Thursday, 25 May 2023

The Word For "World" Isn't America

In China they honour works of science fiction with the Galaxy Award, the Atorox Award is presented annually to the best Finnish work of SFF, Australia’s Ditmar Award recently celebrated 50 years of recognizing Aussie sci-fi, Japan has the Seiun Award, Canada the Aurora, New Zealand the Sir Julius Vogel Award, Netherlands the Paul Harland Prize, in Croatia they present the SFera Award … we could go on.

The Ditmar Award is almost
as old as the Nebula, and
recently recognized 
J.S. Breukelaar's "The Bridge."
(Image via BlackGate)
These national awards support science fiction fandom by platforming works that express the local concerns and national character of their host nations. Although neither Julie E. Czerneda, Candas Jane Dorsey, or Karl Schroeder have been honoured by the Hugo Awards, they’re truly great authors and we’re glad that the Aurora Award has recognized them. Their creative works speak to and for Canadians.

So why is there no national award recognizing the best science fiction published by authors from the United States?

It could be argued that this is a reflection of American exceptionalism or imperialism.

The Hugo Award — when it was established in 1953 — may have billed itself as celebrating the world’s greatest science fiction, but that was for a limited definition of “world.” This was a “world” that extended no further north than Toronto, no further east than London, and no further south or west than Los Angeles. American cultural hegemony was baked into the DNA of the award.

An American national SFF award was not seen as necessary, because the Hugos existed.

To date 84.2 per cent of all winners, and 84.5 per cent of the authors represented in the prose categories (short story, novelette, novella, novel and series) were born in the United States. If anything, these statistics understate the level of American dominance, given that the non-American 15 per cent includes figures like Isaac Asimov (born in Russia), Algis Budrys (born in Germany) and Ursula Vernon (born in Japan). If the goal of the Hugo Awards is to represent the best science fiction in the world, then we cannot limit ourselves to works by American authors.

It can be argued that American dominance might have eased slightly in recent years. But even over the most recent three awards ceremonies, 76 per cent of Hugo finalists in the prose categories were still Americans.

Despite a slightly increasing global reach of Worldcon over the past 20 years, clearly, the award’s early focus on America and on American SFF remains.

And this now feels like a disservice to the genre as a whole. The list of iconic SFF writers who did not primarily write in English, and who consequently never got even a whif of Hugo recognition is long. Among others, we’d mention Japan’s Kobo Abe, France’s Pierre Boule, Brazil’s Jerônymo Monteiro, France’s Bernard Werber.

Elia Barceló is among the best-known Spanish
authors and has published best-selling works of SFF.
But the Hugo Awards have yet to recognize her work.
(Image via
The lack of an award for Best American Science Fiction means that the Hugo is the primary award that American science fiction fans and authors pay attention to, lobby for, and consequently dominate. Thus, the award for the best science fiction on Earth is usually awarded to American authors, and consequently reinforces the perception that American science fiction is the beginning and end of the genre.

Put another way, the lack of an American SFF award ends up disprivileging non-American authors.

But it’s a sword that can cut both ways.

This year, with Worldcon being held in China for the first time, there have been more nominating ballots than ever before received from science fiction fans whose first language is not English. There is consequently a real chance that the Hugo Award ballot may primarily celebrate Chinese-language works.

If this comes to pass, and if deserving works of American science fiction are denied recognition as a consequence, we should not blame the Chinese fans who engaged with the Hugos. The fault belongs with all of us in North American fandom for trying to have our award be global, but still wanting to be the only ones who can win it.

Regardless of what the shortlist looks like in 2023, the Hugos would be improved by the existence of a national science fiction award in the United States.

As much as Worldcon likes to think of itself as a “World” event, it seems pretty clear that for the first seven decades that it existed, the Hugo Award has steadfastly resisted the global reach of fandom.

If the Hugo Award is to be a truly “World” award, American fandom may need to relinquish it … by establishing an American award for American fiction.

Sunday, 23 April 2023

A Canticle For Hopepunk

From early days in the genre, novels were often built out of previously-published short stories. The result was called “A fix-up.” Stories that had been popular in pulp magazines sometimes helped convince publishers that there was an appetite for a more expansive and expensive book-length version.
Vast sweeps of history can show
the ramifications of policy decisions.
(Image via Goodreads)

These fix-ups also came with their own synergy between form and function. Interlinked stories working on similar themes turned out to be a form of science fiction that was well-suited for galaxy-spanning tales and large sweeps of future history. Many of the books traditionally considered to be classics of the genre fit this mold, such as Foundation, City, and The Martian Chronicles.

