The Worldcon That Was

This year’s Worldcon report might as well have been entitled “Never yell fire in a crowded theater.”  Well, almost. I need to break it down into subheads for you to understand.
1)    Never Yell…
…when you can whimper .
I’ve been having a bit of trouble with my lower extremities recently. My doctor offered a diagnosis of osteoarthritis and sent me to physio. The therapist thought there was some soft-tissue problems as well as the potential arthritis. After four sessions, one in the pool that nearly destroyed me, I left the last session feeling quite pleased with myself. I didn’t feel like running a marathon, but at the very least I didn’t waddle like my hip joints were close to dislocated.
And then I got into the car Thursday morning, at an hour  at which I am not usually required to be compos mentis, let alone possessed of enough concentration and focus to drive a car over a mountain pass and for more than six hours.
The I-5 corridor was uneventful, but then we turned into the mountains and Stevens Pass was unusually murky. It might have been only mist and cloud, but I was primed for smoke. It didn’t smell like it, though, so I let it slide – and by the time we pulled into Leavenworth it was bright sunshine and clear skies anyway. We took a break, ate some nice German pastries, caffeinated, and hit the second half of the road. My body was starting to rebel. I had a knot at the back of my neck which felt hot – like something was literally on fire back there – and I could sense things that shouldn’t have been moving actually sliding over one another when I tried to shrug it into a more relaxed state. But it was the hips which were the real problem because I’d already been limping in Leavenworth and by the time we climbed out of the car in Spokane I was a full-on train wreck.
I managed the rest of Thursday with just a limp and a wince, dealing with all the responsibilities that had to be dealt with immediately – including my first panel. I ran into half a dozen people I knew – ranging from luminaries like Vonda McIntyre (the GoH) and Larry Niven to various friends I hadn’t seen in too long. I was also supposed to connect with a FB contact, Elizabeth Leggett, but missed her. By this stage I was hungry and footsore. There was supposed to be a party that night which I’d wanted to go to, but by the end of the day, I was moving vewwy vewwy carefully indeed. We wimped out completely and had room service for dinner.
On Friday I was hobbling along like someone had kneecapped me. Of course, my Friday programming involved items that were consistently alternating between the two furthest ends of the convention center. The air outside looked apocalyptic – the sun was just an orange blob in the fug that covered the sky – but see the next section, for all that.
This was my Friday:
10 AM :KaffeeKlatsch (one end of the Conference Centre): That went wonderfully well, with a mix of people I’ve known for years and new faces whom I only met for the first time on the day. I told some funny stories. They all had the grace to laugh. It was fun.
Back to the other end of the CC to deal with things.
12:30 PM: Back to the OTHER end of the CC for my pre-arranged `interview.
2 PM – Back to the OTHER end of the CC for my autographing slot. In something of a tradition, I shared a table with Stanley Schmidt on one side of me – I think if I ever do another Worldcon signing again I am going to insist that it be done this way, we appear to have become something of a Worldcon tradition this way, Mr Schmidt and myself. On the other side of me was a nattily attired L.E Modesitt, in one of his trademark brilliant waistcoats. I got to say hello briefly to Elizabeth Bear, at the next table, and completely failed to even find a moment to connect with Catherynne Valente, further down – because I had actual people who brought actual books to be actually signed and I didn’t just sit there staring into space.
4 PM: back to the OTHER end of the CC for the Writers Workshop, where I was one of the resident pros doing the critiques. Then it was BACK TO THE OTHER END OF THE CC to pick up the husband I had left waiting for me there and we barely managed to scrape by the rest of that evening. In fact, by the third trip across the CC I had actually left him sitting comfortably while I borrowed his cane to help me maneuver across the halls. I ran into any number of people who looked appropriately concerned to see me attached to one of those. By this stage I was in near agony and of course the one thing I had forgotten to pack was aspirin.  I could not get comfortable in bed and sleep was iffy.
Saturday dawned magnificently different, clear and sunny and we were off and running again:
11 AM: Interview and photo shoot, just off the Dealers Room area (again, the opposite end of the CC)
12-1 PM: Manning the SFWA table in the Dealers Room, and at the same time having an extra little hour of signing there. I actually did a brisk trade in my paperback copies of “Abducticon” while here. People picked the book up, begin reading the blurb on the back, started smiling, and then cackled when they hit “… and the coffee in the Green Room was DREADFUL.” Everyone who’s been to a con more than once recognizes this book and gets a look of warm affection when gazing upon it. Which is EXACTLY what I was aiming for. Very happy to see that it is hitting the right demographic.
