*As you know, I’ve been worried about the direction of conventions, of fandom, of the… public face of our field. Those of you who are in the Baen Bar know Toni Weisskopf, publisher of Baen Books posted about it in her conference. I thought her perspective on the field was important — particularly for me, who know next to nothing of the history of fandom — partly because it echoed my own views of where we stand and asked her if I could echo it here. She has graciously given me permission to do so. The raiding party post by David Pascoe will run tomorrow morning.*
The Problem of Engagement — by Toni Weisskopf
The latest fooforaws in the science fiction world have served to highlight the vast cultural divide we are seeing in the greater American culture. SF, as always, very much reflects that greater culture.
It is also nothing new. When fandom was first starting there was the “Great Exclusion Act” when a group of young, excitable, fanboys attempted to spread their political/fannish feud propaganda at the first Worldcon in New York, and were not only prevented from doing so but not allowed back into the con. All fandom was aflame with war! (The fact that this line is a cliché is also a clue that fandom is not, and never has been, a calm peaceful sea of agreement.)
The reason we have a fandom to disunite now, is because calmer heads prevailed. Bob Tucker in particular, with intelligence and humor, led fandom to the idea that it ought have nothing to do with greater world politics, but should concentrate on the thing we all loved, that being science fiction. (Mind you, his sympathies were with the ones who were excluded, but he was able to overcome his own political inclinations for the best of fandom.)
The fact that fandom as an open culture survived more than seventy years is a testament to the power of that simple, uniting concept. That we are once again looking to be rift by a political divide was perhaps inevitable. But as fandom has grown, expanded and diluted itself, we may have won the überculture wars and lost our heart. We have not been able to transmit this central precept to new fans. Geeks are chic, but somehow we’ve let the fuggheads win.
And, from my observations, this is an inevitable consequence of the creation of any kind of fandom, from tattoos to swords to us. There is a thing people like. Thing people make initial contact with each other to discuss things and thingishness. At some point a woman (and it’s usually women, no matter what the thing) organizes gatherings, and thing fandom grows bigger and better. At some point, the people who care not about things, but merely about being a big fish in a small sea, squeeze out the thing people. Sometimes thing fandom just dies, sometimes it fissures and the process is recreated. So the fuggheads always win. The only question is how long can we delay their inevitable triumph?
SF fandom has managed to stave it off for a long time. Sadly, we no longer have a Bob Tucker. We don’t have one fan who is so widely respected and loved that his pointedly humorous yet calming voice can soothe the waters. Again, simply a reflection of the greater culture. When SF was aborning, radio and the pulps created huge mass audiences for entertainment. All of fandom read and were influenced by essentially the same small pool of creative endeavor. Now we have not only 300 hundred channels of cable (and nothing on), but the vast output of the Internet, both pro and amateur. It is possible to be a science fiction fan and have absolutely no point of connection with another fan these days.
For instance, a slur that has been cast at people who dare criticize the politically correct, self-appointed guardians of … everything, apparently, is that they read Heinlein. Well, Heinlein is one of the few points of reference those fans who read have. Of course we all read Heinlein and have an opinion about his work. How can you be a fan and not? The answer, of course, these days is that you can watch Game of Thrones and Star Wars and anime and never pick up a book. And there’s enough published material out there that it is entirely possible to have zero points of contact between members of that smaller subset of SF readers.
So the question arises—why bother to engage these people at all? They are not of us. They do not share our values, they do not share our culture.
And I’m not sure there is a good enough argument for engaging them. There is only the evidence of history, which is that science fiction thrives on interaction. Artists, readers, authors, editors, all united in discussing the things that are cool and wonderful, together. We share a belief that the future is worth engaging. It’s an on-going conversation, and it’s worked well that way. Take the example of Eric Flint’s Ring of Fire series. It started out as one novel, not especially envisioned to be the first of a series, an alternate history. The author asked for help researching some abstruse historical points, and did so on an on-line forum of readers. Fourteen years and sixteen novels and nine collections later (not even counting 40+ issues of the on-line professional magazine), a huge, intricate and rich SF world has been imagined and developed.
That process would not, could not, have occurred within any other genre. Yes, it took the brilliance and guidance of one person to set it in motion and shape it throughout, but it is the result of hundreds of people pulling together to explore and create on their own. Not as some side “fan fiction” endeavor, but as part of the—commercially viable—whole. And when I say “commercially viable” it is shorthand for: “lots of people like it and are willing to show this by paying money for it to continue.”
So the core of science fiction, its method, is still a valid way of creating the cultural artifacts we want. But is it necessary to engage those of differing political persuasions to get this method? I feel the answer is probably yes. You don’t get a conversation with only one opinion, you get a speech, lecture or soliloquy. All of which can be interesting, but not useful in the context of creating science fiction. But a conversation requires two way communication. If the person on the other side is not willing to a) listen and b) contribute to the greater whole, there is no point to the exercise.
And this, I think, leads to why the awards are important. They are a resource for continuation of culture. They are a reward for work that is approved of by the field, and a sign to those outside the field that this is what we, the insiders, think represents the best we can do. Awards become instant history. You make Wikipedia.
But awards lists only maintain their legitimacy so long as they in fact accurately reflect the field. So if a large part of the field feels that its interests are not being served–and they do–the award is compromised.
What to do? Fight to reestablish legitimacy? Establish a different awards list? I have long argued that winning the George Washington awards (every royalty period) is all the recognition needed—living well is the best revenge. And that is one reason Baen is publishing a “Best of Military and Adventure SF” reprint anthology next year—it’s a way to get more money into the hands of writers who write what we feel is the good stuff. It will in its way be a “juried” award with cash prize awarded by a small pool of experienced editors.
But are the popular awards worth fighting for? I’m not sure our side has ever really tried, though there are indications that previous attempts to rally readers of non-in-group books were thwarted in ways that were against the rules of the game. And yet, to quote Heinlein, “Certainly the game is rigged. Don’t let that stop you. If you don’t bet, you can’t win.”
I think the problem is that folks just really feel they have no possible conversation with the other side any more, that the battle for this part of the culture isn’t worth fighting. And I think again SF is mirroring the greater American culture. Our country is different because it, like science fiction fandom, was built around an idea—not geographic or linguistic accident, but an idea—we hold these truths to be self evident. And it is becoming more and more obvious that the two sides of American culture no longer share a frame of reference, no points of contact, no agreement on the meaning of the core ideas.
And yet, I can’t help but think that at some point, you have to fight or you will have lost the war. The fight itself is worth it, if only because honorable competition and conflict leads to creativity, without which we, science fiction, as a unique phenomenon, die.