Cora’s Adventures at CoNZealand, the Virtual 2020 Worldcon, and Some Thoughts on Virtual Conventions in General

CoNZealand LogoSo far, I’ve talked a lot about the Hugo ceremony at CoNZealand, the virtual 2020 Worldcon, but little about the con itself, which is a pity, because CoNZealand was actually pretty good, all things considered.

Normally, this would be a post with lots of photos of panels, exhibits, parties, the convention centre, the Hugo ceremony, the Hugo reception and after-party, etc…. However, due to CoNZealand going virtual like most other cons this year (the ones that weren’t cancelled outright), the convention centre was my office. Which had the advantage that I didn’t have to dash from panel to panel and that I could make myself tea or empty the dishwasher in between panels. Food was always in easy reach and cheaper as well as more nutritious than the usual convention centre grub.

However, there were also new challenges such as “No, Mom, I don’t mind if you want to watch Hawaii Five-O or NCIS or whatever on my TV, but you have to be out of here by half past ten, because I have a panel at eleven.” Another issue is that if the con takes place at home, there is some pressure to keep working anyway, which wouldn’t be there if I had been on the other side of the world in New Zealand. And so I slept in the morning, taught virtual German classes in the afternoon, was at Worldcon by night and also translated someone’s citizenship renunciation certificate in between. Oh yes, and I was still doing the July Short Story Challenge, too, for the first few days of the con, though I only managed a couple fo flash pieces (the post-mortem is coming soon, I promise). I also made sure to take a short daily walk throughout the con.

As you can see from the program schedule I posted shortly before the con, I had a lot of programming this time around. I was on five panels and moderated three of them. I also had a virtual table in the dealer’s hall, something I haven’t done before, either virtually or in person. And then there was the neverending Hugo ceremony from hell, a dealers’ hall reception, etc… In short, I had a busy Worldcon.

My first panel was the “Evolution of Fanzines” panel on Wednesday at 6 AM my time. This was the one of my panels that was probably most affected by the behind the scenes programming changes and fixes that were still going on a few days before the con.

There were two potential problems with the panel: One was the panel description, which asked, “Are fanzines becoming blogs?” That would have been an interesting question to ask, in 2005 or so, but not in 2020. Personally, I didn’t so much mind the panel description – after all, I was moderating and could direct the panel into the direction where I wanted it to go. However, Adri Joy of the Best Fanzine Hugo finalist nerds of a feather was so annoyed by the description which erases most of the 2020 Best Fanzine finalists that she contacted CoNZealand programming and was able to get it changed.

The other potential problem with the fanzine panel was that it seemed to be heavily weighted towards traditional print fanzines, not to mention very white. It also had only three panelists in addition to the moderator. So I asked around in the group that was busily working to make programming more diverse and ended up with not one but two additional panelists who made the panel so much better. And so we had a really great panel with Greg Hills and Jeanne Mealy representing the traditional print fanzine end of the spectrum, Wendy Browne of Women Write About Comics and Sarah Gulde of Star Trek Quarterly and Journey Planet (and myself, I guess) representing the electronic end of the spectrum and Chris Garcia of Journey Planet and The Drink Tank bridging both sides.

Since it was the first day of the con, there were still a number of technical issues. For starters, the panel took place in a so-called meeting room, not a webinar room, so several of the things we’d been told in the Zoom training that CoNZealand organised for all programme participants didn’t apply. And so there were no individual Zoom links for the panelists, but we had to enter with the regular attendants and the Q&A function didn’t exist either, so we took questions via the chat function. One panelist also had technical issues and couldn’t join us until about twenty minutes into the panel. We also had a zoombombing cat, but then zoombombing pets and kids are always welcome.

But all in all, the panel went well, I think, and I also learned some lessons for future panels such as, “Don’t trust that the Q&A function will work and prepare to take questions via the chat?”, “Appoint someone as question wrangler”, “Make sure to remind the audience on which Discord channel (there was one for each programme room) the conversation will continue afterwards” and “Have any links you want to drop into the chat handy before the panel or have a helpful audience member do it for you, because you won’t have the time to chase down links, while you’re actually on the panel.”

I had my next panel the same evening at 11 PM my time. This was “Come Time Travel With Me”, the Galactic Journey live event, featuring Gideon Marcus, Janice Marcus, Lorelei Marcus, Erica Frank and myself. This panel required less preparation, a) because I wasn’t moderating, and b) because I’ve been on the Journey Show, Galactic Journey‘s series of regular online events, a couple of times now (the last time the Saturday before the con, actually), so I knew what to expect. Though I did look up what happened in late July 1965.

Since we’re all time travellers from 1965 for the purpose of the Galactic Journey live events, I also ditched my usual con uniform of geeky t-shirt and Hugo finalist pin (last year’s, since this year’s hasn’t arrived yet) in favour of some retro looking clothes, in this case an original Italian headband from the 1960s and a hippie-ish looking peasant blouse. The audience clearly enjoyed the retro outfits, judging by the chat, and we had another fun panel, which hopefully also brought in some new fans to Galactic Journey and the Journey Show. And talking about Galactic Journey, my latest article there is up. This time, I take a look at two 1965 movies, Again, the Ringer and The Face of Fu Manchu.

