CoNZealand, the 78th World Science Fiction Convention

By Keith G. Kato

CoNZealand, the 78th World Science Fiction Convention, took place from 29 July-2 August 2020 “in” Wellington, New Zealand. Due international COVID-19 restrictions, the CoNZealand committee shifted to virtual operation for all Worldcon activities. Discord and Zoom meeting software was used throughout, and panelists were “trained” in Zoom a full month in advance.

What DID go on at this virtual Worldcon? Activities:

  • [Virtual] Fan Table. THS President John Tilden and emeritus Presidents Mike Sheffield and Keith Kato checked in and monitored THS’s Fan Table on Discord daily. The format was a written Chat Room, and the message strings were largely by members and other friends of the Society.
  • [Virtual] Hugo Awards. To be honest, a technical disaster. Viewers saw video that froze or looped onto itself multiple times. The presenters and others pre-recorded their sets, and nominees made a Thank You video “just in case” they won. Toastmaster George R.R. Martin received a lot of flak for citing SF and Hugo history, and mis-pronouncing names.
  • [Virtual] Panels. The following panels relevant to THS were convened on Zoom:

¨ “Meet The Heinlein Society” with Michael Sheffield, John Tilden, and Keith Kato. Three of the past four Presidents of THS gave an overview of THS history, programs, and achievements. This panel was intended to entice new members, but almost every attendee (save one newbie to the Worldcon) was already a member. The convention newsletter, Cruise Log (Issue 4), noted Keith Kato’s virtual background of a spiral armed galaxy was on display, but not him. “Social distancing” behind the galaxy was claimed, but in reality Keith’s new webcam had a privacy shield internally blocking the lens.

¨ “Celebrating The Greats” with John Tilden and Jason Aukerman. THS President John Tilden and The Center For Ray Bradbury Studies Managing Director Jason Aukerman actually left our party to be on this panel. The heads of their respective organizations talked about, of course, Robert A. Heinlein and Ray Bradbury.

  • [Virtual] Dead Dog Party. The Heinlein Society, The Center For Ray Bradbury Studies, and Keith Kato co-hosted a Virtual CoNZealand Dead Dog Party on Saturday 1 August 2020, officially beginning 11:00 AM and ending 7:00 PM Pacific Daylight Time. All active members of THS were invited, as were guests of the three party co-hosts. In total, over 700 invitations were offered, with guests from over 19 time zones attending.

The Bradbury Center used their Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (“IUPUI”) Zoom account to set up the party. Jason Aukerman’s staff at the Bradbury Center designed the party structure and worked their posts for 10+ hours during the party. Technical glitches occurred but were overcome; it was like the first dress rehearsal for a Broadway musical was held on Opening Night.

We opened for business at 10:30 AM PDT for check-in. In lieu of food or drink, we offered “[VIRTUAL] Food For Thought” in the form of panel discussions. Beginning 11:30 AM PDT, and every 75 minutes thereafter, speakers on science, space, academic SF, and media displayed their wares. The panels and participants were:

¨ “Exoplanet Habitability” with Dr. Julie Nováková. A talk by Czech SF author Julie Nováková, a trained biologist, on the physical parameters for planets capable of supporting life. Some obvious reasons (planets must orbit their suns in the “habitable zone” where liquid water exists), some not-so-obvious reasons (magnetic fields from iron cores) were discussed. An absolutely top-notch talk, at the level of a Physics Department Colloquium.

¨ “Middleton [PA] Public Library’s SF Interviews” with John Grayshaw. The Middleton Public Library creates and maintains a series of interviews by SF personalities. Library Director Grayshaw gave a short “Public Service Announcement” on his library’s program.

¨ “What Is Wrong With STEM Education?” with Dr. Estelle Blanquet, Larry Cohan, Dr. Beatrice Kondo, Dr. Brian Matsumoto, moderated by Dr. Keith Kato. Robert Heinlein once said “The Golden Age of science has yet to begin,” but panelists in the STEM education chain, from high school through post-doctoral, discussed how the need for properly educating STEM workers was not being met.

