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It was an uncanny feeling which was to haunt him through all his hours here -- the knowledge that what he looked upon was unreal, the wonder as to what was actually taking place behind the mask of humanity that only he could see. (CL Moore, "The Bright Illusion")


Due to a booking error by my secretary (yes, that would be me) I arrived in Sacramento at 11pm on July 4th rather than at 11am as intended. Thus I missed the Opening Ceremonies of Westercon 66, but did make it in time for the power outage that struck the hotel and its immediate environs. This was widely deemed the Best Blackout at a Westercon Ever, but I fell asleep in the middle of it. What can I say, it was very dark. Ah well, many thanks to Kat Templeton for picking me up at the airport!



The big question hovering over Westercon is whether it is slowly dying. In its heyday in the '80s membership in the regional convention for the Western US got as high as 2500, but these days 900 is about as high as it gets. This is of course still larger than it was in its early days, but the decline since the highpoint brings with it a feeling of decay and doom, especially since large local general interest science fiction conventions are still pulling in thousands of people. New people have stopped coming to Westercons, and the old guard is dying off.

This Westercon, chaired by Kevin Roche and Andy Trembley, was an explicit attempt to reverse the trend by doing a few things differently. Their bid had started out as a hoax, but unhappiness with the Portland bid that was the one serious bid for 2013 soon turned Kevin & Andy's hoax into an insurgent movement that won the day after a three hour wrangle during the Business Meeting at the 2011 Westercon. The concom for the insurgent bid was literally put together on the fly before that Business Meeting. The ideas for how to do things differently had been percolating for longer than that, however.

I bought my membership for Westercon 66 at Westercon 65, where I got swept up in Kevin and Andy's enthusiasm for their resuscitation project. As the date for the convention approached, however, I dithered. Westercons have always been somewhat alien to my particular fannish orientation, and I wasn't sure I'd actually have a good time. In the end I decided I really wanted to see what the Kevin & Andy Show would look like, and besides, Tom Becker had asked me to work on the newszine. That would give me something to do if I got bored with the convention.

So on Friday I got the day going by dropping by the Fanzine Lounge and visiting with Chris Garcia. Chris threw me off-balance by handing me a printed copy of his fanzine, the Drink Tank. I was deeply moved by this rare gift of a material fanzine from one of the leading figures in virtual publication. The emotional moment got awkward, so we interviewed each other. Chris is going to be the fan guest of honor at next year's Westercon, and I thought an interview would make a nice feature for the newszine. Chris said he was going to use his interview of me in a podcast he produces in between publishing his many fanzines and filming documentaries about fandom. He's a slacker, that boy.

I made contact with Tom in the newszine production room and was introduced to my fellow reporters, Al Megas and Chuck Serface. Chuck is something of a newbie in fandom, and he was very gungho to participate. Al was a man with a thirst for cider and many devices to recharge. It wasn't clear to me whether my smartphone would be the right tool to write on, and as I worked over my interview with Chris I became more and more dubious. It must have taken me two hours to work through my various options before falling back on email, but that ended up being good enough, if not ideal. I finally posted my first story, along with a photo of Chris, and headed out into the convention once again to seek more news.

Westercon 66 Say Cheese
Kathryn Duval says cheese


I managed to miss John Hertz's panel on C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner's classic science fiction novella, "Vintage Season", despite the fact that I re-read it on the flight down just so I could be fresh for the discussion. But eventually I made my way to the consuite on the 12th floor to check out the cheese-tasting party hosted by the 2014 London Worldcon, which was selling memberships at the convention. North American agent for the convention is Bay Area fan Kathryn Duval, whom I had met at last year's Westercon. I chatted with her and Karen Schaffer, who were setting up for the party. I tasted the first round of cheese (four types of aged cheddar) and drank a single glass of muscat -- well, except for the part that I splashed on a poor, innocent passerby when I made an extravagant gesture not realizing there was still wine left in the cup. Feeling shame-faced, I left the party and wrote it up for the newszine. I hope I didn't dissuade the poor fellow from going to Loncon. You're all going, right? It'll be a grand time.

