I’ve been looking forward to the trip to New Zealand for the 2020 Worldcon, CoNZealand, since my very first Worldcon in 2013. If you know me very well, you know that I’ve been hooked since my first Worldcon experience in San Antonio. New Zealand already had 2020 locked down, way back then.
Of course, we’ve got COVID. New Zealand has been doing a remarkable job containing the virus, because they have sense and are helped by being islands that are a four hour flight from the next closest large land mass. So it was clear pretty early on that an in-person Worldcon wasn’t going to happen this summer. The convention decided to move to an entirely virtual format.
It’s not going to be the same as an in-person Worldcon, of course, not even nearly. It couldn’t be. There are so many interconnected things that are part of the Worldcon experience, and many of them require sharing physical space with other fans. That said, the teams working on changing the format to virtual have done an amazing job given the short amount of time and the fact that we’re all in the middle of a global pandemic.
We’d planned a 2-week long trip to New Zealand for the three of us, and we were already starting to plan some tours with friends after the convention. I’m grieving the loss of all of that, and of the long-looked-forward-to convention itself.
Here we are, though. There is something of a Worldcon, as much as the many volunteers and fans could put together virtually in a short amount of time. There are hundreds of panels and events on the 5-day schedule, there’s an exhibit hall with an art show and dealer’s room. There is a multitude of both text and video chats available in Discord for fan interaction. I’m lucky in that I can take the week off work and live on New Zealand’s time zone, and immerse myself in the experience of the First Virtual Worldcon.
I’ve set all my clocks to New Zealand time. I’m all in. Let’s go!
The first Zoom of the day was a meditation and light yoga session with Erin Wilcox, specially themed with the Live Long and Prosper hand gesture. Very nice start to the convention!
My first Worldcon panel was a really interesting one on Future Laws with Anne-Louise Fortune, Karl Schroeder, Likhain, Penelope Flynn, and Gadi Evron. I wanted to be sure to catch a panel with Karl Schroeder because I really loved his novel Stealing Worlds and also his short story in the Hieroglyph Project anthology. I’d heard of Likhain, who does amazing artwork for Aliette de Bodard’s stories, and I wanted to be sure and catch one of her panels as well.
The description for the panel was “Law changes when the world changes. When you can duplicate a person, who owns the house? Which one is married to the spouse? How do you define property when physical objects are almost worthless but computing power is in short supply? Is it ethical to genetically “correct” autism in the womb? We’re going to have to decide.” Likhain made clear at the very beginning that the last question was eugenics and was absolutely not on the table for discussion in this panel.
The discussion ranged through the question of liability for self-driving cars and artificial persons, how the law tends to lag behind questions of human rights and new technologies and how that might play out with aliens and AI, whether technology can *become* legislation or morality such that there’s no necessity for law and how biases in programming could be eliminated enough to make that feasible (with examples of how technology makes our most vulnerable further marginalized, like the way technology is programmed to recognize light-colored skin and won’t activate for dark-colored skin).
There was discussion of how “person” would be defined in the eyes of the law in the future, and not just for AIs. Did you know natural features are being recognized as legal persons? “Economics has always been about turning people into things. We’re reversing the process.”
One of the standard Worldcon events is a daily Stroll with the Stars, first thing every morning of the convention. If you can drag yourself out of bed early enough (and if they don’t schedule it against the Business Meeting), you can go for an hour-long stroll with a bunch of other fans and a few Stars who are authors, prominent fans, or scientists. You get to see a little of the local area, you get to be outside for a little while, and you get to chat with some interesting people. Can’t really do that with a virtual convention, so I made my own Stroll With the Stars, and I went for a walk through my neighborhood while watching the Opening Ceremonies. I was “joined” by such stars as Jacinda Ardern (the Prime Minister of New Zealand), the convention chairs, Mercedes Lackey, George R.R. Martin, Larry Dixon, and more.
You have to move around a lot at a Worldcon. From room to room, from convention space to hotel, to places for food, to the bars, etc. Sitting in one place at the computer all day is deeply weird. It’s good to step outside and move around a little bit.
By the way, I made a second attempt at Galaxy Hair before the convention started today. I really like it. It’s quite the pain in the ass to do it, but it’s fun now that it’s done! My hair likes Overtone.
Next up was a panel on Shared Common Myths with Graci Kim, Helen Marshall, Peadar Ó Guilín, and Suyi Davies Okungbowa. “How do myths and legends impact cultures around the world? Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell argued that the same stories underlie myths everywhere. Were they right, or are there fundamental differences between myths from around the world?”
The panelists shared some Korean, Irish, and Nigerian myths and discussed similarities and differences. They also explored parallel world myths which seem to be pretty pervasive and looked into origin stories. Very interesting!