With the rise of cheap paperback novels in the 1960s, and the decline of pulp magazines, the great science fiction tradition of fix-ups has been in significant decline. Which is why it’s refreshing to read Annalee Newitz’ latest novel. Although not technically a fix-up, The Terraformers uses a style and structure that is reminiscent of many of these works.

In fact, the novel could be read as a response — a mirror image even — of Walter Miller Jr.’s Hugo-winner A Canticle For Leibowitz. But while Miller is focused on history’s cycles of creation and destruction, Newitz’ book explores tensions between freedom and corporate serfdom.

Like Miller’s fix-up novel, Terraformers is split into three sections that are set in similar locations but separated in time by centuries.

Each book’s first section focuses on an individual in a sparsely-populated world making the discovery of an underground facility filled with hidden knowledge. It’s this section of Terraformers that provides the book’s two most memorable and compelling characters; an ecological systems analyst named Destry and Whistle, the intelligent flying moose she rides.

In both novels, the second section involves two institutions in conflict over the control of technology. While Miller had secular scientists and the church battling over access to knowledge, Newitz shows democratic egalitarian governance struggling against hierarchical capitalists over transportation technology.

We are on #TeamWhistle.
(Photo by Olav Rokne)
Though both novels end with a revolution, Newitz’s work is less fatalistic. Terraformers seems to suggest that although there will always be those who seek to dominate others through wealth, through hierarchy, and through coercion, the majority of people will work towards community and good governance. 

The classic fix-up novels that focused on a sweep of history shared many similar flaws; compelling characters are given short shrift, transitions between historical eras can be jarring, and some portions drag. In mirroring the strengths of these works, The Terraformers is also burdened with many of the same problems.

Large-scale sweep-of-history stories might make it difficult to put the focus on individual characters, but they do provide the opportunity to relay the long-term consequences of policy decisions. In the hands of politically astute writers like Newitz and Miller, this medium can provide insightful commentary on human nature.

There is also something of Clifford D. Simak’s fix-up novel City in the DNA of The Terraformers, as uplifted animals debate the merits and the legacy of humanity. Newitz introduces us to talking wolves, cats, and earthworms, whose views on the conduct of homo sapiens is not always glowing. This occasionally gives the book a fable-like quality that some readers appreciated, but others found a wee bit twee.

With their third novel, Newitz offers readers a good example of a classic science fictional form that has been much neglected over the past few decades. As with the best fix-ups, it is more than the sum of its parts.

Sunday, 16 April 2023

Successful Mimicry

Given the character’s adherence to logic and to the scientific method, Sherlock Holmes has long been considered at least liminally a science fictional character. In various guises, and with thinly-veiled references, Holmes lurks in the margins of almost every science fictional mystery tale.
(Image via Amazon)

But science fiction is a difficult setting in which to construct a mystery plot. Drawing readers in to an imaginary world involves providing information about the setting … which is at odds with the ways in which mysteries must keep a reader guessing. Offer too little information about a science fiction setting and readers will not know what’s going on, offer too much information in a mystery story and the whodunnit becomes trivial.

With her recent novella Mimicking Of Known Successes, Malka Older provides one of the few examples of navigating that philosophical tension successfully, providing a richly imagined world whose politics and conflicts hit close to home, while also drawing readers into a mystery whose solution isn’t immediately obvious.

Set on a network of floating communities in Jupiter’s atmosphere centuries after the Earth was rendered uninhabitable, the book follows an academic ecologist named Pleiti who is dragged into a missing person’s investigation by detective (and ex-girlfriend) Mossa. The detective is renowned amongst her peers for her ability to solve cases from minute pieces of evidence; she is the person that they consult when cases seem insoluble. The case grows more complex as items are stolen from Pleiti’s university laboratory, and the two get targeted by an assassin.

Any story with a master-detective who has a near preternatural understanding of evidence working alongside a non-detective friend will inevitably be read as a modernized homage to Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. It is a daunting mantle to bear, but Older carries it remarkably well.

Malta Older is known for policy-forward
and wonkish science fiction (which we've
enjoyed in the past). Mimicking of Known
is a departure, but still excellent.
(Image via
Far too many of those who have sought to imitate or adapt Doyle’s stories have failed to grasp the centrality of the Watson-Holmes dynamic, often portraying Watson as a dullard sidekick who serves as a sounding board as Holmes expounds upon unfolding plot details. Older seems to understand Doyle’s work and character dynamics, imbuing the Mossa-Pleiti partnership with both a warmth and a mutual respect that fans of Arther Conan Doyle will appreciate. The fact that there’s romance between the two main leads is believable and more interesting because of that foundation.