The LuggageQuick visit to the Terry Pratchett exhibition (and a photograph with The Luggage!) and then it was on to
3:30 PM – My Reading.
People came, bless ‘em all, and I had a proper audience – which, given that this was a Worldcon and there were a dozen worthy alternatives of things to do and places to be, is always a win. More copies of “Abducticon” found homes at that reading and I am immensely pleased at the reception this book has been getting in con circles.
4 PM: interview with a grad student from the UK who asked me to be a part of her study on the role of things like fanfiction and derivative versions of people’s work and the pros’ reactions to this.
I was supposed to be attending the traditional Tea with the Duchess at 7 PM but somehow they couldn’t quite make the proper arrangements for the Tea and although the Duchess was present and accounted for it didn’t quite come together. So we went to the hotel restaurant to grab something to eat, and ended up being found, and then wrapped in a cocoon of loving care, by Gerald Nordley and his lady. They found me some aspirin, they delivered a loaner cane to get around for however long I needed it while still in Spokane, and they generally acted like a couple of guardian angels.
Sunday morning, I moderated a panel called “When we were young”, about books that had been formative influences on the panelists in our larval years. We had Steven Barnes, Scott Lynch, Marissa Meyer, Kevin J Anderson, and myself – and all I had to do, as moderator, was ride herd on a number of articulate, passionate, knowledgeable people who had ideas and opinions and who had the presence and the confidence and the vocabulary to present them. I had to call a halt long before we were really done – there hadn’t even been time for a proper question session from the audience.
And then it was homeward bound.
Of course, these were the bare bones of the con. No mention of meeting old friends, meeting new people, making wonderful serendipitous connections. All of that went on too. It was a WORLDCON and it was magic and the Sasquan people did a magnificent job of it. All kudos to them. But, er, wait a sec. Let’s backtrack just a little.
2)    …Fire…
I’d been following the news about the wildfires in Washington state. There seemed to be enough of them in between home and Spokane to be – well – a cause for travel concern. And then I extrapolated that and read a report about air quality in Spokane and the day before we left it was rated “unhealthy”, specifically singling out people older than 65 or those who had had a stroke, all of which describes my husband, and I was getting antsy. He said, we’re going, I don’t CARE. So we set off fully aware that there were flames out there, and that thousands of acres of forest and not a few homes had already been reduced to ashes and smoke.
Stevens Pass was murkier than we had ever seen it before – but then again we hadn’t driven it for some years, and we had to admit that we didn’t have a valid basis for direct comparison. But it was cool enough outside in the mountains for us to nod at each other and firmly agree that what was hiding the views from us was just mountain mist and high clouds. Yes. That was what it was.
On the road to Spokane, things thickened a little – but not remotely to the extent that I’d been reading on Facebook, about the sun rising as a tiny blood red orb in the smoky skies, making the whole place look extraterrestrial. There were pictures, yes. But it didn’t look so bad, when we approached the city. A bit muggy, yes, a bit brown, the air a tad too… uh… VISIBLE… for comfort… but not TOO bad.
And then, on Thursday night, it began to thicken.
On Friday morning, it was Apocalypse Now. Apparently there were signs on doors eventually dissuading people from venturing outside at all – but that was after I heard the story of an idiot who went jogging in that soup and ended up on a respirator. And you didn’t have to go outside – as the day wore on you started to smell smoke in the corridors. I could smell it in our room when we ended up there on Friday night. Smoke In SpokaneYou couldn’t see past the next couple of blocks out of our hotel room window, outside. There was no sky, no horizon, just this dirty-brown ashen and featureless pall that lay over everything. I had actually been contemplating the delight of a short stroll on the riverside path, just outside our hotel – but my troubles with my hip, and then Friday’s air quality, put paid to THAT.
Saturday was a bit better, blue skies and clear air, and the sun resembling its more usual self – but by Saturday night we were sliding again. When Sunday came, it was getting brownish out there again. I had my final panel, we collected our bits and bobs, and we drove out there. Out onto the highway.
