Brad R. Torgersen

Whence fandom?


My editor at Baen Books, Toni Weisskopf, made some very cogent and interesting observations regarding 21st century English-speaking fandom’s fractured condition. I agree absolutely with Toni that some of these fault lines can be traced directly to the social and political fault lines in the wider English-speaking culture; out of which a good deal of fandom springs. But I also think that much can be explained by examining where people come to fandom from–and through which doors they walk when they enter.

In the old days (meaning, prior to 1960) it was entirely possible for most people who called themselves “fans” to have read many or even most of the same books, seen the same television programs and films, and read much of the same stories in many of the same magazines. Science Fiction (and Fantasy, though it was not quite yet its own distinct thing yet) was a small place with numerous touchstones that fans and editors and writers could all identify readily on their separate maps of the intellectual landscape. There was a commonality of experience as well as consumption, and while not everyone agreed about which course the future would take (the so-called New Wave certainly threw the Campbell era for a loop!) most everyone could at least talk to each other about things the field (et al) deemed worth talking about.

In 2014?

Let me paint you a picture of what I think fandom looks like in 2014.

The above is a Venn diagram, as I imagine all the many separate fandoms might appear if you were to sit down and actually draw them out. One circle represents people who came to fandom through the Harry Potter books. Another circle represents people who came to fandom through the HALO video game franchise. Another circle represents people who came to fandom through Star Trek. Another, for Star Wars. And so on and so forth, across dozens or even hundreds of different games, movies, television series, books, book series, and so forth. In fact, were the diagram above to be rendered in total, it would likely comprise thousands of different circles, and the picture would be so jumbled as to be unintelligible.

The point I want to make (with the diagram) is that, in 21st century fandom, there aren’t any touchstone movies, books, or other properties which every fan, writer, or editor can rely on being known to every other fan, writer, or editor. There is no longer a central nexus for fandom. Oh, to be sure, there are some properties (like Star Trek and Star Wars) which enjoy such overwhelming cultural ubiquity that it’s difficult to find anyone who is not at least aware of them, aware of the characters, the general conceits of the franchises, et cetera. But even here, you can (if you dig beneath the surface) locate veins of fandom which are largely oblivious to these “big circle” properties with their millions upon millions of adherents.

For some fans, the gaming world is where it’s at. They are gamers to the core, not precisely readers per se, nor perhaps even watchers of television and movies. But even among gamers, there are traditionalists (tabletop, pencil-and-paper players, writers, and developers) and there are video gamers. Their two circles can and often do overlap. But among younger players especially, the circle for video games is going to be very large, in comparison to the circle for tabletop.

And we see this pattern again and again: manga and anime fans having overlap to a large degree, while not necessarily having any overlap at all with Cthulu-themed Lovecraft horror fans. Steampunk fans having great overlap with cosplay fans, but perhaps not nearly as much overlap with interstellar Hard Science Fiction fans. And so on and so forth. Depending on where you walked into the “room” you might be on the other side of the floor from someone else who entered opposite you. The things you’re interested in, and the conversations you have with different people, might not share any elements in common. The touchstones simply aren’t there. Different things will matter (or not matter) to different people, and the various circles will often float past one another without there being much rub-off or blending.

The internet accentuates this because you no longer have to go to a convention to meet and greet your like-minded dwellers of your particular circle(s) which interest you. The internet also allows mini-cons and specialty cons to reach out and attract a very fine-tuned sector of the broader consumer audience, much as Star Trek conventions of yesteryear used to attract a very specific kind of fan for a singularly specific franchise.

Now, the one thing pushing back on the “balkanization” of fandom, is the rise of the super-con: DragonCon in Atlanta, and the many Comic Cons, such as Salt Lake City Comic Con or San Diego Comic Con. Events that will literally draw tens or even hundreds of thousands of people. And not just the hard-core fans, either. The super-cons bring “mundanes” from beyond fandom who are still fans, they just do not identify with fannish culture or history, nor do they even necessarily recognize what it is they enjoy; as Science Fiction or Fantasy. For these “fans outside fandom” they are purely attracted to a popular mass-appeal product, such as a comic book line or comic book movie, a popular television show, and so forth. Things that are explicitly SF/F in context but which have sprung entirely from the mainstream media outlets, drawing more or less mainstream fans.