When Mossa and Pleiti unravel the mystery, it is largely unexpected and yet makes perfect sense within the setting and the society that Older has presented. Just as importantly, the motivations of the primary antagonists are understandable, and easy to empathize with. It is an impressive piece of writing.

Given that Older is best known for her Hugo-finalist Centenal Cycle, readers might expect hard-edged and wonkish prose that delves into governance structures and alternate ways of organizing. However, Mimicking Of Known Successes provides something more similar to Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers books; something cozy and inviting that has hidden depths for those who want it.

Mystery and science fiction are rarely this satisfying when mixed, and rarely this much fun.

Monday, 3 April 2023

Edgelord Cinema Maximalism (Hugo Cinema 1976)

This blog post is the nineteenth in a series examining past winners of the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award. An introductory blog post is here.  

Warning: Contains references to sexual violence depicted in the movies being reviewed. Also spoilers.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the new wave of science fiction transformed the genre. Writing styles became more varied. Surrealism and postmodernism were embraced. Authors began to explore previously taboo subjects like sexuality, drug use and abuse, and psychology.

Many of these genre-shaping stories were rightly celebrated for their insight, their boldness, and their inventiveness. But in some quarters, the pushing of boundaries became an end unto itself, and transgression became mistaken as insight.

Although the 1976 Hugo-winning incel manifesto A Boy And His Dog may not have been the nadir of this trend, it’s probably the most iconic example.

Members of our cinema club described
A Boy And His Dog as “a spasm
of puerile adolescent garbage” and
“The most reprehensible
thing I have watched.”
(Image via IMDB)
Set in a post-apocalyptic America decades after a nuclear war, A Boy And His Dog follows Vic (Don Johnson) a libidinous 18-year-old and his telepathic dog Blood as they search for food and women. The main plot of the movie covers Vic getting lured by a woman named Quilla June (Susanne Benton) into the clutches of a community living underneath the ruins of Topeka. After a failed revolution in the underground city, Vic and Quilla June fall in love and escape back to the surface.

The offensiveness of this movie and its misogyny cannot be overstated. The protagonist is a sexual predator who hunts women for sport. The animal sidekick cheers him on in his rapes. This all culminates in a “twist” ending in which Vic murders Quilla June and feeds her to the dog; driving home the fact that this movie treats women as little more than meat. At no point does this movie critique this repulsive stance; rather, it embraces it.

The novella upon which the movie is based provides a blueprint for all these problematic elements, but is slightly more critical in its treatment of Vic and of Blood. Director L.Q. Jones — who was trained on old-school westerns — provides mostly neutral or adoring depictions of Vic and Blood. The appalling end sequence is delivered with a smirk, and with a heroic framing as they ride off into the sunset.

Numerous contemporaneous critics flagged the reprehensible nature of the movie. Joanna Russ wrote a long-form critique, suggesting that “Sending a woman to see A Boy and His Dog is like sending a Jew to a movie that glorifies Dachau; you need not be feminist to loathe this film.” Writing in Yandro, Gary Anderson suggested that he was unlikely to vote for it in the Hugos.

A Boy And His Dog should not have been nominated for a Hugo Award and yet it won one. Anything else on the shortlist would have been a better choice. It is a black mark on the Hugos, and on Worldcon.

Although it received the fewest votes that year because of its limited distribution, The Capture might have been an interesting winner. A deeply fannish work, only shown at SFF conventions, it was a slideshow presentation (later self-published as a graphic novel) written by Robert Asprin and illustrated by Phil Foglio. It tells the story of a group of science fiction fans who are abducted by aliens. Filled with nerdy references, in-jokes about frequent Worldcon attendees, and deep-cut references about SFF, this isn’t a work that would appeal to everyone.
Illustration from The Capture by Phil Foglio. 
There is enduring value to fan history for this
work to be more accessible to readers.
(Image by Phil Foglio via Merrill Collection)

But it’s also quite charming. The art is terrific, and the writing is snappier than any of us had expected. The denouement — in which the fans are so annoying that the aliens decide to give up and send them back to Earth — is just … genre appropriate.

It’s not easy to find a copy of The Capture today. We were only able to access it because one of the members of our cinema club flew 2,700 kilometers to Toronto and visited the Merrill Collection. As far as we can ascertain there are only three libraries in North America that have a copy. There is also one copy available for purchase in New Jersey. Given that it is a work with enduring cultural and historical value to fandom, but which has little to no commercial value, we would urge Phil Foglio and the estate of Robert Asprin to allow the Fanac Fan History Project the permission to host an online copy of the booklet, and perhaps a recording of the original slide presentation.

