A Venn diagram showing a large blue circle labelled “People creating and consuming bold, brilliant, cutting-edge genre fiction,” and a much smaller red circle lablelled “Worldcon diehards.” About 40 percent of the red circle overlaps the blue.
A Venn diagram showing a large blue circle labelled “People creating and consuming bold, brilliant, cutting-edge genre fiction,” and a much smaller red circle lablelled “Worldcon diehards.” About 40 percent of the red circle overlaps the blue.
The Problem, as I see it

The most important thing you need to know about all of this is that I don’t know what I’m talking about. I’ve never been to a Worldcon, never bought a membership, never voted in the Hugo Awards, absolutely never been nominated for one and probably never will be.

So forgive me: I’m about to Get Everything Wrong. But I keep seeing so many people I admire — fans, writers, agents, editors, conrunners, volunteers, friends— hurt by this and I’d just really like it to stop.

The latest drama is so easy and so simple and so pointless and so, just, stupid that it burns: In the wake of Jason Sanford’s report that a major SFF publisher’s official forum was soaked in right-wing, pro-violence, pro-insurrectionist rhetoric, the organizing committee of this year’s Worldcon, DisCon III, belatedly released a statement acknowledging “the community’s concerns” and literally nothing else. After that community spent the next full day pleading and demanding that they do the very simplest thing — condemn the rhetoric — the Worldcon committee eventually provided an “update” that they were going to have a meeting this weekend to discuss the issue and maybe see about doing something after that. Meanwhile, Baen Books publisher Toni Weisskopf — a DisCon III Guest of Honor *— put out a statement not-endorsing-but-not-condemning the content in question.

Why can’t the people who run Worldcon just do the right thing? Well, according to the World Science Fiction Society’s homepage, under the “Organization” heading, nobody runs Worldcon.

Emphasis theirs:

There is no WSFS Board of Directors or Chair/President/CEO of WSFS. Almost all of the activities of the Society are performed by the selected convention committees, which are independent groups. Membership in the Society is defined as all persons for whom membership dues have been paid to the current Worldcon committee. The convention committees are selected up to two years in advance and you may wish to contact them as listed on this site for further information.

All of the groups organizing WSFS-sanctioned conventions (Worldcon and NASFiC) and operating the various WSFS web sites are volunteers. There is no central office or paid staff operating any of these sites or conventions.

This would give rise to the belief that no one runs Worldcons, and they just spring out of holes in the ground!

Gimli, in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, ending his story about the origins of dwarf women with, “Which is, of course, ridiculous.”
Gimli, in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, ending his story about the origins of dwarf women with, “Which is, of course, ridiculous.”

So somehow Worldcons are run by different local committees from all over the globe, and those committees are made up of members of the World Science Fiction Society — and yet every WorldCon keeps doing all kinds of stuff the global science-fiction community can’t stand.

There was the multi-year culture-war saga that was PuppyGate. There was Mary Robinette Kowal re-programming Worldcon 76 out of the goodness of her heart. There were Hugo nominees who didn’t win being stuck outside Worldcon 77’s nominal “Hugo Losers’ Party,” George R. R. Martin wondering why everyone always gets mad at his big free party no matter how big or free he makes it, George R. R. Martin spending what felt like hours presenting the 2020 edition of an award that had just had a guy’s name taken off it talking entirely about that guy…just George R. R. Martin, generally, as an emblem of countless flashpoints between what these events have been and what today’s SFF community expects them to be.

I’m trying to imagine a Hollywood actor winning an Oscar for their acceptance speech at the previous year’s Oscars — a speech in which they unflinchingly said the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences “exalted in the ambitions of imperialists and colonisers, settlers and industrialists.” Yet, that’s just what happened when Jeannette Ng won a Hugo in 2020 for her 2019 speech accepting what was then called the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. I mean, the layers. The schism. Can a schism have layers? Because this one does.

This rift between Worldcon Folks and the global community of people reading, writing, and publishing award-worthy science fiction is clearest in this post by Collette H. Fozard, resigning her post as co-chair of the upcoming Worldcon 79:

I have been part of the Worldcon community since 1995 when I attended Intersection as my honeymoon and I welcomed my now husband to the community with a Wedcon room party at Noreascon 4. I started volunteering in 1996 and have volunteered either at the Worldcon or for one I was working or bidding for at every Worldcon I have attended since then. I have volunteered at the Division Head level or higher at every Worldcon since 2017 save one.

