The 2021 World Science Fiction Convention, DisCon III in Washington, DC, is in full swing as I write. In fact, presentations of this year’s Hugo Awards are set to begin in
15 minutes an hour and fifteen minutes, and I plan to write about those in the morning when I wake up and find out who won. I had hoped to be at DisCon III. I lived in DC for four years and still have friends in the area. The hotel where DisCon is being held is where I stayed when I visited Washington as a high school senior taking part in Presidential Classroom. It would have been neat to go back, especially as the summer dates for the con could have been made to coincide with my 25th graduate school reunion. (My cohort was small enough that I could have organized the event and set the dates.) The pandemic put paid to all of that. DisCon, unlike last year’s CoNZealand, is having an in-person convention — with significant virtual participation — but at the cost of moving the event from August to mid-December.
The biggest news to come out of the convention so far is not about this year’s Worldcon, but about the convention in 2023. Members of a given year’s Worldcon select the site of the convention two years in the future. So, for example, voters from CoNZealand chose Chicago as the site of the 2022 Worldcon. One wrinkle is that voting in site selection involves extra costs, so typically a noticeably smaller slice of a year’s members will form the electorate to choose the location for two years hence. Another wrinkle is that in recent years (and in some of the coming years, too) bids to host Worldcon have been unopposed. Washington was unopposed in 2019, after having lost to Helsinki in 2015 for the right to host the 2017 convention. Glasgow, Scotland is presently unopposed for 2024. Yet another wrinkle is that the campaign to host a Worldcon often runs about 10 years, and is a grueling task for the volunteers who undertake a labor of considerable love.
The competition began with three bids for the 2023 Worldcon: Nice, France; Memphis, Tennessee (USA); and Chengdu, China. By mid-2020, the French committee concluded that they needed to postpone their bid. At the regular deadline for bid submissions in late February, only Memphis and Chengdu remained. But the pandemic intervened: because the bidding deadline is a certain number of days before the beginning of the current Worldcon, moving DC’s event to December could be interpreted to allow extra time for more bids to indicate interest and submit the necessary information. DisCon’s committee chose that interpretation and allowed the entry of a bid from Winnipeg, Canada. Personally, I thought that was a bit fishy; it seemed like bending the rules for no clear reason that I could see. Alternatively, experienced convention-runners didn’t want Worldcon to go to China or the American South, so they cobbled together a last-minute bid and persuaded their friends to issue a friendly interpretation of the rules. That was definitely a way to look at events.
In mid-October, two months before DisCon, the Memphis committee withdrew their bid, saying that pandemic conditions had prevented them from running the campaign that they wanted to. That left Chengdu and latecomer Winnipeg still in the running.
I mentioned a small electorate above. In a world where the San Diego Comic Con draws more than 150,000 attendees, where (if memory serves) a Polish fantasy fair draws 40,000, and where even DreamHack Leipzig 2019 draws upwards of 20,000, the World Science Fiction Convention typically has about 5000 people in attendance. Two years ago, DC was selected for the 2021 Worldcon with fewer than 600 votes. In 2018, fewer than 800 people voted and 2020 went to New Zealand’s unopposed bid. Last year’s vote for the 2022 convention was contested between Chicago and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Chicago won handily, 517 to 33.
The contest between Chicago and Jeddah was also marked by pointed questions about the repressiveness of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and, in my view, obtuse answers by the Jeddah fans hoping to put on the convention. On the other hand, they live in an absolute monarchy, what else are they going to be able to say in public?
Similar questions have dogged the Chengdu bid this year, particularly as China’s government has moved to crush democracy in Hong Kong and undermine the “one country, two systems” framework that was agreed before the handover of the former British colony in 1997. The safety of LGBT+ participants in Worldcon has been an issue. The status of dual-national visitors is also an issue, particularly in the wake of the Chinese government’s arbitrary enforcement of local laws and history of ignoring the citizenship of people it considers Chinese nationals.
None of that mattered at voting time, though, with Chengdu swamping Winnipeg by 2006 to 807. Those numbers are unusually large for Worldcon site selection, and they seem to have been driven by supporting memberships in DisCon bought for the purpose of voting in site selection. This is a novel development in site selection. (I have a supporting membership in DisCon, mainly because I want to be a Hugo voter; it was also a small hedge about attending, in that I could have upgraded if I had been able to go to DC.) For Chinese fandom, though, 2000 is a laughably small number of people.
So Worldcon will go to Chengdu in 2023, the first time in China, only the fifth time in a country where English was not the main language. None of the structural questions were, or indeed could be, addressed before the voting. The committee seems to have a better grasp than Jeddah did of the gap between what is business as usual in their country and the expectations of science fiction fandom. On the other hand, I have seen some indications that one of their guests of honor is an aggressive Russian nationalist (ironic for someone with a Ukrainian name), so maybe they are going to lean into the authoritarian approach. Or maybe they’re unaware that could be a problem.
Worldcon has for a long time been very American. Now, almost a quarter of the way through the twenty-first century, there’s more world being put into Worldcon.