CoNZealand: My first Worldcon experience

In 2013, a friend dragged me along to the national NZ science fiction and fantasy convention, which that year was held in Wellington. My only knowledge of conventions up to that point came from American TV shows and movies; these had not prepared me for the NZ experience, which is much, much smaller (think around 100 people).

One of the items on the programme was called “NZ in 2020: Yes or No?”.  I asked the friend what that meant, and they explained that it referred to deciding whether to put in a bid to hold a big international SFF convention in New Zealand in 2020. The big international convention was called Worldcon – the World Science Fiction Convention, and this was the first I’d ever heard of it.

“It’s not going to happen though,” the friend added, rolling their eyes. Even I, fandom-newbie, didn’t need to ask the reason for their doubt. Worldcon requires more volunteers than there were people in total at our national convention.

I didn’t go to that programme item. Obviously, other people did, and beavered away in the background, plotting.

In 2018, when New Zealand actually won the bid to host, the general reaction in my fannish circles was a kind of bewildered excitement – mixed with panic. Did the people making these sorts of decision know just how small NZ fandom is? Did they know that Wellington, the city it was going to be held in, doesn’t actually have a convention centre? 

“We’re going to need, like, every SFF fan in New Zealand and all their dogs to mobilise to make this happen,” I said to a friend at the time, only half-joking. “Or it’s going to be a total omnishambles.”

(I will not swear to the actual word ‘omnishambles’ being used, but the meaning is true)

“Yes,” they said, “I’ve already volunteered,” and promptly roped me into volunteering too.

As well as panic, there was a dawning awareness of the opportunity this could mean. This would be an incredibly rare opportunity for New Zealand. New Zealand SFF writers could sell our books in the dealer’s hall at the convention – international fans would be looking for local books, right? Editors and agents the likes of which we never see on our shores would be there. We’d get a chance to hear and maybe meet big-name SFF authors. New Zealand’s national SFF awards (the Sir Julius Vogel Awards) would get a way way higher profile than normal.

(Though this is a low bar, since the Sir Julius Vogel Awards normally have a profile that is – being generous – limited to perhaps a few hundred people. They are not well-known awards within New Zealand. I’ve written a bit more about the awards here)

Of course, other things happened in 2020.

I think we all expected the convention to be cancelled, once the extent of the pandemic’s impact became clear. When the committee announced CoNZealand would instead be going virtual, my feelings were mixed. On the one hand, a virtual convention was better than no convention, but on the other, this wasn’t going to be the same as the convention being physically held in Wellington.

(Also, more selfishly, this meant I would still have to do the volunteer work I’d signed up for.)

However, I’d already paid my membership fee, so what did I have to lose?

So, basically, this is a very long preamble to the main post of:

How did my Worldcon 2020 experience go?

I have now emerged out the other side of my very first Worldcon. It was, as I suspect many things are, a mixed bag (the Hugo ceremony being a notable lowlight), and I still feel a bit deer-blinking-in-the-headlights about it all.

However, in this post I’m choosing to focus on the personal highlights of my first Worldcon experience, for posterity:

The 2020 Sir Julius Vogel Awards

This was one of only two in-person Worldcon events. The ceremony was filmed four days before the recording aired as part of the wider CoNZealand programme, and we were all sworn to secrecy about the results.

The physical ceremony was a great night out. I was nominated for Best New Talent and Best Novel, though I wasn’t expecting to win either (and lo; I did not) – but being a finalist and getting to celebrate nerdy NZ SFF creations and my friends’ achievements on the night was great fun. There was also an open bar.

You can check out the full list of finalists and the winners here (Congratulations all!!! You’re a fabulous lot, and I was honoured to share a ballot and a lot of alcohol with you.). A particular shout-out to Melanie Harding-Shaw, who, most deservedly, won the award for Services to Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror.

Being on a panel(s!)

Prior to this, I’d been on a grand total of (1) panel at one of NZ’s aforementioned very small national conventions. I got the opportunity to be on (2) panels at Worldcon, and I was so nervous in the lead up to them that I just about had kittens. I’m not a real* author; I can’t be on real panels! EVERYONE WILL SEE THROUGH MY FACADE.

*My brain’s definition of ‘real’ in this context is entirely irrational and appears to be “real author = any author who is not me”.

These were my panels:

  • Imagining Fae in Aotearoa and elsewhere – with Hester J. Rook, Rem Wigmore, Jodi McAlister, and Peter Hassall.
  • Fairy Tale Contract Law – with Sascha Stronach and Kathleen Jennings

The first panel was made, er, interesting by the dawning realisation during the panel that one of my fellow panellists believed in fairies (and aliens, as it turned out). Gosh.

On the plus side, this panel is also the reason I discovered Jodi McAlister’s compulsively readable Valentine series (evil fairies in small-town Australia!), which I have now read all of. I can also recommend Rem’s off-beat Wellington urban fantasy The Wind City , which I read a number of years ago.

