I like Toni Weisskopf. I’ve got absolutely nothing against her personally. But I’ve had a tab open on her essay The Problem of Engagement since it was published, and I want to close it.
Thesis: Toni has somehow gotten hold of a very tendentious version of the Tale of the Futurian Exclusion. She needs to read some primary and near-primary sources on the period, which will mostly be Fred Pohl’s and Isaac Asimov’s memoirs, but that’s not suffering. Other suggestions will be gratefully appreciated. Thank you.
The latest fooforaws in the science fiction world have served to highlight the vast cultural divide we are seeing in the greater American culture. SF, as always, very much reflects that greater culture.Science fiction, both the literature and its community, has always reflected its time, and the contexts in which it exists. Nonskiffy political topics have always been a part of that context — and necessarily so, because science fiction is a massive assertion of real-world causality. There has never been a time when politics were not part of the general discourse of our genre.*
Personally, I’m made nervous by language like “the vast cultural divide we are seeing in the greater American culture.” When you see the very complex subject of cultural divides being reified into a single big cultural divide that’s All About America and is split along the red/blue line, odds are you’ve run up against far right’s “culture wars” agenda.** It’s a decaying old hunk of fish that no one I know of wants to to see dragged into the house.
It is also nothing new.If such a thing as that single great cultural divide existed, which I deny, and specifically existed in SF, which I strongly deny, it would unquestionably be a new thing. Not only has politics always been part of the discourse of SF, but the politics discussed have always been all over the map. For example, the Futurians, who tend to get referred to as though they constituted a single unified political faction, included a card-carrying communist, a Trotskyite, a kindasorta fascist, and an Alf Landon supporter.
To the best of my recollection, the closest SF has ever come to a formal division of the house was that time a bunch of SFWAns took out ads to express their opinions, pro and con, on the war in Vietnam. Let me assure you that the fact that two SFWAns agreed about Vietnam was no guarantee that they agreed about anything else.
When you add culture to the politics, SF’s opinions become much more diverse. They could only be mapped along a single line of division if the mapmaker were Benoit Mandelbrot.
When fandom was first startingFandom had been up and running full-tilt for years. The Futurian Exclusion was not the kind of fight that happens between strangers. NYC fandom had been in a state of constant political flux, and throughout that time, the factions and individuals that would be involved in the Exclusion incident had sometimes been allies, oftener been opponents, and frequently gotten up each other’s noses.
Times were hard. People had to make their own fun.
there was the “Great Exclusion Act”Later, quieter writers have been known to just refer to it as the Futurian Exclusion.
when a group of young, excitable, fanboysIf any single phrase has kept me from closing the tab on Toni’s essay, it’s that one.
It’s hard to explain just how wrong it is. Almost everyone involved in that convention was young, and while I don’t see the need to describe them as fanboys, all of them could be described that way.* The Futurians were no more excitable — arguably, they were a shade less excitable — than the three guys running the convention.
Those are lesser points, though. The central point is that the Futurians were one of the single most important and influential groups in the history of science fiction. The six excluded fans were Frederik Pohl, Donald A. Wollheim, Robert Lowndes, Cyril Kornbluth, Louis Gillespie, and John Michel.
You probably aren’t familiar with the last two names, but if you know science fiction, you know the other four. (Even more Futurians.) Lightly dismissing them as “a group of young, excitable, fanboys” without mentioning their names suggests you’ve either gotten hold of a very weird version of the story, or you’re trying to make a case in which major and well-known facts are inconveniences to be avoided. Since it’s Toni, I just think she needs to read some more reliable sources before she tries this again.
attempted to spread their political/fannish feud propaganda at the first Worldcon in New York,
and were not only prevented from doing so but not allowed back into the con.
What happened, roughly speaking: the “Triumvirs” (Will Sykora, James V. Taurasi, and Sam Moskowitz), who were running the convention, were a little slower and a little less political than, and chronically at odds with, the “Quadrumvirs” (Pohl, Wollheim, Lowndes, and Michel). Their tendency to get up each other’s noses was IMO more a clash of personalities than anything else.
