The World Science Fiction Convention (worldcon) goes to China, and of course there's politics

I used to be a lot more involved in the annual science fiction Worldcon and the Hugo awards, but have drifted away of late. One of the reasons is that, even more than before, they have become more about politics than science fiction or community. There was a huge controversy over an attempt at bloc voting to change the Hugo awards, which both succeeded and failed, and had somewhat faded into the past. But the intrigues continue.

This time it's over the vote at each convention to pick the site of the event in 2 years time. This is a fan run convention with no official standing committee, so each one is run by a somewhat independent local group that bids for the chance to host. There used to be lots of contention for this, these days there is less, but this year there was a competition between Chengdu and Winnipeg. The convention is almost always in North America, and only 4 times has it gone to a non-English country. During the 20th century in particular, SF was almost entirely in English and overwhelmingly American with a smattering of British and Canadian and other former colonies. Indeed, the old rules for selecting the site deliberately alternated among 3 zones of North America, though an overseas bidder was not restricted by this zoning and could bid any time.

The victory for Chengdu comes with controversy. Around 1900 of the ~3000 votes came from overseas Chinese "supporting" members of the convention. More than enough to win the vote, which they did. The convention has always had the concept of a supporting membership, which allows those who want to participate but can't go in person to still vote on things and get publications. Normally only a fraction of members join in this way -- it's still somewhat expensive, and many of the people who have this supporting membership got it because it comes automatically when you vote for the future convention site (which costs extra money to do.) In recent years, around 600 to 800 people have voted on the site selection (though often it has been uncontested.) Due to Covid, the supporting membership has grown a lot more valuable by including access to a virtual convention on video and Discord.

So, it's not a stretch to say that the Chinese fans swarmed the vote with an overwhelming number of people who almost surely had never attended the convention before but were willing to buy a supporting membership and vote at significant cost, in order to bring the convention to China. On the surface, that sounds like an abuse of the rules, reminiscent of the "Puppies" effort to swarm the Hugo nomination ballot (which, because of the small number who nominate and the way the system worked, could be done with much smaller numbers.) China is huge and now wealthy, and the allegation is they "bought" this victory as largely outsiders. There were also accusations of irregularities, but this issue is worth discussing without that. I will presume that 2,000 real Chinese SF fans decided to pay US$100 to join the 2021 convention and vote to select Chengdu as the site of the 2023 event.

This year there is an extra wrinkle. Covid rules prevent Chinese from coming easily to the USA. In essence this is just what the supporting membership is there for, to allow fans who can't make it to participate at a lower level. But at the 2019 convention in Dublin, only 30 came from China. At the 2007 convention in Japan, no Chinese member attended even though it was next door.

The World Science Fiction Society sometimes acts like some sort of official governing body for appreciation of SF, but it's actually more about the community of fans in many ways than it is about the SF. While it claims to be a very open, welcoming community, the issue here is that 2,000 people who were members of the community only by virtue of paying a fee came in as outsiders to take it over. Allowed by the rules but in violation of the spirit. Maybe.

There is a thriving SF fandom in China, and a growing body of Chinese SF. A few years ago, the translation of the Chinese SF novel "3 Body Problem" won the Hugo award, which is voted by the same fans. However, the Chinese fans were never more than a tiny contingent in the World SF Society. So they came as outsiders to that community and took the convention by force of numbers and money. But is that a wrong thing, or the making right of something that was wrong? Or is it both?

China has a problematic human rights record, and that has added to the list of concerns with this. Some will want to boycott it over that. Last year, there was a bid from a small group for Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. I happen to know the chair of that bid well, and told him his bid had no hope -- not simply for the human rights issues. The big problem was that their fan group in the KSA was small, and had never participated in the global community. They could not come in as outsiders and expect to win the hosting contest. They would need, like the other countries that had won, like Japan and Finland, to build their reputation over time with active participation.

He wondered if they could not win the vote just by buying a lot of memberships, as the Chinese eventually did. I told him this might work according to the rules (and they are crazy-nuts-sticklers about the rules) but it would be de facto rejected, just like when it happened with the awards. They might win the convention but almost nobody would come. They would (as always happens when the convention leaves North America) hold a parallel convention that would become to most the "real" convention. It would be a pointless victory.

The same may well happen in China in 2023. Outside attendance would already be quite low (non-North American conventions tend to get half the attendance of US ones, or even less) and made even lower by the long flights, high cost and need for visas to go to China. Those who decide not to go due to Chinese human rights or the way the vote was won could reduce the non-Chinese attendance to a very low number.

On the other hand, China is ... China. It's huge. The convention there might be much larger than normal. The Hugo awards in 2023 may go largely to Chinese SF. There is no rule that nominees be in English, even though it has always been the case. The Chinese novel that won did so only in translation. In addition, should another Chinese city bid to host 2025, the largely Chinese membership at Chengdu might easily select it, making the convention alternate between China and the rest of the world from then on. (They could also use the same voting technique to put it always in China, but that would be pointless, as the rest of the world would just create another convention, not necessarily a bad thing.)

