1. In Which Joe Insults Everyone
The road to Fandom is not for the faint of heart. Along this path you shall encounter many terrifying creatures, some of whom smell as offensive as they look. You may be rejected by your peers, looked upon scornfully by adolescents, and, if you are not careful, stuck on the elevator with an overweight twenty-something faux-dominatrix.
Look ye there. Those are phalanxes of the infirm in motorized wheel chairs and little golf cart things. They will not run you over, no for they creep at the pace of starfish. However, if they surround you, they will bore you to the very brink of insanity with tales of their allergies.
Beware the jargon police. If you do not know your ST:TOS from your ST:NG you shall be found contemptible, and tossed back into the ranks of the mundane where you belong. If you do not recognize the BNF at the next table and issue forth the appropriate utterances of recognition and knowledgeability, your punishment will be a lecture including genealogies and lineages establishing provenance even unto the first Futurians.
Along the road to True Fandom, you must labor for every badge of belonging. Although it is widely put about that Fandom is a sub-culture of utopian tolerance, the reality is much different: only the exceptionally strange and transgressive are granted front-of-the-line tolerance passes. Without some bizarre fetish, physical deformity, obsessive-compulsive habit, outlandish costume, or affected pattern of speech, you will have to carefully collect your membership tokens, making friends the old fashioned way.
If you happen to be an author, do not think this means that the Fans are your fans. Many of them don't read. Many of them don't actually have any interest in science fiction. Or fantasy. If you happen to attend a con, be aware that a significant percentage of the people attending are their to show off their second-rate regency gowns made out of grandma's curtains, their collection of hand-painted Napoleonic miniatures, or their new crotchless bunny costumes. But even those who do read almost certainly don't care who you are. Fans have their own circles of celebrity, and until you can filk all night with the best of them, you are unlikely to gain any particular cred in the currency of Fandom.
2. In Which Joe Discovers He's Not a Fan
I myself am a pretty weird guy. I played football in high school.
I played in a town where football was important. I knew I wasn't going to go on to the pros, because I played alongside guys who would. I loved the game, but those guys lived the game.
I had other interests: I liked my science and math classes, and I liked to read science fiction.
I was never a reader by nature: I came to science fiction through Star Trek (ST:TOS). Like every red-blooded American boy, I liked Spock. When I was about six years old, I built a computer out of cardboard, a reel-to-reel tape a musician friend of my parents gave me, and a stack of green and white computer paper I nabbed out of the University trash.
But by high school, I had discovered Isaac Asimov. An uncle gave me The Foundation Trilogy, which I read about six times straight before venturing tentatively into the library to find out if this guy had written anything else. Before long I was hooked on Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein, and was exploring with wonder the worlds of Ursula K. Le Guin, Phillip K. Dick, Samuel Delany, John Brunner, and Philip Josť Farmer. Some of this led me to fantasy, and I read Tolkien, Fritz Leiber, Roger Zelazny. One day I realized, maybe I was a reader after all.
I went to college. I played freshman football--but college football will consume your life, and if you already know it's not going anywhere, frankly, it's a waste of time. Sophomore year, I loaded up on physics and math instead.
It must have been 1980, someone asked me if I was a fan.
"Sure," I said. I was carrying Gateway, the first Heechee book.
"I thought Lucifer's Hammer should have won," he said.
I knew that some books had "Hugo Award Winner" on the cover, which implied that there was an award winning process, but it had never occurred to me to think about that. I would just pick up whatever looked good in the bookstore. (Or, for a time, whatever the Science Fiction Book Club would send me when I failed to check off the little blue box.)
During the conversation that followed I learned that I wasn't a real fan. I learned words like fanzine, Fandom, and Fannish.
All my life I had been a Vikings fan and a Twins fan, and if someone asked me to define 'fan' I would have explained that you are a fan of whichever team you root for. I was more a football fan than a baseball fan. I would have counted myself a Star Trek fan, and certainly a Star Wars fan, so I must be something of a science fiction, fan, right? No, there was no sort-of, when it came to Fandom you were or you weren't, and apparently I wasn't.
There was an intensity in that Fan's enthusiasm that gave me pause.
In high school football (less so in college) there were three kinds of player: those who simply liked to play the game; those athletes whose very natures demanded that they play; and then there were the True Believers. These guys brainwashed themselves into believing that we were a band of brothers, sworn to support each other and kill the enemy -- and we were surrounded by enemies: the opposing teams, of course, but moreso the people who didn't give us the respect we deserved: drama fags and chess nerds and burnouts and those skinny guys on the swim team. There were adults who apparently wanted us to waste valuable practice time by 'studying' or doing 'homework' -- obviously a plot to keep us from reaching our full potential. I think most of these True Believers ended up in the military.
But there was something about that guy in 1980 who reminded me of these True Believers. Something about the mentality of one besieged by hostile forces, a world in which every human interaction was an interaction between the worthy (us) and the ignorant savages who probably have bad intentions (them).
