Conventional wisdom

A prestigious science fiction convention comes to Reno

Arthur Chenin, right, and Patrick Ditton are two of the local organizers for the upcoming Renovation Science Fiction convention.

Arthur Chenin, right, and Patrick Ditton are two of the local organizers for the upcoming Renovation Science Fiction convention.

Photo By amy beck

For more information, visit

This is a pretty big deal: The 69th World Science Fiction Convention is in Reno, through Aug. 21. Worldcon, as the event is known, is one of the biggest annual events of the science fiction calendar. The first Worldcon was held in New York in 1939. After a break for World War II, the event has been held every year in cities around the world—Chicago, London, Toronto, Melbourne, Yokohama and now, for the first time, in Reno. Approximately 4,000 people pre-registered to attend the event, which this year is called Renovation.

“It’s the annual family reunion of the science fiction and fantasy field,” says Susan Palwick, an associate professor of English at the University of Nevada, Reno, and a science fiction and fantasy writer.

Worldcon touches on every aspect of science fiction—art and music, speaking Klingon and rolling 20-sided dice—but one highlight is the Hugo Awards, one of the oldest and most prestigious awards in science fiction.

“The Hugos are sort of the readers’ choice awards of the science fiction field,” says Palwick. “There are tons of awards now, but I would say that the big two are still the Hugo and the Nebula.”

The Nebula is awarded annually by a group of professional science fiction writers, but the Hugo can be voted on by all registered members of the Worldcon, making it the more democratically elected award. The Hugo is named in honor of Hugo Gernsback, the founder, publisher and editor of Amazing Stories, an influential magazine that helped popularize science fiction. Previous Hugo winners include Robert A. Heinlein, Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke.

Star track

Guests of Honor at Renovation include author Tim Powers, whose 1988 novel On Stranger Tides, was adapted, very loosely, into the most recent Pirates of the Caribbean movie; Ellen Asher, former editor-in-chief of the Science Fiction Book Club; Boris Vallejo, a painter well-known for his images of scantily clad warriors in fantastical settings; and, in memoriam, Charles N. Brown, the founder of Locus, a science fiction trade magazine.

Also appearing will be George R.R. Martin, the author of the engrossing A Song of Ice and Fire book series, the first book of which was recently adapted into Game of Thrones, a popular, critically acclaimed, and Emmy-nominated television series on HBO. His most recent book, A Dance with Dragons, debuted atop the New York Times bestseller list earlier this summer.

Other guests include radio host Dr. Demento, artist Julie Bell, writers Lois McMaster Bujold, Robert J. Sawyer and Kim Stanley Robinson, and many others.

Powers seems surprised and excited to be a guest of honor among so many prestigious names. “It’s actually kind of dazzling to be asked to be guest of honor,” he says. “I’ve certainly been to a number of Worldcons over the years as a fan. It’s kind of disorienting to find myself standing at the podium.”

“I love Tim Powers’ novels!” says Palwick. “I would give my left arm to have written one of his novels, and he’s going to be there, and I get to hear him talk, and I get to meet him. … There’s that face-to-face contact with lots and lots of famous people, and if you’re a science fiction and fantasy fan around here, it’s your one chance locally to get to meet a lot of these folks.”

“Ever since I was about 15 to this day, my main ambition has been that my name be among that crowd that includes Heinlein and [A. E.] van Vogt and Eric Frank Russell and Leigh Brackett, all the science fiction and fantasy writers,” says Powers. “Not as in big a typeface as their names, but I want to be in the list, so in pursuit of the ambition of that 15-year-old, which is maybe not all that mature, it’s enormously gratifying to be guest of honor at a Worldcon.”

Of course, there’s more to Worldcon than just literary celebrities. There’s also, for example, a costume party masquerade, hosted by Phil and Kaja Foglio, the creators of “Girl Genius,” a steampunk webcomic.

“One of the neat things about World Con is that it covers a lot of bases,” says Palwick. “There are literary discussions. There’s a huge art show. There’s a kids’ track. There’s [role playing gaming], there’s anime, there’s manga. There’s a huge dealers’ room. There are book dealers. There are hard-science panels. Anything that you’re interested in, in this field, you’re going to find at this gathering.”

Hits the fandom

“For the local community, this is a chance to show that Reno’s not just gambling and old cars,” says Pat Ditton, a Reno financial investigator and science fiction fan, who’s helping organize the event.

“We’ve got people coming from 35 or 40 countries, up to and including Vatican City,” says Arthur Chenin, a research analyst for UNR and local convention liaison.

The event is based at the Reno Sparks Convention Center and the nearby casinos, Atlantis and Peppermill.

“It’s great to have this giant party in town,” says Palwick. “It will bring a lot of business to town. I hope it will introduce a lot of people to Reno and to this area who haven’t seen it before in the context of something other than gambling.”

There will be a few events specifically about the Nevada region, including a panel discussion led by Palwick that examines Reno as a setting for science fiction.

“There’s a lot of empty space here, so there’s a lot that might happen there that we might not know about,” she says. “There are a lot of very mysterious things here. We have all these mountain ranges and caves and mines where people report various spooky things happening. … There’s this sense that we are a colony unto ourselves, and there’s a lot of empty space and you can fill that space in interesting ways with storytelling.”

Some local science fiction fans hope that the event will unify Reno’s science fiction fans, so that Reno will host fan conventions more often.

“A big problem is that there’s no organized science fiction fandom in Reno,” says Chenin. “The facilities are here, and, sure, it’s a small town, but it’s events oriented. … The fans are here, I know they are, and hopefully this will bring them together.”

“The really neat thing about science fiction is that it’s a field where readers and fans have a lot of contact with writers and artists, and it’s always been that way. The professionals come up through the ranks of the fans,” says Palwick.

“It’s something that everybody develops, probably in their teen years, which is a real enthusiasm and fascination for science fiction and fantasy,” says Powers. “Something about science fiction and fantasy seems to inspire a kind of activism in its readers. It becomes much more of a part of their lives than mystery books do for mystery readers or probably romance does for romance readers. So everybody wants to do it. The fans and the writers mix a lot because the writers were all fans, and the fans, many of them, are very likely to become writers. The writers don’t stop being fans. The writers still read this stuff a lot, argue about it, publish articles about it. Somehow, the visionary depths of it or something, science fiction and fantasy is a bigger piece of the lives of its readers than I think other genres are.”

In science fiction, unlike in, say, football, the line between fan and professional is gray and nebulous.

“At some point everyone, it doesn’t matter who you are, turns into a screaming fanboy,” says Chenin.