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, Saudi Arabia, 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. What happens when a work critical of a local government is nominated in a place that has a history of censorship? 

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
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.


  1. I think that trying to impose additional restrictions on Worldcon bids would be quite unpopular. As it stands now, the selection model is "Require bids to file showing that they have an organization and a site, and let the members decide." While there are individuals who feel strongly that certainly places should not be allowed to hold the convention and think The Rules Must Be Changed, it does seem to me that they don't represent the large majority of the membership. WSFS is very much driven by an ethos of letting a majority of its own members make the major decisions, such as where to hold its conventions and to whom/what to present its major awards.

    This is so different from how most organizations work -- where a small group relative to the overall membership makes all of the important decisions -- that I think it's difficult for many people to wrap their heads around it. I do not deny that it's hard work to make any changes in this system (I've tried and sometimes succeeded and sometimes failed), but what is the alternative? Instead of letting the members decide, have a Board of Directors (presumably elected by the membership) make all of the decisions?

    1. With who gets an award or is shortlisted for an award, there are pretty small consequences of a group of fans gaming the system. The worst thing that's happened is L. Ron Hubbard's Hugo Nod.

      With site selection votes, the potential consequences are more significant. It would be entirely too possible for a dedicated group of bigots or political actors to flood the site selection vote and award a Worldcon to a country that criminalizes homosexuality (like Russia) or is conducting persecution of religious minorities (China).

      All that's suggested in the post is a WSFS working group or committee to look at the question.