Thursday, 21 November 2019

The Politics of Site Selection

In the lead up to this summer’s site-selection vote for the 2021 Worldcon, a small but vocal contingent of fans argued that the convention should not be awarded to any host city in the United States. 

In the end, only about twenty or thirty of the 878 site selection ballots indicated a preference to deny the convention to Washington D.C. (including one voter who explicitly cast their ballot for “Anywhere NOT in the United States.”).

This is not a position that most members of this book club endorse, particularly since a large portion
Clearly the existence of Jedward wasn't
enough to disqualify Ireland from hosting.
 (image via Eurovision.TV) 
of the existing fanbase lives in the United States. Even at Worldcons held overseas, Americans often make up the bulk of the attendance. For example, despite the geographic proximity of the United Kingdom, only 1,044 British citizens attended Worldcon 77 in Dublin, compared to 1,582 people who crossed the Atlantic from the United States for the convention. 

This raises the question of the carbon footprint of Worldcon — might the appropriate choice be to choose convention locations that reduce the amount of flying involved? Making environmental choices would prioritize U.S.-based hosts. If Hugo-winning TV series The Good Place has taught us anything, it’s that few choices are clear-cut good or bad. 

So when should government misdeeds become disqualifying for a potential Worldcon site? Since the arguments to avoid the United States centred around political issues, perhaps the question to ask is, “Under what conditions should the Worldcon membership reject a host country?” 

Perhaps the WSFS could convene a committee looking at various measures of political freedom that could be used to craft minimum requirements for a nation to host Worldcon. Some obvious, base, criteria should include safety, accessibility, civil liberties (such as free speech). Even these simple criteria, of course, are subject to interpretation and discussion. 

For the purpose of discussion, then, the United States of 2021 is less likely to meet security requirements than the United States of 2015 was. Hate crimes (particularly those against latinos) have seen a sharp increase in the past few years, so evidently attending a Worldcon in the United States is now less safe for members of marginalized groups. It is even conceivable that there might come a day when we would actively campaign against hosting any events in the U.S.A. (For the record, neither 2021 nor 2022 is likely to be that day.) 

The frequency of Worldcons being held outside of the United States has increased significantly in the past decade; almost half of all non-American Worldcons have occurred in the past 20 years. Next summer’s Worldcon will mark only the second time that there have been back-to-back non-U.S. Worldcons, and the first time that there have been back-to-back non-North-American Worldcons. This is an interesting development, as it indicates the growing internationalism of fandom, but it also means that a Worldcon might end up being hosted by an undemocratic nation. Would any of us want to attend a Worldcon in North Korea or the Sultanate of Brunei? 

These are obviously ridiculous examples, but it is the marginal cases such as Brazil, Hungary, or Mexico that we should really think about. These are countries that could realistically host a Worldcon and have the sort of fan populations that might consider putting together a bid. But for reasons of personal safety, risk of hate crimes, or government censorship, we would argue they might be less suitable as hosts than the United States. 

It is interesting that the Freedom Of The World Index, ranks the United States as the least free
Chengdu is known for giant pandas,
ancient irrigation systems and the
persecution of religious minorities.
 (Image via internasia.com)
country that has hosted a Worldcon, although the 2023 Chengdu bid would undercut that dubious distinction. 

If the options are “Hold a Worldcon in China, or don’t hold a Worldcon at all that year,” we do not know which option we would choose. But thankfully, that’s not a question that is being asked of site selection voters, as there are two reasonable competing bids for 2023. 

Recent global declines in democratic governance and the rise of authoritarian leaders, combined with the increasing globalization of science fiction fandom means that the question of what conditions qualify a country to host Worldcons is now one that members should begin debating. 

We believe that although the anti-D.C. crowd were premature in suggesting a boycott of the United States, they are right in arguing that the human rights and civil liberties record of a host nation should be significant factors.

Saturday, 9 November 2019

When You Can't Go Home Again

“Generally speaking, a refugee is a displaced person who has been forced to 
cross national boundaries and who cannot return home safely.” Wikipedia 

One of science fiction’s strengths is its ability to engender empathy while expanding our definitions of what it means to be “one of us.” From Asimov’s thought experiments about the rights threshold for machines to Star Trek’s use of Spock to explore neurodivergence, science fiction encourages readers to see the strengths of diverse and inclusive societies.

