that she could have asked George to re-do the intro, but she didn’t want to seem difficult.

The point here is that if the President of SFWA didn’t feel confident enough to tell George he was getting it wrong, what chance did younger writers, or volunteers on the CoNZealand committee have? If I might be permitted a Railroad joke, there’s a train in motion here and it is very hard to stop. From a convention management point of view, the only thing you can do is to trust that your high profile Toastmaster does not behave too badly. In CoNZealand’s case that trust was badly betrayed.

The other issue I would like to look at is the case of panellist Edmund Schluessel who was twice asked to change his Zoom background because it was deemed “too political”. The full story, complete with an image of said background, is available on File 770 here (item 3) and here.

The first time this happened, Kelly Buehler issued an apology on behalf of the committee. She stated: “There is nothing wrong with your Zoom background, and I encourage you to use it as much as you like.” However, the staff member who had tried to censor Schluessel’s background resigned in protest. And the next time Schluessel was on panel he was once again asked to remove his background, for the same reason as before, but by a different person.

Clearly some of the ConZealand staff have gone rogue here, including ignoring a direct instruction from one of the Co-Chairs. There’s little that the convention can do at this point. All Worldcon staff are volunteers. You can’t discipline them in any effective way. If you fire someone you may find yourself with a major gap in your team, and the person that you fire may take several of his friends away with him. Possibly it was a mistake to recruit this person in the first place, but Worldcons are often desperate for staff and have little chance to vet people at lower levels.

There’s a tendency in certain quarters to sneer when people say that running Worldcon is hard, but it is, and unless you have actually done it you probably don’t understand just how hard it is. Which is not to say that people don’t make terrible mistakes, and should not be called to account for them. I can assure you that I have done that often enough in my time (ask people about TorCon 3 if you don’t believe me). However, I have always tried to do so in the hope that we can learn from our mistakes and make Worldcon better. I hope you can see from the above that fixing things, or creating an alternative, is not simply a matter of vowing to “do better”.

Behaving Badly at the Hugos

I would imagine that everyone has now seen the outrage that accompanied the CoNZealand Hugo Award Ceremony. If you haven’t, the short version is that a fabulous list of winners and some really great acceptance speeches were completely overshadowed by a couple of old men grandstanding.

Before I get into the detail, I want to mention one of the acceptance speeches. Neil Gaiman won a Hugo for the television version of Good Omens. In his acceptance speech (Farcebook link) Neil spoke about how he made the series as a favour for his friend, Terry Pratchett. Terry, despite being hugely loved by fans all over the world, never won a Hugo. He was a finalist once, but declined the honour. This was not, as Neil explained, because he didn’t care, but because he cared too much. Terry wanted a Hugo so badly, and was so convinced that he’d never win one, that the mere thought of being a finalist was too much for him. That’s how much Hugos mean to people in our field.

The theme for last night’s 3.5 hour marathon bore-fest was Hugo history. George Martin and Robert Silverberg regaled us with stories from Worldcons past. In that vein, I would like to take you back to LA Con IV in 2006. That convention too had chosen an aging writer to have an important role in the ceremony. The writer in question was Harlan Ellison, who had a far bigger reputation for shooting his mouth off than either Martin or Silverberg. By the end of the evening, the social media of the time was incandescent with fury over something that came to be known as Gropegate. Here’s what I wrote after the event.

It was clear right from the start that Harlan was planning to behave badly. It was just that no one quite realized that behaving badly would include trying to swallow the microphone and groping one of Connie’s breasts during the ceremony. Harlan, I suspect thought it would be funny.

That would have been Connie Willis, who was the Writer Guest of Honour and was also hosting the ceremony.

Fandom was incandescent with fury. And I went on to say the following:

What I do know for sure, however, is that every time Harlan’s name comes up in a convention committee discussion, any convention committee discussion, in the future, people will remember what he did in Anaheim and, if they have any sense at all, will not want anything to do with him.

At the time I had a fair amount of profile as a fan writer. I had nominations that year in Fan Writer and Semiprozine (I had taken Emerald City out of the Fanzine category). Consequently Harlan heard about what I’d written. We didn’t know each other, but he knew Neil Gaiman and Neil knew me. As a result, I got a phone call. We chatted for quite a long time, and I’m not sure that Harlan ever quite understood why what he had done was wrong. It was the sort of thing that men got away with routinely when he was younger. But one thing was very clear: Harlan, who had won eight Hugos himself, was mortified that his actions had damaged the reputation of the awards.

Contrast that with CoNZealand. What we seemed to have there was a couple of old men conspiring to take over the ceremony, disrespect many of the Finalists, and bore the audience to death, because they don’t like the sort of people, and the sort of works, that are winning Hugos these days. It was, it seemed, a deliberate attempt to cause controversy and drag the awards through the mud. Hosting the Hugo ceremony is an honour, and should be treated as such. Many other people, including high profile names such as Neil Gaiman, John Picacio and Garth Nix, have done the job, and taken it much more seriously.

