From Here to Conspiracy
Abi Frost

AJF considers the necessity of a British Locus. Then, since blank pages butter no parsnips, she reviews a few fanzines.

One of my regrets about the Reptile is that I never carried out my threat plan to run a fanzine review column in one issue. Same old problem, of course; there was never a single point at which the fanzines seemed to be up to it. In fact, so rare is the arrival of a fanzine, any bloody fanzine, that to say anything remotely useful one has to look back over a matter of years. But the imminence of another European worldcon at least suggests a time-span, so here goes. I'm sticking to personal favourites and fanzines which have some sort of claim to pre-eminence; these are what colour our picture of the scene.

The 1987 Worldcon marked, most notably for British fanzine fandom, the end of Ansible and the birth of Critical Wave. Were I in one of my Hidden Significance moods I'd probably describe this in terms of the end of a Golden Age and the start of a Leaden Era. You are at least spared this. The point about Ansible was that it was a fanzine, of a highly distinctive kind, but something that could only exist within the parameters of fanzine fandom, and had absolutely no interest in being otherwise. It also imposed a discipline on Dave Langford which, to judge by his fanzine work since say 1983, he badly needs. The practical problem of turning a pile of letters, fliers and assorted notes from publishers, convention committees, friends, and plain lunatics into something readable and concise brought out the best in the boy, and tended to suppress his most glaring faults: cuteness and self-deprecation.

Critical Wave, on the other hand, is a magazine rather than a fanzine. It seems to aspire to being a sort of British Locus, though at times it reminds me oddly of Matrix in Eve Harvey's day. Personally, I see no need (indeed a positive anti-need) for a British Locus, but if other people are prepared to pay for it that's their business. However, I'm doubtful even as to its success in filling this dubious niche; it puts out some very mixed messages. If there is a primary want for it to fulfil, it's for news of and commentary on events in the sf community. These it provides within the limits of its schedule, though I'm still deeply unenamoured of its style. But the magazine is padded out with and its production delayed by a variety of other material of questionable value to its (presumed) readership.

Author interviews, I suppose, are an exception; I happen to dislike them even in the professional press (I'm interested in the text, not the author's cute personality). But what about the reviews section? On the whole the quality here is low, and the average-to-poor critics may only lessen the credibility of the better ones. Who needs more capsule reviews of sf books anyway? Interzone, Foundation, and the BSFA's publications seem to cover the field. (Please don't whinge about the paucity of sf reviews in the national press: only a minority of novels -- of books -- of any kind gets such treatment. Try telling Western or romance fans you're neglected by elitist literary editors.)

The inescapable conclusion is that the reviews are there for PR purposes: they take the magazine fatter (and seemingly more worth the subscription) and they please publishers and open doors. However, book reviews as such are not actually inappropriate to a general audience. This could not be said for such other features as D. West's long essay on Rob Hansen's failures as a historian, surely of minimal interest to 99 per cent of readers, or the Johnny Schnitzel gossip-column, which too often has read like Martin Tudor's personalzine written and paid for by anyone but Martin. One has to admire the trick, I suppose, but ... Both items (and the West piece stands for a great deal else here) would have been fine in a fanzine addressed to the traditional fanzine sector, but not in a subzine which seems to have the (entirely reasonable) aim of reaching out to a wider community. The editors should do some serious thinking about what sort of zine Critical Wave is.

To my sheep, at last, and a fairly mangy flock they are, one or two even showing occasional and alarming signs of the dreaded scrapie. (But that matter I will leave in case the Paranoia Kid ever feels like taking up fanzine reviewing.) Easily the best fanzine of the period was Chris Evans's Conspiracy Theories, which should, if this were a just world and we weren't all so bloody idle, have inspired a whole new Golden Age of its own. This was a fanzine doing what only a fanzine can do: examining an issue within the community thoroughly through personal writing. Such discussion is close to the heart of what fanzines are for, and all credit to Chris for doing it, and doing it so well.

But Conspiracy Theories was a one-off (thank god! -- let us never go through that again). Of the rest, only two have infallibly cheered me up by their arrival: Fuck the Tories and Gross Encounters. Some of this must be down to simple nostalgia of a kind for which Joseph Nicholas would castigate me; when I entered fandom Nicholas and Dorey were the Terrible Twins of fanzine publishing, and it's quite simply nice to see then both still at it when so many others have lapsed into gnomic silence. Both have changed and matured since then, and their fanwriting now has less of the manic fannishness and Total World Domination that I remember with such misplaced affection, concentrating rather on personal enthusiasms (football, the Comedy of Leftism), though Dorey is still a sharpish satirist when he is in the mood.

FTT has a reputation in some quarters as a Serious Left Fanzine; it's rather, however, a capsule of its editors' lives and interests, which include a quantity of political activity and apparently a great deal of political reading. Both Hanna and Nicholas generally manage to avoid the great pitfall of fanwriting on wider issues: loss of the personal voice. Compare Hanna recently on the pornography/censorship business (working out her own position and addressing her difficulties with another fan's) with much 'political' fan-writing, which simply trots out statistics or whatever derived from pressure-group material, and generally well-known to those interested. (This reminds me of the great science programming mystery; a vociferous constituency demands lots of science on convention programmes, but they all know it all already because they all read New Scientist; meanwhile, everyone else is in the bar or at a costume workshop or has fallen asleep in the back row....)

