Chicon 8: convention review

“The Middle Ages Weren’t Actually Bad,” a panel with Ursula Whitcher, Ada Palmer, David M. Perry, and Jo Walton, about what European medieval fantasies get wrong, and how “period” fantasies feed back into current popular misconceptions. The windows look out on Chicago’s Streeterville neighborhood.

The 80th World Science Fiction Convention

September 1 to 5, 2022, Hyatt Regency Chicago, Chicago, IL

by Sue Burke

Despite being the third pandemic convention, Chicon 8 felt like a fairly normal Worldcon except that everyone had to be vaccinated and wear masks.

In-person attendance reached 4,481, plus 543 virtual program attendees and 1,506 supporting members, for a total of 6,530. This compares to DisCon III in 2021 with 2,359 in-person and 952 virtual attendees, and 5,410 supporting members for a total of 8,721; ConNZealand in 2020, which was all-virtual, with 1,847 virtual attendees and 4,624 total members; and Dublin in 2019, a pre-pandemic convention with 6,525 attendees and 8,430 total members. As a further comparison, Chicon 7 in 2012 had 4,743 attendees and 6,197 total members.

Are things edging back to normal? Maybe. As another sign of normality, the convention met in the same hotel, the Hyatt Regency Chicago, as have all Chicago Worldcons since Chicon IV in 1982, which had 4,275 members in attendance.

Members had plenty to do, with more than 1,200 activities on the schedule. To accommodate other time zones, virtual events on the Airmeet platform started as early as 4 a.m. and ended at 10 p.m. and took place in three languages: English, Spanish, and Polish. In-person and virtual events included panels, theater, filk, concerts, Strolls With the Stars, Table Talks (formerly Literary Beers), readings, fan gatherings, parties, games, and dances, as well as ceremonies like the Masquerade and Hugos – but not much video or film. These days, with paid channels and streaming, those media don’t seem as suited to a Worldcon.

Overall, the convention went smoothly and on time, and behind the scenes the volunteer staff endured a lot of last-minute panics but no interpersonal meltdowns. The steadying hand of Helen Montgomery, Convention Chair, deserves a great deal of the credit for the ongoing good will. She even got the staff at a pre-convention meeting to dance like chickens.

Attendees had only two general complaints. First, no paper Program Guide was printed. Instead, it was available as a PDF and on-line through a service called ConClár. Paper copies were available for perusal at information and accessibility tables. Both a desire to be “green” and a need to save money were behind this decision. Some people hadn’t read the emails to members and were caught surprised by the change, or complained that not everyone had a smart phone to use the app (it also worked on a computer). I think the app worked great – except in the lower levels of the convention center, where phones couldn’t get a signal. I came with a pre-printed list of everything I was interested in.

Second, the convention center itself, spread over five levels in two linked buildings, amounted to a labyrinth. Adding to the confusion, buildings and roads in that part of Chicago rise two or three levels above the original swamp, so “ground level” has only a relative meaning. As a result, we had a full half-hour to get from one event to the other, which people found almost relaxing, but even by the end of the five-day convention, I was still getting lost and needed that extra time.

I was on some panels, but more than that, I had a tiny role in the pre-con staff. I copy-edited the Progress Reports and wrote some of the articles, as well as articles for the Souvenir Book, in particular a history of the first seven Chicons.

While Chicon 8 had no theme and tried to look forward and outward, it also looked back on its proud history – and here is where I find food for thought.

A World Science Fiction Convention, also called a Worldcon, is a creature of the World Science Fiction Society (WSFS), an unincorporated literary society, and its rules call on each Worldcon to choose recipients of the Hugo Awards, and to select the location and committees of upcoming Worldcons and, when necessary, North American Science Fiction Conventions. It must also hold a WFSF Business Meeting to carry out these functions and consider changes to its rules.

To become a member of WSFS and participate in all these activities, you must merely have paid membership dues to the current Worldcon committee. WSFS has no board of directors or president. Beyond those specified activities, everything else that happens at a Worldcon is tradition. There is a long tradition.

From the beginning, Worldcons have included speeches, panels, singing (later called filking), costumes (Masquerade), art, program books, business meetings, and a great deal of socializing. Attendance has swelled from the 100 at the first Worldcon in New York City in 1939.

One thing hasn’t changed: these are fan-run events, top to bottom. It takes a lot of fans, in fact. Chicon 8 had 453 staff members, who worked on pre-convention planning or had specific roles during the event; and 560 volunteers, who worked during the event. That’s a lot of hours of free labor. Work for Chicon 8 had begun in earnest four years earlier in 2018, although organizers were already pondering a bid to host another Worldcon at the end of Chicon 7 in 2012.

Some of these volunteers are smofs, members of the so-called “Secret Masters Of Fandom,” who frequently volunteer for conventions and may specialize in activities like award administration or art shows. Without their institutional memories, conventions might collapse.

Worldcons have grown in another way. Due to Covid-19, conventions now have an on-line component, which is for many reasons laudable, but which is also labor-intensive. As one volunteer said, “It’s like running two conventions at once, with two teams of volunteers.”

Worldcons have become expensive. Budgets can top $1 million USD. Attending is costly too, and fan-run and fan-funded programs like TAFF, DUFF, GUFF, and FFANZ, as well as the Chicon 8 Chicago Worldcon Community Fund, help defray the expenses of membership, hotel, meals, and transportation for some members.

Attendees may face bigger hurdles. Nigerian Hugo-nominee Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki had a tough time getting a visa from the United States government. Is it a Worldcon if citizens from some parts of the world are not accepted in the host country?

That line of thought extends further. Is it a Worldcon if some countries bid to host the convention but their culture conflicts with fannish culture, which tries to welcome, for example, LGBTQ+ fans: whose world is it? Are Worldcons really open to non-English-speaking fans? Is the current model ecologically responsible, given the effects of airplane travel on climate change?

Worldcon has accreted many traditions that fans love, defend with red-hot intensity, and find worth their money and labor, but the host committee has the final word on what takes place beyond the delimited WSFS activities. What happens at the Chengdu 81st Worldcon in China, August 16 to 20, 2023, will test the decades-old model that has brought us this far. Questions include Covid-19 restrictions, guest of honor choices, and a distinct Chinese fannish culture.

Stay tuned for controversy. Some of it might be spot-on.

But following that is Glasgow, Scotland, “A Worldcon for Our Futures,” August 8 to 12, 2024. Glasgow has hosted Worldcons in 1995 and 2005, and its convention will likely adhere to “normal” fannish tradition. After that, the future is in the hands of WSFS members, who are the people who sign up for Worldcons.