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The World Science Fiction Society - An User's Guide

Tim Illingworth

The operation of the WSFS constitution and business meetings is a subject almost guaranteed to call up for any self-respecting British fan a nightmare vision of overweight Americans waving copies of Roberts Rules of Order, are under the impression that WSFS has a lot of rules saying what must, can and cannot be done at a Worldcon (e.g. one lan Sorensen in Conrunner 12). In fact the Constitution only requires the availability and convertibility of supporting memberships, that Hugo Awards be awarded, that the next Worldcon in the series be selected and that a Business Meeting be held. None of this is exactly surprising stuff. What some see as "WSFS requirements" are no more (and no less) than the accumulated weight of tradition and expectation - all serial conventions (including our own dear Eastercon) have them.

Common sense and a spirit of mischief will get you a long way into the game of WSFS. Many Americans take this attitude, so you won't be alone. Ridicule, on the other hand, will make you unpopular. Much of the Constitution is there to benefit the ordinary fan-in-the-Worldcon, and some of it even works.

AXIOM: The WSFS Constitution is intended to prevent the committees of successive Worldcons doing things that the general run of fans (or fans-in-the-Business-Meetings) disapprove of.

Most of the detailed rules (e.g. convertibility of supporting memberships to attending) are there because someone (I believe LACon II) has transgressed against the formerly unwritten rule.

The explanation of the Business Meeting will take the form of a worked example - the creation of a new Hugo category. However, as with all RPGs, you need to know something of what's going on before you can play. So let's start with a brief description of the subject matter and the ground rules.

The Constitution of WSFS

This horrendous document is divided into four Articles and can be broken down as follows. Article 1 defines what WSFS is, who the members are, and what you get for your money. Article 2 sets out the Hugo categories and how they are nominated for and voted on. Article 3 deals with the selection of future Worldcons and NASFICs, and contains the infamous rotation zones. Article 4 defines the functions of the various Business Meetings and the procedures for amending the Constitution.

The Standing orders are mostly common sense. They prevent one speaker hogging the floor, limit the time for debate so that things don't drag on, and require that equal time be given to each side - as someone (Bruce Pelz?) said in Boston, it is a mix of Miss Manners and the Code Duello. They're there to help us, not to form an arcane obstacle course for lawyers.

There is additionally the Mark Registration & Protection Committee. The members of which are appointed by Worldcons or elected (3 places at a time for 3 years each) by the Business Meetings.

So now that we know all that, how do we go about getting our new Hugo category into the constitution? First, we draft a piece of paper, with a short title, the amendment required, and a bit of explanation. Obviously, the neater it looks, the better its chances, though a hand-written piece is often used. So now we have:

Short Title: New Hugo Category

MOVED, to amend the WSFS Constitution by inserting the following new section in Article II after Section 6:

Best Dead Author: Any author pronounced brain-dead by a reputable authority in the previous calendar year.

THIS Amendment formalises the current practice of awarding Hugos to dead authors who haven't done anything recently to deserve one, and should free up the other Hugos for live authors who deserve them.

Proposed: Tim Illingworth

Seconded: Ian Sorensen, L Ron Hubbard.

Now all we have to do is get it discussed by a Business Meeting.

The deadline for submission of motions is usually two hours after the official opening of the Worldcon, to give the poor harassed Secretary time to get the agenda typed and duplicated.

Good Worldcons provide a box for submissions, either at Registration or at the Information Desk. The rules require 6 copies of short motions and 100 of long ones (over 75 words). The people who drafted these rules had obviously had experience of convention duplicating services.

Our motion now has to pass three hurdles - a Preliminary Business Meeting, a Main Business Meeting and then ratification at the next year's Worldcon. To continue the saga...

Preliminary Business Meeting - What's the Recipe Today, Jim?

Usually held on the Friday, this meeting sets the agenda for the main meetings. Our motion will now appear neatly duplicated (maybe) on the agenda. For each new motion on the agenda, one of three things can happen. A time limit for discussion may be set, an 'Object to Consideration' may be called or the motion may be amended for clarification.

An Objection to Consideration has to be called before there has been any debate on the motion. If an objection is called, a vote is held on whether the motion should be deleted from the agenda. No discussion is allowed and the vote must be taken immediately. This generally weeds out about 60% of the motions submitted - including. unfortunately, most of the fun ones.

The time limit is for discussion at the Main Meeting the following day, and is supposed to exercise some control over the more verbose speakers. There is no discussion of the actual motions at the Preliminary Business Meeting, though minor amendments can be made. e.g. to divide the motion into bits for discussion or to clarify wording.

Other business handled at the Preliminary Business Meeting includes the reports of the Mark Registration & Protection Committee (MRP Committee) and any subcommittees, nominations for the three places to be elected this year on the MRP Committee etc..

Main Meetings - What Idiot Wants to do This?

Now we are getting somewhere. Our motion is now up for debate, but is also up for amendment from the floor. Somebody is bound to want to specify 'medical practitioner' instead of 'reputable authority' talking about Arthur C Clarke in Sri Lanka and 'barefoot doctors' in China should fog the issue sufficiently to dispose of that. Since the discussion time is limited to the amount set at the preliminary Business Meeting, you can get away with quite a lot. Not everything, however, as Don Eastlake found out when he said that the 1993 site selection 'had already been fixed'. He claimed that he meant that the bidders had all declared, and everybody affected to believe him.

The Main Business Meeting also elects the new members of the MRP Committee and (usually first) ratifies (or does not) the motions passed on by the previous year's Business Meeting.

Ratification - That was Then. this is Now

All amendments passed by a Business Meeting must be ratified by the next Business Meeting before they become part of the Constitution, this means that aberrations like the 'no double skipping of regions' amendment, passed in the heat of the moment at Nolacon in 1988, are subject to discussion for another year and wiser counsels may yet prevail.

The only amendments allowed on ratification are "Amendments Down" those that make the change produced smaller. For example, an amendment reducing the definition of the Novel length from 40,000 words to 30,000 could be amended on ratification to 35,000 but not to 25,000.

And so, finally, we have created our new Hugo category. It's only taken two years and three mornings of our time - which is as it should be. It's a serious enough business not to let people get carried away on the spur of the moment, but not so demanding that no-one can be bothered to do anything.

Site Selection - How Did We Wind Up Here?

The other concern of the Business Meeting is the selection of future Worldcon committees. The rules are set up to discourage frivolous votes or block votes by local groups. Hence the voting fee (which is a supporting membership of the winning bid, so you do get something for your money) and the rotation zones for North Americans. This goes some of the way to explaining why the West Coast were so annoyed at losing the LA in 1990 bid to Holland - it looked like one group helping another local group to win. However, since we now have three year bidding as well as three year rotation this situation will no doubt arise again.

And that's about all there is to it. It's just a talking shop for the sort of fan who enjoys taking the meaning of words to their logical conclusion, and who enjoys tinkering with things that can probably be left well alone. In other words, someone like Colin Fine, Paul Dormer or indeed myself. See you in Holland?


This page updated on 09 July 1999