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Publisher: Bluejack

October, 2004 : Con Report:

Of All Possible Worlds

A Journey to the 62nd Annual World Science Fiction Convention

1. Preface, Prologue, and Prolegomenon

I was a teenager in 1989, when the World Science Fiction Convention last landed in Boston. I was not at the convention, but I was in Boston for a day, and I visited the Avenue Victor Hugo Bookshop and purchased some books that caused the clerk to say, "You know, Worldcon is in town."

Yes, yes, I knew. But it wasn't my thing. I wasn't a fan—I was just someone who happened to read the stuff, and though I was young, I was old enough to know I should probably be reading something serious, and I certainly shouldn't be hanging around with people who liked to dress up as Captain Kirk or Princess Leia.

It wasn't the stigma of the SF world, or my fear of people in costumes that kept me away, though. It was that only one person there would know who I was, and I suspected he would be busy and that I would have to wander through the halls like a misplaced marble, surrounded by people who knew each other well and shared conversations the way siblings share clothes. No no no, it was not for me.

Besides, what if that one person I knew, a writer, actually introduced me to people—to other writers, to editors? What would I say? Would I tell them I thought they were gods?

After 1989, I continued to stay away from conventions, and for a while I stayed away from science fiction altogether, but eventually I returned, and as part of that return I created a weblog where I recorded my thoughts on stories and books that I read. I never expected anyone to take notice, but they did, and by the time Worldcon wended its way back to Boston in 2004, a number of people had emailed me to say, "You're going to be there, right?"

Right. I hemmed and hawed and huffed and puffed, but really, I had no good excuse, except that I was supposed to be in faculty meetings at the boarding school where I work. Nonetheless, I knew I wouldn't be able to live with myself afterward if I didn't go to at least a part of Worldcon, despite my fear that I would, much against my will, laugh at someone dressed as their favorite character from something or other. This time, I was sure I wouldn't be lonely, but I did fear that, since most people knew me only from some casual writings on the internet, I would be a disappointment, a bore or a cad, forgettable, pathetic.

But the one person I knew well, James Patrick Kelly, had been nominated for a Hugo for his story "Bernardo's House," one of my favorites of his entire career, and I wanted very much to be able to vote for him. So I registered just in time to be able to vote in the Hugos, and then Jeff VanderMeer offered to share a room with me, and I couldn't very well say no to any of it. After all, Jeff was up for a Hugo, too, for co-editing The Thackerey T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric & Discredited Diseases. This could be a good year for my friends.

2. Home for Dreamers

After checking in at the hotel, I made my way to the Hynes Convention Center. All I knew of the Hynes was that it had taken over the name of my favorite subway stop in Boston, which had once been known simply as "Auditorium" and is now named for the convention center itself. "Auditorium" is a name that is, for me, inseparable from Avenue Victor Hugo, the greatest bookstore I've ever known, a place of warmth and excitement, and books that, before the advent of the internet, I'd never been able to find anywhere else. I had not been to Boston since Avenue Victor Hugo had closed in the spring of 2004, leaving me with no reason to remember that the muffled voice on the train's speakers announcing "Hynes Convention Center" really meant to say "Auditiorium."

Not having been in the convention center before, I didn't know its engineers stole some tricks from Dr. Who's Tardis and made the inside larger than Boston itself. I found a guard at the entrance leading in from the Sheraton, my hotel, and asked where registration was located. "Go down that hall, take a left, go down a ramp, take another left, then go into a room and follow the signs."

Sure. A left. Around a hall and down a ramp. Signs. Down there. Somewhere.

What I found waiting for me in the registration office was a ticket into another world, a place where I felt more at home than I had felt in longer than I could remember.

Science fiction—speculative fiction, science fantasy, fantasy, slipstream, new or old weird—is, yes, a type of writing and a type of popular culture and a type of many other things, but it is also a place with an emotional and intellectual geography. It is difficult to teach someone to appreciate SF who does not have at least a nascent predilection for it. It is, simply, a willingness to suspend disbelief, a joy in the work of imagining.

