Archive for the ‘Thursday Tangents’ Category

TT: A Wizard of Change

February 15, 2018

JANE: Last time you mentioned that the first of Ursula K. Le Guin’s  novels you read was A Wizard of Earthsea.  That was certainly the first of her novels I read.  By the time I read it, all three of the first books in the sequence were out, so I don’t so much think of “Earthsea” as consisting of three novels as one.   I was probably in my early double digits at the time, the exact target audience for the series.

Ged’s Story

It worked for me very well.  I was swept up not only by the mythic feeling of the story, but because Ged’s grand journey is so deeply rooted in reality.  For all its dragons and wizards, Earthsea felt distinctly real.  This ability to make unreal places real is something that I would continue to admire in Le Guin’s work.

ALAN: I had much the same reaction as you, though I was older than you (in my twenties) when I first read the books. It’s probably worth mentioning that fantasy novels were few and far between in those days, and any new addition to the canon was always met with glad cries of glee, no matter how good or bad it was – but the Earthsea books were clearly something special and, in later years when sprawling, derivative fantasy doorstop novels seemed to be everywhere, it became more and more obvious just how special and how well-crafted Le Guin’s fantasies were.

My copies of the books were published by Puffin, which was an imprint that Penguin used for children’s books. So officially, I suppose, I was far too old to be reading that childish rubbish. But I couldn’t see that it mattered. A good book is a good book, and there was a depth and a maturity to the Earthsea stories, as there is to all the best “Young Adult” fiction, which transcended categories.

JANE: I agree!  What’s great about the Earthsea books is that they grow with the reader.  A kid might be caught up in Ged’s quest.  An older reader starts wondering about the consequences of impulsive actions.  And so on…

The Earthsea books also contributed to an element of my mental landscape as a writer.  This happened when LeGuin’s fourth novel in the sequence, Tehanu: The Last Book of Earthsea was published in 1990.  Tehanu was published with much fanfare as a work in which the writer who – by then – had become a feminist icon made amends for having been so sexist in her earlier works.

ALAN: If I remember rightly, Le Guin’s protagonists up to that point had mostly been male. But I’m not sure that’s inherently sexist in and of itself. Can you elaborate?

JANE: I agree with you that male protagonists alone were not enough to make Le Guin’s books sexist.  Indeed, “male as protagonist” was still a major part of the landscape in the late 1960’s.  Even when I started writing many years later, I automatically envisioned my protagonists as male.

For example, Sarah in Brother to Dragons, Companion to Owls started out as Sam.  I made a conscious choice to write women – and women as I know them to be – which has led to me being identified as a writer of “strong female characters.”

ALAN: Perhaps I’m in a minority here, but I have no problem identifying with the protagonist of a story, be they men or be they women. So I consider both you and Ursula Le Guin to be writers of “strong characters”. For me, the adjective is not necessary.

JANE: I’m like you in that.  No one was more surprised than I to be praised for creating “strong female characters.”  I just wanted to include more characters who were female.

But the problem Le Guin created in Earthsea was more complicated than having her protagonist be male.

Le Guin’s lack of respect for the feminine went further than putting her women in the background.  Phrases such as “Weak as a woman’s magic” and/or “Wicked as a woman’s magic” occur in the Earthsea books.   Ged’s first teacher is a woman, and she leads him and his considerable magical talent astray by her manner of teaching.

Le Guin’s admission that she had basically been blind to her own cultural biases had a huge impact on me.  I’d already begun to write more female characters.  (Once again, I must remind our readers that publication date and writing date are not the same; although my first novel would not come out until 1994, I was already absorbed in writing.)  Le Guin’s admission made me wonder what my own blind spots might be.

ALAN: A question that worries me as well. I’m sure I must have them, but I don’t know what they are…

I do remember the fanfare that greeted the publication of Tehanu but I never wholly agreed with it. Certainly Le Guin’s view of women in the world of Earthsea did perhaps leave something to be desired, but she didn’t impose that point of view on her other literary worlds.

In 1969, only a year after the publication of A Wizard of Earthsea, she published The Left Hand of Darkness, a novel that was deeply preoccupied with gender issues and the societal roles played by men and women.  So in light of that, the claims made for Tehanu were perhaps a little disingenuous.

JANE: I agree with you – and I felt so at the time.  Nonetheless, I’m grateful to Le Guin’s admission because it set me questing for what I might be blind to and led me to write more varied characters and situations as a result.

ALAN: And it seems to me that the quest was successful – a lot of your characters and situations have stuck in my mind for years. If that’s the result of Le Guin’s influence on your writing, then good on her!

But there is another aspect of her work that I think we ought to talk about. Next week, perhaps?


TT: Creative Encounter

February 8, 2018

JANE: Last time I mentioned how fandom can provide connections that never would happen any other way.  I’d like to tell you how my long ago visit to New Zealand led to my meeting a legend once I was home again in New Mexico.

Alan’s Favorite!

ALAN: I never knew that, after I took you to the airport so you could fly home, it would result in you meeting someone famous! Tell me all about it.

JANE: As I’m certain you recall, the co-Guest of Honor that year (along with Roger Zelazny) was Vonda McIntyre.  Vonda proved to be a wonderful person.  She shared her cup of noodle soup with us when Roger felt a little unwell.  When Roger wasn’t up to going touristing, she encouraged me to stop hovering and, instead, go out and see a bit of New Zealand with her and whichever local fan had taken time to serve as a tour guide.

ALAN: That was me! I remember that I took you both to explore Auckland and you were astonished that the traffic lights controlling the crossroad in the city centre went red for all four roads at once so that pedestrians could cross in every direction. I remember that you were a bit nervous about crossing the street diagonally. You’d never done that before…

JANE: I remember that outing.  Other fans took us around on other days.  You guys were so amazingly nice.

Vonda and I stayed in touch after that trip.  When, in, I think 1996, she visited New Mexico with some friends, she got in touch and asked me if I wanted to go to lunch with her.

I agreed with enthusiasm, and told her that, although I didn’t know Albuquerque very well yet (I’d only moved there a few months before), I did know which restaurant the locals said served the best New Mexican style food.   When I knocked at the door of Vonda’s motel room (in a charmingly retro place along Route 66), she greeted me as if we’d seen each other just a few days before.