It’s at the super-cons that one can again get a vague sense of wholeness: all fans of all things merging together for a weekend of intersectionality across innumerable interests.

But even then, the tendency (among attendees) is to focus mostly on what their main interests are: a particular movie, television show, the actors of same, or perhaps a beloved video game line, etc. They will wander through the convention center noting the spectacle of the mass aggregate without necessarily stopping to notice any one thing in particular. Just ask genre bestsellers who lack a presence in television or film how it feels to sit at a book table in the dealers hall while thousands of people wander past, not even recognizing your name, nor your books, nor your face.

As Toni noted so well, “It is possible to be a science fiction fan and have absolutely no point of connection with another fan these days.”

I believe this is both good, and bad.

It’s good (to me) because it means the marketplace (for people producing product) is a bull marketplace. Depending on what your goals and aspirations are, you have a potential audience of hundreds of millions of people. Science Fiction and Fantasy are not the closeted industries they were in 1960. Science Fiction and Fantasy have (as I noted in this space before) grown up, moved out of the basement, gone to Hollywood, and taken over the popular culture. Fandom “won” the culture battle because now you can be a fan and not even know you’re a fan! There is nothing odd or distinguishing about you, because everybody likes Star Wars and Star Trek and Harry Potter, right?

It’s bad (to me) because it also means that at the same time people can be fans without realizing they’re fans, there are also plenty of people who have only a dim awareness of the fact that all the other fannish circles exist; much less have validity as a coherent group of like-minded enthusiasts. This tends to breed a lot of cliquishness, clannishness, turf wars, and worse. Ergo, you’re not really a fan unless dot, dot dot. This even manifests within circles as the “hard core” fans at the center resent the dilettantes and the passing fans at the edges, or those fans who like to mix and match their fandom: various interests and enthusiasms rolled into a million and one hybrid flavors.

It also means that professionals (by whatever criteria we choose to use to define the word “professional”) inevitably form prejudices too. Based either on whether you’re traditional published or indie published, which publishing house or agent you work with, whether you write for games or movies or television or magazines, and so on and so forth. Creative people tend to be competitive (often on an unconscious level) so whatever we can do to get one up on each other, we inevitably do. Especially now that there are so damned many competing forms of SF/F entertainment. It’s not possible for any one writer, director, or game company to completely monopolize the marketplace. And there are thousands of people who try to cross over (from fan to professional) each day, through a variety of conduits. With that much competition and so much turmoil caused by so much jostling in the marketplace, to say nothing of larger cultural political concerns, it’s easy to see why the wholeness of the old days has dissolved into the present thousand-countried continent called Science Fiction and Fantasy.

My personal approach (generally) is to celebrate the vastness of the ocean while acknowledging all the islands upon it. I did not come up through traditional fandom in the pre-1960 sense of the world. I came in “sideways” as a child of the 1970s and 1980s who knew SF/F mostly through movies and television and imported Japanese anime. It wasn’t until I began reading Larry Niven (when I was an older teen) that I became aware of the fannish culture and its roots, tracing back through the decades to the first Worldcons and all that went with them. This knowledge was rather revelatory, and I’ve enjoyed very much sitting at the feet of genre historians and super-fans-become-authors like Mike Resnick, who can speak to fannish history: the good, the bad, and the ugly.

As Toni notes, SF/F tends to thrive when the circles can find excuses to talk to each other. Nobody is really alone, nor does any one voice (or group of voices) control what is and is not fandom, or what is and is not worth caring about, when it comes to the circles. It’s bottles being hurled into the surf at a rate of one thousand per second, and ten thousand Captain Cooks sailing forth every hour to visit previously uncharted (for the captain and crew at least) waters. Not undiscovered, precisely. Just, places said captain and crew have never been before. And across the distance, healthy commerce and an exchange of ideas can occur.

Presuming the sterilizing forces of conformity aren’t allowed to gain overwhelming traction. Even the best of intentions can pave an unfortunate road. And sometimes the concepts, thoughts, and ideas which disquiet us the most, are the very same concepts, thoughts, and ideas which can be necessary for a) truly understanding all those different fans and creators out in those circles, and b) learning to harness the wild nature of the marketplace for fun and profit, as opposed to launching siege engines designed to batter the many circle(s) into line with a given doctrine, principle, or precept.