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Going to Mecca

So, why exactly do Worldcon panels keep being about the same sorts of things every year? The same eras? The same writers?

I have a theory about this that I call "Going to Mecca." When a muslim goes to Mecca, there's a whole series of ritualized actions that take place, where you stop or throw something or touch something. Each action has a significance. These actions are what makes a pilgrimage to Mecca. Take any out, and you didn't do it right.

You should be ahead of me at this point.

What should a panel at Worldcon be? The analogy is there. Worldcon is a Mecca. To do it right, you must touch the right things at the right time. In this case, touching things is going to the right panels. You started going to Worldcons and cons in general in the 70's, so that suite of panels looks right to you. That's what's supposed to be there. Late on, decades later, you saw other sorts of panels that you dislike about all this other stuff, but that's all new stuff. Its okay if it's there, but it's not the RIGHT stuff.

And so we get major cons where the panels don't reflect any more the diversity and interests of the membership. At one point, back in the 70's, the panels did, but a subtle traditionalism froze the into place. People confused what happens to be right now for what ought to be.

I think that's why we have such a great divide between generations, where some writers are lionized while newer writers (who aren't nearly so new any more) get passed over. The right writers are ritualistically traditional, they are right.

Cool has a generational effect as well. Everyone of a certain generation learns what's cool and what isn't so much so that cool internalizes itself. Everyone (well, "everyone") knows that Heinlein is the best, so why not have a panel? It then becomes a genuine surprise to the panel organizer that Heinlein is now considered sexist and insensitive. When did that happen? "Everyone" still agrees that Heinlein is cool, so the problem must be the agitators. Inside one generation, Heinlein is cool, but two to three SF generations later, and Heinlein is just this guy, you know?

I can get this. I began reading while the cult of Heinlein was strong. He was a giant. How could he not be a giant? But being a giant doesn't mean that you aren't a human, not does require the next generation to consider him a giant. Perhaps the reason to discuss Heinlein is because he wrote some damned interesting books. And the reason to find newer authors for panels is because they wrote some damned interesting books, too. And those new guys who aren't as good as Heinlein, maybe they never intended to do what Heinlein does, but they went off and became interesting in entirely different ways, ways just as significant as Heinlein.

Myself, I am fully comfortable with this theory as I've noted, over time, that fandom has a deep traditional streak. It is hidebound in the very way that it rejects. I've heard too many people deride the "wrong" fantasy and the "wrong" sf. I've seen too many flame wars that boil down to "yes it is" and "no it isn't."

So should we give up? No, of course not. The point of this inquiry was to learn whether they were better ways to modernizing panels.

The first thing to do is to see which panels are most popular. Those are the sorts of panels that fans want, and they vote with their presence. Do more of that! If old sexist men keep filling the room, then put on panels about old sexist men. These panels are not about you, the con runners, but about them, the fans that come. These exist for their benefit, not yours. If pink fluffy bunnies are all the rage, then by God, there will be panels on pink fluffy bunnies.

Is the con in a different country? A different city? Dedicate panels to discovery. Help fans find new authors. As the con moves about, you'll have a tradition that's always breaking new ground.

What's emerging in the field? What are the rages? There should always be panels about that. The future is exciting, isn't it? New rages are fun. What's all the fun about? Embrace the fun.

Remember that there are more categories than greatness or excellent. "Second string fantasy writers of the 1970's: good writers who deserved to sell better" sounds like great fun to me.

Creating structurally wider criteria helps everyone. Welcomes everyone. Hey, let's have a con!