Last weekend, I was flying company colours at Orbital, the UK’s annual science fiction and fantasy convention – the first time in 14 years I’ve re-entered fandom.
Attending an sf con was like putting on old shoes. I know this world as intimately as FP’s demographic – I understand it, have lived in it and it holds no shocks for me. (Oh all right, it was great!)
Nothing had changed since 1994.
Four days’ heavy trading and four nights’ heavy drinking, though, showed me something curious: -
There were almost no younger fans. When I say nothing had changed, I mean it – the same people, now in their thirties and forties; dressed in the same costumes, only with a little more curve to fill them.
The biggest EasterCon in 20+ years – and I could see no Next Generation.
My Boss, Jon, noticed it; loudmouthman, decabbit, rnalxander and I drew many conclusions and my friend Liam Proven, long-time sf fan, has watched it happen round him.
The initial explanation is obvious – oh, they’re ‘on the web’. Fans don’t need to meet Bill Gibson, they can read his blog; they don’t need books for escapism, they can play Second Life. If they want conversation, it’s on a forum; signatures, they’re on eBay.
If traditional journalism is threatened by the common blog, then the fanzine is in serious trouble. Perhaps the novel itself is nearing its closing chapters.
Following that thought, since joining FP I’ve watched sf and fantasy explode through the covers of the paperback and become multi-format, street-smart and cool. Buffy, Battlestar, comic-book blockbusters, Doctor Who - Heroes! – these aren’t just for geeks any more. In television and cinema, nostalgia is the new cutting edge. FP rides this wave – the Megastores shine bright on the high street. But what does it mean for fandom?
My friend John Rivers has been a Who fan many years; he knows the young fans are still out there. New mass credibility means they don’t need to attend the generic sf con; creations like Who and Star Wars are so TARDIS-vast that they offer a whole agenda of their own events.
Like all communities, it’s become big enough to fragment – and it takes a powerful traction beam to pull the pieces together.
Orbital, as well as a central location, offered a guest list that should’ve been that traction. Neil Gaiman alone has enough presence – and the Dream Master was accompanied by the vision and humour of Charlie Stross, the radical brilliance of China Miéville and the sweeping imagination of Tanith Lee. Between them, they cover every angle and appeal to every corner of the Multiverse.
But they were not – quite – enough.
Why? Certainly they’re not accountable – their talks and panels were thought-provoking – even controversial – and their social presence always an amusing fan-magnet – if you didn’t find China in the disco, you’d find Charlie in the bar. To me, Orbital’s guest list shows that genre writing is changing, that fantasy and sf boundaries are being blown back. Evolution prevents stagnation and the genre adapts.
And, as writing adapts, so does format – the genre moves from paper to small screen and big, and more work is issued on the web. Ant Miller, my brother-in-law, commented that Cory Doctrow now publishes nothing on the printed page.
And, as format adapts, so fandom must move with it. If the classic EasterCon is to embrace a younger generation, it needs to stop reading books in a quiet corner. Its eyes and arms need to open wide and embrace more formats and different kinds of creativity. From anime and manga to film and television, from virtual publication and freedom of information to the wonders of live video-streaming (thanks, Nik!), it needs to become forward-thinking.
After all, hasn’t that always been the point of ‘science fiction’?