One of the more interesting speculative trends in the history of Best Dramatic Presentations is how often Hugo voters seem to be able to notice an up-and-coming filmmaker before the rest of the world does. In 1976, they recognized the work of John Carpenter, long before he went on to direct any of his classic movies. Dark Star — which began as Carpenter’s student project while at the University of Southern California — is an odd, rambling movie.

After the end of the moon landings, it became 
possible to imagine outer space as ... boring.
(Image via IMDB)
Despite a microscopically low budget, a tiny cast, and some exceptionally silly special effects, there’s a lot to like in Dark Star. The story of a blue-collar crew of a star ship tasked with destroying rogue celestial objects, it's a comedic portrayal of the boredom of long-term space missions. The movie drifts aimlessly between one misadventure and the next; someone’s alien space pet becomes a threat. Later, they get caught up in a space storm. Some of these scenes work exceptionally well — particularly attempts to negotiate with a malfunctioning artificially intelligent bomb — though others fall flat. The movie almost has too many ideas (most of which would later be developed by the screenwriters into more commercially successful movies like Alien).

The highest-grossing science fiction movie of the year had been the ultraviolent commentary on sports culture Rollerball. Directed by Canadian cinema legend Norman Jewison (In the Heat of the Night, Fiddler on the Roof), the movie depicts a corporate-dominated dystopian future in which a bloody sport called Rollerball is used to distract the masses from larger societal inequities. At the beginning of the movie, the unquestioned greatest Rollerball player of all time Jonathan E. (James Caan), is pressured by his corporate overlords to retire after the upcoming championship, and begins to question the system that has enriched him.

All of this is a great premise for an action movie; and there’s a lot that works well in Rollerball. The set-piece sports scenes are first-rate, some of the performances are excellent, and the worldbuilding is interesting. But the suggestions of an anticapitalist message are never fully developed; viewers never learn why Jonathan is being asked to quit the sport, his relationship with his former wife Ella is never explained, and the final Rollerball match ends up feeling somewhat pointless.
The effect of concussions caused by Rollerball 
need to be studied, as too many Rollerball stars
seem to end up as Fox News talking heads.
(Image via Variety)

Of all the movies on the Hugo Shortlist in 1976, one stands out for its cultural impact and enduring appeal: Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Dialogue including gems like, “Strange women lying in ponds and distributing swords is no basis for a system of government” may be the greatest analysis of Arthurian legend ever written.

Comedies age more quickly than most other forms of cinema, but of the 1970s humorous works that received Hugo Award nominations, it’s Holy Grail that seems to have stood the test of time best. Some elements may have been sapped of their wit through endless repetition by fans, but much of it still hits its mark.

What’s sometimes overlooked is that this is also possibly the best-filmed and most lush production that the Monty Python crew ever put together. The animated segments offer us Terry Gilliam at his best, while with the live-action portions Terry Jones created provide artful shots that are edited together with panache. The result is a movie that visually reminded us of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker, or John Boorman’s Zardoz.

It is interesting to note that Monty Python and the Holy Grail took second in the balloting, only being eliminated in the fourth-round. The major complaint that contemporaneous fans had about Holy Grail was that it was “barely SFF.”

At the ceremony, as was the norm, nobody from the team behind the Hugo-winning movie attended the ceremony. Shockingly, not even Harlan Ellison was there to accept the award. It was left to Ellison collaborator Edward Bryant to accept it on behalf of the production team. He noted, “There has been an ongoing controversy over the awards for dramatic achievement ... because so many times in the past, it seems the award has gone to frankly people who don’t appreciate the award.”

Viewing and writing almost five decades later, we’d suggest that perhaps it is better to give an award to someone who doesn’t appreciate it, than to celebrate something as reprehensible as A Boy And His Dog.

Monday, 20 March 2023

Kara Zor-El Unbound

The second-most famous
Kryptonian, Kara Zor-El
finally gets the attention
she deserves in
Woman of Tomorrow.
(Image via

Created in 1959 as a female version of the most popular character in comic books, the paradox of Supergirl as a character is that although she is instantly recognizable to broad swaths of the public, there is often little understanding of what differentiates the character from her more famous cousin, Superman.

Sadly, too many writers treat Supergirl as if she were just a gender-flipped Superman.

Like Superman, she was born on the doomed planet of Krypton. And like him, she is mostly invulnerable, has super strength, has various enhanced senses, can shoot lasers from her eyes, and flies around the planet saving people in distress.

Kara Zor-El grew up in the domed city of Argo. This city escaped the destruction of Krypton, and after several years Kara was sent to Earth to find her cousin Kal El (Superman), who had been sent there as a baby. There, she took up the mantle of Supergirl, and fought alongside Superman on various adventures.