Cover of Valentine by Jodi McAlister Cover of The Wind City by Summer Wigmore

I was a lot less nervous for my second panel on fairy contract law. It was pure fun, and has made me want to write an entire anthology of things that could go wrong with fairies bargaining for firstborn children.

(What if the fairy only partially fulfils the bargain; does that mean you have to organise some sort of shared-custody arrangement? What if you marry the fairy and your firstborn is thus their firstborn also? What if fairies aren’t very good at telling human ages, and collect the wrong child?)

I have not yet read Kathleen’s just-released novella Flyaway, but it sounds extremely pertinent to my interests! Sascha’s urban fantasy The Dawnhounds was the book that took out the 2020 SJV for Best Novel, and I can recommend it for truly lovely prose and vivid SE Asian-inspired mushroom worldbuilding.

Cover of Flyaway by Kathleen Jennings Cover of The Dawnhounds by Sascha Stronach

In addition to my panels, I also did my very first reading! Which mostly made me appreciate just what a good job the narrator of my audiobook has done. My own rendition seemed more likely to convince people to avoid the book at all costs than anything else; Finty’s one makes even me want to keep listening to find out what happens!

The WSFS Business Meeting

I’m not joking; this really was a highlight.

Long story short: WsfSfkslj  (can never remember the proper acronym: everyone just says “whiss-fiss”) is the official organisation that runs Worldcon, and its constitution says it has to have an in-person meeting at the con or it will cease to exist. There’s no allowance for proxy voting or virtual attendance apparently.

Obviously, this presented something of a problem, since the only people who would be able to attend an in-person business meeting in Wellington were, well, New Zealanders, which seemed a bit unfair to everyone else.

So what did we do? We agreed, unanimously, to do nothing! It was very fun, and went roughly like this:

Chair (glares at the assorted people they’ve bullied into attending in order to achieve quorum, including Yours Truly): Please consider, that when I ask for objections, it is not necessary to say anything.

Us: Are you going to use the gavel? Where did that gavel even come from?

Chair (looks down at gavel on the desk in front of them in surprise): No idea. Maybe Norman brought it? And yes, yes, I am going to use it. OK, here we go: Motion to defer [Item X] until next year. Any objections? (Chair glares at Us)

Us: (sit meekly in silence)

Chair: Motion passed! (bangs gavel authoritatively)

It took about 15 minutes, including the 10-minute adjournment to get snacks. I wish more business meetings were like this.

A person (Darusha) with pink and blue stands behind a desk and hair holds a large wooden mace aloft.
Also, the Chair held up a giant mace at the end of the meeting, which I think kind of symbolises the vibe of the event pretty well. Image source: https://twitter.com/andicbuchanan/status/1289326198867165185/photo/1

You can watch the entire event in all its administrative nonsense (minus the intermission) here.

Attending panels

One of the great things about the virtualness of CoNZealand was that the panels were recorded, which meant I was able to watch more than I could’ve otherwise (though it’s a pity they weren’t available for longer, as they were taken down before I watched all I wanted to). There were such a lot of panels, on an astonishing variety of stuff! Here’s just a tiny snapshot:

  • Infinite Entangled Futures: Indigenous Voices in Conversation
  • Terrain of the Heart: Landscapes that Influence Story
  • Constructed Language: From Elvish to Esperanto to Dothraki to Belter
  • These Old Shades: If Georgette Heyer Wrote a Ghost Story

Also, have a random quote from the Constructed Languages panel that made me laugh, mainly because coming up with fantasy names for stuff is something I really struggle with:

“There’s two poles, shall we say, of how to [include a made-up language in fiction]. One is, you write it down so that hopefully the maximum number of readers can look at it and will pronounce it the way that you intended it to be pronounced.

And then on the other pole there is this kind of – I don’t want to go so far as to call it ‘woo’ – but the idea that you stylise the words to evoke some sort of sense in the reader, so that they just look at it and think ‘Wow, that word really looks like something. I don’t know how it’s pronounced, but it sure looks like something!’” – David Peterson

The volunteers

I personally know only a tiny fraction of all those whose volunteering helped make Worldcon happen, but that tiny fraction was mighty! A particular shout-out to my fellow Wellingtonian writer Darusha Wehm, who good-naturedly nudged me into volunteering in the first place. Darusha and I have fairly different tastes in fiction, but they are an excellent writer (and person) despite their wrongheaded insistence that robots are better than fairies, and you can check out their books here.

Concluding thoughts

So, was CoNZealand as good as the in-person convention I was originally looking forward to? Well, it’s hard to be certain, since that event exists only in the imagination, but I think probably not. Was it a perfect event? Also no. But am I glad I went? Yes, very much so.

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