JeddiCon, Controversy, and How WorldCon Site Selection Works

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Photo by José Martín Ramírez Carrasco on Unsplash

On Tuesday, July 28, the Guardian published an article about an open letter signed by “more than 80” writers protesting the fact that Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia, was allowed to bid for the 2022 WorldCon.

These writers…and many who read it…were up in arms that a country with such a terrible human rights record was being permitted to bid. They argued that it was “antithetical to what science fiction stands for.”

The argument is that the World Science Fiction Society should decide who’s allowed to bid based off of…morality? Ethics?

A lot of the responses showed little understanding of how the process works. So let’s start there.

How is the WorldCon Site Chosen?

The WorldCon site is chosen by members of the World Science Fiction Society (WSFS) by the following process:

  1. Sites put forward a bid for the year. Bids are put forward for a city (not a country. No WorldCon has been held in a rural area or small town because they require a good amount of space) and are put forward by a group of people who want to run WorldCon. In most cases this is some kind of local science fiction society. For example, Discon III in 2021 is being run by the Baltimore-Washington Area Worldcon Association, which was put together by the Baltimore Science Fiction Society and the Washington Science Fiction Association, both of which already run smaller conventions.
  2. The Bid Administrator decides whether the bid is valid. A bid is valid as long as the bidder has a conditional contract with a venue, the bidder has some kind of bylaws in place to order their committee, and the site is at least 500 kilometers from the site at which selection takes place. That is it. That is the only requirement. The deadline for bids is 180 days, but most bids are declared much sooner.
  3. The members of WSFS vote on the provided bids. Write-ins are also allowed (which often results in humorous results such as “Bill Lawhorn’s Zeppelin” or “Mars” from people who don’t like either site). The successful bid is announced during WorldCon. Bids are chosen two years out, so at this year’s WorldCon members were voting for the site in 2022.

So. First of all, the Bid Administrator cannot reject any valid bid. For a site to be rejected on human rights grounds, the entire bylaws would have to be rewritten. This has happened (not too long ago the Hugo short list was changed from five in each category to six to reduce “slating,” or organized people taking over entire categories) but is a process that takes time.

Second of all, let’s explain who “members of WSFS are.”

I’m a member of WSFS.

Want to be a member of WSFS? That’ll be $50 please.

Anyone willing to cough up $50 for the year is a member of WSFS.

Practically, not every member votes in site selection. Some people don’t want to go to WorldCon anyway. Some can’t afford to go to any of the listed options. About 600 people voted for the 2022 site. Also, to vote in site selection you have to prebuy your membership for that year. (I’m an attending member of WSFS for 2021, hoping the con will not have to go virtual, and a supporting member for 2022. If I decide to go to Chicago I can pay the difference to become an attending member).

My Problems With the Guardian Letter

First of all, putting this up front and out there: I voted for Chicago. It would not be safe for me to go to Saudi Arabia. I do not think WorldCon should be in Saudi Arabia.

That is not the point. There are two issues with the letter:

  1. It assumed that there was some kind of committee that was shortlisting bids. That’s not the case. Bids go straight to the membership.
  2. The horse was the far end of the pasture. Voting closed yesterday, right before the selection was announced. The vast majority of members had already voted when the letter was brought to anyone’s attention.

The appropriate thing to do would have been to release it earlier and aim it at the membership. There is nothing wrong with saying “I don’t want WorldCon to go to X country.” Heck, some people didn’t want DC to get it because of Trump. There’s going to be politics involved in site selection…although most people vote based off of either distance (I can actually afford to go) or cool factor (Hey, I can use it as an excuse to see).

What Should WSFS Do?

First of all, in many ways, WSFS doesn’t exist as an entity. It’s kind of a temporal patchwork of each WorldCon, one after another.

There is a strong and understandable argument being made for policing bids. I am against it.

One year it is going to be “Jeddah can’t bid because Saudi Arabia kills gay people” which is perfectly feasible.

But another it might be “France can’t bid because they don’t allow Muslim women to cover their heads.” “The UK can’t bid because Brexit.” And…

Who decides who can’t bid? One person would be making these judgment calls. You could expand it to a committee, but you are still inserting a judgment call into the process.

A process which should be decided by the members.

I would propose instead that WSFS do two things:

  1. Disallow government-supported bids such as the Chengdu bid. I do not object to the Chinese fans bidding for WorldCon. But WorldCon should be by and for the fans. When a government, any government, involves itself beyond, possibly, some funding, we have a problem.
  2. Publicize how site selection works. Help people understand that there is an easy way (yes, I know, not everyone has $50 to spare) to be involved in the process. Help people understand that WSFS isn’t a committee or a board. It’s the fans. It’s the fans as a whole that make these decisions.

We can be trusted to make the right ones. And to do it in a way which doesn’t penalize fans for the actions of governments they don’t support.

I know some people are going to disagree with me. Again, I didn’t support Jeddah’s bid (although I hope we can get some of them to Discon III to talk about science fiction and fantasy in the Arab world!).

But the choice of where WorldCon should be should remain with those who are considering going.

Written by

Freelance writer, freelance editor, novelist and short story writer. Jack of many trades.

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