More than One Tribe
This year I’ve gone to as many science-fiction conventions as I have comic conventions. Normally I’d have hit twice as many comic shows as I have (passed on both ECCC and SDCC this year, something I hope is just this year only.) As a matter of course, I don’t attend any science-fiction shows. The last one I went to was Worldcon in 1993, in San Francisco, I think.
Well, the last one before I attended Westercon in July, since I happened to be in the same town as it was taking place (close enough, as I stayed in Sunnyvale and the show itself was in San Jose.) And earlier (‘bout a fortnight ago now), I was at Renovation, which was the name given to the Worldcon convention being held in, you guessed it, Reno, Nevada.
And when I say science-fiction show, I really mean science fiction and fantasy, primarily book-based (though certainly not exclusively). There’s a whole bunch of stuff that dovetails into these fields, everything from antique books to television shows to light-duty cosplay to craft vendors to movie posters and bootleg videos (yes even there). But mostly books.
Books are great. I love books. In fact, I had a distressing dream where all the libraries were forced to sell the books they had, presumably because the electronic copies were easier/cheaper to curate, but maybe because civilization really was ending, I’m not sure. Anyways, it was very upsetting, but thrilling at the same time. Which I imagine is how a lot of people between say the ages of twenty and fifty are seeing in the world of publishing now.
Know what there weren’t many of at Renovation? Publishers. Edge was there, and I understand they’re a pretty big Canadian outfit. And there were a couple of self-publishers (of which I am one myself, so nothing against them.) The big publishers made presentations in meeting rooms, but they didn’t set up on the floor. In fact, I saw more publishers set up at my time in SDCC than I ever saw here at Worldcon. And if Hungry Tiger Press (home of AGE OF BRONZE) can make the trip to set up on the floor there, I sure as hell think that Tor could. This is not a dig at Hungry Tiger, by the way. I’ve known Eric Shanower for several years now and he does great work and knows how to get it into people’s hands. Tor could be working harder.
Or they could simply not see a gathering of the tribes like this as a good place to spend money on. Which doesn’t make a lot of sense on its face, or even underneath. Why on earth would you not be flying the flag high at a convention, if not arguably THE science fiction convention of the year? Now maybe they didn’t see themselves selling books at the show and couldn’t make any money. I simply don’t know. At least have a permanent presence on the floor and get a chance to put sample books in people’s hands.
But science fiction shows and comic shows are not the same kind of animal. And honestly, they weren’t even when I attended Worldcon in the 90s. Don’t get me wrong. I had a great time. Got to meet Tim Powers and KW Jeter before steampunk was even a twinkle in the pop subculture’s eye. Oh, and Jim Blaylock, who’s always overlooked when people talk steampunk.
However, Worldcon was significantly smaller than say, SDCC even then. Please, don’t even try to compare the juggernaut of SDCC 2011 with the show back then. It was probably half the size, ignored by the big studios and you could still get passes walking up on a Saturday morning. Even then, it literally dwarfed Worldcon. Comparing the two now is borderline ludicrous (particularly since more publishers and dealers in science fiction books, art, etc, show up to SDCC, not to mention that you can still run across a pretty good number of SF authors if you know where to look.)
The attendance number I heard for Renovation was 4K. That was paid attendees. Maybe another 500 or so as guests/exhibitors/etc. If this number proves to be incorrect, I’m happy to own up to it, but it came from one of the bigger exhibitors there, so I’m inclined to believe it.
Wonder-Con runs almost ten times that. Im’ going to say that again. Ten. Times. And it’s not even the big enchilada, though it’s in the second rank, if not close to the head of that one. Emerald City, Heroes, C2E2 and NYCC all fall within roughly the same magnitude (and are certainly close to 40 than 4)
Granted, Wonder-Con’s mission statement is more all-inclusive than Worldcon’s, but not by all that much. There was plenty of talk about television shows, movies, and some comics panels (which I’ll note were populated by comics commentators and not people who actually made them. Yes it’s catty to point out, but it’s also accurate.) There is no reason for Wonder-Con not to be scratching that same itch.
I know. Size doesn’t matter. I’m looking at it the wrong way. It’s all about quality not quantity. All valid observations.
And still, I couldn’t help but feel that a lot of Worldcon was looking backwards and not particularly to the growth of the field. Yes, the cutting edge stuff is hidden and you have to look for it, and since I only dabble, I don’t get to really dig in and I missed all the hidden gems. Not exactly. Yes, there are plenty of authors doing something besides urban fantasy and steampunk, but that’s not what’s selling. And I’ve been told by more than one author that if I wanted to get sold, I’d be well-advised to whip up an urban fantasy and pass it around. Having read a few representative pieces of the genre, I quickly came to the conclusion that if I was to follow my first impulses, I’d be tarred and feathered or quickly and messily beheaded, my long-suffering brainpan left on a bronzed pike chased with eldritch symbology and left as a warning to others.