Over the decades, writers have grappled with the conundrum of how to make the character interesting; varying her origin story, altering what her superpowers are, and occasionally removing the character from the shared comic book universe altogether.

With the 2022 publication Supergirl: Woman of Tomorrow, writer Tom King (Mr. Miracle, Human Target, Sheriff of Babylon) and artist Bilquis Evely (The Dreaming, Doc Savage, Wonder Woman) provide one of the more successful attempts to define the character not in relation to her cousin, but on her own terms. This story looks at what it means for someone to lose their family, their homeland and their culture as a teenager, and focuses on how she constructs meaning for herself.

It is probably the most compelling Supergirl story yet published.

Over the past 30 years, almost every major superhero has been deconstructed. Grim-and-gritty reboots, meta-commentary on comic books, and reframing of existing story arcs have been done often enough in superhero stories that postmodern comic book work has begun to look tired. What elevates Tom King’s work is that he tends to focus on the ‘hero’ more so than the ‘super.’ This is recontextualization, but not deconstruction. It’s examining the characters through a constructive lens. This can be seen in how he’s evolved Kite Man as a character, how he’s explored Batman’s marriage, and peered into Scott Free’s psychology. And now, how he’s focused on what motivates Supergirl.

Tom King's work has previously inspired the hit
TV show Wandavision on Disney+.
(Image via Entertainment Weekly)

King’s work is probably familiar to many of those who follow the Hugo Awards, as he’s a two-time finalist, with The Vision: Little Worse Than A Man earning a nod in 2017, and Strange Adventures appearing on the ballot last year. He’s won the Best Writer Eisner Award twice.

Woman of Tomorrow is told from the perspective of Ruthye — a young orphan on an alien world — who is seeking revenge for the murder of her father by a bounty hunter named Krem. In her quest for vengeance, Ruthye gets in trouble and must be rescued by Supergirl. Because she has never heard of Supergirl (or Superman) before, Ruthye provides readers a fresh perspective of the Kryptonian, essentially seeing her through new eyes.

Over the subsequent eight issues of the comic series, the duo track Krem across planets and star systems, deal with space pirates, and have adventures on interstellar public transit.

Supergirl takes time to help one of Krem’s victims dig graves for everyone he’s known, provides a therapy session to a grieving mother, and uncovers a genocide. Each of these adventures is a delay from her mission but is necessitated by a code of honour that compelled her to start the mission with Ruthye in the first place.

Krem proves to be an adept adversary. He figures out Supergirl’s vulnerabilities and strips her of her powers. This gives us a chance to see Ruthye’s own strength as she defends the titular heroine and faces her own trials, largely unaided.

These aren’t stories about saving the universe, defeating galactic tyrants, or challenges with world-shattering consequences. But the fact that the stakes are more personal shows what matters to Supergirl, and the human scale of the story makes it highly engaging.
Taverns, swords, heroic
fantasy-style adventures.
(Image via

On a technical level, this is a superhero comic book, but the writing takes much of its inspiration from heroic fantasy. This is a story about a sword-wielding hero and sidekick traveling across distant landscapes on a quest and getting pulled into side adventures. Given that it takes cues from the heroic fantasy work of Fritz Leiber, Woman of Tomorrow seems like something that would appeal to many Worldcon attendees.

This heroic fantasy influence is accentuated by the expressive artwork of Bilquis Evely and the talented colouring by Matheus Lopes, which bring the series to life. Evoking the best of Barry Windsor Smith’s sword and sorcery work for Epic Comics, Evely’s style is both detailed and energetic. The colouring provides a perfect counterpoint to the linework, transitioning from muted tones for more sombre scenes, to vivid and engaging palettes for the wild space adventures. The work is lush, inviting, and perfectly suits the tone of the writing.

In 2023, Warner Brothers announced their upcoming slate of movies based on DC comic books, and named Woman of Tomorrow as the direct inspiration for their next Supergirl movie. Although we cannot figure out how they might translate the visual poetry of Evely’s work, they couldn’t have chosen a better comic to adapt. Supergirl deserves to be more than a gender-flipped Superman, including on the big screen.

We’d love to see this earn a Hugo nomination.

Wednesday, 8 March 2023

The Cultural Practice of Worldcon

The World Science Fiction Society became an 
organization in 1946 to govern how Worldcon
locations were selected, and how cons were run.
But there's still little documentation of what a 
Worldcon actually is.
(Image via Catherine J. Trujillo)
For more than eight decades, thousands of authors, artists, and fans from across the globe descend on a city each year to discuss science fiction, fantasy, alternate history, gaming, costuming, and other subjects of fandom interest.

