Tales from Melbourne
From August 30 until the 8th of September, I was out of the country, either flying to, being in, or flying from the continent nation of Australia, because it was there that the World Science Fiction Convention was this year taking place, under the name AussieCon4. I had wanted to go because I was a Hugo Award nominee (for The God Engines, which did not win its category, alas) and because as President of SFWA, I thought it was incumbent on me to go and fly the flag for my organization. Aside from that I had always heard that upon arriving in Australia, you were greeted by locals who gave you a jar of Vegemite with one hand, and flung a venomous spider koala at your face with the other, and I wanted to see how much truth there was to that rumor. So off I went. And now, my report, with my main thoughts numbered for your convenience.
1. First, Australia — or more accurately Melbourne, the portion of that really vast country that I actually saw — is a lovely country filled with lovely people, and the only major problem with it that I can see is that damn, it really is tucked into the underside of the planet, isn’t it. Dayton to Melbourne, airport to airport, is a 25 hour+ trek, and while I understand this is not a patch on the travel time the first settlers (either aboriginal or European) had to expend getting to that continent, neither did they have to stuff themselves into an economy class seat next to a crazy old lady who spent her entire trip sneaking bites of a meat pie that smelled as if it were made of rotted platypus, which she had stored in a crocheted cloche hat. THIS IS TRUE AND HAPPENED, Y’ALL. And so while I sincerely hope to visit Australia again sometime, the next time I (or whoever flies me out) will be investing in a business class seat at least, with specific instructions not to be placed next to a Crazy Monotreme Hat Pie Lady.
Melbourne itself reminded me a great deal of San Francisco — it has that city’s slightly crazy, wintry-in-early September weather (although Melbourne to its defense does have the excuse of actually being in winter in early September), but also, in the city center at least, it also shares that other city’s walkability and slightly offbeat take on urban life. I felt very comfortable in Melbourne, which I suppose is not entirely surprising as it is often at or near the top of annual rankings for the most livable city in the world. But it’s one thing to be told a city is a pleasant experience, and another to actually have a pleasant experience in that city. I had the latter, and would be delighted to come to the city again one day.
If I had to mark down Australia for anything, I suppose it would be that day-to-day incidentals there are markedly more expensive; for example, the 20-ounce bottle of Coke Zero I would pay $1.20 for here is $3.50 there, even when factoring in the exchange rate for the Australian dollar, and a candy bar that’s eighty five cents here is at least twice that there. I think if I were living in that country, I would do a lot of buying in bulk. But honestly, if the worst I can say about a country is that it’s not as cheap to live in as the US, which has 13 times the number of people in it, from my point of view the country is doing just fine.
Also, no, I did not have any Vegemite, nor was I attacked on the face or anywhere else by venomous spider koalas or any other creature. The country’s incipient yeastiness and/or deadliness is vastly overrated as far as I can tell.
Oh, wait, I did have one other complaint, which is that internet connectivity there is a bit of an appallingly expensive joke. When I figured out just how much it would actually cost me to get a decent amount of connectivity down there, I bit the bullet and bought a wifi modem hooked into the local 3G network, off of which I could work both my cell phone (which uses a different cell phone protocol than what is used in Australia, but which has wifi capability) and my computer and iPod Touch, the latter of which being what I used to call home via Skype.
Having the wifi modem made me a wandering Internet hotspot, and I invited people to hover near me and check their e-mail, which they often did. So if you were at AussieCon4 and you saw a bunch of people standing close to me, it wasn’t because I am awesome and people want to be with me; it was because I was jacked in to the IntarWeebs and they wanted to be too. No, no. Don’t try to tell me they actually do like me. I don’t need your pity.
2. AussieCon4 itself was a quite enjoyable convention with some structural issues, not all of which were directly the fault of the convention. On the positive side of things, with one notable exception (which turned out all right in the end), all of my panels and programming went off without a hitch, and more than that there wasn’t a single panel on which I felt I was wasting my time, or the time of the audience. It’s a rare Worldcon that I feel that about, not because Worldcons are in some way evil but because I tend to do a lot of programming at Worldcons, and odds being what they are, if you do a lot of programming you’re going to end up with a bum panel or two (or in the case of LACon in 2006, where at one point I was about ready to assassinate several jackass panel audience members, at least three). So the fact I came out off all of my programming feeling happy really is cause for celebration. Well done, AussieCon4. Likewise, the Australian and New Zealand fans I met were all quite lovely and made me feel appreciated for hauling myself up on their shore.
