Tag Archive | fans

Pining for Commander WASP and his sidekick, Biff; or, your sf/f golden age not the only one

The May 14, 1921 cover of Argosy All-Story Weekly,  illustration by P. J. Monahan

The May 14, 1921 cover of Argosy All-Story Weekly, illustration by P. J. Monahan

Once again while I was merrily surfing to some of my favorite web sites (when I should have been writing), I came across a link to a ridiculous and judgmental comment on the state of science fiction. More specifically, it was intended as an indictment of the reading tastes of “fans these days” while nostalgically lamenting that the genre is no longer defined solely by Heinlein’s juvenile novels and Niven’s hard SF novels. This is a complaint that I’ve written about more than a few times, but these guys keep finding new ways to make their really bad arguments, and I just can’t sit idly by while the misrepresent both the genre that I love, and the people who love it. This particular person, unlike some of the folks who have inspired me to write on this topic before is not my age or older. He’s young enough that all of those Heinlein juveniles were written more than a decade before his birth, and the Niven books he thinks are definitive were written when he was in diapers and such.

I realize that this means he’s still old enough to look down his nose at fans in their 20s and dismiss them as clueless kids.

Anyway, I’m not linking to the diatribe for reasons. I do think that it is very telling that he cites Hidden Figures as an example of what’s wrong with modern sci fi (never mind that it is historical non-fiction). When I first saw the screen cap of what he said, I had to do some research to figure out who he was. I’d never heard of him. And in the course of doing that, I found that this is a topic he has ranted about many times. And in those longer rants, he asserts again and again not just that he thinks the writings of Heinlein and Niven are the best (which he is perfectly free to believe), but that they defined science fiction—and specifically that Heinlein is the origin of the genre.

Mary Shelly, H.G. Wells, Jules Verne (and others) may have a bone to pick with that assertion.

He also talks a lot about how the perfect protagonist for science fiction stories in Heinlein’s “competent man.”

I get it. I literally grew up on Heinlein. I’ve mentioned that my mom is one of the biggest fans of Heinlein’s stories from the 50s who as ever walked the earth. From the time I was an infant until I was old enough to read myself, Mom would read to me from whatever book she had checked out from the library or picked up at the used bookstore. I read every Heinlein book I could get my hands on during the late 60s, 70s, and into the 80s. And yeah, as a teen-ager in the 1970s, I started reading Larry Niven’s books—not as enthusiastically; I admit I was a bit more taken with Asimov, LeGuin, Pournelle, L’Engle, and Bradbury during those years. But I still liked Niven.

It’s true that Heinlein and Niven were very influential writers who inspired many fans to become writers themselves, and so on. But science fiction wasn’t just those two authors even at that time, and there was a lot of science fiction that existed before either of them wrote their first story.

Also, a lot of their stories haven’t aged particularly well. It happens. It’s called the passage of time. The text may be the same, but we, as people, change over time. Society changes. Our understanding of what certain things about society mean changes.

The image I included above is an illustration for a novel called The Blind Spot, written by Austin Hall and Homer Eon Flint. It was serialized in a number of issues of Argosy All-Story Weekly beginning in May of 1921. It was eventually published in book form in 1951 (it took so long because one of the authors died shortly after publication, and it just took a long time to sort out who had legal right to agree to a re-print), at which point the Forward was written by Forrest J Ackerman, who had been at one time the literary agent of such classic sci fi luminaries as Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and A.E. Van Vogt. At the second ever Worldcon (Chicon I, 1940) at the very first Masquerade ever held at a Worldcon, the second place costume was a person dressed as one of the characters from The Blind Spot. As late as the 1950s, sci fi writers, editors, and reviewers were referring to The Blind Spot as one of the honored classics of science fiction.

By the 1990s, the opinion had changed considerably. The Blind Spot is available on Project Gutenberg. I gave it a whirl. I mean, all those famous sci fi writers of the 1940s and 50s said it was fabulous, right?

Writing styles have changed over the years, so part of why it is difficult to slog through it is just how slow the action is and how dense some parts of the prose are. But, first, it isn’t science fiction. The titular Blind Spot is a place where periodically a magic hole opens to another world. Now, a lot of science fiction does include portals or gateways that aren’t always explained, but the other side of the portal is a temple in this other world, and various people, some of them immortal, hang out in this temple because of prophecies about the opening of the temple and how people who go through it will ascend to god-like powers and so forth. The plot involves necromancy, spirit writing, an immortal queen, the transmutation of people into spirits, and a mystical intelligent flame that enforces the sacred law.

