Information for Those New to Fandom
Information for Canadian Fans
The origins of sf fandom go back to the letter columns of the pulp magazines of the late 1920s and early 1930s. As readers wrote in to comment on stories in previous issues they became entangled in discussions that eventually led them to begin writing to each other directly. Readers living in the same area started to meet and formed local clubs. Others formed correspondence clubs and started circulating newsletters and fan magazines. As fan magazines proliferated, an amateur press association was formed to assist in the distribution of these materials. Eventually, readers from different cities who had been corresponding for years agreed to meet in one place at one time, and so the first conventions appeared. Thus the four elements of science fiction fandom--clubs, fanzines, apas and conventions--were all in place by 1939.
Believe it or not, there are hundreds of articles and at least three full length books dealing with this early period of fandom: Sam Moskowitz's The Immortal Storm; Harry Warner's All Our Yesterdays; and Frederik Pohl's The Way the Future Was. Of particular interest to Canadians, however, is a fourth book, John Robert Colombo's Years of Light: A Celebration of Leslie A. Croutch (Toronto: Hounslow Press, 1982; 195 pp., $10.). Croutch was one of the earliest and most prolific of Canadian fans, and Colombo's book provides a fascinating glimpse into the early history of fandom in this country.
For the casual reader, however, such detailed fan histories are perhaps excessive. Suffice to say that fandom grew slowly from the 1920s to the 1960s. Fandom in those days was an intimate affair, where everyone knew (or knew of) everyone else, and the distinction between fan and professional writer was often blurred. Similarly, it was possible for fans in this early period to have read all the science fiction books ever published (since, until the 1960s, only a dozen or so new books came out each year) and this provided fans with a shared literature and a shared experience. This sense of community was greatly strengthened by the low regard in which sf was held by the larger society, forcing writers and readers together in a close-knit group.
Amateur publications, called fanzines, were the dominant element of fandom during this period. Early fanzines often focused on fan-written fiction and amateur science (especially rocketry), but also included news, reviews, personal essays, and humour. As fandom expanded, fanzine content broadened to include an infinite variety of topics, giving rise to the fannish slogan that "All knowledge is found in fanzines."
Fanzines provided a unique creative outlet because they were based on two-way communication. Unlike a subscription to The New Yorker or Atlantic Monthly, fanzine readers were expected to write back substantial letters of comment on previous issues, and to contribute articles or artwork of their own. Most fanzine editors were less interested in subscriptions than in feedback, and this emphasis on participation reinforced a strong sense of community. Given this premise of active participation, fanzine fans tended to self-select for literacy, intelligence, and creativity. (On the other hand, it is often claimed that fanzine fans tended to be social misfits, since the socially well adjusted were too busy partying with their friends to invest such copious amounts of time in the fan press.)
The ultimate in fanzine correspondence is the amateur press association (apa). To coordinate distribution of the growing number of fanzines, the first sf apa, The Fantasy Amateur Press Association (FAPA), was founded in 1937. (The first apa ever was the National Amateur Press Association founded in 1876. It is still going strong, but is not related to sf fandom.) The idea was that each of the 65 members of the apa would produce 65 copies of their fanzine, which would be shipped to a central distributor; who would then collate all the submissions into 65 packages that would include one copy of every fanzine produced. Thus each member would receive back from the central distributor a package containing a copy of his own and every other editor's fanzine.
The real essence of an apa, however, is not merely that it is an efficient mailing system; rather, it eliminates the barriers between editor and reader because every reader is--by definition--also an editor. What one ends up with is 65 simultaneous conversations, as each editor comments on each other's fanzine, and the comments on each other's comments. (Think of it as a print version of an Internet Chat room.)
There were about 100 sf and comics apas active in the mid-1980s, but this number has been in sharp decline as those formerly attracted to apas were drawn away to the new and infinitely faster medium of the Internet chat room.
The local sf club has also had a long and vital history in fandom. For many fans the local club is the focus of their social life, the source of many lifelong friendships, and even marriage.