The extent to which the Exclusion was prompted by anything the Futurians did onsite on the day is not entirely clear. Apparently the Triumvirs had been talking in advance about doing something of that sort, and they made reference to some kind of vaguely described trouble at an earlier gathering in Newark. IIRC, the flyers weren’t read and given thoughtful consideration; they were grabbed and stuffed into the garbage. Six Futurians weren’t allowed to enter and attend the convention, but at least four were (Dave Kyle, Richard Wilson, Jack Rubinson, and Leslie Perri).
It wasn’t handled well. As Fancyclopedia 3 says in its entry on the Exclusion, “The reaction of fandom as a whole, while not necessarily pro-Futurian, was very definitely anti-Exclusion.”
All fandom was aflame with war!Sorry, I can’t bear to let that stand. The correct line is All fandom was plunged into war.
(The fact that this line is a clichéIt’s a fannish catchphrase.
is also a clue that fandom is not, and never has been, a calm peaceful sea of agreement.)No one who has any acquaintance with fandom thinks it is. One has to wonder at the perceived need to deprecate Pohl, Wollheim, Lowndes, Kuttner, et al. for one episode of interpersonal friction during a period that was rife with them.
The reason we have a fandom to disunite now, is because calmer heads prevailed.No. Fandom just got better at being itself.
We have fandom because fandom wanted fandom to happen, and made it happen, and liked the results, and so did it again. It rests on the innumerable shoulders of the fannish community, and is built by their hands and uttered by their mouths. Some of its very colorful history has involved feuds, standoffs, and other expressions of conflict. A good deal of fandom’s neverending oceanic braided conversation has been political, in one sense or another; and the fannish discourse would be poorer without it.*
Bob Tucker in particular, with intelligence and humor,Lest anyone be confused about this, Bob Tucker was not at the first worldcon. He didn’t go anywhere near it. I don’t know whether she knows it, but Toni is now talking about Tucker’s long-term influence on early fandom. He wasn’t the only fan who took fannish institutions less than seriously, and encouraged others to do the same, but for a long time he was the most prominent and influential of them.
Like stromatolites making oxygen, the process of making fandom funnier was a gradual one that stretched out over many years. If you’re interested, while you’re checking out Bob Tucker’s fanwriting you should also check out Robert Bloch, Walt Willis, and Burbee and Laney.
led fandom to the idea that it ought have nothing to do with greater world politics, but should concentrate on the thing we all loved —Oh, no no no. That is so wrong that the internet has no standard meme capable of expressing how wrong it is.
What Bob Tucker, rising first and shining best, understood before anyone else did was a great truth: fandom isn’t about anything but itself. Fandom is about fandom. Fanzines and conventions are congenial venues for a particular kind of conversation loved by our oddball population of people who at some point in their lives have probably read a great deal of science fiction and fantasy, but don’t necessarily feel the need to talk about it at every opportunity.
No one has ever taught fandom that it ought not have anything to do with the politics of the larger world. Tucker sure didn’t do it, especially in his professional fiction, which you should also check out. What he suggested in his fanwriting was that fans and fandom weren’t obliged to be political, and that some of the political beliefs being espoused by members of the SF community were very silly. Which? True.
— but should concentrate on the thing we all loved, that being science fiction.No way. Tucker knew better than that.
Fandom at its best is notorious for talking about anything other than science fiction — though mind you, it’s great at talking about the genre when it wants to. Tucker got that. You’d have to be the Recording Angel to know the answer to this one, but my guess is that he held the lifetime record for number of times he had to listen to bewildered complaints about fanzine articles being about subjects other than SF and science. Perils of being an early adopter.
Midwestcons were Tucker-shaped occasions, and he was their resident deity. I never got to go to one, but stories about them were a staple of my fannish youth. Midwestcons were known for their eclectic mix of fans, and for having no programming whatsoever. Everyone just hung out by the pool and talked. People would travel long distances to attend them who never ran into each other at any other point in the year because they normally moved in such different fannish circles. Basically, it was a convention for fans who liked Midwestcons, whoever they might be.
(Does this inform my understanding of site moderation? Of course it does.)
