Science Fiction’s Big Show


The rocket scientist in the scorched lab coat and burned stub of a necktie whirls around, trying to convince the piranha that is attached to his hand to let go while simultaneously detaching the growling dog that is biting his leg. “Off, you vicious beast!” he growls through teeth clenched around the stem of his shattered pipe. Children stand around giggling and adults pause as they walk by to watch his eccentric process through the hotel lobby.

Welcome to street theater, World Science Fiction Convention style. This gathering of visionaries, eccentrics, artists, and lovers of literature brings people from all over the globe for a celebration of creative craziness. They’re here for a festival of book signings, meet-the-author sessions, science lectures, parties, films, and explorations of just what it means to be both human and alien. The topics will include everything from how to get your first story published to crash courses in linguistics, rocket propulsion, cartooning, and theatrical costuming. As many as forty items are schedules simultaneously, and it goes on twenty-four hours a day for five days.

This year’s convention was in Toronto, Canada, over Labor Day, and more than four thousand writers, artists, and fans showed up for the weekend. One was Larry Van Der Putte from Amstelveen, Holland, who is here to meet other fans of the literature he loves. “I don’t write or aspire to. It’s the whole atmosphere around here, meeting interesting people who share a sense of wonder. Reading SF gives you a flexibility that I don’t find in people who don’t. They are accepting in a good way.”

The professionals are here to meet people too, both to promote their work and to try out new ideas on the people who may be buying them. Author, teacher, poet, and artist Hal Clement explains that the exchange of ideas is really two-way. “I can’t rattle off names at the moment because I’ve been writing for over sixty years, but I have certainly gotten ideas from people I met at science fiction conventions. When I’m giving a talk or a panel I tell people that if anything I say gives you a story idea, go and run with it because it’s yours.” Clement believes that these interactions have actually changed lives. “I’ve had an enormous number of people tell me they’ve gone into science because of a story of mine, but I’ve only had one person who I taught as a high school student come back to me and tell me the same thing.”

Best-selling author David Brin agrees about the value of interaction with his fans. “In all of human history we’ve only discovered one technique for avoiding mistakes, and that’s criticism. Unfortunately, we all hate it. The atmosphere here, where you are paid in enjoyment and success, means that authors are attracted to the place where they’re going to get the most knowledgeable feedback. Criticism that is sugar-coated with admiration is by far the best kind.”

The convention is more than just a chance to meet authors and hear about new developments in the sciences – media-themed events include sneak previews of new films from all over the world, Japanese animation aimed at adult audiences, how-to’s for young filmmakers, and panel discussions of film history. An announcement of the results of a survey of the best science fiction films ever generated much discussion, with some Swedes arguing for the inclusion of an obscure Russian masterwork. Lists of the worst science fiction films ever made quickly circulated, with “Plan Nine From Outer Space” featured on all of them. The discussions and arguments spilled over into the evening, when fan groups from all over the world held open parties and hospitality suites to promote their local conventions.

One oasis of peace and quiet was the art show, where people silently contemplated paintings, sculpture, jewelry, and sculpture with science fiction and fantasy themes. I found artist Edward Beveridge from Edmonton touching up a drawing that was hanging next to the magazine cover version. Beveridge has done art for album covers, tattoos, biker magazines, and other media, but he says his heart is in his science fiction illustration. “I bring the sensibility of SF art to my other work and it really spices it up. The mixture of surrealism and science is different, and people find it attractive.”

Outside the art show people were heading back to their rooms to put on their best duds for the Hugo awards ceremony, the Oscars of the literary science fiction world. Author Pat Cadigan had come from London to attend the convention, and she mused about the relative importance of the award to serious readers. “As Robert Bloch said to me one time when we were discussing this subculture, nobody can remember who won the Pulitzer in 1974, but everyone remembers who won the Hugo. There’s a lot of word of mouth – new readers in SF know Heinlein, while new readers in mainstream fiction don’t know who Ray Carver is.” (For those reading this article who don’t know, the winner in ’74 was Arthur C. Clarke, for Rendezvous With Rama.)

The major events of the convention are the Hugo awards ceremony and the elaborate costume competition known as the masquerade which features mind-blowing presentations, but to people with different interests other events were more important. “There are really at least five conventions at once going on here,” said a German poet who declined to give her name. “Literary, gaming, cinema, costuming, philosophical speculation. We only have in common that we like to think and share ideas, even argue ideas, that people elsewhere don’t understand.”

Those ideas are expressed with seriousness, satire, or whimsy according to the temperament of the person involved, and there was a healthy dose of the latter in James Hay, the man wandering the halls costumed as the beset rocket scientist. Hay is actually a tissue culture chemist from Southern California who does his comic shtick between attending panels on a variety of topics, Asked if his depiction of technology gone wrong has any underlying philosophical message, he reflected for a moment and then said, “It’s about showmanship, with at least a little exhibitionism thrown in.” At a science fiction convention, there’s plenty of room for that, too.

The World Science Fiction Convention will be in Boston in 2004 – for information see The Los Angeles area science fiction convention is called Loscon and is held over Thanksgiving weekend – see