Fan groups typically go through a five or six year life cycle: a group of sf readers get together, excited at the prospect of finally finding like-minded friends; the club grows and prospers as it publishes fanzines, organizes apas, and hosts a convention; the core group drifts from "close knit" to "cliquish", fails to continue recruiting, and fades as key members tire of the ceaseless work, retire from fandom, or fall out over differences of opinion that run deeper than their shared love of sf; and is replaced by a new generation of fans who start all over. Some clubs manage to survive for decades by acting as an umbrella organization that provides continuity as individual internal cliques go through the dynamic described above.
In any event, various cities rise and fall as the major centers of fan activity. In the 1970s, for example, Minneapolis was the "fannish mecca" and many fans actually moved to Minneapolis to be part of the fan scene there. It was subsequently replaced by Seattle as the fannish Mecca of the early '80s.
The other major aspect of fandom is the sf convention. Besides providing an opportunity to meet fans from other cities, the convention allows fans to meet and talk to prominent authors who appear both as Guests of Honour and as fellow attendees. Conventions generally feature serious panels on sf topics, short story contests and workshops, an artshow, a dealer's room, a banquet, often a dance, and lots of parties. (In more recent years a costume contest and masquerade have commonly been added; while banquets have been largely phased out due to rising costs.) Conventions are a celebration of the fans' sense of community, a tribal reunion that goes a long way to combat the alienation of modern society. Conventions represent an emotional high, and fan folk wisdom has long warned against "post-con depression" as attendees return Monday morning to their mundane lives.
For many fans, the 1950s and 1960s are a sort of lost golden age when fandom reached its peak both as a close-knit community and as an outlet for creative activity. Fanzine fans dominated during this period, since postage and mimeograph printing were cheap, and travel to the few conventions available was expensive. Conventions--even the WorldCon--were small and intimate. While several of the larger cities had clubs, most did not. Fandom's traditions were recorded and handed down through fanzines, and even club fans were literate and active in fanzine circles.
All this changed abruptly in the 1970s.
The success of Star Trek brought in the first wave of "media" fans. ST fans were not only younger, but also less well-read than previous generations of fans, since their love of sf stemmed from television rather than from books. Although there were some rumblings about the inferiority of these trekkies, the threat to fannish traditions was more imagined than real. The trekkers were either assimilated into true fandom where they discovered that ST was only the tip of the sf iceberg; or they remained trekkies embedded in their own fringe fandom of Trekdom. While the literate and civilized nation of fandom eyed the booming population of Trekdom with a good deal of trepidation, peaceful coexistence and some limited immigration were the order of the day.
The public acceptance of Star Trek, however, paved the way for a whole new generation of media sf, most notably Star Wars, but including Dr. Who, Battlestar Galactica, Logan's Run and a host of others. Suddenly sf was incredibly popular with the masses, and thousands of non-readers invaded fandom. Fannish institutions were overwhelmed as there were suddenly more recruits than could be assimilated at one time, and established fans were swamped by hordes of strangers.
There were actually three separate problems here.
First, the explosive expansion was fueled by basic demographics: The trailing edge of the post-war baby-boom swelled the ranks of high school and college-age youth, thereby greatly expanding fandom's potential market. If only one in a hundred sf readers becomes a fan, there were now hundreds of thousdands of more readers. As the emergence of the mass media turned the baby-boom generation into the TV generation, the baseline was multiplied yet again, because for every sf reader, there were now a hundred sf viewers. Even if only one in a thousand Star Trek or Star Wars viewers became fans, with a baseline in the millions, explosive growth was inevitable.
The mere scale of the influx, then, destroyed the former close-knit intimacy of fandom. Fans who had been used to meeting lifelong correspondents at conventions, freaked when the WorldCon went from 500 to 8000 attendees in less than a decade. It became impossible to be introduced to, let alone become close friends with, all the people who were suddenly turning up. Fans felt themselves in the minority at their own celebrations.
Similarly, prominent fanzines suddenly became obscure as their printruns fell hopelessly behind the exploding number of newcomers. Whereas fan editors continued to print two hundred copies, their readership now represented an invisible elite, rather than the general fan population. The few fanzines which were able to produce the six and seven thousand copies necessary to reach a significant proportion of the newly expanded fan market were (almost by definition) the semi-professional publications which lacked the endearing qualities of personal involvement and two-way communication that had made fanzines special.
