CoNZealand has announced that the 2020 Worldcon will be virtual:
A very understandable decision. I think this could be an exciting and maybe even a positive step forward. The big challenge will be keeping the essence of the event while making it virtual. I don’t know if that is possible but that’s one of the challenges that 2020 is bringing.
CoNZealand haven’t announced any details of what this virtual version will be. There will be a host of challenges from choices of software to bandwidth to pushing beyond just talking heads and chat rooms. Getting participants to feel that they part of a single entertaining group event is the essence of the challenge.
What people will definitely be missing though, is a chance to visit Wellington. There’s no way of avoiding that with New Zealand essentially closed to travel until the pandemic has peaked. That is sad because Wellington is one of my favourite cities. I don’t say that lightly. I have visited many cities in my life and while not a connoisseur of metropolitan areas, I think I’ve visited a sufficient variety around the world (except for Africa and North America) to have an informed but not exhaustive opinion.
So here is my impression of Wellington as best as I can manage as a substitute for visiting there. I’ve never lived in the city and I’m sure actual Kiwis can give a more inside picture. In particular, the city has a rich Maori heritage that dates back beyond Britain’s invasion of the area that I can’t do justice to. However, I can talk about what it is like to be a stranger visiting and wandering through it.
The first impression is the very different sense of scale there is to the city. Big cities swallow you up and engulf you. Wellington is a small city but it is also physically dwarfed by the huge harbour it sits next to. Cities tend to dampen their physical environment (flatten hills, bridge or enclose rivers) but Wellington sits between steep hills and deep water and has a more self-deprecating relationship with its physical geography. It’s not hard as a visitor to physically orientate yourself: harbour is on one side, steep hills on the other which forces a semi-linear structure to the inner city.
The architecture is also relatively low-key as well. There is the Beehive – the odd Dalek-shaped national parliament building but otherwise the more interesting buildings are smaller ones. Victorian retail buildings, 1970’s office buildings, the more modern Te Papa national museum (I’m not writing a tourist guide here but this is an absolutely top-notch museum) aren’t the main visual motif of the cities buildings. Instead the numerous brightly painted weatherboard cottages clinging to the hillsides are the most striking buildings. Small, cozy looking and presumably more earthquake proof than some of the taller buildings.
It is a town of earthquakes. I’ve never been to San Francisco but I imagine there are similarities. There are road markings as you head up into the hills that show the point at which you might be high enough to avoid a tsunami. In offices, there are guides on what to do in an earthquake and civil defence equipment. I guess there is always some chance that a big enough earthquake could devastate the city in the way Christchurch was devastated in 2011 but the air of the town is preparedness rather than doom or pessimism. Knowing and understanding risk and planning for what can’t be controlled.
Despite the hills, the inner city is largely flat and walkable. There’s a sharp difference in altitude between the shopping area of Lambton Quay and the next road over The Terrace such that you can enter the ground floor of one shop, go up a couple of stories and exit at the ‘ground floor’ of a building on the terrace. In a weird little arcade off Lambton Quay, there is a tiny pair of lifts that take you up to the ground floor of a hotel on The Terrace. The lift has its own commuter rush hours in the morning and afternoon, as city workers use it to shift between levels. It feels like a shortcut added as a puzzle element in a video game that somehow has been transported to reality. I haven’t played Pokemon Go in Wellington but I would imagine it would be an ideal city to create the feeling that you were immersed in a town lifted from one of the more RPG style Pokemon games.
Speaking of which, go into a different arcade on Lambton Quay and you find a funicular railway aka a pair of cable cars. They take you up 100 metres to a hilltop suburb with a lovely botanical garden and an observatory that for some reason is shut every time I visit. It being shut only adds to my feeling that I’m actually in a highly immersive RPG video game and that there’s some task I haven’t completed on a lower level yet. Amazing views from up there and a great place to get a sense of the overall size and shape of the city.
Being relatively small and having most of the CBD in a flat area means you can walk most of it fairly comfortably if you stick to the flat parts. There are lots pedestrianised or semi-pedestrianised streets. The Cuba Street area has lots of nice places to eat and smaller shops. Overall, there are book shops and there are lots of places to drink and eat. For UK visitors the city will feel sort of oddly familiar like it is a small British city or a big British town, (particularly the mix of 1970’s and Victorian buildings) but with unfamiliar names and a landscape that is more Scotland than England but also neither.
People are nice but then in most (all?) of the places I have ever visited around the world people are nice. It’s a colder and wetter place than Australian cities, so I guess people hurry a bit quicker out in the street (again, that pace will feel familiar for UK visitors) but the reputation New Zealanders have for dry humour, kindness and under statement is well earned. All of my visits to Wellington have been for work rather than tourism, so I can attest that the level of humour extends to meetings and workplaces.
The countryside beyond is beautiful. If you visit it and go on an inevitable Lord of the Rings tour, you’ll be impressed with the very down to earth spots that were transformed into parts of Middle Earth. The more dramatic scenery is elsewhere (i.e. the huge mountains) but you can visit parts of the shire within the city limits or travel a bit further out and see the gardens of Isengard, the river Anduin or go to Rivendell. The airport has its own Smaug head as well as Gandalf on an eagle suspended from the ceiling of departure hall.
It is a city with a strong sense of both people and place. There is a human scale to the city and also a strong sense of nature. When all this is over, I hope you all get a chance to visit.