Did you ever have a group of friends who you liked to hang out with, some of whom also liked to hang out with someone you weren’t all that keen on? Someone you met at parties and might say hi to, but probably wouldn’t invite to any parties of your own?
The friend didn’t have to be a bad person. Just someone that you wouldn’t choose for your friend. Maybe they were louder or more huggy than you could cope with, or they spent all their time huddled in corners and answered you in monosyllables when you tried to talk to them. Maybe you didn’t get their sense of humour or they didn’t get yours. Maybe they just pinged that precise area of your inner radar that said ‘Trouble’ or ‘Too much work’ or ‘Not in any way my problem’.
Or maybe they were pretty popular in general, and your friends seemed to have a great time with them, and you could see – or at least, you hoped – that they meant well, but every now and again they’d do or say something that made you cover your eyes with your hands. And your thoughts would be a curious mixture of ‘Thank God this isn’t my problem’ and ‘Actually, everyone’s seen me hanging out at parties with this person, I probably ought to have an opinion about this’?
This is me and traditional, con-going SF fandom.
I have friends who go to cons, volunteer at cons, love cons. I’ve been to steampunk conventions and enjoyed the heck out of those. I love SF and read it by choice. But there’s a lot of stuff associated with that particular way of doing SF fandom that makes it That Friend Of A Friend for me.
A huge amount of it, probably the largest percentage, is because I get overwhelmed very quickly by noise, crowds and talking to people. No one’s fault, just a mismatch in styles.
But some of it is down to the constant stream of gaffes and PR disasters that have come down the pike over the last few years. Many, many cons have gone off without a hitch in that time and not made the news. They’ve had great disabled access, they’ve listened to their members about what panels people really want, they’ve had clear safety policies that make it clear that if you’re harassed, the con has your back. Good for them. But there’s always that extra few that make it feel like ‘con’ is short for ‘controversy’. The latest one is Loncon’s choice of a celebrity to present the Hugos and the bizarre scolding Tweet with which they doubled down on their decision. And then there’s the constant and embarrassing growing pains SFWA keeps going through in the glare of the public eye.
It feels like there’s a certain segment of SF lovers who assume that their fandom, the fandom that’s been going on since the early years of last century, is how people show their enjoyment of science fiction, and they’re a little baffled and hurt that people can love books but be critical of cons. They’re even more baffled and hurt that people are expressing criticism but not volunteering to help make it any better. I have a lot of sympathy for both sides of this one. Organising events on that scale is hard work, time is limited, and people whose contribution to the discussion is ‘Why don’t we try doing this a different way?’ often sound like they’re saying ‘But have you considered reinventing the wheel?’
On the other hand, getting onto committees with people whose personalities and working methods you’re already at odds with is not most people’s idea of a fun hobby. People are entitled to go off and invent their own wheel if they want to rather than signing an indenture to work as an apprentice in your wheel workshop. Maybe one of you comes up with a trike and the other with a unicycle, but as long as they’re both roadworthy, no one’s hurt by the coexistence.
So that end of fandom is going to carry on being That Friend Of A Friend for me, I’m afraid. I really don’t think it’ll feel the lack of me, and I hope we can both continue to enjoy reading SF books and saying an awkward hi at parties.