Then she said: “When I told the friends I’m travelling with that we were going to have lunch at a place that the locals said served the best New Mexican food, they asked if they could come along.”

I agreed, and Vonda said, “Great!  Charles and Ursula’s room is over here…”

And to my astonishment, a few moments later, I discovered I was going to have lunch with Ursula K. Le Guin.

ALAN: In a word, wow! I always wanted to meet Ursula Le Guin. She was high on my list of favourite authors. But sadly, our paths never crossed. What was she like as a lunch guest? I’ve always found that her non-fiction is often quite funny (as well as being erudite and informative) and I’ve always imagined that she would be a warm, chatty and amusing person to have a conversation with. Am I right in that assumption?

JANE: She was so down-to-earth and real that after a while I wasn’t sure I’d heard her name right.  I mean, she looked like pictures I’d seen of The Famous Le Guin, but she wanted to chat about the differences in types of southwestern cooking.  She also wasn’t overly talkative – not at all a showoff.

To put this in perspective, remember, I’d shared a home with another famous writer of her generation: Roger Zelazny.  You’d think I’d be beyond this sort of reaction.  But I wasn’t.  In fact, I was a bit too awed to ask as many questions as I might have done.

After lunch, we went out to a local independent bookstore.  Did she try to be recognized?  Have a fuss made over her?  Sign stock?  Nope.  She just wanted to look at books.  Her husband, Charles, was also very friendly and approachable.  It was a good day.

Which of Ursula Le Guin’s books made her one of your favorite authors?

ALAN: That’s an easy question to answer. The Disposessed is by far and away my favourite of her books. It was some time in the early 1970s and I’d just graduated from university. As a student, I’d been surrounded by political discussion of one sort and another, because that’s what students do. The debate was mostly from a left wing point of view and sometimes it seemed to involve a lot of hair splitting on points of doctrine. I couldn’t make any sense of it and I felt a bit uneasy about the practicality of some the things that were being said. And then The Disposessed turned up in the local bookshop. I’d already read A Wizard of Earthsea and The Left Hand of Darkness and rather enjoyed them, so I looked forward to reading this new book.

JANE: It’s been a long time since I’ve read The Dispossessed, but I remember it as a story that made me think.

ALAN: It’s definitely that – but it tells a great story as well. Quite simply, it blew me away. For the first time some of the ideas (and ideals) that I’d been grappling with so unsuccessfully started to make sense. It was clear from the book that no society could be perfect – the political and social systems that Le Guin presented in her novel worked, to a certain extent, but they also had their faults and their failures. And that was the missing ingredient that had so puzzled me before. My socialist friends were all so sure that they had the recipe for a perfect society. Le Guin embraced many of their ideas and, in addition, showed me that perfection was impossible. Doctrine can only take you so far. The book has often been described as an ambiguous utopia and I think that’s a perfect way to sum it up.

I just absolutely love that book to bits.

JANE: Those aspects of The Dispossessed are precisely why I think it will always remain worth reading.  So much socially-oriented SF stops at the level of your college-aged discussions – idealistic solutions.  Le Guin encourages a more adult level of discourse, even if it’s far less comforting.

ALAN: What about you? What’s your favourite Le Guin book?

JANE: For me it’s less a book than a process, and a process is difficult to explain in a few words.  Perhaps we can save it for next time.

TT: Furry Fandom!

February 1, 2018

ALAN: Last week, I suggested that a logical extension of our on-going discussion of both fandom and costuming would be to take a look at furry fandom – a fandom that most people first become aware of because of the highly visible “fursuit” costumes that these people wear. I must say that personally I find these costumes extremely attractive, both aesthetically and emotionally, and I’d like to know more.

Jane and Furry

You said you’ve actually been to a furry con?

JANE: That’s right. Some years ago, I had the great pleasure of being one of the Guests of Honor at Further Confusion. I’ll say right off that it was a great experience, and I learned that there’s a lot more to furry fandom than fursuits.

But one con doesn’t make me an expert, so I’d like your permission to make this Tangent a “trialogue” and include my friend Brent Edwards – aka Chip Unicorn – to supply expert knowledge on the intricacies of furrydom.

ALAN: That sounds like a great idea.

JANE: Okay! Brent, meet Alan. Alan meet Brent.

BRENT: Pleased to meet you!

ALAN: Hi, Brent!

JANE: Brent, it occurred to me that most of us encounter furry fandom without a sense of the roots. I believe you told me that it is a fandom deeply rooted in art.

BRENT: Yeah — furry fandom has created an astonishing amount of artwork!

JANE: One thing I really enjoyed about Further Confusion was how much the art extended out of the show. I loved the individualized badges (people often wore several) that depicted what I’ll term the wearer’s “furry identity” character. This meant that even those people who weren’t wearing fur suits showed who they were.

However, there were also a lot of graphic novels available as well.

BRENT: Graphic novels and comic books are a central part of furry fandom.  Many people date furry fandom’s start to amateur press associations (APA’s) like Vootie, which ran from 1976 – 1983. APAs were small magazines created by and only for its members. Every quarter, artists would create some pages, Xerox enough copies for the membership list, and send those Xeroxes to the publisher. The publisher would staple everything together, and send the ‘magazine’ with all of the artists’ work back.

Soon, people from those APAs created fanzines: magazines for sale to the general public. The most important of these was possibly YARF! — but I’m rather biased, as I’ve worked with its editor for more than a decade.

ALAN: I’ve never been involved with an APA, but when I first moved to New Zealand there was a flourishing APA here called Aoteorapa, which is a very clever pun on Aoteoroa, the Maori name for New Zealand. I never took part in it, but several of my friends did, so I’m familiar with the mechanism. It’s a very clever and, in pre-internet days anyway, a very successful method of disseminating material.

I wasn’t aware that there were cons devoted to furries, though based on how popular furry costumes are, I shouldn’t really be surprised. Have they been going on for a long time?

BRENT: There is one origin con, Confurence, an event that happened annually from 1989-2003 in southern California. It was the first convention exclusively for furries.

