20 Years of Science Fiction Conventions

Me and Cory Doctorow, August 2003 at TorCon 3, Toronto. Photo by Debbie Ridpath Ohi

Because I am the sort of nerd who keeps track of these things, I will note that today marks the 20th anniversary of the first time I ever attended a science fiction convention. On August 28, 2003, having sold Old Man’s War to Tor at the beginning of that year, I decided it was time to meet my future audience and headed to Toronto, Canada to attend that year’s Worldcon, Torcon 3. I went to the airport to board a plane, forgot Toronto was in a different country and I would need a passport to travel, raced home for documents and then drove to Toronto, speeding all the way, to arrive just in time for my very first panel ever (“Day Jobs for Writers”). I was the last panelist to arrive so of course they made me be the moderator. And thus, I was unceremoniously tossed into the deep end of the science fiction convention pool, almost literally before I had caught my breath.

I understand that, here in 2023, it might seem implausible to some that I, Hugo winner and noted mega science fiction nerd John Scalzi, would have attended my very first science fiction convention at the relatively advanced age of (checks math) 34. But, remember, and in some cases, know for the first time, that up until I sold Old Man’s War to Tor, the writing sphere I had mostly existed in had been journalism. Yes, I had been reading and enjoying science fiction all my life, among other genres, but my writing focus was elsewhere. Socially I had never been tied into science fiction or what we would generally now understand as “nerd culture.” Yes, I was a nerd — I was a writer, the Venn diagram there has substantial overlap — but being a nerd wasn’t central to my identity, either personally or professionally.

What was my professional identity? Well, in 2003, I was mostly writing freelance journalism and corporate marketing, and occasional non-fiction books, and I was actually pretty happy about that state of affairs. I had sort of fallen backwards into getting a contract for Old Man’s War, and my assumption, even after getting a contract with Tor for that book and another book to be named later (it became The Android’s Dream), was that novel writing and science fiction would be an occasional side gig at best. I mean, that two-book deal was for $13,000, and I would get that money spread out over several years. On the basis of that, 2003 me did not see a whole lot of potential for novels being anything more than a glorified hobby.

Nevertheless, if I was going to write for the science fiction audience, I thought it would be useful to see who the core of that science fiction audience was. I knew Worldcons existed (that’s where they gave out the Hugos), and in 2003, media cons were not what they are now, or at the very least, there was still enough differentiation between comic book conventions and science fiction conventions that I didn’t see the point of going to the former rather than the latter. Worldcons seemed to me to be at the heart of my potential fandom. Off I went.

I have told the story of my immediate reaction to the Worldcon many times: I got there, did my panel, wandered around and then called my wife (on a payphone! 2003 was a different world!) and informed her I was at the Convention of Misfit Toys. I still stand by that initial impression — there’s nothing wrong with being a misfit toy, y’all — but I acknowledge here in the future that in that particular scenario, the actual misfit toy was me. I was coming from outside into a community and culture that had existed for actual decades (Torcon 3 was the 61st World Science Fiction Convention, after all), and one I had almost no context for, and knew almost no one in.

I mentioned as much to my editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden when I saw him in the Royal York Hotel lobby after I had called my wife; he was, literally, the only person I knew at the whole convention. His response to this was to seemingly randomly grab one of the people passing by, say “Cory Doctorow, this is John Scalzi. John Scalzi, this is Cory Doctorow. Cory, John is your con buddy for the rest of Worldcon,” and then leave. Cory sized me up for a second, said, “come on, then,” and then suddenly my problem of not knowing anyone at Torcon 3 was solved.

I should note that Cory did not necessarily have to be stuck with me for the whole convention. He could have just as easily and reasonably ditched me after an hour or so and gone on with his plans for the day. But he didn’t; he let me pad along with him and as a result I met people and began to form friendships that carry on to this day, mine with Cory not the least at all. And it gave me a sense of how a “big name” writer should be to newbies, that I have tried to emulate since. In 2003, Cory was already a Campbell (now Astounding) Award winner and his novel Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom had come out to much acclaim. He was a Pretty Big Deal, and he treated me — whose novel wouldn’t come out for another 18 months — like a peer. I appreciated it then, still do today, and try to pay forward the kindness he showed me with other writers when I can.

