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At Worldcon, everyone -- from famous author to humble fan to mothlike alien -- is equal

Wednesday, Sep 4 2002
A fountain-copse of nearly 20 geysers spouts over the surface of a small plaza that has served as a family meeting place for more than two centuries. Young lovers recline in the spiny shadows of palm trees while furrowed grandmothers tend to lunch and keep a watchful eye; children in cartoon-colored bathing suits dash between the gurgling columns of water, squealing and tossing their dark, chlorine-scented hair; and a sleek, light-rail tram glides down the center of the avenue. A shrunken old man, clearly adapted to the full-bodied heat and undiluted brilliance of the mornings, removes the Panama from his head and peels a large, white, textile square off of his balding pate. It's like another world, I think, but it's not another world. It's just San Jose.

"What planet are you from?" yells a drifter whose Army-green fatigues have become shiny with wear. "What planet are you from?"

Thinking the man's midmorning Olde English might have heightened, rather than dampened, his perceptive powers, I turn to answer, but his unfocused stare is directed at another figure. Demo, as I later come to call him, is a skinny fellow with a billowing black cloak, a soft brown tunic covered in geometric shapes, a big black hat with its broad rim cut into points (a bit like a snake's tongue) on either side of his head, and two soft, pale, yellowish gauntlets that extend past his wrists and taper into two immensely long fingers on either hand.

"Tschai, if you must know," says Demo with a gentlemanly nod of his head. "I'm from Tschai or, at least, I'm dressed to be. Good morning to you."

"I think I should be following you," I suggest to the faux Pnume, a creature created, I learn, by Jack Vance in 1971 to inhabit an alien "planet of adventure."

"Indeed," says Demo with a flourish of his unseasonable outer garment. "To the convention."

The second floor of the McEnery Convention Center is already bustling with Jawas and Faeries and Federation pilots and Marvin the Martians and furry beasts and partially built robots and men with laser guns and women with swords and white-haired seniors with goofy little propeller hats who are just a sampling of the 6,000 science-fiction and fantasy fans who have come from all over the world to attend the 60th annual World Science Fiction Convention, or Worldcon as it is better known in fandom parlance. I come to learn there are no fewer than 600 panels, six dances, two ceremonies, 20 concerts, 85 readings, 45 kaffeeklatsches, and 125 hotel-room parties being presented here over the course of five sleepless days. There is no real way to prepare.

I grab the morning edition of The dot.Con Daily, the official newsletter of "ConJosé," and my easy-to-read, 142-page, spiral-bound schedule. At Demo's recommendation, I make my way toward Exhibition Hall 2, where the SFWA Musketeers are offering a sword-fighting display amongst a vending-sea of books, costumes, videos, software, candlesticks, jewelry, toys, and Volkoth battle-axes -- a good place to start, I am told, but it is not to be. I am waylaid by a 7-foot-6-inch demon named Lustoffire.

"How 'bout a little stand-up comedy by a third-rate demon from the Fourth Plateau of Hell?" purrs Lustoffire, splaying the tremendous black wings that sprout from his back. "I also sell afterlife insurance. Whaddya say?"

Lustoffire lowers his silvery head to better hear my reply, and I notice the fine black hairs growing around his horns and the lack of sclera in his inky black eyes.

"How long have you been coming to science-fiction conventions?" I ask.

"Oh, about 25 years, I suppose," says the demon, standing up again.

"What do you come looking for?"

"Sex, fun, and profit," chuckles the demon.

"And what do you do when you're not here?"

"Ohh, I philosophize," says the demon. "I'm not just a pretty face, you know; I've got a brain." Lustoffire flips open his cranium and bends down so I might have a closer look at his scientifically accurate, handcrafted encephalon.

"Might you share an example?"

Lustoffire shifts his 5-inch bone hooves and lowers his voice to a conspiratorial tone: "There are four basic truths: Kindness is good; compassion is more important than justice; humor is fantastic in bed; and Carrot Top should never, ever be allowed to make a movie."

Lustoffire, the hitherto most convincing demon I have ever seen up close, offers me a sharpened-tooth smile and clops off.

So I join 150 other people to listen to the lecture-hall offering "Near Term Astronautics," which features sci-fi fans who have real-science credibility: Henry Spencer, a systems programmer and software architect for Canada's MOST astronomy satellite; Les Johnson, NASA's In-Space Propulsion Project manager; Loretta McKibben, an Oklahoma storm chaser and NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) solar system ambassador; Edwin L. Strickland, an image analyst who works with dinosaurs and space shuttles; and Steve Collins, a JPL spacecraft engineer. This educated discussion of space travel and the Mars landing proves easier for me to follow than "New Astronomy, Astrophysics, and Astrobiology Discoveries," which delves into string theory, dark matter, quantum mechanics, inflationary universe models, and neutrinos. Out of the 200 people attending the latter lecture, it seems, I am the only person unequipped with a knowing nod. Eventually, I resign myself to the reality; "Beer in Zero G and Other Challenges of Space Manufacturing," where I learn you can't belch in space, is more my speed.