In the pulp era they didn’t have the same kind of rigid genre definitions we’re used to today, so a weird tale like this with elements of magic and psychic powers and a hint at Lovecraftian horror was common. But that’s the thing. This is a story that for several decades was held up as a defining example of the genre. Yet by the 1990s it was being described as a “beloved book devoid of all merit.”

Because we changed. What we are willing to suspend our disbelief for in 2019 is considerably different than the expectations of readers in 1921. Their are spots in the opening chapters of this book when many paragraphs are spent describing how a couple of characters take a train through San Francisco, cross the bay in a ferry, take another train in Oakland, then hire a cab. Modern readers expect if you’re spending that many paragraphs talking about transit that it will eventually figure into the plot, right?

I sincerely doubt that the guy who is upset that the sci fi field doesn’t look like the way he remembers those Heinlein juveniles would think that The Blind Spot is fabulous. Although, given some of his comments about what he perceives as being wrong in what modern fans like, he might like some of the casual racism.

Even in the 50s, science fiction protagonists weren’t confined solely to blond-haired, blue-eyed lantern-jawed Anglo-Saxon Protestant heroes who always beat the bad guys and got the girl. Certainly by the time Niven was writing his most famous books, the genre was more diverse than that.

It’s okay to have personal preferences, but science fiction is supposed to be about leaping into the future. You can’t do that if you have fossilized your brain in the past.

SF-adjacent: the inherent fuzziness of human enthusiasms

Astounding Science Fiction, March 1951 issue, cover art by Paul Orban.

Astounding Science Fiction, March 1951 issue, cover art by Paul Orban.

Camestros Felapton has been doing a fascinating series of posts reviewing sci-fi stories about dinosaurs—it started out specifically stories about dinosaurs that had been nominated for a Hugo, but he expanded as he realized that looking at stories that didn’t get nominated (and analyzing possible reasons why) is also a useful way to look at the science fiction/fantasy field.

In one of those posts he reviews a story that isn’t technically a sf/f story, though it is about the making of a sf/f film and is written by Ray Bradbury. And there was a fascinating conversation that occurred in the comments about edge cases, and the notion of sf-adjacent things. In the post he made a list of topics that sf-fans are sufficiently enthusiastic about that stories (even non-fiction ones) with that element might be considered part of the sf category:

  • Space travel
  • Rockets
  • Robots and Artificial Intelligence
  • Dinosaurs

I don’t, by the way, disagree with him at all in his definition of things that can be considered sf-adjacent. The list is great, as far as it goes. I would rephrase it a bit:

  • Manned space travel/astronomical phenomenon
  • Rockets and satellites and unmanned spacecraft
  • Robots and Artificial Intelligence (modern readers)
  • Dinosaurs and extinct mega-fauna

It could be argued that I’m just being pedantically specific with a couple of these. But, stay with me: I very seldom met a fellow dinosaur enthusiast who wasn’t also equally excited to talk about Mammoths, Smilodons, giant Sloths, Dire Wolves, giant Tortoises, and other extinct non-dinosaurs of the Pleistocene. A news blog I follow used to have a contributor who regularly posted stories about new fossil finds, paleontology, and such, with the tag “dinosaur news” and there would always be at least one comment from someone whenever the extinct animal in quest wasn’t actually a dinosaur. And they were usually of the “well actually” type of comment. So she started including a note to the effect that she knew this thing wasn’t a dinosaur, but that people who were interested in such paleontological news stories often found them with “dinosaur” as a search term.

And this gets to why I expanded the first two bullets to be more explicit: there is a significantly large fraction of science fiction fans who are almost pathologically pedantic. Such a person might insist that the term “space travel” should only refer to people moving through outer space, for instance. Of course, another person might object to rockets being a separate category. And anyone might ask why manned space travel is separate from rockets and satellites. To me, space travel is about the experience of traveling in space, while rockets is about the technological and engineering problems of the vehicles and such themselves. Similarly, things that we learn about distant objects in the universe through telescopes and other sensors are a different topic than the sensors themselves and how they are made.