Given that many of the problems of the 21st century are rooted in a deficit of empathy, fiction grounded in radical empathy — showing compassion to those different from us — is more important than ever.

And that’s where Cory Doctorow’s novella Unauthorized Bread, and K Chess’ novel Famous Men
Unauthorized Bread might
be Doctorow's finest work.
(image via Goodreads)
Who Never Lived
both come in. Both of these new works tackle refugee stories of cultural misalignment with an empathetic lens.

In Unauthorized Bread, the refugee protagonist Salima struggles to make sense of a society weighed down by copyright overreach and a ubiquitous system of digital rights management. Thanks to Doctorow’s expertise on this subject, it’s easy to believe that kitchen appliances might only work with brand-specific consumables, destabilizing perhaps the most sacred of cultural signifiers: How we make and break bread.

Salima provides an outsider’s point of view and is thus able to question the underlying assumptions and defaults of a society that has lost the ability to make choices about one of life’s basic necessities.

While some aspects of Salima’s personality will feel familiar to Doctorow fans, as she is a plucky, can-do attitude technophile, she is also highly observant and reflective, encouraging the reader to consider how technology can serve to both alienate and create community within cultural groups.

While Salima finds some sense of belonging in her new home, the refugees at the heart of K Chess’ Famous Men Who Never Lived remain culturally adrift. The novel explores the lives of Vikram Bhatnagar and Helen “Hel” Nash, who have fled a nuclear apocalypse in a parallel world and find themselves in a New York City that marks and marginalizes them as Universally Displaced Persons (UDP).

Although some UDPs are able to successfully integrate in some ways (e.g., careers), most remain
Whether they're from a parallel timeline,
from another planet, or from anywhere else,
refugees are welcome in our community.
(Image via UN.org
othered and are treated with condescension and prejudice. Vikram, a former PhD student, has found his training doesn’t transfer to the new world. Former surgeon Hel’s certifications have lapsed, and her knowledge is no longer useful.

The book is at its strongest when focusing on the human aspect of this displacement: the cultural touchpoints that only the refugees know; Hel’s mourning for the family she’ll never see again; and the inability of some to find ways to make their skills transferable to the new world’s job market.

While neither of these authors were refugees, their decision to write about the refugee experience might be seen as an empathy-driven extrapolation from the current migrant crisis. Both works are strengthened by a focus on dislocation and we are pleased to be able to put them on our 2020 nominating ballots.

In general, it feels like the depiction of refugees in mainstream science fiction — and the empathy shown towards the plight of displaced persons — has improved over time. There is also a recognition of intergenerational traumas and residual cultural practices, as in the exodan fleet of Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers novels.

Historically, however, many refugee narratives failed to depict the difficulties faced by their real-
It is rare to see Superman experience
the cultural dislocation that many real-
world refugees face. Still it's gratifying
when writers recognize that he would
understand the refugee experience.
(Image via Twitter
world counterparts. The obvious example is Superman, the prototypical displaced person of science fiction. He is raised to be culturally American and is depicted as a perfectly assimilated citizen, a refugee that doesn’t struggle with linguistic barriers, misunderstanding of local cultural practices, finding employment, and other types of social rejection.

Works like Battlestar Galactica and The Songs Of Distant Earth might reflect some of the emotional dislocation experienced by refugees, but the characters in these stories arrive in places that are uninhabited, conveniently omitting issues related to cultural dislocation.

Screen science fiction that depicts refugees includes Alien Nation (1991), District 9 (2009), The Refugees (2015), and The Crossing (2018). But in each, an argument could be made that the focus is placed less on the experience of refugees, and more on the impact of members of the dominant culture into which the refugees are arriving. For example, human Matt Sykes is top-billed in Alien Nation, while his non-human newcomer partner George Francisco is the sidekick.

For a more egregious example, consider the post-apocalyptic TV series Jericho (2006), where an entire episode focuses on the havoc caused by a large group of refugees that passes through town.

