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Worldcon 76

Started: 2018-08-26 11:41:37

Submitted: 2018-08-26 21:32:05

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator visits Worldcon 76 in San Jose

Last year, Kiesa and I visited our first-ever Worldcon, Worldcon 75 in Helsinki, Finland. We registered for Worldcon 76 in San Jose, down the peninsula from our home in San Francisco; but then fate intervened and we moved to Seattle so instead of a short drive (or train ride) down the peninsula we flew to San Jose over wildfires burning along the west coast.

On the first day of the convention, nothing really started until the middle of the afternoon. (I was interested in the tour to the Stanford Linear Accelerator Complex that morning, but I didn't sign up in advance to get on the tour.) I took Caltrain from our Airbnb in San Jose (conveniently close to Tamien Station) to San Francisco, catching the last Baby Bullet scheduled to leave Tamien at 07:59, and dropped by my old office on Spear Street in San Francisco. I talked to a bunch of my old coworkers, met one engineer who works on an adjacent team near me in Seattle, and couldn't shake the feeling that I was just returning from a long vacation and ready to get back to work.

I caught the all-stations stopping service (leaving San Francisco at 13:00) to head back to San Jose. This time I rode on the older Nippon Sharyo bi-level gallery carriages, with single seats on the second level perched on a ledge open to the aisle below, which I'm pretty sure I remember riding from being a kid growing up in Redwood City.

I caught VTA light-rail a few stops from Dirdon Station in San Jose to the convention center, and tried to identify which of my fellow passengers were attending Worldcon, which attracted a slightly different flavor of nerd than the standard Bay Area tech worker — though of course there's substantial overlap.

Inside the convention center I ran into Kiesa (who had slept in, then arrived later at the con), and saw a giant sign proclaiming that Google was a "Galactic Sponsor" — a status that allowed it to print its logo on all of the badge lanyards that everyone wore all weekend long. I was bemused to find my employer's logo so prominently located at the convention (and slightly surprised that I hadn't know about it before — though I neglected to look in advance).

Worldcon 76 banner with Google the Galactic Sponsor
Worldcon 76 banner with Google the Galactic Sponsor

I found the end of the line for registration and waited an hour to get my convention badge, next to a woman who was attending Worldcon to promote a short fantasy film.

I made it through registration in time to wander briefly through the main exhibit hall, including the expansive dealer's room (with more booksellers than I could count, including Borderlands), then attend the opening ceremonies, featuring brief introductions of the convention's guests of honor.

We ate supper at an Indian restaurant on the other side of downtown, past a poster advertising the antifa response to protests planned at Worldcon; then we took VTA back to our Airbnb in Tamien.

"Hate not welcome in San Jose" antifa poster


When I went over the convention schedule, I ended up with multiple panels and talks that I wanted to attend in some hour-long slots, and a few slots with fewer things to do. I used the "export to ICS" feature on Grenadine, the conference-planning service, and imported the calendar into Google Calendar so Kiesa and I could see everything we wanted to do on our shared calendars, and the things we planned to take Calvin to. This is what I saw:

