Yet more Worldcon and Hugo Reactions

The discussion about Paul Cook’s attempts to define SF for the rest of us seems to have died down, but it seems we’re still talking about Worldcon and the Hugos and if/how they should change. My last round-up of Hugo and Worldcon reactions is here BTW.

First of all, Paul Cornell apparently referred to the SMOFs, an acronym that stands for Secret Masters of Fandom (i.e. the people who organize and run cons), as “Smurfs” in reference to this photo of overwhelmingly male and white Worldcon chairs posted by Jim Hines and plenty of others. Personally, my reaction to the photo was “Wow, there are are more women than I would have expected.” I don’t really think Smurf is an insult either. After all, Smurfs are clever, brave, industrious, kind and regularly beat Gargamel at his own game. Nonetheless, some people were upset, so Paul Cornell apologized to all offended SMOFs. File 770 and Cheryl Morgan have more.

The second issue concerns Mary Robinette Kowal’s novelette The Lady Astronaut of Mars, which won enough nominations to have made the Hugo ballot in the novelette category, but was disqualified due to being only available as an audio book and audio books count as dramatic presentations and not in the written fiction categories. At Geek Feminism, Annalee wonders whether the exclusion of The Lady Astronaut of Mars was at least partly motivated by sexism and whether the work of a white man would have been treated the same. Now we cannot know what would have happened if The Lady Astronaut of Mars had been written by – say – John Scalzi instead of Mary Robinette Kowal. But given that this year’s Hugo nominees nominees in the novelette category were three women, Catherynne Valente, Pat Cadigan and Seanan McGuire (twice) as well as Thomas Oude Heuvelt, a Dutch man (and therefore not really a part of the Anglo-American dominated core of fandom, even if he should happen to be white – no idea if he is), the accusations of sexism don’t really hold in this case. Never mind that the story that The Lady Astronaut of Mars would have kicked off the ballot was a story by another woman (Seanan McGuire), not a white man. Cheryl Morgan adds her two pence here. If you want to know what the uproar is all about, you can now read The Lady Astronaut of Mars at BTW (and you should, cause it’s a really good story).

However, the main discussion is still about the supposedly too old and too white and too male demographics of Worldcon and that Worldcon needs to change to be more in line with hipper conventions such as DragonCon or Comic Con. Cheryl Morgan, who knows more about the behind the scenes running of Worldcon than most of the Worldcon critics, responds here and also goes a bit more into the mechanics of conventions run by volunteering fans here.

Here is a quote that I found particularly pertinent:

I note also my comments from last week about fans in Europe being concerned that American authors will boycott their conventions because those conventions fail to live up to some standard of moral purity that doesn’t work well with the local culture.

I’m pleased to hear that there are plenty of other fabulous conventions that people can go to instead of Worldcon. People have a choice, and if they don’t like Worldcon they can go elsewhere. Of course almost all of the examples I was given were in the USA, which is rather sucky if you happen to be me. Or indeed a lot of other people.

It is true that us non-Americans can do our own thing, but we still live in a culture defined to a large extent by the marketing juggernaut that is the USA. On the once-a-decade occasions that Worldcon visits our shores, a whole heap of US authors come with it, mostly at their own expense. That has some value to some people.

My own feelings are quite similar. If Worldcon were to be held every year at the same location (in the US naturally), that would be great for US fans, would suck for the rest of the world, because very few of us can afford to travel to the US for a convention, even if health and visa issues allow. And while the exclusion of overwhelmingly white European or Australian fans may not seem like a big issue to some people, this would also exclude a lot of fans of colour.

