Politics and Fandom

The more I research fandom in the 1930s, the more fascinated I am by how politically charged it was. This is hardly surprising considering the political climate of the time. To say that the years leading up to World War II were politically charged is like saying “Apple’s products are kind of popular” — that is, a massive understatement. On the fandom side, according to Sam Moskowitz’ book The Immortal Storm, there was a great deal of debate about the purpose of science fiction. Some believed that science fiction should exist only for the promotion of science itself, that the whole point was to encourage young people to go into careers in the sciences and thus to further the technological might of the United States. Others were less enthused with that idea and just wanted to read some good stories. Later there were the Michelists, part of the Futurians — leftist fans who put out a call for science fiction fans to take a direct stance against the forces of facism, saying that if fandom did not evolve into a true political engine it would surely die (see John B Michel’s speech Mutation or Death). This got to the point that the infamous Exclusion Act at the 1939 WorldCon was the direct result of political infighting about the Michelism; and there are even old fans to this day who still have a bit of an attitude about it.

Curiously, the fans themselves were, for the most part, socially conservative. While there were a few outliers, if you look at photographs from that time period, they all seem to be young men with a habit of dressing in white button down shirts and slacks. David Kyle’s 1998 report about his role in the Exclusion Act says as much about them – Ray Bradbury and Forrest Ackerman were the only fashion outliers, with Ray in a colorful striped shirt and Forrest arriving in costume. I’m still trying to get an angle on their inner thoughts and motivations by reading their memoirs, so I’ll report more on that later; but thus far what I’ve read fits what I’ve deduced from photographs and con reports.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that this hasn’t really changed at all. Every post in Fandom Secrets (my personal thermometer for How Fandom Is Feeling Right Now) inevitably has some sort of massive fight about some political issue or other. These days it’s often over gay rights and transgender issues, mostly from slash fans and anti-fans. Some slash fans are vocal proponents of gay rights; others, interestingly enough, violently oppose gay rights despite enjoying the genre. And again, as a friend pointed out to me, slash fans – particularly fans of ‘yaoi’, which is a particularly Japanese form of male/male slash – tend to be socially conservative, with the vast majority of their stories conforming to oddly heteronormative conceptions of relationships: one partner, the “top” or “seme” conforming to the idea of the breadwinner, the “bottom” or “uke” being the stay-at-home shrinking violet to be swept off his feet (not always true of course! There are MANY fans who outright dislike this sort of thing too).

Then there’s racewank and genderwank, aka the ongoing arguments in fandom over race in the media we consume and how that affects fandom and fan writings (such as fanfiction). There is a largely white bias in media and in fandom, and this becomes an issue of heated debate that touches upon many larger issues, such as the current immigration debates.

This in turn makes me wonder about how the political scene in, say, the 1960s and 70s played out in fandom. What kinds of fights did fandom have around Vietnam, and where was the dividing line? Were certain fans of certain media more inclined to be pro or against the whole thing? And then what about today? In the fan sites I frequent, the fans usually have a more liberal bent: they are largely pro gay rights, largely anti-fox news, largely democrats. But that’s not always the case, and the fracturing comes when the other side comes in. It’s something I’m sadly ignorant of – who are the conservative fans? Where are they? What kinds of things do they like, and what fandoms are more conservative? Which ones are more liberal?

There’ve probably been essays on this elsewhere, more intelligent than I’m capable of writing, particularly on the whole “slash and the LGBTQ community” issue (My god there’s a LOT of writing out there on slash, but not a lot on the rest of fandom – kind of a shame, because while slash is all well and good it’s hardly the be-all and end-all of what fans turn out).

So readers – your thoughts? What political fractioning have you seen in your fandoms? How do your fandoms lean? Is fandom inherently political, and are political fights inescapable? Other thoughts…?

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  1. #1 by Allandaros on April 14, 2011 - 6:58 pm

    For the more conservative side of SF fans, the place which first comes to mind is Baen’s Bar, the forums for Baen Publishing. David Drake, David Weber, John Ringo, Tom Kratman (blugh), Michael Williamson – their readers are more on the conservative side of things, especially those last three.

    Also, using Fandom_Secrets as a barometer for all of fandom seems to be a very fraught proposition.

    • #2 by Lucien on April 14, 2011 - 7:07 pm

      It’s not for all of fandom – F!S is quite biased since it’s only the LJ contingent. But it’s still a nice trickle-down for what large sections of fandom are currently flipping tables about. I had no idea Racefail ’09 even existed until I started reading F!S.

      It does lack a significant SF Lit and Tabletop presence though. Also it’s full of idiots.

      and that’s good to know re: Baen’s bar. I’ll… be careful of those gentlemen then (given your BLUGH comment)

      • #3 by Allandaros on April 14, 2011 - 7:21 pm

        Tom Kratman is the only one who I would add a blugh about, not the other guys.

        John Ringo, of course, gets a OH JOHN RINGO NO, but that’s different. :P

      • #4 by Lucien on April 14, 2011 - 7:26 pm

        Heh! I’ll give them a look then.

        Preferably when I’m not procrastinating on my other homework by doing blog entries.

  2. #5 by Song on April 14, 2011 - 7:39 pm

    I haven’t so much paid attention to the broad political sides as represented in fandom, but individual issues are heavily apparent, as you state.
    I currently I have the opportunity to bring up abortion in a game. I was going to let it pass over for the most part, but now that I’ve read this, I’m tempted to make a big deal of it and watch what happens. If the results are interesting, would you like me to report back?

