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What In the Worldcon?

You will probably already be aware that there are moves afoot to bid for the worldcon to come to Britain - the sites being considered are Glasgow and Jersey. This edition of CONRUNNER has articles by Vince Docherty, who has spearheaded the bid plans, and Henry Balen, who is also involved, detailing their plans for 1995 (or 1997). I haven't seen the articles as I write this, but have spoken to both of them on the subject many times in the past year, playing the role of Devil's Advocate when they outlined their scheme. This editorial article is my attempt to persuade them, and you, not to bother with the bid and do something else more useful with the time and talent that will be used up in the attempt.

Let me state my position as succinctly as possible, then I'll get down to specific arguments. I do not think a worldcon is a good thing as its impact on British fandom, is, on the whole, likely to be destructive rather than constructive. I view the prospect of spending the next six or eight years with a British worldcon circling overhead, like some sort of vulture, with despair. I will not attempt to spoil any British bid, but I cannot give it support. Rather than be completely negative about it, I have suggested that they organise a big convention (say a Eurocon) in preference to a worldcon, and my reasons for this appear below.

The idea of a worldcon is splendid: SF fans from all over the world getting together for a good time, swapping experiences and building links between countries. The reality is something else: 5000 - 10000 people turning up at a venue demanding to be entertained for four or five days while a few hundred of them make the effort to meet fans outside their own group. A worldcon is a very poor way of meeting people, if that is what you are seeking at a con. Alternatively, it could be viewed as a gigantic SF festival, but even the most impressionable fan will become jaded after five days of endless spectacle. It is too much of a good thing.

From an organisers point of view the plus points include the pool of professionals that accompany the event and provide cannon fodder for the programme, the vast income that allows for programme items that are inconceivable at any other con, and the opportunity to test one's mettle in the big league. The negative points include the difficulties, expense and time involved in winning the bid, the problem of recruiting and organising volunteers effectively, coping with the World Science Fiction Society (WSFS) constitution and its various amendments, and coping with the stress involved.

I'm sure you could add many more points to both the positive and negative lists. but let's try to keep this simple. Of the positive points I've listed only the pool of professionals seemed to be much in evidence at CONSPIRACY - the vast income was swallowed up by venue and operating costs and if it was in the big league then it was near the bottom of the division, a bit above AUSSIECON. During the planning we came up with a great many big, bold ideas but, to do them properly needed either committing a very large sum of money or a lot of people. It simply did not seem justifiable to spend many thousands of pounds on a single item - say a play -and I'm sure we would have been criticised for doing so. It became obvious early on that we also did not have the usual fannish substitute for money - cheap labour - in sufficient quantity. I am, personally, ashamed of the naivete with which I approached the whole business. Not only should I have known better, I did know better, yet up to the last was treating the whole thing like a very big Eastercon.

It is vital to realise that a worldcon is not a large SF convention - it is a totally different type of event, as different from an Eastercon as a car boot sale is from Harrods. As you increase the scale of the event it undergoes a qualitative change as well.

One of the major oversights of the CONSPIRACY committee was that it was simply unaware of all that was expected of a worldcon - a hidden agenda of traditions, politicking and restrictions. The reason for many of these problems is simple: the worldcon is nothing of the sort. It is an American convention that can occasionally be found outside the USA. It is as much a WORLD-con as the WORLD series baseball games.

When the vote is taken on the British bid it will not matter how many British fans want the event, or even how many don't want it: the vote will be determined solely by how many Americans want to have a holiday in Britain that year. There is no point in pretending that the voting is done on the basis of what programme is offered. or what the venue is like - one hall is much like another. The geographical location is the prime determinant. Many experienced American worldcon organisers and attendees have gone into print recently (in FILE #770 and MAD 3 PARTY) stating that their prime consideration in future voting will be the experience of the bid committee - any group with less than three Worldcons' experience behind them will be viewed with extreme suspicion. This view, however, to likely to be shared by only a minority of voters. The majority voters will consider only the question "is it being held someplace I'd like to visit?" That said, the British bid would certainly be laughed out even by those voters if it was for Washington, say. It is only the novelty value of its location that will gain support, despite the relative inexperience and anonymity of the committee.

