Science fiction

Thousands of fans of 'literature of ideas' to invade Chicago

Lifetimes Editor
For people who spend much of their time in the realms of fantasy, the members of the committee to host the 58th World Science Fiction Convention are having a long, dull meeting. Arranged around a room in the Fairmont Hotel one July weekend, 50 or so committee members listen with varying degrees of attention as Mike Jencevice, one of the associate chairmen, reads off a long list of meeting-room assignments in the Fairmont, Swissotel and Hyatt Regency hotels, where the convention will be held Thursday through Monday, Aug. 31 through Sept. 4.

Meanwhile, people go out in the hall to conduct tete-a-tete meetings, while others talk quietly among themselves. Becky Thompson, another associate chairman, repeatedly calls for quiet so she can get a clean recording for the sake of posterity.

The meeting drones on, punctuated by occasional hubbubs and outbursts, but the event will be something else again.

Five days of panel discussions, speeches, autograph sessions, author readings, exhibits, science-fiction art displays, book dealers, theatrical presentations and more will all feature at Chicon 2000, as the Chicago convention is called. A significant event will be the Hugo Awards ceremony on Saturday night, which will bestow science fiction's most prestigious awards, voted on by the convention's members. Fiction nominees for this year's award include the novels "A Civil Campaign" by Lois McMaster Bujold (Baen Books); "Cryptonomicon" by Neal Stephenson (Avon); "Darwin's Radio" by Greg Bear (Del Rey); "A Deepness in the Sky" by Vernor Vinge (Tor); and "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" by J.K. Rowling (Scholastic Press).

And start to finish, the event is organized by volunteers working in their spare time.

The group meeting in the Fairmont are just a fraction of the volunteers, from Chicago and across the country, who will come together to produce the event, which is expected to attract some 6,000 readers and writers of science fiction and fantasy literature.

That's a long way from the first time it was held in Chicago, in 1940, when it attracted 128 participants, down from 200 the year before. Except for a four-year break during World War II, the convention has been held annually since 1939.

Science fiction has come a long way since then. Sneered at as "that Buck Rogers stuff" in the 1950s, its fans relegated to pointy-eared Trekkiedom in the '60s and '70s, "the literature of ideas" has come into its own at the turn of this century.

"What Shakespeare was to the 16th century, science fiction is to the 21st century," says Beverly Friend of Lincolnwood, professor emeritus of Oakton Community College, who has organized a track of panel discussions oriented toward academics at Chicon. "Certain authors are so extraordinary that their work transcends genre. Ursula LeGuin, for instance, who is being taught in anthropology courses as well as literature courses.

"Literary ability has increased along with science," says Friend, pointing out that such science-fiction writers as H.G. Wells, George Orwell, Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut and Michael Crichton have always been accepted by mainstream literature, but now, "mainstream authors have taken science-fiction techniques and made them their own" -- Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood and Thomas Pynchon, for example.

In 1940, however, the featured guest writer was the king of space opera, E.E. "Doc" Smith, author of the "Lensmen" books, a seminal spacefaring series whose concepts found their way into such more recent works as the "Star Wars" films. Chicon 2000's guests of honor include Ben Bova, author of "Mars" and "Venus," and former editor of Analog magazine; Jim Baen, editor and publisher of Baen Books, and former editor of the magazines Galaxy and If; and science-fiction artist Bob Eggleton. Hundreds of other science-fiction writers will also be on hand.

Chicon 2000 will be Chicago's sixth World Science Fiction Convention, or Worldcon, as members refer to the meeting; it was previously held here in 1940, 1952, 1962, 1982 and 1991. Last year's event was held in Melbourne, Australia; next year will be Philadelphia. The site is selected by a vote of the members held three years before. Chicago has hosted it more often than any other city in the world.

Volunteers started bidding for the convention several years before the vote was held, an arduous process that involved hosting hospitality events at scores of large and small science-fiction conventions across the country. Most of the traveling was done by Tom Veal of Lake View, chairman of Chicon 2000.

"During the bidding for Chicon, I was going to about 20 conventions a year," he says. Veal, 53, who sports a pixie-ish smile and a monkish fringe of gray hair, is an attorney who works for the employee benefits and tax group of the Deloitte & Touche accounting firm.

Even after the convention was won for Chicago, Veal was still traveling on behalf of Chicon, promoting the convention, selling memberships, answering questions, and reminding members to vote in the Hugo Awards. "Since we won, that's slowed to about 15 conventions a year," he says.

Sitting behind a table in a busy hallway in a Louisville hotel in July, he patiently looked up membership numbers, proffered fliers, consulted with passing members of 2001 Worldcon committee, and talked about his involvement with the science-fiction community, which members call "fandom."

An international subculture that has developed over the past 70 years, growing out of the letter columns of the first science-fiction magazines, fandom has a long and detailed history; a jargon of its own, sometimes called "fanspeak"; scores of amateur periodicals, called "fanzines"; a lively online presence; and an active group of volunteer organizers who mount science-fiction conventions around the world on nearly every weekend of the year.

"I began in college in the most minor way," Veal says. "I founded the Yale Science Fiction Society, which, however, did nothing whatsoever."