Soon after Confurence happened, other conventions started – Furtasticon created by Trish Ny in 1994, and the first international furry convention, Eurofurence, started in 1995.

The number of conventions has exploded in the last 23 years. At this moment, there are at least 62 different conventions in places as diverse as Australia, Brazil, the Philippines, Russia , South Africa, and Thailand.

The biggest furry convention now is Midwest Furfest, with about 8,700 members.

ALAN: That’s an awful lot of furries!

I don’t really remember when I first began hearing rumours about salacious goings-on between consenting furries and, not being a furry myself, I don’t know any details. So can you satisfy my prurient curiosity? How much truth is there in the nudge, nudge, wink, wink gossip that is so often associated with furries?

JANE: Uh… I’d like to add to Alan’s question. If fursuit sex does go on, what percentage of the furries are into this? That is, is it a majority interest or not?

BRENT: I’ve been married since 2001, so I haven’t been to those kinds of parties for a long while. But the most sexual thing that I’ve ever seen that also involves fursuits was one fellow rolling around naked in a pile of fursuiters.

I don’t think many fursuiters would appreciate ejacule on their fursuits. Remember that if you don’t create them yourself, fursuits cost between $500 and $3,700. Fake fur is heat-sensitive, so it’s harder to clean than throwing it into a washing machine.

People have sex at furry conventions. People have sex at science fiction conventions. But I haven’t seen or heard about anything wildly different in the amount or kind of sex. In short, it’s no more exciting (or less exciting) than any other fandom

Dang if I know what percentage of the fandom is into it. I haven’t asked!

JANE: Wasn’t there a TV show that used furries in an episode and slanted the representation? I’ve never seen it, but I’ve heard people refer to some show as their source for “This is what furries are really like.”

BRENT: The television show was probably “Fur and Loathing” on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, from October 2003.

ALAN: I love the pun in that title! Judging by what you said, you’ve been involved in furry fandom for quite a while. What’s the appeal for you personally? Are you an artist? Fursuiter? Writer? Something else?

BRENT: The appeal for me? In the late 1980s, I discovered that I like running conventions. I enjoy all the planning that goes into it. And Watts Martin introduced me to furry fandom, when he created a ‘zine named Mythagoras.

Also, furry fandom reminds me of the early days of science fiction fandom. It combines creativity and fun.  Most large SF/F conventions are now “media” conventions: about what happens in movies, television, or books. They’re rarely about how to create new media. Furry fandom is often about teaching how to create. There’re always panels for how to improve artwork, writing, costuming, music, and photography – even dance.

There are many excellent science fiction conventions that focus on teaching. But many focus only on professional development. Furry fandom is fun: it has loud, wild parties at the end of the day and lively dances.

JANE: I very much felt the creative vibe at Further Confusion.  The talent show was brilliant.  Jim and I were sitting in the middle of the audience.  During a scene break, two fellows behind us were having an animated discussion on sources for material to make fursuits.  It was enlightening to realize that the people wearing the costumes often had made them as well.

But we’re definitely risking the TL/DR zone, so sadly, I’ll draw this discussion to a close.

ALAN: Thanks, Brent. I learned a lot from this discussion.

BRENT: It was an honor to meet you, Alan.

JANE:  As we were chatting, it occurred to me that I met both of you through fandom. The chance we would have met and become friends without that link seems pretty slim. If there’s any way to sum up the larger value of fandom , the chance to make friends who not only share common interests but can expand those interests as both of you have done for me, must be the best part.

Thank you both so much!


TT: Jackboot Fandom

January 25, 2018

ALAN: While we were talking about themes in costuming, I remembered a rather disturbing trend I observed that I think began in the 1980s – a lot of fans started dressing in futuristic, militaristic uniforms and stalked around conventions waving science fictional weapons of one sort and another.

Future Soldier

This group was so prominent that it even had a name. We referred to these people as “Jackboot Fandom” (at least that’s what we called them over here). I didn’t like the trend at all.  The glorification of militarism that it implied made me feel very uncomfortable. But for a long time, I seemed to be in a minority of one. I remember I was on a convention committee once and I suggested that perhaps we ought to have a weapons policy to try and curb this sort of threatening display. My suggestion was ridiculed.

Perhaps I was ahead of my time. These days, weapon policies are very common and Jackboot Fandom has all but disappeared, thank goodness.

JANE: The late 1980s was when I first started attending cons, but I can’t speak to Jackboot Fandom specifically.  If it was there, it was part of the general landscape.

Certainly there are still are people who dress in a semi-military fashion.  Let’s face it, a uniform is a pretty easy costume option.

ALAN: Indeed it is, and I have no objection to it per se. But when it is taken to extremes, it can be more than a little threatening and it makes me feel uneasy.

JANE: I agree.  As you noted, weapons policies are now a common element at conventions.

I remember many years ago attending a convention where the con-com took “peace bonding” weapons to an extreme clearly meant to make swaggering around in a costume with a weapon look ridiculous.  Swords and guns were tied into place with liberal amounts of fluffy pink ribbon.

ALAN: What a brilliant way of cutting the Gordian knot. Ridicule never fails!

JANE: I don’t believe this particular element survived more than a con or two, but while it lasted, it made its point.

What’s interesting is that these days the fans in military costumes are often involved with convention security.  In the U.S., this began in the mid-1970’s with a group that still exists today: The Dorsai Irregulars.

The Dorsai Irregulars were founded by Robert Asprin who asked permission from Gordon R. Dickson to name the group after his super-solider race, the Dorsai.  The need for the Dorsai Irregulars was linked to a factor we discussed a few weeks ago – the growth and fragmenting of fandom.  When everyone wasn’t part of the same small “family,” problems – including harassment and theft – began to crop up.

Conventional security groups didn’t understand fans and often made matters worse – so the fans decided to police themselves.  You can read more about the Dorsai Irregulars and their history here.

ALAN: I think that’s a good idea, but I suspect that fandom in New Zealand is probably still a bit too small to need the formality of that kind of organisation. Though having said that, we certainly do have a need for some mechanism to cope with harassment and the like. Recently our conventions have followed trends from overseas and have set out specific harassment policies with designated people who can be approached if problems develop.

