MidAmericon II: Con Report


When I first sat down to write this report on MidAmericon II, I intended it to be scathing. I felt I had been ill-used by the con, and I had pages and pages of hurt and disappointment (not to mention righteous indignation!) to unload. I still feel I was ill-used by the con, but on a much smaller scale.

I first applied for a place in programming in March. I was very eager as I was hawking a new novel, Jocasta and the Indians, and bragging about my new column in Buzzy Mag, https://buzzymag.com. (Not to mention still hoping to make back my advance on my previous novel, Mirror Maze.) Priscilla Olson had very cordially walked me through the application, and assured me there were lots of open slots in the schedule, and they were bound to find me something. The confirmation of the application stated that they had a lot of names to juggle, and did not expect to finish until well into June, so applicants were requested to be patient.

So, I was patient, all the way through June. Then in early July, I wrote. It was weeks before I got a reply from Ian Stockdale.

Oh, didn’t you know? We fired the Programming Committee in April. Yes, we threw out all the paperwork, and started over. Your application must have been mislaid then. So sorry. Of course, it’s awfully last minute, but we’ll see what we can do.

And that was the last I heard from him, until I met him at the con, despite several queries. But my name then appeared on the Guest List on the web-site as Also Appearing (it’s still there, in fact: https://midamericon2.org/home/guests/also-appearing/), so I thought it was taken care of.

Nope. I arrived in Kansas City, and Program Participant Check-in had never heard of me. So I went to the Programming Committee Office and found Ian Stockdale. He gave me that same, “Oh, didn’t I answer your emails? So sorry,” crap in person. “Naw,” he told me. “We couldn’t find anything for you,” not even trying to sound like he’d put much effort into looking. “After all, there were so many other fine applicants.” Him, I have not forgiven.

He tossed me over to Janice Gelb, Program Ops, who shrugged and told me I was welcome to pour over the schedule myself and if I found something for which I was EXCEPTIONALLY qualified, which didn’t already have four or more people on it, I could come back later and ask to for place on it. Clearly she did not think I could possibly be so qualified. I left an emotional wreck. I’d come a long way to be told I was not valued or wanted.

I did pore over the schedule as instructed. Fair is fair. There was nothing for which I was EXCEPTIONALLY qualified. There were surprisingly few writing panels and they were all very full. There were none of the Doctor Who or anime panels I usually join, either. In fact there was a surprising shortage across the board of panels aimed at media fans.

As I came to understand after I calmed down, this was because the Programming Committee had problems of its own. (Yes, I did eventually calm down. My beloved kid brother Chris Barkley got me a job in the Press Room, which was more fun, and provided more exposure and more opportunities to meet pros than a dozen panels.)

Forty years ago, at the original MidAmericon, there was an impromptu appearance by a young unknown actor named Mark Hamill who was trying to drum up interest in an obscure new ‘scifi’ film called Star Wars. (Strange as it sounds now, it was obscure, and there were grave doubts whether it would turn a profit. Special previews were offered all over the country to give it exposure. My entire science fiction club was treated to a free ‘champagne premiere’ months before the movie actually arrived in town.)

midamericonii_003MidAmericon II had wanted to play up the joint anniversary. The inclination is understandable, but proved to be misguided. The con contacted Charles Lippincott, the Star Wars Publicist who did the original publicity in 1976. He appeared to be agreeable, and brought in Producer Gary Kurtz, too. (It was even rumored that they might be persuaded to bring Mark Hamill, but that didn’t fly.) Friday, 8-19, was designated Star Wars day, and panels, displays, discussions and craft sessions about it were arranged.

In their eagerness to make the most of the opportunity, the Program Committee sadly neglected all other fan interests. There was nothing about any of the popular shows or movies, modern or classic. There was a selection of amusing one-shots, such as the making of Japanese crocheted pink octopi, or a scientific slideshow about fungi making zombies of hapless insects. (Who would have expected that a hopeless insectiphobe like me would end up feeling sorry for poor little enslaved insects?) Mainly there were a LOT of readings and historical retrospectives

This programming bias came back to bite them in the butt. When Lippincott saw that MidAmericon II was planning a Star Wars day, he decided this was his chance to cash in. He prepared his own ‘MidAmericon II’ program. (We know he prepared it in advance because 4-page, 10 x 14, glossy fliers with full color illustrations do NOT happen overnight.) It was to be an all-day media event, hawking autographs ($50.00 apiece) and featuring talks, slideshows and Q&A (conflicting with numerous other con functions, including the masquerade, and again not free). He did NOT consult with the con about this program.

Having laid his plans, he proceeded to escalate his demands to MidAmericon II, demanding more money, more publicity, more perks, etc. (As I was working the press room, I saw some of his emails myself, and can personally verify that he took a high-handed ‘gimme-gimme’ approach to what we will laughingly call negotiations.) When the con failed to meet some of his new demands, he canceled on the day before the con.