The first two days of the con were fairly light with regard to panel load, even though due to the time difference both panels took place on the same day in my timezone. Day three a.k.a. the night from Thursday to Friday, however, was a dozy with three panels, two of which I was moderating, and an event where the dealers’ hall vendors introduce themselves.

My first panel for the day was the “Cover Art” panel at 11 PM my time. I was moderating and the panelists were John Picacio and Alyssa Winans representing the artist side, Pablo Defendini, art director of Fireside Magazine, and Gideon Marcus of Galactic Journey and Journey Press (and myself, I guess) representing the publisher side. That was an amazing panel, which also shows how important good panelists are. I didn’t even have to do much moderating, because John, Pablo and Alyssa basically just threw the ball at each other. I also learned a lot.

Coincidentally, the “Cover Art” panel was also an all Hugo finalist panel, since every single one of us on that panel was a Hugo finalist. And one of us, John Picacio, would go on to win a highly deserved Hugo for Best Professional Artist.

After the cover art panel, I theoretically had a full hour until my next panel at 1 AM. However in practice, I had much less time, because I was chatting in Discord with the audience and panelists. So at twenty to one, I suddenly realised, “Oops, I have to go to y next panel” and excused myself.

The next panel was “The Second Golden Age: SF of the 1960s”. Bradford Lyau was moderating, the panelists were Robert Silverberg, Jack Dann, Kathryn Sullivan and myself. This time, I wore my regular con outfit – geeky t-shirt with Hugo pin – because unlike the Galactic Journey panel, this was a retrospective panel, so I was not actually a time traveller from the 1960s this time around.

There also was some debate about the subject of the panel beforehand, because one panelist (you can maybe guess who) heartily disagreed that the 1960s were the second golden age of science fiction or even the silver age and felt that the early 1950s were the true second golden age.

Talking about the term “golden age” for a moment, I’ve seen complaints from mostly younger SFF writers and readers that they don’t think the period from 1937 to the early 1950s, that is traditionally called “the golden age of science fiction” should be called that, because they believe that the true golden age is now, because there is so much good SFF being published today.

I disagree with this, because I see “golden age” more as a descriptive term used for a certain period than as a value judgment. Of course, it was initially intended to be a value judgment, but even then it should have been clear that the initial golden age would eventually be matched or eclipsed. But by now, the term “golden age” has simply become so engrained that we use it for a specific period, whether we actually think it was golden or not. For example, I also use the term “golden age of comics” for the period of approx. 1938 to 1954 (almost concurrently to the golden age of science fiction), even though I vastly prefer the bronze age and even the much derided 1990s to the so-called golden age. Ditto for the golden age of detective fiction in the 1920s and 1930s – I use the term, even though I don’t like the actual books all that much.

That said, the actual panel was pleasant and civil. Yes, Robert Silverberg told stories about the good old days, but unlike the Hugo ceremony, this was the right context for it, because people who come to a panel about science fiction of the 1960s (or insert decade here) actually want to hear stories about the good old days. Though apparently, there is still bad blood regarding Stanislaw Lem supposedly saying mean things about some American SFF authors more than forty years after Lem was kicked out of the SFWA (one of only two members to ever get kicked out – the other was Theodore Beale a.k.a. Vox Day). But whether you like Lem or not, when someone asks a question about the best and most memorable worlds in 1960s science fiction, you can’t not mention Solaris or Dune for that matter.

After the 1960s SF panel, I had only ten minutes to get to my next panel “Translation: The Key to Open Doors to Cultural Diversity in SFF”. I was moderating again and the panelists were Libia Benda from Mexico, Luis F. Silva from Portugal, Wataru Ishigame, speaking from the POV of a publisher publishing translated SFF in Japan, and Neil Clarke of Clarkesworld Magazine as the token American. Though that would be mean, because Neil Clarke has done more than pretty much any other magazine editor to bring translated SFF to English speaking readers.

Again, we had a lively e-mail debate before the panel and just as lively a debate during the panel, complete with an audio zoombombing by a Mexican street vendor. I had also asked all panelists to recommend some SFF books or stories from their country that had been translated into English (and Neil Clarke generally recommended SFF in translation), so there were book recommendations as well.

The translation panel also overran by almost half an hour, because once the Zoom recording  was stopped, the Zoom meeting just remained open. After ascertaining that the audience could still hear us, we just continued talking about SFF in translation for another twenty five minutes or so, until the Zoom host shut down the room.  Now that’s something that could never have happened at a physical con, unless you were the last panel of the day and the room wasn’t needed again. And even then, convention center staff is usually eager to get you out of the program rooms, so the rooms can be cleaned and the staff can go home. Because a Worldcon is a huge challenge not just for the committee, but also for the venue and its staff, because Worldcons are quite different from the professional conferences that convention centers usually host, as this post on the official site of the Convention Centre Dublin, using the 2019 Worldcon as a case study, shows.