(Mind you, his sympathies were with the ones who were excluded, but he was able to overcome his own political inclinations for the best of fandom.)The idea that Bob Tucker gave up an entire range of conversations he found interesting in order to push a lifelong agenda of forcing fandom to only talk about certain subjects is deeply, deeply weird.
The fact that fandom as an open culture survived more than seventy years is a testament to the power of that simple, uniting concept.That is not how fandom works.
However, if that were how fandom works, Toni wouldn’t have to preach it. It would simply be the way things are.
I don’t see how forbidding a range of subjects that fans naturally talk about can amount to an open culture. Even more, I don’t see how Toni thinks it’s possible to talk about science fiction without talking about politics. As I said at the beginning, SF is built on massive assertions of real-world causality: “If this goes on, these things here will happen.” Any time you do that, you’re making a vast number of assumptions about how things work, who benefits from them, and what’s really going on. The genre is political to its core.
I only know one way to argue that some SF is political and some isn’t. You do it by defining “political agendas in science fiction” as “assertions of causality that differ from my own.” As in: “this person can’t possibly believe that in a widespread major disaster, people would rather cooperate, and maintain rule of law, than take to the hills with a gun and declare that the law of the jungle is the only law that now applies. They must be saying that in furtherance of some political agenda! Whereas my own grimdark stories about survivalism in anticipation of social chaos are just the way things are — not political at all. Talking about them isn’t talking about politics; it’s talking about science fiction.”
Eh, maybe I have that wrong.
That we are once again looking to be rift by a political divide was perhaps inevitable.The existence of this rift has been asserted several times now, but it’s never been described or defined. Frankly, I don’t see any reason to believe this one exists.
I’ve been in fandom a long time. Rifts do develop, and sometimes build up so much stress that when one it finally makes itself felt, the backlash is terrible. Often it comes in the form of a feud whose destructive vindictiveness takes participants on all sides by surprise. But the thing about rifts like that is that they never build up where you’re looking. If you could see the stress accumulating, you’d do something about it before things turned explosive. The worst rifts are always unforeseen.
But as fandom has grown, expanded and diluted itself, we may have won the überculture wars and lost our heart. We have not been able to transmit this central precept to new fans. Geeks are chic, but somehow we’ve let the fuggheads win.I’m not sure who these fuggheads are. It’s like I can see the outline and postholes of someone’s agenda, but I can’t tell what the building was for.
The heart of my fandom is just fine. We’re still being kinda dumb about opening doors for younger fans, but we’re finally having some forty-years-overdue conversations about POCs (real and fictional) in the genre, and we’re actually making progress on the “touch: consensual or it doesn’t happen” front.
And, from my observations, this is an inevitable consequence of the creation of any kind of fandom, from tattoos to swords to us. There is a thing people like. Thing people make initial contact with each other to discuss things and thingishness. At some point a woman (and it’s usually women, no matter what the thing) organizes gatherings, and thing fandom grows bigger and better. At some point, the people who care not about things, but merely about being a big fish in a small sea, squeeze out the thing people. Sometimes thing fandom just dies, sometimes it fissures and the process is recreated. So the fuggheads always win. The only question is how long can we delay their inevitable triumph?While this has some slight resemblance to a piece I once wrote about social misunderstandings and the perception of power, it in no way resembles fandom as I know it. Among other things, if fuggheads inevitably triumphed, fandom would have died off long ago.
What you have to understand is that when you’re at a convention, pro publishing is a bubble. It’s got a lot of nice people in it, and on a moment-by-moment basis it may not be obvious that you’re having a nonstandard convention experience; but it’s still a bubble.
One of the reasons I love doing programming at conventions is that it gives me a rock-solid excuse to spend an hour having an interesting conversation with people I might otherwise never meet. Doing a stint as a volunteer works too.
Hmmm. This is getting long. One more bit:
Now we have not only 300 hundred channels of cable (and nothing on), but the vast output of the Internet, both pro and amateur. It is possible to be a science fiction fan and have absolutely no point of connection with another fan these days.Ask them what they like and why. Listen when they tell you. Don’t make the kids do all the bridge-building.