Did I forget to mention that zombies and mining the various veins of Lovecraftania seem to be pretty easy paths to gathering up an audience? They still are. And now I’m going to sound like a blue-nosed hater of genre fiction, which is a pretty laughable statement on its face. That’s like saying that I don’t like comics because I didn’t line up for JUSTICE LEAGUE number one. I do, however, dislike lazy fiction. Which is not to say that I hate trash. Trash is great. Make it interesting.
I guess what I’m getting down to is if I was to look at Westercon and Worldcon as representative of the health of the genre and those creators that fuel it, I’d be concerned. Whereas I can go to just about any comic convention around (and I’m heading to a bunch of them, starting this month) and find either artists or publishers or even vendors who give me hope that things are still rolling along and growing (even if most creators seem to misunderstand what makes superheroes compelling, but that’s a screed for another time.)
In comics, we talk pretty casually about the graying of the audience, particularly for the mainstream. I can rattle off reasons why it’s true, but let’s just point out that most of the comics published are leaning on characters that anywhere between twenty and seventy years old. Sure, you can argue that Ed Brubaker’s Bucky in the Cap suit is a different character, but there’s a reason the book is called CAPTAIN AMERICA, right? Red Hulk (as much as I enjoy the book now and am continually surprised that Jeff Parker and company has made a one-off joke into a compelling character) doesn’t exist without the green/gray Hulk to build off of. Period.
But there’s plenty of people coming into the fold, just that they’re disproportionately reading manga, webcomics and alternative stuff instead of the stalwarts of the Big Two. Just so long as they’re open to, oh say, a western with some horror elements even if it’s rendered in an occidental style, I don’t care what they read, so long as they read.
My perception, and this may just be me, is that SF books face a real graying of the audience. Maybe not SF as a whole, right? Weren’t people just talking a couple years ago about a new golden age of SF on television with LOST and HEROES and the like grabbing headlines and page hits? SyFy channel finds no end of joyfully trashy and ridiculous tropes to mash together for its movies of the week. Science fiction movies still get made, though much more in the independent side of things. Science fiction isn’t dead or dying, but I can’t help but feel that the fandom side of things (and there is a long history of SF fandom that is distinctly different than comics fandom, though there’s always been overlap.)
Sure, there’s new blood coming in. I sat in on a reading of some of ‘em and a good percentage weren’t just interested in recapitulating the old stuff. Good for them. Not always my cup of tea, but that’s true for just about everything. At least they’re out there and willing to get kicked in the teeth (yes, I’m an optimist at heart) to get their work out there. But still, there was a lot of holding fast to tradition. I know, tradition in and of itself isn’t a bad thing until you find you’re hidebound.
I think ultimately I don’t feel like I belong to this particular tribe. Which is an odd place to be when you’re out among it. I suppose it’s easy to pick at cracks in the armor that way, so I’ll end up sounding overly negative. But then, it’s not like I’m a happy cheerleader for all of comics as a whole or even just the stuff that everyone loves. If comics fans are outsiders (and they sure as hell were when I was growing up) then I’ve ended up being an outsider’s outsider. Not unlike, say, Jonathan Richman about the time of that first MODERN LOVERS album. He wasn’t a hippie, nor was he an unthinking torchbearer for tradition, but he was willing to pick and choose bits here and there and add it to his own experience and come out with something relatively new. Not a joiner, though.
Doubly odd as I’ve written more SF/fantasy prose in the last year than anything else (though my current day-job project is going to eclipse that pretty shortly), and you’d think that I’d be heading towards this tribe with a zealot’s zeal. Instead, I don’t know. I look around and don’t get the vibe that the folks around would be into what I’d be bringing to the party. You know, when you bring whiskey and everyone wants a martini and you end up in a corner by yourself, singing the entirety of SWORDFISHTROMBONES at top volume until the cops come. Maybe that’s just me, too.
Probably why I never wanted to label my first novel, BLUE HIGHWAY, as science fiction, though it probably is (near-future setting, some neat tech bits) but could just as easily be passed off as general fiction. It wasn’t as crazy or daring as cyberpunk, though it was written during the tail end of that period (yes, it’s quite an old manuscript.) My fantasy novel is populated by Norse deities on motorcycles and valkyrie with personal jetpacks locked in battle with teched-up jotuns and sea serpents. I can’t get anything right.
But then it’s equally weird seeing outsiders embraced by the community. Take a look at Philip K. Dick. More or less benignly ignored during his lifetime and now people non-jokingly say he’s one of the greats. Of course, back when I was in college, I had a friend describe him to me as “Sci-Fi Jesus!” and his books were out of print unless you went to Amok books in LA and got warehouse copies or imports. And in 2011, you have PKD appreciation panels, even if the mission statement of “Why is PKD’s work still important in 2011?” which is painfully obvious on its face. Yes, it was a way to get the football going, rhetorical, I get it. I suppose it’s no more weird than having read INFERNAL DEVICES in 1990 and seeing people trying so very hard to live it in 2011.
So maybe the growth in the SF field is elsewhere. Maybe the rocks just have to be turned over. Entirely possible. Maybe the big shows aren’t the place to go looking for it.
Which still strikes me as odd.