Love of SF is not about escapism, though certainly some people do read to forget their lives in the shabby dream that passes for "the real world." The love of SF comes from a love of dreaming for its own sake. Dreams can be remembered or forgotten, frightening or funny, interpreted or allowed to stand on their own, dismissed or worshipped. The SF reader knows this and revels in the manifold mysteries, the plethora of oneiric possibilities. The non-SF reader says dreaming is an unavoidable consequence of sleep.

And so the dreamers congregate. They toss the products of their minds into each other's air, they sift for imaginary gold, they build a home out of ideas and cross-references and the dust of decaying pulp magazines.

How appropriate, then, that Neil Gaiman, who has made dreams the subject and substance of his career, should be the master of ceremonies at the Hugo Awards. A few hours after his duties ended, I met him in a crowded, hot suite at the Sheraton where white masks dangled from balloons floating against the ceiling. I was grateful at that point that I hadn't gone to Worldcon in 1989, because how many people can say that at their first convention they met the master of ceremonies for the Hugo Awards? (Many, probably, but allow me my dream!)

Dreamers shouldn't doubt, but the doubting part of my psyche wonders if I cherish that moment with Neil Gaiman simply because of the status it confers. Conventions of any sort breed egoism, sycophancy, hierarchies of fawning. Worship is entertaining, intoxicating: the worshipper gains a sense of the self mingling with another, while the worshipped enters a feedback loop of the ego extending out to be expanded and reflected back. Worship can be ugly, too, as Harlan Ellison showed in his essay "Xenogenesis," which I read in Asimov's magazine somewhere around the time I was deciding not to drop in on Worldcon for a day. I remember most vividly the tale of a fan who tossed a Dixie cup of vomit in a writer's face.

The fans I saw were far more friendly than that, though a few were aggressive in their adulation. Many people seemed to feel a need to prove their knowledge to each other, as if remaining at the convention required an endless series of passwords. (I've seen worse at academic conferences, where people wield jargon in duels for the hand of the lily-white maiden of tenure.) Every home has eccentric relatives who come to visit, and every family houses strange traditions.

3. There Are Panels

The primary substance of the convention was panels: collections of people talking to each other in rooms. The subjects were vast: "SF as an International Phenomenon," "Anglo-Saxon Influences on Modern Fantasy," "Fifteen Years of 'The Simpsons,'" "Constructing Technobabble," "Heinlein and the Question of Incest," and hundreds more. There was "filk"—SF folk songs. There were workshops on how to create costumes. There were games—board games, role-playing games, unclassifiable games. There were movies and TV shows.

Though I am fond of board games, particularly esoteric European ones, and have played quite a few role-playing games, I did not go to any of the gaming events, simply because there was too much else to do. I did not go to the costuming events, did not go to the filk events, did not see any movies or TV shows. I went to panels, both because I was interested in the topics and because I was curious to hear from the people who were on the panels.

For instance, there was the first panel I went to, a reading from The Lambshead Guide by Paul DiFilippo, Cory Doctorow, Jay Lake, Liz Williams, Jay Caselberg, and Jeff VanderMeer. I wanted to let Jeff know I had arrived, and I wanted to introduce myself to Jay Lake, who once claimed I made him say, "Huh?" about one of his own stories. The readers—doctors all, of course, complete with stethoscopes—did a fine job, but I rushed out after saying hello to Jeff because I wanted to get to the next panel, titled "How Workshopping Works: A Public Hanging."

Here, seated at a long table and looking disarmingly friendly, Steven Popkes, James Cambias, F. Brett Cox, Theodora Goss, Kelly Link, and Vandana Singh tore apart a new story by James Patrick Kelly. The ostensible purpose was to demonstrate how the Cambridge (Mass.) Writers' Workshop actually functions, because the workshops are usually private and for invited writers only, so the public does not get to witness the carnage. Each writer had read the story and written comments. Theodora Goss began, saying, "You know I like your writing, Jim, but this particular story seemed to me to have a lot of problems. I think it's really two stories, neither of which you've actually written, and one of which is really boring and cliched." And so it continued, with each respondent diving deeper and deeper into the marrow of the tale, surfacing to spit out chunks of flesh and word.