He then proceeded to hold his own stream of events anyway, just across the street — without removing MidAmericon II’s name from his glossy flyer — while bad-mouthing the con at every opportunity. He stood by his plan to charge high prices for attendance at his events. I mean, really. Would YOU pay $50.00 for Charles Lippincott’s autograph? Or another $50.00 to see a slide show of scenes from movies you already know well?

Well, turnabout is fair play. The Lippincott counter-con was a disaster. Despite the limited programming, fans managed to find plenty of things to do that were included in their con Membership fee. They by-passed the over-priced autograph sessions in droves. Con spies checked out the progress of the counter-con, and it was so poorly attended, it cannot possibly have earned anywhere near enough to cover its expenses. Lippincott’s cancellation created some serious holes in MidAmericon II’s schedule. It forced the Programming Committee into some frantic reorganization. But it was nothing like the disaster that Lippincott expected to inflict.

Lippincott had doubtless dealt primarily with Star Wars cons in the past, cons where he did not merely control the primary attractions, but all the attractions. He simply didn’t grasp that a WorldCon is not really about the speakers — which is why there are usually so many. WorldCons try to offer something for everyone, knowing that, largely, the fans come to see each other. There were a few complaints about the disappearing Star Wars panels. Not many.

By this point, my time in the Press Room had not only soothed my wounded feelings, but left me cheering my team, and exulting in the defeat of the evil Lippincott.

I can therefore report on the rest of the con with (I hope) an unbiased eye. Programming was not what it should have been, but as I said above, Programming is not what brings fans to WorldCon. It is a gathering of the tribes and this one was no exception to that.

There were problems. The Kansas City Convention Center needs to work on its bathroom maintenance. A minor point, perhaps, but still an ongoing nuisance and embarrassment.

More importantly, the Fan Village was not what MidAmericon II had hoped. The Committee had taken the idea from the Loncon III, and it was a good idea, but they were unable to create anything like the same ambiance in the space they had. The over all effect was more like an airport than a gypsy camp. Nor was the space the only problem.

The Fan Village in London was held in a Great Hall, ringed round the perimeter, and striped across the center by booths — white pavilion style tents, the kind you see sheltering the food at a company picnic. And they did shelter food. The Tolkien Society was offering Middle Earth fare: meat pies, apple pie, and three kinds of mead. Kansas City offered barbecue and Nippon II had plum wine in bottles decorated with anime characters. Every WorldCon bid for the next six years had a booth to promote its claim and house its bid party, and they all served something.

I could go on about the London Fan Village for a long time. It was wonderful. But all I need to emphasize now is the food. There was lots and lots of food. And drink. Not so in Kansas City. The Convention Center had a contract for food service with Aramark. The convention was flatly forbidden to offer free food beyond chips and chopped veggies in the public space. (I suspect the Committee had to sacrifice a virgin to get even that concession.) Liquor was out of the question, at least until quite late. I am told that later in the evening, things opened up, but by then a lot of fans had retreated to semi-private gatherings.

midamericonii_001Food does make a difference. A lot of fans have to squeeze their pennies to get to WorldCon. They come hoping to mitigate the financial difficulty with some free food at the Con Suite, or at parties. But there was no free food in the Fan Village. There were steam table burgers and hot dogs, pizza and baked potatoes, all commercial, all bad and all over-priced. Once purchased, they had to be consumed in a roped off area that looked like a high school cafeteria. There were probably some parties with food, but they were not well advertised. The semi-private gatherings mentioned above took place at nearby restaurants, of which Kansas City offers a pleasing selection.

You have doubtless heard there were concerns about the Sad Puppies. They were not the disruption many feared. Possibly because the Puppies are officially anti-Hugo and anti-WorldCon, there were not many in attendance (at least not visibly so). The Hugos went very smoothly, with most awards going to deserving candidates, saving two where the ballot was so Puppy dominated that they took ‘No Award’.

There was one colorful altercation. It took place at a panel on The State of Short Fiction, at 3:00 on Friday. The panel featured five editors, most of whom I have submitted to repeatedly, and I was hoping for some insight on what they were looking for. I was particularly interested in seeing Gordon Van Gelder, of whom I have a very high opinion. (Unfortunately, he spoke very little.)

The moderator of the panel was one David Truesdale, an editor to whom I have never submitted, and, indeed, of whom I had never before heard. I’ve been trying to research him since, and he is described — by friend and foe alike — as generally sympathetic to the Puppies, in that he doesn’t see what all this bitching about racism and sexism is about. Hey, things were cool in the old days, right? Lots of good, solid action stories, mostly written by and featuring white men, agreed, but nobody actually excluded blacks and women. (Excepting, John Campbell, he did not say!) Presumably he does not oppose Hugos, as he has won several.

I am told that many found his remarks offensive, but in all honesty, I couldn’t say. Yes, I was there. But I couldn’t hear a word he said. He sat slumped in his chair, at least three feet away from his microphone, with his head down, like a teenager called into the Principal’s office, and muttered into his beard,. On several occasions he was asked to speak up.