I also understand the worries of European conrunners about offending some real or imagine American standards of morality, because the truth is that cultures are different, even among people who look superficially similar, and that what is considered offensive in the US is not necessarily considered offensive elsewhere and vice versa. I struggle with this myself, for while I do my best not to accidentally violate some US cultural taboo and say or write something that may be considered offensive by Americans, I do come from a different culture with different standards of what is and is not considered offensive. I also balk at Americans who have lived in Germany for maybe two years and suddenly declare that X will have to go, because X would be considered offensive in the US, never mind that X is the way things have been done here for decades, if not centuries and absolutely no one is offended except for one busybody American. Never mind that many Americans have no problems writing or saying things that would be considered mindbogglingly offensive over here and get very defensive or downright insulting when called out about it (not that I often bother, since I know I’ll only get an extra dose of offensiveness laced with “Lighten up. It was a joke.” and no one to leap to my defense). For the record, whenever I did call out an American about saying something I considered offensive, people of colour usually apologized with “Sorry, I didn’t think. But you’re right, cause I hate stupid stereotypes, too.” The defensive jerks were all white, probably because white Americans have never had the experience of being “the Other” in mainstream pop culture.

Meanwhile, BundoranSF points out that discussions about the greying of fandom as well as the lack of women, people of colour and the young have been going on for thirty years at least, yet so far neither Worldcon nor fandom have died out.

Meanwhile, Justin Landon, the guy who kicked off this spring’s “The Hugos are broken” debate, has come to the conclusion that he was wrong about both the Hugos and Worldcon, that both are irrelevant and examples of a club that’s gradually dying out. Instead he proposes creating a new award that will be relevant to a new generation of fans and inclusive of a worldwide audience. Voting rights would cost 5 USD rather than 45 or whatever the current going rate is. Oh yes, and the new award would be awarded at one of those hip multi-media cons like DragonCon or Comic Con. William Henry Morris has some more thoughts on this.

A new truly popular SFF award inclusive of a worldwide audience? Sounds good, doesn’t it? Nonetheless, I suspect that if Justin Landon manages to get this new award of the ground, the results would be quite different than what he expects. For starters, even with a worldwide voting base, the award would still go to the same Anglo-American pop culture juggernauts, because local works are only known to a local audience, while everybody reads or watches the Anglo-American stuff. And since this new award is supposed to be a popular award, the winners would be whatever is the most popular and bestselling thing around. For example, the proposed popular SFF award in the YA category would be far more likely to go to Twilight than to Paolo Bacigalupi’s Shipbreaker. Which would amuse me, especially since I can’t stand Shipbreaker, but not Justin Landon, I imagine.

A few commenters even point out that such an award would only be won by George R.R. Martin/Patrick Rothfuss/Brandon Sanderson (two of whom coincidentally won Hugos this year)year after year. Personally, I suspect that if the award was truly inclusive of everybody who reads speculative fiction, Charlaine Harris, Nora Roberts/J.D. Robb, Sherrilyn Kenyon or J.R. Ward would be far likelier winners than the reigning triumvirate of epic fantasy. Which would very likely horrify Justin Landon.

Indeed, the closest thing to a popular award the SFF genre has, the David Gemmell Legend Award, has been specifically criticized for awarding only the most popular works and the authors with the biggest fanbase. The same thing would likely happen with a potential new award.

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21 Responses to Yet more Worldcon and Hugo Reactions

  1. Andrew Trembley says:

    The US is huge. A European convention is only slightly more onerous to me than an east coast convention, and for people on the east coast, once you factor out the passport, immigration and customs problems the difference between traveling to Europe or the west coast is a wash. The American mega-cons are really only easy if you live in San Diego or southern Georgia.

    I wonder how many people behind the “fixed, professional Worldcon” are only behind it as long as it’s in their backyard.

    • Cora says:

      Yes, I imagine San Diego Comic Con is as inaccessible to someone living in e.g. Maine as it is to a European fan and DragonCon is difficult to visit for someone from Seattle, let alone fans from Hawaii or Alaska.