I am proud of the fact that I didn't cackle once. You see, I've lived through many workshops, some of which were far more brutalizing than what the Cambridge folks did to Jim Kelly, and Jim himself has offered me excellent and incisive criticism in the past. But I've never had the chance to see someone who is an accomplished, experienced, multiple-award-winning writer have his work torn apart and put back together again so thoroughly. It was better than professional wrestling, better than monster trucks.

Afterward, Jim was in remarkably good spirits for someone whose literary entrails had been pulled through his nose and diced by diverse hands. I had met Brett Cox a few months before (at a playwriting workshop, of all things), and he and Jim introduced me to Theodora Goss, whose fine chapbook, The Rose in Twelve Petals and Other Stories, Kelly Link and Gavin Grant had recently published with their Small Beer Press. I heaped praise on her, which is really the best thing to do with praise in this, American culture's hyperbolic age, especially for writers who deserve it.

The next panel I got to, after a pause for lunch and some time in the dealers' room, was "Rhythm, Meter, and the Use of Language," which had the following description in the convention guide:

Unresolved anapests? Short. Choppy. Sentence. Fragments? Changing viewpoints mid-paragraph? What are some of the ways to vary the "best" of prose, and how (why?) are these methods used? How can they be used well? Badly? How can particular writing styles attract or repel readers?

The writers on the panel were an interesting group: Greer Gilman, Lee Martindale, David Marusek, Martha Soukup, and Jo Walton. Unfortunately, they barely addressed the subject of the panel, falling instead into tedious arguments about what is or isn't "art," whether all writing relies on technique, et cetera. Part of the problem was a lack of active moderation; part of it was that a few people in the audience seemed to think they were panelists.

I made it to fewer panels as the convention progressed, mostly because I found it more interesting and fulfilling to talk with small groups of people I met. The "Rhythm, Meter, and Use of Language" panel wasn't the only one that had trouble staying on topic or avoiding pointless, generalized arguments, nor was it the only panel hijacked by audience questions. I began to wonder if there were some sort of workshop for moderators that could help them learn to run a panel, because when they were moderated well they were fascinating. The best I saw was Jonathan Strahan's moderating of "The Best Short Stories of 2004 (So Far)" and Graham Sleight's moderating of "The New Weird: What, Who, and Why?".

Ahhh yes, the New Weird. If you have not been following the label-making tendency within the SF world, you may not know about "The New Weird," a term China Miéville and M. John Harrison have been advocating for a couple of years now. There have been other terms for some of the surfers on the new waves of today's SF tide—"slipstream," "interstitial," "romantic underground"—but New Weird has had a certain popular power. On the other hand, it is also contentious, and whoever determined the composition of the panel clearly knew this, because the panel included people such as Jeff VanderMeer, who has been one of the many writers to question the usefulness of the two words, and Delia Sherman, who has been a part of the Interstitial Arts Foundation, which is sometimes seen as a rival of the New Weird, sometimes seen as a partner, and sometimes seen as irrelevant. I walked to the panel with Graham Sleight, who said he thought the discussion could get heated, that certain panelists might end up inadvertently (or advertently) insulting each other, and that he secretly hoped it would just end quickly.

The audience was small, but included Jon Courtenay Grimwood and Kathryn Cramer, who have both, over the past few years, been part of the arguments for and against New Weird as a label, for and against genre boundaries, for and against Miéville and Harrison.

Perhaps because just about everyone seems to be tired of the New Weird argument and feels it has become circular (China Miéville has vowed not to talk about it ever again ever ever ever promise ever ever), and certainly because Graham was a fine moderator, the discussion was actually interesting and seldom heated, and each participant was both thoughtful and respectful.

The most interesting point was raised by Jon Courtenay Grimwood from the audience—after various panelists wondered why some of the British promulgators of the New Weird had claimed at times that no-one other than Brits could write the stuff, Grimwood explained that the sensibility that produced the New Weird was the sensibility of people who had lived in the U.K. before Margaret Thatcher became British Prime Minister, then lived through the changes she brought to the country, and now were living in an England ravaged by Thatcher's legacy. (Jonathan Strahan, who was one of the panelists, quoted The The's song "Heartland" to illustrate: "...the piss stinking shopping centre/ in the new side of town...") The effect of Reagan on U.S. culture was tremendous, but different than what England experienced under Thatcher.

