Show Notes for Ep. 7 "Cons in a Time of Pandemic"

Bonding over their complex feelings on Star Trek, Mary Anne and Ben share their thoughts on how conventions have been forced to adapt and evolve in a time where large crowds and gatherings are largely a thing of the past. Cons are an important part of Mary Anne and Ben’s personal and professional lives, so will things ever be the same?

Recorded 3 June 2020 / Published 3 May 2021


  • 0:30: Ben’s history with conventions.
  • 2:10: Mary Anne’s first convention.
  • 5:25: Mary Anne’s first encounter with explicit Kirk/Spock slash.
  • 8:00: Mary Anne started going to cons more after she started writing professionally.
  • 9:20: Ben goes to conventions to recharge his inspiration batteries, while surrounded by like-minded people.
  • 13:30: Comparison of various different kinds of conventions and what they focus on.
  • 16:30: How different cons handle the divide between fans and pros.
  • 18:50: There’s a lot of variation in how different communities do conventions.
  • 20:45: Worldcon moves to a different location each year.
  • 22:30: Some experiences at conventions and conferences that involve people who speak different languages.
  • 27:55: Captioning and transcription and translation.
  • 29:20: Some countries have convention culture/communities, but others don’t.
  • 31:15: Other genres don’t tend to have fan-oriented conventions.
  • 34:15: Book conventions and arts festivals feel more like work; sf conventions feel more like an intersection of social and professional.
  • 40:25: Brief intermission, featuring an ad for the Speculative Literature Foundation.
  • 41:00: The Sad Puppies, and the idea of sf awards as popularity contests.
  • 44:30: The value of anonymized magazine submissions.
  • 47:30: More about awards as popularity contests, and the pros and cons of awards, and the value of new voices.
  • 56:10: Newer writers don’t know what they don’t know (about conventions and other things); we should work more actively to spread information.
  • 57:50: ICFA: part academic conference, part sf convention.
  • 58:40: Most of the cons that are happening in 2020 have gone virtual.
  • 1:00:40: Ben strongly prefers in-person conventions.
  • 1:05:00: The shift to asynchronous online teaching and collaborative online notetaking.
  • 1:08:20: Thinking about ways to generate a vibrant and welcoming experience online.
  • 1:11:25: It’s hard to have a con atmosphere while doing normal home stuff.
  • 1:14:45: Text channels in which audiences can interact with each other during a panel or talk.
  • 1:16:50: Advice about networking at conventions: “Tell the marketing part of your brain that it has done its job by getting here. […] And then stop worrying about that, just have fun.”
  • 1:23:30: The usefulness of cons accretes over time; your first con can be tough.
  • 1:31:05: Credits.

Authors and Works Mentioned

Alphabetically by author surname, or by title of work in cases where authorship isn’t simple.