JANE: Harassment policies are a great idea.  Even just the statement that certain types of behavior won’t be tolerated creates a safe space.  But sometimes that safe space meets unusual challenges.

Back when I lived in Lynchburg, Virginia, a convention I was associated with was being harassed by the Christian evangelist Jerry Falwell and his followers.  Our local fans were warned in advance not to rise to the bait and they didn’t – not even when Falwell and some of his followers went into the restaurant and made loud comments about “That Satanic D&D convention.”  When this didn’t work, Falwell and a few of his cronies stood in the lobby and began to sing hymns.

The only response they got was led by the Klingon club who headed convention security: They led the polite applause.  There was something so lovely about the towering, apparently militaristic, Klingons leading the effort to “turn the other cheek” and offer the “soft answer that turns away wrath.”

ALAN: That must have been quite a sight to see! I always enjoy it when “christians” find themselves out-christianed.

JANE:  As was mentioned in the comments a couple weeks ago, David Weber’s Royal Manticoran Navy has a very visible following, complete with uniforms.  However, RMN club members are not all militaristic.   Several times, I’ve encountered a fellow who dresses up as a member of the clergy.  I believe he even performs religious services.  Although the RMC sometimes offers convention security, their main focus (outside of Weber’s fiction, of course) is fundraising for charity.  One of their pet charities (pun intended) is big cat rescue, in honor of the treecats who are key elements in the series.

You can read more about the RMC here.

ALAN: And of course it’s only a short step from cosplayers to furries. On the surface, furries are just cosplay people who like to dress up as furry animals, and they are definitely a genuinely interesting, and often extremely cute, sight at conventions. But the fact that they are a recognised (and recognisable) sub-group suggests that perhaps there is rather more to them than just that.

JANE: Oh!  I was Guest of Honor at a furry convention some years ago, and found out a lot about the complexities of that particular fandom.  Let’s talk more about it next time!

TT: Envisioning Stories

January 18, 2018

JANE: As you were saying last time, Alan, fan costumes aren’t necessarily restricted to costumes based on visual media.  This is absolutely true…  In fact, clever readers of these Tangents may notice that the fans who were shown last week cosplaying Sailor Moon (media) are shown cosplaying characters from a novel.


Do you have any cool examples?

ALAN: Yes I do. In 1979 the Worldcon was held in Brighton, in England. I was there, and at the masquerade (that’s what we call the formal costume contest and presentation) I saw the most breathtaking costume I’ve ever seen. A very beautiful (and very courageous) woman appeared in front of the crowd as the heroine of Robert Silverberg’s award winning novella, Nightwings. She was completely naked apart from a G-string and a huge pair of wings.  The wings were hooked across her shoulders and attached to the G-string at waist level to help balance the load.  The wings themselves were so enormous that she needed two handmaidens to support and carry them behind her. The applause for her costume was deafening, and not just because she was naked and beautiful, but because the whole effect was simply stunning. She really was the Nightwings character.

The BBC had a camera crew at that convention and you can get a glimpse of her on Youtube here.

She appears roughly 20 minutes into the film.

If you watch the whole thing, see if you can spot me. I am briefly on camera, but if you blink you’ll miss me.

JANE: I looked but I couldn’t find you, but then I’m not sure I’d recognize me from 1979, much less someone else.

ALAN: As we’ve said, the idea of dressing up to attend a convention has never really gone away.  These days all kinds of brilliant costumes are in evidence. The people who do this are called cosplayers, and often they combine their interest in costuming with a passion for live role-playing.

JANE: Did you know that the word “cosplay” is actually Japanese?  It has its roots in Japanese anime/manga fandom, and is an abbreviation of “costume/costuming play.”  Such pseudo-English words are fairly common in modern Japanese.  A few years ago, “cosplay” started being applied to costuming in general, and so made its way into English.

ALAN: That’s interesting. I didn’t know the derivation. I’d assumed it was just a Humpty Dumpty portmanteau word.

JANE:  And it is…  Just with an origin a bit more eclectic than most.

Live action roleplaying (or LARPS) started showing up around the time I was first attending conventions.  I believe that the initial impetus was related to the popularity of vampire fiction and, in particular, to a series of roleplaying games then published by White Wolf.  Vampire: the Masquerade was the first of these.  As the title indicates, the idea is that vampires live among us, masquerading as normal humans.  Therefore, the initial LARPers actually didn’t wear costumes.

However, even without costumes, they stood out at cons because they used a variety of poses to indicate whether the character was using magical abilities.  One of the most common, as I recall, was hands crossed over the chest, which meant that the person was invisible.  So you’d have these people (usually dressed in black) pacing around the convention with their arms crossed over their chests, not interacting with anyone because they were invisible.  It was, to put it mildly, surreal.

ALAN: Of course it was – this was at an SF/F con and a con is not a con without a touch of the surreal somewhere around.

JANE:  But getting back to what we were saying earlier, even leaving out those costumes where the influence may be as much media-based as from the text – for example, Harry Potter or Game of Thrones or various comic books — there are many examples of fan costumes based on novels.  Roger had numerous photos of fans costumed as characters from his Amber novels.  When Tamora Pierce came to Bubonicon, a group of fans (featured in today’s photo) did a complex group costume as characters from her Tortall universe.    I’ve even heard of fans cosplaying Firekeeper.

ALAN: Costumes can also often be thematic rather than being derived from specific literary or other media characters. So, for example, we may have cyberpunk or steampunk costumes, beeping or ejecting clouds of steam. And in these days of the fear of a zombie apocalypse, hordes of the undead are not uncommonly seen lurching around conventions.

Did you know that in 2011, Wellington City Council actually implemented a Zombie Apocalypse Plan (known as ZAP)?

JANE: Are you kidding?

ALAN: ZAP had its serious side – Wellington has regular earthquakes and, being a coastal city, is very susceptible to tsunamis. Anything that makes the populace consider the consequences of a disaster has to be a good thing, if only to force them to prepare for it by laying in supplies of food and water. And vinyl records, of course.

JANE: Vinyl records?

