The Book Smugglers recently reviewed Robert A. Heinlein’s Hugo Award Winning novel, The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress.
Their review was a response, at least in part, to Toni Weiskopf’s essay on fandom which included statements suggesting that some people aren’t really fans and that having read (and presumably appreciated) Heinlein was the touchstone by which true affiliation with the cause was measured.
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.
In response, Thea and Ana (Book Smuggler reviewers) essentially say “ok, we’ve read Heinlein now; we find him wanting, problematic, dry. Regardless, now that we’ve read him, are we on the Approved For Fandom List?”
My editorial this past Saturday addressed this issue in a somewhat tangential fashion; I illustrated my personal experiences with “approved fans” who largely welcomed me with open arms, taught me as much as I wanted to learn about fandom and (except for one very minor thing – a prohibition on using the phrase sci fi) never sought to restrict my involvement, never once said to me “you do/don’t do X, therefore, you may not be a fan”. Those experiences took place nearly a half century ago.
Of course the issue that Weiskopf was raising was not really directed at creating a hard and fast set of guidelines for who should and who should not be allowed into fandom (show me the closed doors behind the barrier for fandom), it was one of many mea culpas that have been issued of late that largely boil down to “Fandom is changing and I don’t like the changes.”
Now in truth I have some differences of opinion with T&A’s joint review of TMIAHM; I’m unabashedly a Heinlein fan and a fan of that particular novel in at least triplicate; I’ve probably read it in excess of thirty times. I think the reviewers had a few biases going in. In fact I know they did, since they were professional in their task and elucidated those biases.
And I don’t have a problem with that. I can discount the few criticisms that seem to derive from those biases and take them for what they are: a subjective analysis filtered through personal experience. One different from, but just as valid as, my own. Which is of course nothing more or less than any of us bring to the table when examining a particular work.
I’m also largely in agreement with Toni Weiskopf’s feelings: Fandom is changing and I really wish it weren’t. I wish things could be the way I remember them being: entirely fun, entirely open, entirely equal, accessible to everyone, and completely non-judgmental. Barriers? Litmus tests? Unwelcoming? Excluded populations? I don’t remember those things. My personal filtered experience of fandom included people of color, women, and (following revelations over the years) obviously people who are gay, transgendered. (No, not as many women, POCs or other others as white guys, but I was in the moment, not conducting head counts.) Was I received differently than others might have been? Probably. But probably not for the reasons one might suppose (my affiliation with the dominant demographic); it probably had more to do with the fact that I was an articulate 13 year old than any other attribute. Probably.
I wish there were some central touchstones that we could all share, that would give the community a cohesiveness of shared experience that it now lacks. But is that the way things really were, or is that just how we remember them being? Time heals all wounds, as they say.
As Weiskopf herself points out, Fandom began in divisiveness and struggle with one group of fans with certain connections and political alignments took over the first Worldcon and then excluded another group of fans with different connections and political leanings who’d started the whole thing. Talk about gate keeping!
As at least a partial result of that early fannish legacy, WSFS, the World Science Fiction Society that oversees the awarding of Worldcons and the Hugo Awards, has deliberately set itself up as an unincorporated entity that no one can control. One could argue that the by-laws of WSFS were written with one primary goal in mind: to insure that no particular group or ideology can ever dominate fandom. Which means by way of logical inference that there can never be a right or wrong way to be a fan. There is only a way. At the moment. The next moment will reveal an entirely different snapshot.
Fandom is supposed to be a great, amorphous, protean, largely indistinguishable entity that no one can control. It seems to me that setting things up that way guarantees, no, insures, that the nature of fandom will change over time. The goal is not just to insure that no one controls or dominates fandom, the goal is also to insure that no matter how drastically the population changes, no matter where the greater culture goes, science fiction fandom will always have a chance to exist. Remember the parable of the oak and the willow? Fandom is a willow.
And then there’s reality. I really don’t like getting old all that much. In some ways, getting older is a process of watching the world you’ve constructed for yourself crumble down around your feet – and there’s nothing you can do to stop it. Your comforts begin to disappear. The music you like is only played on oldies stations. The authors you prefer have stopped writing because they are dead. Soon their books are no longer even displayed on the store shelves. The greats – actors, politicians, organizers, creators – who helped to shape your world view are no longer the featured talking heads because they are dying too; the technology changes, the language changes. Things that you deem silly or inconsequential get elevated to heights of import for reasons you can’t understand. Things you held dear are not only no longer important, they’re not even talked about anymore. Your background is no longer relevant and worse, gives you few clues as to how to navigate this new terrain.
Few islands of stability remain (and even they begin sinking beneath the waves). Those islands are, usually, the things you hold the most dear – like favorite authors, comfortable communities where all the faces are familiar, the language hasn’t changed and everyone can talk knowingly about the same (tired old) subjects. (Of course they don’t seem tired or old at the time; they seem fresh and rewarding and self-confirming.)
The reality is that fandom has always changed over time and another reality is that as time goes by, any one individual or group’s influence over fandom will diminish, fade, disappear and, if we’re lucky, some of it will end up in a history of fandom website or ezine after enough time has passed to make those contributions historical.
The reality is that each individual fan has only one of two choices to make: put on a crown, grab a throne and call yourself King Canute – or – welcome new fans without prejudice and hope that your enthusiasm and welcoming attitude is a positive enough influence that they’ll let a little bit of your world rub off on them. They don’t all have to read Heinlein – but maybe a few of them will.