As Others See Us
Camille Bacon-Smith, Science Fiction Culture (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000)
Now I know how the natives felt in Samoa.
Camille Bacon-Smith is a sociologist specializing in folklore who, approximately two decades ago, picked science fiction fandom a research topic. She has since been a diligent student, attending conventions, participating in panels, interviewing fans, engaging in conversations on the Internet and otherwise immersing herself in “science fiction culture”. (In fact, she was in charge of the academic track at the Millennium Philcon.) This book is the summation of her notes. Her intention (at least, the intention that she wishes to convey to her academic peers) is indicated in the blurb on the back cover, of which this excerpt gives the flavor:
Bacon-Smith rejects the two major theoretical perspectives on mass culture reception. . . . [She] argues that the relationship between consumers and producers of science fiction is much more complex than either theory suggests. Using a wide range of theoretical perspectives, she shows that this relationship is based on a series of continuing negotiations across a broad spectrum of cultural interests.
The text is quite a bit denser and more jargon-laden than that. (“The guest of honor, in a sense, provides the structure of the personal experience narrative that creates a mode of expression that fans in the audience can take away to explain their own phenomenological experience of fandom.”) To the author’s peers there is no doubt a visible path leading from the data in the book to conclusions about “continuing negotiations across a broad spectrum of cultural interests”, but I’m not Daniel Boone enough to point it out. Similarly, it’s unlikely that many Pacific Islanders grasped the theses of Coming of Age in Samoa. Not quite understanding what Science Fiction Culture is saying, I won’t be fool enough to attempt a critique. Instead, my modest goal is to try to learn a bit about how fandom looks to an outsider who has spent a long time scrutinizing us.
She has not been able to scrutinize everything, of course. It is evident from the text that most of her research was carried out in the early 1990’s and that her informants were drawn primarily from the Northeast and the Bay area, supplemented by editors and neo-pro writers whom she encountered on GEnie. She has not done much probing into fan history before the mid-1980’s. Where she has probed, she is, as we shall see, occasionally the victim of inaccurate or partisan sources. One also cannot be sure of the reliability of her note taking. The number of small slips is disconcerting. On the one page that happens to mention my own name, I found five mistakes: two misspelled names (Judy “Beamis” and Becky “Thompson”), two people (Melanie Herz and Dave Ratti) assigned to the wrong home town (Boca Raton instead of Orlando) and one (Peggy Rae Pavlat) referred to as “Peggy” rather than by the universally recognized “Peggy Rae”. A few pages later, we are told that “Peggy” hails from Boston! Elsewhere we learn that Ben Bova wrote The Weapons Shops of Isher, which inspired faux weapon maker “Julio Pronie”. More seriously, the author misses an obvious factor in the sudden expansion of the size of the Worldcon in the late 1960’s, because she puts Tricon and Nycon II each a year too early, thus making it appear that attendance rose sharply just before, rather than just after, the advent of Star Trek.
To Professor Bacon-Smith, “fandom” means people who attend science fiction conventions or talk about SF on the Internet. Fanzines don’t occupy much space in her account. When she does discuss them, she is most interested in the differences between fiction-heavy “media” fanzines and traditional SF zines, which focus on essays and letters of comment (a difference between female and male faneds, she avers, rather than between SF fans and enthusiasts for television shows). She has a little to say about clubs, principally about their role as organizers of conventions. If it were not for The Enchanted Duplicator and Walt Willis’ having been Fan Guest of Honor at MagiCon (one of the Worldcons to which she gives particular attention), one would not glean from her pages that fandom existed outside the United States. No foreign convention, not even ConAdian, held right after the two Worldcons to which she devotes the most space, receives any notice. The NASFiC merits a footnote. The implicit judgement is that U.S. fandom exists in isolation from the rest of the world.
Her picture of what goes on at conventions, particularly at Worldcons, holds one big surprise: Art shows and art auctions are completely absent. Otherwise, she discusses conspicuous features: programming, the dealers’ room, guest of honor speeches, the Hugo Awards ceremony, the Masquerade, the con suite, filking, parties, unstructured conversation. The roles and importance assigned to these activities are sometimes unexpected:
Programming, the dealers’ room and the con suite are seen principally as means of “socializing” or “enculturating” newcomers to fandom. As one moves more deeply into the fan community, these elementary activities are left behind. The implicit denigration of programming, in particular, is striking. The author describes her own participation on a panel discussing fairy tales. The other panelists were well-known fantasy authors, some of whom proffered their own observations on how folklore arises. Being a specialist in that particular area, Professor Bacon-Smith knew that they were spouting nonsense, but, instead of bringing forward her own expert knowledge, she remained silent. “Part of enculturation,” she declares, “is realizing that a little-known academic does not, under any circumstances, tell an audience of fantasy fans that their childhood idol is wrong.” Decoded, as the lit crit types would say, that statement says two things: (i) This audience has come to gawk at “idols”, not to acquire knowledge or insight. (ii) Anyone who does rashly attempt to convey unwanted enlightenment runs the risk of giving offense to the thin-skinned idolators. No wonder that more experienced fans “tend to attend fewer panel presentations”.