After the translation panel, I theoretically has an hour of time – except that practically, it was more like thirty minutes – before I had to head to my next engagement, a “Meet the Dealers” event for the vendors in the virtual dealers hall.

Renting a table in the virtual dealers hall was an experiment for me and one that wasn’t entirely successful. I did sell some e-books, including several copies of the Pegasus Pulp Sampler,  a collection of twelve novellas, novelettes and short stories, which includes samples – usually the first story – of all my series. But I didn’t earn the fee for the table back, which is okay, because it’s tax deductible for me. And besides, I also view the sales table as a form of marketing, to get my name and that of Pegasus Pulp out there.

In general, I feel that while Zoom and Discord do a decent job of replicating the convention experience in virtual form, the dealers hall is probably the most difficult part of a traditional convention to replicate, because the sense of browsing and discovery that you get in a physical dealers hall is simply missing when clicking from page to page.

Friday night was Hugo night. I didn’t have any panels, so after my virtual German class finished, all I had to worry about was the Hugo ceremony. And I’ve already talked exhaustively about what happened there and also shared the POVs of many other people.

Around the time, Best Related Work was announced I noped out of the ceremony and headed to the virtual after-party – not hosted by George R.R. Martin this time around, if only because Martin was still reminiscing about Worldcons of the 1970s – where I had a lot more fun and interestingly found myself talking to some of the same people I’d chatted with in person at the physical Hugo Losers Party and Hugo reception in Dublin the year before. I also met several great new people.

Indeed, I found that the party aspect of Worldcons was recreated remarkably well in Zoom, even though I would have expected that would be the most difficult aspect to recreate. I didn’t attend any of the parties at the Helsinki Worldcon, if only because I had my Mom in tow and her idea of a nice evening in a foreign city is a sit-down dinner at a nice restaurant and not nibbles and drinks, while chatting with people in a random convention centre room.

In Dublin, I tagged along when some folks from the File 770 meet-up wanted to go to one of the bid parties and found that I quite enjoyed the experience of drifting from party to party and chatting with all sorts of people, whether it was representatives of the sadly now defunct Nice Worldcon bid for 2023 or the assembled German SMOFdom. The Zoom parties recreated that aspect rearkably well, even if you had to provide your own drinks and nibbles (red wine and regular chocolate – the champagne and the good Belgian chocolate went back in the cellar, when I did not win the Hugo).

The last Worldcon day was relatively quiet for me. I watched some panels and checked out the parties and had fun. I was also really exhausted by that point, because virtual conventions can be as exhausting as physical ones, especially if you still have to teach virtual classes, translate certificates, make lunch or show up at your parents’ for Sunday barbecue, too.

One of the things I enjoyed most about the Dublin Worldcon was the Raksura Colony Tree community art project, where a group of crafters came together to create a section of a colony tree from the Books of Raksura by Martha Wells in yarn and fabric. I found heading to the crafting table and just sitting there and chatting with other crafters an immensely relaxing oasis in the bustle of the con.

CoNZealand also had a community art project called Yarnbombing CoNZealand, which was initially supposed to yarnbomb the area around the Wellington convention centre. But with the convention going virtual, we simply yarnbombed our own gardens and neighbourhoods instead.

Sadly, the yarnbombing page in the CoNZealand exhibit are is gone, but you can see my contribution, Occulus, the friendly eyeball monster below. I’m currently putting the finishing touches on his brother Ophthalmos. There will be more photos, once Ophthalmos is finished as well:

Occulus the Eyeball Monster in his new habitat

Occulus the Friendly Eyeball Monster decorates the fence.

Close-up of Occulus the Eyeball Monster

A close-up look at Occulus, the friendly eyeball monster.

And that was my CoNZealand report. This is not the report I hoped to write – instead I hoped that I could give you a trip report with lots of photos from New Zealand, but the corona pandemic messed this up like it messed up so many other things.

That said, I find that I do enjoy virtual conventions. Besides, virtual cons make it possible for me and many other fans to attend, even if the con is happening on another continent, which is a definite plus. Though I do hope that I will get to attend another physical Worldcon someday in the not too far future.

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3 Responses to Cora’s Adventures at CoNZealand, the Virtual 2020 Worldcon, and Some Thoughts on Virtual Conventions in General

  1. Laura says:

    Thanks for the report! I’m glad it mostly went well for you. While New Zealand was never in the cards for me, I seriously considered virtually attending once it went online. In the end, I decided most of the programming was just too completely opposite my normal waking hours. I would love it if future Worldcons did some sort of hybrid virtual/physical con and had a tier between supporting and physically attending.

    • Cora says:

      Yes, the timing of CoNZealand programming was not ideal. Though I also like virtual conventions, because it allows me to attend cons I normally wouldn’t get to attend. I also suspect we will be seeing more virtual programming and virtual memberships offered, even if physical cons are possible again.

  2. Pingback: Pixel Scroll 8/16/20 I Holler As I Overturn Mike’s BBQ And Turn The Pixel Of Scroll Into, Uh, Something Something | File 770

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