It doesn’t just stop there either. There was the incident where the introduction to the Best Fancast category concentrated solely on podcasts, despite the fact that one of the Finalists, Claire Rousseau, uses video rather than audio. The CoNZealand Chairs said in their apology that this was an error, and the CNZ staffer responsible has apparently owned up and apologised. But equally I have been in Claire’s position where people were saying that I should have been disqualified because I was using the wrong sort of delivery system. And when people see such obvious disrespecting of Finalists elsewhere, the natural assumption is that every such incident is deliberate. Bad behaviour elsewhere poisons all other interactions, even when a genuine mistake has been made.

Of course people will claim that Hugo winners have taken to making their acceptance speeches political. They are winners; that gives them a lot of licence. And mostly it is their own reputation at risk. Jeannette Ng did so and got a Hugo for it, which I think shows that she hasn’t lost much over it.

But when you are hosting the ceremony, it is not just your reputation that you damage if you misbehave. You sully the reputation of the convention, of all the people who worked so hard to make it happen, and of the country that is hosting the convention. Most of all, you sully the reputation of the awards themselves. Harlan understood that. I’m not sure that Martin and Silverberg do.

CoNZealand – Day 2

First up, we had a very successful party. Huge thanks to all who attended, and to Kristen and her team running the CoNZealand parties.

A lot of yesterday was taken up with preparing for the party, but I did get some time to see programme. The Representing the Other panel was very good, and led to some very lively discussion on Discord afterwards. I also watched the Conventions in the Age of COVID-19 panel, and the The Future is Female panel.

The big event last night was the Retro Hugo and Sir Julius Vogel Awards panel. Unfortunately there were major bandwidth issues with the stream and I bailed early on so as to reduce the load. Kevin stuck with it so as to be able to tweet from the official Hugo Awards feed.

This year’s Retro Hugo Award trophy is gorgeous. You can find out more about it here.

The results of the 1945 Retros can be found here. I was very pleased with the recognition for Margaret Brundage and Leigh Brackett. There has been anger expressed about the awards going to Campbell and Lovecraft, but results like this are inevitable with the Retros because most people don’t take an interest in them. According to the official statistics, only 120 people participated at the Nominations stage, and only 521 in the final ballot. If Worldcons can’t drum up more interest in the Retros then they should stop doing them (they are optional, after all).

Locus Award Winners

Once again things have happened in America while I was asleep. You can find the full lists of finalists and winners here. I want to talk briefly about the winners.

Charlie Jane won two and Yoon Ha Lee one. That’s three of 17 awards going to people who are out as trans, one of them to a Korean-American. Seanan has always been a great ally and has written some great trans characters. Marlon is an ally too and has a strong interest in the history of gender diversity, not to mention being Jamaican and gay. Gideon the Ninth and This Is How You Lose the Time War are both books about lesbian couples. Not bad for starters. Who else have we got?

Ellen and John are both good friends. Ellen is Jewish, while John is Mexican-American and well known for his work promoting Latinx authors and artists. Ted is Asian-American. Nisi is African-American and gets that extra award for Writing the Other which is a project all about improving minority representation. Tempest gets a share in that one.

I don’t know much about the winners in the non-fiction and art catagories. Tor won both the corporate categories and is, of course, a corporation, not a person. But it is a corporation that has been very supportive of diversity.

And these are popular vote awards.

Don’t let anyone tell you that science fiction is a genre that is only by and for straight cis white men.

Clarke Award Shortlist

The Shortlist for this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award was announced today. Here they are, with links to my reviews where they exist:

Of the three I have read, I’d pick The Light Brigade as the clear winner. But Clarke juries are notoriously unpredictable. In any case, I have some reading to do.

Today on Ujima – Small Businesses in Lockdown, the Hugos

Today’s show mainly features small businesses talking about how they are coping with Lockdown.

I started with Tara from Talk to the Rainbow, a new psychotherapy service catering to members of marginalised communities. Understandably, they are in a lot of demand right now, but are having to learn to do therapy remotely.

Next up were Graham and Esmerelda from My Burrito, who seem to be doing OK on remote ordering, but are having a lot of trouble with Deliveroo. If you can order your food via a different delivery service then they, and many other restaurants, will be very grateful.

Finally I talked to Dan from Storysmith Books, who are finding that people’s interest in reading has not waned, and may even be increasing.

For the final segment of the show I had a chat with Kevin about this year’s Hugo finalists. We didn’t manage to cover all of the categories, but hopefully we will have generated some interest in the Awards. Plus it was a chance for me to point out how female-dominated they Hugos are these days.

You can find the show on the Ujima Listen Again service.