Worldcon is many things to many people. Depending on who you ask, it’s “largely magical,” or “a huge, complicated beast” or “hostile and emotionally abusive.” It’s clear that the event has developed cultural practices and expectations. Some might need to change and some are worth continuing. We wanted to start a discussion about how that might happen as key volunteers retire or move on and new venues are selected.

On a strictly technical level, a Worldcon is an event organized by a committee that was approved by a site selection vote held at a previous Worldcon, in accordance with rules that are voted on and approved by the World Science Fiction Society business meeting.

Worldcon could potentially be held at any location on Earth. If site selection voters approved a bid, the event could be held anywhere from Snake Island to Oymyakon.

The document that governs Worldcons — the WSFS Constitution — provides a list of duties that Worldcon committees must fulfill for their event to be a “Worldcon.” But this list is surprisingly short.

Worldcons are by definition volunteer run, and based on the word “convention,” we can infer that it’s “an organized meeting of enthusiasts for a television program, movie, or literary genre,” though the WSFS constitution does not go into even that level of detail.
There's nothing in the rules saying that panel discussions
about science fiction and fantasy is a necessary part
of Worldcon. But the event wouldn't be the same without.
(Photo of panel at Worldcon 2018 by Olav Rokne)

There’s nothing in the document suggesting that a Worldcon needs to have guests of honour, or an indoor venue. Social events are not part of the requirement, nor are dealers’ halls. There is no requirement to hold a masquerade, or even to have panels or programming.

As the 2018 Worldcon’s website notes, “the Worldcon Program is its oldest tradition” — though this is a far different statement than the programming being definitionally a required part of the event.

All that being said, if a Worldcon committee ever organized an event that had no panels, no guests of honour, and no masquerade, we suspect that the broad consensus would be that the event was “not a Worldcon.”

Section 2.6 of the WSFS Constitution deals with “Incapacity of Committees,” for instances in which a committee might fail to put together a Worldcon. But given that a formal definition of a Worldcon is absent, this section could probably never be enacted.

The rules imply the existence of four official staff roles in a Worldcon, though the actual structure of the organization varies from year to year. There’s a Chief Executive Officer or Officers (often using the term “Convention Chair” as per 4.6.1(3)), a Hugo Administrator (implied by Section 3.11, though not essential, and there’s little specificity about duties), a Site Selection Administrator (implied by Section 4.4.1, though there’s little specificity about duties), and there are Committee members (implied by Section 1.2, 1.3, 1.4, etc.).

The rules specify how the governing committees are chosen by the membership of previous Worldcons, but does not indicate what the membership of that committee might be. At the recent 2022 Worldcon in Chicago, there was one Committee Chair, 14 Division Heads, and about 200 further members of the committee.

This system provides some sense of continuity, but little actual guidance about what makes this event a Worldcon, other than the WSFS stamp of approval … and tradition.

We should not let our definition of Worldcon be simply a recreation of an idealized and mythologized past. Allowing ourselves to be governed entirely by tradition risks a “Make Worldcon Great Again” mentality, or a fetishization of a less-diverse, less-accepting, more closed-minded past.
The reason to continue those traditions should
never be “just because that’s the way it’s always
been done.” Just ask the Dutch about their 
tradition of Zwarte Piet.
(Image via State Department

There are however, many cultural practices at Worldcons that are good, and which work for the membership. 

As Hugo-finalist podcaster Marshall Ryan Maresca has noted, the convention has a “rich and deep history, and with that history, a significant amount of resentment and trauma.” This is an important reminder that we must be cognisant of exclusions and marginalizations perpetrated by past conventions, and work towards equity.

Part of the reason that these traditions have been upheld with some degree of consistency is that there are many individual convention organizers who volunteer on numerous Worldcons, and who hold institutional memory — these folks are sometimes called “SMOFs”. As the event has become more international over the years (a positive development in our opinion, though we’d admit that Worldcon is still mostly an Anglosphere event), there is less institutional memory. Therefore there is a need for the progressive community-building conventions (Definition 5) of this convention (Definition 2) to be committed to paper.

So what activities do we think are integral to a Worldcon? What should be maintained, not because of tradition, but because they work for people?