I added the “modern reader” qualifier to the third bullet because I think for sf/f fans who were alive in the 50s and 60s and actively reading sf/f published at that time (so, maybe people born before 1948-ish) that the third category would have been “Robots and computers” which could be argued subsumed AI, but any computer topic seemed futuristic at the time, whereas just plain computers have been humdrum for a while. Further, I suspect that the Robots and AI section will morph again when the young children of today become active consumers of sf/f, because a lot of us have AIs on our pockets, now. And many of us have robots in our homes. Robots and AI are swiftly becoming mundane phenomena. I’m not sure what it will morph into, but it will morph.

In the essay in question, Cam clearly says that his list isn’t intended to be exhaustive. And since he wrote the list while in the middle of tracking down, reading, and reviewing stories published between 1952 and 1971, it makes sense that those are the topics that would first come to mind. I think a more exhaustive list could easily include topics from medical and biological sciences, for instance.

Not all science fiction fans are nerdily into engineering and hard science. Many of us are just as interested in the so-called soft sciences (dinosaurs!). For a lot of fans, the appeal is less about how technology works, and more about how technology changes us and society. Most people don’t know how smart phones work, for instance, but everyone has opinions about how our social habits and expectations have changed now that nearly everyone has a magic hunk of glass in their pockets that allows them to communicate with the world. And it’s not just luddites. During one of the panels at Locus Awards Weekend, a panelist commented that you have to keep telephones out of certain kinds of stories. Mary Robinette Kowal (current president of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) agreed: “Right, they are just too dangerous to plots. Pfft! Letting people talk to each other?”

Speculating about what other inventions might change our behavior (collective and otherwise) is a component of sf which is just as importance as how those inventions work. And one of the ways we think about that is to look at how historical inventions and discoveries changed society. You don’t have to know who an automated loom works to be interested in how the cheap manufacture of textiles changed how we live and even how we think about clothes, for instance.

So there are probably fans who would ask why Mechanization isn’t on the list. I might point out that a mechanized loom is a type of robot, so maybe mechanization belonged on the list a few generations ago? Or am I just spinning out of control with all these fuzzy boudnaries?

Because now I’m wondering, if sf-fandom had existed in the early 19th century, before Sir Richard Owen first coined the word “dinosaur,” what might the list have looked like?

Maybe that’s a question for another day

Filling up the gaps, or, why An Archive Of Our Own deserves that Hugo nomination

The actual quote, according to Lewis' Letters to Children (in aanswer to a letter from a child named Denise) was: “I am delighted to hear that you liked the Narnian books, and it was nice of you to write and tell me. There is a map at the end of some of them in some editions. But why not do one yourself! And why not write stories for yourself to fill up the gaps in Narnian history? I've left you plenty of hints—especially where Lucy and the Unicorn are talking in The Last Battle. I feel I have done all I can!”

The actual quote, according to Lewis’ Letters to Children (in aanswer to a letter from a child named Denise) was: “I am delighted to hear that you liked the Narnian books, and it was nice of you to write and tell me. There is a map at the end of some of them in some editions. But why not do one yourself! And why not write stories for yourself to fill up the gaps in Narnian history? I’ve left you plenty of hints—especially where Lucy and the Unicorn are talking in The Last Battle. I feel I have done all I can!”

The Hugo Awards Ballot was released a bit ago (and I linked to at least one post about it at the time), and one of the more interesting items to make it to the ballot was the fanfiction web site, Archive Of Our Own (known to many of us as AO3) in the Best Related Work category. This nomination is, of course, not without some controversy. Best Related Work is usually awarded to works of non-fiction, such as biographies of authors and editors from the field, or collections of non-fiction essays and/or reviews, and so forth, but the definition of the category allows for other things, which bothers some people. This is hardly the first time that something which isn’t clearly a non-fiction book or collection or non-fiction essays has been nominated, and it won’t be the last.

The first objection many people have is that it doesn’t qualify. I think this blog post says it best: Archive of Our Own is a work and its related and I’m really happy that it’s a Hugo finalist.