      Though I wouldn’t discount the immigration issue, since US border personnel has a reputation to be singularily unfriendly (though I’ve met friendly US immigration officers), about on par with Communist era East Germany or Poland, which is a factor that puts off many. Passports aren’t that much of an issue, since most of us here in Europe have a passport (though the US requires a passport that is still valid for a year), but visa can be, particularly for people who are not from visa waiver countries. The US is not exactly an easy country to visit.

      • Daveon says:

        Frankly, as I understand it from friends being in San Diego doesn’t help either.

        While US border agents can be miserable, Euripean ones can give them a run for their money.

        • Cora says:

          I don’t think the forms they make you fill out are quite so badly worded (but then I don’t have to fill out the EU forms) and I haven’t gotten the sheer “Who are you to dare defile our beautiful land with your presence?” reaction anywhere in Europe since the fall of Communism. But then you rarely see EU border agents anymore except at airports and then only for flights from outside the Schengen zone.

          But in the end it comes down to where you cross a border and what you look like. If you’re white and wear business attire, they’re usually friendly. If you look a bit scruffy or like an unpopular ethnic group (Irish or South East European will do, you don’t have to be Middle Eastern or Black), they’re suddenly a lot less friendly.

          In my US experience, Boston had the best border agents, Atlanta the worst (so much for foreign visitors to DragonCon). In Europe, British border agents are usually unfailingly polite. Germans are grumpy, but efficient. The Dutch are generally nice, even to US passengers who don’t get that “EU-passports” means just that and that they have to get into the “All passports” line. The flight I usually take to Amsterdam Schiphol airport arrives at around the same time as a flight from Seattle, which means that I pass through passport control at the same time as the passengers from Seattle. And many Seattle passengers inevitably queue up in the “EU passports” line clutching their US passports. If I take a later flight, my plane arrives at around the same time as a Tokyo flight. I’ve never seen a Japanese person queue up in the wrong line.

          • Daniela says:

            Second the ‘Grmans, grumpy but efficent’-statement :-). I usually fly from Mulhouse and have to go through the controls on the German side. The Swiss also are usually friendly and polite, some can be a bit grumpy. They also do some profiling depending on looks and cars. One of my former bosses was stopped and controlled almost every time he went across the border. They like to take a closer look at people wearing business suits and driving penis extensions. Me, they usually just wave through.

            Don’t have any memories of ever having to deal with the French one. When the border-controls were still up they would simply wave us through.

            Also second the statement about Atlanta. The one I dealt with in New York was grumpy, but okay. Although in the line next to mine, one of the agents managed to make a woman cry.
            One thing I also hate about travelling to the US is the whole paper-war involved (ESTA) and the fact that you now have to pay an entrace fee. Not to mention that spontaneous flights are impossible with the 72 hour-period.

            • Cora says:

              The Swiss profiling is the complete opposite of what I experienced at the German-Dutch border (when they still had controls). Because business travelers and people in family cars (particular if the car contained a family) were usually just waved through, whereas scruffy looking young people, either alone or in groups, were almost always stopped, particularly if they drove cars that were uncommonly big or expensive for young people. I must have crossed the Dutch-German border dozens of time with my parents, but the only time they ever stopped me was when I was traveling on my own as an early twentysomething. I guess this has to do with the goods which are normally smuggled across the respective borders (illicit money to Switzerland and drugs from the Netherlands). Crossing the German-Luxembourgian border in a big car (Mercedes or BMW will do) is also interesting, because they’ll assume you’re there to deposit illegal money. If I ever were to go to Luxembourg to deposit illegal money, I’d either go in a small car or travel via Belgium or the Netherlands (and go in a small car).

              Atlanta has a horrible reputation for rude immigration personnel. I think it’s partly a racism issue. One thing I noticed at Atlanta airport is that the agents checking passports are all black, whereas the supervisors are all white. I’ve actually observed a white supervisor yelling at the black agents to work faster, who then proceeded to take out their understandable frustrations on the passengers.

