Fandom superiority complex

Every year, we get reminders about how fandom at its worst can be exclusionary and forbidden to newcomers. That's something that should change.

Fandom superiority complex

Happy Friday!

Today's my birthday: 36 orbits around the sun. I'm also feeling under the weather: as soon as masks started coming off, I figured it was a matter of time before one of my kids brought home a bug from school/daycare.

A bit of a programming note: I'm experimenting with a 6AM eastern send time for these newsletters. I figure that that I and others check email in the morning, so it's a good time to read something before getting consumed by the day, and it gets me into a better habit of preparing these hours or days ahead of time. Lemme know what you think.

I've got two items this week, and I'm going to try and take the day off to read and enjoy the outdoors. (By which, I mean helping my brother paint a house while I listen to an audiobook.)

The week in SF/F

Fandom superiority complex

There's rarely a Hugo Awards season that goes by without some significant drama about the awards. In the last week, DisCon III issued some guidance for who'd be allowed to attend this year's Hugo Awards ceremony later this year, which caused some blowback when it became clear that finalists couldn't bring more than a single guest (if they're a finalist) or more than four people (if they're a finalist group). Just a couple of days later, the administrative team behind the awards resigned en masse (the second group this year, seemingly over issues with communications between them and this  year's World Science Fiction Con).

This is super inside-baseball, but dunking on the Hugo Awards has become a perennial sport, because of the way WorldCon and the Hugos — and to be fair, plenty of other awards, like the World Fantasy Con/Award are administered each year: each new convention pretty much starts from the ground up, and because Fandom is an insular and finicky group, there's not a whole lot in the way of institutional knowledge that gets passed along from year to year. As a result, you see issues of accessibility, unwelcome programming tracks for BIPOC fans, issues with the awards each year, and so forth. I've yet to attend a WorldCon, but honestly, my desire to attend it and pretty much every other fan-run con has evaporated.

Jason Sanford has a good roundup of the latest issues over on his Genre Grapevine.

A stunningly good demonstration of Fandom's inherent problems, I think, comes from a comment from Steve Davidson, the publisher of Amazing Stories in File 770 in a discussion of the ongoing issues with the Hugos [emphasis mine]:

"One “problem” with the awards that has developed over the past few years is that new award categories have been proposed to reflect what some folks believe would make the awards more popular within a mainstream context (what would work on TV best – best short story or best television episode?), which suggests that the focus and purpose of the award has been increasingly forgotten over the years: Worldcon and the Hugo Awards are NOT for the general public, their purpose is not to make the genre more acceptable to mundanes; its to have something of our own that dismisses mundane concerns and values in favor of our own."

"Seems a lot of fans have forgotten the concept that Fandom is ascendant, superior to (in every way) mundanity and the mainstream, has better values, greater creativity, deeper history and stronger convictions than the proles, and that its job is to serve as example for lifting the enlightened few out of the muck and mire of their mundanity – not level the field until everyone is equally nose deep."

Hooboy. There are a couple of things to pick apart here:

The first and foremost is the idea that "Fandom is ascendant, superior to (in every way) mundanity and the mainstream," etc., etc., is a load of horseshit: fandom is supposed to be a system of mutual appreciation and love of some shared value: science fiction, NASCAR, hiking, and the like, not some pissing contest over who's the better person just because they happen to like something. There's a tendency in any group to engage in this sort of thinking: that they're better than their peers because they're in on something that others aren't.

This isn't a new thing within Fandom. I've seen more than my fair share of people talking down to folks who like Star Trek or Star Wars (if I hear another older fan interrupt a group talking about Star Wars for the dismissive "well, actually, Star Wars is really fantasy" speech, I'm gonna scream) or "true" costumers talking about the inferiority of cosplay, or even the True!Fans who are irritated about how newer fans aren't interested in reading the books from the 1940s-1970s.

I've had two experiences that strike me as good representations of this sort of thing. The first was some sort of fan award (maybe the Hugos?) that was broadcast years ago that I happened to be watching. Something about the presenter has been on my mind ever since: I can't remember what she said, but it was some sort of in-joke about something Fandom-related that happened decades ago. There was something about a self-satisfied and smug smirk that screamed: "All of us in this room know what I'm talking about."