Twenty years on I don’t remember many of the details of the convention itself. I vaguely remember opening ceremonies, I remember how clearly happy Rob Sawyer looked to be given the Best Novel award that year, and I remember watching a new pal on a panel get deeply annoyed with another panelist. What I mostly remember, however, are the people I met and became friends with: Sitting in the bar with Justine Larbalestier and Scott Westerfeld, with Walter John Williams over there in the corner; having lunch with Nick Sagan who, like me, was new to all of this and comparing notes; chatting with Lesley Livingston at her booth because she was a sci-fi TV celeb in Toronto; listening to Charlie Stross after my reading, who advised me to slow down and actually, you know, breathe; getting an author autograph — my very first ever! — from Geoffrey Landis; having a long and amusing conversation with Robert Silverberg without actually knowing who he was; getting shushed with Lucienne Diver because our conversation was distracting a hotel room from an amusing Connie Willis story; and meeting Allan Steele and noting to him that he was the first person I ever sent fan mail to. These among many others are memories not lost in time, like tears in rain, but still there in my head, and happily so.

(There is one memory which I think is especially kind of fun, which is me sitting with Cory and Charlie in a coffee shop and me saying to my new friends “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if, like, one day we were all Hugo nominees together?” and them very kindly agreeing with the excitable new guy whose first novel wasn’t even out yet that, yes, that would be nice. Six years later, again in Canada, and guess what, there we all were on the Best Novel ballot together! We all lost to Neil Gaiman, sure! But that’s not the point.)

Torcon 3 was the only science fiction convention I went to in 2003; likewise the next Worldcon, in Boston, was the only one I went to in 2004. Then Old Man’s War came out, and I started going to more conventions, and then, eventually, I started going to many, often as a Guest of Honor, which is cool, but sometimes just to show up and see friends and colleagues, which is also cool. I go to so many now that it’s really easy to lose track, and the convention scene is much different now – and a much bigger deal – than it was twenty years ago. That’s mostly good, although I do miss some of the intimacy of the smaller universe that conventions were back in the day.

I won’t be at Worldcon this year; it’s in China, which is a jaunt, and it was moved to October when I’m busy here in the US, doing appearances at other conventions and festivals to promote Starter Villain, my upcoming novel. But I’m happy to say I’m on the Hugo slate this year (rather unexpectedly, from my point of view), and I’ll be at the next Worldcon, in Glasgow, next year. Worldcon is still important to me, and I like to attend when I can.

I’m hoping that the new writers and fans who are experiencing the Worldcon for the first time in 2023 will get to have the same experience that I had at my first: the dizzying disorientation followed by an introduction to a new community, and the beginning of friendships and professional acquaintances that can last decades. Everyone gets their first convention once. I hope if Worldcon is their first, like it was for me, that it’s a good one.

Welcome to the Convention of Misfit Toys, y’all. It’s good to have you here.

— JS

(Photo Credit: Debbie Ridpath Ohi)

57 Comments on “20 Years of Science Fiction Conventions”

  1. “…I remember watching a new pal on a panel get deeply annoyed with another panelist.”

    I admit to some curiosity…

  2. My first was in Brighton, England, back in 1987. I was hoping to hear from Alfred Bester, but he couldn’t make it due to ill health.

    I’m signed up for Glasgow, so I’ll be sure to keep an eye on the panel list – t want to miss a chance to hear from you.

    No, that’s not meant to be suck-up, just that it’s not easy to meet the authors you enjoy when you live in the UK and have family responsibilities. She Who Must Be Obeyed rarely lets me off the leash.

  3. Skipping Worldcon in China probably not the worst idea. A local friend of mine who shoots for TeamUSA missed his first Olympics in 20 years because it was in China, and the zero tolerance policies were too big a risk.

    A friend of his went, and found out that while he was en-route that his son back home had tested positive. The dad ended up spending the Olympics locked in a quarantine hotel in China, with a view of a snow covered rocky hillside. And tall fences.