ALAN: Yes. ZAP suggests that the very best way to dispose of a zombie is to hurl a vinyl record at its head so that the skull is pierced through and through.

One councillor commented that it was about time the city had an effective zombie policy. “We haven’t had one before,” he said, “and look what happened. I’m surrounded by zombies on the council.”

Just in case any of our readers think I’m joking, information about ZAP can be found here.

JANE: I believe you, even without the link.  You wouldn’t lie to us!

In addition to costumes based on published fiction or literary themes, there are costumes based on a character from a role-playing game or from the costumer’s work-in-progress.  I always enjoy these because they’re a reminder of how many different forms the creative impulse can take.

ALAN: But as wonderful an addition to a convention as costumes can be, sometimes they can indicate an unsettling trend.  Maybe we can talk about that next time.

TT: A Serpent in Paradise?

January 11, 2018

JANE: So, last time you were talking about how a larger club can embrace numerous sub-fandoms.  Certainly, that can work but from what I’ve seen – and please remember, I’m not in any clubs — the biggest conflict seems to be at the convention level, when a sub-section of the group wants to have media guests.

Sailor Moon!! at Bubonicon

Unlike author and artist guests, who attend for free or (in the cases of Guests of Honor) for expenses only, media guests are expensive and often do little more than a canned presentation, then sit and sign photographs of themselves (for which they charge even more).  The movie Galaxy Quest captures this very well.

I’ve seen more than one group fragment over this.

ALAN: We don’t have this problem – we have a national media convention called Armageddon which is run as a business (and which, I am told, makes a healthy profit).

The national SF conventions themselves are much smaller affairs, run by volunteers, and they seldom have media guests because Armageddon takes over that function for them.

JANE: There are media conventions here, too.  That isn’t really what I’m talking about.  The problem that can arrive is when a convention that’s more like what you describe as your national SF con develops a group of fans who can’t understand why a media guest can’t be added to the roster.

ALAN: Despite what I just said, there have been occasions when our national conventions have had media guests. If you are careful about who you invite, it can work out surprisingly well. One year our national convention had Danny Don Jules (the actor who played Cat in Red Dwarf) as the guest of honour. He turned out to be an absolutely wonderful guest – he was fun, he was funny, he was very approachable and best of all he was a very knowledgeable science fiction fan who was absolutely thrilled to have been chosen to play a part in an SF television show. It was one of our more memorable conventions – everyone had a ball!

JANE: How did Mr. Jule’s participation come about?

ALAN: I presume the organiser just felt like it and so she wrote to him care of the BBC. That’s just the kind of thing she would do, and she was astonishingly successful at persuading people to come and be guests at her conventions. She was very good at what Granny Weatherwax calls “Headology”.  She put together several excellent conventions by all by herself, with minimal help from other people.

JANE: She was lucky and I guess your national con must have a good budget!

ALAN: No. They are all self-funding from membership fees and the like. There are no external funds for the convention to draw on.

JANE: Impressive!

I’ve attended various conventions that featured media guests.  Most were, sadly, pretty unmemorable. Some didn’t even seem to know much about their own characters or shows.  Knowing that those people were being paid large amounts to smile and sign their name, when I was racking up expenses to be there and doing multiple program items for which I carefully prepared in advance…  Well, I’ll just leave it there.

However, some years ago, New Mexico Tech had a very small SF convention.  The organizer had a family relationship to Nichelle Nichols who played Uhura on Star Trek.  She was amazing.  Not only didn’t she mind being at a con that was small and without a lot of frills, she was thrilled to be free to walk around and be part of the event.  She went and watched the belly dancers, talked to anyone who wanted to chat, and – although I will always regret missing this – apparently went to a campus bar and tried to get the uptight students to dance.  I would have danced with her, no question.

But, as with your story about Danny Don Jules, Ms. Nichols had a lot to offer as a person.  Her speech was not only about Star Trek but about the responsibilities of being a role model.  Anyone further from the whining has-beens of Galaxy Quest could not be imagined.

George Takei was also delightful the two times I crossed paths with him.  So I think media guests may have something to offer – but only if they’re permitted to be more than talking heads for their fictional selves.

ALAN: Media SF/F invites another aspect of fandom to blossom forth – costuming. Some of the costumes can be quite elaborate and are often more than just a simple copy of what the characters wore on TV or in the movie. I remember once seeing a delightful pink dalek trundling itself down a hotel corridor.

JANE: Most conventions here have formal costume contests, as well as informal “hall costumes.”  Some conventions give prizes for both.

Costumes can be a great way for fans to shout out what they’re interested in.  Our local con has some pretty magnificent storm troopers from Star Wars who show up, as well as people meticulously costumed as characters from various anime and comics.

I’ve actually learned about various shows by asking what inspired a particular costume.

ALAN: Not all costumes are necessarily movie-based.  I remember one in particular…  But let me see if I can find a picture of it to share.  Then I can tell you about it next time.

TT: Fragmenting Fandom

January 4, 2018

JANE: Alan and I want to welcome you all to 2018!  Happy New Year!

Fragmentation in Action

And now, Alan, you were saying that Fandom has changed a lot over the decades.  How so?

ALAN: Fandom used to be a monolithic thing, but these days it has fragmented into a lot of special interest sub-groups, most of which have a vague connection to, and all of which are inspired by, Science Fiction and Fantasy. Such fans are very passionate about their interests. And some of their interests are influenced by things other than straightforward SF/F stories and novels…

JANE: One of the earliest subgroups of fandom reflects how important fandom as a way of life became to many people.  Can you guess what this might be?

ALAN: An early subgroup? I’d guess you are probably talking about First Fandom…

JANE: That’s it!

First Fandom has been around since 1958, when various people started realizing that they’d been involved in fandom for at least twenty years.  First Fandom members have their own shoulder patch and are very proud of their long-time participation in various fanacs.

First Fandom member Jack Speer, who was widely regarded as a historian of fandom, regularly attended Bubonicon.  He’d sit in the front row during panels, glowering at the panelists.  I really felt I had “arrived” when he complimented me on something I’d said, because the younger you were (and newer to fandom), the harder it was for you to please him.

