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Sci-fi convention coming to Spokane mired in controversy

Thousands of science fiction fans will descend on Spokane next week for what is expected to be among the largest conventions ever held in the city.

The 73rd annual World Science Fiction Convention, or Worldcon, starts Aug. 19 and runs through Aug. 23 at the Spokane Convention Center.

The event is expected to draw nearly 5,000 attendees, including “Game of Thrones” author George R.R. Martin, said Tim Robinson, a spokesman for Visit Spokane, the nonprofit that promotes tourism for the area.

It also arrives amid controversy.

Fans at Worldcon vote for the winners of the annual Hugo Awards. Regarded as some of the most prestigious honors in sci-fi and fantasy writing, the Hugos have been bestowed upon such names as Kurt Vonnegut and Portland novelist Ursula K. Le Guin. The Hugos have been awarded every year since 1955.

This year’s Hugos are mired in a present-day argument instead of a futuristic struggle.

A group of authors who call themselves the “Sad Puppies” is accused of strong-arming Hugo organizers to insert three authors on the shortlist of nominees. The group’s leaders contend the Hugos are too often awarded to what they call the “literati elite” and predisposed to affirmative action rather than less pretentious and more deserving writing.

Critics call the “Sad Puppies” a right-wing group supportive of the writings of white men and averse to the growing diversity of the genre. Martin has chimed in with a long series of blog posts, saying the controversy has “broken” the awards and “plunged all fandom into war.”

The controversy “has resulted in more people interested in Worldcon than would have been interested before,” said Tom Whitmore, a Seattle massage therapist and Worldcon volunteer who’s helping promote and organize the not-for-profit event. “We’ve followed our own rules, and we’re going ahead with our own rules, and that’s that.”

Each year’s Worldcon features dozens of panels, presentations, vendors, music events and autograph sessions with noted artists and authors, plus a large costume competition. Attendees travel from around the world to meet like-minded fans and chat with their literary heroes.

“It’s the gathering of the tribes, a family reunion for the science fiction community,” Whitmore said. “It’s nowhere near the biggest convention, but it’s definitely the one with the longest history.”

Each Worldcon gets a unique name loosely tied to its location. This year’s event is called Sasquan, a mash-up of “Sasquatch” and “convention.”

The last Worldcon, in London, drew nearly 8,000 attendees, according to news reports. The two before that were held in San Antonio and Chicago. Sasquan will be the first in the Pacific Northwest since Seattle hosted the event in 1961.

Robinson said Visit Spokane has been vying to bring Worldcon to the city for nine years. Each year, attendees vote on the location of the next year’s convention. Spokane got the nod over bids from Orlando, Florida, and Helsinki.

The budget for Sasquan is about $1.1 million, Whitmore said, and the cost is covered by World Science Fiction Society memberships and advertising revenue. About 500 volunteers from North America, Australia, Asia and Europe are pitching in, he said.

An estimated 8,000 hotel nights have been booked for the event, Robinson said, and it’s expected to generate nearly $17.5 million for local business.

“Hosting a large group like this puts Spokane on the international stage for a time,” he said. “It gives us a chance to roll out the red carpet and impress our visitors.”

Whitmore hailed Worldcon as one of the more authentic sci-fi events.

“We’re the people who loved science fiction back before it was cool,” he said.

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