Archive for April, 2011

A very short update

Hello everyone! I am currently in the black deathgrip of a little thing I like to call the End Of Term Deathmatch. It’s me vs final projects, winner take all.

As such, updates will be nonexistant for a few days. No worries – I’m working on a few great things, the biggest of which is trying to get that Kickstarter thing up and running (getting a shiny attention grabbing graphic is my current problem – hopefully a surmountable one. I’m thinking of maybe trying to evoke Metropolis since they showed it at Nycon1). Other bits and pieces include starting to do a little freelance magazine writing on the side (exciting and scary, both.)

No worries though – I’ll be back with more stories and musings than you’ll have time to read come May. For now, I’ll leave you with the curious fact that Arthur C Clarke actually wrote a bit of self-insert fanfiction back in the day. The title is “A Short History of Fantocracy” and it was serialized in Fantast in 1942. The plot involves Clarke, Forrest J Ackerman, and their friends taking over the world with an itching ray. True story. So if you’ve ever been embarrassed about your secret fanfiction habit, well, Clarke turned out alright in the end.

Another quick note: you’ll notice I changed the theme. The neon rainbows were starting to drive me slightly bonkers, and I felt they looked unprofessional. While I’m not too fond of the dark gray color scheme, it’s nothing I can’t fix later with a little CSS tweaking, and the layout is much closer to my ultimate design. Eventually I’m going to cook up a delightful custom theme and class up the joint, but for now, well, at least you can find everything.

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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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Old fandom – flotsam and jetsam

When you write creative nonfiction, citing your sources isn’t generally something you do. It does happen, certainly, but those citations tend to be in the backs of the books or in footnotes, sort of tangential. At least, so I’ve discovered thus far. I could be wrong, and some nice commenter could show up and slap me in the face to inform me of how wrong I am, but in the books I’ve read – yes, even the ostensible histories – most of the time you don’t have some long bibiliography done in perfect MLA or APA format.

Let me tell you, it’s liberating.

But at the same time I still feel like something’s lacking. I certainly don’t miss having to attribute every line to someone (as I had to in high school and undergrad) but then again I find fascinating stuff in my sources. There’s something about the character of these primary source documents that really changes how you look at them, quirky little asides and so on that alter perception.

This is especially true when some of my primary sources are so much fun. For example, the last section I submitted for class was on the 1939 WorldCon and the conventions leading up to it. Let me tell you, these were exciting times. These conventions were the birth of cons, and they really show both how the more things change, the more things remain the same.

The First Five were more like glorified club meetings than actual conventions. The only difference was that they involved people from out of state and a professional presence. Other than that, they seemed to involve a lot of rule-making and passing of motions (SF clubs back in the 30s were big on Passing of Motions and Seeming Important.)

And a lot of infighting.

A lot. of infighting.

I’m not going to go into too much detail here, but I will give some links to the primary sources I’m using to reconstruct these events, so you can peruse them on your own.

First, has a lot of great short articles, namely a list of conventions. These entries are pretty incomplete. I got a lot more of my information from these fanzines covering the first Worldcon, Nycon 1. The second link on that page has a more detailed summary of the first conventions in it.

For a little more information on Third Eastern, it’s best to look at it from the perspective of
Michelism, since that’s really what defined that particular con. The speech Wollhiem gave for Michel is available here. It is delightfully bombastic and wonderfully serious, with a real sense of dire emergency and an air of urgency surrounding it. Fandom was serious business, ladies and gentlemen.

Now, for the first Worldcon, the very best source is the aforementioned fanzine index, but also this official souvenir booklet. The earlier Fandom Wank link to the bit about the Exclusion act (This one!) is honestly the best source for information on that debacle.

Hopefully I’ll be able to make a more substantial entry on the early cons once I get more research done! It’s a long hard road.


In other news! I’m hoping to have more time to devote to this blog soon – right now I don’t due to classes. This summer though, I should be able to go 100%! You can expect more fun entries soon.

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Con Report – PAX East

I was sitting on the Red Line of Boston’s T, going from South Station to Park Street with a friend I’d known for exactly twenty-four hours to crash on his dorm room floor because I didn’t want to deal with the sudden drama my friends had fallen into, nor did I want to take the long trek back down the agonizingly slow B line to get to my apartment near Harvard Avenue. While there, we spotted some people wearing bright red badges, just as the train ground to a halt.

Stuck. Again. But that’s Boston for you.

“Hey,” I said to the guys with red badges. “Kart DS?”

“Nah, we don’t have it,” one said.

“You don’t need it, but it’d be too laggy without,” I replied. “Pictochat, then?”

“Sure!”

At once, the ten of us all whipped out our various iterations of the Nintendo DS and began furiously scribbling pictures at each other. A few more people further down joined in, saying hello from the back of the train.

This was the Penny Arcade Expo East, or PAXEast, the greatest videogame convention in the world.