The events that draw the largest crowds - GoH speeches, the Hugo ceremony at the Worldcon and, especially, the Masquerade - are described in terms that make one think uncomfortably of Nuremberg rallies. “The very anonymity the event imposes strips away the sense of individuality with which the participant enters the auditorium. As the event captures the attention of the audience, the consumer waiting to be entertained, the responses of the individual merge with the responses of those around him. His laughter or tears or applause joins with that of the crowd to reify the values that the community espouses, producing communitas, the elevated sense of awareness of participating in something larger than the self.” These events are, we are told, “symbolic rituals”. Just what they symbolize is left murky, presumably because the author, as a soi disant outsider, does not fully grasp them. The members of the community, we are given to understand, find in them numinous meanings.
A long section deals with “enculturation of the young” through child care, children’s programming and casual association with adults. On the basis of anecdotes whose import is not obvious, the author reaches the startling conclusion that “the science fiction convention is a very [emphasis in original] powerful teaching/learning institution for adults as well as children - much more powerful than the traditional educational system. . . . This is probably why so many fan children find their school experience unsatisfying, and why their teachers often complain [sic] that they are precocious.”
The author is very interested in the fannish “fashion code”, which she sees, explicitly drawing on theories spun by Roland Barthes, as a device for identifying members of fandom and excluding outsiders (“strategies of inclusion and exclusion”). Fans who buy and wear t-shirts from the Dennises or the VanTilburgs are making an ideological rather than an esthetic statement. Nor are convention badges utilitarian devices to keep out freeloaders. Rather they show that the wearers “belong inside the barrier”.
If I were reading about a group of which I knew nothing and came across perspectives like these, I would tend to classify the object of the study as a “cult”. Professor Bacon-Smith discloses little about the contents of the cult’s teachings, though she says at one point that understanding them is “pressingly important” and at another that they are “disturbing” to “many people outside fandom”, because they represent “a culture that appears on the surface to be very different from normative society”. Given the powerful means of indoctrination credited to this culture, one cannot help but think that readers of Science Fiction Culture are right to be disturbed.
Who controls this formidable apparatus? Convention organizers are, at least superficially, the inner circle of the community. The author finds two competing styles of convention leadership, which, though she does not make the parallel explicit, resemble a dichotomy often employed in the study of religion. On one side is the “charismatic” style, on the other the “institutional”. The latter, likened to corporate hierarchies and Rotary clubs, dominates the old-line Northeastern conventions and is epitomized by MCFI (pardonably confused with NESFA). The Bay area leadership is less structured (the remainder of the country is not discussed), and it is the inability of the practitioners of the two styles to “communicate” that supposedly led to hostility between the “permanent floating Worldcon committee” and the San Francisco in ’93 bid. The real exemplar of charismatic leadership, though, is Dragon*Con, about which the author is all but adulatory, crediting it with an approach that forestalls the problems that plagued Boskone in the late 1980’s and Disclave more recently even as it wins young fans away from the institutionalized dinosaurs.
The corporate-style cons’ “exclusion” of “the young” gets a chapter to itself, as part of one of the major sections of the book: “New Groups Change the Face of the Genres”. Here fandom, already placed in the same general category as religious cults, is classified more precisely. It belongs not to the proselytizing new religions (Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormons or Moonies) but to the defensive and isolationist faiths (Amish or Chasidim). Thus attracting recruits is a far lower priority than maintaining, and keeping undesirable elements out of, the existing community.
The outsiders whose travails are considered here consist of four groups fashionable in progressive circles: women, homosexuals, the “gothic” youth culture (which the author identifies with youth in general; chronological age has nothing to do with it) and sadomasochists. They were evidently selected because they are important to the Academy, not because the history of their relationship to fandom fits the paradigm hinted in the section’s title.
