[[Editor’s Introduction: With Scott Edelman’s permission, File 770 is posting the text of his World Fantasy Convention GoH speech, given in Baltimore this weekend. (It’s also up on his website. And a link to the video appears at the end of this post.]]
Scott Edelman at WFC 44
By Scott Edelman: Welcome, everyone! I’m Scott Edelman, and I’m touched that out of all the things you could possibly be doing here in Baltimore at the 44th World Fantasy Convention, you chose to spend these moments here, with me. Believe me, I understand what a tough decision it was. I know all about having to study the program to figure out where best to be when, while still leaving time to hang out in the place where we all know the most interesting conversations really happen — at the hotel bar.
The reason I’m aware of your struggle is because I’ve been having to pore over programming exactly like that myself at World Fantasy Conventions ever since my first, which was the fifth World Fantasy Convention, held in 1979 at the Biltmore Hotel in Providence, Rhode Island. To illustrate how long ago 1979 was, back then, Stephen King, one of the Guests of Honor — and how we got from inviting Stephen King as a Guest of Honor to ending up with me, I have no idea — could still wander among us without being trailed into a public restroom by writers who would shove their manuscripts at him under his stall.
Yes, that was really done! Not by me, of course. I wasn’t one of them, really. I promise!
That was the same World Fantasy Convention, however, at which — and I’m not joking about that — the Dalai Lama and I had a brief encounter one afternoon in front of the hotel …
So I got that going for me, which is nice.
But that’s another story for another time. Maybe later … in the bar. Because as I told you, that’s where the most interesting conversations take place, remember?
Anyway, by five years after that, in 1984, at the 42nd World Science Fiction Convention in Anaheim, California, Stephen King’s freedom to mingle with con-goers was no more, and I personally saw a ring of fans — off in the distance, so again, I promise I wasn’t one of them — form around that restroom door waiting for him to come back out. And if you want to know the true face of horror, all you have to imagine is Stephen King’s expression as he opened that door and was greeted by that circle.
That wasn’t my first Worldcon, by the way. My first was ten years earlier than that one, in Washington, D.C. at 1974’s 32nd World Science Fiction Convention. And my first could have been, and almost was, a year earlier than that, in 1973 in Toronto, but … I didn’t go because I was afraid of being arrested, I think.
There’s a story to go with that as well, but I don’t want to go off on too many tangents here as I bounce around time this afternoon, and trust me, there’s going to be a lot of bouncing, for my time, as you’ll see, has been even wibblier and wobblier and timey-whimier than The Doctor’s, so again, for that one … you have to meet me in the bar.
As you can tell by now, I’ve spent a lot of my life at events like these. And I suspect some of you have as well.
Or if you haven’t yet, are considering doing so. Which is why I think I could have started this afternoon’s talk by paraphrasing the great Criswell’s opening monologue to Plan 9 from Outer Space, and have begun by intoning:
Greetings, my friends. We are all interested in conventions, for that is where you and I are going to spend the rest of our lives.
But the thing is … and this makes me sad … I also know there are likely those out there who are considering not doing so, and not because the books we read and write or the stories we absorb or tell and gather to discuss here don’t interest them. No, they’re thinking of staying away from what to me has been a magical place for different reasons entirely, and ones which sadden me.
I have listened to their concerns. I have read their blog posts, and seen their tweets.
So while I’m in a reminiscing mood — and I’ve shared and am going to continue to share some stories of past cons with you — reminiscences alone aren’t what I wanted to give to you today. I’ve been thinking a lot about conventions lately, more than I usually do — what they’ve been, what they are, what they could be, and what they should be, and once I learned the themes for this year World Fantasy Convention, I realized there were a few things I needed to say about that topic.
World Fantasy Conventions always have a theme around which the programing tries to focus, and this year, the committee came up with two.
One is a celebration of the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and yes, I could easily have spent an hour talking to you today about that.
