What Running, Burning Man, and WorldCon Have in Common

I read an article last week that the Burning Man event in Nevada now has a 50K race attached to it. A couple of synapses closed and an epiphany resulted.

I’m going to pick on a couple of different things, running among them. Running seems pretty self-evident, but let's focus on organized races. Specifically, I'm going to pick on the Boston Marathon, the once-meritorious race that had qualifying times.

Burning Man is an annual event held in the Black Rock Desert. It didn't start there, but in San Francisco in 1986 on a beach during the summer solstice. That was where the burning of a wooden man (and a dog) first occurred. Later, after a run-in with the park police who forbade the torching of the Man, the event shifted out to the Nevada desert, to join the Cacophony Society. It was pretty much a free-for-all until, according to rumor, Dr. Dre talked the organizers into charging an entry fee. Until 1996, it was a private event.

More later. Now it's time to trek over to WorldCon, home of the Hugo Awards. The location of the event moves around and is voted on by the various attendees to the Con. This year it plopped down in Spokane. The Hugo Awards are the most prestigious in the Science Fiction & Fantasy genre. The Campbell Award (won by Wes Chu this year) goes to the author with the best first novel for the year. The first WorldCon, depending on who you talk to, was either in the United States when Frederick Pohl traveled from New York to Philadelphia to meet with some other writers, or a year later (1937) when Arthur C. Clarke organized a more formal meeting that drew twenty people. The Hugos are supposed to be the ‘people’s choice’ awards for science fiction and fantasy.

So, now everybody should be on the same page, even if you're confused as to how these three events could possibly share anything.

As I said, the 50K at Burning Man was the key for me. Burning Man got its start as an artist's retreat, with a strong leave no trace behind element. It's grown from a small group of friends on a Bay area beach to 70,000 people in the middle of the Nevada desert. The Dadaists didn't strike me as the ultrarunning type. They didn't charge entry fees either (to be fair, the ultra doesn't either, but you have to purchase a ticket to Burning Man.)

That changed about the same time that attendance at Burning Man underwent a stunning growth curve, going from a private party of a few thousand die-hard artists to the 70,000 hangers-on who show up for random debauchery and drugs. The tickets for this year’s event was $390 per person, plus a fee for a vehicle. Officially sanctioned Burning Man events have showed up elsewhere as the concept franchises itself.

Boston used to be the race that proved you were good enough to rank among the best, at least by community standards. There's always been disagreement over the qualifying standards, but the acrimony really ratcheted up when you could fundraise to get an entry. When the 2010 marathon sold out in eight hours, the BAA adjusted the qualifying standards. They also granted preferences to faster runners. At the same time, they continued to admit 20 percent of the field that fundraised like champs but couldn't come close to a qualifying standard. Of course, it wasn't just any fundraisers, but sponsors of the marathon. Runners who qualified are no longer guaranteed an entry. Fees for Boston are approaching $200.

WorldCon managed to commit the double offense of disrespecting its fans and engaging in fratricidal behavior. Unlike the two examples above, the science fiction establishment eschewed money in favor of ideology. When one group organized to point out that many a fine story was left off the ballots, the blowback was ferocious, complete with charges of racism, sexism, and homophobia. In the end, the Hugos had a record five “No Awards” (matching the total for the preceding 70+ years) and a nearly white-bread slate of winners. So much for diversity.

In an effort to limit the hoi-polloi from getting notions of nominating verboten stories and authors, the fees for next year were raised 25 percent. I don’t anticipate a whole lot more diversity next year.

In the meantime, the fans just wanted a readable story. Based on the statistics, they haven’t been getting them, as the sci-fi and fantasy genres have taken a huge hit in sales over the last decade. Something is clearly out-of-kilter.

Each case above shares one similarity. They are sellouts.

Burning Man was about art and freedom and experience, not voyeurism at $390 a ticket.

Boston was striving to perform to a high level and seeing a reward for it. Now a shlub that isn’t within hailing distance of a qualifying standard gets in for raising money for the right charity. Boston can no longer lay claim to being a meritorious event. They’ve bollixed the entry system. The running companies in general and the directors of the major races seem to treat the runner as a sheep fit for shearing. Nike explores $200 shoes, races jack the entry fees, and races hand out medals to folks out for a saunter.

WorldCon can’t claim to represent the fans or the writers. The insurgents who advocated that story trumps politics were ostracized. The fans, per the major publisher, should pony up the dollars to buy stories that their betters have decided should be published for diversity or viewpoint. In the meantime, they raise the price of an ebook to stupid levels that hurt their own authors. The fans are deciding with their feet and leaving in droves.

It would be easy to say that these are outliers, cherry-picked for effect. They aren’t. The same thing is happening with almost every facet of society. Universities sell out their students, taking enormous sums of student loans knowing full well that the students will be indebted for most of their lives. Adding insult to injury, they allow far more students to matriculate into degrees than there is demand for in the real world.

American business is no better. I can’t do any better than this article by Clark Whelton – Lost in Krappetown.

At some point, people are going to start feeling like they’ve been taken for suckers. When that happens, the existing structures might well implode.

It’s happening in the publishing industry already.

Ominously for running, last year showed the first decline in decades in race participation, despite more races than ever.

It’s not too late to go back to first principles.