  4. As I move more and more firmly into science fiction (from science thrillers and before that mysteries), I am hoping to start attending more SF cons. I wonder if there are one or two cons you would recommend for a relative newbie?

  5. I’ll never forget how I walked up to you at the Texas Worldcon and asked to see your Hugo (it was the morning after you’d won, you were having coffee with friends). You handed it over to me, a complete stranger, without hesitation! I got the chance to admire the base, which is what I wanted to see, and handed it back. At the time, I thought, “he sees my ribbons, he knows I’m on the committee, maybe he’s seen me working cons,” but now I think it’s just your trusting, generous nature. Also, that thing was damned big and heavy, thanks to the Villafranca bronzes. Nobody was going to sprint far with it.

  6. “having a long and amusing conversation with Robert Silverberg without actually knowing who he was”

    That’s the part that made me LOL. (Granted, I started going to Worldcons a lot earlier than you, and encountered Silverberg at a disaster of a convention in Tucson years before that. But if you add in Fred Pohl and 4E Ackerman, boy do I know that feeling when you find out later….)

  7. pretty funny
    You go to your first con knowing only one person — one of the most central people in the entire social network.

  8. Perfect timing! My daughter (and SIL) are now empty nesters. To celebrate, we’ve decided to attend our first convention. Recommendations anyone?

  9. Great story. As a mystery fan, I can relate with Bouchercons. The first I went to was he first New York Bouchercon in 1977 (I was 28) at the Waldorf. It was run by the still-going Otto Penzler & the late Chris Steinbrunner, and I bet there weren’t more than a few hundred people there, one track programming, etc. Guest of Honor was teh late great Christianna Brand.

    More central to us was the following year in Chicago, where we met people who have remained friends (those who haven’t – sadly – departed) ever since.

  10. Lisa Hertel:

    The day after the Hugos, I planted myself in a high-traffic area with the Hugo so that anyone who wanted to see or touch it could do so. After all, they voted for me to have it, I’m happy to let them see it.

    Also, as you note, it was VERY heavy. No one was gonna sprint off with it.

  11. I remember hearing Silverberg say that since no one could do his eulogy properly but him, he would just never die.

  12. Love the memories. My first WorldCon was in 1993 in San Francisco (I lived near there) and I was 34 years old. Been reading science fiction my whole life and yet this was my first.

    Amazing! All those fans, others like me?! And the authors were so nice. You could just go over and say hi to them and heck they’d answer back and chat with you. That weekend I met some of the greats.

    Can’t remember which con it was, probably one of the two that were held in San Jose but that’s where I had a chance to meet you and you signed my copy of “Old Man’s War.” What a wonderful debut novel. I was so happy I had a minute to chat with you and tell you how much I loved the book. Thanks for coming to the cons when you can.

  13. I was at Torcon 3! I was the corseted lady in the sparkly blue wheelchair. My big thing was meeting Spider and Jeanne (God rest). That and meeting so many authors.

    The Royal York was great to stay in, especially since they did so well in accommodating me.

  14. What a heartwarming story!

    I’m struck by the similarities between the two of you in the picture.


    Also this is when we met. I remember coming across you and saying: I think I’m mad at you about something you said on the internet but I can’t remember what it is so I guess we can be friends.

    This was also the worldcon right after I’d done Clarion West, and it was a very different experience for me all the sudden.

    Anyway, happy anniversary, friend! I guess I’m not mad about something you said on the internet, anymore.

    … or AM I?? ;)

  16. I remember that 2009 appearance in T-dot. You were so nice to all the folks around you. Wish I could’ve screwed up my courage to say hi.

    Regardless, lovely to have these insights into your journey. Thanks so much <3

  17. K Tempest Bradford:

    I assure you that you’ve been angrier at things I’ve said since! Fortunately I was smart enough to listen to you when that happened.

