Tales from Melbourne

Obligatory view from my hotel room.

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.

My autograph line. Squee!

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.

39 Comments on “Tales from Melbourne”

  1. I fly to Melbourne once a month[1] on average, in economy class. But in my case it’s only a 45 minute flight, so it’s geometrically more bearable.

    [1]Not the same part of the month that AussieCon4 occurred, hence my lack of being there. (That and not being much of one for conventions.)

  2. As someone who lives in Melbourne I’m very glad to hear that you had a great time! Hope that you can come back soon, though as someone who has flown to the top side of the planet on occasions to numerous to mention in economy class, I know where you are coming from when it comes to the torture of long flights.

  3. It seems very futuristic that you provided a wifi hotspot by your very presence. All SFWA presidents should do that!

    And yes, business class when flying transpacific is MUCH nicer.

  4. Holy crap. John has linked to my blog. I knew I should’ve cleaned up before guests arrived. Welcome everybody.
    *blushes and waves*

    To say the Just A Minute panel was hilarious understates its hilarity by an order of magnitude. There should be a pee scale.

    I was in the autograph queue above too (you can’t see me though), but if you want to see more photos of our esteemed host from my perspective you can also go and enscalzinate here…

  5. Business class? Meh. Premium economy is where it’s at. Sometimes it’s only a little more expensive than economy but you get loads more room. You even get access to the business class lounge at the airport. I recently flew to Japan from Oz premium economy and it was awesome. I dread flying economy now after my experience with premium economy.

  6. “… 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.”

    Kind of like her falling on a grenade so others could be spared?


    Kidding, of course. Welcome back.

  7. #8 No, we have Redbacks, had a plague of them last summer. Little bas#@^ds were everywhere. Excuse the language but we got a bit paranoid by the end of summer. Daughter found 3 in her letterbox one day

  8. The exchange rate used to be a lot more favo(u)rable; it was something like AUD 56 cents to the USD back around 2000 or so. You could have lived like a king!

    Glad you enjoyed Australia!

  9. So how much is a wifi modem in Australia, then? We’re off to Oz for three weeks at the end of the year and my OH is wondering how she’s going to update her blog during that time without bankrupting us.

  10. @Adocentyn

    The big five telecoms are:

    If you add dot com dot au to each of the company names you’ll find their websites. Pre-paid mobile broadband will set you back between AU$40 and AU$100 for between 1GB and 6GB of data including a USB modem – depending on the company.
    Telstra has the best coverage and speed but is not the cheapest.

    Many (most?) hotels will have broadband too – wifi or cable. The more expensive hotels will charge exorbitant daily rates. Some of the cheaper hotels may include free wifi.

  11. Definitely business class,( and we had a nice gentleman instead of a Crazy Monotreme Hat Pie Lady on our way to Sydney).

  12. John,
    I’m glad that you had a good time at this year’s Worldcon. I’m sorry that you did not win the Hugo this year. I do know that you are up for the “Neffe” this year as best science fiction writer for 2009! The award is given by the National Fantasay Fan Federation (N3F). I am lobbying all the other active N3F members to vote for you. By the way, if anyone has a primary today in your state (we don’t in Louisiana) please go and exercise your right to vote!

  13. Sydney also reminds many people of SF – I loved it there.

    We lucked out on our LA – Sydney flight … cheap upgrade to Economy Plus on United and then a connecting flight didn’t make it. Economy Plus was 1/2 empty and my husband and I each had our own row of three seats. I think that’s the only time as an adult I’ve actually slept on a plane!

  14. Was your whistle-blower mean? One of my favorite moments from Just A Minute on Radio 4 was when Paul Merton spoke for over a minute and a half about rams…

  15. Paul was awesome. He was mean to me, in a comedic way, because I was busy exploiting nooks and crannies in the rules and also because he knew I was happy to be a foil for him for the benefit of amusing the audience.

  16. Generally, what you said, John.

    I will note that, yes- at the bottom of the world, broadband is expensive for reasons I have yet to understand.

    One thing you missed mentioning- sensibly, as it didn’t involve more than a small percentage of congoers – was the earthquake in possible Worldcon 2020 hosting site Christchurch, New Zealand.

    Of course you also might of missed it for the reasons described here: http://www.newsbiscuit.com/2010/09/09/new-zealanders-appeal-unintelligibly-for-help-after-urthquike/

  17. John,

    If there is any possibility you would be in Los Angeles over President’s Day weekend, Paul should get you into the Gallifrey One Just a Minute. Javier Grillo-Marxuach vs. Scalzi with a couple of Brits would be great fun.

  18. You had a great tie *and* internet access? Wow, some people just live on a heightened plane of existence.

  19. Just A Minute should be a panel at every Worldcon. This I firmly believe in!

    @John: We were lucky: Jetstar offered us an upgrade from economy to business for AUD199/pax one-way, and we took it. It was great not to be stuck in a tiny little economy seat, and well worth the money paid.

    @#21: Daniel, as someone else pointed out to me, most Australians use the Internet to access sites that are not physically located in Australia, and undersea cables are expensive.

  20. Pity the fools who live in Australia and like to attend Worldcons, World Fantasy Conventions, Comic-cons, etc! Those long flights just don’t get any easier. :-)

    Really glad you had a good time, John. Sorry I couldn’t make it. If I can work up the energy to face another long-haul, I might yet see you in Ohio.