But other than their shoulder patch, First Fandom wouldn’t have changed the general look or feel of SF/F conventions very much.  Indeed, one might argue that some members of First Fandom would have been dedicated to not having anything change.

You’ve been involved in Fandom for a long time and in several countries.  What sub-fandom began to change the look of conventions?

ALAN: I think there’s a couple of influences here. In the UK and (as I later discovered) in Australia and New Zealand, there are flourishing fan groups dedicated to the British TV programme Doctor Who. The New Zealand group is particularly active and has even discovered a couple of “lost” episodes lurking in private collections.  (In the early days, the BBC did not keep archives of their programmes and many programmes disappeared.)  Is the programme shown in America? Does it have an organised fandom there?

JANE: Absolutely!  The latest reboot of the show has invigorated the fandom quite a lot.

ALAN: And then we have Star Trek which was (and still is) a hugely popular TV programme that introduced a great many people to SF in particular and to fandom in general.  It wasn’t long before it had a dedicated fandom all of its own, though the overlap with what I suppose you might call “standard” SF fandom was large.

JANE: Star Trek fandom was the first one I heard about.  For a long time, I didn’t realize that SF fandom was anything else.

ALAN: When I first came to New Zealand I discovered a flourishing fan base that called itself STANZA – the Star Trek Association of New Zealand. It no longer exists (at least not under that name, which is a pity because I think it’s a clever name) but in its day it had a lot of members. In collaboration with a group of people who enjoyed building models, STANZA constructed a full size model of the bridge of the Enterprise which they used in role-playing scenarios. The bridge set was far too large to remain permanently assembled, and so it spent most of its life in small pieces in people’s cellars. But it appeared on special occasions.

JANE: That sounds cool!

ALAN: One year David Gerrold (who was a Star Trek scriptwriter) was a guest at our national convention and the set was assembled in his honour. A small play was written and performed. Gerrold was most impressed and he complimented the two groups responsible for the set. He even autographed a section of it…

I have no idea where the bridge set is these days. It seems to have faded away and I haven’t seen it for years. Pity…

JANE: From what I’ve heard, Star Trek fandom was one of the first fandoms here to separate itself from the main.  People would show up at cons wearing Spock ears and the like.  This would have been fine, but many of these people clearly had no interests in anything but the show, which alienated them from the convention at large.

ALAN: That’s a very real danger – and now that a lot of different fandoms have started to appear, many people believe that we really need to start thinking about how to handle the problem.

I don’t know how it works in other countries, but here in New Zealand we have a couple of SF/F clubs (for want of a better word) which have come up with a solution that handles this fragmentation in a very clever way. Special Interest Groups flourish under the overall umbrella of the club organisation so that people with minority interests can continue to indulge themselves in their obsessions without losing sight of the larger group of which they are also a part.

JANE: My impression is that this is the case here in New Mexico, as well.  But I think that in areas with larger populations, separate clubs flourish outside of the general organization.

ALAN: Perhaps we’re lucky that we have a small enough population to sustain the model.

The clubs also organise monthly, more general SF/F events which attract people from across these groups, to a greater or lesser extent. Though that, of course, depends very much on what the monthly meeting is about. But at least it’s a good opportunity for everybody to keep in touch.

There are also monthly parties which are, of course, just an excuse to eat, drink, make merry, and be sociable. The stereotype says that SF fans are not good in social situations. There may be a degree of truth in this, but I’ve always found that when they gather together as a group, they tend to feel less threatened and will often come out of their shells. These parties are very successful in bringing people from the Special Interest Groups together. Sometimes we even talk about science fiction at them!

The clubs publish a regular fanzine which reports on the activities of the Special Interest Groups, so there’s still a sense that we are all part of the same family. The model works very well.

JANE: What you describe sounds very similar to what I have seen here in the U.S.  However, there is a serpent, even in fannish paradise.  I wonder if it lurks there, too?

ALAN: Why don’t you whisper the secret in my ear? That way nobody will get scared.

JANE: Whisper. Whisper.

ALAN:  Ah!  Let’s talk about that next time.

TT: Fact or Fiction? The SF Fan

December 28, 2017

JANE: What’s interesting to me is how the SF/F fan is perceived by those outside of the culture.  Many years ago, a friend who was not a fan came to get me after a World Fantasy convention.  As I climbed into her car, she said: “I knew I was in the right place because there were so many people wearing black.”

A Random Bubonicon Moment

Well, the odd thing was, the reason so many people were wearing black had nothing to do with the fact that this was an SF/F event.  World Fantasy is one of the rare conventions that holds its awards ceremony on the last day of the convention.  The reason so many people were wearing black was because they were dressed up.  Much formal wear, including suits for men and the classic “little black dress” for women, is black!

ALAN: Ah! Clash of the Stereotypes!  SF and Fantasy fans. Now there’s a group of people who get stereotyped if ever there was one – especially since many SF/F fans are both nerds and/or geeks. Pelion piled upon Ossa! But I think that SF/F fandom also exhibits what I suspect is a unique social phenomenon – the fan who is obsessed with being a fan and who has little or no interest in SF/F itself. I like to think of these people as meta-fans.

JANE: I agree the meta-fan is unique.  When I attended my very first convention, Lunacon had a “Fan Guest of Honor” – Dave Kyle, if I remember correctly.  I had to have the concept of a Fan explained to me then.

However, I’m not sure I’d say these meta-fans have little or no interest in SF/F itself.  I’d say that their initial interest in some aspect of the genre has evolved to being an interest in participating in a special sub-culture.

ALAN: I suspect that’s probably true. After all, something has to bring you in to that world in the first place. But once you were there, in the pre-internet days at least, being a fan could take up the whole of your day. Fanzines circulated widely, and dedicated fans spent their time writing letters of comment (LOCs) to fanzine editors and publishing letters from their friends in their own fanzines. All this fannish activity left little time for reading new books or for watching new movies. I have a friend who is widely regarded as a Big Name Fan (BNF) from that era, but these days he seldom if ever reads an SF/F book. He actually spends his non-fandom time listening to jazz instead…

JANE: But did he start as a reader or movie viewer?  If he didn’t, what drew him into fandom?

