First Time to a World Science Fiction Convention? Here's What to Expect
An Introduction by Stu Segal and Laurie Mann.
The World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon) is an international gathering of the Science Fiction and Fantasy communities. Worldcon attracts members each year from all over the world. In the last decade the convention has been held on four continents.
Authors, artists, editors, publishers, gamers, vendors, musicians and fans all attend Worldcon.
When you show up at a Worldcon for the first time, it's much like walking into a giant buffet, an enormous room filled with table after table of delicacies. And when you start to walk the room you see some things you recognize, and like, but you see lots and lots of things that are unfamiliar - some look good and smell good, others don't. You have two choices - one is to be overwhelmed and go back to your room, and the other is to dig in. So you start to fill your plate with things you know, and like - and then around the edges you start to place a lot of other delicacies that you hadn't tried before. Eventually you head back for more, more of your old favorites, and more of some of your delicious new discoveries.
Worldcon has Exhibits, including the Hucksters Room (vendors/dealers) and Art Show; Events like Hugo Awards ceremony and the Masquerade; Program, including panels, autographings, readings and Kaffeeklatches. Just before the convention, a preliminary schedule of all activities will be posted on the website so you can start planning each day of your convention (you can print the schedule at home or save it electronically, and when you get to the Worldcon there Program Guide and a Souvenir Book).
Buying Your Membership
Worldcons are funded by memberships. Unlike other popular culture conventions, your Worldcon membership covers all activities - you don't need to pay for items separately (unless a Worldcon has a banquet). Your Worldcon membership covers the Events and Program you attend, the Exhibits you see, the Publications the Worldcon produces and the many other Services a Worldcon provides.
Authors, artists, editors, publishers, gamers, vendors, musicians and fans all pay for their memberships, except for the Guests of Honor and a few special speakers. The people who spend years organizing the Worldcon and managing it at the con all pay for their memberships too.
Even if you can't go to Worldcon itself, you can buy a less expensive Supporting membership. With a supporting membership, you can receive a Hugo Award packet, vote for the Hugos and receive convention-related publications.
The Hugo Awards, and the Awards Ceremony
First of all, a World Science Fiction convention (Worldcon) is organized under the charter of the World Science Fiction Society, so by getting a membership for the Convention you become a member of the WSFS for that year. And that gives you the right to nominate and vote for the Hugo Awards.
As a Worldcon member, you can nominate those works you think are worthy for Hugo Awards. Even if you don't nominate, you get to vote on those that are nominated to determine the winner (much like the members of the Academy vote for the Oscars). Don't think you'll know what to vote for? Worldcons now provide a Hugo Voter's Packet, containing electronic copies of many of the nominated works. Since this depends on the goodwill of authors and publishers, we can't guarantee that all nominated works will be available. In recent years voters have received extracts or complete versions of almost all the nominated fiction - including the novels!
One of the highlights of a Worldcon is the Hugo Awards ceremony. If you've participated in the Hugo process, and read or seen the nominees, and voted, you will most likely have personal favorites you're rooting for. And unlike the Oscars, you will have been one of the few who actually helped select the winners. It adds a whole new, rewarding, element that makes the ceremony something very special.
The Masquerade is a judged costuming competition. It is divided into categories based on the costuming skill levels of the participants, and judged by a panel of costuming experts. If you're from the East, expect to see costumes done with the same skill as you would see on Broadway, or at the Mummers; if you're from the West, be thinking Hollywood or Las Vegas.
You'll generally find an interesting "half time show" while the judges are deliberating.
Worldcons tend to have Opening and Closing ceremonies, to welcome the attendees, acknowledge our guests. Many have other kinds of special events, including concerts, presentations and special movie events.
There is always music at Worldcon. Sometimes there are professional performances, and there are always fan performances.
"Filk" is the folk music of SF and fantasy, and each Worldcon includes a robust Filk Track of performances and workshops. You are welcome to observe and enjoy; if you want to participate, bring your instrument.
There are usually some theatrical performances at a Worldcon. Sometimes it is live re-creations of old radio shows, sometimes brand new stage plays. Always something, always entertaining.
Film & Video
There are always screenings at a Worldcon. Usually you will find screenings of the Hugo nominees, and lots of other interesting films. Some Worldcons have hosted film festival, showcasing film shorts, features and trailers, specializing in the science fiction, fantasy, horror and comic genres.
Worldcons feature many types of concurrent sessions that generally run in 60 minute timeslots, usually starting around 10 each morning, and going until late each night. Some of the sessions are panels, some are workshops, some are demonstrations and some are presentations.
The range of subjects covered is as broad as the fields of science fiction and fantasy - actually broader. While you will find sessions covering books, movies, TV shows, costuming, writing, publishing, etc., you will also find sessions covering science, astronomy, and the arts. Over the 5 days, there will be several hundred program items and, if you're like most folks, you will find so many of them to be interesting that you'll struggle over which to attend.
You'll also have the opportunity to get up close to your favorite personalities. Kaffeeklatsches give you and a small group of fans the opportunity to spend an hour in conversation with the author, actor, artist, etc. Stroll With The Stars invites all members to a pleasant morning walk with a group of "Stars", who you can meet and converse with. (Some items, like Kaffeeklatsches and workshops, require you to sign up in advance, but most items, like panels, autographings and strolls, do not).
Guests of Honor
Each Worldcon selects a small number of Guests of Honor. Each Guest of Honor (GoH) is chosen for their lifetime commitment and contribution to the field. Effectively, this is the Hall of Fame for the science fiction and fantasy field - and it is filled with major names from Asimov to Clarke and Bradbury to le Guin.
In addition to the GoH's, there are all the participants on all the panels, the Masquerade, the performances, etc.
