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In 2013, Niall Harrison wrote to me and asked me to come write a column for Strange Horizons after a Hugo Award essay I wrote grew popular.

I knew about Strange Horizons and other SF magazines back then, but I didn't feel like I could be a part of them in any way. Niall had more confidence in my voice and perspective as a fan than I did back then, especially considering I was barely out of lurker status in the science fiction and fantasy community. And in many ways, he and my editor, Rebecca, have given me back some self-confidence I lost after leaving academia feeling like my brain had been pounded by a meat tenderizer.

It feels appropriate in my last column to thank Niall and Rebecca for being such an integral part of my fannish experience while I produced this column and for never making me feel weird for my particular viewpoint. That viewpoint has been controversial at times. But I was never made to feel like I didn't belong at Strange Horizons. Welcoming new fans can start anywhere and at any time. Niall and Rebecca were truly the first professional editors in the science fiction and fantasy field to go, "Hey, you. You've got spark."

I started this venture feeling very much on the outside of a community that seemed massive and opaque. My first order of business was to make that community really angry, but looking back I think that was a good thing. I got to see how an established community would react to a newcomer being "wrong" (spoiler: tales of my wrongness have been greatly exaggerated). I figured out early that I would have to 100% change my approach since professional editors and authors would write hate screeds about me and my work on their social media if I got too liberal with my perspective. And I learned a little more about proper comma usage, but not enough, I'm afraid (sorry, Rebecca).

I pivoted from the position I was going to take, which was to talk about my journey into a new fandom and the ideas and personalities I met there, into a column on how my previous community experiences informed how I experienced science fiction and fantasy fandom. It became more personal than investigative. I know this disappointed some people. But I discovered several cool things about how stories shaped my fannish experience no matter what fannish community I was in. I put a name to a lot of troubled feelings I had about inclusion, fannish history, and canon. It was a nice serving of self-knowledge, and some of the things I discussed, like how we make canon, really resonated with people. I loved that. After all, isn't that one of the many reasons fan writers write?

My columns often centered on the Hugo Award, my main fannish experience within this particular community. The history of the Hugo Award was white and male, and I took offense at this because this lopsided history meant that I didn't see many people like me on those short lists. I'm a white lady, so add an extra helping of terribleness to any other intersectional identities looking for authors and fans like them on those historical ballots. Since my journey with Strange Horizons started with the Hugo Award, it feels correct to end it with the Hugo Award, and Worldcon, and to talk a little bit about what I think of the science fiction and fantasy community now.

Lady Business, where Niall plucked me out of obscurity back in 2013, got boosted onto the 2016 Hugo Ballot because Black Gate dropped out after a group of abusers and harassers slated them. And so, after six years of lurking around in the community and four of being a loudmouth online, I made the trip to my first Worldcon and my first convention—ever.

What did I learn about the science fiction and fantasy community by going to this convention? Like any community, ours is kind and beautiful, but broken and imperfect. We're going through some tough times. Often challenges to the status quo, especially those held valuable by men, will result in abuse. Kaffeeklatsch signups are terrible and need to be reconsidered. There are actually people who will look directly at you multiple times in group situations and snub you with no regrets and no one will say anything to them because they're more important than you are. Many important conversations happen at the bars of various conventions. White men will ruin the end of a great panel by mansplaining to the women/POC panelists. Serious conversations and debates will spring up in the middle of a hallway. Everything feels a little surreal. If you're me, in almost every new social situation you will find your personal Justin Landon and metaphorically cling to him because he makes you feel accepted and safe (you can't have mine; I've claimed him). And, perhaps most importantly for me, I learned that empathy is easier in person, and being online can distort the picture you have of other fans if you forget that there's a human being on the other side.

Intersectional feminism is meeting some serious pushback from a very loud minority online, but almost everyone I was introduced to at Worldcon by the blog's name told me they loved our work (which still blows my mind). I met so many fantastic people who welcomed me with open arms. I don't believe this was because I was a Hugo finalist, but I'm sure that eased the way for me in a lot of situations. It was humanizing and humbling and fabulous. I felt like I fit, like I had a place and a fannish homebase with the other people I met and spent time with. I was extremely lucky, because that doesn't happen for everyone, much less at their first convention experience. It helps that I'm white, able-bodied, and present as heterosexual. Thanks, genetics and privilege! I did do my best, even though I was new, to be kind to everyone, no matter who they were. I tried so hard! I hope I succeeded.

I got to hang out with Ann Leckie (omg) and Kate Elliott (screaming internally) and to meet Scott Lynch (holy moly) and Elizabeth Bear (!!!), John Scalzi (SWOON) and George R. R. Martin (akjsdalhsdjkla) and also REAL ASTRONAUTS (they went TO SPACE FOR REAL) and be treated like a whole, valuable person for days on end by people who liked me and also people I didn't even realize knew I existed. These are busy, swamped people. I'm super lucky. Is it clichéd to say it was a life-changing experience? For an anxious, depressed fan who lives in a cultural and intellectual dead zone who two years ago cried at the thought of leaving her house, sure, it's clichéd. But I'm saying it. It was.

When I started this column back in 2013, I didn't know a lot of things. I didn't know a lot about the depth and breadth of the science fiction and fantasy community. I didn't know what it felt like to have a wider audience. I didn't know yet how many people would be kind to me and also didn't know (thankfully, because I might have run the other way) that people would be cruel. I hadn't done any of the things that would change my perspective as a fan: write a fan column, be paid for writing, be included in a fan anthology, edit a fan anthology, become a Barnes & Noble reviewer, start a podcast with another big name fan, be a Hugo nominee, or go to Worldcon. But I've done all those things now and here's what I've learned.

Fandom is just people. We're gonna screw up (there's gonna be so much, prepare for your Day of Fail, baby fans, and just apologize when it starts and close Twitter and go read a book). We're going to love each other. We're going to hurt each other. We're going to share recs and talk about media and maybe write some fanfic until 3 a.m. in Google Docs while yelling at each other about feelings over Slack or Twitter or whatever becomes the next thing. We're going to learn from each other and teach each other and be wrong and also right and sometimes something in between. We're going to fight and disagree. Some of us will be friends. Some of us won't. Some of us will be enemies (it's fine, everyone has a nemesis or two; just don't be unhealthy about it, pals). Things will change, sometimes for good and sometimes for bad, but fans are versatile. It'll be okay.

Fandom is community at its best and worst. Fandom is humanity at its best and worst. However insurmountable the future feels as we drag our fandoms, especially the science fiction and fantasy fandom, into a more inclusive world, it's never hopeless. We'll do it, together, in all the myriad forms together will take.

Thanks, Strange Horizons, for bringing me with you into the future. I'll never forget it.

Renay has been writing SF and fantasy fan fiction, criticism, and commentary since the early 1990s. She has founded and contributed to several gaming fandom fanwork newsletters and fanwork exchanges and serves as staff within the Organization for Transformative Works. You can find more of her work at Lady Business or follow her on Twitter.
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