Slouching Towards Oblivion
Abi Frost

Abigail Frost surveys fandom since last Mexicon

Two years seems a short time in fandom: a couple of dozen conventions and perhaps almost as many fanzines. During the period, we might have expected fandom to emerge from its post-Conspiracy crise de nerfs, and indeed, some Conspiracy casualties returned to the conrunning scene with this year's Eastercon. And some incorrigible masochists were promoting another UK Worldcon bid, which has grown in credibility over the period, though the bidders' bland suggestion in Conrunner 12 that the rest of UK fandom will simply have to fit in with their plans and join the hard-pressed staff remains alarming. On the fanzine front, things were less lively; of already-established traditional fanzines, only Conrunner, FTT, Pulp, and Small Mammal reached me throughout. LIP seems to have perished during the Nova Wars, which is a serious shame. David Bell made a good summing-up of the pessimistic view of fanzine fandom shortly after Mexicon III, in a letter to Critical Wave 13:

So where are all the new faneds going to come from? The demographers are talking about a fall in school leavers and that prediction is based on numbers actually at school now. It seems to me that a shortage of quarto duplicating paper is trivial. What worries me is that the newest young faned I know of is Harry Bond, that some big names in fandom haven't produced anything in years, and that people who are doing something are frequently targets for personal abuse.

Fandom is definitely ageing, as the Matrix survey confirms. UK fans since Seacon '79 at least have held on to a caricature view of US fans as fair, fat and fortysomething, complacent, concerned with their creature comforts above all; contrasting our own supposed creativity and sense of Desperate Fun with their pernickety passiveness. But we're catching up. We've seen the convention-as-package-holiday; London, at least, now has a flourishing "semi-pro" scene which rather disdains the pleasures of fanzines and the Wellington in pursuit of its members' strictly penny-ante ambitions; and the fan bureaucracy grows by the day. Two-year Eastercon bidding has tied up would-be conrunners for quite ridiculously long periods, resulting in a restriction of choice. The last contested bidding session took place in 1988, at Follycon.

In fact, conrunning, which depends on finite resources -- staff, guests, and potential members' money and con-going time -- begins to show signs of being overstretched. The "demographic time-bomb" to which Bell alludes is as likely to affect convention membership and the pool of conrunners as fanzine fandom (which overlaps massively with "con-fandom" anyway). Recession, inflation, and general economic uncertainty have all taken their toll, of both cons and con-goers. Mancon, with ambitious plans to fly over Harlan Ellison, had to fold, victim of rising air-fares and possibly the slow membership take-up which every other con (except, very recently indeed, Helicon) has noticed. I'm sure we all sympathise with the Mancon committee (and many will regret having lost the chance to see Ellison), but it was bound to happen sooner or later. Some might even express surprise that it wasn't an Eastercon that went down the tubes.

Both Eastercons during the period experienced problems of their own making and from outside. In the run-up period, Eastcon thoroughly pissed off many members of traditional fandom, and (perhaps more embarrassing, given the committee's provenance) got involved in a stand-up row with the Elydore committee over its perfectly reasonable attempt to publicise itself at another media con. (If this was the peace and love of Medialand, some of us thought, give us the gentle rocking of the Nova Wars any day of the week.) Real disaster struck when the owners of the function space ratted on the deal. (Gestures involving trouser-legs featured in conversations on the subject.)

Soon the words "rescue-bid" were heard in the land, with the result that Eastcon went ahead with a new hotel and substantially changed personnel. Sluggish membership figures immediately perked up. So the Eastercon, for which two years' preparation was deemed essential, was largely put together in about nine months. (And Mexicon didn't even say "We told you so." Just as well, given what happened to us the following September ...)

Speculation may similarly be remembered as an Awful Warning in some quarters. It was clear long before the con that it was making some dreadful mistakes. Some of its difficulties can be put down to the misfortune of being conceived in the boom and delivered in the recession, but not, alas, all.

It was risky to book a hotel charging over £50.00 for a single room; the damage was already done by the time new rates (still too high for many) were announced. It was entirely predictable that hastily-found cheaper overflows were booked up by the people who'd been expected to sleep four to a room in the main hotel. Thus saddled with a reputation for being expensive and thoughtless, the committee had great fun shooting itself in the foot. Key members were absent from the bidding-session in 1989; the con was under-represented at Eastcon; and the "entertaining" PRs were read as flinging a pot of corflu in the public's face. Fans often couldn't find the information they needed among the jokes. The delegation policy meant that one kept encountering people running programme sectors who denied all responsibility (or even concern) for other aspects of the con, slagged off "the committee" like everyone else, and weren't always even sure if they'd be going.

Fandom was sceptical, and joined up slowly; the con was under-funded and hence under-equipped, and the hotel by many accounts uncooperative (possibly feeling conned by promises of a high occupancy-rate) on the day; and I fear Speculation's reputation is assured for all time. The pity is that, to judge from the programme book, they genuinely had cracked the problem of integrating different areas in the programme -- something which my generation of fans have long wanted to see.