Friends, it was spooky. You couldn’t see further than a few hundred feet to either side of the highway – further in, ghostly outlines of brooding poplars haunted the edges of vision, barely sketched in. Cars on the other side of the highway emerged out of a smoke bank, as though something was vomiting them out of that dragon’s mouth; cars in front of me vanished into that same bank a disconcertingly short way ahead. We stopped to get gas and I could smell the smoke in the thick air, I could taste ashes. TWO HUNDRED MILES WEST OF SPOKANE WE WERE STILL IN SMOKE. The West. Is. On Fire.
More than 500,000 acres (and untold human property and human lives – some literally) have been lost to this conflagration. That is almost too big to comprehend. And yet I viscerally know that it is true because of the air I saw swirling thick and brown through the city streets in Spokane, and blowing across Eastern Washington highways. It’s heartbreaking.
And yet…. This is Worldcon. We’re nothing if not a bunch of creators. I Tweeted at some point that the unofficial anthem of Sasquan was “Smoke gets in your eyes”. By Saturday lunchtime – completely independently of that tweet – someone else had already filked up an entire song about the circumstances surrounding us.
We will none of us forget this con. We were smoked like salmon. Some of us were lucky to get home in good time and in one piece and just the memory of the hint of what it must really be like closer to where real flames are rising. I’ve seen some pictures and it’s catastrophic, unbelievable, entire mountainsides scoured bare and black by the blaze. Oh God, my darling forests, my beloved cedars and maples, I am so sorry. For the whole towns evacuated in the inexorable advance of this conflagration, for people who gathered up kids and pets and a pathetic bundle of belongings and fled, I am so sorry. For the firefighters who are tirelessly trying to get this under control, you have my enduring respect and gratitude; to those who didn’t make it through… I don’t even have words.
The West is on fire. Don’t forget us.
But that wasn’t the only “scorched ground” that was being claimed in Spokane…
3)    …In A Crowded Theatre.
Lo these many years ago, I went and did one of those “sing your own Messsiah” things, where a group of volunteer singers, coached and directed by a professional, get together to sing the Messiah oratorio by Handel. We were doing tolerably well, dutifully following the music and the directions, until we got to the point where the Hallelujah Chorus was due to be sung. The director stopped for a moment, looked us with a small smirky smile, and said, “let’s face it, this is why you’re all here, isn’t it?”
In a situation that is almost but not completely unlike that incident, there were. the Hugo awards of 2015 at Sasquan. No, I dare say that it wasn’t why we were all there… but I would be prevaricating if I didn’t admit that we were all aware of the Hugos, and that a certain electric tingle in the air was building up as we rolled on towards Saturday night.
No, I am not going to go into great gory detail analyzing things here. It’s been done, by other people, elsewhere – you can start with io9, if you want to read more:
And there are other articles. Easily found. I’ll settle for a couple of comments.
I didn’t go to the ceremony itself. We found out a little late that it was a ticketed event because the theatre had fewer seats than warm bodies in attendance on site. I guess they thought first come first served could lead to chaos, so they announced that tickets, although they were free, could be got by queuing some two hours ahead of the ceremony at just the hour that most people were sitting down to dinner, so there was a lot of gnashing of teeth over that. I had been vacillating about going anyway so this tipped the scales; I ended up following the live-tweet feed, and learned of what happened almost in real-time anyway. Which was good enough.
And what happened was simply this. The body of fandom reacted to an infection, and the immune system went into overdrive. For now, at least, the virus is out and the body’s state of health looks to be preserved – I might have wished for a different ceremony, a different set of circumstances, the possibility that some of those nominated got caught up in the whole controversy and lost out in what turned out to be a gigantic and self-destructive paroxysm of “It’s not FAAAAA I I I R!” from the kindergartners in the corner who couldn’t seem to grow up well enough to play with the adults in the room in an equitable manner.
The end result measured up reasonably well with what I hoped was going to happen, and what I expected was going to happen.
What I had hoped was that those TRULY deserving of the rocket would end up holding it… and that those NOT deserving, those who had tried to wrest the award by  bullying and bickering and whining and blackmail, would NOT. I looked at the vote counts, afterwards; it is clear that the “no-award” wins were a message from fandom. And the message was, “You Will Not Pass.”