Actually, PAXEast is my favorite of the conventions I’ve been to. I don’t say that lightly, either. It’s easy to fall into the trap of shouting BEST. CONVENTION. EVER! The second you get back from wherever you are – the giddy high of spending the weekend with excited people who share your interests tends to have that effect on you. Indeed, I’ve done it before. But with PAXEast, I’ve sat back. I’ve looked at the convention objectively, thought about how it was organized, what it does, the people I met outside my main group of friends. I can’t deny it.

I admit, I’m biased. In terms of my nerd-dom, I think of myself as a gamer, first and foremost. This is peculiar, I admit – you’d think that as a writer, I might think of myself as an SF fan; or you’d look at my deep addiction to webcomics and think ah yes, a comic book fan. I only own two consoles, and while my computer is powerful, I bought it for my graphic design work.

But I love games. I love gamer culture. I love talking about games, I love playing games, I love writing about games. Tabletop, console, RPGs, shooters, puzzle games and casual games, I love ’em all.

Which means I’m biased. PAX caters to me in a specific way; unlike, say, an anime con (I only like a few very specific anime and don’t consider myself an anime fan) or even an SF con (I love SF; but the fan-culture isn’t really my thing), this is a con for me. Even back when all I knew about were anime cons, I always went for the gaming room (in Otakon’s case, I also went for the LARP). And PAX is nothing but games! Everything in it is stuff I am interested in!

But even taking out my bias, stepping back and going okay, if I was more detached from gaming in general, how would I feel about it… it’s still an amazing con.

I think I’ll qualify this by saying that PAX is the best large con I’ve been to. Large cons are different animals than small cons – the sheer number of people means you have different logistical problems, a different feel, different demographics and different scheduling. It’s like comparing grapefruits to clementines – they’re both citrus fruits that you have to peel, but you eat them for entirely different reasons and in different circumstances.

So what is it about PAX that makes me say that it’s my favorite (besides the gaming thing)?

The biggest thing is that despite being a large con in every way, PAX still feels like a small con. What I love about small cons is the intimacy, the feeling that you can really talk to the guest speakers, and the friendly camaraderie you get with the other attendees. At most large cons, you go with a small group of your friends and try desperately not to get overwhelmed. At PAX, it’s ridiculously easy to make new friends, no matter what you’re doing. I talked to journalists, I chatted with game designers, I played pick up games of just about everything you can imagine. In lines I could shout HEY, MARIO KART TIME!? And people would instantly open their handhelds to play with me, no questions, no “who are you???”

Part of this is, again, due to what fandom we’re talking about. Gaming culture, despite the stereotypes, is focused around interactivity. Tabletop games need people to play together; handheld games are designed to be taken out and played with friends; multiplayer games are by their nature interactive; and even single-player games invite discussion (“Dude, SHODAN in System Shock 2 is STILL the best villain; but oh my god those monkeys kill me every time!”)

But the rest I think just has something to do with the way PAX is run. For instance, there’s a lounge in one corner of the convention center filled with beanbag chairs for attendees to just take a rest. It’s ostensibly the handheld gaming area, but it’s really the naptime zone, and to be honest this is a brilliant idea. Conventions are exhausting, and a little quiet place to chill out and recharge keeps everyone happy, and if you’re not sleeping you can chat up the person next to you.

Then there’s also the volunteer staff. You can already tell by the name that they’re something special. Where most cons have “gophers” or “volunteers,” PAX has Enforcers. Wait, let me say that in a more fitting way: ENFORCERS! The very name commands respect. It makes the attendees see these people as persons Of Authority (Capital Letters); and it makes the people doing the enforcing feel important and perhaps even cool. This really does work – every Enforcer I talked to practically gushed with enthusiasm and pride. Which isn’t to say that the volunteers at other cons don’t feel this way: it’s just that Enforcer culture is something different. They’re a community year-round, not just at the con, they have their own private message board where they keep in touch, they have meetings throughout the year, their own way of talking to each other and their own sort of dress code (Men wear kilts. So many. It’s awesome.)

This in turn means that they’re kind and courteous; they’re enthusiastic and they’re fans too. This is so different than some other cons I’ve been to, where volunteers could be outright rude. They were willing to take weird suggestions and roll with some of the craziest stuff. On Saturday night, for instance, a few friends of mine wanted to start an impromptu dance party (as we called it, “Shut Up And Dance”). We couldn’t quite find the numbers of people we wanted though, so we wandered down the hall, and found another group with their own dance party, called /Dance after the command used in most MMORPGs to cause characters to start dancing. Then one of the Enforcers got a portable table with a laptop and some big speakers and DJ’d for us, at the same time making sure we didn’t clog the halls and keeping us safe. At any other con I’ve ever been to, the volunteer or gopher would have broken up the party and told us to take it outside or to a hotel. At PAX? We got to thirty people and danced for four hours.

I was so impressed by the Enforcers that I’m absolutely going to volunteer next year, and if I can I’m going to try to hit the West Coast version of PAX, PAX Prime. I’m hoping my assessment of “best con ever” holds true.

Overall something about the experience felt special. I got the same intimate fuzzy feelings of friendship that I did out of small cons, but with the feeling of being right there at the heart of the industry, of seeing the magic happen that I do at big cons. I can’t wait for next year.

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