Cam expanded the official definition of the category into a bullet list and then answered most of the issues. I’m just going to blatantly steal most of it here, then proceed:

  1. Related to the field or fandom. Lots of SF/F in there and by its nature what gets written is out of fanishness. Check.
  2. Either non-fiction or, if fictional, is noteworthy primarily for aspects other than the fictional text. The contents of the archive are fiction but what is being nominated is the thing as an entity. Consider the difference between lots of science fiction novels and a library of science fiction novels. It’s the library that’s being nominated, which includes its contents but which is not the same as its contents. Check.
  3. Not eligible in any other category. Obviously. Check.
  4. Which has been substantially modified during the previous calendar year. I think this is the only weak point in an eligibility argument…

On the last part of the category definition, the archive itself, as a platform, has some significant expansions to the search and filter options. There are a number of other feature improvement during the 2018 calendar year, including: support for several new character sets (which means the works originally written in languages the previously couldn’t be uploaded and read can—it isn’t just emojis!), importing several other fandom archives that were in danger of being lost due to various issues through the Open Doors Project (which isn’t just about importing the contents, but also the relational data and ownership controls), and a change log.

If the argument is that the platform itself and the way it enables fannish activity is what has been nominated, then I think those clearly qualify as significant changes in how the platform worked before.

A related controversy to the questions of whether it is really eligible under the current definition is whether the category definition itself is the problem. One form this argument has taken is that a win for AO3 will open up the floodgates of other weird things being nominated and soon non-fiction books and the like will never be honored again.

Bull!

That’s a slippery slope argument, and there are many reasons logicians consider the slippery slope assertion a logical fallacy. And I’m not wasting any more pixels on a logical fallacy.

An actually debatable aspect to this argument is whether or not non-fiction book-length works deserve specific category of their own, while a separate and more explicitly Miscellaneous category could exist beside it. I think the answer at this time is that we just don’t know if it would make sense to split this into two categories.

One reason I lean against splitting them is that, as it is now, the down ballot categories get the attention of fewer nominators and voters as it is, and I think that added another category isn’t going to help that situation. Whether there are enough items that aren’t non-fiction books at this time to give us more than 6 candidates a year is simply not clear.

Another reason I lean against it is that no matter how categories are defined, there going to be works that don’t clearly belong in them. Books, stories, dramatic works, et al, are works of art. And art is supposed to be creative. Humans are tool-making animals that constantly improve existing tools and invent new ones. There are going to be emerging forms of artistic expression that don’t clearly fit into an existing category. For that reason I’m very comfortable with having at least one of the categories have a flexible enough definition to allow for those unexpected things.

I mean, seriously, if sci fi fandom can’t accommodate novel means of expression, then what is the point of its existence?

And a third reason I lean against splitting the category is that well, some years there aren’t that many excellent non-fiction works of book length concerning sf/f or the fandom published. At least not IMHO. If, when the nominating data is released after the awards ceremony, it turns out that some book-length non-fiction just barely missed making the ballot, that might indicate that we need to rethink the categories. Which is why I said we can’t know, just yet.

Let’s move on to the next controversy: what exactly has been nominated here? Most everyone is going with the argument that it is the platform and the manner in which it promotes and facilitates the creation, collection, and discovery of fanfiction and related information. And I totally understand that interpretation and that is certainly what many of the people who were arguing in favor of nominating it said.

But I want to point you to item number two in Cam’s list above. I really like his analogy of thinking of this as a library that has been nominated. The library as a whole is more than just the sum of its parts, but it also includes those parts. And further, without those parts, it is meaningless. A library with no books at all is just a building with shelves, right?

Well, sort of.

A library is also a system for collection, collating, relating, and distributing books. And that is not an insignificant thing. Which is why a lot of people are pushing the nomination of the platform. But a library is also a system for stimulating imaginations. In that way, a good library is, itself, a work of art.

A library is also a system for education, and more than just as a repository of information. Sufficient exposure to books has the effect of inspiring some people to write books of their own, and so a library is also a system for creating writers, and ultimately, a system for creating more books. Again, the library can’t do that if it doesn’t contain the books that inspire.

AO3 fulfills that phenomenon, too. There are many professional writers working today who started out writing fan fic. And I don’t just mean younger writers reading fanfic online. The internet didn’t exist when I was six years old, and I hadn’t yet discovered the existence of mimeographed-then-sent-through-snail-mail fanzines, yet. But I was writing my own versions of stories I loved at that age. Sometimes my motivation was to tell more stories because I had reached the end. Other times I was unhappy with how a story had turned out, so I decided to write my own version.