If that seems bad, remember that previously it's been almost exclusively been in the USA, and only left the USA because American fans in their "benevolence" felt it was only fair to have something called the "World" convention go overseas from time to time. Non-American members never had the numbers to make anything happen the American members didn't want -- until now. The old rules that made it rotate among 3 American zones were replaced by a rule that makes it move at least 800km, but most big cities in China are more than 800km from Chengdu.

More bad blood was created at the last minute, when an effort was made by Winnipeg during the vote counting to exclude the Chinese ballots because they did not include an address. A non-binding interpretation of the rules was passed to disqualify ballots with no address, but in the end it was not followed.

China should be a large and vital part of world science fiction fandom. The domination by the USA existed because the USA dominated writing and publishing and reading of the genre, but there is no inherent rightness to this, it is just what was. At the same time, it's not great that this shift happened by severe abuse of the rules. The World Science Fiction Society is, as insiders know, even more about being a community than it is about science fiction. But with some irony, it is also a community that is obsessed with being perfect at inclusivity and can hardly reject the outsiders just because they are foreign. While this is not about race, the fact that the new members are of a particular racial and national group will give an appearance nobody likes.

The ideal situation would have been for the Chinese community to join in a more organic way. But that would have been very difficult. Travel is still challenging, even without the virus. It's also not entirely practical to have a cohesive community when the English speakers read only a smattering of translated Chinese SF, and the Chinese community reads the Chinese SF and the English SF in translation, when the translations delay the reading a year or two in both directions. Though it's worth noting that the 2007 Nippon convention gave its awards exclusively to English language works, in spite of the majority Japanese membership.

The outcome of this could go either way. It could tear the community apart. With luck it could find a way to merge the communities together, particularly if translations are sped up and travel becomes easier. There will be a bitter taste about how it was done, though it was not too likely to happen any time soon another way.

How to change it

Whether it's a good idea or not, it may be possible to change the voting to put the voting focus only on those who actually attend or plan to attend the convention, since those not likely to attend have less legitimate interest in where it takes place. (They may have desires as to what sort of people will vote on the awards but that's not meant to be something people express an opinion on.)

  • Voting could be limited to people on site. This biases towards those who live close to the current site, and those with means to travel.
  • Supporting member voting could be limited to on-site plus those who attended the prior convention, or any of the conventions for the last N years. With modern database techniques this is doable, if non-trivial.
  • People with attending memberships in the next worldcon could be added to the voter rolls even if they are only supporting the current one.
  • Voting by supporting members might be permitted only if they chose the special ballot which purchases an attending membership in the winning convention. This does not entirely stop bloc purchased voting but makes it much more expensive.

Normal voting requires a fee which purchases a supporting membership in whatever site actually wins. Sometimes it has been possible to pay a fee that purchases an attending membership in the winner, though since different winners want to charge different fees, this is not required. You have to say you want to buy an attending membership no matter where it is, which few can say. This has often been a low cost way to get such a membership. While not required, all conventions have allowed resale of memberships so it's a minor risk. They could forbid resale of such memberships.

A really extreme (and risky) option would allow voting only by those purchasing an extra expensive attending membership (say $500) of which $350 is provided as credit usable at the convention hotels. Only for those who can float that money for 2 years and who need a hotel. Excluding locals from voting for their own town is actually not against the spirit of the system, in fact it is a bias that is preferably removed.

Of course, at the vote in 2023 in Chendu, most of the attending members will be Chinese, and likewise if any of the above rules that demand attendance in nearby years apply. The Chengdu convention, whose price is currently $100, is a bargain compared to recent prices in other countries.

If the concept of a "committed attending membership" is created (ie. the membership which consists of both an attending membership and $300 of not-necessarily-transferable hotel/food vouchers) then you could limit voting to:

  1. Attending members of the current convention
  2. Supporting members of the current convention who are committed attending members of the next worldcon
  3. Members who actually attended the prior convention or conventions. (Using databases of who picked up their badge or otherwise registered
  4. Those voting with the fee to purchase a committed attending membership to the winning worldcon.

Of course, this does not exclude China since after 2023 there will be large numbers of Chinese fans who attended a convention in person.

Comments

A few points; I think the attendance at both London in 2014 and Helsinki in 2017 if semi-block voted could've overcome the American membership. Non-NA members, both supporting and attending, were a majority at the 2019 Dublin (especially since the track record of non-North American bids that have had significant interaction with Worldcons and their committees almost? always win if they put up a reasonable bid (including not having significant issues involving who could safely attend, such as LGBQT folk, Jews, immigrants to elsewhere originally from that country, etc.)).

Anything limiting voting to those onsite in person has the problem of biasing the vote to where it's most convenient for them to attend, which usually introduces a locality bias; that's why the sites running for the Worldcon being voted on have to be at least 500m/800km away, on the theory that that distance is often over the line at which it's a major trip to attend, so 500 vs. 1500 miles doesn't matter as much.

If local fans "naturally" wish to overwhelm North American fans that's considered a good thing. If they are there at the con they are real members of the community. The issue here is 2000 fans who have almost all never been to a worldcon deciding on their own agenda for where it should be.

The idea I list above of a committed attending membership might solve that. I am not sure many would buy it, actually.

But you want a system where new areas of fandom can host a worldcon once they are part of the community, but not before they are part of it.

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