Back in the fanzine lounge the musician who calls herself Unwoman had made an appearance, leaving all of us straight boys a-quiver. I had heard her name but missed her performance at the Reno Worldcon in 2011, but after meeting her and being completely bowled over I decided to check out her show. She plays an electric cello, which is beautiful enough in itself but is also given a full panoply of effects, creating layers of sound and texture through looping. The music itself is perhaps not quite my cup of tea, but it's not far off. Some of it sounded vaguely like Kate Bush to me, but the influences she cites are mostly people I've never heard of. In fact one thing I got from the musical portion of the program, which also included the Phenomenauts in the evening, was that there are now a number of acts who do nothing but play at various conventions. Unwoman is apparently quite big on the Steampunk convention circuit, for instance.

The musical part of the convention was one of Kevin & Andy's attempts to draw a younger crowd. After the Unwoman show I sat with them in the bar and listened in as they discussed various problems that needed tending to. Kevin mentioned that they were selling day memberships so that people could come just to see the Phenomenauts, and he checked his registration app to confirm that numbers were ticking up. Total memberships were just over 800 at that point and ended up close to 900. So this Westercon ended up being about the same size as a typical contemporary Westercon, but the feeling was that there were more new people this year.

Westercon 66 Andy and Kevin Ponder
Andy Trembley and Kevin Roche ponder what the hell they've gotten themselves into


The opening band for the Phenomenauts was a teenage surf band called the Sneaky Tikis that Spike had paid for as a birthday present to Tom. All the bands were sponsored by different folks, with both Unwoman and the Phenomenauts brought in with donations to their Kickstarter accounts -- another sign of modern times. The Sneaky Tikis brought the surf rock, and they were cute as buttons, with their parents and siblings cheering them from the crowd.

The Phenomenauts are overtly stfnal in concept, wearing their Devo influence on their flamboyant costume sleeves. They put on an incredibly energetic show that got the crowd pumped up, although I ended up feeling a bit underwhelmed by their songs. Could be that the sound was just bad, because they had gotten stuck in traffic and weren't able to do a soundcheck before their show. My favorite was probably the down-tempo song they did about creating a perfect woman who then rejected them for being less than perfect. Very funny and wry. But in many ways the best performance during their show was the go-go dancing of the denizens of the fanzine lounge (led by Chris Garcia, of course), who flaunted their stuff in the lounge window, which looked down over the atrium where the main stage was. The fanzine lounge offered a great window on the main action of the convention throughout.

By the end of the Phenomenauts show I was in a fragile state of mind. I knew that Westercon was going to be at least slightly out of my comfort zone. As I've said before, I've never been a regular at the convention, and I've never been sure what it's all about. In fact, part of my reason for going this year was to try to get a better understanding of the purpose/function of Westercon. In any event, for a variety of reasons the Phenomenauts show left me feeling lonely, disconnected, and full of unfulfilled longing in ways that I associate with my earliest experiences at conventions. I headed up to the party floor and waited in line to get a drink from Chairman Kevin Roche's Thinbot -- a robot bartender -- and my mood went from bad to worse. Wandering the hallway peeking in at the other parties -- almost all of them bid parties of some sort or another: Worldcon, Westercon, Nasfic -- I was confronted with the difficulty I have making new social connections or just chatting casually with strangers. I went back to my room and drank whiskey until I fell asleep.

Westercon 66 Waiting for the Thinbot
Nicola Griffith listens intently while Chairman Kevin rocks the Thinbot


The next morning I was none the worse for wear and tear and returned to my duties as Boy Reporter. It's the first time I've ever worked on a newszine, and it did prompt me to do some different things. For instance I went to the Business Meeting. This was an uneventful Business Meeting, because all that happened was the site selection for the 2015 Westercon, which went to the unopposed San Diego bid. Fortunately there was no insurgent bid this time to extend the meeting to three hours. It's fun to listen to stories about the already-fabled 2011 Business Meeting, but I'm glad I didn't have to sit through it. And hey, San Diego! I might even consider going to that one, because I like San Diego.