Not only because the original novel made an impression on me at an extremely young age, but also because I suspect I’m the only World Fantasy Convention Guest of Honor since the beginning who’s not only alluded to the Creature in his fiction, not only included that Creature in one of his short horror stories written for the DC Comics title House of Mystery, but who has also portrayed the Creature — the one given to long philosophical speeches, not the one who only grunted “fire” — in community theater, so I truly know that character from the inside. That role, by the way, was back before I decided I’d dedicate myself to having a go at being a writer rather than an actor.
And yes, there’s a story behind that decision, too. But again — that one’s for later in the bar.
But it’s the other theme of this year’s convention I want to talk to you about: Ports in a storm. Safe havens. Sanctuaries for the body and refuges for the spirit. Places which offer respite to not only the characters in our favorite fantasy, horror, and weird tales as the theme states … but to us.
And I want you to know: That’s what conventions have been, are, and continue to be to me.
Recently, in the final moments of the last panel of a busy three-convention weekend — see, I told you I love these things — which occurred during a period I was binge-watching Steven Universe, and found myself yearning for that sense of family, that sense of belonging, that sense of being a part of something bigger than oneself the characters on the show, the Crystal Gems, feel, I came to a realization, and that yearning stopped. It went away, because it came to me, as I looked around — and as I told the people who surrounded me, with a meaning far more than metaphor — they were my Crystal Gems.
You are my Crystal Gems.
When I dream — and I have a vivid dream life — I often dream of conventions. And those dreams are never anxious. Those dreams are never fearful. I don’t have the equivalent of those cliche “I forgot to do my homework” dreams when it comes to cons. I’m never lost in the maze-like halls, never late for a panel, never worried that I’m unprepared, never afraid I’ll be judged.
Never in my underwear.
Well … sometimes in my underwear. But only, I assure you, when it’s entirely appropriate.
I am usually with a conglomeration of friends lost, and friends still alive, some of whom are even now in this building. Some are even in this room. I’ve dreamed so many of you, and at one time was sharing so many of those dreams across social media, that Patrick Nielsen Hayden once jokingly tweeted that the new SFWA membership requirements were going to have to be one novel, three short stories, or two appearances in my dreams.
I’ve been going to cons for a long, long time, and I plan to continue going to them for a long, long time, because there’s something special in this thing we have, this thing we’ve built and are still building, in rooms like these spread across the world. I’ve been to so many it seems as if rather than having attended hundreds, perhaps nearly a thousand of them, I’ve only been to one convention, a single gathering stretching back to my first, and lasting until now, one never-ending convention.
I’ve been lucky.
But here’s that other thing I want you to know, and which some of you know already:
Not all of us get to feel lucky. Not all of us are embraced. Not all of us are welcomed.
Not everyone gets to experience the sort of convention life I’ve been privileged to live for 48 years now.
My first ever convention was in 1970. I was 15. It was Phil Seuling’s 4th of July Comic Art Convention at the Statler-Hilton Hotel in Manhattan. And let me explain a bit what I mean when I say that first con hasn’t yet ended.
One of the first people little kid me met there was the revolutionary Marvel Comics artist and writer Jim Steranko, best known for his work on Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., the X-Men, and Captain America. And I sat in the front row as he gave a talk and dazzled me with tales of, among many other things, the Houdini-like escapes he did in his younger days, the ones that inspired Jack Kirby to create the character of Mister Miracle. I wouldn’t have believed back then anyone that cool in the pages of the comics I read could also be that cool in real life. But he was.
Flash forward 48 years.
Just a few weeks ago, here in this very city, less than a mile away at the Baltimore Comic-Con — during a different one of three conventions I attended over a single weekend I was telling you about, because yes, that’s how much I love this life — you know what I was doing? Sitting again in the front row before Jim Steranko as he told tales of slipping out of ropes and handcuffs, and again, I was dazzled.
Forty-eight years later, and not a moment had passed.
For that hour, it was 2018. And it was 1970. I was living outside of time.
Because I was living convention time.
My con life has been filled with many such moments like that.