All of that is how I got into writing. It’s why I started faithfully reading The Writer and Writer’s Digest in the local libraries. It’s why I started mailing my (at the time very derivative) stories to magazines when I was 12 or 13 years old. It’s why I kept working at it until I started actually getting published (even if it was almost always in very small circulation ‘zines).

The creation and consumption of fan fiction is, in itself, a fannish activity. The conversation, both implied and overt, that happen between the fans and creators of fanfic constitute commentary on the original works that inspired the fan fiction, as well as the phenomena of how people receive and react to narratives and other works of art. Creating fan fiction, for some, is a training ground for going on to create original fiction.

And sometimes, when either the original works have gone into public domain, or when a clever writer changes things just enough that they don’t infringe on trademarks, fan fiction wins Hugo Awards.

So, a platform that facilitates the creation and discovery of hundreds of thousands of works of fan fiction certainly deserves to be in the running for a Hugo itself. And everyone who contributes to it, not just the administrators and programmers, should be proud.

No true Martian… or, the myth of the true fan

Art by Bruce Pennington

Art by Bruce Pennington

I find that if I dither over a blog post I feel strongly about, eventually someone else writes something on the topic that says some of what I want to say much better than I have been. I don’t find the phenomenon frustrating, in fact often the publication of these posts help me hone in on an aspect of the topic which I feel most strongly about in such a way that I can express the idea better. This week, there were multiple posts on the topic of what constitutes a “real fan” that are worth sharing. For instance, Camestros Felapton posted: You don’t control who gets to be fans in which he talks about people who, when faced with evidence that a majority of people like things that they don’t, look for ways to exclude those people from fandom:

“It’s the same con-game as used by Palin, Sad Puppies and most recently by Vox Day… declaring themselves the champions of the ‘real’ fans or the ‘real’ people. If you are leftwing or heck, just want to read comics with more realistic women in them, then magically you aren’t real anymore and your purchases don’t count.”

Many years ago this phenomenon was referred to, in fannish circles, as the True Fan Fallacy. Who gets to decide who is a true fan and who isn’t? But it isn’t just in fandom where it happens (which is one of the point Camestros makes in the above linked post).

From a fairly early age I was frequently teased, harassed, dismissed, and/or bullied for not being a “normal boy.” I was called sissy by other kids, and I was called a faggot and a sissy by various adults—including teachers and pastors—because I was interested in things or acted in ways they didn’t think a boy ought to. Then I was accused of not being a real Christian when I pointed out contradictions between things some religious leaders said and the actual words of Christ recorded in the Bible. Then I was accused of not being a real American for a wide variety of reasons (my favorite is still being told I wasn’t a real American because I believed in the separation of Church and state—you know, a concept championed among the Founding Father’s by both the author of the Declaration of Independence {Thomas Jefferson} and the author of the Constitution and Bill of Rights {James Madison}, and further actually enshrined in the Constitution itself!

Just as this last year I found myself being accused by some people of not being a real Star Wars fan because I actually enjoyed The Last Jedi? Me! Who saw the original Star Wars in theatres on Opening Night as a teen-ager in 1977, and then scraped together money from my part-time job to go see it in the theatre twelve more times that summer. And then stood in line over night to see Empire Strikes Back and two years later again for Return of the Jedi on their opening days. I’m not a real Star Wars fan, though, because I disagree with these man-babies who actually think the original trilogy, which was all about a Rebellion against an Empire, wasn’t political???

And yes, I understand that my invoking my history with the original trilogy sounds an awful lot like gatekeeping. But here’s the thing—I don’t believe that anyone who wasn’t alive back then and didn’t see the movies the same way I did are not fans. I admit that I’m giving those who are so clueless as to think the original trilogy wasn’t about politics some serious side-eye, but I’m not saying they aren’t fans of the original series.

I have a good friend who was barely one year old when the original movie came out—and he’s one of the most passionate Star Wars fans I know. It doesn’t matter that he came to the movies later than me. It doesn’t matter than he and I disagree about some things in the various movies. He’s a fan, and the myth of Luke and Leia and Han and Chewie and Obi Wan belong to him just as much as they belong to me.

