John Hertz’s Westercon Notebook

Westercon LXXIV was at Tonopah, Nevada, July 1-4, 2022. This is the annual West Coast Science Fantasy Conference; while keeping its original name, under today’s By-Laws it need only be in North America or Hawaii west of the 104th West Meridian; it‘s been as far north as Calgary, as far east as El Paso, as far south and west as Honolulu. W74 had two Nevadan Guests of Honor, writer-gamer Kevin Andrew Murphy and Amber Unicorn Books’ Myrna Donato whose name means “giver”.

Tonopah (“TOE-no-pa”) was the Queen of the Silver Camps. In 1901 it produced $750,000 in gold and silver; in 1913, $10 million in gold, silver, copper, lead. Wyatt Earp lived there in 1902. Today it’s the seat of Nye County, at the junction of U.S. Routes 6 and 95, midway between Las Vegas and Reno; population 2,500; altitude 6,000 ft (1,800 m). Its public library is the oldest in Nevada.

Holding a Westercon there was Lisa Hayes’ idea. The Tonopah Convention Center had been a USO hall (United Services Organization; entertainment, hospitality for armed-forces personnel and their families) when armed forces had bases nearby. The Belvada Hotel 100 yards (90 m) away, and the Mizpah Hotel 150 yards (140 m) away, are historic buildings. A 2,000-person Westercon wouldn’t fit there, but a 200-person Westercon, about what could be expected even with COVID-19 easing, would. Hayes was vindicated. 278 attending memberships were sold (and 59 supporting memberships); 159 people arrived. This was an intimate con. It was also hybrid, with some programming available virtually via Zoom. The Convention Center was its hub, like a great Hospitality Suite.

Colored tiles at one entrance to the Belvada spelled out “Nevada First National Bank, 1906”; at the other, “Belvada Hotel, 2020”. The Mizpah opened in 1907, tallest building in Nevada then; it was renovated in 2011; its lobby has a Steinway piano and celebrity photos from Dinah Shore to Ron Garan. On Thursday night, Registration was in the Belvada; I thought for a while W74 would be like W43 and W54, “It’s in the other hotel”, and so I joked to Patty Wells (who’d co-chaired W43, later chairing the 69th Worldcon), but most things were in the Convention Center.

Westercon and Worldcon sites are chosen by bids and voting. These, and more or less anyone else who feels like it, generate what we’ve come to call fan tables. You can learn about and maybe pre-support a bid, or get a membership in a seated con; you can engage with a local club, or some enterprise like C.D. Carson’s Luna Project and Man & Atom Society. Fan tables were in the Convention Center. So was a Mah Jongg game (I am indirectly to blame for this, which I’ll tell you all about some other time). So was a telegraph exhibit, with a key you could practice on and charts of Morse and other codes. So were what at many cons would have been room parties, i.e. in people’s hotel rooms; at W74 these just took over a table or three and gathered.

Hospitality was a bright spot. The Convention Center was open 24 hours; people came and went. Stocks were kept replenished of fruit, chips (“crisps” to U.K. readers), popcorn (and Pop Corners), soft drinks, no-refrigeration-needed boxes of tuna and chicken salads; coffee; hot water with various kinds of tea and cocoa. Now and then one of the Hospitality folk came round offering a big tray of something, like one-serving cartons of ice cream we’d found a freezer for. Drinkers were served by renowned mixologists Kevin Roche and Andrew Trembley, who set up shop at a bar — it had been a USO hall, of course there was a bar — in fact, two, but we only used one — with local fluids, some soft for those who preferred them, and locality-inspired combinations.

There was no place to put a Masquerade, our on-stage costume competition. The Convention Center had a stage, but using it for the Masquerade would have either darkened the rest of the room, clobbering all other activities, or put on entries in front of an unfocussed chattery audience. Kevin Standlee’s “Match Game SF”, based on the television show, was a different animal, which could run amusingly for all or some people present without calling for undivided attention.