      • Daniela says:

        I recently had the pleasure to encounter Russian border controls and wow, that brought nack memories of GDR-times. I think they were even worse than the the US ones.

        It was absolutely fascinating, a bit like dealing with a heavily made-up robot. Not one muscle in that agent’s face moved. She also didn’t say a word. Same on the way back, different agent, same total non-reaction.

        • Cora says:

          It’s kind of fascinating how some things never change, including that female border agents are even more unfriendly for some reason.

          I have some experience with Soviet era border control people during a school exchange with Latvia in 1989. The standout unfriendly border guard from that trip (by train from Bremen to Riga – hurray) was a youngish Polish guy who demanded that we list everything we carried with us in our luggage, just for the privilege of passing through his country in a train without even setting foot on Polish soil. The Soviet border guards didn’t stick in my memory, so they likely were the usual unfriendly East European standard. The East German border guard at Bahnhof Friedrichsstraße was probably the nicest one I ever met, even though he had to deal with a whole student group including punk kids. The Wall fell barely a month later and the change was maybe already in the air.

          • Daniela says:

            It’s still a man’s world and they probably feel the need to be even tougher than the men. I didn’t run into this problem with the German controls, btw. The women are usually even friendlier than the men.

            The GDR-border controls, at leastalong the Transit-Autobahn came in three versions: young, male and zealous, female and even more zealous no matter their age, and older, male, and more relalxed. My father liked to joke around with them and the older ones would joke back, the women and young men would grow even more up-tight.

            I think the ones in Friedrichsstrasse were used to dealing with tourists and people from West-Berlin. My father once ran into one (yes, female) who almost made him strip, searched his car very thoroughly and send him back because he’d packed a few old electronic-magazines for the friend he wanted to visit. He had to leave the magazines with the West-German border guards.

            • Cora says:

              In the days of the GDR, the advice “Try to get an older man. No young men and absolutely no women” was pretty common. The nice guy at Friedrichsstraße was an older man BTW. Though at the time, I thought the reason he was nice was cause we told him that we were a student group visiting the Soviet Union.

              I had a really horrible woman at Helmstedt once who got pissy when she couldn’t find a place in my Kinderausweis to put the various the stamps she needed to put in. And since my Dad worked in the Netherlands and drove a Dutch car, there were always extra problems (and extra fees) because Dutch cars weren’t planned for. When someone stole our NL sticker in Leipzig (very neatly scraped it off without damaging the car), it got even weirder. Afterwards, my Dad always carried a spare NL sticker.

              I once saw the Helmstedt border guards completely confused by some guy driving a macho show-off Pontiac, because they were unfamiliar with the car and didn’t know where all the usual hiding places were. The scene even made it into one of my stories, because it was so funny.

  2. (Apologies if this is a duplicate comment. My first attempt didn’t seem to take, and I don’t know if it went to moderation or just vanished into the ether.)

    Hi, I came here via a pingback on one of Cheryl Morgan’s posts.

    Personally, my reaction to the photo was “Wow, there are are more women than I would have expected.”

    A frequent reaction when digging into the history of fandom, and an illustration of part of the problem it faces in reaching out. The mass media representation of it as exclusively white and male sets up significant barriers that any outreach has to overcome.

    On the topic of awards going to popular works, a lot of the dismay out there about Redshirts winning goes along the lines of, “Well, obviously it won because Star Trek is so popular.”

    BundoranSF’s post leaves out what the allegedly graying Worldcons were seen as competing with at the time: the explosion of youthful, enthusiastic Star Trek conventions that had begun in the 1970s. They were everywhere, they were bigger than Worldcon, they were clearly going to take over… and now only a handful are left and Worldcon is full of fans who aren’t turned off by a book riffing on Star Trek.

    The moral of the story, I think, is that changes in fandom will always make their way to Worldcon eventually. A five-day convention that bounces all over the planet is always going to skew towards an older population that has the finances and vacation time to handle it. But keep the doors open, and people will find their way in.