Women, as the author concedes, have been an accepted part of fandom since its earliest days, though they didn’t appear in large numbers until the late 1960’s. (She agrees with everybody else in attributing their arrival to Star Trek and Tolkien, though her judgement that the contemporaneous surge in the number of male fans represented an influx of gamers is decidedly odd.) In order to turn them into a “new”, face-changing group, she posits a “backlash” in the 1980’s. That renewed oppression of women was a feature of the grim days of Reaganite fascism is taken for granted among the feminist establishment. The proof of fandom’s conjoining with the forces of reaction is the failure of any woman to be selected as a Worldcon guest of honor or to win a Best Novel Hugo from 1983 through 1988, “a pattern too strikingly similar to be a coincidence”. (That women won five short fiction Hugos and four Campbell Awards during the same span goes unremarked.) Reinforcing the reaction was “the rise of the new and exclusionary form of science fiction known as cyberpunk” (Ronald Reagan and William Gibson, soul brothers). These developments translate into “male community members . . . reacting with outrage to the presence of women at the conventions and on the bookshelves”.
What is interesting for present purposes is not the reality vel non of the backlash but the author’s explanation was why it went away as abruptly as it had arrived. She assigns the credit to the increasing importance of women in editorial offices. One infers (the connection is left rather vague) that female editors bought books by female authors, which caused male fans to stop boycotting women for fan-awarded honors. Well, okay. . . . All that my patriarchalist brain can carry away from this chain of cause and effect is a sense that fandom is in some sense subordinate to the publishing world. The author, in fact, frequently cites publishing trends as evidence about fannish attitudes (and once in a while vice versa).
Homosexuals, like women, have become fans without much resistance. The author alludes to the famous anti-homosexual crusaders Laney and Burbee (without mentioning their names and under the impression that their activities are a hushed-up scandal), but she does not pretend that they were typical figures. She says, indeed, that she has never heard them referred to favorably, which suggests that she has heard of them from only a limited range of sources. Among cognoscenti of fan writing, both are highly regarded for their literary skills if not for all of their ideas.
Much of the chapter on homosexuals and fandom is devoted to Chip Delaney’s difficulties with publishers, the rest to the organization of Gaylaxicon and the problems that arose when the 1993 convention chairman died of AIDS. The one fascinating tidbit is the assertion (whether accurate or not I can’t say) that the organized homosexual community dislikes science fiction in general and fandom in particular. Allegedly it views the SF community as dangerous competition that threatens to divert energy and attention away from vital issues like AIDS funding, a perception with which the author sympathizes. It’s unsurprising, I suppose, that she would think that homosexuals are better off associating with their own kind than assimilating into a quasi-cult, though she would be more consistent if she also disapproved of homosexual writers’ catering to the cult’s tastes.
Gothic youths and ASB deviates have met real resistance from traditional fandom. The author vigorously defends both subcultures and is quite sure that their “exclusion” is not the product of rational concerns. It’s interesting that she mentions the catastrophe that brought an end to Disclave only in a pair of footnotes, one of which (but not, to be fair, both) avoids tying it to ASB. Also interesting is her assumption that coolness toward “goths” is tantamount to a lack of serious desire to attract youthful fans.
But thirty years later in the fan and publishing communities, the counterculture of the ’60s has mutated into a status quo that fears the new generation of “interlopers” based on their style of dress and interaction. The genres and their community stand at a dangerous crossroad, with yet another alien group to absorb in its diversity, or risk becoming obsolete if it turns its back. Fandom will go on, in its new forms, in new places, but the generations that have gone before could be left behind, their numbers dwindling, to wonder where the new young fans went.
They went to Dragon Con.
Left out of the book’s discussion are groups whose position in fandom is currently controversial, such as LARPers, libertarians, neopagans and evangelical Christians, or whose absence fans frequently note with regret or dismay, such as blacks, Hispanics and Asians. That fandom is almost wholly of European descent is a fact that a reader could deduce from Science Fiction Culture but not one that the author finds noteworthy or problematic.
The extensive sections on electronic fandom and SF publishing add little to the portrait sketched here. The e-fandom material is purely anecdotal, concentrating on the author’s experiences with the (now virtually defunct) GEnie service. The chapters on publishing include interesting excerpts from interviews with editors but do little more than reinforce the impression that, where the editors go, fans obediently fall into line and march.
What, then, can fandom learn from Professor Bacon-Smith’s snapshots? The central message is that we are a semi-closed ideological world that turns two faces toward those who find their way into its “mobile geography” from the outside. Newcomers who appear to be malleable - children of fans in particular - are assimilated through a powerful enculturation apparatus. Those whose assimilation is made difficult by their actual or potential membership in a rival subculture are either lured in with phony tolerance (homosexuals) or rejected outright (goths and ASB-ers).
Within the community, a struggle rages between a conservative, corporate leadership, which is determined to close ranks against outside threats even at the cost of reducing the size and scope of fandom, and less authoritarian figures. The contest is to a large extent meaningless, however. The rivals do not disagree substantively; they merely lack the ability to see each other’s point of view. Establishing lines of communication would lead, presumably, to a modus vivendi that would ensure the triumph of narrow-minded traditionalism.