This discussion of who is a real fan and who isn’t lately centers around stories where white straight men aren’t the only characters who get to be heroes. Guys are upset that a black man, or a woman, or a non-white woman may get to have major roles in the story. And heaven forfend if some of these characters in the spotlight are queer!

Back in 1983 I was sitting in a theatre on opening day for the Return of the Jedi and I was very confused early on in the movie. Why, oh why, was Jabba the Hutt, a slug-like alien, so lasciviously interested in two different mammalian female characters? I mean, I realize that in a universe with many sentient races, there will be some characters no matter what species who get off on putting any other sentients in leashes, but what possible reason would Jabba have to put Leia in that damn metal bra? It made absolutely no sense to me at all.

I understand that thousands (or maybe millions) of straight fanboys in the audience didn’t notice that discrepancy. I understand that it jumped out at me because I’m a queer guy and I wasn’t distracted by Carrie Fischer’s bared midriff. But that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a valid quibble for me to have with the movie.

Also, for each of the original movies that I saw in those theatres, at every single showing it wasn’t just guys in the audience. There were just as many girls and women in each crowd as there were boys and men. And even in the very whitebread part of the Pacific Northwest where I was living at the time, it wasn’t exclusively white people in those audiences, either. Furthermore, I wasn’t, by any means, the only person sitting in all of those theatres back in 1977 who went home to fantasize about Luke and Han hooking up romantically.

Queer folks, and women, and people of color have been fans of sf/f for as long as there has been science fiction and fantasy. We love those stories and those characters and those worlds just as much as any other fan. We’re buying books and going to movies and watching the series because we actually enjoy those books and movies and series. We’re not pretending. I don’t have the time to watch movies I don’t really like, and I certainly don’t want to spend money on books that I don’t enjoy reading.

You don’t have to like the same things I do, just as I don’t have to like the same things you do. But if the only fiction you object to winning awards is stuff that is written by people of color or women or queer people (and you insist that those authors’ sales are the results of “affirmative action” or “virtue signalling”) you aren’t fooling anybody. Everyone can see your bigotry, and we’re not impressed.

Performative badass—fannish or otherwise

200_sThere once was a fan artist whose schtick at conventions was to viciously attack and destroy plushies. He had a particular hatred for plush toys based on animated characters from programs that he disliked: Smurfs, for example. People would intentionally bring such plushies to his table in dealer dens or artist alleys and watch him scream and shout and foam at the mouth (not always figuratively)… and tear the thing to shreds.

A lot of people thought this was funny. Not just a teeny bit funny, but funniest thing ever in the history of funny things.

The first time I saw it, I was horrified. I was on the other side of the room, looking at some artwork in an artist’s portfolio, when I heard an angry shout. I barely got turned around to see what was happening before this man was standing up, screaming angry insults at what looked like a cowering young man. He lunged across the table, grabbed something (I couldn’t tell if it was a teddy bear, or what), screamed more angry insults punctuated with the phrase “Die! Die! Die!” and proceeded to shred the thing.

This was in the late 1990s, so I didn’t have a cell phone. If I had, I would have been calling 911. I thought this stranger had literally lost his mind. I thought someone was being assaulted.

And half the room (it was a dealer’s den at a smallish/medium-sized convention, so maybe 35-40 dealer’s tables, maybe a couple hundred people in the room) started laughing. “What the heck?” I said aloud. A fan I didn’t know standing next to me said, “Oh, that’s just so-and-so killing another Smurf.”

It was his schtick or signature move. Something he was known for. Everyone knew it was just an act. Several people assured me that he was really quite a sweet guy. He only did it when he knew the person wanted the plushie destroyed. It was all in good fun.

Unless, of course, you weren’t in on the joke. Like me. My heart was pounding like a trip hammer during the display. I was trying to figure out how to get over there and pull the person whose toy was being attacked out of danger. I was wondering why the hell no one else was doing anything. And I bet I wasn’t the only person in the room who didn’t know about this guy and his act.

Over the next few years I had other interactions with the same guy. Online he tended to be a curmudgeon and a crank. If he knew who you were and considered you an established person in fandom, and you happened to disagree with him, his arguments would be snarky, but he’d concede that you had the right to an opinion. If you weren’t in that category, he was a full-fledged asshole.

