Challenger Logo by Alan White   A Science Fiction Fanzine   Spring - Summer 2008

And another guest editorial, on the state of fandom

 

Between the Candle and the Star

Laura Haywood-Cory

I’m on several e-mail lists related to science fiction and fandom. A note came through one of them the other day; the title was, “What passes for fandom in (anonymous Southern state).” The email consisted of a link – to a volunteer-run science fiction con that seems to be primarily focused on SF TV shows and movies, followed a remark about how their brand of SF con was definitely not to the poster’s taste, which in and of itself is fine; not all of us like the same things. Several replies followed, the most salient coming from someone mulling the possibility of offering the concom a programming item on fanzines, with the expressed wish of introducing those poor benighted souls to “true” fandom. This was met with a Greek chorus of agreement and offers of help.

Reading the flurry of messages left me scratching my head, wondering if I’d also somehow missed out on the “true” fandom over the course of the two decades that I’ve been actively involved in SF clubs, conrunning, gaming, and more.

It seems that ever since at least the mid ‘90s, possibly earlier, I’ve been hearing about “the graying of fandom,” and the need to bring in new, young fans. As a member of Gen X, I stand between old and young, “between the candle and the star,” as Delenn from Babylon 5 would say. I use AIM occasionally, and I’ve finally been dragged onto Facebook, but I can’t text message (txt msg) to save my life.

Why this divide? Fandom has many subgroups; why is the generational gap so profound? History offers some clues.

In the late ‘70s, a seismic shift hit the speculative landscape, in the forms of Star Wars, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and Dave Arneson’s and Gary Gygax’s publication of their little boxed set, Dungeons & Dragons. The unwashed masses discovered science fiction (or space opera, if you want to split hairs) on film, and fantasy role-playing games – and went looking for the original literary forms behind these creations. No longer was fandom an exclusive club, requiring special code words and a secret knock to get in the door. When the world beats a wide path to your slan shack, it’s not “special” anymore. Or as Syndrome, the villain in The Incredibles, says, “Everyone can be super! And when everyone's super... no one will be.”

This has led to what appears, from my viewpoint, to be some resentment on the part of the old guard because we, not of any numbered fandom, didn't have to walk five miles, uphill, both ways, in the snow to meet other SF fans. Starfleet International was founded in 1974. I was only six years old (I was born the year that 2001: A Space Odyssey was made into a film).

By the time I was old enough to pay attention, there were Starfleet chapters all over the country; there are now over 200 chapters spanning the globe, with more than 4000 members total. And while my high school didn't have a science fiction club, once I got to college it was easy enough to find both the thriving SF club as well as the gaming club, and connect with people there.

My generation and the ones that followed haven’t had to struggle for our fandom, not like the first wave of fans did. We have had an easier time of finding and connecting with like-minded others, and more often than not, the earliest exposures we had to speculative fiction weren’t necessarily books; they were Star Wars on the big screen, or Star Trek, Lost in Space, and Dr. Who reruns on TV. And while some people remain solely fans of media SF, I think if you take a moment to ask, you’ll find that the young whippersnapper gushing about the new incarnation of Battlestar Galactica or Guitar Hero III also likes Terry Pratchett, Guy Gavriel Kay, and/or Charles De Lint. Likewise, that greybeard who’s bending your ear about fanzine history – ask him or her, and you may well find a lurking Farscape or Babylon 5 fan.

I’m an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy. Vernor Vinge’s and J.R.R. Tolkein’s books are on my shelves, along with Clarke, Asimov, and Heinlein. Though I’ve only recently started writing my own fanzine, I know what they are and the prominent role they have played in fannish history. I know what a slan is and I’ve read Harry Warner’s All Our Yesterdays.

But – I’m also a gamer, a lover of SF on the big and small screens, and something of a comic book geek (particularly Batman). I enjoy and partake of a broad spectrum of speculative fiction, and there are many more like me, who like to read but who also enjoy TV shows and movies, comics, anime, and/or gaming, costuming, astronomy, computers, filking, and more.

Back in 1997, a small group of us formed the Research Triangle Science Fiction Society. As we were starting to publicize the group, I found a very small email list, called “ncfan,” and posted the notice about RTSFS to it. The ncfan list didn’t get much traffic, and RTSFS soon surpassed it, both in terms of membership and activities, both actual and virtual. A few years later, one of the ncfan mods asked me how I did it, saying she had struggled to get people to her list and it never saw the popularity that RTSFS did.

The answer was simple: RTSFS took off like wildfire because it was and is open to fans of all persuasions – whether their interest is in books, fanzines, old pulps, music, TV shows, anime, board games, role-playing games, comics, stargazing, or just socializing with others who have similar interests.

We never made any claims of being The One Correct Fandom, and that enabled us to reach a wider – and yes, younger – group of people than we might have otherwise. The group has many folks who couldn’t tell you when or where the first WorldCon was held, nor what TAFF and DUFF are, and while I know some of you are appalled at that, these people are fans nonetheless.

On the other hand, as Robert A. Heinlein said, “A generation which ignores history has no past and no future.” If fans are serious about forestalling the death of fandom and of fan-run gatherings, several things need to happen. Ideally, attitudes about what constitutes a “true fan” would become more flexible. Just because someone has never had his or her fingers stained with mimeo ink and correction fluid doesn’t mean he or she isn’t a fan; said individual is merely younger than you. And that fan who collects pulps, doesn’t use email, and doesn’t like media SF isn’t a stodgy dinosaur who has nothing to teach the rest of us about our past.

