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”.

14 thoughts on “Why Worldcons Go Wrong

  1. “ 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”.”

    THIS. We can make notes, we can ask for advice. We have to put in the work. We need action plans. We need mechanisms to check in with those plans and make sure we’re on track with them and edit our actions if we’re not. Otherwise there is no better.

  2. Well said. What some folks who aren’t very informed about Worldcon don’t appear to grasp is that everyone running and working them are unpaid volunteers.
    So, it’s not like you can dock a rogue staffer a day’s pay or anything like that.
    Have there ever been a ‘perfect’ Worldcon where nothing went wrong, and no one moved to criticize ? I suspect not.
    And, the situation the ConNZ folks got thrown into due to the pandemic is one for which there literally was no playbook or SF con precedent for.

    1. Ermm… but there was precedent. The Nebulas Con had just gone thru it in May. We offered help. I was the training coordinator for SFWA and offered to train WorldCon volunteers along the same model. Our volunteers agreed to follow our Code of Conduct and were given clear guidelines on how to handle situations they believed were in conflict.

      We wanted to share our knowledge and experiences to help. We were not taken up on the offer. Still not sure why. Overwhelmed staff? The false idea that WorldCon and the Nebulas have too little in common? Time getting away from them?

      Still. They did not have to go it alone.

  3. This reminded me about the Lada-Mercedes Benz comparison between Finncon and Worldcon. Lada can take mighty blows, and everyone remembers that it is done by unpaid members of fandom – as it happening in one country. Nobody respects others too much. But Mercedes Benz, it is an institution.
    I hope people have mercy, too. I have been in a situation, where one of the main newspapers had arranged a nationally known Jyväskylä Arts seminar only to shame a woman in charge of the Council of Mass media. Besides me, no one react during an event. No one. Some things are too big to be handled on place, and usually nothing can be done.

  4. I must correct the record here. The Zoom host who originally told Edmund Schluessel not to use that background did not resign in protest, but was kicked out for writing a public Facebook post about the many internal failings of the Program Division. They genuinely believed that political statements were not ok, which was a(nother) failing of the Program Division to give guidance to the Zoom hosts on what was acceptable and what was not.

    The Program Division used the coincidence to imply that the staff member had been removed and/or resigned in protest for not being allowed to do this.

  5. Good points re Worldcon organization! I know it ain’t easy. I was on the concom for Denvention II (1981, Denver), and peripherally involved with Iguanacon (1978, Phoenix). When Denvention III (2008) rolled around, I didn’t volunteer, informing the concom that I was an old and tired fan.

    There were things that went on during Denvention II that, had we had social media, would have ignited a firestorm in fandom. These were mainly internal goofups. It is perhaps fortunate that the most difficult name our toastmaster, Ed Bryant, was faced with during the Hugos was Somtow Sucharitkul–SF&F was less international in 1981.

    Iguanacon ignited a firestorm anyway, without social media. Instead, a lot of us cranked out reams of screeds using mimeographs. It was said that the world supply of acid ink and asbestos paper was seriously depleted by the controversies surrounding that worldcon. Disorganization was rampant, and as for infighting–it’s sometimes said that George R.R. Martin got ideas for The Game of Thrones from the antics of the Iguanacon committee.

    1. Unfortunately he seems to have passed the IguanaCon philosophy of committee organisation on to CoNZealand, as our friend Mole above can doubtless testify.

  6. Perhaps the most obvious and simplest lesson is “*always* set a strict timelimit on the ceremony host’s prepared remarks”. The endless rambling caused extensive practical problems; people were forced to stay up late under unpleasant conditions, missed panels they were scheduled for, etc. etc.

    If CoNZealand had told GRRM “That’s too long. 15 minutes total. You cut it or we’ll cut it.” — then if GRRM had thrown a fit about it, practically everyone in the world would have been on CoNZealand’s side and not on GRRMs. It was the most basic way to control things.

    1. It would be lovely if things were that easy. And you are right that almost everyone at Worldcon would have been happy if they’d just cut George’s time, or indeed cut his live stuff altogether. But people at Worldcon does not equal everyone in the world, and that could easily have turned into “CoNZealand censors beloved author” stories in the press, with thousands of GRRM fans who know nothing about Worldcon weighing in on his side.

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