Nevertheless, the author hints at grounds for hope. One beacon is Dragon*Con, the charismatic, open-minded alternative to both sets of traditionalists. The other is the power of the publishing industry, which, when sufficiently moved, can override fandom’s inner leadership, as it did when the old guard tried to shut women out during the Reagan Era.
Even if Dragon*Con and the editors do not exert their influence, SF culture will, in the long run, migrate to new communities. As in any properly progressive vision of the future, the defenders of the unenlightened past are doomed. Their numbers will shrink, and recruits willing to submit to enculturation into a backward ideology will become rarer. The old fandom, narrowly tied to America and to literary forms of expression, may in its death throes deal out damage - by undermining the unity of homosexuals, by depriving the gothic young of useful gathering places, by discouraging the careers of feminist, gay and lesbian writers - but it cannot prevail.
As I am not attempting a critique, I won’t ask whether Camille Bacon-Smith’s fannish dystopia is any more congruent with the facts than Margaret Mead’s utopia in the South Pacific. What I will note is that, just as Coming of Age in Samoa responded to an urgent ideological need of its period, the need for evidence that civilized sexuality was an artificial and disposable construct, so does Science Fiction Culture respond to a number of needs of the left-wing academic milieu during a period when its self-confidence has perhaps been undermined by events in the larger world.
First, the subject matter of science fiction, which, though widely varied, centers on technological development optimistically portrayed, deeply disturbs the contemporary progressive. Not only does he doubt that the hard sciences can really do much good, but he doesn’t want them to. Technological solutions to problems hinder the truly necessary Solution, that is, the destruction of Western materialist consumer culture and its supplanting by simple, egalitarian norms. SF fandom is closely associated with the wrong side of this historical divide, showing a distinct preference for “science fiction for engineers” over fantasy and feminism. Fantasy is not ignored by fandom, but it wins few Hugo Awards, while overtly feminist fiction wins none at all. (Professor Bacon-Smith acknowledges ruefully that fans did not read The Left Hand of Darkness as a feminist tract. She also acknowledges that Ursula LeGuin didn’t either, until not doing so became an embarrassment among her fellow feminists.) By recasting fandom as a kind of cult, Science Fiction Culture implies that the literature that it admires, and by extension the optimistic vision underlying that literature, can be dismissed without serious examination.
Second, fandom’s self-image as a tolerant, peaceable arena, where people of widely varying backgrounds are drawn together by common interests and engage in reasonable, even if occasionally heated, discourse contravenes the progressive principle that reasoned discourse is a loaded, Western concept devised to render oppressed groups content with their inferior status. Science Fiction Culture denies the reality of fandom’s claim to tolerance and reason, contending that those are mere facades. The pretended acceptance of women was followed by a backlash that women overcame only by winning political power in the publishing world, while that of homosexuals is, intentionally or not, a ploy to weaken the homosexual community.
Third, on a more practical level, a benign view of fandom could present it as an example of the voluntary associations that Alexis de Tocqueville regarded as characteristic of American society. Without central direction or expectation of monetary reward, fans have put together a widely ramified series of enterprises that involve tens of thousands of people. For critics whose cast of mind naturally favors socialist central planning, success of that sort must be a delusion. Science Fiction Culture attacks from two directions. On the one side, the enterprise is revealed as seething with conflicts among its leaders. There’s no invisible hand at work, just many visible hands grappling for power. On the other, its successes are portrayed as ominously hegemonic. Fandom does not bring people together; it indoctrinates them, serving, like so much else that is superficially “voluntary”, as a cover for more sinister, authoritarian forces.
Being congenial and ideologically useful, Professor Bacon-Smith’s analysis will, I foresee, find a permanent home in academic literature and will be consulted by those researchers who happen to take note of the science fiction community. She herself states that 20 years of endeavor have not been sufficient to enable her to cover all aspects of fandom, and she urges other “ethnographers” to follow in her tracks. I imagine, pessimist that I am, that some of them will.
Fans, most of whom profess left of center political views, may be taken aback to discover that the Academic Left regards them with loathing. If it is any consolation, Professor Bacon-Smith evidently feels no personal malice. While reading her pages, one almost wonders whether she is fully conscious of the thrust of her own argument. Jargon and ingrained mental habits sweep her along, as rudderless theorizing carries her deeper and deeper into an ideological Saragossa Sea. Dr. Johnson’s verdict on The Poems of Ossian is apt: “Sir, a man might write such stuff for ever, if he would abandon his mind to it.”
That is, I think, the most important lesson that one can take away from this book: Never abandon your mind to the winds of fashionable rhetoric, or you may be blown to shores that you never intended or wanted to reach.