The Future for WSFS

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In preparing commentary on the 2023 Worldcon bid by China (Chengdou 2023) I became aware of the fact that concerns about the perception of a country’s fitness for hosting a Worldcon was not the only potentially fraught future issue facing the World Science Fiction Society, its members and its awards.

Despite my great interest in and support for Chinese Fandom and works in translation (both ways) (this search result for the website for “China” should offer some bona fides), I am extremely reluctant to endorse their Worldcon bid (it saddens me not to be able to do so).  In many ways, China – the country and its government, not its fans nor even its citizens – represents a contemporary vision of the kind of imagined futures Ray Bradbury told us it was Science Fiction’s purpose to warn us about.

But if one is honest, one has to admit that many of the same concerns can be leveled against the United States of America at the present time.

As WSFS – empowered by its ever-shifting fannish membership – moves towards the greater realization of the initial word in its name – World – it will be increasingly called to task over issues and concerns that it has heretofore not had to grapple with.  No longer can Fannish politics enjoy wide separation from real world politics.  One of those questions will surely be How do we assess the fitness of a country to host a Worldcon?

That single question is replete with detail and nuance.  Previously, we’ve applauded governmental support of Worldcons;  Finland was underwritten by the Finnish government;  New Zealand’s Prime Minister recently endorsed an upcoming convention.  On the other hand Chengdou would be taking place in a city that has been designated as a center for science fiction by the Chinese Government and is undoubtedly receiving both financial and material support from the same.

When a government’s support and endorsement is limited to just a bit of funding and some promotional support, we’re unlikely to question its motives (of course they love fans), but at what point do we begin to question those motives?  At what point does our desire for such impact other aspects of our community, and how much influence are we prepared to accept?  (Remember that Scientology attempted to use promotional and financial support to co-opt a Worldcon and its awards.)

Do we make our decision based on current policy?  Future stated policy?  Past history?  What political concerns are allowed to hold sway?  Is Fannish concern for Chinese repression of ethnic Muslims more or less important than, say, Fannish concerns over the treatment of Palestinians in Israel?

While Israel has not yet put in a bid, France has (for the same year as Chengdou).  Antisemitism is on the rise in France and many have criticized that country’s failure to address the issue effectively.  Do we measure intent?  Or do we only make our decisions based on action?

Do we bite the bullet and accept that visiting the US for a Worldcon presents many non-US Fans with the same concerns, not to mention actual difficulties with obtaining visas, as is faced by Fans contemplating trips outside the US?  Do we recommend against any Worldcon being hosted in the US until that country’s government changes its policies?

Regardless of what direction the Fan Funds are traveling in any given year, world politics have now intruded and will not go away.  WSFS needs to address this issue and formulate some guidelines, if not policy.  I’d say, for a start, that policy should state that any country that advocates for the repression of any group based on its sex, sexual orientation, religious affiliation and similar discriminations, should be ineligible for hosting a Worldcon, and I would interpret such a statement to apply to the US at this time.  Any country that engages in governmental censorship of its press, likewise.

Regardless of the detail, some foreward thinking is not just recommended, but demanded, especially of an organization that wants to live in the future.

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Another issue facing WSFS, one which has already impacted Hugo Award voting and will continue to increasingly do so are streaming services.  Most, if not all of them, are offering genre-related properties that have and will continue to be nominated for various Hugo Awards.

As streaming services increasingly fragment the audience, accessibility and financial resource will likewise increasingly affect both nominations and votes.

The WSFS Constitution contains the rules governing the Hugo Awards.  Below are the relevant sections:

3.3.8: Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form. Any theatrical feature or other production, with a complete running time of more than 90 minutes, in any medium of dramatized science fiction, fantasy or related subjects that has been publicly presented for the first time in its present dramatic form during the previous calendar year.

3.3.9: Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form. Any television program or other production, with a complete running time of 90 minutes or less, in any medium of dramatized science fiction, fantasy or related subjects that has been publicly presented for the first time in its present dramatic form during the previous calendar year.

3.4.3: In the event that a potential Hugo Award nominee receives extremely limited distribution in the year of its first publication or presentation, its eligibility may be extended for an additional year by a two-thirds (2/3) vote of the intervening Business Meeting of WSFS.

In light of streaming services, how is the phrase “extremely limited distribution”? to be interpreted?  Should there be an audience-size cut-off?

This is a serious concern – unless all of the streaming services are willing to make their content available at no charge for nomination consideration (and how do we manage that?)

Otherwise, nominations and voting will be heavily weighted in favor of the more popular and widespread services, and towards those fans who can afford the monthly service fees – sometimes to watch as little as one show.

One potential solution exists in section 3.4.3:  many streaming services are making their original content available through other outlets following a year of exclusivity.  How far and wide this practice will be maintained remains to be seen, but it would be possible to allow media properties to enjoy two years of eligibility, one upon their initial release and another upon “general” release.

Again, WSFS needs to take a look a bit farther down the road and lay some plans.

2 COMMENTS

  1. Though I consider them important, questions of “who is oppressing whom” are notoriously squishy & difficult to deal with. In the context of China, however, there is a much firmer ground upon which to stand. It seems obvious to me that the Worldcon, in its aspect as a literary convention, cannot & must not be held in a country where authors are subject to being imprisoned for their literary productions.

    I say this as someone who has attended 10 of the last 11 Worldcons, & hopes to continue attending. (Sadly I missed London.) I also say this as someone who has repeatedly been a panelist at Worldcons. If by some miscarriage Chengdu is seated, I will not be attending, but I will maintain a supporting membership so that I can vote for a non-Chinese site, as under the current WSFS Constitution there is nothing in particular to stop the capture of the convention by China, which I would consider deeply unfortunate.

  2. The Chinese government has banned time travel stories, apparently because of the possibility of characters going back in time and engaging in counter-revolutionary activities (assassinating Mao?).

    Then there’s Tiananmen Square: how long will a convention be allowed to run the first time that subject is raised.

    No, China, under its present system, must never be allowed the prestige f hosting a worldcon!

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