Brad R. Torgersen

SAD PUPPIES: visual numbers, and who gets to be a ‘real’ fan?


ALERT: Larry Correia is doing a terrific Book Bomb for the SAD PUPPIES 3 novella nominees! Please go check out Larry’s page and support John C. Wright, Arlan Andrews, and Tom Kratman’s work! These are quality writers who deserve to be recognized, but they deserve to be read and enjoyed more.

Now . . .

A friend recently posed an interesting question: how do the attendance numbers for Worldcon compare, year to year? Accurate stats are a little difficult to come by. But thanks to the magic of Wikipedia there are some approximate stats, going all the way back to the inception of the convention. So let’s take a look at them in visual form, starting with a snapshot of totals for all Worldcon conventions, both U.S. and international:

That graph is pretty saw-toothed, mostly because international Worldcons tend to draw fewer attendees than U.S. Worldcons, with the outlier being Loncon 3, which (in 2014) had over 10,000 memberships. That was also the same year (not coincidentally?) that SAD PUPPIES 2 strongly encouraged fans of all stripes (who’d not previously been involved with Hugo award voting) to get involved. Thus there can be something of a disparity between memberships (which anyone can buy) and attendance, which is sometimes lower.

So, let’s look at another graph reflecting only U.S. Worldcon attendance without SAD PUPPIES putting its collective paw on the scale:

Still somewhat saw-toothed, but notice that the left half of the graph still reflects the relatively low numbers typified by Worldcon overall. This was because from the 1950s through the early 1970s, Science Fiction (and Fantasy) were still a fairly “closed” and combined field. The typical trajectory for most writers was to come up through the pages of the magazines, then do books. And the total number of books being printed was fairly small compared to what it was by 1985. Likewise, the total number of teenagers and adults who readily identified as SF/F fans was relatively small, compared to what it was by 1985. So Worldcon attendance was modest.

But look at what happened from about 1985 onward:

The blue portion of the graph is Worldcon. The orange portion is San Diego Comic Con. Note that San Diego Comic Con also began life with relatively low attendance numbers, which roughly matched those of Worldcon, right up until the middle of the 1980s. At which point things began to change drastically.

Now, it’s a truism that correlation does not mean causation. But I want to reiterate some things which I’ve been saying in this blog space since at least 2009, and which I’ve been repeating again since SAD PUPPIES 3 kicked off earlier this year.

1) Star Wars changed everything. Kris Rusch noted this ten years ago. Star Wars was the first mainstream fiction franchise to not only put SF/F on the international movie-making map as a source for blockbusters, it also gave birth to legions of enthusiasts all between the ages of 6 and 30. Suddenly, SF/F wasn’t just that dorky thing a few of the highschool kids and some dippy Star Trek fans did in their garages anymore. Star Wars was everywhere. It was omnipresent. Talked about at the office water tower, as well as in the gym locker rooms. Jocks could now be counted as fans. Businessmen. House wives. Fifth graders. You name it, people were excited about these movies, and they weren’t afraid to show it.

2) Once Star Wars altered the movie-making map, other franchises followed suit. Star Trek was revived on both the large and small screens. Indiana Jones successfully translated the pulp tradition for a contemporary 1980s audience. Close Encounters of the Third Kind gave us a non-B.E.M. iteration of the classic alien visitation tale. And studios began making SF/F an integral part of their yearly production plans. Because these movies were raking in the cash, while also raking in the audience. Terminator and Terminator 2 being two very notable examples. But they weren’t the only ones. The 1980s and 1990s saw hundreds of SF/F films and television shows hit the big and small screens. Spawning hundreds of millions of fans world-wide.

3) But these new fans weren’t “fans” according to the old guard who held court yearly at Worldcon. For “fandom” all of SF/F could still be contained within the literary tradition. There were obligatory nods to the motion picture and television industry, but “fandom” itself still carried on with a conversation largely internal to itself, while the explosively expanding body of total fans became truly enormous. No longer was the enterprise of SF/F contained strictly within a specific tradition, nor a specific mode, more even a specific group of cross-talking individuals. SF/F went “big” and it never looked back. If SF/F was once a garage-time activity, it went to Hollywood, took over the popular imagination, and remade the popular social landscape in its own image. All while “fandom” preferred to keep things small.

4) For fans (general) one of the new, prominent national gatherings, was San Diego Comic Con. If once SDCC had been a smallish affair similar to Worldcon, it eventually rose to become the preeminent popular expose for all things SF/F, with special emphasis on comics, movies, television, and gaming properties. Movie stars eventually began making regular appearances at SDCC, as part of promotional junkets put on by studios. SDCC therefore came to reflect — more than any other con — the successful subsuming of mainstream culture by SF/F culture, such that a runaway synergy occurred. No longer could the two things be said to be separate or distinct: SF/F culture, and mainstream culture. Not with the list of top-grossing films of all time being dominated at length by SF/F franchises. Likewise, not with SF/F books and television enjoying so much lucrative appeal.