ALAN: He started as a reader. His proudest possession is a first edition Gnome Press hardback set of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation trilogy which must be worth a small fortune now. I kept bumping into him at British conventions, though we only had a nodding acquaintance with each other then. I did notice that he seemed to be on first name terms with Brian Aldiss and Harry Harrison, and he was constantly taking photographs.

When I moved to New Zealand, I found that he was living just down the road from me and that was when we got to know each other a bit better. He showed me his slides from British cons and, sure enough, he had photographs of me!

JANE: Something that fascinated me about fandom as I learned more about it was that it had an elaborate vocabulary of its own.  Let’s see what I can remember.  Fanac was short for “Fan Activity,” such as publishing a fanzine.  “Zine” was short for fanzine, which in turn was short for “fan magazine.”

ALAN: That’s right – and don’t forget LOC and BNF which I used (and interpreted) before.  Related to BNF is SMOF, or secret master of fandom.  These are the people who run big conventions, like Worldcon.

JANE: I know several SMOF.  Nice, hardworking people, overall.

Another interesting piece of fannish vocabulary is “egoboo.”  When I first heard, it I was completely baffled.  Was it a sort of ghost?  A side effect of catching con crud?

I then learned that “egoboo” was short for “ego boost.”  This, as one hard-working fan explained to me, is the only currency that the largely volunteer organizers receive for their hard labor.  She went on to say that egoboo (or the lack thereof, or someone stealing someone else’s) was the main reason for nasty feuds among fans.

ALAN: Smofs get lots of egoboo. I suspect that’s generally why they do it.

JANE: There was even a term for those who left fandom – gafiate – which was a semi-acronym for “getting away from it all.”  It’s still in use, at least among older fans.  When I was Guest of Honor at MileHiCon in October, I asked after a Colorado fan who always used to come to Bubonicon.  The response was, “Oh, I still see him every week, but he’s more or less gafiated.”

ALAN: And don’t forget fiawol (fandom is a way of life), a lovely word used to describe the meta-fans whose original interest in SF/F now takes second place to their fanac. The sneering response, of course, is usually fijagh – fandom is just a god-damned hobby.

JANE: Wow!  I’d never heard “fijagh.”  Arguments in acronyms.

We’ve been talking about Fandom as if it’s a monolith but, while it started that way, it’s fragmented.  Maybe next time we can talk about some of the sub-fandoms and the way they have transformed conventions.

TT: A Nerd Is A Nerd Is A…

December 21, 2017

JANE: Last time, when we were discussing stereotypes associated with people who are good with computers, I found myself reflecting how what people mean by “nerd” and “geek” has changed.

Geeking Out

When I was a kid, there was absolutely nothing complimentary about the term “nerd.”  It conjured an abstract image of someone who wore thick glasses; who dressed not just unfashionably, but with no sense of what would look remotely good; and who was completely socially inept.

Did the word have the same meaning in England?

ALAN: I don’t think so – but I’m not really sure. When I was at school we certainly knew people of that type, but I can’t remember if we had a word to describe them. Or maybe we called them “drips”. That rings faint bells…

The internet, that infallible source of all knowledge, tells me that nerd first appeared in American teenage slang in the 1950s. So it probably didn’t migrate to English slang until quite some time later, after I left school.

JANE: Then there’s “geek.”  I’m not really sure when that word started showing up.  Its meaning was slightly more complimentary than nerd, since “geek” usually implied some intellectual capacity.  Nerds could be stupid, as well as all the rest, but geeks were nerds with brains.

ALAN: Geek is a very interesting word. I first came across it in a short story (I think it was a Fredric Brown story, but I won’t swear to that) where it was used to describe a carnival sideshow where someone bit the head off a live chicken. Wikipedia tells me that the word derives from the Middle Low German work geck meaning a fool or a freak and that geek shows where performers used their teeth to decapitate chickens, rats, lizards and goodness knows what else were quite common in nineteenth-century North American circuses and travelling carnivals.

JANE: Urrgh…

ALAN: Quite how the word moved on from that rather disgusting origin to acquire its current meaning seems to be something of a mystery. Again, Wikipedia informs me that the only definition of geek in the 1975 American Heritage Dictionary was the carnival performer. So its current meaning must be a relatively recent formation. Perhaps from the early 1980s? Obviously I’m just guessing here.

JANE: Maybe some of our readers can fill us in on when and how the transition happened.

Going back to nerds for a moment, a few years ago, when I was comparing high school experiences with some friends who are a good bit younger than I am, one of them said, when explaining how their group had not fit in with the other students, “Basically, we were nerds.”

I was distinctly startled.  I’d known these people, at least in passing, at that point in their lives.  They certainly hadn’t fit my idea of what a “nerd” was.  Eventually, I realized that the word “nerd” had become conflated with “geek,” and that even “geek” was considered more complimentary than it had been.  The words remained the same, but the meaning, and therefore the stereotype, had shifted.

I’m not sure what words are currently used for the former nerds and geeks.  Maybe in this politically correct modern world, the stereotype has vanished.

ALAN: I don’t think the stereotype has vanished, it’s just gained a bit of respectability.

JANE: That does seem to be the case.  Even mainstream catalogs now have shirts with slogans that proclaim geek culture.

 A popular SF/F blogsite I follow is called Black Girl Nerds.  “Geeking out” about something simply means becoming very interested in it – rather as the word “fanatic” (which had very negative connotations) morphed into the more acceptable “fan.”

ALAN: The obvious area where this applies would be sports. When I was a child, my mother and father were fanatical watchers of the Wimbledon tennis tournaments. When the season started they drew the curtains to shut the world away, and huddled themselves around the television. We ate sandwiches for every meal because sandwiches were quick to prepare and therefore didn’t interfere with the tennis too much. Nobody thought my parents were strange for behaving like this…

Here in New Zealand both rugby and cricket are followed so fanatically that sometimes people joke that they amount to a religion – and the joke only works because there’s more than a degree of truth in it. Shortly after I first moved here, there was a crisis in the Middle East (just like always), and the Israeli air force bombed an Iraqi nuclear facility. The headline on the front page of the newspaper here was: “Young Man Dies of Rugby Injury”.

