Worldcon Thoughts

Before it slips too far into the mists of memory, I should probably post some summary thoughts about Nippon 2007, the World SF Convention in Japan that Kate and I attended last week. To some degree, this will be inside-baseball stuff, but if you’re not interested in fannish stuff, rest assured, there is some good, weighty physics stuff coming later. Also, some utter fluff. We aim to please, here at Chateau Steelypips.

So, the Worldcon in summary. Basically, I think it was an enjoyable experiment, and while I wouldn’t call it an unqualified success, I’d be in favor of doing it again, several years down the road.

Before I get more specific about the strengths and weaknesses, one important caveat: This is only the second Worldcon that I’ve ever been to, and it’s only the second convention period that I’ve attended that wasn’t run by the Boskone/ Readercon crowd. I gather from people with far more experience of con-going fandom than I have that it’s really not fair to compare other cons to those run by the Boston group, who are preternaturally competent.

That said, there were some glitches, only a few of which were really the fault of the organizers. There were the usual and unavoidable technical problems– AV equipment failures, rooms that were too big or too small, etc.– and the Dealer’s Room was a little skimpy, but it’s hard to blame them, given the exorbitant cost of shipping books across the Pacific. None of that is really the fault of the people who put the con together.

I wasn’t terribly impressed with the programming, though. Many of the panel topics were lifted more or less verbatim from past Boskone or Readercon panels, and with few exceptions, they were better the first time around. There wasn’t as much of an attempt to engage in a cross-cultural dialogue as I would’ve hoped, either. There were a handful of English or bilingual panels on Japanese SF, but surprisingly little about anime and manga and such things.

There was also a failure to engage with the Japanese setting in a lot of the programming that could’ve addressed it. I went to one panel on alternate histories that was being translated into Japanese as they went, but there were no Japanese panelists. I eventually asked the translator whether alternate history as a sub-genre was popular in Japan– the answer is a qualified “yes”: apparently, there are a bunch of alternate-WWII stories out there in which Japan wins (in some cases because the context changes– one that was mentioned had the US supporting the Nazis, and Japan allied with Britain), and a thriving subgenre in which Oda Nobunaga was not assassinated in 15mumble. That was fascinating to me, and I would’ve loved to hear more discussion of that stuff, but as usual, the panel got bogged down in tedious minutiae about European history.

Similarly, someone who went to one of the panels on science and religion in SF complained that more or less the whole panel was spent talking about Christianity, and particularly American variants thereof. Which is a shame, given that the panel took place surrounded by a hundred million people who aren’t Christian. Are there good stories out there dealing with Buddhist themes, or the interaction between modern science and Shinto beliefs? That would be infinitely more interesting to hear about than yet another pass through the stuff I delete from my RSS feeds every morning.

This is probably at least partly a result of the demographics of the attendees. This con skewed older and nerdier than any other convention I’ve been to, by a large margin. It shouldn’t be a real surprise– given the expense and difficulty of travelling to Japan, the only American fans attending were, of course, those with the money and dedication to get there. That’s not going to include a whole lot of college students and twenty-somethings.

This did have a definite impact on the programming, though. I suspect that the lack of English-language programming about Japanese culture and SF was a reflection of a lack of interest in those topics by the people who were able to go to the convention. The population also lent itself more to discussion of Robert Heinlein and Forrest Ackerman than, say, John Scalzi and Naomi Novik.

On one of the panels I was on– “How Much Science Should SF Contain?”– I was the youngest panelist by a good twenty-five years. At one point, we were asked to suggest favorite works that taught science concepts well, and I dithered for a long time without coming up with much, because I was trying not to cite the same Heinlein and Asimov stories as the others. I like “The Dead Past” and “The Billiard Ball” as much as the next guy, but I was trying to come up with works published within the last forty years. A somewhat more balanced panel might’ve come up with a better selection. (To be fair, Ted Chiang was originally supposed to be on that panel, but backed out of the con late in the process.)

That said, the organizers deserve a lot of credit for taking on a really difficult task. Given the near-total lack of language overlap, their efforts to facilitate communications between Japanese and non-Japanese fans were really commendable. I was particularly impressed with the translators who worked the panels I went to, who really did an excellent job. (Of course, I don’t remember their names, because I’m a Bad Person, but they really did excellent work.)

And, to be sure, I could’ve done more myself to engage with Japanese fans. Except for the last night of the con, when a couple of the Japanese committee members came over to a group of us and struck up a conversation, I mostly just talked with Europeans and Australians. I feel a little guilty about that, because I did have a really good time talking with those guys, but I plead exhaustion and jet lag.

Anyway, I don’t mean to be completely negative, here. I had a very good time at the convention, and don’t regret going in the least. There were some real highlights– the panel I did on Monday with Patrick Nielsen Hayden, Paul Cornell, Adam Rakunas, and Yoshio Kobayashi on blogs and LiveJournals in SF was a blast, and the panel with PNH, Charlie Stross, Cory Doctorow and Robert Silverberg talking about Mundane SF and Singularity SF was amazing. I had a great time drinking with some Australian and Scandanavian fans at some of the room parties, and it was great to catch up with the various people I only see at conventions, like Mary Kay and Jordin and James Cambias and Diane Kelly.

As I said up top, I wouldn’t call it an unqualified success, but I think they did about as well as could possibly be expected, given the huge obstacles they had to overcome. If the experience hasn’t completely put them off con-running forever, I’d happily support another bid by this group (it’d need to be several years down the road, though…).

(See also Kate’s wrap-up post. If anybody has collected links to reaction posts from around the Web, I’d love to see more of them.)