Wednesday, August 28, 2002

Live, from San Jose, It’s GalaxyQuest!

Actually, it isn’t, though that film is practically a documentary. I plan to sit home alone Friday night and watch it, peacefully munching popcorn, while the rest of the Califamily lives the dream at the World Science Fiction Convention, better known as WorldCon. This year’s event is ConJose. And if it didn’t cost a fortune, and if I weren’t so exhausted by work, and if I didn’t blanch at the thought of so many thousands of people all in the same place, I’d be tempted to go too.

Some of my favorite authors will be there. Neil Gaiman. Terry Pratchett. (My housemates have the strictest orders to bring either one of them home if it’s humanly possible.) I don’t know about some of the New Wave authors I learned to love when I was first reading SF in the early 1970s. Joanna Russ and Ursula LeGuin are both turning 73 this year. I don’t know if either one bothers traveling to these events any more. Samuel Delany is younger, but he now lives across the country and teaches at Temple in the creative writing program where I earned my MA. God only knows about Tom Disch or J.G. Ballard. I bet Harlan Ellison will be there, though, and Robert Silverberg, and. . . .

Maybe they'll see new writers I’ve found so wonderful — Sean Stewart, Neal Stephenson, Elizabeth Moon. Pat Cadigan and Lois McMaster Bujold will definitely be there.

Plus thousands of people who read SF, who stay up late at night singing parody songs, who sell costumes and toys and books. But I'm not going, and not just because I need the time to rest and write, enjoy the emotional luxury of a weekend alone, quake at the thought of more than three strangers in the same place, and am saving my pennies for my writers' conference in a few weeks.

See, I read SF. I love a lot of SF. But I am not a fan.

There is a whole fan culture, brutally and hilariously caricatured (it is a slight exaggeration) in Sharyn McCrumb's Bimbos of the Death Sun (murder at an SF convention) and Zombies of the Gene Pool (what happens to fans when they grow up?). Like any culture, they have a history, heroes and villains, shared vocabulary bewildering to outsiders, rituals, sacred objects.

The stereotypical fan is an unwashed geek, either grossly fat or pitifully skinny, who still lives at home, works in a techie field unless s/he's still in high school, can't get a date with the opposite sex and may not understand which sex exactly is opposite, if any, and possesses no life outside the SF fan world. And the stereotype is bullshit. Mostly.

Fans tend to be bright, imaginative, and incredibly tolerant of people who look or act different. A lot of fans were or are misfits until they reached fandom, and they extend acceptance to pretty much anybody who can talk about the finer points of SF. When I was at Eastern College, I hung out with a group colloquially known as the Hobbits. They were fans, and they were wonderful people, if somewhat unworldly and sheltered and too fond of Luke Skywalker for my taste. They put up with me, obnoxious as I was at 17 and 18. And yet.

And yet I'm a misfit here among the misfits, somehow. There's a singlemindedness about fandom that I don't share. Michele and Paul have read enormous quantities of SF, far more than I have, and I've read a lot. It's not fair or accurate to say that they're undiscriminating; they introduced me to Neal Stephenson, a spectacularly fine writer, and they know how good he is. But they enjoy stuff I could only plow through at gunpoint. I too am a geek, but I'm a style geek, not a substance geek. (You'd never know that from the way I'm blundering through this.) Most of the fiction they read is SF. I read more widely in fiction. God knows they're both knowledgeable enough about other things — Michele has her MA in theology and church history, and Paul is a tech writer, a trained chemist, and an expert on that category of human endeavor that Michele calls "cults, cryptohistory, and loons." (Lizards from space control the White House!)

Oh, hell. Maybe I'm just making excuses for being too damned claustrophobic and shy to attend. All I know is that there are SF books that changed my life, that my favorite new authors are mostly writing SF or fantasy, that I can quote by heart long stretches of Peter Beagle's astonishing The Last Unicorn and that I've reread The Folk of the Air half a dozen times. I will always remember the shock of reading Joanna Russ's "When It Changed" in Again, Dangerous Visions. That story (and The Female Man, the subsequent book based on it) helped me recognize myself, just as The Last Unicorn has gained more meaning with every re-reading. It's a funny and sad and irreverent and beautiful fairy tale, as close to perfect as any book can be.

Maybe . . . maybe fans are just more optimistic than I am. The gulf I feel between them and me isn't one of intelligence, taste, grooming, personality. It's something in the worldview. SF is not just escapist literature, though some is, of course; some of the bleakest books are SF, and the authors I admire all grapple with serious moral issues. But all the fans I've known well have been essentially innocent souls, even the lovely Goth ones, even the ones who are tortured artists in their own right grappling with serious issues.

Whatever. I'm not making much sense anymore, so off to bed.

No fans were harmed in the making of this blog. So far the author has also escaped harm, though blame the fans if I get brained.

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