Discon III, the 2021 Worldcon: a review

This convention review was prepared for SF2 Concatenation, a British seasonal review of science fact and science fiction.

Discon III, the 79th World Science Fiction Convention, 15th-19th December 2021, Omni Shoreham, Washington, DC

“We did it!” Mary Robinette Kowal proclaimed during the closing ceremonies of Discon III. She told the volunteer staff, “You saved this Worldcon.”

It was a tough save. Originally scheduled for August, Discon III was postponed due to Covid-19 until December, when it fell just as the omicron variant began its surge. The original hotel went bankrupt, and a new hotel had to be found. One guest of honor, Toni Weisskopf, editor and publisher of Baen Books, was disinvited over posts advocating violence in Baen’s user forums. The original co-chairs, Bill Lawhorn and Colette Fozard, resigned. Some division heads resigned, and the replacement Hugo Administration team also resigned. And there were a series of controversies over a variety of concerns before and during the event.

Although the convention went hybrid, my husband and I decided to attend in-person, since vaccinations and masks were required. Covid-avoidance seemed to have worked. Although 30 isolated cases of Covid-19 were reported, the event, attended by 2,300 people, was not a super-spreader.

The only cluster seemed to be at the World Science Fiction Society business meeting, according to the final Covid tracking update email sent from Discon III to members: “Our best guess is that the WSFS business meeting involved a lot of talking, which generates more aerosols, and consistent repeated exposure.”

WSFS business included the choice of the next Worldcon, and there was a lot to talk about.

We joined the line for registration early in the morning on the 15th and only had to wait an hour; later the line stretched for hours. There we first heard about almost two thousand ballots arriving from China, which was good for Discon III’s budget, since those voters had to become members of Discon III, but those numbers suggested a likely outcome, and they had already triggered strong opinions (which will reverberate through fandom in the coming years, so I won’t enumerate them here).

After some midday sightseeing – Washington, DC, has a lot to offer tourists – we returned for the opening ceremony. John Harris, artist guest of honor, could not attend due to Covid concerns, but author GOH Nancy Kress, fan GOH Ben Yallow, and special guest Sheree Renée Thomas spoke, and fan awards were presented. Sculptor Sebastian Martorana, who designed the base of the 2021 Hugo Awards, explained that the stone came from the same quarry as the lower portion of the Washington Monument. The Show Choir of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts sang and danced to a selection of Christmas songs, although their religious nature drew some post-con criticism.

The hotel deserved criticism. The layout of the historic Omni Shoreham, built in 1930 and added onto a few times, felt to me like an M. C. Escher etching with confusing stairways everywhere. On the second day of the convention, I took an organized tour to try to orient myself, and at one point the tour guide got lost. More importantly, although I’m fully mobile, even I could see how the building met the letter but not the spirit of accessibility. The tiny elevators especially caused problems as we tried to cope with social distancing. Many meeting rooms were too small, often with standing room only and no social distancing. In an area of the city with limited on-street parking, one level of the parking garage was used for the Exhibit Hall and Dealer’s Room.

As the convention was being planned, Covid vaccines were only available for adults, so there was no youth programming. Only 11 costumers participated in the Masquerade. However, other aspects of the convention took place: the Art Show, concerts and dances, filk, kaffeeklatsches, author signings and readings, science talks, online and in-person gaming, evening parties, and morning strolls with the stars, but no cinema or media track.

Discon attempted to have a hybrid in-person and virtual con, with Zoom, Discord, and Slack components. Panels were in-person, live on Zoom, or virtual with on-site viewing. The in-person events seemed more popular to the point of overcrowding, and watching a presentation on my hotel room on Zoom, while necessary and understandable, felt lonely.

Panels covered a wide scope of interests with flashes of wisdom. At the panel called What Makes a Classic, John Hertz said the choice required outside perspective: “Water wasn’t discovered by a fish.” Post-Pandemic Aesthetics, held without irony on Zoom, considered the “sheer stupidity” of ivermectin, and Charlie Stross lamented, “We’ve lost the culture of public health in the West.” During the panel on AI in Fiction and Reality, Benjamin C. Kinney zeroed in on an important reality: “The value of self-driving cars is all the data they gather.” At What’s Great About African SF, Wole Talabi summarized, “The only wrong portrayal of Africa is a simplistic one.”

Meanwhile, site selection was underway. An eight-day telethon-style Chinese campaign for pre-convention votes for the Chengdu site brought in 1,905 ballots from China out of a total of 2,283 from all countries, so despite last-minute on-site voting, the results were unlikely to be a surprise. The WSFS Business Meeting on Friday, with a 47-36 vote, passed a non-binding advisory resolution stating that site selection ballots which did not include all required information should be counted as “no preference.” Most of the ballots from China used an email address in place of a street address, perhaps a cultural misunderstanding. The resolution added to the tension.

Because the advisory resolution was not applied to the vote, it did not change the outcome: 2006 votes for Chengdu, 807 for Winnipeg, and the rest either for no preference or scattered candidates. Chengdu’s Programme report Zero called for volunteers who are “experienced” Worldcon organizers, named some guests of honor who caused more controversy, and announced a website: http://www.worldconinchina.com/kh/memberShipE.html

Despite some pre-convention controversies over the Hugo Awards nominees, the presentation Saturday evening came off without many issues, although it was delayed for an hour because a bad belt in an air conditioning unit led to a lot of smoke in the auditorium, but no fire. Notably, T. Kingfisher, who won the Lodestar Award and Best Short Story Award, delivered two long but entertaining speeches about the wonders of slime mold.

The Hugo Afterparty, however, turned out to have Raytheon Intelligence and Space as a sponsor, which is part of the larger Raytheon Technologies, which manufactures advanced, controversial wartime weaponry. That sponsorship drew sharp objections. After the convention, chair Mary Robinette Kowal issued an apology and listed some corrective actions.

None of that could detract from the general joy during the closing ceremonies over the fact that the convention had occurred at all. Kowal presented the gavel to Helen Montgomery, chair of Chicon 8, the 80th Worldcon, which will be held in Chicago on September 1st-5th, 2022. Chicon 8 promises to “take it to the stars” with a hybrid, multilingual convention — and with luck, perhaps not so scarred by Covid.