Report on the 2018 World Fantasy Convention

By Michael Whelan

By Martin Morse Wooster:

World Fantasy Convention (Baltimore, November 1-4, 2018)

 If you want to know how a World Fantasy Convention differs from your typical convention, here is what happened when I checked in on Thursday.

I was running late, and after getting to the con, getting to my hotel, and getting to the Renaissance Hotel where the con was held, it was 8 PM.  Registration closed at 7.  I felt very tired and frustrated.  I was going to miss the opening ceremonies.

Then a member of the Washington Science Fiction Association who I didn’t think particularly liked me said, “Why don’t you walk right in?”

What?  No security?  No badge checks?  No cops?

Welcome to the World Fantasy Convention, where everyone is civil.

Here’s another example.  I was taking a nap Friday afternoon in a chair in the central area of the convention, and woke up, and who was sitting next to me but Michael Whelan (Michael Whelan!) signing some paperbacks.

“I’ve admired your work for 30 years,” I said.  He thanked me.

I’ve been to six World Fantasy Conventions, and I think their purpose has changed.  They were founded in 1975 to do two things:  make sure that fantasy was as respectable as sf, and be a place where writers, editors, and publishers could congenially conduct business.

Their first goal, of course, was achieved decades ago and fantasy is more popular than sf.  As for the convention, there were as many writers as ever, including blue chips such as John Crowley and Joe Haldeman.  But there weren’t as many editors, even though Baltimore is a two-hour train ride from New York.  Ellen Datlow, Sheila Williams, and Gordon Van Gelder were there, as were Irene Gallo and Tom Doherty of Tor.  I don’t think there were many other major book editors there; Patrick Nielsen Hayden in particular was conspicuous by his absence.

All the lavish parties thrown by big publishers have disappeared with one exception.  For the past 35 years, super-agent Howard Morhaim has held a black-tie dinner at the World Fantasy Convention.  He held one this year.  If you’re successful enough that you regularly attend black-tie dinners, you got an invitation.

The World Fantasy Convention is known for three things:  its con suite, its art show, and its dealer’s room.

First off, the con suite was outstanding.  You pay a lot for a World Fantasy Convention membership, but part of the deal is that the con suite has real food.  I had four meals there, and everyone who worked that room gets a big thumbs up from me, and whoever made the barbecue on Saturday night gets two thumbs up.

I was disappointed in the dealers’ room.  Part of what makes a World Fantasy Convention special is that the dealers have rarities you don’t see every day.  But most of the dealers had more normal books.  However, Greg Ketter of Minneapolis’s DreamHaven Books had some finds.  He had a copy of The Outsider and Others that you could pick up and flip through—but very carefully, since the book sells for $5,000.  In a case he had a copy of the first edition of Again, Dangerous Visions in a dust jacket signed by 14 contributors for $600.

But Ketter’s prize was a first edition of a cheesy 1967 paperback called Pleasure Planet (“the whole world was obsessed by the pleasures of sex”), the first novel by Robert E. Vardeman.  Vardeman signed his novel with an inscription so tasteless, so depraved that I dare not repeat it in a family blog.  But you can find out what Vardeman wrote for $75!

Here’s a book I couldn’t find.  Ursula K. Le Guin was interviewed in the last year of her life about writing; the interviews have been published this summer by Tin House Books as Ursula K. Le Guin:  Conversations on Writing.  No dealer had this book.  Don’t they think customers would be interested in Le Guin?

I didn’t spend as much time in the art show as I should have, but it was large and filled with art by Guest of Honor Tom Kidd as well as Donato Giancola.  Another theme was about women in sf and fantasy and featured paintings featured as covers on books and magazines, many from the collections of Edie Stern and Joe Siclari.  I am told there was an original Margaret Brundage painting there, but I didn’t see it.

As for panels, I didn’t see as many as I should have because I was having too much fun chatting with fans.  I learned everything from why Latter-Day Saints don’t have any crosses in their churches to what it was like to film monster movies in Hamilton, Ontario.  (The director, Catherine Whitlock, was wearing a t-shirt promoting her film Vampire Dentists—you know, they drill by day and suck at night.)

I also heard this story about Dragon Con.  Early in the convention’s history, Dragon Con shared a hotel with the Salvation Army.  The Sally Anns made prune faces at the cosplayers, but the Sallies had a parade.  Dragon Con organizers thought a parade was a splendid idea, and the parade is a highlight of Dragon Con.

I also learned lots of new words.  A “chapterbook” is a book for beginning readers who have graduated from picture books.  It isn’t very long, but it has chapters, just like the ones older readers devour.  A “plot bunny” is a plot thread that diverts people writing their novels in November for National Write Your Novel Month from plowing forward to get their 50,000 words done.  Plot bunnies need to be crushed.