Then I went to a panel on Future Economics with Katherine Quevedo, Jesper Stage, Karl Schroeder, and Eli K.P. William. “Will we ever fully disentangle from the physical? Blockchains, crytocurrency, differently organic sentinence. Will economic concepts of supply, demand, money, resources hold up? Evolve? Or be completely different? And what might they look like?”
William and Schroeder talked for awhile about the near-future economics in their most recent novels. There was discussion of economic changes in response to COVID and global warming and other disruptive factors, the idea of the means of production owning themselves (as opposed to capitalists owning the means of production in capitalism and the workers owning the means of production in communism – see earlier panel discussion of natural features being recognized as persons), blockchain, token curated registries, potlatch currencies, intellectual property issues especially where the people who create the value aren’t receiving appropriate value in return, the amount of labour in the world that is not done for money or calculated into GDP and how to account for that kind of labour without commodifying it, what would change in our economies if we treated personal data as private property, and the concern that we may be on a path to having immortal oligarchs.
Next I attended readings by Melinda Snodgrass and Ada Palmer. Palmer’s Terra Ignota series will wrap up with a fourth book that is finished and will come out … sometime … I was blown away by the first two, but decided to wait until the fourth comes out because I know I’ll need to re-read all the previous ones before reading the last in the series. It’s extremely complex.
At some point in here, the virtual dealer’s room and art show opened up. Usually the art show involved a silent auction that runs for a good portion of the convention. There is no auction this year – just look and buy. I got in right when it opened and got my choice of the pieces Sarah Clemens has available this year, and I am *very pleased*!
To console myself somewhat on missing out on the experience of visiting New Zealand and sampling its food and drink, I ordered some booze delivery of New Zealand white wines and some groceries to make a few NZ recipes. Even though it was afternoon New Zealand time, it was dark outside, and it was time to open one of the bottles of wine. This one tastes perfectly pleasant.
Time for more panels! Katrina Archer, Darusha Wehm, Courtney Schafer, and David D. Levine explored the question “Can Living in a Small Space on Earth Prepare You for Living in Space?” “Could you live in a self-contained space that must supply food, water, and protection from a hostile environment for days and weeks at a time? Some people have done this on sea, others on land. Can these experiences help us survive in space or on another planet? How can off-earth living spaces be engineered based on what we learn from building and living in small spaces here?” Several of the panelists have experience living in small spaces for long periods of time (boats or a tiny Mars colony mockup), and Schafer is an engineer in the space industry.
This was another really interesting panel. There are differences between Earth and Space spaces that are important: in space, all surfaces have to be completely textureless so organisms don’t grow and they can be kept sterile, you’re able to use ALL of the available space, and, um, Gravity.
There was discussion of the psychological components. There’s apparently a table on the ISS that’s always in the way. They’re always bumping into it. But they insist on having it there because it’s important to have the ritual of gathering around a surface together to eat their space food. Watching a movie, even in zero G, they want to have space in which to “sit” to watch it because it feels weird to watch a movie stretched out standing up. Illusion of privacy in small spaces is important, as is sound-proofing. Psychological compatibility of occupants of small spaces is important, and you need to be really good at conflict resolution. You need to have someone there who knows how to do everything, and you need *spares* of everything. It was mentioned that every day is Apollo 13 – you just have to figure out how to do whatever you need to do with what you’ve got on hand.
There was also discussion of how this question could apply the other way around, with the current COVID situation, and many people finding themselves isolated in small spaces with little contact with other people. Someone recommended something called Spaceship You. I haven’t watched it yet.
Then it was time for dinner and visiting a few of the virtual parties, and I got to see a couple of friends for a few minutes, and also got to learn something about some upcoming Worldcon bids, which is deeply weird since we currently don’t know when we’re going to be able to safely leave our house, but also optimistic and exciting.
I went next to a webinar where Kathleen Jennings showed us a whole lot of her art and some of her process. She makes this really incredibly intricate paper cut art. Some of it is for book covers like these. These are paper cutouts. She held some of them up in her hands – they’re incredibly tiny and delicate. That was really neat to see.
It’s feeling really late at this point, but I’m stubbornly determined to stay on New Zealand time. I hang out in one of the virtual bars, and someone mentioned there’s a game show at 8:00. Game show! Well, horror isn’t my jam, but I’ve never seen a Worldcon game show that wasn’t awesome and hilarious. Kyla Lee Ward, Frances Hardinge, and Elizabeth Knox took turns at a story about Scarey Stuff, and we, the audience, determined who was the scariest. The Scariest got to finish the story. Frances Hardinge won this evening, but they were all fantastic.
Now, it’s nearing 10 pm and it’s been dark outside for about twelve years. I’ve finished the Kono. Please forgive any typos, and I’ll see you Thursday morning! There’s a lot to look forward to on tomorrow’s schedule! Panels galore, the Retro Hugo Awards ceremony, a Kaffeeklatch if I don’t lose my nerve, and who knows what else! Good night.