On the Ground At DISCON III - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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On the Ground At DISCON III

Alexander Wallace recently went to the 79th World Science Fiction Convention in Washington, DC. Here is his report on the event.
Wednesday, December 15th, 2021
I walked off the Metro train at the Woodley Park metro station in Washington, D.C. at about two in the afternoon. As Decembers have been in the past decade, it was not the brutal cold we associate with the month (here, the depth of winter is February and March, not December). My destination was a short walk away. It was the Omni Shoreham Hotel, where the Beatles stayed while on their first American tour. It is where Harry S Truman had late-night poker games and Bill Clinton played the saxophone at his inaugural ball and where Manuel Quezon lived in exile from his homeland during World War II. I was here for somewhat more prosaic reasons: DISCON III, the seventy-ninth World Science Fiction Convention.

What struck me first was the line to register: it was long. The Omni Shoreham has a lobby with two large wings at either end. Registration was at the end of one wing; by the time I got in, the line was in the lobby. I was 24 when I attended the convention, but by the end of that line my back was sore. When I finally got to the registration desk, I overheard the staffers talking about the need to speed things up - there was not enough room in the entire hotel for the amount of people in it!

Then came the opening ceremonies. The Master of Ceremonies was Ulysses Campbell, of the Arlington Arts Council. He introduced Mary Robinette Kowal, of Lady Astronaut fame, the chair of the convention. There were many puns between them, which amused me, as was a joke about the gavel being not unlike Thor’s hammer.

There was the honor guard of the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, a local magnet high school. Their choir also performed many Christmas-themed songs, all wonderfully rendered (albeit with the complaints of some non-Christian attendees for religious favoritism).

There were also awards given out. There were two fandom awards, one for a living fan and one for a deceased one. The living one went to William F. Nolan, coauthor of Logan’s Run. Unfortunately, Nolan died between the time he was informed he was getting the award and the convention, and as such the recorded message from him that was played beyond the grave had a melancholy note to it, not unlike reading the last stories of James Gunn in Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine. The posthumous award went to Richard and Patricia Lupoff. The Sam Moskowitz Award went to Kevin Cook.

There was a recorded message from Bob Madle, the last surviving attendee of the first science fiction convention in the United States, as well as the first WorldCon. You could feel a palpable sense of history descend upon you hearing him speak of that gathering, and how it grew into the event that I attended personally.

The last interesting feature was from the sculptor of the Hugo Award’s base, Sebastian Martorana, who talked about the process of sculpting said object. There was much talk about selecting just the right stone.

Next up, for me, was the 5:30 panel in the Calvert Room (tucked away in one of the hotel’s wings) on ‘What Makes a Classic a Classic?” On the panel were Shaun Duke (the moderator), Bradford Lyau, Chris M. Barkley, John Hertz, and Ellen Kushner, who wrangled with one of the traditional questions of the genre. Discussion was fruitful but inconclusive.

At the end of the day, I attended a lesson in medieval dance; being a ballroom, swing, and blues dancer, there was nothing I couldn’t handle. Indeed, many of the basic movements had equivalents in dances I already knew. In any case, a fun time was had by all.
Thursday, December 16th, 2021
From here I fell into my convention schedule - wake up at 7:45 and take a bus and the Metro to Woodley Park. It was the first time I had been on the Metro since the pandemic, and it was odd seeing the brutalist stations inhabited with those wearing masks.

I went to a panel on how NASA and other space agencies use art; unfortunately, a schedule change meant only Matt Leger could be there, and as such he gave us an impromptu lecture on a comparison between American and Soviet space art during the Cold War. Not what I expected, but interesting.

I went to one of the several science talks, this one about quantum computing, hosted by Kevin Roche of IBM. I understood maybe a third of the talk, but through no fault of Mr. Roche; quantum computers are complicated beasts! Most amusing was speculation of what would happen if one of these machines was used to mine Bitcoin.

Next, I was at a panel on ‘The Fallout of Being the Chosen One,’ whose panel consisted of moderator Hildy Silverman, Ellen Kusner, Naomi Kritzer, and Patricia A. Jackson. This one was well-attended, with much talk of the mythological origins of this trope. I particularly liked the discussion of its Biblical roots.

I went to a talk on writing book reviews, and whether to read widely or deeply to prepare for them. Unfortunately, it was a recorded talk, so we watched it on a screen, and it was a more general panel on book reviews. I attended it to become a better book reviewer (like for this site) but it didn’t teach me much I didn’t already know.

At five in the evening, I went to the Hugo Nominees reception in the Ambassador Ballroom. I got to talk to Martha Wells, Seanan McGuire (I told her about how much her Wayward Children series resonated with me, as a survivor of child abuse), and Mary Robinette Kowal (whose last name I mispronounced, and who graciously confirmed the thesis of an article I wrote on the Lady Astronaut Series).

In the evening, I attended the concert of the Washington Metropolitan Gamer Symphony Orchestra, an astounding ensemble that played music from several video games. They did a version of the Soviet March from Command and Conquer: Red Alert 3 which left me enthralled (for I loved that game in middle school and still love it today). They also did a beautiful rendition of Sogno di Volare from Civilization VI.