But while visiting friends in the Pacific Northwest in 1978, he attended a science-fiction convention. Moving to Chicago in 1979, he was drafted to work on Chicon IV in 1982 and the 1983 Windycon, a regional convention held annually in Schaumburg. During a period when he lived in Washington, D.C., he volunteered to work for the 1992 Worldcon, held in Orlando, Fla. "When Orlando was bidding, one year I went to 26 conventions." Most of the travel has been at his own expense, and he's put hundreds of spare-time hours into organizing this convention.

"I do it because I like the people one associates with," he says. "I work on the theory that I enjoy these things, and will enjoy them again after Chicon. This is my way of paying back."

The people are a big impetus for Dina Krause of Skokie, the facilities director, too. In her late 40s, Krause, a United Airlines clerk, has the complex job of negotiating with the three hotels, and organizing all those meeting rooms on Jencevice's list, making sure they're all supplied with the right combination of tables and chairs and whiteboards, based on requests from dozens of other volunteers.

"I love the people," says the bubbly, curly-haired Krause, who met her husband, George, at a science-fiction convention. (Thanks to the popularity of the genre, the rise of science-fiction television and film, and the growth of the fantasy field, women probably comprise a slight majority at today's science-fiction conventions, but up until the middle 1980s, single men in fandom outnumbered women four to one.)

"The people for the most part are very open, intelligent, creative people," Krause says, "because these people are readers. My background is the University of Chicago. I appreciate the level of intellect that science-fiction conventions bring." Krause found her way into fandom about 16 years ago after winning a free pass to a "Dr. Who" convention in a radio contest.

The Worldcon has been important enough to her that she's persevered with her volunteer work despite being diagnosed with breast cancer and undergoing a mastectomy this year. And she's already planning to work on the convention in Philadelphia next year.

"I think the thing that keeps me going is that the work is a challenge, because the group is all-volunteer," she says.

"You've got people coming together who don't normally work together," comments Veal, "and people often have to learn their jobs as they go." Fortunately, he says, science-fiction "fans are tolerant of a certain amount of chaos."

Learning the job was part of the reason Diane Blackwood of Portage Park, a 49-year-old computer programmer, took on overseeing the volunteers producing the convention publications, which included seven pre-convention progress reports, publicity materials, a souvenir book, several booklets detailing the program and other functions, a restaurant guide, a Web site and at-convention daily newsletters. "It was something I'd never done before and always wanted to do," she says.

A lifelong science-fiction reader, Blackwood discovered fandom when she was in her mid-30s and lived 75 miles north of Fargo, N.D. She attended a science-fiction convention there and ultimately learned about the 1991 Chicago Worldcon, which she announced to her husband she planned to attend. "He wasn't terribly happy.... Needless to say, he's not my husband anymore." (The petite redhead is now married to Bob Blackwood, professor emeritus of Wright College, whom she met at a Science Fiction Research Association meeting.)

Her previous publishing experience was primarily as editor of Tightbeam, an informal fanzine produced for the National Fantasy Fan Federation, a primarily mail-oriented organization she joined while living in North Dakota, so Chicon's publications were a big challenge. "I enjoyed the organizational aspects of it, learning the new software, and I enjoyed working with the people who helped me create the publications very, very much," she says.

The challenge of something new, as well as paying something back, also spurred Ben Liberman, 51, a free-lance computer consultant from Rogers Park. "I've been reading science fiction since I first came across the word 'robot' in my high school library in 1964," says the Niles East grad, whose slender, youthful form belies the fact that he was at school so long ago.

Another science-fiction fan introduced him to the Unix Operating Group in the early 1980s "and a computer I could dial into with with a modem!" Now he's running the Internet room at Chicon, which will feature 50 computers plus spots for people to plug their laptops into T-1 lines, so that Chicon's attendees need not miss any of their e-mail.

"People are so dependent on e-mail," he says. "There's such a high percentage of technical people (among science-fiction fans) that it's really very important to have connectivity to the outside world."

Beyond that, the computers will allow authors and others to hold online chats with science-fiction fans at home via the convention's Web site and provide those who didn't bring a laptop with a way to access the site to see the latest program changes and digital photos of the convention floor. Liberman also hopes to provide a streaming Web broadcast of the Hugo Awards, as well as a video broadcast to television sets within the hotels.

As an amateur-run, volunteer-organized convention focused mainly on books, Chicon will not have the polish that some slick, professional, science-fiction media conventions do, nor will bevies of film or TV stars be on hand. While some film and media programming is included, and some members do dress in costume, Veal says, "This is not a pointy-ears convention. There might be someone dressed like Mr. Spock or Princess Leia, but there equally well may not. People whose only interest in science fiction is watching movies will probably not find it very fascinating."

"I think it's going to be a spectacular convention," says Blackwood.

A full, five-day (Aug.31-Sept. 4) membership in Chicon 2000, the 58th World Science Fiction Convention, costs $195, available at the door at the Hyatt Regency Chicago, 151 E. Wacker Drive, Chicago. One-day memberships for the peak days, Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 2 and 3, are $80 each; other days are less. For more details, see the Web site, or call (312) 409-4440.

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