What with Contrivance taking place on Jersey (a draw for some, a turn-off for others), Illumination will be the first "normal" Eastercon since Follycon (1988), and looks likely to be followed by another untypical one. Helicon is bidding for a Eurocon. Remembering the furore over John Brunner's 1984 Euroeastercon, a bit of noise might be expected here; but I think the situation is quite different. First, Illingworth and Co are bidding for the Eurocon after winning the Eastercon bid, a quantum leap in tact alone. Secondly, British fandom has discovered Europe.

ConFiction was in some ways shambolic, but it is remembered by most of those present as a con in a million. Gulled by Anglo-American conrunning orthodoxy into offering 17 programme streams to about 2000 people, kiboshed by a US database which gave programme participants ambiguous information about item-times, led by their own naïveté to list programme participants who had no intention of coming, the ConFiction committee had the last laugh in the end, as people rediscovered the ad-hoc, amateur tradition -- and found that it was fun. Stories abounded of panel-less audiences setting up their own items on the spot, of incredible tolerance and general willingness on the part of the pros who did make it (Diane Duane was even drafted onto an ops shift) and of free-enterprise problem-solvers from nowhere. When the official pocket programme proved a snare and a delusion, a gaming fan found an idle Mac and produced a substitute. When a busload of Czechs couldn't all afford entry to the main con, they held their own con on a campsite. Some of the Easterners' enthusiasm and lack of preconceptions rubbed off on the rest of us. A British Eurocon bid -- large areas of ConFiction were staffed by Brits -- seems the logical next step.

Smaller cons produced some innovations. Inclination protested at the Reptile's description of it as directed at "people who want to become conrunners but haven't yet", but failed to make it clear to me, at least, what it was for. Reconnaissance, eagerly awaited and well-programmed, suffered from low attendance on the day and "perm-any-four-out-of-five" panel make-up, but seems to be Most Promising Newcomer. Conjunction, described by one member as "a Mexicon where barflies were replaced by intense huddles of gamers", was a successful first attempt at an SF-style gaming con. Rubicon faded away, its place as the fun con apparently taken by Iconoclasm and its successors. Unicon seemed about to suffer from Eastercon-itis, as the lone bid for 1992 collapsed, but the Unicon establishment (good grief!) stepped in with a replacement. Novacon strolled on.

The proliferation of conventions puts great strain on the small pool of readily-available pros and experienced speakers. Jonathan Cowie complained that Contrivance "failed to attract many pros ... many regulars who add to the event were not there." (Conrunner 11.) But pros who aren't funded by the convention or publishers are subject to the same money and time pressures as the rest of us, and can hardly be blamed if they resist the demands of a convention fandom which seems ever more self-referential, less science-fictional. Some smaller cons must be very lonely events for their guests.

A few years ago it was fanzines which seemed to be ignoring the SF world in favour of navel-gazing. This is less true now even of traditional fanzines (consider FTT), but the largest group of new "fanzines" seems to aspire to low-level prodom. Critical Wave's "market listings" are instructive and depressing: the number of publications seeking 5000-word stories, paid for in copies, seems constantly to grow, but is this much more than vanity publishing? New Worlds itself shows that great things can come from amateur publishing, and the extraordinary growth of football fanzines (When Saturday Comes now employs full-time staff) might provide a more recent model for editors who dream of bootstrap prodom, but is the new SF small press really meeting similar needs?

A recent Private Eye carried two small ads along the lines: "Budding critic seeks £2000, PC and laser printer to start fanzine". (I wish I'd thought of that in 1979.) Chances are these aren't SF people (if they are and you know them, tell the rest of us so we can mock them), but it shows that the word fanzine now irrevocably means, in the outer world, a cottage-industry publication, rather than the means of personal communication within a defined group which it's long meant here. Perhaps the 80s mood has meant that those who like mucking about with words and print have sought these pleasures in a more "professional"-seeming medium, and the traditional fanzine field has consequently lost out on new blood and new ideas. The 90s might surprise us, however. Both Conrunner and The Intermediate Reptile have shown that "convention" fans can find fanzines interesting; if they learn the habits of personal writing, publishing and response, we could easily be back on the road to an integrated fandom.

Already shared frames of reference are here. Fans Across the World, generally thought to have done magnificently at Confiction, is building contacts in Eastern Europe by mail as well as at conventions. Friends of Foundation, a newcomer among fan organisations, has tremendous goodwill which crosses several divisions.

Both institutions are welcome, and deserve our support. But we should guard against fandom growing over-institutionalised and sclerotic. What was ten years ago a field of individualists occasionally co-operating for the fun of all is getting clogged with CV material for bland team-players. If we want younger fans to join us over the next few years, we should relax a bit and make a place for them.

Mexicon IV Programme Book (1991)