The second was when I and a couple of friends got together after a regional convention (Boskone, maybe?) and after a couple of years of talking about putting together our own type of con. It's something that I've wanted to do for years, and two folks that we met at Boskone came along, because they'd had experience running conventions. The meeting didn't go well: our idea had been to try and put together some sort of convention with an extremely specific programming track; something more like an academic conference than a fan con. We wanted it to be a learning experience on a different topic each year (say, the future of criminal justice or economics, with experts in whatever the topic's field as presenters). No book room or kaffeeklatsches, fan meet-and-greets, etc. The folks who came in with con experience were vehemently opposed to this: to the point where one of them was almost yelling in a crowded restaurant: what we were doing wasn't a convention, we were told, and it wouldn't be successful or interesting to non-writers. I — we — were dismissed as an overly academic initiative. The meeting ended pretty quickly, and we haven't met or even really discussed the topic since.

Both of those incidents play pretty clearly in my head alongside the annual Hugo/WFC headaches: products of an insular, exclusionary group that is resistant to the changes that are happening all around them. Davidson's initial point highlighted that discomfort: pushing back on the idea that in order to succeed, Fandom has to reluctantly honor stories in other mediums, like film and television. But it's not just Davidson that holds these views: I've tried to pitch stories about new things in podcasting, only to be met with blank stares (figuratively) with the explanation that podcasting is just a sort of fad and that it really isn't that popular. (audience figures beg to differ.)

Ignoring that Davidson's comments are enormously dismissive of the artists and creators who work in the film, television, and video game industries, as a fan, I want more people to feel like they're fans of the things I like, if anything, because it gives me more people to prattle on about when I get to talking about whatever books I like. Getting fans who like Halo to discover the works of Larry Niven or Robert Heinlein or Linda Nataga or Kameron Hurley would be a good thing for the genre as a whole. Introducing Star Wars fans to works by their favorite Star Wars authors or fans of Netflix's The Witcher to Brian Staveley's Chronicles of the Unhewn Thrown trilogy or P. Djèlí Clark's Dead Djinn world is a good thing. The bigger your audience, the better chances you have of your publisher bringing in other notable authors to tell other notable stories. The success of James S.A. Corey's The Expanse series not only prompted Orbit to take chances on other authors like Ann Leckie's Ancillary trilogy, but every now and then, I see some fan on r/TheExpanse asking what other books they should pick up.

The subtext to this is that once formed, a group, body, or organization becomes more difficult to adjust to new things. They are, after all, a fan of this or that. Nerd culture has long internalized a sort of persecution complex because science fiction and everything that goes along with it was never that cool for so long — we had to tell ourselves stories about how we were in fact better than those around us and that those mundane people were really out to get us. (Which reminds me a bit of the rules of a cult, TBH.)

This sort of fandom superiority complex (FSC?) rears its ugly head periodically throughout the year, but it's especially on display whenever the Hugo Awards or conventions roll around, because we have this ingrained behavior that leads us to make the same mistakes over and over and over again. What's frustrating is that it doesn't have to happen — and there are cases where it doesn't happen. Look at the Nebula Awards under the tenure of Mary Robinette Kowal, who's dramatically reorganized the event: she (and the folks on her team) has put an emphasis on accessibility and inclusion, and you don't have nearly the same problems as you do with the other cons.

I don't think the Hugos as an idea are necessarily flawed: it's a way to honor and recognize what a large group of people hold up as their best work. I think it's the underlying institutions that support the awards that needs some refurbishing. Fix the underlying negative, exclusionary attitudes, and I suspect that most of those problems will be mitigated.

But at the end of the day, humility and kindness is a much better, healthier approach.

Canon revisited

Last week, I wrote a bit about what an alternative canon for science fiction might look like, one not composed of the usual novels and short stories, but one made up of the ideas that went on to power science fiction literature. A bunch of you mentioned a couple of things to add to the list:

  • Mind Children by Hans Moravec. Published in 1988, it's a book that looks to the future of robotics and our relationship with them. (Suggested by Karen B.)
  • Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game Handbook. This wasn't one that didn't even cross my mind, but it's something that I wholeheartedly agree with: I've written a lot about how Star Wars' canon has been shaped by West End Games' work, and how it's still resonating today. (Suggested by Jason H.)
  • Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual. This is book has a lot of successors that seeks to look at the technical design of Star Trek, which is an interesting thought experiment. (Suggested by Jason H.)
  • Billion / Trillion Year Spree by Brian Aldiss. I've referenced this book a lot over the years, and it's an excellent history of the genre and how it came about. I thought about including it in my initial thoughts, but I sort of want to steer away from genre-centered works that are explicitly about reinforcing the community. Still, it's worth considering, given that Aldiss provides some good historical context for how the genre came about and evolved. (Suggested by Simon B. and Mark W.)
  • How to Suppress Women's Writing by Joanna Russ. This is a really influential work from Russ about women in the publishing industry and an effort to look at the inequalities that persist today. (Suggested by Mark W.)