Before the convention, I might have said that the New Weird discussion would be the liveliest panel I'd see, but that honor went to "Postcapitalist Social Mechanisms," in which the brilliant Ben Rosenbaum proved himself the fastest-talking SF writer in the known universe; in which Cory Doctorow talked like one of his books (which is not a criticism); and in which moderator David Friedman spent most of his time with his back turned to M.M. Bruckner, who hardly got any chance to talk at all. Friedman seemed to be a rabid libertarian (saying something to the effect of "All empirical evidence proves that monopolies only occur when the government interferes with the free market"), Rosenbaum, a revved-up liberal, and Doctorow, a mediator, whose ability to prevent actual violence with virtual jargon is stunning. Someone of Friedman's passion and commitment to one ideology should not have been allowed to be moderator. I left the panel feeling it had been unfortunately shallow, and feeling annoyed that Bruckner had been shut out of the conversation.

The lesson learned? Moderation is a virtue.

4. In Search of Wonder

If I tell you about the Dealers' Room, you will want to go there, but you cannot go there now, because it no longer exists. You will have to wait till next year, but it will not be the same. Like everything else, the wondrous commerce of the Dealers' Room is subject to the rent of time. Perhaps you will see a bookcase filled with old issues of Amazing Stories and Startling Stories and Planet Stories elsewhere, all those nostalgically astounding thrills and wonders, but it will not be standing beside a table full of jewelry for knights and their princesses, which stood beside a table of Terry Pratchett tchotchkes, which stood beside itself.

Or maybe not. I don't remember, actually. I'm making it all up, embroidered from dreams. Does it matter? There will be other Dealers' Rooms.

What you really want to know is what I bought, of course, and there's a simple answer to that: Too much and not enough. The managers of Borderlands Books clearly have developed an attractor ray, and they aimed it at me to bring me back and back to their tables. I vowed only to buy books that were difficult to get elsewhere or that were considerably more expensive elsewhere or that were sold by Kelly Link, who is fascinating to talk to and has better literary taste than anyone else I know. There were moments when it felt like the entire gargantuan vastness of the Dealers' Room had been filled with books and magazines that were difficult to get elsewhere, more expensive elsewhere, and sold by Kelly Link at the Small Beer Press table. I asked the technicians at Borderlands for an antigravity device for my satchel, but they refused to admit they had such technology, despite the attractor ray.

The Dealers' Room was not the only place of wonder at the convention. The Art Show had some phenomenal work, particularly that of John Picacio, who is, to my eyes at least, the most interesting illustrator in SF. Of the miscellaneous items around the convention, the displays for the Guests of Honor (William Tenn, Terry Pratchett, Jack Speer, and Peter Weston) were, except for the Pratchett, small and disappointing, but the display of past Hugo Awards was thrilling—particularly that very first Hugo: so crude, so small, so enchanting.

The real wonders of the convention, though, could be found at the parties. I attended a few: a party sponsored by Wheatland Press to celebrate the release of the excellent anthology Polyphony 4, a party sponsored by Tor Books, and the Hugo Losers' Party, to which I had a pass because Certain People decided I belonged there, though I don't think they intended any insult in suggesting my natural environment is with losers.

Actually, the Hugo Losers' Party was filled with both winners and nominees, except for the ones like Jay Lake who tried to bring more than two guests.

The wonders of the parties were personal ones, and if I try to relate them here I will do nothing more than drop names into a pail of egoboo, an act that may be exciting for the writer, but is hardly something that needs to be done publicly with readers watching. I will simply say this: If you go to a convention, be sure to go to parties, and try to be nice to people who can tell you where the most interesting parties are, where wonders don't cease till dawn, and where your own pail of egoboo can fill.

5. Amazing Stories, Complete with a Sentimental End!

I will draw this drawn-out chronicle to a close with a few thoughts on the Hugo Awards ceremony and the awards themselves.