Clubs were also shaken as established fans found themselves out-voted in their formerly safe elections, and their friends ousted from club positions by this influx of strangers.
Second, the newcomers were a new type of fan. As viewers rather than readers, they tended to be less literate and less interested in the world around them than the traditional fan. Many were only interested in a particular TV or movie series, and most lacked the shared body of sf literature which had once been common to all fans.
Furthermore, as TV viewers, they tended to be passive consumers rather than active doers. They arrived at conventions expecting the organizers to put on a show for them, rather than thinking in terms of what they could do to become involved. They often seemed to view fandom as a commodity or service they could buy, rather than as something one did. Two-way communication was lost.
This was less true of the other barbarian invasion, the sword-wielding hordes of fantasy gamers who were pouring across fandom's other border. With the invention of Dungeons and Dragons and its imitators, armies of gamers marched into sf fandon, having first sacked the fantasy genre, leaving it a wasteland of mass-produced trilogies. These role-players were all for participation, but sadly, their imaginative involvement remained within the narrowly prescribed limits set out by commercial publishing houses. While gamers seemed more willing to entertain themselves than many of the media barbarians, they contributed little to fandom.
The third problem was that (as with most empires overrun by barbarians) fandom was already rotting from within. External economic factors had begun to erode fandom's former cohesiveness. In response to the growing popularity of sf, publishers had continually increased their output until by the mid-1970s there were over a thousand new sf releases each year, making it nearly impossible for average reader to remain current on the whole field. Furthermore, as the number of extant sf works increased from a few hundred to many thousands of titles, the chances of two fans having read the same book declined sharply, eroding the sense of community that used to stem from a shared literature. Fanzine editors could no longer make literary allusions with the assurance that all their readers would recognize them.
Not that there were many fanzines left. The cost of producing and mailing a fanzine had gone up so rapidly during the 1970s, that few general circulation fanzines survived. In contrast, the deregulation of airlines has made travel to many conventions cheaper. Thus, fanzine fans, once the bearers of fannish tradition, lost their dominance over fandom to the convention fans, who were themselves overrun by the barbarian hordes.
As with any barbarian invasion, there was a good deal of wailing, lamenting, and doom-saying by the peaceful citizenry who saw their country laid waste. In the larger scheme of things, however, this was but a temporary dislocation, and the barbarian hordes eventually settled down to work the soil.
First, many of the "barbarians" have indeed made significant contributions to fandom, and the so called invasion may be more correctly interpreted as a much needed infusion of new blood. Although the sudden influx of the 1970s temporarily overwhelmed the ability of fannish institutions to assimilate all the newcomers, the traditionalists revealed a surprising lack of faith in their prized traditions by assuming that the essential features of fandom would not survive. In due course, the media fans adopted what was best of the old fandom, set up their own clubs, conventions and fanzines, and settled down as good neighbours in a variety of new, semi-independent fandoms.
Speaking of much needed new blood, fannish demographics are now much more evenly balanced in terms of gender than was traditional sf fandom. Whereas many established fans complained about the hordes of adolescent males crowding into fandom, no one complained about the increased number of women.
Second, the good old days in fandom are as illusionary as any other golden age. A close reading of the fan histories reveals that earlier fans had just as many problems, albeit different ones. The much vaunted intimacy of the smaller pre-1970s fandom, for example, was the very aspect of fandom that the fans of that period most disliked. Their major complaint was one of isolation. "It is a proud and lonely thing to be a fan" was a popular fan slogan throughout the pre-growth period and reflects the former rejection of sf and fandom by mainstream society. Early fans spent much of their effort trying to increase the size of their clubs, conventions, and printruns, to achieve critical mass. Once they achieved the mass, everybody suddenly became critical! If you had told an attendee at the 1938 WorldCon that there would one day be 8000 people at the convention, his eyes would have misted over in anticipation of that great day. And could he understand anyone complaining that there were over a thousand new sf books released each year?
One must similarly reject the many testimonials from long time fans that fandom is not what it used to be. There's a famous saying that, "The Golden Age of Science Fiction Is 13", meaning of course that one's sense of wonder often wears off as we grow older. So it is too with fandom, though perhaps the Golden Age here is closer to 20.
