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.

No comments:

Post a Comment