Saturday, 8 March 2014

WSFC & etc

March this year began with a twittering hullabaloo of Wossgate, a storm-in-a-thimble of unwary insults in reaction to news that Jonathan Ross had been invited to host the Hugo awards ceremony at Worldcon (London, this August). After blame-game fallout and much post-mortem blogging, one particularly odd reality emerged. There are still many fans and professionals alike who believe a community or even a family exists in genre circles. I have only attended a few conventions (including Glasgow WSFC 2005, and four British cons since), but found no evidence of any community spirit - whether tribal, social, or philosophical. There is no more likely a ‘community’ in science fiction or sci-fi than could accurately be located amongst cineastes or book lovers; charted in gatherings of alcoholics or chocolate-addicts; or identified in protests by the so-called LGBT community demanding equal rights. Even if sociopolitical leanings are similar, groups of individuals assembling to celebrate a field that’s as vastly diverse as science fiction are no more likely to share common interests than car owners all driving down a motorway in the same direction. To assume that fandom reactions - to naming such a mildly controversial minor celebrity as a toastmaster of the Hugo awards - would be roughly uniform is, obviously, utter folly. My suggestion for someone more suitable to present rocket-ship shaped awards is: ask an astronaut; there are two or three British spacers to choose from, after all. Of course, UK astronauts would be no more relevant to the Hugo awards than a TV chat-show host, and I’m sure that some fans of science fiction would object (to Helen Sharman or Michael Foale), but that’s the whole point.

In a field like SF, composed of literary or screen media - some passive entertainments and others interactive, there can be no consensus. Critics and scholars fail to agree on a single, all-embracing definition of SF (and will even debate what those initials stand for), so there is little or no hope of reaching harmony on such issues as a public figure with an appeal that is broad enough to satisfy the many without angering the few. The best that we (and I only use that plural pronoun as a generalisation!) can expect from any committee-led choice is an unhappy compromise. Conflict is, quite probably, the only constant in the quagmire of disparate concerns thrown together under the leaky umbrella of SF. Even my limited experience of genre conventions in this country (can England and Scotland still be grouped politically as UK or not?) made it fairly clear to me that SF fandom is nothing like a community of any sort. Rife with the bookish, the introverted, trivia-obsessed geeks, charmless extroverts, and riddled with goggle-eyed cliques, fandom is a convergence of inequalities and vested interests; more unhealthy patchwork of many clashing colours than an explanatory Venn diagram of overlapped professions and hobbies. All the genre conventions I have attended seemed like failed experiments in recreating the Babel myth. Today’s SF cons are constructed from dust motes and air bubbles, not bricks and mortar. The measure of success for such events is only how much hot-air can be generated for a balloon to rise. Fandom is more like a mirage than a monument.

But where did the misconception of an SF community first come from? Even if it’s not entirely to blame, perhaps the faulty thinking can be traced back to a popular cultural misunderstanding of McLuhan’s term, ‘the global village’, a wholly illusory worldwide medium linked by the Internet, where Twitter storms offer the very latest in rumours and gossip alongside hard-won facts and news items condensed to sound-bite format, with no readily discernable difference between vital truth and trash talk. As we (again I use that for want of a better term) meander through daily life, isolated by physical/ geographical distance, connected merely by consumer electronics, while attempting to redefine via social media (like Facebook, etc) what ‘friendship’ means, and create newfangled working relationships without maintaining (or ever making) eye-contact, there seems no hope that networks built entirely online could be used as the basis for anything resembling a practical community.

I am old enough to remember when media/ fiction magazines had letter-columns like a built-in fanzine. Nowadays, publishers (like TTA Press) have online forums, and yet readers very rarely use them; the same few names pop-up month after month, and so it seems as if only the regular contributors bother to communicate with each other in a meaningful way. It’s no wonder then that individual blogs have superseded, but not properly replaced, reviewing sites. The fabled conversation that SF used to be is gone. In its place is the randomised noise produced by instantly ‘published’ comments and ‘like’ buttons, and texts of 140 characters. With such limitations on the messages that are broadcast with gleeful ignorance, and responded to with a lack of concern for any glimpse of the big picture, it’s no wonder that Internet activity has long since become a massive time-sink and a sheer waste of effort.

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