Here’s another one, that took place at Readercon, a Massachusetts con I love so much I’ve attended it every year since it began in 1987, except for the one year my day job at the SCI FI Channel meant I had to report on the conflicting San Diego Comic-Con instead, and so I sent a friend to Readercon with a life-sized photo stand-up of myself, along with a note begging everyone who knew me there to take selfies and put them online, because I knew that would be the only way I could avoid spending a morose weekend missing them all terribly.
Well, not that year at Readercon, but a different year at Readercon a couple of years back, a screening was announced of what I’d heard was a wonderful documentary about Samuel R. Delany titled The Polymath, Or The Life And Opinions Of Samuel R. Delany, Gentleman. And I knew I had to be there. Because I’d read Delany long before I’d attended a con of any kind, and had loved him ever since. I got to the meeting room early, and sat in the front row center as I often do, which, by the way, is why I ended in so many comics convention photos from the early ’70s. Just as the lights were about to dim, who should come into the room but Chip himself, taking the one lone remaining unoccupied seat in the room … right next to mine.
And in the darkness, with our faces lit only by the reflected light off the screen, I remembered another con, also more than 40 years earlier, the 1972 LunaCon, my first LunaCon. LunaCon that year had organized special interest groups attendees could sign up for, and even provided pretzels, chips, and sodas to encourage fans to host those get-togethers in their hotel rooms. I decided I’d go to the one devoted to a discussion of the works of one of my favorite authors, Theodore Sturgeon, who’d attracted me then, and attracts me still, because of what his stories were aiming for, as explained in his essay “Why So Much Syzygy,” when he wrote “I think what I have been trying to do all these years is to investigate this matter of love, sexual and asexual.” Those are the kinds of stories which have always interested me the most, and those for the most part were, and still are, what I wanted to try to write about, too.
So I wanted to talk Sturgeon with others who felt about him the way I did, and so a 17-year-old me found himself sitting in a ring on the floor of a stranger’s hotel room one night with about a dozen others, and immediately beside me … I’m sure you’ve guessed who it was … Chip Delany.
I thought back to that 1972 night as I watched the documentary play at Readercon just a few years ago, a documentary which included footage of Chip looking as young as he had when I’d first met him, and also some footage from The Orchid, an experimental film he’d directed which I’d first seen at an early ‘70s con film show, and in that moment, with us in the front row together and seeming as if no one else was in the room with us, I existed in all times at once. I might as well have been Billy Pilgrim from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, totally unstuck in time.
My first cons, and those recent cons, were one, are one, a continuation of what began when my grandfather drove into Manhattan to take me to that first convention in 1970. I hope you get to experience that sort of feeling in your own futures. But most important, I hope you decide you want to hang around these rooms long enough to experience those wondrous moments when decades can vanish.
I can understand, though, why some of you might not want to, understand that some of you are not feeling welcomed, or embraced, or wanted, and might be thinking, what’s the point? Why am I banging my head against the wall? Is it really worth the effort?
I have heard too many stories about moments like those, filled not with the feelings of welcome I experienced in my privilege, but the feeling of exclusion. And I believe those stories, all of them.
I believe N. K. Jemisin, who in a moving acceptance speech earlier this year when she won her third consecutive Best Novel Hugo Award for The Stone Sky — a speech much better than anything you’re going to hear out of me today and one of the best I’e heard in a lifetime of con-going — spoke of the naysayers who told her to tone down her allegories and anger, who didn’t believe anyone but black people wanted to read about black people. And who in her recent Locus interview said, “When I come to Worldcon, I am braced to enter a space that is not friendly, that is hostile, and that is not safe.”
I believe Alyssa Wong, who returned from a Nebula Awards weekend a few years back feeling exhausted and disheartened, writing on her blog that she looked around and perceived a generational divide — what seemed to her a “strict social striation” between the cliquish impenetrable old guard who kept to themselves and didn’t seem interested in interacting with anyone outside of their circle.
