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81st Worldcon report

October 28th, 2023

As I write this, it is mere days after the 2023 World Science Fiction Convention in Chengdu, more commonly known as “Worldcon”. It was an Olympic-level event that clearly showed the many, many years of planning that went into it. I consider it my good fortune that I was invited by my publisher Science Fiction World to be a part of it. And boy, was I impressed. Not just by the astounding venue, the ceremonies, the spectacle, the theme song(!), the wonderful city where I felt instantly at home—but most of all by the people. The fans. The Chinese SF readers.

They are amazing. Such sheer enthusiasm for science fiction I have not seen anywhere else in the world. Certainly not at home in the Netherlands, where written SF is met mostly with an indifferent shrug. How different things are in China! There, the genre is celebrated, embraced, loved—and so are its authors. I will never forget the absolute furor of the crowd at Worldcon when Cixin Liu made his appearance on stage. In Europe, such adoration is reserved for rock stars or athletes.

Truly, this is the land of science fiction.

Chinese release of Star Body
And as such, I am thrilled that my science fiction novel Star Body—another project years in the making—will very shortly be available in China. One of the reasons SFW invited me to Worldcon was to officially present and launch “Sterrenlichaam” (as it is originally called in Dutch). It’s a very important book for me. It began life as an award-winning short story, which I then spent several years developing into a full-sized novel, filling it up with my interests and anxieties, dreams and nightmares. During that period, I hoped it would find its way to other countries, of course, but having a Chinese translation be the first to venture outside Dutch borders is the coolest thing that could’ve happened.

For if this Worldcon made anything clear, it is that science fiction is alive and kicking in China. The five days of the event went by in a blur. Coasting from panel to lecture, from party to grand opening, you’d constantly find yourself in an ever-shifting company of fellow authors and fans. A shortage of things to discuss there was not! Venturing outside, you might stumble upon a drone light show in the sky or choreographed fountains in the lake. Inside, there were trade and fan exhibits, mesmerizing wormhole tunnels and ancient art on display. Commerce too, oh my yes, Worldcon’s mascot Kormo showed his adorable face everywhere and most likely none of the twenty thousand visitors went home without at least some Kormo-shaped memorabilia.

ChengduCon and panels
And let’s not forget the sixth China International Science Fiction Convention (ChengduCon) that was held concurrently in the Sheraton hotel. This two-day, bi-annual event—teaming up with the nascent Tianfu Science Fiction Film Festival for good measure—acted as a con-within-a-con. Its roundtables and panels were a little more scholarly, a little more geared at industry and professional interests. With topics such as “City of the Future” and “Film and Television Professionals”, it had as much networking in mind as art. A welcome addition to Worldcon’s more fannish, public-oriented perspective.

One thing that must be mentioned is the truly international quality of the convention. Despite the supremacy of Chinese as the spoken language in many of the events, devices were distributed that allowed non-Chinese listeners to hear simultaneous translations in English, Korean and Japanese. That is an impressive commitment to welcoming foreign guests!

For me, just like for most of the international guests, Worldcon also meant doing panels and giving speeches (notably introducing European SF), even a book launch in my case, and invariably being mobbed by dozens of young science fiction fans desperate for autographs. Did they all know who we were? Most likely not! But such is the price of being an SF author at an con in China, apparently: you are an exotic rarity that must be taken advantage of while it’s there.

The ascendancy of science fiction in China
It’s impossible to do justice to the many facets and sheer size of what took place last week. Where do you start? The dedicated lake area and Science Fiction Museum that must’ve cost millions and millions to develop? The excellent care that was taken of us guests, who were made very comfortable, even if some of the hotels necessitated endless runs on shuttle buses? (The logistics were sometimes quite tight, having you fly from the venue back to the hotel in time for dinner, only to rush to the next bus to make it to the Hugos. But then, who has time to relax during Worldcon?)

Did I mention there was a theme song?

Gobsmacked, we would often wonder aloud how this was possible. The stunning rise of science fiction in China and the organization of such an event isn’t just a fan expression, of course, there’s no way it could be. It’s clear that China has taken an interest in promoting science fiction on a higher level. My own hypothesis is that SF is seen as a useful form of “soft power”, promoting the notion that the future is Chinese. (And who could blame them from seizing this opportunity, where in the West we are seeing such suspicion of science at the moment?) Another person I spoke to ventured that it might be a way to promote STEM education internally, whipping up enthusiasm among Chinese youth to choose a career in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The many excellent uses and side effects of science fiction!

Intangible cultural heritage & gratitude
Let’s return to Worldcon, though. One tragically overlooked highlight was the more than excellent exhibition of Sichuan’s intangible cultural heritage. A fantastic mini-museum displaying Shu embroidery, silver filigree, lacquerware, bamboo weaving, poetry with music played on the ancient zhuqin instrument and a tea ceremony from the Song dynasty—with actual masters performing these traditions and crafts on site. I was led through this exhibition by two ladies in traditional clothing who were thrilled to have another rare visitor. The location might have been a factor in the low attendance (it took place in a separate building next to the Sheraton), but I believe it was simply a matter of there being so much to do at Worldcon that it was too easily skipped. A shame, because this was a superb experience and that is precisely why I’m giving it some well-deserved attention here.

It’s that time in any report where I must mention some of the people who made this voyage, this adventure, possible. My thanks go first and foremost to my two editors at Science Fiction World: Sara Chen and Yijing Liu. They worked incredibly hard to make all this a reality and they championed having me (and my work!) there. Without them, none of this would have happened. I spoke far too little with Sara, who was running around without pause during the con to make sure everything went smoothly (she estimates she got around 80 emails per day and 200 WeChat messages per hour throughout the week). But luckily I was able to spend lots of time with Yijing and her fantastic colleagues, Jaz and Xiangxi, culminating in what must’ve been the rarest thing in town: vegan(!) hot pot, a mere 45 minutes by taxi away and totally worth it.

Thanks also to Henry, my handler for the week, whose consideration and care ensured everything went smoothly. And not just him, but the veritable army of student volunteers who did the same for countless other guests! Thank you to the Worldcon committee and Science Fiction World, you achieved something never before seen. Thank you to the old friends I was delighted to see there: Taiyo Fujii, Francesco Verso, Vincent Docherty. And to the many new people I met and hung out with: Jeremy, Francis, David, Mimi, Mia, Guy, Shaoyan, Daniel, Zarko, Stefan, Robert. You all made this such a fun and inspiring week!

Winding down to the conclusion, I can’t think of a better place than China to have my work appear and, hopefully, find an audience—if for no other reason than giving me an excuse to return there! I can already picture myself being back, sharing the love for science fiction with fellow fans, editors and authors. Chengdu Worldcon might be over, but this is only the beginning for SF in China.

Roderick Leeuwenhart

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