The playlist for today’s show was:

  • Andy Allo – Superconductor
  • Chaka Khan – Ain’t Nobody
  • Liane La Havas – Unstoppable
  • Janelle Monáe – Tightrope (Mouche & Big Remix)
  • Chic – Good Times
  • Prince – Alphabet Street
  • Jackie Shane – Money
  • Parliament – Mothership Connection

Otherwise Award Winner & Honor List


The results of this year’s Otherwise (formery Tiptree) Award have been announced. The winner is Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi. The Honor List is as follows:

  • “Dreamborn” by Kylie Ariel Bemis
  • The Book of Flora by Meg Elison
  • Pet by Akwaeke Emezi
  • Meet Me in the Future by Kameron Hurley
  • “Of Warps and Wefts” by Innocent Chizaram Ilo
  • The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal
  • The Elemental Logic series by Laurie J. Marks
  • The Lonesome Bodybuilder by Yukiko Motoya
  • The Deep by Rivers Solomon

I’m not familiar with Emezi’s work at all, but clearly I should be. Nor do I know much about the short fiction (the Hurley and Motoya are both collections). I have reviewed The Calculating Stars and The Deep. I reviewed Fire Logic and Earth Logic back in Emerald City and loved them both. Both books won the Gaylactic Spectrum Award. Now that all four books are out I have been meaning to re-read the entire series, but of course I have no time. Meg Elison won the Philip K Dick Award with The Book of the Unnamed Midwife, the first volume in the trilogy that The Book of Flora concludes. I have The Book of Flora on my TBR pile, and it has just got a boost up towards the top.

I am, of course, delighted to see so many works with trans themes on the list.

Coronavirus – Day #26

Today has been Publication Day for Unjust Cause, which means that you can now buy the ebook from our store. Our authors make more money if you buy direct. Also we give you both the ePub and Mobi, DRM free. Please buy from us rather than that big river place if you can.

There is going to be a new free short story going up tomorrow. This one is by me. I don’t normally push my own fiction, but I have good reason this time. All will be explained tomorrow.

Because I was busy I missed the Hugo Finalists announcement last night. I gather from Twitter that most people are very pleased, which is a relief. Personally I’m pleased to note that there are at least 6 trans people on the ballot. I’m also really pleased to see that all of the nominees for Fan Writer are first-timers. That shows that the field is really healthy.

Of course the big question will be whether a man manages to win a fiction award this year. It won’t happen in Novel because all six finalists are women. Ted Chiang, of course, has an excellent chance of winning. I will laugh myself silly if the only man who wins is Yoon Ha Lee.

Aside from pushing the new book, and the radio show, today has been more day job. I have no idea what is happening in the outside world, but I’m assuming that if the PM had died I would have heard about it.

Coronavirus – Day #25

Today has been mainly day job. Tomorrow probably will be as well, though I will be on the radio as well thanks to the magic of pre-records.

It is also Hugo Day. The announcement of the finalists is due to start in under an hour. I won’t be able to watch as I have work to do.

The outside world continues to be grim, and social media has descended into poltical point-scoring so I’m mostly avoiding it.

BSFA Awards News

As most of you will have heard by now, this year’s Eastercon has finally been cancelled. That must be a huge relief to the organisers who were potentially on the hook for the cost of the event if it hadn’t been possible for the hotel to claim on insurance for the cancellation. It is a risky business running a convention in the UK, because creating a corporate shield is much harder than it is in the USA.

However, this now raises the question of what happens with the BSFA Awards. Thankfully the folks at the BSFA are well on top of things. It is now possible to vote online, as long as you are a BSFA member or had an Eastercon membership. Full details here. Don’t forget to vote for Juliet. (What, biased, me?)

February Salon Futura

The latest issue of Salon Futura went online at the weekend. Here’s what you can find in it:

I guess I should remind you that Salon Futura is eligible for the Best Fanzine category in the Hugos. Not that I need another Hugo, but I do want you all to vote in the Fanzine category. If I do get on the ballot I suspect it will increase interest in the category.

Congratulations, Juliet!

I am a very proud publisher today. Getting The Green Man’s Heir on the short list for the Bristish Fantasy Awards was a pleasant suprise, but something I thought had a chance of happening. Getting The Green Man’s Foe on the short list for this year’s British Science Fiction Association Awards is veering into “beyond wildest dreams” territory. I mean, just look at the company the book is keeping:

  • Emma Newman – Atlas Alone (Gollancz)
  • Gareth L Powell – Fleet of Knives (Titan Books)
  • Adrian Tchaikovsky – Children of Ruin (Tor)
  • Tade Thompson – The Rosewater Insurrection (Orbit)
  • Juliet E McKenna – The Green Man’s Foe (Wizard’s Tower Press)

All of the other books on that list are on the Locus Recommended Reading List. That is pretty special company to be keeping.