It seems absurd to me to try to make a success of running an American convention once a decade when even the Americans seem to make a fair hash of it more often than not (witness CONSTELLATION and NOLACON); and they've got people who have run dozens of the things before!

The alternative to beating them at their own game is to change the style of the convention more to that with which you are familiar. This is what CONSPIRACY attempted, but was eventually beaten by the requirements of WSFS and a decided lack of personnel to man such a large convention. Any future con should recruit as many experienced Americans as possible into senior positions so that their experience can be passed on directly to everyone else. Of course, the best thing would be to simply turn the whole thing over to the Americans and let them run it for you. Vince & Co could simply provide the venue and the initial direction, then sit back and enjoy the result - if they can.

The stress involved in running the worldcon is phenomenal. Most conrunners are familiar with the last week before a con when burning gallons of midnight oil is required. A worldcon is like that for the last year or so. There are a great many fans who have still not recovered from CONSPIRACY, and they may be lost to fandom forever. I don't think that it is worth paying that sort of price for a single event lasting a few days.

Vince Docherty has recruited, over the past year, a group to study the feasibility of another British worldcon and they seem ready to go ahead now. But what is it they are proposing to do? What great vision do they wish to share with us and the rest of the world? Knowing the potential for disaster, why go ahead and do it? After much questioning, the only reason Vince could give me for wanting to do it was to show that it could done better than was managed in 1987. He had no vision of what the programme would offer, what the convention would be about: he simply wanted to try to improve the organisation side of it. I don't think that this is a sufficient reason to plunge British conrunning fandom into 6 - 8 years of anticipation. How many of the originators will still be around, and enthusiastic enough to make the efforts required, in 1995 or 1997, whichever it ends up being? What use is a worldcon to British fandom? Does it really bring in a new generation of fans? Is there room for many more fans with Eastercons finding venues hard to come by?

If Vince wants to run a big convention, why doesn't he just go ahead and do it instead of pratting around for years hoping that the bid won't be scuppered by a strong USA bid, spending the equivalent of an Eastercon's total budget on bidding expenses, why not simply announce a big convention to be held in a big venue in three or four years time? The answer to that is that it would be too much of a risk - the worldcon guarantees members, mostly Americans. Americans made up half of Conspiracy's membership - but, if you needed them to make up your numbers, they could be carefully targeted to ensure that they would come across in sufficient quantities to make a big British con work. After all, their main reason for voting for a British worldcon would be to have a holiday over here - give them enough notice and they can plan their holiday around any convention. Even if the Americans stayed at home the money normally spent on promoting a worldcon bid could buy TV advertising time in Britain (and Europe?) and pack the punters in, provided you have something to attract them. This approach doesn't make for a very fannish atmosphere at the convention, but is there much of one at a worldcon these days? The event is simply too massive for the "ordinary" con-goer to impose a "normal" atmosphere on the activity.

Again, you come back to the fact that a very big convention is a totally different kind of animal to the conventions we currently attend. I think that most of us are happy with the range of cons we have on offer currently - the large number of smaller cons providing the best opportunities for socialising and the Eastercon providing a more spectacular programme of events. If we added a worldcon to the list, what would it provide that the Eastercon couldn't, and would you genuinely make an effort to go to such an item or event? And, given a wait of six years, wouldn't you rather save up and go see it in its natural environment over in the USA?

If Vince and friends have a vision of a convention that would attract fans from all over the world then they should simply offer it to us without the immense gestation period required by worldcon realpolitik. I am in my mid-thirties now and may not be around in fandom in my forties to say "I told you so" when the next British worldcon fails to be any better than a mediocre American effort. What concerns me are the fans yet unbloodied who will want to know why nobody told them it would be so.

I look forward to reading the articles by Vince and Henry, and also your comments on the subject.


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This page updated on 09 July 1999