The what-I-expected part was the social media sphere exploding with puppies and their supporters screaming “We lost, so we won!” in full throat, no matter how little actual sense that made in any form of their narrative. Let’s unpack this – they thought the wrong people and the wrong stories were taking over the Hugos so they packed the ballot with the “right” candidates. This means that they valued the award enough to want to win it  and they LOST. Dramatically. The goal posts then shifted to “Well, *we were on the ballot*, and the fact that you didn’t vote for us means that our point is proved and there is a clique that’s in charge of things and that wants to exclude us”.
Except that the “clique” turned out to be all of fandom, which turned out in unprecedented numbers to vote (the tally was a whopping 65% higher than any previous Hugo vote!)… and the only “clique” in the room turned out to be the puppies themselves. I am told that the losing puppy candidates immediately got up and demonstratively left the theatre – which is more juvenile behavior. They spat out the dummy and they took their toys and they stalked home, sulking. And then the social media exploded with the blame game of the “other” side and how they were all bad and evil and how they were all in cahoots against the pups and their supporters.
One of them turned to someone in an elevator, after the ceremony, and said spitefully, “well, you got what you wanted, didn’t you? You burned the awards to the ground rather than give them to someone you didn’t want to win them.”
To which MY response would be, dude, no, YOU got what you wanted. YOU burned the bridges here. It’s all on YOU. And no, you can’t claim that you “deliberately lost” to win, because you couldn’t know this was going to happen. But that’s the narrative now, changing to fit the circumstances. They’re still put upon, and repressed, and somehow being oppressed… by the future into which they refuse to step. Even as the past to which they cling so violently crumbles to dust in their hands.
When the history books get written… well, I dare say that those referred to as “social justice warriors” are going to come out if it all as better than “sad/rabid puppies”. Even the names are self-selecting. You can’t rail against “social justice” and then claim that you are being oppressed in the name of social injustice. That’s illogical, Mr Spock.
Fandom did what needed to be done. The only thing that could have been done. What happens going forward… well, it’s the future. We shall see when the smoke (this time almost literally…) clears. In the meantime, the looming Hugopocalypse has been turned aside, and 2016 is a new game. Forward. It’s the only way we can go.
Postscript: “Smoke gets in your Eyes”, redux
And so, then, it was over, and we climbed into the car for the journey home. It was, as I said, brown and mucky. The air had taste and texture when I stopped for gas on the outskirts of Spokane. And then we hit the highway, going west.
And it was smoke smoke smoke smoke smoke all the way to the mountains, and well into them. Two hundred long miles of brown air and alien landscapes shrouded in sepia. Saddening, and scary.LeavenworthWe stopped in Leavenworth for supper, ate quickly, and pushed on – but by this stage I was really ready to stop driving. That knot in the back of my neck was the size of a pineapple, and the pineapple felt like it was on a grill – my muscles were hot and knotted and achy. And then we hit the post- Leavenworth road, going into the pass, and it was all I could do not to stop and just sit there taking photographs.
The skies turned unlikely shades of apricot and cinnamon, with shadowy mountain crags silhouetted against them – and in the middle of it all that round red bloody sun hung like a curse. And would not go away. Every time I thought we had put paid to it we’d round a corner or take a turn and there it was again, hanging lower, redder, more baleful. And I was driving directly west. It was a game of chicken and there were moments on the road that I literally had red flecks dancing on my retinas from the direct malevolent crimson glare.
It wasn’t until we hit the I-5, and Everett, literally an hour from home, that the sun finally set on Sasquan – and skies painted themselves into one of the most spectacularly picturesque sunsets ever (and I couldn’t even watch because I was driving, and I was TIRED, and I knew I couldn’t really afford to let my attention lapse).
Towards the end I was looking at my GPS and muttering to myself, “Fifty minutes… I can do this.” “Forty five minutes, I can do this.” I turned into my driveway  riding on fumes, staggered into the house, petted the cats,fell into bed, and slept for ten hours.
And then, because now that it’s over I’m sorry that it is and I wish I was still back there, I sat down to write this. You do realize you just read close to 4,000 words about an event that lasted less than four days in real time? Sasquan, I miss you already.
May the smoke grow less. May fandom continue strong. And we shall all see each other again. Soon.
Alma Alexander     My books     Email me
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