    Incidentally, to close the circle– when Twilight became the blockbuster movie series du jour, much was written in the coverage of SDCC about how it was bringing women into the previously male domain of media fandom. Those massive fan-run Star Trek conventions I mentioned, which were the start of organized media fandom? Almost entirely women.

    • Daniela says:

      Those massive fan-run Star Trek conventions I mentioned, which were the start of organized media fandom? Almost entirely women.


      I’m often surprised when I hear people talk about the lack on women in media-fandoms and it takes me a moment to realize that they are talking about a different sub-section of fandom than the one I’m moving in and with which I’m mostly familiar.

      I got into fandom in the late 80s, started out with Darkover and then moved on the Star Trek and Pros, later X-Files and now Avengers, mostly fanfiction but that area of fandom was and still is dominated by women and they not only write stories, but also do all kinds of media-art from photo-manipulation, over drawing, to vids, publishing zines or running archives. Or they go and set up local dinners (our local Trek dinner was founded by two women 18 years ago and who still organize it today), organize Cons, or build something like the Organisation of Transformative Works, the Archive of Our Own, and Fanlore.

      Women are there and they are numerous and active but for whatever reasons they don’t make it into the limelight.

      • Cora says:

        You have a local Star Trek dinner? That’s pretty cool.

        Otherwise, I agree that women are active in fandom and have been for a long time now. But for some reason, they are not as visible as the men.

        • Daniela says:

          Yup, bi-weekly Trek Dinner or rather Stammtisch though by now we talk about almost everything though the focus is still SF and Fantasy. Almost no-one shows up in Trek Uniform anymore, though a few did when the local news-paper wanted to do a report about the Stammtisch.

          We also have a new one focused on comics that meets once a month and another one that’s supposed to be about SF. The one time I was at the SF-Stammtisch it was mostly about Perry Rhodan which isn’t really my thing. I think they currently also aren’t meeting anymore. I also just found out that there’s a writer-Stammtisch meeting once a month and based on some of the people involved that might be very SF/F-friendly or even heavy.

          • Cora says:

            That sounds fabulous. I only attend the translators’ Stammtisch. Though one of our translators is a small press publisher, so I often talk about publishing with him, even though he’s very traditional and mainly print and I’m indie.

    • Cora says:

      Thanks for commenting, Petréa. Your first comment accidentally ended up in the spam folder BTW.

      You make some really good points. I once saw a photo of some attendees of the very first ever Worldcon in 1939 in a book somewhere. There were plenty of men, many of them famous names, and exactly one woman. In the years that followed I’ve come across plenty of references to and memories of that first Worldcon and several involved female attendees. So there obviously must have been several women at Worldcon I, even though that photo only showed men plus one token woman.

      It’s also telling that media fandom, which tends to be dominated by women, is often dismissed as “not real fandom”, whether it’s Star Trek fans in the 1970s (and even today by people complaining that a nostalgic riff on Star Trek won the Hugo over more serious works) or squeeing Twilight or anime fans of today. At any rate, I remember that there were a lot of complaints about the big Twilight panels at SDCC and the squeeing fangirls they attracted and how Twilight didn’t belong at SDCC. Never mind that Twilight is SFF and belongs at SDCC a lot more than shows like Dexter and Breaking Bad, which are not even remotely speculative. Yet no one complained about the latter, because men like them.

  3. Daniela says:

    I would probably leap to your defense when you point things out, simply because it’s highly likely that I would be bothered by the same things. But like you I rarely say anything anymore, even when the stereotyping makes me sick or when I see things like ‘Grammar Nazi’.

    I’m currently catching up on Crossing Lines and wow, “Hello stereotypes!”, although they did manage to give the the German police officer a more modern name (he’s named Sebastian).