After I wrote up the Business Meeting I went to the art show, which is something I frequently try to do, but this was the first time I'd ever done it with an eye to writing about it. This ended up being slightly more challenging than I had expected, although I came up with a couple of ideas that allowed me to structure the short review that I wrote, rather than just saying I liked this one and didn't like that one. Still, I could've dug deeper into the folklore/filklore aspect of the art show. Something about dragons and winged cats as totemic fannish animals. I remember a friend who sold stained glass pieces at art shows in the '80s complaining that people ignored her beautiful abstracts and demanded more winged cats instead. I bought one of her winged cats myself.

Next up was the interview with Writer Guests of Honor Nicola Griffith and Kelley Eskridge. Even though I didn't end up writing it up for the newszine, this is not something I probably would have gone to if I hadn't been looking for things to write about. I sat with Karen Schaffer, Mike Ward, and Spike. The interview was very good, and Nicola and Kelley both had great stories to tell about writing and about meeting each other. Toward the end of the interview it was suggested that they were the first same-sex couple to ever be guests of honor at a big general interest science fiction convention, but nobody was completely sure it was true. I racked my brains to think of other examples but couldn't come up with anything. As Kelley said, it's a bit surprising, because science fiction fandom has been pretty queer-friendly for a long time.

As I was flying to the convention I had decided that I would conduct a series of interviews about the Meaning of Westercon, but I did a pretty poor job of it. I asked Chris Garcia for his take, but that was actually during his interview of me, so I didn't have the recording to go back to for notes. I chickened out with a couple of other people I'd thought of interviewing, but finally on Saturday afternoon I got my chance to interview John Hertz when he buttonholed me in the bar to suggest, based on my art show write up, that I should become a docent giving tours of the art show. John agreed to let me record his answers to my questions about Why Westercon, which was a good thing, because John replied in complete paragraphs that required careful transcription.

Westercon 66 John Hertz
John Hertz sporting a traditional propeller beanie


John made several interesting points about Westercon, but the one I found most illuminating was the idea that the people who come to the convention are the knowledgeable fans. As he put it, "These are people who go to Worldcon. They're very involved. A lot of bidders come to Westercon because there is an unusual proportion of Worldcon voters here." That's always been the case with Westercon, and people like Ted White will still tell stories about caravaning to Westercon as part of the bid process for the New York Worldcon in 1967. It also explains why you still see people like Ben Yalow at Westercon. It's a smofcon. A conrunners con. Which probably also explains why it's looked down on by so many fanzine fans.

When John slipped away to his next appointment, Dawn Plaskon joined me at the bar, and we spent a couple of hours getting caught up. I've run into Dawn a few times over the past couple of years, but it seemed appropriate that this Westercon was where we had our longest conversation in quite a long time. The 1987 Westercon in Oakland is the only other California Westercon I've been to, and I stayed at Dawn's house with Victor Gonzalez on that trip. Dawn was the guest liaison at this Westercon, and she said the guests were all very easy to deal with and everything was going smoothly with them. She's also administering the Clarion West auction at next year's Potlatch in San Jose. Dawn is looking for items to sell in the auction, so if you've got something to donate, let her know.

The last event of Saturday for me was the masquerade. Again, this is not something I typically do, but Tom wanted to do a special issue of the newszine about the masquerade. As it turned out, I was no help at all on that issue, but it was still interesting to look at the costumes and the acts. Andy and Kevin are heavily into costuming fandom and had previously run a Costume-Con in the Bay Area. Apparently the masquerade has been fading at Westercon, but we all figured that this one would be re-invigorated, given the proclivities of the chairs and their friends. I can't say how it compared to past masquerades, of course, but it was fun. The emcee was David Gerrold, and he was very funny despite telling too many tribble jokes.