There was no place to put an Art Show, our combined museum and sales gallery. There had been plans for an art exhibit, but such plans can gang agley; these did; I was unable to learn how. Happily for graphics lovers C.D. Carson put up two exhibits, one of Kelly Freas’ 1971 posters for NASA and the Space program (U.S. Nat’l Aeronautics & Space Adm’n; these particular prints had been in the collection of Don Lundry, chair of the 35th Worldcon), and one of 1970s art photographs by Rudolf Koch (thus not the 1876-1934 type designer) related to nuclear power; Carson had handouts detailing each.

There was a Dealers’ Room, with books, music, souvenirs, and toys. Evidently the Massoglias, our leading vendors of what I unashamedly call cheap reading copies, could not attend, but Dave Clark did, with his usual fine selection. There were kaffeeklatches and autograph sessions and readings.

We did contrive Regency dancing, ballroom dances of the English Regency (about the year 1800), a custom at SF cons for which I’m to blame or maybe Georgette Heyer; there was a Mizpah Ballroom if you went through a casino and up one floor. I dressed suitably and taught them, using music by Mozart and Purcell, remembering that the fanziner who publishes Askance and Askew rhymes his name with “her bell” but the composer’s name rhymes with “reversal”. Even Beethoven wrote dance music.

On the Convention Center’s drop-down screen Hayes, and Scott Sandford, projected a series of images that ran continuously, arranged so it didn’t matter when one started looking or left off. Having done such things myself I have some notion of how hard it is. The images were variously SF, historical, comical — pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene indivisible, or poem unlimited — anyway, I particularly remember 1960s computers, some of which I had known, and a cartoon with a supposedly sapient being (not “sentient”! argh!) putting a bill into a slot of a machine labeled “Gullibility Test, $1”.

Sharon Sbarsky ran a good newsletter, the Tonopah Telegraph (see, Mr. Chekhov, that gun did go off). Tom Becker, Spike, Standlee, and I were reporters. The night sky was so free of big cities’ light pollution — Tonopah is known for good stargazing — that the Telegraph printed planets’ rising times. There was of course a hoax issue, with notices e.g. “When connecting to the WiFi network at the Mizpah Hotel, if you misspell the password as ‘mizpahghost’ it logs you on to the ghost network. This is the modern way to meet the paranormal entities haunting the Mizpah” and “Opinions in this issue are not necessarily those of anyone.” The Independence Day issue was printed in red and blue ink on white paper, patriotically showing the colors of the U.S. flag, and as a note at the end said, “Also, we are running out of black ink.” I’m reliably informed that all W74 publications will eventually appear at <> and for the moment can be seen at <>.

I led two Classics of SF discussions, on The Door Into Summer (Heinlein, 1956) and on Judgment Night (Moore, 1943; two British editions put in another “e”). These were in the Convention Center’s Blue Room, which had the Zoomification tech, managed by Michelle Weisblat-Dane. I was placed to look at the camera and the in-person participants, so couldn’t see the Zoomers projected on a wall behind me. Weisblat-Dane, wrangling all that, told me things. I hope and trust I got in everyone who wanted to be included.

Also in the Blue Room was filking (our home-made music, named for a 1950s typo that stuck). When I dropped by, they were doing Western songs, i.e. not about Europe compared to Asia but in harmony — hmm — consonant — hmm — according to — oh well, having to do with the W74 nickname ”Wild Wild Westercon”, traditional songs and non. Nick Smith the current LASFS President (my local club the Los Angeles Science Fantasy Society) had some Battlestar Galactica songs. Guitar, fiddle, and sing-along including Zoomers joined in the Ballad of Jesse James, decrying the dirty little coward that shot Mr. Howard (James’ nom de guerre at the time).

I mustn’t forget to say I got to and from Tonopah riding with Beth & Chris Marble. Riding in an automobile; sorry, Western fans. No air, rail, or bus lines went. But Sandra Childress the W74 Transportation Co-ordinator was on the job even though she never attended the con in person. The Marbles told me their neighborhood had peacocks. It did, too. I saw one strolling along the sidewalk as we were getting ready. Also in one of the Marbles’ bathrooms I saw 120 rubber duckies — or maybe more, after that I lost count — which Beth had collected.

