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The fandom & the fandom

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I was reading a blog post recently which described YA fiction containing spaceships and other overt science fiction tropes as “hardcore” – as a means to distinguish it from other science fiction YA. Of course, in YA “dystopian” is a genre rather than a description of a setting; and now it seems “science fiction” is a setting rather than a genre…

And it occurred to me  – not so much that this was not what science fiction is, but more that it was a different way of looking at science fiction.

It’s an established fact that science fiction fandom is greying. Where once enough people joined each year for sf fandom to grow, that’s no longer true. And yet science fiction as a genre has become ubiquitous. Obviously a proportion of consumers of sf probably think of themselves as fans – but they’re not in fandom. Either because they’re not invested enough in science fiction to do more than passively consume it, or… they have their own fandom. After all, “sf fandom” as we commonly use the phrase refers to a specific group of people, it’s not just a generic term for all active consumers of the genre. It’s a community which traces its beginnings back to the early part of the twentieth century, when groups of like-minded people met up in various cities around the globe to celebrate a specific mode of literature. Over the years and decades, the community and its activities have formalised – resulting in conventions, fanzines, jargon, an entire support infrastructure for the category sf publishing industry, but also support for those who offer first-line support to the publishing industry…

But there are other sf-related fandoms now. And some of them are doing very well indeed – as Worldcon attendances have declined, so Dragon*Con attendances have risen. Which is why that blog post about “hardcore” YA sf put me in mind of China Miéville’s novel about two cities which occupy the same space but refuse to acknowledge that relationship.

This is not to say there are no crossover points – NineWorlds is a good example of one. (I’ve never been, it clashes with a music festival I’d sooner attend; and yes, I’d rather camp in a field and listen to lots of metal bands than spend a night in that awful hotel in Heathrow.) There are also a number of blogs which transit freely through various forms of genre fandom. But if there are those who do not restrict themselves, there are also those who police the border. The fandom & the fandom has its very own Breach: the Hugo Awards. To be fair, the Hugos were created as a celebratory tool by those original sf fans, but now it seems the awards do little more than help provide a structure badly needed by a decaying community which refuses to acknowledge its time is past. The Hugo rules have fossilised practices which haven’t been true for decades, but no one wants to change those rules. Or rather, those in the best position to effect change are too busy fighting against change.

It seems foolish in the extreme for sf fandom to ignore YA genre fiction. The biggest-selling genre authors of the past couple of decades are YA authors – JK Rowling, Stephenie Meyer and Suzanne Collins. And each of their series has gone on to become highly-successful film franchises. It’s not as if YA sf is some strange new never-seen-before creature. Back in the day, they called the books “juveniles” and both Heinlein and Asimov, much-lauded writers in traditional sf fandom, openly wrote them. But past attempts to create a Best YA Novel Hugo have all foundered. Some say YA fiction should be treated like other fiction – if it’s good enough, it’ll be nominated for best novel; and JK Rowling did win the Hugo in 2001. But that doesn’t hold water. YA, as noted above, looks at science fiction differently; it is shelved in its own separate section in book shops; it has its own separate fandom… And it’s that latter point where the problem lies. YA sf fandom cannot be subsumed into traditional sf fandom. That’s never going to happen. Nor do fans get “promoted” from YA sf fandom to sf fandom – that’s not how it works. Plus, there are plenty of career sf authors currently writing YA fiction, so to continue to ignore it just looks like sheer spite.

Personally, I’ve no interest in reading or writing YA sf. But that doesn’t mean I think sf fandom should exclude it. I’d say sf fandom, and the Hugo Awards, are in danger of making themselves irrelevant, but that horse has long since bolted. This year’s Hugos have prompted a conversation online about change, about what needs to be done in order to halt their decline. The sort of major changes that are needed will never happen – the system is designed to prevent it – but two indicators of the need for a change I do expect to be reflected in the 2014 shortlists…

If the best fan writer and best fanzine shortlists are comprised entirely of candidates from paper fanzines, then the old guard have won and the Hugos are dead. If they comprise only bloggers and blogs, then that’s a step forward and there’s a possibility the Hugos can save themselves. But I think I’d go a little further: if a YA novel makes it onto the best novel shortlist, then there may be real change in the air…

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7 thoughts on “The fandom & the fandom

  1. The demography of fandom is nowhere near as clear as you suggest: fandom is older by average than it was 50 years ago in part simply because it has all age groups. Once it didn’t.

    Furthermore, holding up Dragoncon as an example is problematic because that young fandom may (I only say may) be a result of making a convention that is quite hard for people in their early thirties with small children (no child care at all). For a convention that has been running a couple of decades, I’d say there is a suspicious lack of the older (by which I mean over 35) fan. I felt positively ancient at 45.

    The other issue maybe that simply staying in one place is a major reason for a convention to grow: it’s probable Wiscon would have grown had it not had a cap.

    With regard to the Hugos: I’m neutral. But a youth book award voted on by people in their 30s and 40s is a very strange thing.

  2. I think you’re missing my point. I’m suggesting that the presence of a YA novel might suggest engagement in the Hugos by younger fans. And that a good way to encourage that engagement is for fandom to welcome YA fiction.

  3. Ian’s totally right. The Hugos should be doing everything they can to embrace YA – or even fiction for young to intermediate readers. That’s how you build life-time fans. Everyone needs a path. The Hugos should be posting signs.

    • I’m not missing your point. I’m responding after years of being involved with YA fiction and noting the mockery with which awards for YA /kids books given by adults are often received.

      Let’s say we accept your argument (and I’m not agin it), what happens when the award voters ignore the most popular book of the year? Which they might well. Do we call them out of touch?

      A better route might (and again, I have not made up my mind) be another Not a Hugo for which YA members can vote.

      (On the Hugo’s generally I would support a complete overhaul of the awards rather than just tinkering.)

    • That last one was to Ian, sorry.

      Michael: what was your path to sf? Mine was through contemporary sf writers. The survey I did for the Inter-Galactic Playground (2009) suggested this is still the norm. YA Fantasy does seem to be a path to Fantasy tho. I find it fascinating that two related genres seem to have different routes in.

      • My path was comic books and C.S. Lewis. Narnia, then the Space Trilogy. From there, it was Piers Anthony, Asimov and Clark. After Clark it was everyone. Loved what I called real science fiction – a the definition of which is personal and probably non-transferable and ultimately irrelevant.

  4. The ignoring of YA is odd to me, considering that in the 1950s, most of the “old masters” were writing what were then called “juveniles,” i.e. YA-SF by another name. But I guess the juveniles were considered to be integrated into SF fandom, and that speaks to your argument–and I totally agree that this is a terrible logic.

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