  21. Wonderful con report!

    Melbourne (city of light, city of romance) itself reminded me too a great deal of San Francisco. To extend the analogy, Sydney reminded me a great deal of Los Angeles, a city of very nearly the same area. Although L.A. doesn’t have Sydney Tower (a.k.a. the AMP Tower, AMP Centrepoint Tower, Centrepoint Tower or just Centrepoint) which is Sydney’s tallest free-standing structure, it does have the built-by-one inspired man, Watts Towers (a.k.a. Towers of Simon Rodia) in the Watts district of Los Angeles, California, an hallucinatory collection of 17 interconnected structures. Both LA and Sydney have weird curvy opera houses. I’m not clear on when L.A. will have the equivalent of King’s Cross, long the drugs and red light capital of Australia. Maybe if California Proposition 19, (a.k.a. the Marijuana Legalization Initiative) passes.

    Oh, and Sydney and Melbourne each claim that the other has no true culture, exactly as with L.A. and S.F., or Edinburgh and Glasgow.

    Seriously great con report. Thank you!

  22. “…the continent nation of Australia…”

    I’ve always heard they can hold their beer down there – good to have it confirmed.

  23. What I find intriguing is that John apparently already knew what rotting platypus smelled like. I fear there is a side to the man that no one has seen…and tales yet to be told.

    Can we hold you to these? :-)

  24. About an hour and forty minutes for the Hugos. Once they got going, they were handing them out about every four to five minutes. Not showing clips from the Dramatic Presentation nominees cut the time down quite a lot.

  25. The trouble I had with the Hugos was it got into very Pavlovian conditioning:
    Name – Clap
    Name – Clap
    Name – Clap… Handing out an award every 5 minutes, so that’s 6+ names each time, each followed by a clap. Hands were so sore afterwards that I couldn’t hold my xbox controller that night…

    Squee’d when I saw the comments about teh intanets in Australia- had one short chat with John on the first night… in which he revealed his secret survival necessity – connectivity!
    (heh heh heh, jumped him in the long walk down the Exhibition Centre – no way to get away! Bwa ha ha!!!)

    Do we need to assemble a vegemite care-package for John???

  26. Thanks for the kind remarks about the emceeing, John. It was a great honour to be the MC, and fun once it actually happened, though it was also somewhat daunting, particularly as I came on board relatively late in the day, only three months ago.

    Having been to many different kinds of book awards over the years, I long since came to the conclusion that brevity is not only the soul of wit, and lingerie (thank you D. Parker), but also of award ceremonies. It seems that this sentiment was universally shared this year, with everyone involved — organisers, presenters, acceptors, winners — all being very concise.

    I hope it didn’t feel rushed, though in choosing between “rushed” and “long”, “rushed” is still probably preferable, particularly as I believe the “record” for the longest Hugo is 5 hours and 15 minutes in 1968 http://file770.com/?tag=hugo-awards and I know no one in the auditorium wanted to get close to that!

    I was also incredibly tired afterwards, so I was probably more stressed than I realised. I faded quite quickly at the after-party and even missed the threatened plush Chthulu communion. I guess plush Chthulu can’t come out till after midnight . . .

  27. Daniel Spector #21:
    That’s a bit close to the truth in two ways.

    1. The earthquake did cause a tremendous amount of damage (rebuilding will take years), but fortunately no loss of human life.

    2. I never considered Australasian accents to be that difficult to understand (I would say that), but so it proved on the “Predicting the Hugos:2011” panel where a fellow panelist had to translate Jonathan Strahan’s hot picks into American English.

    P.S. John, it was a pleasure meeting you, and no, you didn’t come across as competitive at all during “Just a minute”…

  28. I just saw Paul Cornell’s blog post on WorldCon, and I thought you might appreciate what he said about the Just A Minute panel: “Scalzi won it, by being ruthless like a hawk that had got out of the wrong side of bed that morning and had issues with mice.”

  29. So glad you enjoyed coming to the land Down Under. I’ve done the trek from Oz to Europe – OMG – we in Oz totally understand the desire for business class seats.

    Yours was the first book signing of my first Con ever so I’m probably hidden away somewhere in that line. [I am from Greek stock hence short. :) ]

  30. It was my first World Con and I have to say I made sure to see every panel I could that featured you and/or Cory Doctorow, easily the funniest and most interesting panelists of the whole con.

    That Just A Minute panel, was that the one where we were locked out of the Plenary? After walking over to the second room with the crowd (led by you and China) and finding it occupied I gave up and saw a panel upstairs, I am now regretting that decision.

    Anyway it was lovely to meet you and stand in your signing line, it’s a shame you didn’t make it to the Brotherhood Without Banners party, they actually allowed us nerds and geeks into a nightclub! ‘Twas very bizarre.

    I, for one, have vague plans to attend WorldCon 2012 since this was such a blast (even though I wasn’t able to attend the final two days).

  31. “last-minute dick-headedness by the Crown Plaza management ”

    Ah – that explains much. I had long heard of the famed hospitality of worldcons and as a solo traveller attending my first con in 20 years, I was looking forward to an opportunity to meet other fans, so I was a little disappointed that there was nothing happening (except for readers of George RR Martin).

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