The other side of that coin is that even though someone’s fannish accomplishments may be in areas unfamiliar to you, that doesn’t make them less valid.

Case in point: a good friend of mine, whom I first met via UNC’s science fiction club, was already a media fan and a skilled costumer when we were in college together. She got her degree in the dramatic arts, and unlike the rest of our group of friends, she went to work right out of college in her chosen field. She was getting paid to do what the rest of us only dreamed about. Here is a very small sampling of highlights from her professional costuming career:

Movies: The Muppet Christmas Carol, The Net, The Patriot, Evan Almighty.

Television: Dinosaurs! (Jim Henson Productions), SuperBowl XXVI Halftime Show, Red Legged Devils (soon-to-be-released Civil War docu-drama).

Performances: 2007 Tournament of Roses Parade (Star Wars Spectacular Entry), "Weird Al" Yankovic "Straight Outta Lynwood" (Stormtrooper and back-up cheerleader for Raleigh performance).

For more than two decades she has appeared as a costuming expert and guest at numerous cons all over the South and beyond. This is a very incomplete list:

WorldCon 58/Bucconeer, 1998, Baltimore, MD: Several costuming panels, and performed with Luna-C

CostumeCons 1993 (Pittsburgh) and 1998 (Baltimore) – panelist

Shore Leave (Hunt Valley, Maryland, various years) – invited panelist

Far Point (Hunt Valley, Maryland, various years) – invited panelist

PhilCon (Philadelphia, 2003) – invited panelist

RavenCon (Richmond, VA, 2006-present) – guest

She has worked for Jim Henson Productions, marched in the Tournament of Roses parade with George Lucas, and danced with Weird Al Yankovic. She has generously shared her time, her talent, and her expertise with fans of all stripes.

Yet when the StellarCon 32 concom announced her as their Fan Guest of Honor, there was some disaffected grumbling from the DeepSouthCon old guard (SC 32 was also DSC 46). Since she isn’t active in fanzine fandom, most of them didn’t know who she was. Likewise, the person they suggested in her place was someone that most costumers and media fans didn’t know.

Yes, my friend is a media fan and a costumer first and foremost – that’s what her fanac is. She also reads, and has served on at least one concom, and I have known her to play games once in a while, too. The fact that her SF-related achievements have taken place in areas of fandom that some of the trufen don’t consider valid doesn’t detract from their empirical value.

The fiefdoms of fandom need to break down their walls, or at least consider building bridges, not moats. Let’s not ostracize gamers – some of them like to read; fanzine fans – sometimes they’re also costumers; otaku (anime fans) are known to sing the occasional filk. Let’s not roll our eyes at younger fans who don’t know yet who Hugo Gernsback and Claude Degler were.

To put it a different way: Dragon*Con does not have to be the natural enemy of WorldCon. They serve different, yet occasionally overlapping, areas of interest, that’s all. With open communication, compassion, tolerance for each other’s differences, and celebration of our points of similarity, we can all come together under one big tent called “fandom.”

Please don’t misunderstand me; I’m not trying, for instance, to tranSForm every SF con into a broad-based general interest con, and I’m not telling everyone that they have to learn to like all facets of fandom. If you primarily enjoy fanzines, by all means go to Corflu. If you’re a literary fan, you won’t want to miss Readercon. Ditto for filking and GAFilk or OVFF. The niche cons are a great way to connect with like-minded others. All I’m asking is that people stop slamming the neos (and can we please quit calling them that?) for not knowing every bit of fanzine history, and for all of us to show some tolerance, if not outright liking, for the various fannish sub-groups.

I know these are generalizations and that not all older fans are automatically dismissive of the young and the new, and not all young fans flit blithely past their elders, on their way, magpie-like, to the latest shiny game, comic, or movie. However, I am convinced that we Gen Xers, neither old nor young, standing between the candle and the star, can play a pivotal role here in bridging the divide – by taking the time to talk with and learn from our fannish elders, working to preserve our history (a.k.a. timebinding), and sharing it with the ones who are coming up behind us.

One thing I’ve noticed in the wake of the recent deaths of both Gary Gygax and Sir Arthur Clarke is that as far as the mainstream media outlets are concerned, we fans are all still fair game for mockery and exclusion. Again, going back to my costuming friend as an example: When she and other selected members of the 501st Stormtroopers were marching in the Tournament of Roses Parade, commentator Bob Eubanks said on national TV that they "looked like a bunch of guys who needed to get a job." Isn’t it a shame that the public still sees all of us, not just costumers, that way? In response to the Eubanks snark, the StarWars.com site posted a list of the jobs of the participating troopers; the list includes doctors, lawyers, etc.

Wouldn’t it be better to present a united front in the face of such slings and arrows, rather than backstabbing our own? I can already hear some people saying “Oh, they’re just costumers, we’re not all freaks like that.” No, we’re not all costumers. We all are, however, joined together by a common love of exploring the great “what if?” – whether we do that via reading, gaming, costuming, filking, watching anime, writing fanzines, or gazing into a telescope.

In closing, I give you this James Baldwin quote: For nothing is fixed, forever and forever and forever, it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have. The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.

Let us, therefore, cling to each other.

 

 

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