  18. I guess from the comments it’s OK to post Worldcon reminiscences so here’s mine from my first and thus far only:

    –Magicon, Orlando FL # 50, 1992
    –Asimov had just died and everything that took place and everything that was said seemed to be influenced by this fact. Harlan Ellison phoned in from Sweden and was piped into a huge convention room via loudspeaker. His first words were “Isaac Who?” and then he spoke movingly for 20 minutes.
    –It seemed to me like Guest of Honor Jack Vance was himself upon the precipice of death, but he ended up living another 21 years.
    –Waiting in line to get “Son of Man” signed by Silverberg. My favorite scifi author, then as now, but unbelievably, after I handed the book to him for signature, and after he made a brief comment about his experimental work, I heard myself tell him, “well, some people say it’s not that good. . . .” Even more surprised than me, he said in reply, simply, “you won’t hear that from me. . . .”
    –Sam Moskowitz spoke during the awards ceremony, and because he’d had a cancerous larynx removed, it was through an electronic voicebox. I was mortified throughout his long speech. But Nancy Kress won for “Beggars in Spain,” a story I’d actually read in Asimov’s.
    –Not sure what you call it when you and some varying amount of other fans kinda just get to be in the same small room with a writer, and you just talk about whatever, but did this with both Michael Swanwick and James Patrick Kelly, and man did I think they did the gracious and clever thing so very well.

    Please pardon the length, but my one Worldcon is on the short list of the most unique experiences of my life. Kind of scroggles my mind that Scalzi’s been to 15 or more and Silverberg’s been to every one

  19. For those wondering where to start in con-going, Google “science fiction convention $LargishCityNearYou” That will be your local, run by local fans

    Note: if the name of the con has “Comic” somewhere in it, it will probably be more media/comics oriented than literature. I find a very different vibe between the two. But just about any con will have table-top gaming, a dealer’s room with one of a kind merch, an art show, more music than you might expect, cosplay, and a bunch of nerds happy to make new friends.

  20. I am reminded of your “easiest difficulty setting” post.

    I have wonderful memories of my first worldcon (Chicago in 1982), running gently amok as an unsupervised 14-year-old girl in a posse of teenagers, and of many of the 30-odd I’ve attended since, including that Torcon. Growing up in fandom without coming from a fannish family is an experience.

    But I also have more mixed memories. I recall Silverberg as one of the people who made me feel most unwelcome in fandom and several of the other names mentioned in the post and comments as people who treat women like crap.

    You never experienced cons as a fan, just as a well-connected older male proto-pro. That’s great for you, and I’m glad you’re around and writing, but it’s like you live in a totally different world…

  21. “the convention scene is much different now – and a much bigger deal – than it was twenty years ago. That’s mostly good, although I do miss some of the intimacy of the smaller universe that conventions were back in the day.”

    And that sets me back on my hells a bit, since the last Worldcon I went to was LA in 1984. Too big, and too hard to meet the people I wanted to meet, and the conversations and catch-ups I did have tended to be very brief because everyone was always heading somewhere else. The fun gets lost at Worldcons and other large conventions.

    My first SF convention was a 1973 Balticon, attendance 200-300. The ’73 and ’74 Balticons, and similarly sized conventions, were among the most enjoyable I’ve ever been to. (In subsequent years, Balticon organizers decided to [successfully] work for larger, four-figure, attendance. I’d moved back to Arizona by then and couldn’t afford the travel, but suspect a lot of the charm and friendliness wuld have been lost.)

    My personal judgment is that any convention over 800 in attendance will probably be too big to fully enjoy.

    (Might add that, as someone whose status has changed from “boomer” to “old geezer”, I may be somewhat more disillusioned than usual by, over the years, the Old Gang of friends largely having lost touch, moved away, passed away, or not physically up to the effort of travel and attendance.) (Hilde and I will be going to CoKoCon this coming weekend, but it feels like half the packing I’ll need to do will be medications or medically-related supplies. “Golden Age”, my ass.)

  22. Now I am envisioning you with an angry fist toward the sky shouting “Gaaaaaiman!” while a downcast Cory Doctrow and Charles Stross looking on.

  23. The first F/SF convention I ever attended was WorldCon in San Antonio in 1997. At the time, we lived a few hours’ drive away, and my spouse and I decided to take our two teenagers to go see what it was like.

    My spouse and I were not raised in Texas, and we, ah, well, to put it charitably, we didn’t exactly fit in with our neighbors and colleagues. Our kids found our quirks hideously embarrassing and they thought we were unquestionably the Worst Parents Ever for being so very different from the parents of their friends.