“Canons in SF Literature” was moderated by Brad Lyau. I regretted the topic. We’re so noli mi tangere (Latin, “don’t touch me”) — not in the superhuman sense of John 20:17 and e.g. the splendid painting by Correggio, but more like the Hibiscus noli-tangere whose leaves lodge sharp glassy needles in you if you touch them — that any consideration of a canon strikes us as a horrid imposition of authority. This wasn’t Lyau’s fault, he’s a scholar and was only trying to think about it. From the audience: thus we have splintered awards. Ben Yalow said we could consider what stories defined vocabulary: Turtledove uses De Camp’s, Pratchett uses Leiber’s; Boucher defined non-evil werewolves, Brackett defined planetary romances; no one has ever been able to follow Lafferty. Nick Smith said, we go by whom we’ve read but others may have got there first. Karen G. Anderson said canons were generational. Tom Whitmore said we could have different canons for different purposes.

Among the fan tables I saw Winnipeg resiliently bidding for the 2023 NASFiC (North America Science Fiction Convention, held when the Worldcon is overseas). The competing Orlando for ’23 NASFiC bid brought oranges and orange Starbursts — doubly apt, those. Awkwardly but perhaps inevitably I had friends on each side. Orlando shared a table with the Glasgow for ’24 Worldcon bid. Had Glasgow brought butterscotch? Yes; Werther’s; but the Werther’s pieces, denser, had been driven to the bottom of the bowl under the Starbursts, you had to pursue them.

In the Door Into Summer discussion Mem Morman said Door was more than a classic, it added a dimension. Another: we want to follow the cat. Another: it’s misogynistic. A woman said it never seemed sexist to her. Another: the mechanics of time travel kept the story focused. Another: the consequences of cold sleep were the kind of corroborative detail Heinlein was good at. Under Budrys’ “Always ask, why are they telling us this” what was the nudist colony for? I said, it lets Heinlein describe the futuristic clothes and then solve that problem. We considered whether Dan Davis matured. Heath Row by Zoom said the Japanese movie (T. Miki dir. 2021), although we weren’t there to discuss it, showed current relevance.

In the Judgment Night discussion we thought ideas came out of characters’ mouths, not the author’s. Are readers helped now by knowing Night was written by a woman? Its chase is part of a game, but isn’t virtual (i.e. as we use that term today). Is all the blasting through walls gratifying? It isn’t cheap, and has consequences. Is this a better or worse take on a decaying Galactic Empire than Second Foundation? Throughout the story things happen as we knew they would; the author’s promises are fulfilled even if the characters’ aren’t. Linda Hardie, an English professor at Univ. Nevada (Reno; she’s a published SF author too, but didn’t seem to be speaking in that capacity), was particularly helpful. We should all have such English professors.

I was Chief Hall-Costume Judge; hall costumes, which the late great Marjii Ellers described as “daily wear for alternative worlds”, being SF clothes some folks don for strolling the halls. Stage costumes are meant to be seen at a distance, hall costumes are meant to be met. We acknowledge good hall costumes with awards given on the spot by itinerant (hello, Tom Whitmore) judges; mine were Sandy Manning, Carole Parker, Roche & Trembley. The award is a rosette, or something like one, to be pinned on or otherwise worn with the costume. The con had no budget for making them, so Manning kindly did. Then she went to Fiji.

We used to say, indulge your special interest at our general-interest con. But with the rise of special-interest cons, you can always do that better there. What business (as Peter Drucker used to say) are we really in? At a general-interest con you meet people you didn’t know you wanted to meet. Also Westercon is a regional; it’s healthful to have cons bigger in scope than a local, smaller than a Worldcon or NASFiC.

At Closing Ceremonies, Standlee was acknowledged as having chaired both a Westercon and a Worldcon. Lots of other people were acknowledged. The 2023 Westercon will be in Anaheim, California; the 2024, in Layton, Utah (both somewhat complicated results, but I’m leaving that part out). Then, as Mary Poppins said, it was time to go home.