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.