The World Science Fiction Convention is the most venerable of all the various annual gatherings of SF fandom, and it’s arguably the most important of them all, as it is at each Worldcon that the highest awards in SF, the Hugos, are awarded. Since the first Worldcon in 1939, there have been 66 such gatherings, with the only non-Worldcon years coming during the final three years of World War II. At each Worldcon there has been a Guest of Honor, usually selected on the basis of lifetime achievement in contributions to the genre; much of the time the Guests of Honor are authors, but there have also been illustrators, publishers, and editors named as Guest of Honor. The position of Worldcon Guest of Honor carries with it a single requirement: the recipient must deliver a speech to the convention. This book, therefore, gathers more than thirty of these speeches.
Editors Mike Resnick and Joe Siclari have not had as easy a time of gathering these speeches as one might suspect. According to their Introduction, only three Worldcons produced printed Proceedings that included transcripts of the speeches, and many others were never published at all or, if they were, ran in long-vanished fanzines. In some cases, Resnick and Siclari actually had to produce their own transcriptions from tape recordings of the speeches, not always with ideal results: there are a number of instances of parenthetical notes reading along the lines of, “Here the tape becomes undecipherable.”
This project was clearly a labor of love for Resnick and Siclari, but it’s also a work of historical importance as well for anyone interested in the genre. Here, after all, are gathered the science fiction equivalent of the State of the Union addresses by Presidents of the United States; one is able to trace the development of the genre through the years, from the first WorldCon in 1939 (when Frank R. Paul gave the speech) right up to 2005 (when Christopher Priest did the honors). Reading the early speeches is particularly fascinating, as they come from an era before the “Golden Age”: H.G. Wells was still alive, and the genre was still so young that it was still very tiny in terms of its fandom and still didn’t even have an agreed name (Doc Smith calls it “scientifiction”).
Reading oratory is always a troublesome task, as by definition oratory isn’t meant to be read but heard. That said, some of the speeches collected here are, it must be admitted, pretty dry going, and one hopes for the sake of the attendees of these conventions of yesteryear that the speakers of those particular speeches had the kind of oratorical flair to make them more interesting than they are on the page. (John Campbell’s speech actually includes graphs, believe it or not — did he have an easel up there on the dais beside him?) Some of the speeches contain more controversial material than others; Philip Jose Farmer’s, given in that seminal year 1968, is overtly political, and Robert Silverberg’s from two years later is at least partially confrontational. The dull speeches here, however, are thankfully outnumbered, and for every one that makes you wonder how the audience stayed awake there are two or three others that make you wish you could have been there to hear them (Ted Sturgeon in 1962 and Joe Haldeman in 1990, to name just two examples).
Reading these speeches also made me take note of something else. Worldcon Guests of Honor are selected, as I indicate above, on the basis of lifetime achievement in the genre, and yet, there are a several Guests of Honor whose speeches are included of whom I had not heard before, and more than that, whose work is almost entirely out of print. It’s sad to reflect so, but in any collection of speeches by Presidents of the United States, in addition to the words of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy, you’ll also have the words of Chester Arthur and Rutherford B. Hayes. Of course, that’s an imperfect analogy, as in my view, Ted Sturgeon deserves to be remembered in history far more than Rutherford B. Hayes. But alas, that’s just the way things are.
(ISFIC Press, 2006)