Congratulations are also due to Ben Baldwin for the cover, and to Toby Selwyn who edited the book.

So I guess I might have to be at Eastercon after all, though I will be very jet lagged because I’ll be fresh off a plane from British Columbia.

In the meantime, if you want a copy of The Green Man’s Foe, there are links here. If you are buying the ebook, Juliet gets most money if you buy direct from Wizard’s Tower. You’ll also be able to get copies from me in person at Foyles, Bristol later this month, and at Swecon in March.

Congratulations, Tamsyn

I’m sure that no one is unduly surprised that Tamsyn Muir’s Gideon the Ninth won this year’s Crawford Award. Well, apart from the silly people who insist that because it is set in the future and has spaceships it can’t be fantasy, even though it is a story about sword fighting and necromancy.

As you may know, I am part of the group of people that the IAFA Awards Committee consults with regarding the Crawford. We are not exactly a jury, and the makeup of the group varies from year to year depending on who is available. It is a huge honour to take part, and my thanks are due especially to Gary K Wolfe who administers the whole thing.

It was a special joy to have Mimi Mondal as part of the group this year. She has a very different perspective to offer, and got us reading books we would not otherwise have heard of.

There are more details about the award at Locus. Commiserations are due to Alix E Harrow whose The Ten Thousand Doors of January put up a very valiant fight. We don’t often specifically name a runner up.

Anyway, congratulations Tamsyn. I’m very much looking forward to the sequel, and to seeing Gideon on the Hugo ballot in Wellington.

Congratulations, Ardel!

This time last year I was telling you about this fabulous book which I had the honour to make a small contribition to. Most of the work was done by the amazing Ardel Haefele-Thomas, but part of the plan for the book was to have a whole lot of “voices from the community” contribitions. One of those was me, talking about trans Romans.

Since then the book has been quietly on sale. Ardel and I did an event at Gay’s the Word in London late last year. Then I hadn’t thought to much more about it. But this morning I awoke to the amazing news that the American Libraries Association had voted it one of their top 10 queer books of 2019. They normally pick 5 works of fiction and 5 of non-fiction. And that means that Ardel’s little book (well, rather hefty book actually) is on the same list as books by Marlon James, Tamsyn Muir, Carmen Maria Machado and Samantha Shannon.

Which is awesome!

I’m absolutely delighted for Ardel. I’ll be seeing them in Canada in April at the trans history conference. I suspect that a few other contributors will be there. There might be a little celebrating.

Crunching Hugo Stats

The lovely people at Vector asked me if I wanted to do an article looking back on the decade. This gave me the opportunity to crunch some Hugo data. The results are really quite remarkable. If you take a look here you will see why I titled the article, “The Decade That Women Won”.

I should dedicate that article to Joanna Russ. I wish that she was still alive to see it. We still have a long way to go, but the fight is not impossible.

BSFA Award Long Lists

The British Science Fiction Association has released their long lists for awards for works published in 2019. I’m deighted to note that The Green Man’s Foe features twice on the lists. Juliet McKenna is listed for the novel, and Ben Baldwin for the cover. There is, of course, a long way to go yet. There are two more rounds of voting to go before they end up with winners. But hey, this is unexpected and much appreciated success for Wizard’s Tower. I am really pleased.

Hugo Voting Opens

Unless you have been avoiding social media, you will probably know that Hugo Award voting is now open for this year. If you are eligible to vote you should have had email from CoNZealand explaining how to nominate. If you haven’t then you should contact them.

As a reminder, here’s my eligbility:

The only one I’m really concerned about is Fanzine, and that’s only because participation in the category was very low last year and I’m hoping to encourage people to take an interest in it again. If you have a fanzine that you think is eligible, let me know and I’ll tell my readers about it.

Hugo Eligibility Update

Well this is embarrassing. When I did my Hugo Eligibility Post last week I completely forgot one of the stories I had published this year. That story was “The Poet’s Daughter” in Rainbow Bouquet from Manifold Press. I have updated my original post to take account of that.

Not that I expect to get anywhere near the final ballot for either of them, but if you are going to do an eligibility post you might as well get it right.

Hugo Eligibility Post

It is that time of year again, so what have I been up to in 2019?.

Firstly I have published two Short Stories. They are:

Secondly, as I have now published four issues, Salon Futura is eligible in Fanzine.

Thirdly, as I write most of Salon Futura myself, I am eligible in Fan Writer.

For those just catching up on all this, the main reason why I am tossing my hat into the fan awards ring again, despite having plenty of shiny rockets to keep me company, is that interest in the Fanzine category has been waning of late. I’m hoping to boost participation. If you have a fanzine and want people to nominate it, let me know and I will signal boost for you.

(This post was updated on Dec. 9th to add the second short story.)