In person at conventions where I was staff, he behaved in a civil if gruff manner in our exchanges as long as things were going his way. He groused and grumbled and sometimes threatened if things weren’t. When I wasn’t staff, or when I wasn’t clearly identified as such, how polite he acted depended on whether there was an audience, and how big. If the dealer’s den was relatively quiet and he was browsing at my table or the table next to mine, he was soft spoken and almost friendly. If there was a crowd around, he would find reasons to declaim opinions, usually negative opinions, loudly and with colorful language.

I had a very hard time believing that he really was a sweetheart. Yes, some of his behavior was an act. The destroying plushies thing, once you had witnessed it a few times, had a rhythm and repeated sequence of phrases. He was performing. It was part of his brand. Exactly how behaving like a deranged ax murderer toward harmless toys was a brand worth perpetuating I wasn’t very clear about, but that’s what it was.

Performance or not, that doesn’t mean that everyone who witnesses the performance enjoys the experience. Particularly, like me the first time, if you aren’t in on the joke. Even once I was in on the joke, it was still upsetting. I’m a collector, and one of the things I collect is plushies. Anyone who has been to our house has seen that we have otters and tigers and teddy bears and other cute plush animals lined up on top of the bookcases and stashed in other locations. Some of those plushies have a lot of sentimental value. There’s a particular floppy tiger plush that was one late husband’s, for instance. There is a particular mouse in a Christmas scarf that my late husband gave me one Christmas that I have an incredibly strong emotional attachment to. Every time I have witnessed the performance of the destroy the plushie routine at a convention, part of me has wondered how does he know that the person carrying that thing past his table was in on the joke and wanted it to happen?

Call me a softy, but thinking of that happening to an unsuspecting person’s possession by mistake is almost as upsetting as seeing the act without warning was the first time.

If you’ve been involved in any fandom for any significant length of time, you’ve met or seen someone like kill-the-plushies guy. He or she has a schtick, whether it be:

  • partially disrobing in public spaces, declaiming loudly about body positivity, and daring people to be offended;
  • or making sexual gestures and comments at anyone and everyone while commenting to the significant other of said person about how lucky they are to have “that”; 
  • or pontificating loudly about people who don’t have respect for the classics while denigrating some new popular thing;
  • or spinning long humorous tales about how clueless some people are;
  • or being exaggeratedly offended at something and going on long, grandiloquent rants;

…and so forth. 

I’ve been thinking about that guy (and many other fans and pros I’ve known who have a reputation that their badass or angry or asshole behavior is just a schtick or a joke they do), while reading reactions and continued attempts at defending the things that happened to Mike Oshiro at ConQuesT.

Many of the defenders are using variations of the “it’s just a joke” excuse, of course. But there are other similar elements, as well. The fellow panelist who briefly defended himself (then deleted his comments) on the original post by saying, “We’ve been on panels together at conventions before” and “I thought we were friends” is essentially saying, “You should have known it was just an act. I’m really a sweetheart.”

But I think that the notion that he or she is really a sweetheart once you get to know him was also part of the brand. It is just as much a performance as the outrageous behavior. The outrageous behavior is only accepted by some of the audience because they know it’s only an act. They are making a choice when to treat someone with respect, and when to be a badass.

And the fact that often their attempt at apology is to simply say, “But I didn’t mean it that way. I thought you were in on the joke” is all the proof you need that the “sweetheart” part of the act is the least accurate representation of their true nature.

Tribal allegiances

I wore this t-shirt, featuring camping unicorns (Campy-corns!) to this year's Pride Parade and Festival.

I wore this t-shirt, featuring camping unicorns (Campy-corns!) to this year’s Pride Parade and Festival.

I often use the term “tribe” to refer to some of the groups or sections of society that people can be categorized into. According to anthropologists, a tribe is defined by traditions of common descent, language, culture, or ideology. It may seem like a stretch, but I think the term is somewhat useful. Science geeks may not all be related to each other, but we tend to talk in a specialized vocabulary which can seem like a foreign language to other people, for instance. Sci fi nerds will recognize certain quotes from Star Wars or allusions to events in episodes of Star Trek which can leave other people baffled. While My Little Pony fans will make completely different allusions and quotations that are as meaningless to many sci fi nerds as they are to non-fans in general.

