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.
I was afraid that I might piss him off. I was afraid that I might piss off the ConComm and that word would go through the SMoF community that I was a problem and then I wouldn't get to do the shiny things.
I was wrong.
— Mary Robinette Kowal@🏡 (@MaryRobinette) August 1, 2020
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”.