The highlight of the ceremony was Robert Silverberg's elegant tongue-in-cheek homage to fifty years of Hugos. Silverberg is, as far as we know, the only person to have attended every Hugo Awards ceremony. His stories were funny and most of them were true (though a few people doubted the one about Connie Willis having attended the first ceremony as a babe-in-arms and winning), and his thoughts, along with those offered at the beginning by Neil Gaiman, about the award's history and prestige, the humility people feel in the face of it, were beautifully expressed.

Awards are silly—they reduce a vast and diverse field of work to a kind of multiple-choice test, they confer stature that may not be deserved, they are prey to popular contestants and bean counters. And yet it is exciting to watch the contest, and no adjective exists to convey the thrill of sitting in Bean Town waiting to hear how the count came out. The Hugo Awards are a social event, not a critical statement. Some people are seemingly incapable of losing the award—Dave Langford, Gardner Dozois, Michael Swanwick, Lois McMaster Bujold, Vernor Vinge, Neil Gaiman, Bob Eggleton, Locus—while some of the categories are absurd (What is a "Best Related Book," after all?). Yet I don't begrudge any of it. Sure, I thought Jim Kelly's and Jeff Ford's stories were better than Swanwick's; I thought Gaiman should have been nominated for his unjustly overlooked "Bitter Grounds" and not for "A Study in Emerald"; I didn't have any desire to read the nominated novels; Ellen Datlow and Gordon Van Gelder both seem to be advancing the possibilities of SF while Gardner Dozois too often seems becalmed these days....

But the moment each name was announced, it felt just right, even though only Cheryl Morgan's award for Best Fanzine (for Emerald City) was a big surprise, though so deeply deserved I almost burst into tears. All my critical abilities deserted me, all cynicism evaporated in a candy-colored haze, and everything seemed deserved, perfect, justified. Of course Dozois deserved yet another Hugo—this one honored all his years of great work at Asimov's, from which he had recently retired as editor. He especially deserved it at this convention, because shortly before the convention began, he was in a serious car accident and hadn't been able to attend. A Hugo Award to make the Percocet go down. Michael Swanwick's "Legions in Time" was an amusing story that tipped its hat and its narrative to many writers in the SF past, and what better sort of story to honor with a Hugo?

"It's the fan's award," Jeff Ford said to me early on at the convention, "and that means a lot."

There are days when I think the people who have won trunks and U-Hauls of Hugos should be given some sort of emeritus status—Dave Langford, Bob Eggleton, Locus—to make room for other winners, but the Hugo is the fan's award. Like high school, the Hugos are very much about popularity, and they are a snapshot of a historical moment, a picture of the people who captured many imaginations.

The Hugo Awards ceremony and the convention itself were far more interesting than high school, however. I may not go to another Worldcon soon—too difficult to fit into my schedule, too expensive—but I finally did go, and I will be forever grateful to the people I talked to, and to the broad, muddled memory I have of the convention, because it was there I learned how to get home.

Copyright © 2004, Matthew Cheney. All Rights Reserved.

About Matthew Cheney

Matthew Cheney has published fiction and nonfiction with Locus, SF Site, Rain Taxi, One Story, LCRW, Electric Velocipede, and elsewhere. He is a columnist for Strange Horizons and writes regularly about all sorts of things at his weblog, The Mumpsimus.


Sep 27, 21:15 by John Frost
Want to talk about WorldCon?

(For the article itself: click here.)
Sep 27, 21:50 by Cheryl Morgan
Aw Matt, thanks! I promise to cry when you win one. (And I do mean "when".)
Oct 1, 09:37 by LP Turner
What a sagious and comprehensive wit you have. For one who narrowly escaped attending the WorldCon, I deeply appreciate the written tour. I felt like I was there. And, it only took an hour to read. If I ever attend another Con, I'll nominate you for, at least, the non-fiction Hugo.
Oct 17, 23:45 by Michael-Xavier Maelstrom

Danke for that Mr. Cheney, it reminded me why I continue to return to IROSF. Healthy arculate fasciculus; thoughtful intelligent insightful opine und an good command of ad'verb'iage.

I'd like to eat your brain.

(Consider it an exercise in subdued psychofancy - Ed)

Go away Ed.


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