Finally, two winners of World Fantasy Awards thanked their “beta readers.”  I don’t know why this term is better than “friends in my writer’s group.”

As for panels, I saw the part of the opening ceremonies where toastmaster Linda Addison provided fun facts about the guests of honor.  Aliette de Bodard lived in a tiny apartment in Paris with a toddler, a husband, and “Lovecraftian plants.”  Tom Kidd has a lifetime passion project called “Gnemo,” which I gather is neither about Captain Nemo or Winsor McCay’s Nemo.  Scott Edelman was a Stoker finalist seven times…

“Eight!” Edelman said.

I was impressed by the way moderator Lee Modesitt steered a discussion about politics in fantasy to avoid all minefields, particularly when an audience member mentioned a novel by John Ringo and Tom Kratman whose premise seemed particularly dopey. Modesitt ended the Baen Books discussion very quickly.  Modesitt, who served in the Reagan Administration, noted that when he puts politics in his sf he gets plenty of comments, but no one notices the politics in his fantasies.

The high point, however, was Russian émigré Anatoly Beilkovsky, who, when asked if Animal Farm was a political fantasy, said, “I consider it nonfiction.”  Beilkovsky noted that Russians have a hearty appetite for trashy alternative history, such as a series where a submarine travels from today to 1942 solely to kill Admiral Hyman Rickover.  Beilkovsky added that there were commanders on both sides of the conflict in Ukraine who, before the war, wrote military sf novels.  They may be fighting today, but before the war these novelists “used to party together at conventions.”

At the panel on audiobooks, Simon Vance, a British narrator now living in San Francisco who has won a ton of audiobook awards, impressed me.  Vance carefully prepared for every project.  He was the reader for Alan Moore’s Jerusalem, and asked Neil Gaiman for advice. Gaiman said that Moore’s giant novel was set in Northhampton, and Vance needed to talk to Moore and see some of the landscape Moore used for his novel.  So four days before he started, he got on an airplane, went to England, interviewed Moore and saw some of the landscape that Moore used. Then he flew back to San Francisco and began recording Moore’s book, which takes 60 hours to listen to.

The World Fantasy Awards were a dour affair.  One of the themes of the convention was “safe havens,” and Linda Addison explained how she found the world of science fiction and fantasy a safe haven from the fools and trolls who routinely harass her.  At least three winners—including Canadian Charles de Lint—urged members to vote on Tuesday, with Betsy Wollheim saying that she was an editor, “so please pick up your editorial pens and vote.”

Someone needed to tell at least one joke to break up the gloom.  So when Gordon Van Gelder announced that there would be a panel where the World Fantasy Awards judges explained their decisions, I shouted, “Omigod!”

“Yes,” Van Gelder said, “it’s always interesting to see how the sausage was made.”

Then I got my luggage and went home.

16 thoughts on “Report on the 2018 World Fantasy Convention

  1. I almost wish I had a spare $75.00. 🙂

    Here in 3729, our feline overlords keep their favorite authors around for scratches and to tell glorious tales of feline glory.

    They have the author read from Pleasure Planet for giggles.

    (Hi, Bob!)

  2. Finally, two winners of World Fantasy Awards thanked their “beta readers.” I don’t know why this term is better than “friends in my writer’s group.”

    If I had to come up with a compact name, I’d call those “alpha readers”. Some writers ask people not in their immediate circle, or ask for random volunteers, to read their work after their circle has commented on it; that’s why I’m thanked in the back of The Winter Boy, although I haven’t checked to see whether any of my comments were followed. ISTM that this is analogous to giving software to selected customers after bugfinding by in-house QA has slowed down.

    My understanding is that WFC was never a purely professional conference — it certainly wasn’t when I started going, 14 years after the first — but with one of the principles dead and the founding 43 years in the past, I wouldn’t expect anyone to have unchallengeable memories.

  3. The Margaret Brundage painting in the Women in Fantasy part of the art show featured more clothing than any average ten of her other paintings.

    Another feature of the art show was that Charles Vess brought all the originals of his excellent work for the new Earthsea collection. And many people were lugging just-purchased copies of that heavy book around.

  4. What? No! That’s not what a plot bunny is.

    A plot bunny is an idea for a story. That’s all.

    They certainly CAN be the sort of bunny that creates rabbit holes down which one falls instead of pursuing the original plot one had in mind. But plot bunnies in and of themselves aren’t bad! They’re just story concepts.

  5. The winners using the term “beta reader” may have roots in Transformative Works Fandom — it’s the usual term there. It also doesn’t necessarily imply that the beta reader is a writer or a member of a writer’s group. While beta readers can be writers, it’s a separate skillset and being a writer certainly isn’t required. It’s more like being an editor.