    We got to the convention center, found our way to the registration desk and picked up our badges, then wandered across the huckster hall and through the lobby of the venue. And within minutes, I knew that we had found our people, when our 13-year-old leaned over and whispered to me “Ok, I’m convinced – you and OtherParent AREN’T the weirdest people in the world.”

    We haven’t been to very many conventions since then – maybe 4 or 5 other WorldCons plus attending a regional event for a few years – but I did get to meet Mr. Scalzi and get his autograph on my copy of Lock In at one of them. I was floored by how gracious and warm he was to a very tongue-tied and embarrassed fan, and that signed book has pride of place on my bookshelf to this day.

  24. In 2010 I was the newbie, and you, Ellen Kushner, Delia Sherman and Carrie Vaughn treated me like a peer. I also remembered, and I’ve also been passing it on ever since.

  25. Congratulations on 20 years of hanging out with the rest of us con-going misfits!

    I am amused the photo is by Debbie Ohi, who’s a friend of ours from the filk community. Who typically gets at least two pictures of us every con we see her at: one of Sheryl and I posing as adorably cutely as we can, and one of me mugging shamelessly for the camera. (Much more shamelessly than the slightly mischievous looks you and Cory have!)

  26. That was not my first convention, but it was my first WorldCon and we met so many people. Great time– and the afterparty for Janis Ian’s wedding, which happened because Ontario had just legalized same-sex marriage.

  27. My first con was Vikingcon in Bellingham Washington. Got to spend thirty minutes talking with Connie Willis about who was a better dancer, Gene Kelley or Fred Astaire. A decade later I saw her at a talk in Seattle and as she was walking down the aisle she saw me 30 seats in and waved to me. A major memory.
    Also got to talk with George R.R. Martin when I only knew him as someone who wrote with Lisa Tuttle.
    My first Worldcon was Anaheim in 2006. Read all of the nominees so I could cast an informed vote. Got to spend time talking to the guy who I voted for the best new author. Some guy named Scalzi. I talked to him before he won and after. The big difference is that after he won he was wearing a makeshift crown on his head. And was a blast to talk to both times.
    Living in Spokane Washington the next Worldcon I will going to is Seattle in 2025.

    If you have not been to a Worldcon or Seattle be sure to attend. They are both great.

  28. “having a long and amusing conversation with Robert Silverberg without actually knowing who he was”

    Weirdly, I met Robert Silverberg and talked to him for a half-hour before I knew who he was. Now, I was talking to Greg Benford at the time — in the house of Jim Benford (I’m friends with Jim’s son) — so I guess I should have been on notice, but it was just “Bob” for a good half hour.

  29. I stopped into last year’s ChiCon on the Thursday after work. I saw you and your wife sitting in the bar area talking with some of friends of mine, Isabel and Chris. I was a little star struck and didn’t want to bother you and your conversation. Hope you are able to make it to Capricon again sometime soon.

  30. I don’t much go to general SF cons any more – I think my last was a Worldcon 5 years ago – so I wonder how it is that conventions have so markedly changed over the last 20 years. From my limited perspective I haven’t noticed anything major, or maybe I’m just misclassifying it.

  31. As someone who used to run conventions as a profession, and then, like an idiot, I said “Hey, I could help!”.

    But your story is much cooler because you eventually get a Hugo. I got a rock.

  32. The passport thing, for the world’s longest undefended border, was brought in by the US, specifically by the Department of Homeland Security: The HS boss had publicly said (but did not resign after such a front page factual error) that some of the 9/11 guys had crossed in from Canada.

    Folks with common sense along both sides of the border had opposed the passport idea, and yet two former US presidents doing the rubber chicken thing in Toronto, when asked by a Canadian, hadn’t even known passports were being contemplated.

    Sometimes truth is as strange as science fiction.

  33. John, you have had an amazing journey. May it continue far into the future. Have an advance order for Starter Villain placed at Jenny Lawson’s bookstore Nowhere Bookshop in San Antonio. I love to support local bookstores per your request.

