Interview: John DeNardo of SF Signal

SF Signal is a phenomenon.  This past year at the Chicon 7 Worldcon, the website was nominated in two categories – Best Fanzine and Best Fancast – and walked home with the honors in the Fanzine category, the first website to do so, and in its very first year of eligibility.  1,922 Hugo ballots were cast, with nearly half including a vote for Best Fanzine (806);  when the votes were tallied, SF Signal took first place honors by a comfortable margin of nearly 100 votes, beating out last year’s winner, our own Chris Garcia’s The Drink Tank. (Details of the 2012 balloting can be found on The Hugo Awards website – PDF – and details of the award categories and previous years winners can be found there also – The Hugo Awards.)  (A huge online collection of fanzines can be found on EFanzines.com.)

No small feat considering that among all of the individual Hugo Award categories, Fanzines are probably the most connected to SF Fandom’s traditions.  Fanzine Fans have their own convention (Corflu – CORrection FLuid, with their own FAAn Awards) and represent a strong core of the influence-makers, doers and shakers of the fannish world.  It was only recently that the voting rules for several categories were amended to allow the inclusion of purely electronic media.

Fanzines are – well, I’ll let the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction take over from here:

A fanzine is an Amateur Magazine produced by sf fans and increasingly defined by its focus on Fandom and individual fans rather than on science fiction or sf stories. The term “fanzine”, first coined by Louis Russell Chauvenet in the October 1940 issue of his magazine Detours, has since been borrowed and used by Comics collectors, wargamers, underground publishers, music fans and other non-sf enthusiasts. A particularly popular category in the 1980s and 1990s UK was the soccer fanzine.

Traditionally, Fanzines were Hectographed or Mimeographed on inexpensive paper (Twil-Tone) and traded, given away for contributions or LoCs (Letters of Comment) or sold, often for just the postage required to mail them.  Some of our best and brightest honed their craft in these ‘amateur’ publications, Ray Bradbury and Robert Silverberg among them.

Being one of the only means of mass communication available to fans during the early years, Fanzines became an important underpinning of the community and continue to be considered an important aspect of Tru-Fandom.  Today’s Fanzine Fans largely represent the traditionalists amongst us; it is probably accurate to say that more discussion, arguing and Hugo Awards rules changes have been related to the Fanzine category than any other.  Indeed, when photocopying became widely available, its use to reproduce fanzines was strongly questioned – the same for offset and even more-so for the now common practice of issuing PDF editions.  What Exactly Qualifies As A Fanzine? is an oft-repeated question.

And it is because of this foundational role that What Exactly Is A Fanzine has become such an important question.  Fanzines are not just the medium they are reproduced with; they embody the traditions and culture of Fandom – work for-the-love-of, respect given to where we came from, the free-flow of information, a disdain for commercialism.  Fanzine Fans jealously guard the torch they carry (largely for good reason) and it is only after much debate (and usually a lot of impassioned writing) that a new form is allowed into the inner-circle.

Now SF Signal, a niche-news, blog and website combo has taken the honors and expanded that definition.  While there was some surprise amongst traditionalists following SF Signal’s win (most, including myself believed that it would take a year or two of eligibility for a site like SF Signal to win) that it did so is a strong indication that, rather than diluting the traditions with the introduction of a new form, SF Signal has embodied those traditions and is carrying them forward for a new generation of fan.

How’d they do it?  What makes SF Signal an Award Winning Fanzine?  Let’s ask its founder, John DeNardo.

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Amazing Stories Magazine: How did you come to discover science fiction?

JohnD-Kirkus-2John DeNardo: Like most people of my generation (quick-and-depressing realization: I’m now old enough to say “my generation”) much of my exposure to science fiction was through popular media, like Star Trek, Star Wars, and (gasp!) the original Battlestar Galactica. But my preferred medium of science fiction is literature. Reading exercises my imagination more than film and TV because I have to fill in all the details. So Eventually I gravitated to reading and discovered a whole new world of science fiction.