¨ “Bradbury & Heinlein In Academia” with Jason Aukerman, Dr. Jonathan Eller, Dr. C. Herbert Gilliland, and Dr. Marie Guthrie, moderated by Alec Nevala-Lee. (Dr. Farah Mendlesohn had a previous commitment with CoNZealand Programming, and reluctantly withdrew from the panel.) 2019 Hugo nominee Alec Nevala-Lee adroitly led a panel of university academics in an “inside baseball” discussion on the placement of SF giants Ray Bradbury and Robert Heinlein in the modern academic picture.

¨ “21st Century Starships” with Dr. James Benford, managed by Caroline Lynch. A talk on possible methods to propel spacecraft to other solar systems. Various propulsion methods were offered and analyzed. In the end, a carbon fiber light sail, at least 10 kilometers in diameter, was thought to be capable of driving a starship from Earth to Alpha Centari. A target launch date of 2060 was proposed, to arrive in 2070.

¨ “Interview With The Spierig Brothers” with Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig, interviewed by Steven Barnes and Dr. Keith Kato. The twin brother movie makers of the film “Predestination,” made from the Heinlein short story “All You Zombies—,” sat for a discussion of their largely-Horror film portfolio, but concentrated on their lone SF film. The Brothers stayed a while after their talk to chat with other guests.

¨ “Big Smart Objects” with Dr. Gregory Benford and Larry Niven, managed by Caroline Lynch. Grandmaster Larry Niven is famous for thinking “big” (e.g., Ringworld). The Benford-Niven collaboration (Bowl Of Heaven, Shipstar, and Glorious) involves space explorers who encounter not a big “dumb” object, but an artifact with physical dimensions on the scale of a solar system which must be dynamically maintained, hence the “smart” designator. The authors discussed their evaluation and choice of various physical concepts for their novels.

All the panels were recorded. THS and the Bradbury Center are in the process of deciding how and by what venue the panel videos can be accessed and viewed.

In addition to the panel participants, other party guests included French Heinleiner Anouk Arnal; the Heinleins’ “adopted granddaughter” Dr. Amy Baxter; French SF critic Ugo Bellagamba; SF author Dr. David Brin; Australian fantasy author Cecilia Dart-Thornton; Vice President of the Otium Science Fiction Club in Barcelona, Spain, Juan-Miguel de la Torre Quesada; SF author Shiela Finch; Nordic THSers Andrew and Janica Hindle, and Heidi Lyshol; Japanese professors Dr. Mari Kotani and Dr. Takayuki Tatsumi; Heinleiner Dr. Brad Lyau; THS Board of Advisors member and SF author G. David Nordley; 2020 Best Professional Artist Hugo Winner John Picacio; French Heinleiner Dr. Eric Picholle; SFWA Grandmaster A.E. van Vogt’s “granddaughter” Charlene Piper; SF author Kathryn H. Ross; SFWA Grandmaster Robert Silverberg; SF and Star Trek artist Rick Sternbach; and Australian SF author Catherine Walker. Perhaps the most unusual guest was Yaroslav Orša (pronounced “OAR-SHAW”). He was introduced to the party as “His Excellency, Yaroslav Orša” and is quite a prominent Czech SF mover and shaker. His day job had been the Czech Ambassador to Philippines, South Korea, and Zimbabwe (presumably not all at the same time), and in a few months he will assume his new appointment as Consul General of the Czech Los Angeles Consulate.

Despite an “official” closing time of 7:00 PM PDT, about a dozen guests gathered in the party’s Main Room for another four hours. Thus from start to finish, our party lasted over 12 hours. In the aftermath of the party, quite a few emails, texts, and phone calls were received from guests who enjoyed the party and its unusual format.

Chicago, Illinois won the right to hold the 2022 Worldcon. Chicon 8 (, the 80th Worldcon, will be held 1-5 September 2022; the Hyatt Regency Chicago will be the main convention hotel. Attending membership rates of $170 ($110 if this will be your first attending Worldcon) are good until 30 April 2021.

The 79th Worldcon in 2021, DisCon III ( ), is scheduled for Washington DC, 25-29 August 2021. Be aware of this situation involving the main hotel, the Washington Marriott Wardman Park Hotel: .

The following bids are in play for future Worldcons. 2023: Chengdu, China, and Memphis, Tennessee; Nice, France has dropped out. 2024: Glasgow, Scotland is the lone bid at the moment. 2025: Seattle, Washington, and Brisbane, Australia. 2026: Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, which filed its bid immediately after losing the 2020 site selection bid.