“Special Guest” (sometimes “honored guest”) is an oddball category for someone who (usually) isn’t a Guest of Honor, but is still someone a convention wants to host and pay tribute to.
At Worldcon, "special guest" is used to designate someone who is not a GoH but is being brought specially to the con by the convention.
Outside of Worldcon, this term is sometimes used for a GoH who does not fit one of the common categories of Pro GoH and Fan GoH.
It depends on the convention, however. At some conventions (Boskone, for instance), a "Special Guest" is a category of GoH with equal rank. At others (Minicon, for example), "Special Guest" is used in the Worldcon sense to designate a guest of the con who is being singled out for special notice, but who is not one of the GoHs. There is no algorithmic way to find out which is which: You have to ask.
In general, when fans are speaking carefully, a "guest" at an SF convention is always one of a small number of people who are being specially honored by the convention and whose expenses (but never an honorarium) are paid by the con. When the word "guest" is used to describe someone formally, it never refers to the general run of program participants.
Nonetheless, many conventions use the term "guest" loosely, especially in publications, to mean all program participants. Some use it for a class of program participants whose expenses aren’t covered but whose membership fees are waived.
In other words, the term can apply to almost anybody a convention wants to use in its publicity.
In the 21st century, some cons have used this category as a means of increasing the diversity of their lineups while slating bigger names as GoHs; this has led to charges of tokenism.
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