So here we are in 2015, and everybody is a fan in some way. They have either a favorite movie or series of movies they like. Perhaps a game, or series of games? Maybe there is a television program they enjoy? And in each instance, the property in question is explicitly SF/F. You literally can’t take SF/F out of mainstream culture. By the same token, you cannot take mainstream culture out of SF/F.

Much to the chagrin of “fandom” which has (unfortunately) preferred to keep itself small. Inclusion comes with a bit of a price: you have to adopt the look, the lingo, the historical knowledge, and the prejudices of “fandom” before someone who is a fan gets to be someone who is a Fan. And there is huge resentment on the part of “fandom” if a group of people who are not properly acculturated to “fandom” come tromping through the Worldcon door; either literally, or digitally (in the form of Hugo nominations and votes.)

It is perhaps inevitable that SF/F “fandom” reacts with confusion or hostility, to people who don’t display the correct social markers, taste, and mindset. But as one fan put it so well recently, the days when “fandom” could be the arbiter of who is and is not a FAN, are gone. Dead. Done. There is no gate any more. There are no walls. The ghetto has been razed and paved over to make way for a Cineplex 16. Some fans enjoy and roll with the change. A bullish SF/F market has also meant the diversification and expansion of “flavors” from which to pick. But other “fans” dislike this open-market phenomenon, preferring to keep the trappings of the “small” era, while selectively choosing which aspects of the “big” era to adopt.

One such aspect being the enormous new push for SF/F that devotes time to pondering racism and ethnicity problems, gender and sexuality problems, and the doctrines of academic complaint, as typified by gender studies, racial studies, and certain strains of socialist economic theory. Likewise, climate change has become a favorite point of focus, to include a fair amount of dystopian and Cautionary Tale fiction.

The only problem with this being that many of the fans (big) who have continued to be enthusiastic about the BIG market, have lost interest in the literary scene. If they came to the table for the spaceships, laser blasters, and photon torpedoes in the 1970s and 1980s, they have gradually walked away from the (often) morally ambiguous, socially-conscious books and stories that began to achieve preeminence at the end of the 1990s. You could still find rousing space opera, as well as plausible “nuts and bolts” hard science fiction. But the number of stories and books devoted to social issues (especially the “subvervise” type which tend to take sidelong swipes at Western cultural traditions, and especially U.S. standards and social conventions) grew dramatically.

Pretty soon, the BIG market began to distrust the very thing it had once found reliable. SF/F in print was missing the mark, with a growing percentage of people.

So, as of 2014, we’ve witnessed yet another contraction of the traditional publishing sales numbers, for SF/F. Some of which can be attributed to e-sales altering the marketing landscape. Some of which can also be attributed to consumers having a much wider array of entertainment options than they did in the 1950s and 1960s, when SF/F movies and television tended to struggle (for matters of production value, scripting, and special effects technology) and video games did not yet exist.

But the evidence is clear. Fans have been disappointed. Both of the articles I previously linked above, talked about this. As well as the wall-building attitudes of those who seem to think that keeping “fandom” a matter of inside-baseball — and expecting outsiders to conform to “inside” attitudes, social mores, knowledge, conventions of thinking, and so forth — is a net positive. So, while “fandom” works overtime to prove its inclusivity (affirmative action for the sake of gender, ethnicity, and sexuality issues) “fandom” is still very much an exclusive operation: because if you’re not the right kind of fan, you don’t really get to be a “fan” you see.

And no, that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me either.

I came of age being a FAN of things like Robotech and the original Battlestar Galactica. For several years, my SF/F reading was almost exlusively Star Trek tie-in novels. Some of which remain among the best SF I think I’ve ever read; thank you, A.C. Crispin and Diane Duane! I fell in love with the original SF/F of people like Stephen R. Donaldson, Orson Scott Card, Chris Bunch & Allan Cole, and W. Michael Gear. I got the writing bug while reading Larry Niven, and typing away at scripts for a little home-spun space opera serial airing on a local community radio station. I am not “of fandom” but I absolutely and without reservation claim the right to be a FAN, dammit. And if you try to tell me (or anyone else) we don’t belong . . . I hate it for you, bro. I’m up there with the orange people, where the genre and the industry lives. The blue people don’t “own” this field, nor are they the sole arbiters of what is quality, or worth noticing.

SPECIAL NOTE: and for that too-big-for-his-britches writer who seemed to be bragging about being out of contracts with TOR, while also telling us he’s too good for BAEN, but BAEN would throw him a contract anyway because he’s just that awesome, but he’d turn it down because BAEN can’t pay him what he thinks he’s worth . . . dude, don’t flatter yourself. Better men than you have gone to Toni Weisskopf (hat in hand) and said (like Ripley from Aliens) “Is there anything I can do?” Toni’s reply will be like Apone’s: well I d’know, is there anything you can do?? BAEN hasn’t been waiting breathlessly for your arrival on the BAEN doorstep. I am not sure anyone else has been waiting breathlessly, either.