This summer I did the crazy thing that I last did back in 2014. Two back to back conventions: Nine Worlds and WorldCon 75 in Helsinki. Two crazy weeks of spending time with my geeky tribe, having my imagination and creativity stimulated and learning lots of things. But they were very different events.
In many ways, Nine Worlds has become my ‘home’ convention, even though its multi-disciplinary programming means it doesn’t always have the book content I instinctively crave. This year I sought to help fix that, rather than just complain about it, by taking part in a panel for the first time. My panel was Police and the Supernatural, which was a discussion about the works of Ben Aaronovitch and Paul Cornell, both of whom have written supernatural police procedurals set in London, but ones that are very different in style. We turned out to be the second most popular programme item after the Saturday night cabaret and disco, so no pressure there then! It was a brilliant experience, I have to say: my fellow panellists were awesome and the time flew by. What was particularly lovely was having people coming up to me the rest of the weekend (and in Helsinki!) saying how much they’d enjoyed it.
There were some fantastic programme items at Nine Worlds. Some were thought-provoking (including a deeply interesting session on architecture and world-building in fiction, plus one on robots, AI and the labour market) and some were deeply silly, but they all shared a generosity and humility from the speakers. And I learned a lot, for example about theories of education through the example of teaching in Harry Potter, or some amazing examples of powerful women in West African history.
And it was just so much fun too. As always, you stuck out if you weren’t in cosplay or dressed flamboyantly, and people were determined to enjoy themselves and facilitate the enjoyment of others by being relentlessly and furiously kind and thoughtful. Rarely have I encountered an environment that is so energetically inclusive and generous in its acceptance of others. Diversity in all its forms is firmly within the DNA of Nine Worlds, proving that it’s possible to do with a bit of work – and it doesn’t take that much of it either.
Numbers were a bit down on last year, which was a bit of a shame. I think that was in part because many people couldn’t afford the time or money for two conventions and had chosen to go to WorldCon instead. Understandable, given how rarely it makes it across the Atlantic (of 75 WorldCons, only 8 have been outside North America, 5 of those in UK, and 3 of those in London). But those of us there were made the most of it.
WorldCon75 in Helsinki was a different kind of con. Much more book-focused, but very traditional in its approach. Being WorldCon, the spread of authors was much greater, with big names from the US and Canada that are rarely seen on this side of the Atlantic. There is little like sitting there eating your dinner watching George R R Martin walk past, or going to what I dubbed the “Hangover Panel”: 2pm on Day 4 (the day after the Hugos) where famous writers like Robin Hobb, Elizabeth Bear and Jeff VanderMeer were talking about their cats. With lots of cat pictures and funny stories about them ‘helping’ with the writing.
WorldCon was huge. There were around 7,000 people there, in a venue that was probably designed for about 4,000. It got full very quickly, in a way the organisers had not foreseen. This was the third-largest WorldCon in history, with the largest still being LonCon3 in 2014. There were a lot of complaints about the crowds and the queuing, but the organisers were responsive and I never had any difficulties. A bit of patience and planning got you into most things, and if you weren’t able to make it into one of the rooms then ther was bound to be something else on the programme that appealed.
But there were a couple of off-key aspects for me. As with LonCon 3 this felt very US-centric and dominated by US concerns with a very low level of awareness of US cultural colonialism and its impacts. That was uncomfortable for an event taking place in Finland, and at times it just felt plain tone-deaf. The main example of this for me was a panel on resistance, which was composed entirely of US writers and led to a discussion dominated by Trump, healthcare and various issues in the US system, with only one panellist referencing non-US examples (Kameron Hurley talking about the experience of South Africa). All of the over-riding cultural framing was the US narrative from its founding myths of resistance. At one stage, one of the panellists suggested that paying one’s taxes in order to support other people in society was in some ways a rebellious act. The audience pointed out with increasing irritation that this was normal in Europe. In another panel, an audience member from the US questioned why the panel was discussing the work of two British writers rather than the US writers she named.
The panels themselves felt short – 45 minutes compared to the hour, hour and a quarter of Nine Worlds. This meant they never really got beyond scratching the surface of a topic. Panellists rarely got to speak more than twice during a discussion. And some of them felt either poorly organised or poorly moderated – with panellists unsure why they had been selected for a particular panel, or with moderators taking a wildly different interpretation of the brief than appeared in the programme.
That sounds like I’m being harsh, and I guess I am. But that didn’t stop it being an amazing event and an opportunity to meet and hear from people I don’t normally get to encounter in the UK. But what really made the event was the awesome crowd of people I met and hung out with over the five days of the event, swapping ideas for panels and badge ribbons.
In two years’ time WorldCon will be in Dublin. There’s a huge buzz about it already, and I’ve bought my membership. I can feel in my water that it will be another big event. Hopefully there will be a bit more sensitivity when it comes to some of the cultural issues (I can’t say I’m looking forward to having Irish history mansplained at me by Americans – I fear there will be some crashing insensitivity displayed, but it will at least highlight the difference between Irishness and the wholly separate identity of being Irish-American).
But that’s two years away. In the meantime there’s next year’s Nine Worlds to plan for. Excuse me while I go and think up some panel ideas.