Fortunately, there is always Ansible to offer an external memory backup, and so I’m reminded that in June 2003 a committee was formed in the UK to bid for the 2014 Worldcon. I saw this happen. It was two blokes in a pub, basically. And, I should add, it’s wholly unconnected with the somewhat more substantial, mostly UK committee that was formed some years later to bid (successfully, if coincidentally) for the 2014 Worldcon. Ten years before that, I now realise that I must have just returned from the Mexicon 5 convention. Dave Langford’s account notes that “Iain Banks danced erotically with a giant inflatable Edvard Munch ‘Scream’ doll,” which I confess I don’t specifically remember, although it does provoke somewhat maudlin thoughts as I think back to my first encounter with Banks at his—and my—first convention, Mexicon 2, in 1986. And now these Mexicon conventions are, as I noted in my first column here, “locked away so far back in deep time that Niall was moved to remark of [Mexicon 3], and with what I hope is mock incredulity ‘. . . information about it available online is limited to a few cryptic mentions in Ansible.’ ” And on a similar technological note, the June 1993 Ansible reminds me that I had then also recently organised a London meeting of the British Science Fiction Association where guest speaker John Clute regaled us with tales of the composition, assembly, and publication of the second edition of The Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction: “He cheerily hefted a wad of paper not as thick as the SF Encyclopaedia itself, being the initial batch of faxed corrections from the Americans.”
I’m not sure I can offer a genuine explanation for why I’m so drawn to notable anniversaries, ten years since this or twenty-five years since that. Maybe that’s more a question for the analyst I don’t have. It could be that in this fannish context it’s something to do with validating my own position in the community, demonstrating that I’m not a newcomer anymore. And perhaps that in turn has something to do with my tendency to hang out with a lot of people who have been around the fan community so much longer than me, such that they hark back to events forty or fifty years previously. I don’t know.
The topic specifically comes to mind now, though, because I’ve decided this will be my last column for Strange Horizons and I thought it’d be kinda nice to find some anniversary to hang that on. This is the fourteenth piece, a number that in itself doesn’t seem that interesting even if Wikipedia can tell me lots of reasons why it might be. It is, for instance, the atomic number of silicon and I could try to make something out of the British convention series of that name, but that’s buried even further back in deep time than the Mexicons and was mostly before my time too. I am for some reason more drawn to the fact that a woodlouse has fourteen legs.
It’s not easy writing about fandom here in 2013, not least because the term now means so many different things. There’s a letter from Marion Zimmer Bradley in Science Fiction Review #42 (1969) where she claimed that fandom as she—and indeed editor Dick Geis—had known it in the late Forties and Fifties was dead. “Fandom now is just—I don’t know what it is; but I’ll be charitable and call it a mixture of commercial exploitation and name-dropping.” From a 2013 perspective, where the similarities between those eras seem far more obvious than the differences, Bradley’s 1969 view of the world as it had been only a couple of decades earlier reminds me of a comment posted recently on The Guardian’s website: “The past is a foreign country. They do things exactly the same there, whilst wearing a hat.” I wonder what she’d make of our wide-ranging fan community as it approaches the mid-point of the second decade of the twenty-first century.
When I use the word fandom I guess I’m mostly talking about what I’ve recently seen described as “trad fandom,” a phrase that for me conjures doubtless wholly unfair stereotypes around boaters, banjos, and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” and so even if this one gains traction I doubt I will warm to it. In the middle of the last decade there was a vogue in some circles for “core fandom,” a label that never worked for me either because of the implied way it relegated everything else to the fringe. My preferred modifier for those contexts where it’s necessary to have one remains that proposed by Seattle fan Randy Byers: he suggested “roots fandom” as a conscious echo of “roots music” with all the associations that brings, but it never gained much currency.
And so I unhelpfully stick with “fandom,” sometimes justifying the unadorned usage by invoking comparisons with the reason the UK is the only country that doesn’t feel obliged to explicitly proclaim itself on its stamps. But that really requires a milieu where fandom and its various component features—fanzines, conventions, clubs, and meetings and whatever—remain damonknightishly “what we point to when we say it.” That’s fine when we can be reasonably confident that we’ll all be pointing at the same thing—amongst the attendees of an event such as Corflu, say—but once you look to something like the British Eastercon or especially the Worldcon, the reality is that tasking three random fans with pointing at fandom will likely end up with them pointing at book-ends, pumice stone, and West Germany. A friend recently made the point that, for all that a UK Worldcon is a once-a-decade event and 2014’s Loncon 3 will be the first London Worldcon since 1965, the simple reality is that it won’t be the biggest SF fan event in the UK next year. It won’t be the biggest SF fan event in London next year. It probably won’t even be the biggest SF fan event in ExCeL next year.
Ah, it wasn’t so long ago that it were all fields around here. In 1939 the American fan Jack Speer published Up to Now, feeling that even in a little under a decade fandom had clocked up enough history to be worth documenting. He introduced the theory of numbered fandoms, a series of fannish eras each “with distinct characteristics and a strong identifiable focus,” although again from a 2013 perspective the distinction may well have been a slightly different style of hat. Speer updated the idea for his Fancyclopedia in 1944—from which, incidentally, the preceding quote is drawn—and identified a precursor “eofandom” and then three numbered eras with transitional phases. A teenage fan by the name of Robert Silverberg picked up the idea in 1952 and, writing in Quandry #25 (ed. Lee Hoffman), he offered a continuation of Speer’s ideas, delimiting Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Fandom.
The title of Silverberg’s article was “Last and First Fen,” which gives a clue to the underlying influence, and also counts as one of the very few occasions when it’s ever been genuinely justifiable to contend that the plural of “fan” is “fen.” He went further than Speer in applying the “Stapledonian scheme of things” to predict a future path. Last and First Men (1930) described humanity passing through eighteen cycles and two billion years before the sun went nova. The future of fandom was less promising from a longevity point of view: it had already passed through six cycles in the period 1930 to 1952 and thus, theorised Silverberg, only had twelve more cycles to go. A Stapledonian timeline applied to fandom would see Eighteenth (and last) Fandom manifesting in 1997 and coming to its explosive end in 2004.
And so maybe fandom really did end in 2004. But then I understand—as I’ve never been able to read either of them—that Stapledon’s Star Maker (1937) can be considered a sequel to Last and First Men, so maybe we’re now entering a new era of fandom, universal in scope. Or maybe science fiction writers are no better at predicting the future than anybody else.