As a starting point for discussions, we brainstormed some of the Worldcon events that seem to us to be serving the membership well:

  • What the letters "S.M.O.F." stand for 
    is a closely guarded secret that is known
    to only a few science fiction fans.
    (Image of a group of Smoves via Calisphere)
    Programming, especially programming that includes panel discussions, solo talks, conversations with authors, and workshops. This programming should platform people of a wide variety of different backgrounds, genders, ethnicities, and ages.
  • A masquerade that involves opportunities for people of every age, skill level, and background to participate. The costuming community is a vital and vibrant part of every Worldcon.
  • Worldcon Guests of Honour. This is a way for the Worldcon to proclaim its values in terms of who the organizers think should be recognized and whose work should be celebrated.
  • A dealers’ hall. Although Worldcon is less commercial than many other science fiction conventions, there’s always been an interest among fandom to delve into the material history of the genre. The retailers who participate in Worldcon dealers (and other fan-run conventions) halls tend to be more niche, more nerdy, and less mainstream than those at commercially-run conventions, and this is a strength of the convention.
  • An art show that provides an opportunity both for fan artists to showcase their works, and to compete in an art competition, as well as for fans to appreciate the works on display.
  • Autographing areas, and a schedule of authors and creators who want to autograph their works.
  • A Code Of Conduct that protects the rights of attendees to be free of discrimination and harassment. The Code of Conduct adopted in Chicago in 2022 should be a model to be emulated going forward. The recently announced Code of Conduct for the Chengdu Worldcon in 2023 looks robust, and grapples with the complexities of a multilingual event with a greater possibility of miscommunication.
But … given that these are just “traditions” of the Worldcon, someone else may have a completely different list of what they believe to be integral to an event being a “Worldcon.” We’d encourage you to comment about which Worldcon events – or practices – you like to see continued or enhanced.

As an annual event with no permanent organizing team, no long-term governing council, and no written-in-stone rules about convention content, Worldcon has the potential to move with the times and improve.

The flexibility to do so should be preserved as much as possible, but we would suggest that there would be a benefit to having some debate on what the minimum expectations of a Worldcon are.

Rather than tying the hands of future conrunners with an amendment to the WSFS Constitution, we would suggest doing so as a Resolution of Continuing Effect. Although non-binding, such a resolution would provide clarity, and could help prevent potential WSFS 2.6 pitfalls down the line.

The debate about what a Worldcon is, and what a Worldcon should be, is a debate worth having.

Friday, 10 February 2023

IT'S ALIVE — Hugo Cinema 1975

This blog post is the eighteenth in a series examining past winners of the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo Award. An introductory blog post is here.  

One of the more amusing anecdotes from the 1975 Hugo Awards comes from the nominating ballots for Best Dramatic Presentation. More than 40 different movies and television shows were recognized by those planning to attend that year’s Worldcon, which was being held in Australia for the first time.

Given the location of the convention, it should be no surprise that the low-budget Australian exploitation film The Cars That Ate Paris received qualifying votes.

More surprising is that former American president Richard Nixon appeared on the longlist for the Dramatic Presentation “Resignation Speech,” which Hugo administrators decided was eligible for the award, as it was a ‘work of high fantasy.’ Nixon also received awards in several other categories, with Hugo administrator David Grigg later noting “He would have achieved a nomination in one category or another if his supporters had not spread their aim.”
Since 2005, the WSFS Constitution
(the document that governs the Hugo Awards)
has under clause 3.8.7 empowered
Hugo administrators to assign
nominating votes to the valid category,
even if they were made in the wrong category.
So under today’s rules, Nixon would
probably have made the final ballot.
(Image via

By 1975, Forrest J. Ackerman had accepted Dramatic Presentation Hugos on at least two occasions for filmmakers who could not — or possibly just didn’t care to — attend the Hugo Awards ceremony.

In Australia, he was yet again called upon to accept the award. This time he accepted on behalf of Young Frankenstein director Mel Brooks, who had at least sent a brief note to be read out, thanking Mary Shelly for her timeless story.

Mel Brooks is the one of the only directors in history to have a year in which he directed two of the top-five box office hits of the year, with Blazing Saddles being the biggest movie of 1974. earning a whopping $120 million and Young Frankenstein in fourth-place with $85 million. To put that in perspective, that places Mel Brooks’ inflation-adjusted domestic 1974 box office numbers ahead of last year’s Marvel Cinematic Universe movies.

He was at the top of his game, and 1974 had been the year of Mel Brooks. It’s difficult to find fault in Hugo voters selecting Young Frankenstein as the Hugo recipient — even if it’s not the movie we would have voted for.

Young Frankenstein is lovingly made with obvious affection for the Universal Monster movies of the 1930s and 1940s, even including the original props from James Whale’s 1931 original. The framing, the lighting, and even the camera movements are all perfectly mimicked from the five classic Frankenstein movies. This is a well-crafted movie. In terms of acting, while Marty Feldman, Madeline Kahn and Cloris Leachman are all first-rate, it seems difficult for them to keep up Gene Wilder’s slow build from reserved professor to full-on maniac, which may be his finest career performance.