Refugees in science fiction is a broad enough topic that it would be near-impossible to fully delve into every example; Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, Bio Of A Space Tyrant, Men In Black, Movement and Location, and American War would all qualify.

There are currently more than 70 million people recognized by the United Nations as having been displaced from their countries of origin. Of those, more than 30 million fit the UN definition of refugees. It has never been more important for science fiction to be an engine for radical empathy in support of those displaced due to war, climate change or other disasters.

Friday, 1 November 2019

The Superman Clause

There’s a clause in the WSFS Constitution that allows WorldCon members to add a year of eligibility
Ever wonder why Superman 2 didn't
score a Hugo nod? It came out late in
the year, and fell between the cracks.
(Image via IMDB.com) 
to works that might be nominated for the Hugo Award.

It’s an important rule. It should be used more often, and Hugo nominators should pay attention when it is invoked.

The rule was originally proposed by Catherine Filipowicz and Leslie Turek because of Superman 2. The well-loved second Christopher Reeves Superman movie was released in December, 1980 on only a few dozen screens and failed to make the awards ballot in 1981. Obviously, relatively few Hugo nominators would have had a chance to view the film before the nominating deadline.

Here’s the rule that we now like to think of as the Superman 2 Clause:

3.4.3: In the event that a potential Hugo Award nominee receives extremely limited distribution in the year of its first publication or presentation, its eligibility may be extended for an additional year by a two-thirds (2/3) vote of the intervening Business Meeting of WSFS.

Ratified in 1982, the amendment was first in effect for the eligibility year of 1983. Despite having been on the books for more than 35 years, Rule 3.4.3 has been invoked only about a dozen times by our count (though records aren’t available for some of the intervening years):
Both the movie Predestination
and Jay Shaw (who designed
this movie poster) deserved
attention from Hugo nominators.
(Image via Mondo) 

  • Stet 9 (1999) ⁠— Fanzine
  • True Knowledge of Ken MacLeod (2003) — Best Related Work
  • Up Through A House Of Stairs (2003) — Best Related Work
  • Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction (2003) — Best Related Work
  • Seven Beauties of Science Fiction (2008) — Best Related Work
  • Summer Wars (2010) — Best Dramatic Presentation
  • I Remember The Future (2014) — Best Dramatic Presentation
  • Predestination (2014) — Best Dramatic Presentation
  • Kimi No Nawa [A.K.A. “Your Name”] (2015) — Best Dramatic Presentation
  • Prospect (2018) — Best Dramatic Presentation
  • Worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin (2018) — Best Related Work
We find it interesting that despite the high quality of these works, only the Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction was actually placed on the Hugo Ballot (and it won a well-deserved Hugo trophy for Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn).

In addition, it’s surprising to us that so many of these works failed to make the Hugo shortlist, since there was clearly a constituency willing to go to bat for them at the business meeting. This may indicate that there is a schism between business meeting attendees and the Worldcon membership at large. Or perhaps it indicates that there is insufficient awareness among the Worldcon membership at large when works have had their eligibility extended.

In the interest of signal-boosting the WSFS business meeting decisions at WorldCon 77, two works have received extended eligibility for 2019: Prospect and The Worlds of Ursula LeGuin. Even though both were released in 2018, they can be nominated for Hugo Awards in their respective categories this year, and we intend to put them both on our ballots.
Prospect can be nominated for the
2020 Hugo because its eligibility
was extended through a WSFS vote.
(Image via Amazon.com) 


In the case of Prospect (for which, full disclosure, members of this book club championed the eligibility extension), the movie received only 23 screenings in 2018, and didn’t become available widely until right around the date of the Hugo nominating deadline. It is, in our opinion, exemplary both in its filmmaking and its contribution to science fiction.

This provision exists to help Hugo Award nominators access and assess books, movies, short stories, etc., even when initial distribution is limited. This is a vital tool, especially for dramatic (and likely independent) presentations that are sometimes only initially available at film festivals, and only become well-known months later.

It’s important for all of us to help shed light on lesser-known works, especially when so much of our media is controlled by a few large corporations. We look forward to doing our part by seeking out and leaning on 3.4.3 when it makes sense to do so.