That said, it was pretty clear that a bunch of the behind the scenes stuff was not exactly going smoothly. One major problem was that at the last minute — and by this I mean literally the last minute, as in the very morning of the beginning of the convention — the feckless management of the convention’s “party hotel,” the Crown Plaza, decided that it wasn’t down with the concept of room parties and essentially ordered them closed. More particularly, it decreed that after 8pm, no more than three people could be in a “hospitality suite” at a time, and that after 11, no one was to be allowed on the hospitality floor who was not a guest of the hotel itself. When I was informed of this, my first comment was “Really? And will all guests be made to keep at least one foot on the floor at all times as well?”
This last-minute dick-headedness by the Crown Plaza management annoyed me in no small part because SFWA had its own hospitality suite on the party floor and we were planning a meet-and-greet of our own, and then suddenly our suite went from being in the heart of convention party central to being the only hospitality suite open on a floor that no longer had any parties (and so to which no one came), and to which our members couldn’t always get to — I know of at least one time where a SFWA member was turned away by the hotel when he attempted to get to the SFWA Suite. I don’t blame AussieCon4 for this state of affairs — they were screwed by the hotel management, surely — but these things do have an effect. However, it’s definitely to the credit of the AussieCon4 folks and Antipodean fandom that despite these various structure issues the convention was still so enjoyable on the “let’s hang out and go to panels and see people” level of things.
3. I noted earlier that my own Hugo nominated bit of work did not take home a rocket, but if one is willing to overlook that massive flaw (which I am, because Charlie Stross won my category, and I’m a big fat sloppy fan of his), I think this year’s Hugo Awards were pretty damn successful, especially in the novel category, in which there was a very sensible tie between China Mieville’s The City & The City and Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. I could regale you with theories about how this tie came about, but in point of fact, who cares? The major thing here was fandom said “these both deserve the award” and then acted to have it happen. It’s excellent when justice occurs.
I was offered sympathy by friends because I didn’t take home the Hugo this year, but I can honestly say I don’t feel bad about it. One, I’ve already got a couple of them, which really does help to lessen the anxiety one feels about it. Two, it was an excellent field in the novella category this year, and as a nominee you (or at least I) prefer to be competing against excellence, even if it means someone else gets the rocket. Third, I didn’t get a Hugo at AussieCon4, but I did walk out of it as Toastmaster of an upcoming Worldcon, and, hey. That works just fine for me, as far as honors go. In all, I’m good with how everything played out.
I do want to point out that one thing I very much admired about this Hugo ceremony is just how quickly it went through its paces; I wasn’t looking at a clock but I’m pretty sure from start to finish was under two hours. This was wonderful, and thanks go to Hugo emcee Garth Nix for keeping things moving along.
4. As with every Worldcon, there were too many fun individual moments and people to count them all out, but at risk of boring you all more than I already have, I will point out three special highlights:
One, participating in the “Just a Minute” game show panel, masterminded by Paul Cornell and featuring me, China Mieville, Cat Valente, Ellen Kushner, Jennifer Fallon and Patrick Nielsen Hayden, each of whom had to discourse for a full minute on a given topic without repetition, digression or hesitation, any of these which we could be dinged for by the other panel members. This panel was so much fun I nearly peed myself. Some pictures and video of the panel can be seen here, and the best thing about it was that I won. Because I’m petty about these things, you see.
Two, going out clubbing on the night before the Hugos with Alaya Dawn Johnson, her paramour Eddie Schneider, and young master Mieville. Because you know what? Nothing will calm your pre-Hugo jitters like dancing your brains out until 2am. It was the first night before a Hugo ceremony that I actually slept soundly. Should I ever be nominated again, I know my plan of action. And before any of you attempt to mock me for the dancing, I’ll remind you that I have formal dance training and rhythmic skills so wild and alluring that that this woman, upon seeing me dance, felt compelled to meet me and marry me. So bring it, meat. I will smoke you.
Three, announcing the winner of the Campbell Award with Jay Lake (both of us being previous winners of the award) and having the honor of passing the plaque and tiara to Seanan McGuire. Here’s her take on the getting the Campbell, and I have to say it couldn’t have happened to a nicer and more fun person (which is not to say the other candidates are not also nice and fun. They totally are. Just equally). I think everyone who has won the Campbell feels a special kinship with others of our little tribe, so it’s a pleasure to be part of the induction process of the latest member.
In all: Lovely convention, lovely people, lovely city, lovely continent. I’m glad I got to go, and I look forward to going back one day. In business class.