At the very end of the day, I briefly attended the John Scalzi dance party. As a swing dancer, I find ‘normal people’ dancing to be impenetrable, so I went home shortly after arriving.
Friday, December 17th, 2021
My first panel of the day was The Future of Work (Post-Pandemic Edition), on the titular subject. Being someone who has been trying earnestly to actually start a career, this was fascinating because it shows what my own personal future could be. There was much talk about what working from home could imply for future workers, as well as discussion about the length of the workday and how that has been challenged in science fiction. Perhaps one of my favorite panels during the convention.

Next up was a science talk hosted by Scott Rohrbach about the James Webb Space Telescope, due to launch in just a few days from the convention (fortunately, the launch went smoothly). This was accompanied by music: Rohrbach is a member of the Chromatics, an a cappella group that sings about science. I loved their presentation and performance so much I went right afterward to their concert. Their music is wonderful; in particular, I fell in love with their song Shoulders of Giants, about Galileo Galilei. A shiver went down my spine when I heard the line “he was the only man on Earth that night who knew.”

This turned out to be a very musical day for me; in that same room, I listened to Seanan McGuire’s band Dead Sexy, which was likewise quite enjoyable.

Much of the rest of the day was spent with a writer friend of mine in the dealer’s room, where I bought far too many books (a very on-brand vice, I know). We had dinner at a Lebanese place near the hotel and went back home shortly thereafter.
Saturday, December 18th, 2021
This was easily the busiest day of the convention for me. My first order of business was The Culture of the Unconquered, with Rebecca Roanhorse, Sheree Renée Thomas, Ahamd Siddiqi, Usman T. Malik, and Roseanne Brown, about writing about versions of Global South countries not subject to European colonialism. There was much talk of voices and centering and the ethics thereof, mostly about Africa and the Indian Subcontinent. It went well, I think, but curiously it was the only panel I attended that did not take questions from the audience.

Next up was Is the Genre Too Big for Meaningful Hugos? This panel had Vincent Docherty, Olav Rokne, Jo Walton, Natalie Luhrs, Shaun Duke, and Arley Sorg. I tended to agree with the question posed by the panel title. The discussion was interesting but the participants veered off topic relatively quickly.

Later in the day was another favorite panel: Pre/Post Iron Curtain Fiction in Eastern Europe, with Alex Shvartsman, Julia Meitov Hersey, and Fulvio Gatti. There was much talk about how science fiction in these countries differs from the liberal Western countries, and how the fall of Communism in said countries changed their fiction. It was a good cultural studies talk.

After that was the 2019 and 2020 Sidewise Awards for Alternate History, which I have written about on the Sea Lion Press blog. Warped Factor writer Matthew Kresal won the 2020 Sidewise Award for Best Short Story there.

Later in the evening I went to the concert of Kim the Comic Book Goddess, who had an interesting act composed solely of vocals and piano.

That evening, in the Regency Ballroom, was the Hugo Awards ceremony, perhaps the most packed event of the entire convention. There were many awards, and many speeches. There was the touching moment when they put up the names of authors and fans who had died in the past year (COVID has taken a toll on fandom just as it has anywhere else - I was particularly distraught to see that Lou Antonelli died, given how much I enjoyed Another Girl, Another Planet).

Particularly amusing were the two speeches given by T. Kingfisher, also known as Ursula Vernon, who regaled us with stories about the noble, neglected slime mold.

In regards to awards: I was relieved to see that Natalie Luhrs’ libel against George R. R. Martin lost its nomination. It would have been a grave precedent for the community, and it is good that it has not been set.

(I am, however, dismayed about a certain other choice that was made)

As for my opinions on other awards:
  • For Best Novel, I enjoyed Network Effect, as it is the best Murderbot book yet written. I did, however, enjoy The City We Became even more.
  • For Best Novella, I thought Ring Shout deserved the award and that this is the second year in a row that P. Djèlí Clark was snubbed.
  • For Best Novelette, I’m starting a fight and saying that Helicopter Story was the best of them. Isabel Fall deserved far better than she got.
  • For Best Short Story, I loved Little Free Library and wanted it to win. Likewise, it felt like something of a snub.
  • For Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form - I for one quite liked The Old Guard and was happy to see it win.
After all this, I went home. It was a long day.
Sunday, December 19th, 2021
This was a quiet day, and a short one. The only panel I went to was on the Phylogenetic Tree of Space Opera, with John Scalzi, Walter Jon Williams, Leonardo Espinoza Benavides, and Eva Elasigue. It was an interesting one, with a lot of discussion of proper metaphors for the history of this genre (Space Opera as a river system occurred to me, but I didn’t get to say it aloud), as well as its antecedents (I learned of Edmond Hamilton here, and need to read his works).

At the end of the convention was the closing ceremonies. The team for the 2022 WorldCon talked about Chicago and why we should go there. There were multiple dance performances, including a burlesque performance whose presence surprised me. There was much pomp and circumstance but it was not the spectacle of the opening ceremony or the Hugos ceremony.

After that, I went home and slept for several hours. It was great fun.

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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