    I can partially understand the problems with maybe offending US American-sensibilities, but in light of the current debates about diversity in SFF maybe one should be less cautious and enstead embrace that difference and present it as an invitation to learn something new, meet a new culture and also see it as a bit of a challenge. I mean if people like Tolkien shouldn’t they also be interested in the cultures whose mythologies inspired Tolkien? Maybe I’m just a bit naive or too influenced by the fact that I love exploring different cultures, learning new things and expanding my own horizons. I always find that it helps me as a writer.

    As for World Con. If it were solely in the US it wouldn’t be a world con anymore but just another US-based con and as such mostly uninteresting. I would love to go to ComicCon but it’s too far and too expensive, although the one in New York would be a bit easier to reach and could be combined with a New York-trip.

    I’m happy that the World Con is in London, even though London too will be very too expensive because it’s London. Despite that I plan to go. How about you?
    Helsinki in 2015 would have been nice too, instead it’s now in Spokane, US.

    I just saw that Ireland put in a bid for 2019. That would be cool as well. But why isn’t Germany putting in a bid? There hasn’t been a WorldCon is Germany in ever. But then Germany isn’t even managing a national con, so maybe not too surprising. The last EuroCon in Germany was in 1999.

    • Cora says:

      I mostly just leave it be, cause it’s usually not worth the trouble. And the problem with the (important) US diversity debates is that many of those debates are still very insular and focussed on the US and that some people have problems seeing that the rest of the world is different and that racism and prejudice are expressed in different ways.

      I bought a Loncon membership and am planning to go, so maybe I’ll see you there. Estara, another commenter here, is also going. I’m also bummed that Helsinki didn’t get it, though I’m hoping for Dublin in 2019.

      And Germany did have one Worldcon in Heidelberg around the time I was born, which would have made it very difficult to go, especially since my parents are not SFF fans at all. I sometimes joke that they should have taken me and gotten all the famous writers to pose with me (“Here is Cora peeing on Heinlein”). Den Haag in 1990 is the only con I could have attended without flying, if I’d known it existed, that is. I think the problem in Germany is that we don’t have much in the way of a con culture. I’d actually love to help put together a bid for Bremcon or Hamburgcon, but there simply isn’t enough of a fandom base to pull it off. Never mind that it would have to be Berlin or Frankfurt or Munich or some place like that in order to persuade Americans to attend (though apparently the rest of the world is supposed to know where Spokane is).

      I’m really fond of Crossing Lines BTW (and may write a blog post about the show) in spite of the fact that the premise makes no sense (the ICC tries war criminals and doesn’t hunt serial killers – why not use Europol?) and that many of the characters are stereotypes (German tech guy, drunken Irish Traveller guy, Italian mafia boss daughter, British upper class ice queen, tortured French guy with marriage problems, Russian mobsters, etc…). The fascination with trains (lots of footage of TGVs and ICEs in every episode) is also striking especially since high speed trains haven’t been exotic in Europe since the late 1980s and flying would be quicker in many cases. And what nationality is Donald Sutherland’s character supposed to be anyway? Nonetheless, the characters are surprisingly engaging for being stereotypes (and they all have deep, dark secrets TM) and William Fichtner is really intense as the ex-NYPD cop with the crippled hand and the drug problem and the inexplicable attraction he exerts on much younger women. Besides, they occasionally manage to subvert a popular US TV trope such as the killer with diplomatic immunity (which I really hate, because diplomatic immunity is a problem with traffic violations, not murders) by having a US diplomat be the killer hiding behind diplomatic immunity.

  4. Darnell C says:

    The number of Black, Hispanics and other fans do not have enough numbers (5% or more) to make a showing at fan conventions. These gorups have to be recruited to make their numbers grow. I dont think most fandom is not outwardly bigoted, they allow who wants to be in the organizations to come in.

    I am doing research on when did people start going to worldcons.

    • Cora says:

      Thanks for the link, Darnell. I agree that active recruitment might help to bring up the numbers of fans of colour at Worldcon.

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