How Did We Get Here?

One of the more common questions I’m getting asked on social media is why WSFS is not incorporated, and why is there so much resistance to it being so. I’m not really the right person to answer that, because I only started going to Worldcons in 1995. The fannish war over incorporartion had been going on for some time by then and was deemed mostly settled against the idea, but I will give it a go.

In 1995, incorporation was clearly still a hot potato. Most people back then thought that the Business Meeting was a load of boring nonsense, but the one thing I was told was guaranteed to get everyone out of the program sessions and into the BM to vote was a cry of, “WSFS Inc.! To the Barricades!!!”

So why exactly does Worldcon fandom have this horror of incorporation? It has become clear to me over the years that many people involved in running Worldcons despise WSFS and would be much happier if it went away. Part of that is sheer selfishness. Once they have got control over the shiny toy for a year they want to be able to run it however they want, not be constained by some stupid old constitution. But there is also a very real fear among con-runners of mechanisms that might come back to bite them.

Worldcon is a massive undertaking staffed entirely by volunteers. It is questionable as to why anyone would take on such a responsibility if they thought that there could be serious consequences for them if they got it wrong. Worldcons routinely take out insurance against being sued for various reasons, but having legal obligations to WSFS would be harder to avoid.

(Updating this because a couple of people read it in a way I didn’t intend. Individual Worldcons incorporate. They have to, and they have to do so under the laws of their host country. What Worldcons do not want is for WSFS to incorporate. Nor do they want to have to sign legal agreements with WSFS in exchange for the right to run Worldcon.)

Some of the responses to my suggestion for fixing the Hugos also cast light on the issue. Some people have responded that the Mark Protection Committee is the wrong body to take on the responsibility because the current members are all incompetent arseholes. Well, that’s an opinion, but that’s why I suggested that people might want to amend the motion to have them all stood down and new elections take place.

Heather Rose Jones has made some very good points about the dangers of having such a body, and she’s dead right. There are ways in which it could go bad. Democracy only works if we are constantly vigilant and prevent it being subverted.

But then there are people who say that it can never work because the wrong people will always get elected. That’s much more of a Libertarian viewpoint: all government is bad, because anyone who gets to be in government is bad.

That brings us back to the early years of Worldcon, and a time when many of the attendees were hard core Heinlein fans. Resistance to incorporation is, I think, at least in part driven by the idea that risking an occasional individual Worldcon going rogue is far preferable to creating an official body that might itself go rogue and then could not be stopped. If you agree with that assessment then you too should be against any proposal that creates an oversight body.

Up until now, of course, it has worked. Worldcons have mostly done the right things and followed the rules, even though they could not be forced to do so. Chengdu has changed all that. And I note that, when Kevin and I explain that there’s nothing that Glasgow can do about it under the Constitution, a common reaction is that they should just do it anyway. Going rogue can be infectious.

3 thoughts on “How Did We Get Here?

  1. As it happens, I think the current governmental system of WSFS (the Business Meeting) is much like the Ad Hoc Congress of Free Luna that appears in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. And while that body was itself supplanted later in the novel by a mildly more organized government, I note that one particularly troublesome member of it vanished, with the (IMO) strong implication that he had been marched out of an airlock without a P-suit.

  2. I think having WSFS as a corporation makes more sense with regards to running the convention and handling site selection. There, having a body that can see that the con is in trouble and step in is helpful. I’m not sure what a WSFS corporation could have done to prevent the current problem with the Hugos.

  3. Chris:

    WSFS already owns a corporation (Worldcon Intellectual Property/WIP, a California non-profit corporation), whose directors are the members of the WSFS Mark Protection Committee. In my opinion, it would be easier to put additional functions in their charge than it would be to create a brand new organization to do those things.

    Here’s specifically how, if that were the case, it would have prevented this year’s issue, assuming that it was the fact that the Awards were being administered under Chinese law and custom. Heck, the same administrators could be on the committee. The administrators would do the work, but they would be doing it under California law, and would not be subject to China’s law and custom. They also would be subject to the WIP Board of Directors’ oversight. (Yes, this means all WIP Directors/MPC members would have to be ineligible for the Hugo Awards.) The Administrators could have told the Chengdu committee, “Here are the finalists” without whatever interference Chengdu might have imposed upon them in this timeline. If Chengdu said, “We can’t abide this,” they could then say, “We can’t have a Hugo Awards ceremony with these people connected to it.” WIP would then say, “Fine, that’s your option. We’ll arrange for the trophies and the announcement of the winners somewhere else.”

    I think it not unlikely that Chengdu would never have bid for a Worldcon under those conditions, though.

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