    • #6 by Lucien on April 14, 2011 - 7:40 pm

      On the one hand, I’d be very interested to know what your findings are; on the other, I wouldn’t want you to accidentally alienate any players on my behalf! Still, would be interesting to see…

      • #7 by Song on April 14, 2011 - 7:49 pm

        That’s thoughtful, but I think most of them are used to my “devil’s advocate” ways by now~
        and I was frankly looking for an excuse…
        I’ll let you know if anything comes of it.

        • #8 by Lucien on April 14, 2011 - 7:50 pm

          Good luck then! And please do let me know.

  3. #9 by Worker on April 17, 2011 - 6:17 pm

    I have to agree that to whip up a functioning,
    all-encompassing fan thermometer would (not is, in regards to my opinion on the matter that such an undertaking would be considerably difficult given the fractious nature of sci-fi fandom) be a hard thing to do.

    I speak from the experience of someone who got into ‘mainstream’ science-fiction fandom through an a priori ‘fringe’ element, and both a poorly represented and marginally respected one, and in the last ten years has more or less been intentionally distancing himself from its bulk (i.e. core fandom). I don’t think I was ever really ‘into’ the whole thing; I think I wanted to be but the opportunities I was offered and chances I could’ve taken mainly arose at a point in my life where my social and emotional development was extremely stunted.

    I don’t believe necessarily that science-fiction fandom is as a whole regressing inwards and its core coccooning itself in some variation on self-perceived vulnerability (or just developing an emotionally-dead thick skin), but I feel strongly that certain chunks of the fandom or occasionally individual people (this would be best represented by certain authors or artists, but not always exclusively so) feel ‘above the herd’, that when a body talks about ‘living in one’s parent’s basement’ that it doesn’t apply to them by default; rather that it’s the ‘other weird guy’ to whom it does. Like any social group, sci-fi fandom has its own pecking order, but in my opinion it both a) does not require it for its own positive development and b) only serves to alienate more tenuous members of its population, which to be blunt is exactly what I’ve dealt with in the last decade of my (presumably) being part of it.

    Maybe I’m looking at all of this with rose-coloured glasses and thinking that social order is somehow bound to be fair. I know from life in general it isn’t, but I guess I hoped for more from an industry that would’ve never had a chance at survival were it not for _all_ of the fans over the last several decades.

    Do me a favour and prove me wrong, even if I do give this up.

    • #10 by Lucien on April 18, 2011 - 4:20 am

      Hmm, I’m having a little trouble figuring out what you’re asking here…? Are you asking me if I think SF fandom is dying, or if I think it’s changing, or what?

      It’s kind of a complicated question; I’d like to hold off on answering until I have a better idea of what it is you’re trying to find out.

  4. #11 by Kevin Riggle on May 27, 2011 - 1:08 am

    In the late 60′s and early 70′s tensions in fandom over the Vietnam War rose to such a pitch that there were two groups who took out full-page ads in a couple big SF magazines signed for and against the war by noted fen and pros (the March 1968 F&SF, pp. 45 and 130, and the June 1968 Galaxy, pp. 4 and 5, my notes say). Joe Haldeman (himself a Vietnam vet) was my resource for that, and he might be a good resource for what you’re doing — he’s in Cambridge and teaches at MIT for the fall term, I’d be happy to make the introduction if you’d like.

    I associate the most conservative fen today with Jerry Pournelle, who was one of the headliners of the aforementioned ads. Middle-aged or older, white, straight, male. Mostly reads and writes milfic, so also of course associated with Baen. Analog is the most conservative of the big three magazines, with F&SF second and Asimov’s third (but still notably more conservative than I’d like). Mostly I find the conservatives boring, though, so I don’t read them. (If SF is the literature of change, isn’t “conservative SF” a contradiction in terms?)

    • #12 by Jensen on May 27, 2011 - 1:45 am

      Hi, Kevin! First, thanks for your comment. Second – I’ll absolutely see if I can find those issues and take a look myself.

      I both agree and disagree with you about “conservative SF” being a contradiction — if anything, SF should embrace alternative ideologies and concepts by its very nature. However, at the same time, SF is an excellent tool for speculating on all viewpoints, liberal AND conservative, and pointing out the flaws in both. If anything I see it as more of a tool of exploration, if that makes sense.

      • #13 by Kevin Riggle on May 27, 2011 - 2:34 am

        I was being a bit flip. ;-)

        I mean “conservative” in the sense of “reactionary” more than in the way it’s used to describe political ideologies in the US, I think. In that sense conservative SF is about change that ultimately fails to happen — see most technothrillers, for instance; at the end of the story, the status quo ante is restored — which, you’re right, is still SF in the broad sense.

        I tend to read those stories as SF tragedies, though, more than the authors usually intend. I come to SF looking for positive change in my literature, and the possibility of positive change is even the thing which I think makes SF distinct among literary genres — maybe I should amend “the literature of change” to “the literature of positive change”. So I’m always a bit disappointed when stories fail to depict it. If I want to read about the status quo and its preservation, there are many more genres available to me than if I don’t.

        Which isn’t to say that all stories need to depict positive change actually occurring — there’s a lot to be learned from changes that fail to happen or changes that fail to have the desired effects, and I like stories that depict that. But mostly the failure of change I see in conservative SF .

      • #14 by Kevin Riggle on May 27, 2011 - 2:36 am

        (augh, my hand brushed the trackpad and clicked post :/)

        That last sentence should be, “But mostly I don’t get that out of conservative SF.”

    • #15 by Jensen on May 27, 2011 - 2:51 am

      Hm, WordPress isn’t letting me reply to your latest reply, so I’ll do it here.

      Anyway, by that argument I can absolutely see what you’re saying; and yeah, conservative SF isn’t my cup of tea either.

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