I believe Mary Robinette Kowal, who shared on Twitter recently that after explaining to a friend what it was like to be a woman in Science Fiction and Fantasy, how she had to be hyper-aware of her surroundings and do constant threat assessments, was told by that friend, “That sounds like PTSD.”
And I believe the others out there, with similar stories, and similar despair, so many I could easily fill my time with nothing but their words if I chose.
I can understand how easily we might have lost any of those voices I named. How grateful I am that we did not.
How much poorer the field would have been for that loss.
And I’m also aware we have surely already lost others. And we already are the poorer for that.
Though did we simply lose them? Or did we drive them away?
Whatever verbiage you want to use, we can’t afford for any more to decide the prize isn’t worth the fight. Or that it isn’t attainable even if they did fight.
The examples I just mentioned are just three different problems, three different issues, of many. But with, I believe, a single solution.
Let us all do better.
We talk of the Golden Age of Science Fiction, both the real one of the 1940s, and the metaphorical one, the one we’re told we each go through when we are 12. But there’s something else more important, something else that’s Golden. Something I wish I could conjure into existence and imprint on all who are a part of this thing I love:
The Golden Rule of Convention-Going.
It’s something as true now as it was when we first heard it as children, though it wasn’t being applied then to what goes on in these rooms now.
We need to treat others in this space as we would wish to be treated.
The field has come far in its treatment of those who don’t enter it, as I did, presenting as a straight, white, cisgendered male in a time when most, though not all, of the others who bothered to show up presented as the same. But we have so much farther to go. And we won’t get there merely by wanting to get there. We have to do the work that makes us worthy of getting there.
For example — I can remember how surprised I was the first time a longtime participant to events such as these stepped up beside me in the SFWA suite at a Worldcon, looking somewhat lost, and said, “I don’t know who most of these people are.” I was sad and hoped such a statement and the feelings of insularity which engendered it was an anomaly. But then it happened again. And again. Most recently at one of George R. R. Martin’s post-Hugo Awards ceremony Losers parties, an event he invented before I ever got into the con scene which he rejuvenated at the Spokane Worldcon to heal then-recent wounds, to bring us together again during difficult times. I was asked, by someone with a furrowed brow, “Who are all these people?”
There, in a room filled with music, and dancing, and laughing, and smiling faces, most of which I knew.
To which I say — whose fault is that? Any one of us is certainly free to be the person gazing around a packed room of happy, unfamiliar faces, remembering when the field was smaller and less diverse then when we entered, and think, “What happened? I used to know everybody.”
Or we can go over, say hello, and — surprise — we will surely know who those people are.
I haven’t always said that aloud to those who in bewilderment said that to me. And I must admit I’m somewhat embarrassed about any time that in my shock over such words, I let that sentiment slip by unchallenged. But I commit to you today to never do so again in the future.
We must all work to get out of our bubbles. Yes, it would be easy to spend these events only with friends we’ve known for years, because there are so many of them. But we have to do more. If not simply to honor this thing we have, then for self preservation. So if I can’t reach these people any other way, I will appeal to their selfishness. Because if they only hang out with the friends they already have, and survive to be the last of their generation, they will die alone.
I can remember a Meet the Editors panel at a mid-‘90s Philcon. (Another convention I once attended for decades.) I was on there representing Science Fiction Age along with Gardner Dozois of Asimov’s and Gordon van Gelder from F&SF.
And out in front of us was a sea of hopeful writers eager to learn the secrets of selling stories to us. (The open secret being, of course, that there is no secret.) They were all beginners. All but one. Because in the midst of them was Jack Williamson, already in his mid-‘70s by then, with a career going back half a century.
And when I asked him, what are you doing here, he replied —
“I just want to find out what you guys want.”
And he talked to those around him, some 50 years his junior and just starting out, as if they were the same. Which is how I always saw him in the final decades of his life.
To him, there was no us and them, no thoughts of “I don’t know whose these people are” in him.
They were the same. We … are the same.
Let’s all strive to be more like Jack Williamson.
I urge those who might like me perhaps have the privilege of age or success or a gender expression more readily accepted by society or even just the privilege of having been around long enough to know everyone, to join with me in stepping from our familiar circles, walk out of our ruts, and welcome those who need welcoming.
If you see someone wearing a FIRST WORLDCON or FIRST WORLD FANTASY CONVENTION or FIRST WHATEVER ribbon, do as I do. Walk up to them and tell them you’re glad they decided to join us. Ask the catalyst that caused them to come this particular year rather than any other. Tell them you hoped they were having a good time so far, and that if they had any questions for you about how to navigate this place, you’ll try to answer them. Share an anecdote or two about why you fell in love with cons yourself so long ago.
In fact, don’t wait to get permission of a ribbon. Do this kindness for those without such a concrete sign, to anyone with an unfamiliar face, or sitting outside your group, looking tentative, wondering if they could possibly fit in.
Our organizations have begun to do this as official policy in various ways, and that makes me so happy. The mentor-mentee program begun over recent Nebula Award weekends by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America is great. The Horror Writers Association has a similar program, and in fact, Linda Addison, this year’s World Fantasy Convention Toastmaster, was winner of HWA’s 2016 Mentor of the Year Award. But again, it’s a thing we all should be doing whether it’s official or not. Not as a matter of policy, but as a point of humanity. There should be no standing in corners and whispering you don’t know who these people are, and it shouldn’t take a committee of bylaws to cause us to break out of our cliques.
I challenge you all to reach out to someone new this weekend, a face you don’t know, a name you don’t recognize, somebody you don’t expect to help your career in any way, and say hello, and make them feel welcome. Make them feel, once they get home, that they can’t wait to get back.
Making sure, of course, let me add, to be aware of social cues and when such welcome is welcome. Because for some, the lack of any negative interactions is all the positive reinforcement they need. Not all of us are as outwardly social as some of us appear to be, and that must be respected, too.
Let that, in all of its possible aspects, be our Golden Rule.
But that’s not the only way we’re trying to be better, while needing to be better still. Another improvement I’ve seen at conventions over the decades — but as always, even further improvement is devoutly to be wished — is by the addition of inclusive language, for example, the proliferation of preferred pronoun buttons and stickers. This and other instances of inclusive language are good. But inclusive language must be followed by inclusive actions, and the things I see at some cons need to spread to all cons.
I noted one con recently which included a note for moderators by the microphones instructing them that when they call on audience members during Q&A sessions, they should not identify them by perceived gender. Don’t want to commit the faux pas of misgendering anyone? Unless you know someone’s name, then call on “you with the green backpack in the third row” or “the person wearing the TARDIS T-shirt.” Doing that’s easy for you, will make them happy, and might make someone feel comfortable coming back.
And by the way, when you do talk to the audience, use the microphones. I know we all like to think our voices will be heard loud and clear all the way in the back of the room, and I was guilty of such hubris myself years ago. But we owe it to those we’re trying to reach not to force them to ask us to speak up.
Also, we must continue to provide diverse and inclusive programing content populated by diverse and inclusive program participants, not as an afterthought, but as a mission. And it begins with the suggested programming surveys. Looking back is good. We all came here on the shoulders of giants. But different ones. Remember, not every generation bears the mark of the same influences. One generation may have been molded by Lovecraft, the next by Le Guin, the one after that by LaValle, and generations to come by writers just entering the field now. So when we do create panels to look back, let’s not be blinded by personal nostalgia. Programmers should keep in mind that all of our pasts are not the same. But all of our futures can be.
Accessibility, too, must be a priority. A con that can’t be open to all has no business being open at all. I don’t want to ever again see programming in rooms which can only be reached by stairs, containing stages without ramps. That’s insulting for the participants, embarrassing for the field, not welcoming at all, and has to stop.
And conventions should provide American Sign Language interpretation and any available assistive technologies to allow all members of the community to join the conversations. Readercon’s hoping to provide CART services, that is, live action closed captioning, for next year’s con. I don’t know whether they’ll manage to pull that off, but I hope they do. I hope all conventions decide to try to pull that off, because I’ve heard from members of the community that currently can’t fully engage in what we share here, and losing them, I repeat, is as much our loss as it is theirs.
And I don’t ever again want to see a con runner say a code of conduct is unnecessary because “after all, we’re adults here and know how to behave.” Because not everyone does, and those who are preyed upon — whether those who have the privilege not to be aware of it are aware of it or not — need to know the rest of us are watching out for them, that we care, that they will be believed, that they will be protected, that we will not force them to rely on a whisper network sharing missing stairs.
I know some of you listening to me rattle off these things might be thinking, “Not all con-goers. I never did anything to make anyone feel unwelcome.” Well, then most of this isn’t for you. Not all of it, anyway. But at least some part of it is there for all of us, I think. Because anytime we’ve stood around while someone else has crossed lines which never should have been crossed and not called them out, we’re complicit.
My final wish for everyone here, based on — oh my God, has it really been nearly half a century attending conventions? — is to live your life in these rooms so you won’t have to fear what people will write about you in Locus when you’re gone. Or even worse, fear what they will not write because they can’t think of anything to say which won’t make you sound … problematic.
And to those with hair grown the color of mine who have been around these rooms awhile and who may have become accustomed to things being a certain extremely comfortable way, please — do not fear these changing times. Embrace them. Fight the feeling that because newer voices and visions are filling our books and magazines and winning awards that you have been left behind. As I mentioned, we are all present because we were borne here on the shoulders of giants. Try to be someone who will be remembered for having lifted others up, not having held them back.
Screenwriter Josh Olson recently shared something on Facebook which was said to him by Harlan Ellison during one of their last conversations. Harlan is someone whose legacy is being reassessed by those coming after, as all of us will be reassessed by those who come after us, and based on what Josh and Harlan talked about, Harlan knew it.
Josh pointed out to Harlan that there were things he’d done openly and without shame in 1962 which would be regarded with horror today, to which Harlan replied — and Josh admits this to be a paraphrase —
“We work to create a world in which the people who come after us regard us as monsters.”
Wherever you fall on Harlan’s legacy, there’s still wisdom there.
I thought about those words, and I don’t fear the tomorrow they predict. That’s as it should be. I take comfort in knowing future generations will look back on us and perhaps consider us monsters for issues and actions which are beyond our individual comprehension right now. “How could they have acted that way?” they’ll ask. “How could they have said that thing, written that story?”
I’m sure I’ve done things, and will continue doing things, for which I will be judged. Who knows? This speech might even be one of them.
And you know? I’m OK with that. Because that is progress. That what was once acceptable is acceptable no longer is fine by me, and that the cons of 2018 are not identical in tone and content and participants to those of my past is also fine by me. Because I want the joys I’ve had to be had by all, not just only by those who look like me or have had my background or privilege. And that will only come with change.
Nothing would please me more than for this to be someone’s first con.
Someone who came here having heard both the good and the bad about this thing we have.
Someone vacillating about whether it’s really for them.
Someone who’ll see that, well, at least they’re trying.
Someone who’ll think … maybe I’ll hang in there long enough to find out whether we, you and me, will figure out how to fix the broken parts.
And maybe decades from now, they’ll still be here. And they’ll tell stories of what it was like 40 years earlier to have been there to see, and to still be seeing in that future — the way I saw Chip Delany and Jim Steranko — writers who have stayed here and grown old here and built a life here long after I am gone.
Writers like Alyssa Wong. And Sam J. Miller. And Nnedi Okorafor. And Amal El-Mohtar. And Rebecca Roanhorse. And Carmen Maria Machado. And Brooke Bolander. And Fran Wilde. And Victor LaValle. And JY Yang. And A. Merc Rustad. And the oh, so many more I wish I had time to mention who make this field so wonderful.
And then that newcomer to this thing we have will, 40 years hence in a room not so very different from this one — but only if we make things right — know the joy which I have lived, know the experience of having attended the convention that lasts forever.
I would like that.
Now let’s go make that happen.