Straw Man on Fire! Dial 911!

“There’s no such thing as science fiction fandom,” Eoghann Irving declared on Solar Flare yesterday. Fans immediately rushed to the site for an explanation of their nonexistence from the new anti-Descartes. Instead, they found that Irving only meant:

It would be more accurate to claim that there’s no such thing as a single unifying science fiction fandom.

There’s not one monolithic fandom? Shock! Horror! What earth-shattering news will he reveal next? (“Today on Solar Flare, Eoghann Irving announced the breakup of the Soviet Union…”)

Irving goes on to observe:

I think there’s a strong case to be made that historically there used to be one.

Nothing controversial there, even Arnie Katz would agree. The question is: When did things change? My answer is, in a nutshell:

By the 1950s, science fiction fans had developed the activities that comprise fandom, such as clubs, conventions and fan publishing. Once the concepts had been proven workable, to use them to organize people around other interests was “just engineering.” It started in earnest when comics fandom spun off in the 1960s, and the real “big bang” happened when Star Trek was syndicated in the early 1970s.

(Richard Lynch has collected some data about this in his outline of 1960s fan history, see chapter 6.)

Surveying the myriad internet communities that each discuss their own slice of the sf or fantasy genre, Irving observed that it’s sometimes disappointing when two people who think of themselves as science fiction fans don’t actually have any common interests:

But the scale of the genre now is such that you really can’t assume that another science fiction fan will like or even be interested in what you are interested in.

While there’s some truth in that warning, it’s not due to “scale” (numbers of participants) or technology, but individual personalities. Just consider the bitter political schism between a couple of small groups in the microscopic fandom of 1939 that led to the exclusion of one faction from the very first World Science Fiction Convention.

In the end, Irving finds himself admitting that people generally don’t have one exclusive interest:

And in most cases online groups haven’t become so specialized that they only discuss one topic and no other science fiction. So I’m overstating my case a little.

After that nothing more needs to be said than, “Welcome to Big Tent fandom on the internet!”

[Via SF Signal.]

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7 thoughts on “Straw Man on Fire! Dial 911!

  1. May I suggest that arguments and feuds like the Exclusion Act have little to do with the point about “you really can’t assume that another science fiction fan will like or even be interested in what you are interested in”? I mean, look at the dynamics of things like the Lewis-Barfield Great War: they were interested in, even liked, the same things, they just felt differently about it. The Exclusion Act – insofar as it wasn’t just a personality conflict or raw power struggle, nothing more – was, at basis, about whether fandom should take a position on external politics (and what that position should be), not about anything like today’s media vs. print divisions, or even about something like hard vs. soft SF – the field was then far too small for readers to afford to make any such distinctions.

    I’ve seen it written many times that back then, fans were interested in everything stefnal – because they were starved for the stuff. Only when SF became popular and supplies of it became glutted could fans begin to specialize – and that was the 1960s and 70s.

  2. What we’re looking at is — Why would people who identify themselves as science fiction fans feel alienated from others who claim the same identity?

    Alienation, hostility, separation, and dominance games were all part of early fanhistory. People are always looking for opportunities to distinguish and magnify themselves and their friends — the 1939 example was about whether sf fandom should be saving the world. There are earlier examples that could be cited, and lots of later ones.

    The increased number of fans, or technology allowing lots of remote, non-face-to-face fanac, or even the variety of media used to tell sf stories, have provided a bigger stage to play out something that was present from the creation….

  3. Alienated in what sense, though? I don’t see the essentially political disputes of the 1930s as being at all similar to the gap of interests that we have today.

  4. An idle difference of interests would not be producing this discussion. It’s the expression of those differences through organized fan activity that 1939 and 2008 have in common. A person writes that he’s a science fiction fan, but feels alienated from others who give themselves the same label because they don’t have common topics of interest, in a blog entry with a provocative title, trying to attract public attention and support. To me, a fanpolitical conflict in 1939 about mundane politics is archetypal for a lot of other fanpolitical conflicts that followed.

  5. Hmm. It seems to me almost tautological that fan conflicts express themselves through fanac. I don’t think that proves much archetypically.

    The question I raised was whether these conflicts were an expression of gaps between the participants’ SFnal interests. That’s true of many of today’s conflicts, but not of disputes over mundane politics. Today, such a dispute over mundane politics might express itself by huge gaps in literary tastes (one likes Le Guin, the other likes John Ringo), but such a gap wouldn’t have been possible then, when everybody read everything, pressures for consensus ratings were high, and comparative differences in taste really weren’t important.

  6. People’s interest in harnassing fanac to mundane political purposes is quite like any other shared or unshared interest in the realm of sf. A later example would be so-called “space advocacy,” and anything from Bjo Trimble’s mobilizing support to name the first shuttle Enterprise, to letter-writing on behalf of DC-X. These causes were simply less controversial than the schism at the first Worldcon.

  7. All I know of worldcon feuds is, when I visited the set of the original Battlestar: Galactica in 1978, there was a sign on the seat of the command chair on the bridge reading “Commander Adama says you can’t sit here.”

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