In the same moment I learned about Philcon, and Noreascon, I decided I wanted no part of it. Didn't stop me from reading science fiction, but I didn't make the mistake of calling myself a fan for some time.
3. In Which Joe Goes Back to the Trough
Still, there I was, twenty years later, a mathematician by trade, surrounded by all the surreal chaos of a major regional science fiction con. I felt like more like I had stepped into William S. Burroughs' Interzone than into the pages of the British magazine of the same name. There weren't any people with pulsing, talking assholes in the center of their face, but some of the Klingons weren't far off the mark. And there were plenty of assholes.
It was Lewis Carrol on acid. It was wild, wonderful, and pathetic, all at the same time. I sat down in a plush chair in the hotel lobby and watched it swirl by. Elf maidens, and fairy wings, and legions of pocket-protector nerd-boys surreptitiously squeezing pimples. Tons of Klingons, and a couple of pretty sharp looking Ghostbusters. Patent leather leggings and chain mail bustiers. Tired, middle-aged men limping along with their tired middle-aged wives and bored looking kids sullenly trailing along behind.
But in panels, and a few casual conversations, and even more eavesdropped conversations I found some of my worst fears realized: the place was chock full of True Believers. The best of them, the literate ones, were loud, obnoxious, smarter-than-thou, better-read-than-thou, armed with memorized passages from The Silmarillion and a rudimentary grasp of quantum physics, these Fans weren't on hand to meet their favorite authors: they had shown up to scream Me! Me! Me!
Sure, I got to hear some of my favorite authors talk about their work, and even shake a few hands. But these conventions were not like the ones I had read about. Audience members at panels would ask inane, nonsensical, or inappropriate questions, disrupting the panels. Half the time, the panelists looked like they were just going through the motions, awaiting the moment they could get back to their hotel rooms and lock their respective doors.
If there were brilliant new Heinleins debating the next Arthur Clarke at that con, it wasn't in any bar I spent time in. If a latter-day L. Ron Hubbard was plotting to loose a new crackpot religion on Science Fiction, I didn't hear about it. After the most interesting panels, I met a few people with whom I could at least discuss some of my favorite themes and works in science fiction, but I never found the depth there. Such conversations devolved into lists of related works as participants struggled to demonstrate their street creds.
I vowed to give it a few more tries, but if it was all like that, hell. I had led a perfectly good life just reading the stuff. I could be a small-f fan, couldn't I?
4. In Which Joe Joins the Family
It may have been inevitable. A man named after a plasma containment chamber may be destined for Fandom, high school football or no.
The epiphany came in two parts. The first part took place in the living room of a new friend. I had started going to a science fiction reading group. We met the first Tuesday of every month in someone's house.
It's a good group. Everyone has read a lot of science fiction, and has interesting observations to bring to each book we read. One particular Tuesday, my wife came along. The book that month was Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon. A few of the other participants had also read Gravity's Rainbow, and we had a fine time debating the degree to which Stephenson's tome was a tribute to Pynchon. As I drove home, Lisa observed with some puzzlement that it was a strange group.
"Strange?" I asked. "How so?"
"Well, everyone dresses so poorly."
I was quite angry at her for making so shallow an observation, but the irony of it didn't strike me for a couple of months.
Thanksgiving, 2001, the usual crowd was gathered around the table back in the old country. (Minnesota.) My mother's brother is a fairly tiresome old fellow. He tells the same stories, sometimes back-to-back. Sometimes he starts the same story from the top before he's even finished it. ("Yeah, Bill. It reminds you of that time... because it was that time.") He also has a penchant for ties that are almost as broad as they are long, and painfully bright. That Thanksgiving, I witnessed a scene. My sister was reprimanding her older son for bitching about old Bill. "You don't talk that way about Bill," she said. "He's family. You might not have chosen this family, but it's your family nonetheless."
A strange sequence of neurons fired in my brain. Bill, you see, in his younger, sharper days, had been the one that put The Foundation Trilogy in my curious little hands. "You don't choose your family, but it's your family nonetheless."
I remembered the anger I felt at Lisa for dissing the friends in my reading group, and I realized that the emotion I felt wasn't just at the nature of her observation, but the fact that she was talking about my family.
I remembered my own discomfort with the tiresome, the tedious, and the repellant people I had encountered at the various cons. "You don't choose your family, but it's your family nonetheless."
Now, I don't like everyone in my family. There are some I assiduously avoid, like my other sister's husband who holds a set of extremely ignorant political and social opinions and loves to air them. I don't enjoy his presence, but he's part of the package.
Fandom is not just about cons, nor is it just about fanzines, nor is it just about science fiction. It's a somewhat mysterious family, large enough that there are little branch reunions just about every weekend of the year. Large enough that you don't know everyone, and you never will. And, fortunately, large enough that you will always find someone to help you avoid talking to the blow-hard whose axe just doesn't need to be ground any further.
So, maybe I'll see you at a con somewhere. I'll be that weird guy: the one who looks like a retired football player and dresses like a mathematician.