JANE: Fans, of course, are found in many areas of interest, although off the cuff I can’t think of any other area than sports that uses the term “fan” to identify its membership.  Knitters, for example, can be fanatical, but they don’t call themselves “fans.”

ALAN: People often have very strong feelings about the kind of music they enjoy. Personally, I have quite eclectic tastes, but nevertheless I would certainly describe myself as a folk music fan, particularly when it overlaps with pretentious progressive rock! I have a friend who is so fanatical about heavy metal music that he has been known to travel to the far end of the country just to attend a live concert.

JANE: Yes!  Fan definitely applies to music as well.  I’m certain our readers will have some suggestions as to other areas.

We’re into the dangerous TL/DR zone, so let’s save the engrossing subject of the SF/F fan for next time!

TT: Tekno Geeks

December 14, 2017

JANE: So, what are the stereotypes about those who work with computers?

Loving the Tech

ALAN: The typical computer nerd is popularly supposed to have no social skills and a very narrow range of interests. They are totally absorbed by the technology and they tend to rather despise people who lack their own levels of expertise. It’s such a widely recognised and accepted stereotype that TV shows such as The IT Crowd and Silicon Valley and perhaps even The Big Bang Theory which poke the finger of fun at the stereotype are hugely popular.

JANE: Uh, did you mean to say “the technology”?  Is that a  Britishism?

ALAN: Yes, to both questions!

JANE: I think it’s interesting that you yourself used the term “computer nerd,” rather than “programmer” or “technician” or something.  That sounds as if you’ve bought into the stereotype.

ALAN: While I have certainly met people who are living embodiments of the stereotype, I think they are the exceptions rather than the rule. For example, my friend Laurie is a truly exceptional computer programmer, but he is much more obsessed with music than he is with computers – he sings with the Wellington Orpheus Choir, a very prestigious choir indeed, and he has practised for, and passed, music exams to a very high level. He’s a bit of a gourmet and a wine bluff (yes, I did say bluff) with a very wide range of friends and acquaintances from all walks of life. Someone less like the stereotype would be hard to find…

Nevertheless, when we get together we do tend to try and out-geek each other because it amuses us.

JANE: Uh…  I must tangent off.  Why “wine bluff,” not “wine buff”?

ALAN: Again it’s a joke about stereotypes. A wine buff is full of esoteric oenological facts and will discuss them at inordinate length whenever the opportunity presents itself. A wine bluff, on the other hand, just gives the impression of knowledge.

But having said that, I strongly suspect that Laurie leans far more towards the buff than he does towards the bluff. Whenever he visits me he always makes a point of going to the local vineyards where he holds long esoteric conversations with the vintners and generally ends up buying a case or three of something special.

JANE: Got it!  My brother is a definite wine buff who takes a real pleasure is sharing a new discovery.

On the other hand, I’m pretty sure I know a couple of wine bluffs as well.  This is a trait that seems to appear when people start making lots of money (or associating with those who do) and who then mistake price for quality.

I think it’s funny that being knowledgeable about wines is stereotypically considered to be a mark of sophistication, outranking detailed knowledge of any other type of food or drink except possibly tea, although coffee fanciers are definitely trying to join the ranks of social snobbery.

ALAN: The Pacific Island nation of Vanuatu has a climate ideally suited for growing coffee beans and, being an ex-French colony, takes its coffee very seriously indeed. And it’s the best coffee I’ve ever drunk… Can I claim the prize for esoteric coffee sophistication?

JANE: You may, since I’ve never even heard of that coffee.  On the other hand, my high school best friend once hand-carried me a gift of pound of Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee.  I so treasured it that I kept the beans in my locker and ate them.  This long pre-dated both an awareness by most people of exotic coffee and the trend for eating coffee beans.  Admittedly, those are usually robed in chocolate.  I didn’t bother.

Hopefully, that at least gives me runner up status!

ALAN: I’ll grant you that.

JANE: Going back to you and your computer programmer friend…  What do you mean by “out-geek” each other?  Do you chew with your mouths open or wear mismatching outfits?  Or is having poor social skills part of being a nerd, and have nothing to do with being a geek?

ALAN: No, no. We tell each other computer jokes that nobody else in the room understands. (Often they roll their eyes and give us one of those looks – we enjoy that). We boast about the clever things we’ve done with our own computers, and once we had a competition to see which of us could write the smallest possible program that would implement the Sieve of Eratosthenes (a mechanism for generating prime numbers).

JANE: Who won the competition?

ALAN: Both of us, of course.

JANE: You came up with identical programs?

ALAN: No – even though programming is highly technical, it is much more of an art than it is a science so the chances of us coming up with identical programs are very small.

JANE: I’ve watched Jim write programs, so I understand.  It’s like writing poetry.

ALAN: Yes it is.  Writing a sonnet is just an application of rigidly defined rules and so is writing a program. But by applying those rules rigorously people can write good sonnets, and bad sonnets and, just occasionally (if the writer’s name happens to be William Shakespeare) sonnets of genius. Think of programming as being rather like writing sonnets for computers. There’s plenty of room for artistic inspiration within the rules.

JANE: And because not all programmers are William Shakespeare, you end up with glitch-filled programs.  So, basically, Laurie is a better “poet” than you.

ALAN: In a certain sense, yes, though sometimes it’s a close run thing. Strictly speaking Laurie won our little competition, but by stretching a technical detail almost to breaking point, I think I can at least claim a draw. To be fair, I think Laurie deserved to win. He’s a very clever, and elegant, programmer.

JANE: So, what you’re saying is that the stereotype that people who work intensely with computers are automatically nerds isn’t true.   They aren’t always nerds (poorly socialized, obsessed, etc.) but they are geeks.

Or has the term nerd come to mean something else?

ALAN: I think that’s a fair comment. You can argue by analogy with SF fans (there’s a huge overlap between the two worlds) and you know from your own experience that while the stereotypical SF fan is a real phenomenon, the mere fact that you are an SF fan does not mean that you automatically conform to the stereotype.

JANE: Oh, I have a story about SF fan stereotypes, but maybe we should save it for next time!