Third, and most important, fandom during this expansionary phase had the potential to meet everyone's needs. The eventual and appropriate response to this growth was not a retreat into exclusiveness and negativity, but rather, the emergence of further differentiation and specialization.
When I entered fandom in the mid-1970s there were only three fans in Edmonton and the nearest convention was in Vancouver. I was therefore pleased to see the emergence of local clubs and conventions in Edmonton and Calgary, even if these were part of the uncontrolled proliferation that established fans saw as destroying fandom's intimacy. Perhaps North American fandom had grown too large to form a cohesive community; but that merely led to the emergence of independent regional fandoms, each with its own convention circuit, clubs, apas, and traditions. The emergence of a distinct Canadian fandom, for example, was not necessarily a bad thing.
Similarly, while there was a brief period when fandom seemed to lose its sense of direction, as each club and convention tried to be all things to all fans, this had changed by the late 1980s. Where once Edmonton, for example, had no conventions, by the late 80's it had several: ConText , which served writers and the traditional sf reader; First ConTact, which served the media and gamer fans; NonCon, which served club fans; VirusCon, which served the fannish fans; a specialized Dr. Who convention; and a variety of comics events. The same phenomenon was found in other cities, as their conventions grew larger, reached critical mass, fissioned, and replicated themselves, but targeted to specific audiences. The lost intimacy of early fandom was recreated as ConText '89, SerCon, CorFlu, ReaderCon and Ditto emerged as specialized conventions devoted to the needs of traditional fans. Together they made up an independent con curcuit of about the same size as that available to fans in the 1950s, but with the added advantage that they are surrounded by understanding neighbours; that is, other conventions that act as buffer states between them and Outer Mundania.
The same was true of fanzines and clubs. Fiction fanzines had almost completely died out by the 1970s, for example, but the infusion of media fans breathed new life into them as the demand for, say, Star Trek fiction (etc.) exceeded the professional output. Fiction fanzines made sense again because legal restrictions meant that even good amateur writers could not publish their Star Wars or Beauty and the Beast story officially. (It should also be noted that many of these fiction zines included more explicit sexual material than mainstream media could tolerate, e.g., some Star Trek fiction zines speculated on just how close Kirk, Spock, and McCoy really were.) There have been hundreds of successful and literate Star Trek zines, and their existence has in no way harmed the traditional genzine. There are dozens of Dr. Who clubs which peacefully co-exist with the established sf organizations.
The period from 1975 to 1990 witnessed the rebirth of a stronger and more vital fandom--of a multitude of fandoms--in which every potential recruit could find exactly what s/he is looking for. It was an exciting time.
Three factors burst the expansionary bubble of the 1970s and 1980s.
First, as the proliferation of conventions, clubs and fanzines allowed fans an unprecidented opportunity to pursue their individual interests, it also greatly speeded up the process of burnout. How many panels can one attend on, say, the topic of Canadian sf, before it seems as if one has heard it all before? If one is able to attend ten conventions a year instead of just one, then by the end of that year one has acquired the equivalent of ten years worth of pontificating panelists, and some of the romance starts to die. Thus, it became increasingly difficult for conventions, clubs and zines to avoid repeating themselves or duplicating the efforts of their neighbours, and even some established conventions started to falter as fans cut back their consumption sharply.
Second, basic demographics meant that as the baby-boom generation aged, there were fewer collage age recruits to replace the aging fan population. Turn-over has always been high in fandom: the average fan joined fandom in high school or college and dropped out as career and family demands eventually pushed fandom into the background. While there have always been a core of lifetime fans to pass down fannish traditions, the typical fannish generation is three years: after three years, turn-over is so high that club or zine mailing lists are completely obsolete. As the last of the baby-boomers left fandom, conventions, clubs and zines all began to suffer catestrophic shortfalls.