If this were the first time The Internet rounded on Worldcon staff, I would be less worried, but it happens over and over. As a member of CoNZealand’s committee, I saw how upset the staff were when numerous Hugo Finalists loudly and publicly proclaimed how upset they were with their programming, did not give CoNZealand a chance to make modifications, and then ran their own programming scheme attaching the convention’s name to it without asking, and finally had the gall to remind everyone at the end that their programming might be eligible for a best related work Hugo Award.

How many of the people reading, writing, editing and publishing the state of the art in genre fiction also fly out to Worldcon every year? How many of the people who go to Worldcon every year are reading, say, FIYAH Magazine— the kind of bold, original, cutting-edge fantastic literature that’s currently earning Hugo Award nominations and wins?

I’m genuinely asking, because remember: I don’t know what I’m talking about. But from the outside, it sure looks like The SFF Community and Worldcon Folks are two pretty disparate groups of people, who don’t necessarily care for or value each other a whole lot.

I see it when SFF Twitter explodes with shock and outrage every time Worldcon steps on another rake— how did it happen again?! I see it every time Worldcon Folks are mystified that doing things the way they’ve always done them is now not just insufficient but immoral— and who are these people yelling at us, anyway?!

I see it every time I go to church.

Wait, church? Yes, at church — and in family businesses, and on non-profit boards. In Chambers of Commerce and Kiwanis clubs. In all the gray-haired, tuxedoed, former cultural revolutionaries of the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame harrumphing about letting N.W.A. in their storied institution. In every walk of life, everywhere, there are cultural and social organizations caught in an existential battle of whether to preserve their traditions or their values.

As a white guy turning 40 this year, I have an appreciation for the SFF of the 20th century and its associated Baby Boomer fans, slans, SMOFs, etc. In many ways, they’re who I grew up aspiring to be. But now that I’m grown, I can see the cultural blind spots and moral holes in the kind of let’s-just-us-smart-people-get-on-a-rocket-and-let-all-the-dumb-people-die Visions of A Better Future that still entice prominent members of the middle-aged-and-up set.

This isn’t just an age thing, though, nor a status thing. Many elder statespeople of the SFF community are on the right side of history, and many Sad Puppies were in fact clueless young runts who didn’t know a lick about the traditions they thought they were defending.

From my uninformed outsider’s perspective, this latest kerfuffle isn’t much of one. Do the History Channel Grandpas of the Baen Books forum really pose a violent threat to anyone? Probably not — but should somebody at DisCon III have both the temerity and authority to condemn violent rhetoric without waiting a week and calling a meeting? Absolutely.

But this issue clearly touched the same raw nerve that blazes every time Worldcon programming is released, Hugo Award nominees are announced, the convention convenes or the awards are distributed. Is “The World Science Fiction Society” the science-fiction society of the world, or a select group of Worldcon Folks running Worldcons largely by and for themselves? Are the Hugo Awards “the premier award in speculative fiction,” or a mechanism to reify and entrench a specific version of genre history?

Of course, every new cohort of breakout professional creatives — regardless of age! — would generally like to be recognized and honored by the ones who came before. I, a sportswriter who’s been feverishly trying to break into the SFF world for years, would be thrilled to someday get an invite to GRRM’s gray-bearded cool-kid party. But the emotional, cultural, professional and (let’s be real) fiscal weight of these conversations and arguments are causing an awful lot of pain for an awful lot of people.

At the end of the day, organizations and awards like these are only as valuable as people decide they are. The Nebulas have waxed and waned in importance, and there’s no reason they couldn’t wax again. heck, FIYAH Magazine already started their own awards, the IGNYTES. If everybody in the big blue circle above decided these were more important than the Hugos, it would just…be true.

But I — in all my admitted ignorance — don’t think Worldcon is a lost cause. I hope voices like Ng’s will continue to be heard and honored, and Worldcon fixtures like Fozard will eventually figure out that the rage and pain they ascribe to “The Internet” is actually coming from the heart of the community they’re supposed to represent.

* NOTE: As I was drafting this piece, Bill Lawhorn — the remaining chair of DisCon III — issued a statement not just condemning the “violent and hostile content found on Baen Books’ forums,” but removing Weisskopf as a Guest of Honor. I think it’s a very good statement.

Professional writer & talker (@FiveThirtyEight, etc.). Sports things & nerd stuff. Rather cleverer than most men; mistakes correspondingly huger. He/him.

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