  34. My first SFF convention was the 2015 Spokane Worldcon, in response to the puppies controversy. I wrote about that experience here.

    I got to share a shuttle from the airport with Connie Willis, but I wasn’t sure it was her until I got to meet and talk with her later in the con. I think that was also the year I went to a reading by some guy named Scalzi, which got me interested in your work. I’ve been going to Worldcons ever since.

  35. My only experiences with (SF) cons were ones in the DC area in the mid-80’s, and my reaction was pretty much the same as Sharyn McCrumb’s (which is to say, rather unfair at best (but I still find the novel amusing, though very much of its time)). Later I realized that in general I just don’t like large numbers of people in close (everything from amusement parks to ICYPAAs) and that we’re all just weird.

  36. The 2004 Boston Worldcon was where I first met you. I had just sold my first novel! That wasn’t my first Worldcon but it was a big one for me.

  37. You started just a few years after me – my first con was Bucconeer – the 1998 Worldcon. So much fun, I kept going to cons (and had the chance to say hi to you at Balticon a few months back).

  38. I was at Torcon! It was my first and so far, only, worldcon. Three years earlier I had launched the authorized website on Guy Gavriel Kay (with him; as a crazy fan in the early days of the internet I had tracked down his email and we had become friends, and then after years of corresponding the website happened). Through the website I had made many friends, and a bunch of us from all over the world decided to meet up at Torcon, since Guy lives there. I was his “date” to the Hugos and remember being very over-awed going to the pre-hugos party with him and meeting a bunch of famous authors. It was all a wonderful experience.

  39. Having been to two SFF cons (which until recently was outside my writing genre) and to several mystery/thriller cons, I think the “Island of Misfit Toys” suits the con audiences pretty well, although perhaps the SFF cons slightly better. Both times at the SFF cons I spent bothering Tobias Buckell, who is a friend, who seemed to put up with it reasonably comfortably, although I suspect the second con he figured out what I had in mind when I peppered him and other panelists questions more related to writing and the business of writing rather than, say, fan-kinda-thingies.

  40. Modeling behavior after the first pro you meet/hang with….

    That’s a really cool thing to do, and I think contributes to the field, almost as much as your writing. I recall that a friend of mine became a Very Big Name in a genre, and in contrast to other Big Names, was extreme gregarious, open and had made a point of keeping the door open so that others could follow him through. The effect it had on the field was subtle…but it was substantial and I can see how other, younger writers emulated that approach. It makes for a nicer field (and very pleasant conventions).

  41. I am personally very glad that you go to library conferences as well as science fiction cons, because that is how I first encountered you in Chicago. You had been cheerfully roped in to playing some kind of “writers versus librarians” game, and my boss was one of the librarians. You made me laugh really hard, and I got a free copy of Redshirts. That’s how I became a big fan of yours.

  42. My first Worldcon was also in Toronto, but it was Torcon 2 in 1973, which I just realized was 50 years ago. My first con, however, was the 1968 Midwestcon, a totally different type of convention from a Worldcon (and a con which I managed to attend every year since, until it was postponed/canceled because of the pandemic). My memories of the 1973 Worldcon are sparse, but I remember spending some time with the late Paul Williams (who, among other things, founded Crawdaddy, the USA’s first serious rock and roll magazine) who introduced me to something called Monty Python’s Flying Circus which, to the best of my knowledge, had yet to make it to the PBS stations in southern Ohio or Northern Kentucky.

  43. “…but it was just “Bob” for a good half hour.”
    Ahh, memories of the Bob and Stan Show at the Melbourne WorldCon where Robert Silverberg explained why he doesn’t write naked.

  44. The first time I remember going to a Science Fiction Convention, I was twelve, and I only remember that much because I begged my father to let me buy a Chinese bootleg VHS of Jurassic Park, which he (wisely) refused since he had already pre-ordered the US release (and accompanying poster) for me for my birthday. That is all that I remember.

  45. ::Six years later, again in Canada, and guess what, there we all were on the Best Novel ballot together! We all lost to Neil Gaiman, sure! But that’s not the point.::

    Hey, if you’re going to lose to anyone? Losing to Neil Gaiman is an honor….

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