Thankfully, the science and computer tracks are not the only ones available to me. There is the costuming track, including "Costuming for the Sewing Impaired," "Lost Wax Casting," and "Textiles: From the Past Into the Future"; the sex-and-love track, including "Theory and Art of Flirting," "Alien Sex," "Two Authors, Who Does the Dishes," and "So Far Away: Cons and Long-Distance Relationships"; the media track, including "Buffy & Spike: Is Consensual Sexual Violence Ever Okay?" and "Star Wars 2: The Tragedy of Godawful Dialogue"; the art track, including "Origami," "Art for the Archconservative," and "Pixel by Pixel: Illustrations in Electronic Games"; the writing track, including "The Superhero as Metaphor," "The Basics of Publishing," "1000 Ideas in One Hour by Orson Scott Card," and "Tolkien vs. Peake"; and the convention track, including "History of Worldcons," "Is It Everyone's Fandom," and "Should I Run for a Fan Fund?"

The convention's convention track is not as tedious as the name suggests.

Science fiction earned its name in the 1920s, but the first science-fiction convention wasn't held until 1939. That New York City event, later named "Nycon," drew tried-and-true fans (and subsequently famous practitioners) John W. Campbell Jr., Ray Bradbury, Forrest J. Ackerman, and Isaac Asimov. Asimov wrote of that day: "For one short golden day, we inhabited a tiny world in which science fiction was the exclusive interest. I imagine Heaven must be a feeble imitation of that date." An early photo proves that, at least, Ackerman wore futuristic garb to the affair.

In 1953, the first Science Fiction Achievement Award was presented. The much-coveted silver rocket ship was renamed the Hugo Award in 1960. By then, the award's status was unrivaled and the World Science Fiction Society was in full swing. Only WSFS members could vote on the Hugo, and the only way to become a voting member was to attend Worldcon. The tradition holds true today.

In 1953, the first "Fan Fund" was also established as a kind of science-fiction cultural-exchange program: WSFS members contribute money by buying and donating auction items to send fans from the U.S. to Worldcons in foreign countries, and vice versa. (This year's foreign delegates are Tobes Valois and Julian Warner, both from Britain.) Other traditions that persist are an annual blood drive, first established when long-standing WSFS member Robert H. Heinlein needed a transfusion; the fashion show Masquerade; fan fiction, ongoing sagas written for and by fans, often carrying on the adventures of their favorite characters; and "filking," a genre of folk song (started by typo in the 1950s) that relates to science fiction and/or sci-fi fans. Today, there are thousands of documented filk songs; fans hold their own full-filk conventions; and every Worldcon offers a filk-singing program.

Perhaps the most inspiring aspect of fandom is the equality and communication between fans and authors, even as the WSFS membership has exploded. Most science-fiction authors admit they are just fans gone pro; they sit in panel audiences and clap along to goofy filk songs just like everyone else. At ConJosé, there is a Writer Guest of Honor (Vernor Vinge, author of A Deepness in the Sky and True Names) and an Artist Guest of Honor (renowned book cover artist David Cherry), but there is also a Fan Guest of Honor -- or, rather, two of them, John and Bjo Trimble, the Oakland couple who organized the first Worldcon fashion show in 1958 and launched the successful letter-writing campaign that saved Star Trek from cancellation in the late '60s. (There is also an Imaginary Guest of Honor -- Ferdinand Feghoot -- but I won't go into that.)

Settling into my auditorium seat to watch the junior class costume competition, I am struck by the sound of 6,000 people who feel like family. Audience members yell out casual suggestions to the MC, as if they're sitting in his living room, and everyone applauds nearly everything. As the contest progresses from Novice to Master, the imagination and craftsmanship put into the entries become evident: Giant mothlike aliens have graceful arms and diaphanous clothes; lady-swan princesses flap tremendous wings; extraterrestrial quartets seem, well, extraterrestrial. Overall, though, the contest is hit-or-miss. There are moments of genius and moments of sympathetic cringing, but almost no one goes home without an award.

This year's Hugo Award-winning novel is American Gods by Neil Diamond; winner for dramatic presentation is The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.

About The Author

Silke Tudor


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