I belong to a lot of tribes that don’t always get along. And I continue to be naively surprised when I discover new evidence of this. I still feel more than a bit of shock when I meet a homophobic sci fi fan, for instance. How can you be an enthusiast for science, the triumph of knowledge over ignorance, and the hope of a better tomorrow while clinging to such small-minded backwards thinking?

When I’ve used this particular example in the past, I’ve been told that I’m assuming that these folks are into science fiction for the same reasons that I am; but I’m not talking about their reasons for becoming sci fi fans. I’m talking about what science fiction is. You can’t claim to be a fan of science fiction yet reject the entire premise of science fiction. Rejecting the fundamental premise makes you the opposite of a fan.

The other argument I’ve heard is that being an enthusiast for sci fi is a choice to read or watch certain types of stories and to embrace other cultural aspects of those kinds of stories, whereas being gay is merely a sexual preference. So it is as irrelevant to anyone’s participation in sci fi as another person’s dislike of chocolate. But again, this argument misses the point. My point is if you’re an enthusiast for sci fi stories, you should be knowledgeable enough to recognize that despising someone for their sexual orientation is illogical. Besides, even under the reasoning of this argument, rejecting a gay person is the equivalent of saying that a person who doesn’t like chocolate can never be an astrophysicist.

And not to make it seem one-sided, there are plenty of gay guys who absolutely loathe sci fi nerds.

Similarly, a lot of science geeks look at the sci fi fans within their own ranks with a bit of suspicion or condescension. Just as some Star Wars fans dislike Babylon-5, and some Lord of the Rings fans can’t understand why anyone likes Star Trek, and so on.

I’m always going to be nerd, and not just a nerd, but a geeky nerd. I love physics and engineering and mathematics. I can’t help but see just about everything I observe in terms of causes and effects. So science and science fiction will always intrigue me.

And I love to explore “what if” questions and take them to their ultimate logical conclusion, so all kinds of fantasy—whether it’s about elves and wizards or talking rabbits and conniving ducks or flying heroes and scheming masterminds—is also going to fascinate me.

And I’m a gay man, living in a world where masculinity and femininity are mistakenly believed to correlate with all sorts of personality traits. For instance, there are people who are surprised that I’m a Seahawks football fan, because gay men supposedly aren’t into sports (tell that to all the athletes competing in the Ninth Gay Games this week). Of course they’re probably at least as surprised because science geeks and sci fi nerds aren’t supposed to be into sports, either. I certainly can attest, having worked with engineers and computer geeks for nearly three decades, that there are considerably fewer sports fan in those offices than in other kinds of workplaces.

It is true that I have had a very ambivalent relationship with sports my whole life. In middle school I participated in basketball, wrestling, and track, and in the first year in high school I did cross country and track. But I was never terribly good in any of those sports. One way that was made clear when I moved to a larger town was that I wasn’t good enough to make any of the sports teams (I did intramural soccer for a while, but that was it). And, of course, the best athletes in my schools tended to be the same guys who were most likely to bully me (which didn’t get any better once I became a debate and drama nerd).

I started to make an Euler Diagram, but it got out of hand...

I started to make an Euler Diagram, but it got out of hand…

My point is that I’m forever finding myself on the defensive from my own tribemates. Science geeks and other skeptics are appalled if I describe myself as a believer (I believe in many intangible things that can’t be proven to exist in a lab, such as Compassion, Justice, Mercy, and Love). Hardcore sci fi nerds are freaked out to find out I’m a fan of My Little Pony. Serious readers and literary types are shocked when I praise the writing on a TV show such as Justified (and they completely lose it when they find out what a total fanboy I am for the MTV series Teen Wolf). Many gay people look at me with suspicion because I can quote Bible verses.

And while generally I try not to worry about it, sometimes it feels like the kind of reaction I used to get when I was still trying to be active in church whenever the subject of gay people came up. Or when certain political topics used to come up around my conservative relatives.

I know what full-fledged rejection feels like, and don’t want to go through it again. Try to think about that the next time you’re hanging with a group of friends who share one of your enthusiasms when another group comes up. No matter how horrible of an experience you may have had with that other group, don’t go on and on about how horrible those people were. You’re probably sitting next to one.

%d bloggers like this: