The World in Worldcon

Opinion Piece by Colin Harris (Co-Chair, 2005 Worldcon): Chengdu’s bid to host the 2023 Worldcon has caused much debate and not a little hand-wringing. With reports of up to 3,000 ballots being cast in Site Selection, and the likelihood that China will be hosting the Worldcon in 20 months’ time, this debate is only going to intensify.

There is no doubt that a Chinese Worldcon (like a Saudi Arabian Worldcon, had the 2022 Jeddah bid succeeded) raises serious questions, not least around human rights and the safety of attendees. People will have strong views on the degree to which it is appropriate for the Worldcon to be hosted in such locations, but I would like to put that aside and ask some broader questions about the nature of Worldcon – past and future.

A Brief History of Worldcon. From its origin in 1939, the Worldcon was as global as the World Series; indeed the name came about through association with the New York World’s Fair rather than any intention to create a truly international convention.

For much of its subsequent history, zoning rules then controlled the event’s location, as it rotated by default between the Western, Central and Eastern United States.  Occasionally, an overseas bid would take the event outside North America – starting in 1957 with Loncon (London, UK). By 2000, there had been 10 such Worldcons in total (5 in the UK, 3 in Australia, 1 in Germany and 1 in the Netherlands); meanwhile, 48 others (83%) were held in the US or Canada.

Between 2001 and 2022, 15 further Worldcons (68%) have been awarded to North American locations, while 7 others have travelled further (2 to the UK and one each to Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Finland, and Ireland). Just four of the first 80 Worldcons have been held in countries where English is not the first language.

We’ve Always Done It That Way. Let us be under no illusion; there is a clear lineage running throughout the first 80 Worldcons – expectations that define how the event should look and feel. This lineage is not based on the WSFS Constitution that formally governs the event; the Constitution only sets out minimum obligations in terms of running the Business Meeting, Site Selection and Hugo Awards. The consistent presentation of the Worldcon has rather been controlled through the Site Selection process, where existing members decide who will host future events. To be credible, bids have had to demonstrate their commitment to meeting the established expectations. This commitment has typically been backed by having established Worldcon runners in leadership positions or at the very least advising on “how we do things”. And the voting base has always been dominated by the existing Worldcon community, so the whole process is self-perpetuating. It has always been theoretically possible for any group to win the Worldcon simply by having enough followers willing to join up and vote for their site; but in practice, no one outside of (or at least backed by) the traditional community has been able to rally enough voters in this way.

Every Telescope Has Two Ends. There is an old adage that things often look different from the other end of the telescope. Within the echo chamber of the existing (and particularly the North American) Worldcon community, Chengdu’s ability to rally thousands of Chinese fans willing to join Discon III and vote for a Chinese Worldcon is concerning if not suspicious.  Cries of conspiracy and the Worldcon being bought ring out; questions are raised about the legitimacy of the voters (are the people real? Is the bid backed by the Chinese State? Did they pay for people to vote?).

In reality, China is a huge country with a vast population and an expanding middle class; an enormous SF field and well established fandom. Chengdu is an established international convention site as well as a centre for science and technology.

I rather suspect that from the Chengdu bid’s viewpoint, the US-centric history of Worldcon is at odds with the very name of the event and its claim to be the leading global celebration of the genre. I do not need to believe there is anything suspicious about the bid, because it only needs a tiny percentage of Chinese fans to get behind it to make it a success.

Similarly I have seen concerns that Chinese fandom will annex the Worldcon for alternate years starting in 2023; after all if 50,000 Chinese members turn up in Chengdu, and 10% of them vote for the event to come back to China (say, Beijing) in 2025, then the event will return there. Yet surely this has always been part of the Worldcon picture; seen from outside, US fans have mostly selected US sites, run by US conrunners. Bids have been supported by Convention and Visitor Bureaus, with in-kind or even cash support; locals are encouraged to join up and vote to bring the Worldcon to their city.

What is happening here is surely no different, except that the Bid is not part of the “usual” Community. More specifically, Chengdu have sought to win the vote by mobilizing their own supporters to join Discon III rather than by appealing to the traditional (Western) voter base – who would want to see them committing to running the usual event and drawing on existing Worldcon runners to ensure historical expectations are met.

What If? The existing Worldcon model – every year seeing essentially the same event, with all its historic baggage, plus a little local flavour – is not the only one we can imagine. And if history had played out differently, it’s not necessarily the one we’d have today.

Let us instead imagine a universe where cities and countries compete to run an annual global celebration of science fiction. They must of course demonstrate their competence to deliver the event; but they are then free to execute it as best fits their own national and fannish culture. Within this broad canvas, they are then obligated to host the Hugos etc in line with formal rules. One might even imagine that the administration of these required events is not delegated to the annual committee but managed by a standing organization (let’s not call it WSFS Inc, though). The continual reinvention of what Worldcon is or could be might create a tremendous level of positive energy and freshness to take Worldcon forward.

To be clear, I’m not necessarily saying this should be the future of Worldcon. But I think the existing Western Worldcon community would benefit from a good hard look in the mirror. I am sad to see a lot of “othering” of the Chengdu bid – that goes beyond the legitimate concerns about the Chinese State and fails to recognize the genuine and vibrant nature of Chinese SF and Chinese fandom. I also think there’s a lot of hubris in comments about the Chengdu team’s failure to put more effort into understanding existing Worldcon approaches and recruiting established Worldcon runners to their team. Perhaps the Chengdu team, coming from outside traditional Worldcon fandom, has a very different view of the event; perhaps they see it as a chance to make it something unique and distinctive to their own fannish culture for a year; something for their own fandom to participate in and enjoy. Bring the Worldcon to China; not take China to the Worldcon.

Let us be honest with ourselves. There are two ways to feel about Chengdu and about the idea of a large and youthful Chinese fandom wanting to host Worldcon more regularly in the future. We can see it as a glimpse into another universe where Worldcon is more dynamic and more fluid; where each fandom takes this jewel and makes it their own for a year. Or we can see it as someone taking away our toys; a threat to 80 years of tradition. Either view is legitimate, but if we adopt the second, let’s abandon any idea that Worldcon is really a truly global celebration of the genre, or that it’s capable of evolving beyond its historic context.

60 thoughts on “The World in Worldcon

  1. I’ve been staring at this thread thinking that having visited China and having been involved in Worldcons I ought to write something.

    After hours of thought I came up with “It’s complicated”.

    After several more hours of thought I amended that to “It’s F******ing complicated”.

    We visited China in 2008 for the Eclipse and confused them by flying out on the first day of the Olympics because we have absolutely no interest in sport.

    The first sign that things would not be entirely as we expected was on the bus where a Chinese government appointed tour guide proceeded to lecture a whole bus full of Brits, brought up in the bosom of the NHS, about the evils of Socialist health care.

    My first reaction to Chinese society as a whole was to compare it to my visit to Poland under Russian communism in 1976. There first the first thing we were taken to see was the fresh division of Russian troops that the Poles were immensely proud they had misbehaved badly enough to force them to be brought in. The Poles are no cowards but because of this a lot of conversations with local fans took place in whispers.

    In China I got the strong impression that people were not scared (remember this was in 2008 so I don’t know how it is now). That doesn’t mean people didn’t feel that there were limits that might possibly affect their job but they were not intimidated in the same way as Eastern European fans I’ve met in the past. The Chinese people are not stupid. They are quite aware that they are engaged in a new experiment in spot welding communism and capitalist industry together. That’s the aim ‘Team China’ has committed to and there is a general expectation in their society that you will support the team. That’s admirable but if taken too far it can be dangerous. Within living memory such experiments have gone wrong in China and many people have seen terrible effects on their own families and are prepared to talk about them surprisingly openly. They don’t need to be told by westerners that there are dangers. The Chinese desperately want to be better. I honestly don’t think they want to force anything that doesn’t work on anyone else. They want to find the best way forward and to get the credit for finding it. I hope as SF fandom and as the Worldcon community we can work with that.

    Digression – The most surprising cultural difference, to me, was the Chinese love of dancing. Chinese communities love to turn out in the evening on the street corners for multi generational dances like kids in the UK playing soccer or kids in the US playing basketball (if you can imagine grandma joining in). It emphasised to me that these are people not units on some political bar chart.

    One problem is that a lot of Science Fiction, even Chinese Science Fiction, is about political ideas. It’s unclear to me how the Chengdu committee would program such topics and I think this needs clarification.

    I think we should have a Chinese Worldcon as soon as possible. Such a Worldcon would be the most difficult in history to run successfully but the possible benefits are enormous.

    But…

    We also visited Xinjiang, the Uighur area. I like the Uighurs a lot. They have a delightfully dry sense of humour and they work very hard in an inhospitable climate. They are more likely to speak English than most Chinese and they have a socially interconnected society that reminds me of the Welsh. When our coach was stranded by a sandstorm the tour officials became very confused but any shopkeeper or passing kid knew exactly what our new schedule was after being told by his brother, his cousin, or his neighbour.

    There were Uighur terrorists at that time. There was a bombing about 100 km away while we were there but I didn’t feel that there was any general support for violence in the community.

    Now it’s 13 years later. I have little idea what the situation is now but it seems fairly certain that it has become worse. I would hope that a Chinese Worldcon means a more open Chinese society and would benefit groups like this but I’m uncomfortable that they are unable to speak for themselves about it.

    Every nation has groups like the Uighurs that they have oppressed. I think it is hypocritical to say, “This is evil. You should be like us” rather than “This is evil. We’ve done it ourselves and we admit we were wrong. Please be better than us”.

    As the story title says “Solution Unsatisfactory”

    (This topic needs more nuance than I’m capable of writing. I hope I haven’t screwed something up too badly)

  2. @Karl-Johan Norén
    WRT to Roger Griffin: Palingenesis is key to his definition of fascism, and it wasn’t a part of anything that happened in 2019. What is it that you think Trump was restoring?

    If you want to use a definition of fascism that only advanced students of political sciences would recognize, then you need to make that clear up front. But here, you used it to a lay audience for whom the only reasonable context is that of Franco, Mussolini and Hitler. Trump, for all his faults, is in no way aligned with the policies of the European fascists of the 1930s.

  3. As a student of political sciences, I’m perfectly happy with the definition used by Karl-Johan. Fascism is a broad subject that of course can’t be limited to movements around a total of three people.

  4. @Steve Davidson

    We can not fall into the trap of presuming that there is some kind of equivalence between Chinese citizenry and citizens of long-standing democratically run countries; if you want a nearer term equivalence, go talk to former East Germans when there was an East Germany and every neighbor was a spy for the STASI just to keep themselves safe.

    I have family in East Germany and I visited them lots of times pre-1989. I know exactly what Communist era East Germany was like, thank you. Better than you, I bet. And for the record, I also visited the Soviet Union on a school exchange in 1989. I know the feeling of being watched and suspecting that someone is probably recording and reporting what I say.

    In the 1970s and 1980s, there was an increasing number of city partnerships, cultural exchanges, student exchanges, etc… between Western and Eastern Europe. And yes, everybody who went on one of those trips to Eastern Europe knew that what they were seeing was propaganda, designed to make the host country look good. I was 16 and I knew that the nice swimming pool with a sauna and the high school they showed us in the Soviet Union in 1989 were showpieces and not what the rest of the country looked like.

    However, those city partnerships, cultural and student exchanges also brought people from both sides of the iron curtain together. They were some of the many little cracks in the wall that finally brought the whole thing crashing down.

    There were four Eurocons in Eastern Europe pre-1989 (Poland in 1976, Yugoslavia in 1983 and 1986, Hungary in 1988). The 1991 Eurcocon in Krakow, Poland, was likely already set before the fall of the iron curtain. Were these cons used for propaganda purposes and infested by Stasi agents? Probably. However, they also gave fans from Eastern and Western Europe the chance to meet each other, to exchange books and ideas, etc… And holding a Eurocon in Easter Europe seems to have been not overly controversial pre-1989 or they wouldn’t have done it four times.

  5. do you believe for one second that you’d ever hear anything from Chinese fans who are against hosting Worldcon there?

    Given the cost of international travel, I suspect those fans (if any exist) would be a tiny minority.

  6. @bill

    WRT to Roger Griffin: Palingenesis is key to his definition of fascism, and it wasn’t a part of anything that happened in 2019. What is it that you think Trump was restoring?

    “Make America Great Again” pretty much captures the fascist minimum (as used by Griffin): a populist project to restore (palingenesis) the old imagined America (ultranationalism).

  7. @bill

    The USA was in the midst of a fascist takeover

    “Fascist takeover?” With no armed revolutionaries? With no one prosecuted for insurrection? Please. It was a bunch of loony protestors who got out of hand.

    They got out of hand partly – if not mostly – because the POTUS at the time encouraged them and then refused to intervene for hours while they raged out of control. There’s growing evidence that members of Congress have been coordinating with large groups of these ‘loony protestors.’

    And I seem to recall that at least one notable fascist takeover did NOT occur through armed revolution, but through superficially legal but wholly undemocratic fiat.

    Oddly enough, there is also growing evidence of members of Congress and higher-ups who were urging the previous Vice President to declare electronic votes as illegitimately cast and take the choice of electors out of the hands of those voters and give it to state legislators, who just HAPPENED to belong in their majority to the party of the former POTUS. I gather there’s a memo that circulated in the highest echelons that outlined in lawyerly detail the rationalizations that would give such a coup a disingenuous appearance of legality. Why do you think that DOESN’T count as an attempted fascist takeover?

  8. I may have missed someone pointing it out, but I don’t see any conflict in advocating that until their governing systems seriously change, both the U.S. AND China should be boycotted by Worldcon.

    Of course, few countries are entirely without sin, so extending this principle further might be more difficult.

    Naturally, this argument also is moot, but I didn’t want the theoretical possibility to be invisible.

  9. @Gary Farber

    I’m pretty sure that no one has said anything against advocating against a bid as a response to crimes against humanity.

    The only issue is when someone has an official capacity that is supposed to be non-partisan that also acts in a partisan manner. It creates the appearance that the process is biased.

    FWIW, I think this was an honest mistake that has been appropriately rectified and everyone should move on. Chengdu has won the bid and people can respond to that as they will.

    Regards,
    Dann
    Never preach harder than you can entertain. – Jim Butcher

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