Westercon 66 Masquerade
Lost in a masquerade


I went to bed after that, not wishing to subject myself to the emotional turmoil of the party floor a second time. That said, my mood on Saturday never got anywhere close to where it had ended up on Friday. Maybe I was getting the hang of this Westercon thing.

Once again up fairly early, if not very bright, on Sunday. I spent an hour doing an initial editorial pass on my interview with John, then ate some breakfast. Another half hour or so finished the job on the interview, and then I basically spent the rest of my time hanging out in the fanzine lounge with Chris, Kat Templeton, Chuck Serface, and various and sundry passersby and hangers on. This was a wonderfully relaxed time full of jokes and mad ideas for other people to bid for Worldcons and Westercons in various and sundry unlikely places. (Chris posted to Facebook later that there would be a 2017 bid for a convention to be held in Chris' Beard.) Meanwhile the window looked on John Hertz leading a regency dancing group in the atrium. I gave Chuck a copy of the latest Chunga, because he said he was interested in submitting something. The guy is eager to make an impression on fandom!

And that's what it's all about, I guess. In his interview, John said that Westercons are a good place to meet the people you didn't know you wanted to meet. Despite being confronted by my huge personality handicaps when it comes to meeting new people, it turned out that I did meet some new people, like Chuck and Al and Kathryn Duval's husband, Chris. I got to spend more time with a few people, like Kathryn and Kat Templeton, whom I've just gotten to know in the past year or two. I solidified connections with folks like Chris and Andy and Kevin who are movers and shakers in parts of fandom both near and far to me, and of course I also spend time with old friends like Tom and Spike and, well, it seems that John Hertz qualifies in that category now.

John said general interest conventions are a good place for cross-fertilization. Andy & Kevin attempted to build bridges to the other ares of fandom they're involved in, such as costuming fandom and Dr Who fandom. (The fan guests of honor, the Three Who Rule, do a Dr Who podcast in Vancouver, BC.) They tried to bring in younger fans with the popular fannish musicians and groups. Did their efforts succeed in bringing in fresh blood? I saw many, many familiar faces at the convention -- many faces that I probably saw at the first Westercon I went to in 1984 -- but apparently at the Opening Ceremonies first-timers were asked to raise their hand and around a third of the people there raised their hands. Certainly there was plenty of evidence that people had a great time at this convention. I know I did, despite my dark moments on Friday night. Will it be enough to resuscitate Westercon going forward? I'm probably not going to go to Salt Lake City next year, but I'll be watching from afar for news of how it goes.

Westercon 66 Chris Gets Trimmed
Why Westercon? So Chris Garcia can get his annual beard trimming.


[See also GOH Nicola Griffith's enthusiastic take on this Westercon. All the issues of the newszine, Tardum Flumen, are available for download at the Westercon 66 Publications webpage.]

Comments

( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
holyoutlaw
Jul. 20th, 2013 11:31 pm (UTC)
It sounds like you had a good time. Something to do is very helpful, I think, that's why I always wind up working on stuff.

The Phenomenauts came to a Seattle Art Car Blowout several years ago, and were kind of fun, but not overwhelming. The thing I found most amusing was the toilet paper blower -- toilet paper held in front of a leaf blower so that the leaf blower propelled it in a big streamer over the crowd.

I'm listening to Unwoman now. Kind of interesting, and I can hear the Kate Bush influence occasionally. It's not knocking me out.
surliminal
Jul. 21st, 2013 12:07 am (UTC)
I agree. Im fishing to have something to do with the fan salon or whatever its called at Loncon because i really do like to have a Role to fall back on at Worldcons.

Edited at 2013-07-21 12:07 am (UTC)
randy_byers
Jul. 21st, 2013 05:19 am (UTC)
The Phenomenauts had the TP-blaster at Westercon too. They had a good presentation in general. Good branding, good stage presence.