On each of these, he sat up straight, leaned into the mike (or even blew into it) and asked, “Better?” When told that he was now audible, he immediately slumped back down and resumed muttering. But it was clearly offensive to Sheila Williams, who at one point barked, loudly, “No!” Obviously she was able to hear him, but she was sitting right next to him. It was amusing to see him slink back from her rebuke.

His followers on Twitter know better than I what he said, as — immediately upon exiting the panel — he posted his entire speech on-line. Please note, it was a speech. Even without hearing it, I could see he was reading notes, and had no intention of interacting with anyone, be it audience or fellow panelist. He did have a bowl in front of him, and at one point in his speech he took some beads out of a bowl and threw them at the audience. My husband who heard little more than I (and we were in the third row) said he muttered something about “a pearl clutch”. In the absence of context, I was more bewildered than offended.

It was this posting of his speech that got him ousted. (You heard about that, right? I gather there’s been quite a furor about it.) Vague on-line references about the Code of Conduct aside, Mr. Truesdale and all other program participants were explicitly told to give MidAmericon II first publication rights, and forbidden to publicize their remarks until after the con was over.

Many claimed later that he was ejected for “inciteful remarks”, but whatever his remarks were, that was not the reason. I was there, first at the panel and then in the Press Room. He was kicked out for posting, in clear violation of his agreement with the con, and I knew this long before I managed to track down on-line what he said. I’m not even sure how they could have found out that his remarks were ‘inciteful” without first seeing his post. Somebody with super-hearing in the back row?

While we’re on the subject of ousting, Mary Robinette Kowal was also cast out. She tweeted that she was bringing booze to her next panel. She had already brought booze to a previous panel and shared it. Remember that Convention Center agreement with Aramark? Passing out booze at panels was strictly a no-no. It could have cost the con thousands if they had permitted it. Afterwards, Ms. Kowal graciously conceded that she had been out of line and the con did right to evict her.

Returning to the saga of The State of Short Fiction, the fun was not over! Several minutes into discussion, a large bearded man — white, of course — and presumably a Puppy, rose to his feet and started shouting at Neil Clarke, “You turned your back on us!” He repeated this remark several times, apparently having exhausted his powers of articulation with the one speech. Neil Clarke responded levelly. (Since I didn’t know what they were talking about, I didn’t catch every word.) The man went on shouting for a bit, and I can’t deny his size and tone were intimidating. Nonetheless, several fans turned to face him and made shushing noises, gesturing with their hands that he should sit down. To my surprise, he complied, rather sheepishly, as if stunned by the total lack of audience support.

All in all, I do not think MidAmericon II will go down in the annals of great WorldCons. People will not be discussing it for years, unless the Lippincott ruckus is remembered as an historic disaster. And yet, you know — it was still fun. Thousands of like  -minded people, free books and a masquerade — and Jessica Jones won the Hugo for short drama! Of course it was fun.

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  1. The problems with food sound a lot like what’s happend at two conventions here in Toronto and Hamilton (using a company like Aramark for said service.) But that’s what happens when you use a convention center and not a hotel. Don’t they have food trucks in Kansas City, and couldn’t the con arrange to have said trucks park outside the convention center for people to eat at?

  2. The two major fails by MAC II were the housing mess and the “Fan Village”. Future concoms please note, forcing your members to use a housing bureau is asinine. Such organizations may have had their place in the pre-internet past, but that was long ago. Concealing the fact that one of the major hotels was going to be under renovation from members until it was too late to make other arrangements was deceitful, but I don’t know if the committee or the housing bureau was to blame for that.

    The “Fan Village” was a cover up for the committee’s failure to negotiate a corkage waiver. This “feature” was not mentioned until after the site selection vote and thus was another case of deceit toward the membership.

  3. Dave Truesdale, who does not edit fiction, but has long edited the review zine Tangent and is a past editor of the SFWA Bulletin, which is why you’ve never submitted to him, has never *won* a Hugo, although he has been nominated for 6 of them (4 in the pre-Puppy era).

  4. I was in the front row for the Truesdale panel, and he was truly offensive. He failed to moderate, and took over the topic of the panel, making it a pro-Puppy rant. I went there, as you did, Michaele, hoping to gain insights from editors I’ve submitted to about the nature of short SF and where it might be headed.

    Instead, we got a rant about people clutching pearls and being too concerned about political correctness.

    The sad thing for me is that I’d just met him the night before and we spoke in general about SF that we both liked, and none of these concerns came up. He seemed like an OK guy. Then it turns out the next day he’s the only one present clutching pearls and unable to cope with the idea that someone’s writing a form of SF he doesn’t like.

    If you’re on Facebook, you can see my longer take on this, written days later: https://www.facebook.com/groups/91890352277/permalink/10154398134182278/

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