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Image: Andrew Liptak

Currently reading

My brother's summer gig is a painting business, and last year, I started helping out a bit, running off to random houses in the area to give them a facelift. I enjoy the work: I get outside, do some physical labor that's really rewarding, and most of all, it's time that I can take to burn through some books.

We're staining a house a couple of towns over, and earlier this week, I queued up P. Djèlí Clark's The Haunting of Tram Car 015*. It's been on my list to read for ages, and I figured it would be a good thing to check out while working. I loved his book Ring Shout, and as I wrote about his latest book, A Master of Djinn for the May monthly book list (and Polygon's summer book list), I was really intrigued by that world. I finished it in one go, and when I took a break for lunch, I downloaded and plowed into its followup. I'm about halfway through, and am hooked: it's a fantastic story about magic creeping into the world and the effect that it has. I'll certainly have more to say about it sometime down the road.

Other books I'm reading? Pretty much the same list as last week: Victories Greater than Death by Charlie Jane Anders, The Unbroken by C.L. Clarke, Blacktop Wasteland by S.A. Cosby, Pantheon by K.R. Paul, Four Lost Cities: A Secret History of the Urban Age by Annalee Newitz, and The Empire's Ruin by Brian Staveley.

*Obligatory reminder: clicking on affiliated links might result in a small commission to Transfer Orbit.

Further reading

  • Carrie Vaughn's Questland. ICYMI, I interviewed Carrie Vaughn about her latest novel Questland, which was both a lot of fun and covers some cool related topics.
  • Dumb Star Wars takes. The Atlantic's Spencer Kronhaber has a provocative (and in my view dumb) take on the Star Wars franchise: "How Disney Mismanaged the Star Wars Universe." Ignoring the fact that the headline's perfect for bringing in the angry masses looking to condemn or seek confirmation of their views, it's basically a look at the upcoming oral history book Secrets of the Force, and runs with the idea that Disney's missing a key ingredient that made Lucas's original trilogy so special. Sure, there's arguments to be made there, but this feels more like an essay in search of a purpose: Kronhaber runs down some of the history of the franchise and lands on The Mandalorian as a savior for it, because it takes its time, tells small stories, etc.
    There's not much too it though: if the argument that the prequels are too CGI'ed and lack the "lived-in" feel of the originals (I don't think that's accurate) and the sequels were just a chosen one story with too many Easter Eggs to the rest of the franchise, it's weird that you'd both ignore The Clone Wars and its storytelling, and the fact that The Mandalorian is loaded with fan service-y Easter Eggs. It's like — there are tons of things to pick apart with the franchise — why go for this dumb argument?
  • Happy birthday, Octavia. This week would have been Octavia Butler's 74th birthday, and I wrote about some observations I've had with how her vision of the future has turned out to be so accurate: she's writing about power. (This one's for paid subscribers)
  • Idea factory. Every single time there's news of a new sequel / reboot / continuation, there's the chorus that I like to call "Hollywood is out of ideas!" It's kind of annoying, and writing for Bustle, Dana Schwartz has some perspective that I agree with: "Just because a film is based on a property that already exists doesn’t make the film itself inherently any less creative." Author Karen Traviss made this same point a bunch of years ago when people complained that she was writing Star Wars (her Republic Commando novels are still utterly fantastic) and other tie-in novels when she could have been writing her own original IP. Sure, she's playing in a sandbox with a lot of other authors, but she didn't phone in her work. So, I roll my eyes hard whenever I see someone complain "ugh, who asked for this?"
  • Jews in space. Lavie Tidhar has a great appreciation up in LitHub of the many contributions that Jewish authors have had on the genre over its many decades.
  • Netflix + Amblin. For paid subscribers, I sent out a post yesterday with some thoughts about Stephen Spielberg/Amblin Partners and their latest deal with Netflix to produce some films. It's a surprising turnaround for the director.

That's all for this week. As always — thank you so much for reading, and let me know what you're reading / writing / enjoying, and if you have tips about things going on in the SF/F world, feel free to drop me a line.

Next week: the July book list!

Have a good weekend,