Conventions and Conferences Mentioned

Other Clarifying or Explanatory Links

Responses From Jed to Some Specific Bits of This Episode

Worldcon location
It’s true that Worldcon’s location is different every year, and that it has always been mostly in the US; but it’s not quite true that it used to be just the US and the UK. For example, the first Canadian Worldcon was in 1948. The countries where it was held before 2000 were the US, Canada, the UK (specifically England and Scotland), Germany, Australia, and the Netherlands. It’s true that it’s been in more countries more recently; since 2000, it’s been in the US, Canada, Scotland, England, Japan, Australia, Finland, Ireland, and New Zealand. It has never yet been in China, although there is a bid to have it in China in 2023. It’s still in the US more than half the time. For details, see the Long List of Worldcons.
Worldcon attendance
Mary Anne said Worldcon is 7,000 to 10,000 people. That’s arguably accurate, but it depends on how you measure. Over the past 10 years, the number of in-person attendees has averaged about 5,000 people (though there’s a lot of variation). The total number of members (including non-attending memberships, who can nominate and vote in the Hugos but not attend in person) has averaged about 8,000. Before the Sad Puppies backlash in 2014, total membership (including non-attending) was rarely over 7,000. For details, see the Long List of Worldcons. (For comparison, Dragon Con has about 80,000 in-person attendees. San Diego Comic-Con has over 130,000 attendees.)
Worldcon Saudi Arabia bid
The bid was originally for 2022, but after they lost to Chicago for 2022, the people who put the Saudi Arabia bid together are now bidding for 2026. See the official list of Worldcon bids, the JeddiCon bid site, and an article about the protest against the bid on the grounds that Saudi Arabia is home to horrific human rights abuses. (For example, “homosexuality is illegal and punishable by death.”) (The US is lacking in some aspects of human rights, but not nearly to the degree that Saudi Arabia is.) The protesters make clear that they are not objecting to Muslim or Arabic sf, only to the Saudi government’s policies.
Sad Puppies
The description of the genesis of the Sad Puppies in the podcast isn’t entirely accurate. Here’s a summary of how things started:
In 2013, author Larry Correia was sad that he had published a novel that he thought was great and deserved a Hugo Award, but he didn’t think it would get nominated. And so he posted a blog post asking his fans to nominate his work. He framed the proposed nomination as a way to “[annoy] the literati to no end” by nominating “unabashed pulp action” instead of “heavy handed message fic.” He saw social-justice-oriented people as “the man,” “literati snob[s],” and “the establishment,” and recommended making their “heads explode” and “[poking them] in the eye” by nominating his work. Correia also said at some point, iIrc, that he had gone to a Worldcon but everyone had ignored him, so obviously Worldcon was an in-group that you couldn’t be part of unless you were a SJW. I wish that someone had told him early on that almost all new convention attendees feel ignored and isolated if they don’t attend with friends—and I wish that con communities were more welcoming to newcomers. (But it’s a hard problem; established attendees are likely to be attending partly to get time with their friends who they rarely see, so they’re often reluctant to instead spend that time with people they don’t know.) The one thing that Correia was right about was that he said the Hugos are “a popularity contest where the nominees have been decided by [a] tiny percentage of people”—but his idea that the Hugos were run by a social-justice literati establishment was ridiculously wrong; at that same time, many social-justice-oriented people were distressed that the Old Guard of sf fandom weren’t being welcoming to them.
…Side note: The backlash to the Puppies was immense, and has resulted in many more people participating in the Hugos than ever before, and these days the nominees and winners are much more likely to be social-justice-oriented than ever before.
My views on anonymized submissions
When I first heard about anonymized submissions, a couple years into my time as a Strange Horizons editor, I liked the idea in general but was reluctant to use them. My reason was that we fiction editors were almost never (as far as we could tell) less inclined to like a story because of who wrote it, but we were often more willing to give a story a chance if it was written by an author we trusted. (For more about trusting authors, see my 2003 post about author points.) By 2006, we had considered the idea of doing an anonymized first reading pass followed by looking at names as a check before making final decisions, but we were under the impression that that wouldn’t be considered sufficiently anonymous to count as anonymous. And it would have been difficult to implement anonymized submissions using our submission system with the staff we had at the time.
Eventually, some time after I left Strange Horizons, my ideas changed in several ways. Anonymized submission systems now exist, and I now know that the first-round-anonymous approach is considered a valid approach. So next time I take submissions (which will likely be for an anthology sometime in the next couple of years), that’s the approach that I expect to use.
On a side note, I don’t recall ever saying that submissions are or should be a meritocracy. If I did say that at some point, then I apologize; I dislike that word, and I feel that it’s generally used to support inequitable policies and ideas. When I’m reading submissions, what I’m looking for is stories that I personally like. My tastes are fairly idiosyncratic; there are lots of stories that I love that most other people don’t, and lots of stories that many other people love but that I strongly dislike. So my editorial choices are a matter of my personal taste, not a matter of merit. (But my personal taste can still be affected by bias, of course.)
Regarding “You see the same names over and over” on awards
It’s true that some people have received a lot of nominations over the years, and it’s true that some people who have a large and active social-media presence seem to get a lot of nominations. (Though it’s not entirely clear whether their social media presence is a cause of or an effect of their receiving nominations, or both.) But this “same names” framing seems to imply that new people don’t appear on the awards ballots often, and that’s never been true except in a few Hugo categories. For more information, see the SF Awards Database. For example, the Hugo Award for Best Pro Artist had almost entirely the same set of nominees for many years, until recently. But in the Hugo and Nebula fiction categories, there are pretty much always works by authors who’ve never been nominated before.
Regarding the idea that without awards, “Someone who published a lot in the past would be still selling the best”
I feel that it’s worth noting that editors generally love to find and publish works by new writers. It’s exciting to “discover” and nurture a new talent. Most editors and publishers do have to pay attention to sales; but I think few if any of them would want to only publish the same authors they’ve always published. And publishers put their advertising budgets behind authors who they want to promote, regardless of awards. So it’s not only a matter of reviewers and awards.
Regarding the phrase “Young aspiring writer”
Of course, not all new writers are young, and not all young writers are new.
Regarding the lack of separation from ordinary home life that comes with online cons
This episode didn’t include discussion of what it’s like to commute to a con from home each day, instead of staying at con hotels. In my experience, commuting from home to a nearby convention can have a similar lack of separation from daily life. So if you can afford it, staying at or very near the convention venue during an in-person con is a worthwhile experience—but that makes cons even more exclusionary, because people who aren’t at the con late at night and eating meals in con venues may feel even less like part of the con.