A Worldcon program requires a lot of participants - generally about four hundred. Most Worldcons post short bios of all participants on their Website as their appearances are confirmed. All are experts in some field or fields - some are professional authors, editors, publishers and artists, some are scientists, some are educators, some are astronomers, some are philosophers...and some are just regular folk who have developed or acquired expertise in some specific area. And, yes, of course there'll be gull-durned rocket scientists!
In recent years a Worldcon's attending members have included Ray Bradbury, Neil Gaiman, George R. R. Martin, Connie Willis, and our special speakers have included George Takei, Patrick Stewart, Paul Krugman and Dr. Demento.
At each Worldcon there are both perpetual traveling exhibits, which appear each year, and one time special exhibits.
Each year you will find a historical exhibit from the World Science Fiction Society which includes things like the actual Hugo Award trophies from as far back as the fifties. You will also find various photo galleries, which exhibit photos and brief bios of well known pros and fans.
Special exhibits are very wide ranging in terms of subject matter, and may have a connection to the location of the convention.
Hucksters (Dealers) Room
Somehow with access to everything in the world on the Internet, you'll always find great stuff in the Hucksters Room. You'll find lots of books, videos, anime, toys clothing, jewelry, chachkas, art and who knows what else. If you looking to increase your collection, or looking for that unique gift to bring your loved one who you left at home, you'll find it in the Hucksters Room. You'll also get to make great personal connections with dealers from out of your area.
Well Science Fiction and Fantasy are art, right? But you'll find real art in the Art Show. The artists whose work you've seen on the covers of your favorite books and movie posters. Most contemporary, some from past decades. Some big well known names, some new fresh promising ones.
Most work in the Art Show is for sale via auction. Throughout the show, a "silent auction" is operated (when you sign up for your bidder number, someone will explain how it works); anything not sold at the silent auction goes to a live auction near the end of the Worldcon. In addition to the auction, low-cost reprints of certain displayed pieces are available for sale in the adjacent Print Shop.
And More at a Worldcon!
The nightlife at a Worldcon is, well, very alive. Each night of the convention there will be room parties - some hosted by publishers, some by cities bidding for future Worldcons, some by fans or groups of fans. The great majority of room parties are open to all members. At the room parties you'll find snacks and refreshments, and lots of good conversation. You may find someone making ice cream with liquid nitrogen. You may find someone else playing a theremin. You may find belly dancers.
Filthy Pierre's Official Party List is posted each afternoon near the Voodoo Message Boards (just ask, you'll find the Message Boards), so you'll know what parties you want to check out each night.
And, frankly, you'll find many Worldcon members hanging out in hotel bars.
In addition to the gala Masquerade, you'll often find people in hall costumes. Hall costumes are just what they sound like, members wearing costumes around the convention. While Worldcon isn't really a costume party, you will occasionally find members in costume. You'll also find members in pieces of costumes, a Dr. Who scarf, a propeller beanie, etc. While it is by no means expected that you wear a costume, you won't be out of place if you do.
There are a lot of people at a Worldcon. Within the boundaries of good manners, everyone from the member standing next to you, to the GoHs, is approachable, and friendly. (Hey, they wouldn't be here otherwise, would they?). While many languages are spoken, English seems to be the common language. Go to the panels, talk to the other members. Go to the hall parties. You will make friends - you'll find other members who share your interests, and you'll find others who have different, but fascinating, interests. You'll find a large percentage of the members are repeats" who travel to the Worldcon almost every year. Each year they make more friends - but it always starts with their first convention, and the willingness to extend the hand of friendship to others.
Years ago, most Worldcons had an Internet Lounge. As laptops, smartphones and WIFI took over, this is less common. Most Worldcons try to provide WIFI in some function areas, but this depends on what kind of deal the hotel/convention center is willing to make or if the Worldcon can get sponsorship for it.
First Time at a Worldcon?
At every Worldcon there's a program item called something like "So: This Is Your First Convention? Here's What to Expect." This discussion always features people who have been coming for years, know the ins and outs of Worldcon, and they both know how to have a good time - their session is worthwhile for any first-timer, or anyone with questions.
What to do Before You Leave Home
- Buy your membership, sooner not later.
- Tell all your friends you're going.
- Make your travel reservations.
- Make your hotel reservations once hotel reservations open up, typically in early January before the Worldcon. Do it early so you get a room where you want.
- Check the Worldcon's website and social media sites often.
- Check the website and print out the Program a few weeks ahead. Review it (this could take hours) and circle the items you like.
- Review the convention maps ahead of time so you know the lay of the land.
- When you pack, check the weather for the city before you leave. In some cities, having a water bottle and sunscreen is crucial. In others, not so much.
What to do When You Arrive
Assuming you already got your membership through the internet, go to Registration, where they will have your Badge and packet of materials. Then go to the Voodoo Message Board and circle your name, so anyone else who may be looking for you knows you have arrived.
If you downloaded and printed the program ahead of time, great. If not, find a place to sit down (ask where the Fan Lounge is), review the program and decide what's important to see next. Don't forget to go to a "So: This Is Your First Convention" session.
Most important, just like the big buffet try and sample those unknown delicacies. And remember, this is 5 days and nights of fun, fun, fun - so pace yourself, get some sleep, take showers, eat your meals and have a great time!
The convention is organized and run by fans, volunteers all. The organizing/operating committee changes each year with the location of the convention, though many members volunteer their time year after year, regardless of location. Even if this is your first convention, consider spending a few hours working on the con - Worldcons need all the volunteers it can get and has jobs for everyone. It's a great way to get involved and help keep Worldcons running in the future.
Please review the Code of Conduct document which explains the etiquette and protocol of human interaction at the WorldCon. Everyone who becomes a member is bound by this agreement.