ASM: Did you watch the SyFy incarnation of Battlestar?  Care to compare the two?  (The original was episodic; the remake serial.  Do you have an old-timer’s preference for episodic TV shows, or have you given in to the modern trends?)

JD:It’s been a while since I saw the original BSG. I liked the newer one better – at least for the first half of its run, before I gave up watching. I like that some newer shows are incorporating multi-episode story arcs.  It rewards long-term viewing and somehow makes the stories meatier. But that doesn’t mean I dislike classic episodic shows.

ASM: What was your first read?

JD: I was exposed to sf reading in high school English class through great stories like Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes and Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell.  But I count my first true science fiction read as the book I choose all by myself: Ringworld by Larry Niven.  I talk about that in the first article I wrote for the Kirkus Reviews blog.  That was my gateway novel, the one that got me hooked on sf.

 ASM: Have you been keeping up with the new Niven-Lerner Fleet of Worlds novels?

JD: Sadly, I haven’t kept up with the Known-Space stories.  But the novels and short stories I did read I have enjoyed.

ASM: We generally all tend to lump science fiction, fantasy and horror together in our examination and presentation of what is loosely referred to as “genre fiction” (despite the fact that there are other genres, notably romance, mystery and western).  Do you think they generally belong together? (Personally I’d like to be able to say “the genres of the fantastic”, but that invokes “fantasy” too strongly.)

JD: I try to not get too hung up on genre classifications. At best they are convenient handles with which to talk about books. That said, I tend to use “speculative fiction” as an umbrella term when talking about sf/f/h. I think that suits the nature of those stories. Speaking of labels,  I also tend to use “SciFi” when referring to science fiction films and television, and “sf” when referring to science fiction literature. Further confusing the matter, I also use “sf” sometimes to mean speculative fiction. Hmmm…I should make a decoder ring!

ASM: Do you have a favorite?

JD: You mean a favorite genre? Although I like science fiction, fantasy and horror, I have strong leanings toward preferring science fiction. That’s the genre that does it most for me. A favorite book or film? No way you’re gonna get me to choose to just one. 🙂

ASM: We know that you (what – publish, edit, produce?) SF Signal and write SF features for the Kirkus reviews blog.  What else do you/have you done in the field?

JD: I did a blogging stint over at AMC TV a few years ago, writing about SciFi films.  I also did a guest faux news piece for Steven Silver’s Argentus a couple of years ago. It was a first-person account from a character in Isaac Asimov’s classic short story “Nightfall”. That was fun. Coming up, I’ve accepted an invitation to be the Fan Guest of Honor at Apollocon 2013, a Houston-based science fiction convention with a literary focus.

ASM: When, how and why did you start SF Signal?

JD: My buddy JP Frantz originally had the idea to start a blog. Together we decided that it could be about science fiction, which we both liked to read. I was a little hesitant, adopting the standard don’t-see-any-usefulness-in-this-newfangled-thing attitude. But once we got started, yeah, it was kind of fun. At first it was the content creation that was fun. Then, as our audience grew, it became something more special. It’s that audience involvement and those people connections that keeps us going.

ASM: You recently won the first Hugo Award ever given out for a fanzine that is not recognizably an electronic fanzine (which are usually produced in issue format as downloadable PDFs – see efanzines.com for reference);  nor thought of as a fanzine by many members of graying old fandom. You could almost say that SF Signal won the first ever Hugo for a website (a category that does not exist, though it has been pondered and debated for a number of years.) I guess the first question would be: Until recently, did you ever think SF Signal would ever be in the running for a Hugo?

JD: No way! It was not something we set out to do. It was just a couple of friends “trying out this blogging thing” and sharing our love of sf. The fact that we won is one of the coolest things that ever could have happened.

ASM: Prior to the possibility of being nominated for a Hugo, did you consider SF Signal to be a fanzine?

JD: If by “fanzine” you mean “a group of facts and opinions expressing a love of genre with the intention of sharing it with like-minded fans”, then yes. Absolutely. Sharing our love of sf was always our intention and driving force. It still is.