But more than in any other of his films, Brooks telegraphs the punchlines — it isn’t enough for a joke to happen, the characters constantly point out that a gag has been made and the audience should laugh. While comedy is obviously subjective, for most of us, this forced approach severely undermined the movie. In fact, Mel Brooks himself may have described it best, calling Young Frankenstein the “best movie I ever made, though not necessarily the funniest.”

One work that’s often the subject of jokes, however, turns out to be possibly the finest work of science fiction cinema to be released that year.

Zardoz, the infamously weird epic from John Boorman, is often mocked for the red thong costume worn by Sean Connery. Set on a far-future Earth where humanity has been divided into warlike tribes and an isolated colony of androgynous immortals, the film follows a barbarian named Zed as he stows away on a giant stone head and embarks on a journey to discover the truth underlying his worldview.
Everyone knows that Sean Connery donned
a red speedo in Zardoz, but few people remember
that he also wore a wedding dress.
(Image via

It’s filled with big ideas and occasionally silly execution, though the gauzy pretentiousness ensures that everything has deep meaning. The sheer strangeness and cool imagery make up for the occasionally pompous nature of the material. For at least three people in our viewing group, this would have been at the top of their ballot.

Bombastic, audacious, and over-the-top, Brian de Palma’s Phantom of the Paradise has aged better than many movies from the Hugo shortlist. A mash-up of Faust and Phantom of the Opera, this musical satirizes the excesses of the prog rock era through the story of a composer named Winslow Leach (William Finney) whose work is stolen by record producer Swan (Paul Williams).

There’s still some of the pervasive sexism of the 1970s, but in Phantom of the Paradise, it seems a bit more muted as the record industry’s exploitation of women is clearly depicted as villainous. One also has to wonder how much Swan is based on then-iconic record producer Phil Spector, whose eccentricity, violent mood swings, and pathological need to control were then becoming known to Hollywood insiders. It’s a flawed movie, but one with enough going for it that it would have been a worthy winner.

Though there are flaws with each of these, they are still far better than the last two works on the ballot. Unequivocally, these should not have been nominated.

Gene Rodenberry returned to the Hugo ballot for another unsuccessful pilot episode of a TV show that never went to full series with The Questor Tapes. The premise is that a scientist named Emil Vaslovik has created an android, and then disappeared mysteriously, leaving nobody who understands his research. That android — Questor — then has to flee from government researchers, accompanied by Vaslovik’s research assistant.

There’s some good ideas here; and you can see Roddenberry recycle those ideas later and more successfully with the character of Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation. The tension between logic and emotion, the questions about what it means to be human, are all ones that Roddenberry would return to time and again. But slotting these ideas into the standard protagonist-on-the-run model of television (emulating The Fugitive, Kung Fu, The Immortal, The Incredible Hulk, etc.) doesn’t quite work. The result is stilted, formulaic, and boring. It’s a bit of a grind to watch it.

And unfortunately, one of the movies that had the most potential to be progressively transgressive, did not fulfill that promise. Flesh Gordon is a mostly-unfunny porn spoof of classic 1930s science fiction movies. It’s clearly made with a lot of attention to detail; there’s effective split-diopter shots, and rear projection, and superb miniatures work. Though the special effects are actually quite well-done, and the science fictional elements tell a mostly-coherent story, the acting is dreadful and the dialogue is leaden.

Most upsetting, the combination of racism and sexism would place this movie firmly below “no award” on our ballots. Given the fact that they were already working with a motion picture rating that would have given them leeway to tackle LGBTQ issues, and given that they were telling a science fictional story about a society with different social mores, it’s particularly galling that the filmmakers were still in thrall to 1970s homophobia and gender essentialism.
For Sun Ra, space was a place in which racism
had no power. There’s an emancipatory power to this
narrative convention, and a philosophical underpinning
that helps get past the movie’s hokier moments.
(image via

Flesh Gordon seems to be an attempt to make outsider art, but instead reinforces pre-existing biases.

If we’d had our druthers, we probably would have included both Sun Ra’s afrofuturist jazz musical Space Is The Place and graphic designer Saul Bass’ visually compelling ant-pocalyptic disaster movie Phase IV.

Overall, 1975 was a more promising year for the Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo, with several credible choices on the ballot, and a winner that continues to find fans almost 50 years later. Although we’d argue Zardoz is a more meaningful work of art that probably deserved the award, this is more a quibble about populism versus high culture.