If we had a healthy fannish fanzine scene, both GE and FTT would seem marginal, which doesn't mean that I personally would enjoy them any less. But we don't; and until fanzines start talking to each other again -- and talking about matters of interest -- these rather self-contained publications seem to be central. I might feel differently if I'd seen more than one issue of Ivan Towlson's Strange Perversions and Literary Lunches; the issue I saw was literate, mischievous, varied and above all, bloody funny (a skit on the evil cult of caffeine had Geoff Ryman falling off a bar-stool, so it's not just me). I'd guess that its strength derives from being rooted in a local group -- the sf society at Oxford (a university -- though not, repeat not, a society -- to which I admit a sentimental attachment); but what future for it now that the editor is marooned in today's apology for a fanzine scene?

Another fanzine screaming for a better rating is (bloody Hell) Conrunner; though perhaps a little unfair neglect from me just redresses the notorious occasion when it was the only British fanzine to get a full set of stars in a Critical Wave listing. (Martin Tudor explained that 'it succeeds in what it sets out to do'; by this criterion Chris O'Shea's one-sheet convention listing, Connotation, should get ten stars and a knife-and-fork.) But if I'm giving brownie points for keeping the community in touch, then plainly Conrunner must get plenty. The trouble has been, for me, its extreme narrowcasting (at times it's felt as if mere congoers were not supposed to read it) and the gruesome managementspeak which too many contributors have affected; plus the somewhat uncritical attitude it's taken to conventions as an institution. This, however, is changing, and how: with contributions from first Langford and now D. West, Conrunner seems to going all out for fanzine-fannish credibility. Has something snapped? Given the sheer weirdness of one reaction, at least, to Langford's piece I look forward to future lettercolumns. Can the conrunning hordes survive West's dismissal of their raison d'etre? And will this piece perhaps lead to some more discussion about what conventions are for?

Langford's own Sglodion hasn't yet found its feet, to my mind, though I suspect that as soon as people get used to its existence and start writing a few wicked letters it will race ahead. Bright and brilliant though Dave is, he seems to need other people to spark him off, whether as parodist, as keeper of fandom's conscience or simply as wit. I think we underestimate the sheer PR function of fanzines at times (in my day, and Langford's, it was the way to get yourself known), and Langford may well have been a victim of his own PR. His best fanzine articles lately have tended to be those where he's used his wit in the service of his opinion, as in Conspiracy Theories, on the same subject once in Pulp, or even here in Chicken Bones. But fandom seems to want our blue-eyed Hugo-winner simply to be cute and amusing, and too often, obliging fellow that he is, he just obliges. Let us hope that Sglodion doesn't go this way.

There are times when I feel like crossing the Atlantic and strangling some of Pulp's correspondents -- the ones who burble on about what a wonderful funny-man Langford is when all he's given them is some piece of nothing about British Rail sandwiches or computing. Though this might be good for Dave's soul (and give me some much-needed exercise), however, it won't solve the problem of Pulp. More than one person must be deeply puzzled as to why Pulp has never won the Nova. It seems to me that the truth is (and I can just see the letters, oh god can I just see them) that British fanzine fandom has a highly ambivalent attitude to Pulp. Is it, we ask ourselves, really directed at us? (Yes, I can see those letters all right.) Since Pam Wells left, it's seemed really to be coasting along as a fanzine-by-numbers; fill half the main-text space with good ol' reliable Chuckie and Dave, slap in an editorial piece and some fanzine reviews, then sit back and enjoy all those transatlantic letters saying how wonderful you are. Topic (B, C, N? I've lost count) apart, there has been little of note on the issues in British fandom; in fact, there has been precious little with the time-and-place quality which I value in fanzines.

There was a time, children, when there really was a transatlantic fanzine dialogue; not in the 1930s, or the 1950s, but circa 1982-84, when Ted White, the Nielsen Haydens, even Richard Bergeron (even, indeed, Avedon Carol, who was over there then) were regularly exchanging fanzines with us over here. We sent them our fanzines just as they came; not tailored to fit their prejudices. If you don't know how this happy situation came to an end, ask someone else, it's too depressing; but Pulp's bland and seemingly almost cynical mid-atlantic crowd-pleasing formula isn't how I'd like to see it restored.

D. West used to say that what we needed was a fuck-all point fanzine. Given my affection for the marginal productions of Dorey and Hanna/Nicholas, and my doubts about the apparent targeting of Pulp. I suppose my heart is right with him. Fanzines ought to have the courage of their own pointlessness. But I do have a nostalgia for the days of the 'focal point' fanzine too: the days when fans read fanzines, rather than 'fanzine fans' being one minority sect among many. There does have to be some reason for reading fanzines (as a class) than simply deciding to be in the fanzine gang. Individual fanzines may go on being gloriously, eccentrically pointless (indeed, I want them to), but there has to be some point to the scene as a whole. The way things are (and probably always have been), anyone who reads fanzines in the Walter Pater spirit (burning with a hard, gem-like flame) purely for an aesthetic experience is either doomed to passive disappointment or miserably bereft of experience of the arts. The point must surely be 'keeping in touch'; seeing that the community keeps and shares a defining core of common knowledge -- much of which may consist of legends, libels and superheated scandal. That's why Ansible worked so well, and that's why today's fanzines, as a class, too often don't.

Chicken Bones 2 (1990)