Third, if demographic shortfalls took fan organizations by surprise, it is as nothing compared to the shock of the emergence of the Internet. You would think that sf fans, of all people, would have anticipated the impact of the World Wide Web, but even today many convention and club organizers are still deep into mutual recriminations over who caused the organization's collapse. It takes but a moment's reflection, however, to recognize that the economics of web page publishing sounded the death knell of the printed fanzine; the chat room is a faster, more convenient replacement for old style apas, and email and teleconferencing have significantly eroded the need for clubs and conventions. Why travel 500 hundred miles to meet your favorite author, when you can read his web page and email him your questions and comments directly from home?
Nor is it just that sf fandom has moved from paper to electronic media. Virtual fandom may be alive and well, but even here the numbers are much reduced. Instead, many of those who might have been identified as potential recruits a generation ago, are today drawn to computer games and simulations, and above all, to surfing the web. Fans used to say, "All knowledge is found in fanzines", but this is more literally true of the WWW. And it is in colour, animated, and addictively cross-referenced.
For many fans, virtual fandom is so transformed from the traditional version, that for all practical purposes, it is a different phenomenon. For others, the spirit of the early days lives on , just with faster interaction, fewer geographical constraints, and cheaper color printing. Either way, the traditional venues of club, convention, and zine still exist; they have just scaled back to pre-1970 levels. This is not necessarily a bad thing: fans who enjoyed the intimacy of 1950s fandom, can find it again in millenium fandom; but those who are geographically isolated, financially constrained, or otherwise cut off from these traditional venues can still access the virtual equivalent on the WWW.
The future of fandom is therefore tied up with the future of the Internet, but there are other forces on the horizion to which we need attend as well. Most important of these trends has been the consolidation of book publishing and distribution. As a handful of multinationals have gobbled up all of publishing, many excellent "midrange" writers (i.e., those who consistently have sales in the 50,000 to 100,000 copies range) are being dropped by these mammoth publishers whose attention is increasingly focused on only those authors who can produce sales on the order of a half million copies or higher. The scale of these global publishers makes anything less uneconomical.
This trend towards giantism has several implications for sf readers. First, many genre writers will be among those to be cut. Second, there is an accelerating trend towards publishers preferring "the never ending series" over stand alone novels or story collections. A series not only allows publishers to amortized promotion and advertizing costs several titles at once, but also provides the mass consumer with a more "predictable" product. Third, there has been an increasing use of "share cropping", where new writers have to "write in the world of" some big name -- the known author's name appears on the cover in giant letters, while the actual writer is buried in the fine print, and forced to prostitute their talent to someone else's vision. Similarly, TV and movie series novelizations absorb a disproportionate share of both sf publishing and distributor's bookshelves. Fourth, as the marketing department of these giant corporations overrule the editorial offices, there is an increasing emphasis on "the winning formula" rather than literary merit in the selection of titles. Whereas editors used to choose what they liked, they are increasingly forced to focus on what will be guaranteed to sell. Thus the disappointing trend towards more formula fiction in a genre we had hoped might have begun to mature. Finally, the trend toward giantism also raises barriers to new authors. Whereas beginners used to be able to approach a hundred different small and mid-size presses, they now have a pool of only a half dozen publishers to chose from. As all the new writers line up outside the same few offices, these publishers have been forced to introduce new policies restricting unsolicited manuscripts, lest they be buried under the converging avalanche of wannabes.
These four trends are a matter of grave concern to those fans who aspire to writing careers, or to any readers who desire continuing diversity within the sf cannon. Furthermore, as the literary end of sf is driven out by these mass market forces, we can anticipate a corresponding decline in the literary interests of the typical sf fan. As the half dozen remaining sf lines devote a higher and higher percentage of their output to formulistic series and a few big name authors, the people reading this material will increasingly be consumers rather than fans of the old school.
Or, paradoxically, the trend towards giantism may prove fandom's salvation. Deprived of a professional outlet for the midrange author, a new fan press and/or distribution system may emerge to fill the gap. Fandom may mutate into a kind of semi-prodom. Certainly many of the key regional players -- publishers such as On Spec or Tesseract Books -- are staffed by ex-fans and absorb the energy that used to go into more traditional fan pursuits. It remains to be seen whether access to the internet will change the traditional role of zine and apa publishing into something that may allow the emergence of revived fandom as a major literary force.
Whichever the outcome, it is clear fandom is entering a new era and facing "interesting times".
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