Stranger in a Very Strange Land
1974 TAFF Report: Peter Weston

Published 1975 in SF Monthly vol 2 no 6
Rekeyed by Dave Langford's scanner

A report on the 32nd World Science Fiction Convention,
held in Washington DC, 29 August - 2 September 1974

Imagine 3,000 science fiction fans packed into one huge hall; a hotel reputed to possess nearly four miles of internal corridors; and total receipts of well over a quarter of a million dollars! Yes, everything is big at an American World Science Fiction Convention!

My own position was rather special, as I was in the United States for two weeks as the representative of British fandom, having been elected 1974 TAFF winner. (The Trans-Atlantic Fan Fund is fandom's oldest charity through which lucky delegates are able to shuttle between Europe and America at approximately eighteen-month intervals)

The TAFF trip really is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, of which the WorldCon forms the highpoint. It is a unique opportunity to visit the people and see the country, and finally to meet friends with whom one may have been corresponding for ten years or more. 'So that's what he looks like!' is probably the reaction on.both sides.

For me the trip came as the climax to a particularly hectic and disorientating period in my life. A month or so before, I had suddenly been made redundant; my wife was expecting a baby (which finally arrived four days after my departure); and -- final straw -- my flight had been booked with Court Lines who went into bankruptcy the week before I left!

But enough of all that. You want to know about the Convention itself, not my problems. Suffice it to say that I flew in to New York, eventually, and met Brooklyn fandom; bounced up to Boston to see the NESFA crowd (New England SF Association) and after an exhausting ten-hour overnight train journey found myself tired and hungry in Washington DC, early on the morning of Wednesday 28 August.

Hot. And humid. Washington was built on a swamp and still has the sort of climate you'd expect. Literally White Man's Hell at that time of year. To step outdoors at midday was to feel plunged into a Turkish Bath atmosphere in which even my lightest-weight clothes felt instantly damp through.

Even though all buildings are air-conditioned (as are most cars) the usual sort of dress is more-or-less beachwear, particularly among the girls. Halter-tops, bare midriffs, gave an unexpected fillip to my transatlantic experience!

After a much needed bath, sleep and meal, Wednesday started slowly for me. Fans were steadily arriving in the hotel lobby but for the first time in more than ten years of conventioneering I felt once more an absolute neo, knowing nobody, recognising none of the faces in this strange fandom who looked through me with such complete indifference.

Suddenly I sympathised with the newcomer to a British convention (and there have been many, lately, spurred by the reporting of SFM [SF Monthly]), and I can only advise patience and persistence in getting to know the ropes. It takes a certain amount of courage for a novice to break through, but it's well worth while in the end.

But, of course, I wasn't really a newcomer at all. I already knew most of active US fandom through correspondence or the fanzines, plus others encountered on visits to England and even more recent acquaintances of the last few days in New York and Boston. Within an hour or so I'd secured my home base -- two or three individuals to talk to, go and have a meal with, and so on, and was meeting more and more people as my horizons expanded and fans continued to roll in.

I had a short-list of those I wanted to meet, but even by Wednesday evening several hundred had arrived and were busily losing themselves in the labyrinthine complexities of the hotel. To illustrate, I might add that from one direction my room was in the basement, while simultaneously being on the ninth floor at the other end of the building (the place being built on a slope). That was only one wing of a dozen, with over 1,200 rooms booked by the convention.

During that evening I experienced an odd switch of perceptions; looking around a room and seeing so many familiar faces I felt suddenly at home, as if I'd known American fandom for years, not hours -- and then I settled down to a week-long binge of late nights, conversation, and enjoyment.

I was struck by the differences as well as the similarities between the WorldCon and more familiar British conventions. Sheer size, above all. Where the largest UK Eastercon just topped 500 registrations, with 400 attending, Discon II reached an awesome 4,900, of which some 4,000 were said to have appeared. Anyone who thinks that a good thing has to experience the football-match crowding, and the frustrations of trying to find friends in a mob.

And, importantly, while total audiences have mushroomed in the last five to ten years, the size of the hard core, the really keen, active types who publish fanzines, organise conventions and comprise fandom-as-I-know-it, is still counted in hundreds. So, ridiculously, the original founding body has become an outnumbered, statistically negligible slice among much larger proportions of casual readers and enthusiasts, Star Trek and fantasy fans, and so on, who've probably been to two or three conventions and never even heard of Tucker or Willis.

Who? (But that's another story!)

Another difference, also probably due to size, is that to me professional sf authors seemed conspicuous by their absence, compared to the way in which Brian Aldiss, Jim Blish, or Ken Bulmer are integral parts of the British Eastercon scene. At Discon the authors appeared briefly, took part in programme events, and then vanished mysteriously to some presumed Valhalla in the attic, beyond reach of their anxious admirers.