  • Ray Gun Target Practice: in the main exhibit hall, at an exhibit discussing the history of directed energy weapons, the current state of lasers as weapons, and the problems in creating energy weapons that look like energy weapons in fiction. The target-practice was trying to point a laser pointer, awkwardly mounted on a three-axis mount that tended to get twisted in the wrong direction, at a target spinning on a disc a few meters away. After some time the target gave a score; Calvin got one hundred something, and I got 279, and we both got banners for our badges reading "Dude, where's my ray gun?" When Calvin stepped up to the exhibit he got a milk crate to stand on, prompting me to quip "Aren't you a little short for a Stormtrooper?"
  • The myth of the astronaut: a panel discussion including astronaut Kjell Lindgren and author Mary Robinette Kowal discussing the role that astronauts play in the myth of space exploration, from "The Right Stuff" to mission specialists and payload specialists on the Shuttle missions, looking ahead to how we'll look at the social status of technicians and contractors in space who are just there to do a job. I gave Calvin access to all of his electronics so I'm not sure how much he was paying attention to the panel but I thought there was a chance he might get something out of it.
  • Borderlines: a panel discussion of national borders, including lightly-redacted stories of crossing borders. I was bemused by one panelist's optimistic view of the future where city-states compete for workers because workers are the key to their success; and wondered whether the panelist had been to San Francisco (or Boulder or Seattle or any other tech-heavy urban center) that thrives on its knowledge workers but keeps on throwing up barriers to building and development and wants to push out the very people it needs to keep its city growing and thriving.
  • I skipped the panel I wanted to attend at 13:00 because I needed to eat lunch. I walked a few blocks down the street to a taqueria for a pretty reasonable veg mission burrito.
  • Pokemon Go Walkabout: an hour-long excursion starting from the front of the convention center with other Pokemon Go players. I started playing Pokemon Go in 2016 when it came out, mostly because it ran on Cloud Datastore (closely related to App Engine, which I was working on at the time), and also because it was an amusing way to see parts of San Francisco that I wouldn't otherwise notice; then a few weeks ago I realized that I could get Calvin to leave the house if I let him play Pokemon, so I set him up with it. We raided the gym at the front of the convention center, then walked down the street to another raid, then I headed back to the convention center.
  • Contemporary Cryptography, featuring cryptographic luminary Whitfield Diffie. I was intrigued by the standard suggested by one of the panelists: we can't build a system that protects a single individual against a targeted attack by an advanced persistent threat, but we can build systems that prevent wide-scale snooping across large populations (ie, widely deploying SSL across the board).
  • I tried to go to the Hugo finalists reading for best novella (especially because Martha Wells said on Twitter that she had Murderbot tattoos, and I had Rogue Protocol in my bag), but the seats in the tiny room were full and I didn't feel like standing for an hour, so I bought a Bawls Guarana soda from the doughnut kiosk on the main corridor in front of the meeting rooms, impressed by how well the vendor knew their audience. I rounded out the hour by looking at the Hugo Award trophies in the display from previous years.
  • I met Kiesa and Calvin for our last panel of the day, 911 in Freefall: Handling medical emergencies in space. This was an interesting talk centered around the risk of medical emergencies on a multi-year trip to Mars; given the rate of medical emergencies in a healthy astronaut population, the size of the crew, and the length of the trip, statistically we can expect one medical emergency to Mars and back. The talk also discussed how the body handles injuries in microgravity (differently from gravity: blood doesn't drain, it pools or sprays), and strategies for surgery and other medical treatments in space.
Bawls Guarana at Worldcon
Bawls Guarana at Worldcon

We ate supper at SoFA Market, a small dining hall around the corner from the convention center with a bunch of tiny fast-casual restaurants with common tables. Kiesa and I ate Vietnamese; Calvin had a pizza.


Here's what I saw on Saturday:

  • Escape Pod - Live at Worldcon! I've been listening to Escape Pod for a decade, since I took a CD with mp3s of a dozen Escape Pod stories on a road trip and got hooked on "Conversations with and about my electric toothbrush". I nearly bounced the first time I heard the surf-rock intro and the robot voice reading the name of the story, but I kept listening and have been a loyal listener ever since. Podcastle told me there was more to fantasy than Tolkien derivatives, and Pseudopod (which I started listening to only recently) gives me horror. I was thrilled to see, on the stage in front of me, the people behind the voices I knew previously only as disembodied voices in my earbuds every week. I was amused by the sweetly-tragic story of interspecies romance and enjoyed the Q&A. After the program I went up to the stage and listened to people talk to Escape Pod editor emeritus Norm Sherman (and got a Drabblecast button, which was pretty cool).
  • Evolving Military SF: with Joe Haldeman, in a packed room discussing the current state of military SF, whether it's necessarily conservative by nature (the panel thought no), and whether it's anti-war (the panel — led by Haldeman — thought yes; but also pro-soldier).
  • An hour for lunch: I got a tofu poke bowl at SoFA market, then walked around the front of the convention center (on the other side of the street) to scope out the alt-right rally in front of the convention center, which seemed poorly attended (and had been herded onto one side of the plaza, mostly hidden behind a bloodmobile). I saw a few Antifa-looking protesters on the other side of the plaza, in a group of other random people. The whole thing looked pretty silly.
  • I dropped by the Borderlands booth, said hi to Sarah Gailey and got her to sign new copies of her Hugo Award-nominated novella River of Teeth and American Hippo (then realized later that American Hippo is an omnibus that includes "River of Teeth"), wished her well at the Hugo Awards the following night. There I ran into Macey, who is not only one of my SRE coworkers (whom I'd chatted via text before, but never met in person) but also a published author. (I also ran into several other people I know from my day-job in tech.)
  • I picked up Calvin (from wherever Kiesa had him in the previous panel) and took him to History of Submersibles, an interesting talk on (not surprisingly) the history of submersibles, given by a former US Navy submariner, which included useful tidbits, including that one of the big problems with submersibles was the seal on the shaft wasn't good enough to keep the ocean outside.
  • Keeping Ahead of Tomorrow: a panel moderated by John Scalzi discussing the challenges of near-future sci-fi when the future keeps changing. This room was packed; I ended up sitting on the floor in the very front of the room, two meters from the stage, in a better position to see the rest of the audience than me. (Some signs read "No standing, by order of fire marshal" but they were not enforced.) While listening to the panel, I wondered whether liberal cities are extenuating the differences between the "haves" and "have-nots" through rampant NIMBYism, which constrains building and drives up prices so only the "haves" can have it. This reminded me of an audience question at a Paolo Bacigalupi signing in which the question referenced a new building in San Francisco with high-tech water saving and reclamation, which sharply reduced the building's water usage — and, as a consequence, reduced the price that the building would pay for the municipal water supply (because, in California, utilities can only charge for the actual cost of procuring the water). The questioner in that event implied that the (evil money-grubbing) developer's water-savings were immoral and ought to be illegal; but I'm inclined to believe that we should be encouraging water savings through any means possible (and, in this event, ought to figure out how to rewrite incentives so that water savings aligns with public good).
  • Escape Artists reading: four Escape Artists authors read excerpts from their stories, showcasing each of the four podcasts in the network around the Hugo Award-nominated Escape Pod. Calvin paid the least amount of attention to the YA story (which is plausibly the most age-appropriate to him) and was completely enthralled by the horror story.
  • Robert Jackson Bennett signing, back at the Borderlands booth. We have copies of his Hugo Award-nominated series The Divine Cities — in storage in Burlingame; but we have an ARC of City of Stairs so we decided we could justify buying a new trade paper copy to get him to sign it. His new book is officially published on Tuesday, and none of the booksellers on the dealer hall had it on hand when we dropped by. We got a button instead.
  • Supper at Urban Momo, in another food hall on the north side of downtown San Jose.


