Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Secretly Mastering Fandom

So I haven't said anything about this yet, partly because I was tired and lazy, and partly because I wasn't sure whether this was supposed to be an actual secret. But this past weekend, I got to go to SMOFcon in Fort Worth. The SMOFs, of course, are the Secret Masters of Fandom - a grand confederation of shadow-dwelling arch-nerds who have devoted themselves to running the non-profit conventions of the world. SFF literary cons, anime cons, gaming cons, you name it. If it doesn't have the word "Comic" in it, these guys are probably at the helm.

And my god, what ferocious captains of industry they are!
Needless to say, I am a tiny, soft-bellied smofling at best - but after hitting up so many conventions this year, it was a huge treat to get to meet some of the people who mastermind them, and spend a weekend talking shop: who's working on what, how the next WorldCon is shaping up, what's dying or coming back or getting good again. It was a convention planner's conference, so I packed my weekend with panels about hotel relationships and guest policies and scheduling apps, and took copious notes at every one (and I realize that probably sounds boring as hell, but let's just say it's been awhile since I've been this excited about programming.)

And yet there was a tension to it all that I didn't expect - maybe the love-hate culmination of a whole year's worth of con-going. My new friend Linda Deneroff expressed it best, I think, when we were talking about the difference between our community and the big media cons: she said, "we operate on a different economy." As in, ours is a culture of volunteering: we're not in the business of charging for autographs or herding 20,000 people through the turnstiles, and except for whatever premium we pay to get George R. R. Martin on the premises, nobody involved nets a dime.

Part of a tribute to Peggy Rae Sapienza - our fannish bodhisattva.
You won't see this at Comic-Con.

That is an amazing thing. I am just absolutely overjoyed and delighted to belong to a community of giving - to be surrounded by people who donate literally years of their lives to creating something for everyone to enjoy. I love our culture of generosity and camaraderie - how we set out free hot dogs and bowls of cheesy-poofs in the consuite so people can eat without killing their wallets, how you can meet The George in the bar or at a panel or wherever and just hang out, how people will host room parties to advertise their con/event or just for the hell of it, and throw the doors wide open for anyone to come and enjoy. It all makes for this delightful, hugely addictive atmosphere, and I'm just massively in love with it.

This was part of the video archaeology project - restoring footage from years past.
The panel on the screen was from a discussion on feminism at the 1976 WorldCon
- which inspired the creation of WisCon.

But the thing is... it's one thing to donate your time. It's another thing to rely from top to bottom on a comprehensive system of unpaid labor. (And I'm not singling out fan conventions here - writers conferences do it too.) From organizers to boots-on-the-ground henchpeople to guests and presenters - nobody gets paid. Ever. And I mean, I get it: that's what keeps the cost down, so the event stays accessible to everybody - or at least as many people as possible. But here's the kicker: we're kind of failing on the 'everybody' front. Those corporate big-box media cons beat the pants off us here. Comicpalooza and A-Kon and Dallas ComicCon are full of young people, small children - whole families. And they aren't nearly as monochromatic.

Maybe it sounds crass to count census demographics. It's a little hypocritical to criticize a surfeit of squishy white people when you are one. But the town, city, and state I've lived my whole life in are all 40-50% minority, and it never stops feeling weird to go from the huge mix of everyday folks around me to a con, or to workshop, or to a writers conference, and find myself in a venerable white wonderland. It feels like the other half of the world just got quietly filtered out while I wasn't looking - like they just disappeared.

Which is a big reason why the 1956 Hugo Awards...

...still look a whole lot like the 2013 Hugo Awards

More importantly, and more to the point: this is SUCH an awesome community, and I really want it to become as inclusive as it's trying to be (and it IS trying). I want it to be a place by and for all the fans, not just one where they're all theoretically welcome.

I don't blame the SMOFs for that (though I wish there had been some substantial discussion of these things at the con). Honestly - it's a weird, broken world out there, y'all, and not surprising that our social microcosms still reflect that. Race and age and money and the luxury of time - they're all part of the same big ugly muddle that's still tripping up our whole society, and sometimes it's hard to have any hope for improvement. Sometimes you just get so swept up in the joy of seeing the people who ARE there that you don't notice or think about the ones who aren't.

But I tell you what: the power of nerd-love built this house, and I believe it can open the doors even wider. The people I hung out with this past weekend raised this community up from the foundation - from the first tiny Star Trek conventions and fanzines to the massive, million-dollar WorldCons we put on today. They've done phenomenal work in forging this space, and wide-eyed nooblets like me have already benefited enormously from their efforts. If we carry the torch even half as far as they have, we'll have something even more incredible - a worthy legacy for their work, and a community that continues to honor the forward-looking dreams of all the best science fiction.

After all, we're nerds. The future is what we do.

1 comment:

  1. As an Asian-America raised by white people in a northern suburb where I was typically the only minority in my class, and sometimes my grade, I do notice when there aren't any other brown people. I don't think I feel as self-conscious about it as I would if I'd been raised in an Asian community, but I do note that every convention I've been to (comic, primarily, and if there was a minority guest or vendor it was shocking) there are people who are surprised to see me and choose to remark upon it. Or assume I'm there for the manga. Or if Gene Ha is a guest, ask if I'm there to support my relative.

    For literary type conventions, I'd think any person of color would be intimidated. Talks and panels with topics specifically about African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, Native-Americans... they're the exception rather than the rule, like how black history is an elective at some colleges rather than standard, or otherwise all the brown people are lumped together into one "How to Write Non-Whites" type of thing. I think if conventions of any sort are really sincere about involving everyone, the first step would be to deluge the panel schedule with stuff specific to various cultures and then bring in those people to field them. Like, go looking for them, not just put out a thing somewhere with "Any such-and-such writers, Can You Come To This". And then, if needed, create a system that can get them there if they can't.

    You can't expect underrepresented populations to care about events that make very little effort to celebrate their contributions. And I know most conventions are very welcoming and friendly and accepting, but when you're the only brown person in sight, you know it, you know it right away, and it sits in the back of your mind making you unconsciously scan every crowd for someone (you'd settle for anything, just Not White) when you could be thinking about much more fun things.