Unwoman's album Casualties is free to download if you sign up for her mailing list. It's growing on me. Her live performance was great.
surliminal
Jul. 21st, 2013 12:06 am (UTC)
Interesting - you sounded on FB like you had had a really good time the whole time, with out a hint of inner turmoil- shows how different social media show different sides of things..
I.ve heard the 3 Who Rule podcast! Guess that makes or shows or equals or something the point about how gen interest cons are good for cross pollination. I think this is why i generally nowadays find Eastercons more stimulating than things like Corflu which are very much about gathering of the tribe to tell each other shared war stories. i can have enough of that. I like some of it but too much bores me. And "our" fandom is increasingly a very small pond in which to fish.
randy_byers
Jul. 21st, 2013 05:21 am (UTC)
Corflu is definitely a small pond. I feel comfortable there, but it's good for me to get out of my comfort zone once in a while, even at the cost of a bit of inner turmoil.
kevin_standlee
Jul. 21st, 2013 01:04 am (UTC)
I think a similar argument could be made for Worldcon parallel to Westercon: Worldcon attendance peaked at over 8000 and now is more stable at around 5000. Mind you, to a depressingly large number of people, neither number is relevant, since unless you draw 50,000 or 100,000 people to your show, you're irrelevant. Heck, Comicon is getting mentions on sports-talk shows, with the show hosts assuming (probably rightly) that their audience knows what the event is and not needing to explain.

I'm sorry you missed out on our Match Game SF show after the Masquerade; it was a lot more fun than the Business Meeting. After the Smofpocolypse of two years ago, the past two years' meetings have been effectively pro forma events, which makes things much easier for me presiding but not all that interesting for spectators.

Mind you, if nobody launches a bid for the 2016 Westercon (to be selected next year in Salt Lake City), the Business Meeting is apt to be distressingly interesting again.
randy_byers
Jul. 21st, 2013 05:24 am (UTC)
Has Westercon ever needed a rescue bid before? Well, maybe this Reno idea will come to fruition.
kevin_standlee
Jul. 21st, 2013 05:47 am (UTC)
Or you could bid for somewhere in the PNW....
randy_byers
Jul. 21st, 2013 03:43 pm (UTC)
I was just thinking that somebody should hold a Westercon in Victoria BC, but it ain't gonna be me. No, no, I'm bidding for Nome!
kalimac
Jul. 21st, 2013 01:22 am (UTC)
Your mental history of Westercon doesn't quite mesh up with mine, but geographic differences may explain this. I gradually lost interest in Westercon in the later 80s and 90s, as it began to be taken over by fan groups I didn't know - nothing wrong with that; the result just didn't interest me - and as it began being held more and more often in Arizona, a state I never wish to visit in the summer again. And it became less important in the calendar as other local cons arose in California, which we hadn't had much of before - unlike the NW, which had long had more local cons and fewer Westercons. But Westercon never became, in my perception of my peers' judgment, a con actively to avoid, as "we don't do that any more" Norwescon did. I haven't disliked any of the few Westercons I've attended in recent years, though the fall of this once-mighty regional into a tiny boutique con, almost like Midwestcon, is kind of disconcerting.
randy_byers
Jul. 21st, 2013 05:27 am (UTC)
It was kind of fascinating to study the list of past Westercons in the program book. It was very much a California con for the first couple of decades, but then it started moving around outside of California more. I think Boise has only had it once. Next year may be the first time in Salt Lake City, I'm not sure.
voidampersand
Jul. 21st, 2013 04:20 am (UTC)
Every Westercon I've been to (not that I've been to that many of them) has been crazy in some way. It seems to be more chaotic than the average con. This one was nice. I'm glad you were there.
randy_byers
Jul. 21st, 2013 05:28 am (UTC)
Many thanks for asking me to join the news team. That really made the convention for me.
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )

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