    Don’t sell plot bunnies short! They’re not just distractions from what you’re trying to focus on writing in November, they’re an all year round affair… 😉

  6. Jeff Smith noted: “Another feature of the art show was that Charles Vess brought all the originals of his excellent work for the new Earthsea collection. And many people were lugging just-purchased copies of that heavy book around.”

    Three of the booksellers brought in 2 dozen copies each, with a 4th having maybe 5. They were all sold by Saturday.

    There were already one star reviews on Amazon of the “Oh it’s too big! Too heavy!!” nature.

  7. I always thought that “beta reader” came from “beta tester”, the people employed/recruited to try out software prior to commercial release to test for bugs & report any other issues.

    The analogy is apt as beta readers get to read a manuscript prior to publication (or submission to the publisher), and are asked to provide feedback.

    As to where the term “beta reader” originated, I don’t know, but I’ve seen it around for at least a couple of decades.

  8. @Soon Lee

    Yeah, that’s why I was careful not to say that it was invented by Transformative Works Fandom* or that the authors in question must be from there, since I can’t find a solid origin/first use (except that’s it’s based on the software term) — but it’s definitely in common use in TFW in a way that I don’t usually see elsewhere, and when I see an author using the term a little bit of digging almost always reveals their fanfic writing roots, so I figured it was still a reasonable thing to suggest as a possibility! 🙂

    *Er… anyone unfamiliar with the trope mentioned at the top of the linked page is probably better off not clicking. It’s one of the more outsider-baffling fannish tropes.

  9. There were already one star reviews on Amazon of the “Oh it’s too big! Too heavy!!” nature.

    I would never make such a complaint on Amazon. But it’s too big for me.

    I love Vess’s art, though, so I’m hoping for an eventual two-volume paperback set, or an e-book with the illustrations included, or something like that.

    But enormous heavy books are just not my jam any more. I love long books as a reader, but I’ll read ’em on my Kindle…

  10. Yeah, I think the Earthsea reprint is gorgeous and I’m holding out for a boxed set version with smaller individual volumes. I’ve made the mistake in the past of picking up fancy omnibus, and they’re just too difficult to read; they sit on my shelves gathering dust.

    Vess said the publisher might put out a companion volume of his correspondence with Le Guin, though, and *that* I would definitely buy.

  11. Some misconceptions I’d like to correct by Martin:
    >>>But there weren’t as many editors, even though Baltimore is a two-hour train ride from New York. Ellen Datlow, Sheila Williams, and Gordon Van Gelder were there, as were Irene Gallo and Tom Doherty of Tor. I don’t think there were many other major book editors there; Patrick Nielsen Hayden in particular was conspicuous by his absence.>>

    Other editors there: Liz Gorinsky, Melissa Ann Singer, Pat Lobrutto, Sheila Gilbert, Betsy Wollheim, Sarah Guan, Bella Pagan, Lee Harris-those are the ones I can think of off-hand. There were very likely others.

    “All the lavish parties thrown by big publishers have disappeared with one exception. For the past 35 years, super-agent Howard Morhaim has held a black-tie dinner at the World Fantasy Convention. He held one this year. If you’re successful enough that you regularly attend black-tie dinners, you got an invitation.”
    **The dinner -held at a fancy restaurant (never at the WFC itself ) is for Howard’s clients.

  12. @Soon Lee:

    I always thought that “beta reader” came from “beta tester”, the people employed/recruited to try out software prior to commercial release to test for bugs & report any other issues.

    In my years in the software industry, the people employed to try out software were called QA (“quality assurance”); beta testers were outsiders who beat on the software after QA were done. The outsiders were commonly major clients’ employees who had testing dumped on top of their normal jobs. QA could be called “alpha testers”, although I don’t recall ever hearing that term used. I hadn’t heard “beta readers” until recently; I’m interested but not surprised it goes that far back, given the overlap between genre writers and technogeeks.

  13. I had a very good time at World Fantasy, especially when (early on) I ran into a couple of close friends I didn’t know would be there, though I suspected they would be. I also ran into a few local (DC area, not Baltimore area) fans I knew, which is always nice (and odd; I really only run into them at cons, in the area and far away 😉 ).

    I have been to 2-3 previous World Fantasy Conventions and didn’t know the con suite & food were a big thing. Huh, gotta remember when I go again at some point. I only went to the con suite once, near the end of the con, killing time before the WFA judges panel.

    [ETA: I’m a shy introvert, though, so hanging out in con suites isn’t really my thing.]

    And yes, re. the awards, it’s interesting to hear how the sausage is made, including comments from the audience from other past judges, like Ellen Datlow. 🙂

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