Here’s my thinking: It’s not the medium that makes a fanzine, it’s content that is repeatedly updated and published. We may not print traditional “editions”, but we do have a publishing schedule: daily. Every single day we have new and fun content for fellow fans to enjoy. In fact, it’s been several years since we missed a day of posting, and that includes birthdays, holidays and weekends. I think it’s that kind of dedication that reflects the spirit in which the fanzine category was created. So yes, I do consider SF Signal to be a fanzine.

ASM: Did you make any deliberate changes to the publication to enhance its chances of winning?

JD: Nope. We just do our thing. Same as always.

ASM: Are there any particular features that you believe significantly contributed to your nomination and/or win?

JD: Well, I suppose some of the more popular features helped us get noticed by more people, some of whom are Hugo voters. If that’s the case, then you can include our roundtable interview “Mind Meld” posts, our posts by guest contributors, our daily news link/roundup posts, our regular columns  — and so many more — to be contributing factors.

ASM: There was quite a bit of, shall we say, bandinage following your win.  Lots of talk about altering the rules for either the Fanzine category, the semi-pro magazine category, or both – when in fact SF Signal only became eligible due to some fairly recent changes to those same categories. Sitting at the ceremony and afterwards at the parties, what sense did you get from the convention attendees about your win?  Were they generally approving, disapproving – or you were just too out of it to notice?

JD: I was floating pretty high that night and for a long time afterward, but I never heard anything but warm congratulations.

Why — what have you heard? [Looks around suspiciously…]

ASM: Do you think that the variously proposed award rules changes will be made, preventing SF Signal from being eligible in future?

JD: I have no idea.

ASM: If the category definitions remain as they are now, do you think SF Signal will be nominated for another Hugo?

JD: That’s up to the voters. 🙂

ASM: How do you go about putting together a daily roundup of the SF/F/H news?

JD: I rub a magic lamp, click my heels three times and say, “There’s no tidbits like sf/f/h tidbits!”

OK, that’s not true.

I mainly use RSS feeds and bookmark savers to tag items (articles, news, reviews and any other cool genre-related stuff) that look interesting. At the end of the day, I go through them, weed out the ones that aren’t so interesting after all, and collect the remaining ones together into a Tidbits post. It’s time consuming, but well- received.

ASM: Who comes up with your Mind Meld questions?

JD: Whoever is administering that week’s Mind Meld comes up with the question. By having multiple contributors running them, we get the same benefit that you see in the Mind Melds themselves: the variety of multiple viewpoints, worldviews and experiences.

ASM: How do you choose who participates in a particular Mind Meld?

JD: That’s largely up to the moderator, though any of us are free to recommend suggestions. I think the topic also plays a large part as to

ASM: How many people do you have contributing to SF Signal on a regular basis?

JD: It varies as personal schedules vary, but it’s safe to say “several” at any given time. One of my goals is for SF Signal to be a fun place to contribute. If people are busy with other things, they contribute to the blog less. It not, then more. The last thing I want is for SF Signal to feel like work. It’s supposed to be fun! It seems to work out. We have a stellar group of contributors, each of them with wonderful blogs of their own. And last year, we took on the wonderful Patrick Hester, who was already kicking @$$ as our podcast Producer, as an Editor. His contributions are more regular.

ASM: What other (if any) SF/F/H websites do you visit?

JD: You mean besides Amazing Stories? 🙂 I do most of my website visiting these days via RSS feeds when compiling tidbit posts. There are currently over 2,000 subscriptions in my RSS reader, many of which are science fiction. I cannot list them all, and if I start to try to list them, then I will invariably leave some off. Let me lazily direct you to the SF Signal blogroll as a starting point. And know this: I’m watching you! [Does that thing where I point at my eyes then point at you.]

ASM:  How the in the hell do you go through 2,000+ feeds each day?  Do you have some magic software?

JD: I use Google feed reader and keyboard shortcuts

Thanks for your time John!

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