Not altogether true, of course; Larry Niven and Isaac Asimov were to be seen signing autographs at a frantic pace, and I personally encountered Harlan Ellison and Poul Anderson at different room parties. But in sheer self-defence I suspect the 'pros' have to hide from their followers at least part of the time in order to get any peace at all.

Ellison and Asimov both are as entertaining in person as they are in print, exuding tremendous wit and personality, to the delight of all. Fittingly the Convention opened with a 'dialogue' between the two which immediately turned into a mock slanging match.

'You Dirty Old Man, Asimov,' called Ellison from a dais in the centre of the main hall. 'Stand up, Harlan!' retorted Asimov from the top table, referring to Ellison's modest height.

There was simply too much to see and do. Simultaneous programme events in different halls; a huge book room and art show, an entirely separate, continuous film programme, and half-a-dozen 'syndicate' discussion rooms which I didn't even find until the last day. These were occupied by groups like the N3F (National Fantasy Fan Federation), SFRA (Science Fiction Research Association), and so on. There was a Georgette Heyer Tea (in Regency costume, please), and a Burroughs Dum-Dum (in leopard skins, maybe?).

The book room deserves special mention. Tucked in the basement, it was one of the most enormous rooms I've ever seen in a hotel, and yet crowded with the tables of over a hundred dealers selling old magazines, comics, film-strips, artwork, models -- you name it, someone had it. One of my regrets is not spending more time investigating this more thoroughly, but even so I managed to pick up some old Astoundings (my own obsession) at a moderate price by current UK standards.

One thing which really surprised me was that American fans don't drink -- or rather, the hotel bar plays a far less important role than does this establishment at our Eastercons. In recent years we've literally drunk our hotels dry -- was it 3,000 gallons at Tynecon? -- and to us the bar is the focal point, the axis around which a convention revolves, a friendly inexpensive place in which to meet everyone, sooner or later.

It had no counterpart at Discon II and I thought this resulted in an odd vacuum at the heart of the convention. I soon discovered the reason for the lack of interest in the bar, however -- on my first day I bought a modest round of three small tins of fizzy, chilled beer (no draught) for no less than $4.65 -- nearly £2.00! The bartender was a burly Mafia-type who polished his glasses and supervised an enormous array of strange-looking bottles, serving things like 'screwdrivers' and 'manhattans' to the few affluent enough to afford them.

Talking about this later I was told that the whole thing probably stems from Prohibition; there still seems to be an equivocal attitude towards drinking in the United States -- and they have no 'pub' tradition as we have over here. My way to tackle the problem was to buy a few dozen tins of beer from a local supermarket and stock up in my room, but even then I found that American fans drank comparatively little at room parties, seeming to prefer Coca-Cola!

Saturday night saw the Masquerade, what we call the Fancy Dress Party, except that at the WorldCon participants usually enact some little tableau or scene, rather than just walking on and walking off. There were over one hundred costumes, some of them very beautiful, including excellent renderings from Philip José Farmer novels, Flesh (the be-antlered Stag and virginal attendant) and Maker of Universes (the Harpy), and I noticed that as a result of the John Norman 'Gor' books, slave girls in chains were particularly abundant this year!

Next morning the business session was held, at which it was decided to give Kansas City the job of organising the 1976 WorldCon (Australia already having 1975), while the next convenient time for Europeans to get across will be in 1977 when the East Coast has the honour once again. Most likely contenders at the moment seem to be Montreal or Orlando, Florida, the latter conveniently near Cape Kennedy and Walt Disney World.

While the votes were being counted I seized the chance to make a brief announcement of Britain's intention to host the 1979 WorldCon, which seemed to be well received although almost certainly we shall have competition from Chicago. I took across 1,000 badges proclaiming 'Britain's Fine in '79' to distribute at Discon, and by the end of the convention had pushed the numbers of pre-supporting memberships to over 400. (If you'd care to join, simply send 50p to Malcolm Edwards, 19 Ranmoor Gardens, Harrow, Middlesex.)

Finally, the Sunday evening banquet. This really became something of an endurance test because the thing went on for so long -- nearly five hours under bright lights in a crowded room seating about 1,100, growing hotter and hotter. Roger Zelazny spoke as Guest of Honour and received a standing ovation -- he is tremendously popular and deservedly so. And then the Hugo Awards were presented, handsome silvery rockets given to various winners, to Ben Bova, Harlan Ellison, and finally, for Best Novel, to Rendezvous With Rama (accepted by the publisher, Betty Ballantine, on behalf of Arthur C Clarke).

All too soon the next day, the WorldCon came to an end, its main arteries severed and its life-blood flowing down the steps of the hotel as fans departed back to their ordinary lives. I had met hundreds of people to be counted as friends, and hope to go back, some day, to re-live the experience of my first American World Convention.