Here's what I saw on Sunday:

  • Ditch Diggers podcast: A live recording of the Hugo Award-nominated podcast, which was delightful. Unlike last year, cohost Matt Wallace showed up so we didn't get to see Alasdair Stuart in an "I am Matt Wallace" t-shirt.
  • Psychological and Psychiatric Aspects of a Manned Mission to Mars: a talk by a UCSF psychiatrist reviewing the literature on how humans react to long-duration space flight, including research done on Mir and ISS flights, and simulated Mars missions. (I thought about asking whether historic examples, most recently from the Age of Sale in which ships would go on years-long detached exploration (and military) missions would provide insights into deep-space missions.)
  • WETA Digital: featuring a WETA digital compositor who talked about the visual effects WETA does, including a "sizzle reel" of their best effects, plus a bunch of clips from various movies (many of which I'd heard of). (He also did all of the elf ear props for the Lord of the Rings movies.)
  • Lunch, at SoFA Market instead; the Vietnamese place was out of sandwiches so I had a noodle bowl.
  • So You Want To Build A Science Fictional Device: an amusing panel in which audience members spit out devices they wanted, and the panel (including Cory Doctorow) had five minutes to come up with a plausible explanation for the device, often creatively misinterpreting the problem statement for comic (or practical) effect.
  • An hour wandering around the exhibits and dealer's hall.
  • The Working Class in Science Fiction: with a panel including Cory Doctorow, Eric Flint, and Patrick Nielsen Hayden, discussing why labor unions are generally absent from science fiction (sci-fi was written for upwardly-aspiring professional classes in the 1950s and 1960s, who thought they didn't need labor unions to get ahead), and generally agreeing that The Expanse does a pretty good job. I had the weird experience of being less sympathetic to organized labor than the general tenor of the audience but did enjoy the discussion.
  • Back to the Airbnb for a quick change before the Hugo Awards ceremony, where we ate pizza (arranged via Grubhub), and met our babysitter for Calvin (arranged via Trusted).
  • Back to the convention center for the Hugo Awards. When we arrived the line was still waiting in the hall; then we found our seats and settled in. Convention guest of honor John Picacio kept the ceremony rolling (on the assumption that most people just wanted to get on to the parties after the event), without any skits or gags or interviews on the stage. I was thrilled to be in the audience to see the Hugo Awards live and in person, and thrilled to see Ditch Diggers win for fancast and Murderbot win for novella — and I was impressed to see NK Jemisin win a third-in-a-row Hugo Award for The Stone Sky.
Jaeger and Kiesa at the Hugo Awards at Worldcon 76
Jaeger and Kiesa at the Hugo Awards at Worldcon 76


Monday was the last day of the convention, but we skipped town to get back to Seattle, landing in a pea soup of haze from wildfires burning nearby, and air quality plunging below developing-country standards.

Wildfire haze on the ground at SEA
Wildfire haze on the ground at SEA