Concerning the recent assaults on fandom – what it really is, what it really means, who controls it and what its purpose is – I felt it instructive to once again turn to the history of our genre and its fan base.
Here is a quote from a letter to Air Wonder Stories, the April, 1930 issue to be precise, announcing the creation of, and recruiting for, the very first fan club:
“Anyone over the age of sixteen, regardless of race, creed, sex, or color, is eligible for membership, provided he or she is in sympathy with the purpose of the club.”
Without stating it directly, this is also the very first hint of fannish ideals: we don’t care what you look like or what you believe in. If you are interested in science fiction – we want you!
Paramount in that concept is the subordination of mundane concerns to an interest in SF. race, sex, creed are petty considerations that do not factor in to the equation.
Remember – 1930s: women and POCs were second class citizens and the LGBTQ spectrum probably hadn’t even been conceived yet. Society was very much stratified; Jews, Italians and Irish were not yet “honorary” whites, segregation was strong in large portions of the country and lynchings were still taking place.
Yet here we see the first public call to arms for fandom, one that has already embraced the futuristic concepts present in the fiction being absorbed by the would-be fans: a future in which meaningless differences must be put aside in favor of promoting meritocracy and the triumph of reason.
This was not a conservative appeal (which might have looked something like “anyone over the age of sixteen, provided that they are the ‘right’ kind of person…”), but a distinctly progressive one. Even more so considering the era in which it was written.
I bring this up because it has always been my firm belief that Fandom (in the TRUFAN sense of the word) was always intended to be open, welcoming, eager to embrace the new, fascinated with difference, ready and willing to overthrow convention in favor of trying a better way. One that consciously emulated the kinds of positive futures that were being presented in the fiction of the time.
Squabbles and feuds within fandom are legendary; many can be called political (though most “political” fights within fandom have concerned themselves with fannish politics, not mundane politics), but even granting them that word, not a single feud involved the rejection of those initial core concepts. Not a single one.
Somehow, fandom managed to hold on to the idea that science fiction came first and anyone who wanted to participate was welcome to do so.
But no longer. A small (though growing and vocal) group of fans are in the process of rejecting the core concepts of Fandom in favor of a very narrow-minded and self-centered, exclusionary view.
They reject the very foundational concept of fandom. Heretofore joining Fandom required a volitional act. In the 1930s, writing letters to the magazines or joining one of the many clubs that were springing up qualified. Today, engaging through online activity qualifies (though I know some reject that concept), as well as the more traditional activities of joining clubs, going to conventions, publishing fanzines, making costumes or filksinging.
According to THEM though, requiring any formal activity, no matter how wide open it may be, is itself an act of exclusion. This is like saying that requiring one to register to vote in general elections is an act of disenfranchisement.
They would have us believe that anyone who is touched by the genre in any way is a FAN. The father who suffers through having to purchase his kid yet another Star Wars figurine is a FAN; the mother who makes her child a Powder Puff Girls costume for Halloween is a FAN. The clerk at the local Barnes and Noble store who shelves the books in the SF&F section is a FAN. The Hollywood accountant counting beans for a studio that just released an SF film is a FAN.
According to THEM, there are only two requirements for being a fan: spending money and spending that money on SF related properties. (“Oh noez! What ever will I do! I just got a Buzz Lightyear figurine with my Happy Meal and now I’m a fan! Oh woez iz me!?)
There are many, many, many people who enjoy reading, watching or playing in a science fiction milieu. Some are no doubt very passionate about their interest. But there is a very large and important distinction between having a passionate interest in something science fictional and being a FAN, and that difference is the act of stating, through intentional action, that you are a FAN.
It is important to note here that the mere statement “I’m really into [insert name of science fiction property here]” is not a declaration of fannishness. It’s anything from a casual remark made to pass the time to a brief critique of the property. But it is not Fannishness. It is commentary on a personal interest related to a collection of specific things – a television show, a film, a game, a book, an author, an artist. Fandom encompasses far more than the individual properties that belong to the genre. Fandom is a gestalt of EVERYTHING science fictional, which is something far different from the individual items that make up the gestalt.
It is also equally important to note that making a distinction between a FAN and someone who only expresses an interest in some aspect of science fiction is not a value judgment. The FAN is not a better person than the casual reader, nor a worse person. One type of person has opted for liking something, the other has opted to be a FAN.
But there is a distinction between the popular masses and the much smaller subset that are FANS. And here I’ll take a moment to throw a Venn Diagram at you, which will correct some of the mis-perceptions that have been presented in previous Venn Diagrams on this very same subject:
The difference between this diagram and one previously offered elsewhere is the fact that no population is shown as being on the outside. Interest and involvement with science fiction is a spectrum or continuum, from casual, uncaring exposure to SMOF, and everything in between. It is not an “either you are or you aren’t” relationship. (There’s also one flaw shown here: all SMOFs are not always WSFS members and nominators/voters. But that’s a minor distinction.)
Implied within the illustration is free movement between one state and another, in either direction. This is because Fandom is a state of being, not a thing, and, implicit in that early understanding of fandom is the idea that anyone and everyone is welcome to become a member. ANYONE. The only things stopping individuals from moving from the purple into the red is: a belief that they won’t be welcomed (we’ve been working on that) and being dissuaded from doing so by the likes of THEM.
Besides reducing Fandom to mere economic activity, THEY have also rejected many other foundational tenets of Fandom: they protest against what they perceive as an ascendancy of “message” fiction over their brand of entertaining action and adventure. The very same argument took place in the early 1930s within the pages of Amazing, Wonder and Astounding. But back then it was the editors of those magazines who were calling for “message fiction”. From Ashley & Lowndes The Gernsback Days we read
Instead of stories featuring the adventures of daring space heroes intent on obliterating aliens races in their pursuit of fame and fortune, writers began to consider what the effect would be upon the explorers themselves as they faced new worlds and environments.
Such new approaches were generated by exhortations from David Lasser, editor of Wonder Stories:
“The modern science fiction story should…try to portray intensively some particular phase of our future civilization.” (1932)
What is showing us the future consequences of our actions but “message” fiction?
They also protest against the deliberate effort to raise the profile of marginalized groups (both writers and fans), yet this too is something that the genre actively embraced in the 30s. Not only do we have the call to arms quoted previously, but Walter Dennis of the Science Correspondence Club (one of the first Fan clubs) deliberately set out to internationalize the club and acquired membership from Europe, India, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand.
I’ll cap this with a quote from Gernsback:
The dual purpose of science fiction is to entertain and to educate…In all your stories be human and write about human beings and for human beings. (emphasis mine)
To qualify as modern science fiction, it is not enough for a story to merely entertain. In order to find the kind of science fiction AND the kind of science fiction community THEY advocate for, one must return to a time prior to the invention of science fiction. A positively medieval time.
But perhaps the most appalling concept in THEIR screeds is this: that any one individual or group has the right to suggest who is or who isn’t a FAN. Fandom decides that.
Fortunately, their efforts are bound to fail. They’ll fail because of the very same lack of understanding of science fiction and science fiction fandom that THEY so eloquently display on a nearly daily basis. THEY don’t understand that you can’t make a FAN. And THEY don’t understand that you can’t unmake a FAN either.