When I was ten, I became a fan.
I didn’t know it at the time, but when I first picked up that copy of Heinlein’s Starman Jones, I’d already begun down a path that would lead to this here and now.
That path led through Fandom. Within three years of that first auspicious read, I would be attending my first convention and within a handful of additional years I would be working on conventions, helping to run a Worldcon, publishing fanzines and a semi-prozine, would become friends with storied Filthy-Pros and BNFs*.
When I first became a fan, there was, obviously, no internet. No home computers for that matter. No cell phones. Few people had color televisions. Radio stations still regularly broadcast radio plays like The Shadow, The Lone Ranger and Terry and the Pirates. There was no anime or manga. Sci Fi and Space Opera were pejoratives. And a lot of people who I came to know and admire were still alive.
There wasn’t a lot of science fiction and even less fantasy on the shelves in the independent bookstores (which happened to make up the majority of book sellers). Paperbacks sold for 50 to 75 cents (and let me tell you, sometimes it was a tough choice between a slice of pizza or a book – but a few minutes collecting bottles usually served to resolve that conundrum).
There were a lot of magazines in print – IF, Galaxy, F&SF, Amazing, Fantastic, Analog, SF Yearbook,.Worlds of Fantasy, The Most Thrilling Science Fiction Ever Told, Science Fiction Classics, International Science Fiction, Great Science Fiction, . I later learned I was one of the lucky few who lived near a news shop** that carried the vast majority of them.
When I first got into Fandom, I learned that it was NOT ok to say “sci fi” – but as long as I agreed to never use that phrase again, I could and would be forgiven my virgin mistake. (It was a completely understandable one: I’d been corrupted by the mundane mainstream through no fault of my own. Now I was at the entrance to the inner sanctum and a bit of friendly hazing seemed to be called for.) I was then offered the opportunity to learn what other things I needed to know in order to become a proper fan. I ultimately learned that blowing bubbles in the hotel lobby was a good thing, that going to parties and hanging out with other fans was a good thing, that wanting to write was a good thing (most everyone there did in one way or another).
I learned that all authors were fans. I learned that all artists were fans. I learned that all editors were fans. I learned that anyone and everyone was welcome to work on the convention and that if they performed well, their reward would be even more volunteer work. I learned that after an evening of drinking Murphy’s Irish Whiskey (every shot followed by ‘SMOOOOTH!“) there wasn’t a whole heck of a lot of difference between one fan and another. I even learned that having a hangover could be kinda fun under the right circumstances. (And that getting invited to the orgy or to skinny-dip in the hotel pool meant you’d acquired some kind of special something among fans – though I’m still not sure of exactly what since I never accepted the offer.)
When I first got into Fandom, I learned that New York City was the center of the universe and, living in New Jersey, I’d almost hit the lottery. Specialty bookstores, endless used bookstores, the offices of all of the SF publishers and most of the magazines, the descendants of no less than three original SF clubs and enclaves of fans scattered over Brooklyn and Queens, living a communal life of relative poverty and endless creativity, just a short bus or train ride away.
When I first got into Fandom, I met a man behind a table in the huckster’s*** room at a convention who spent a good part of most of the weekend explaining the history of the pulps, the history of science fiction and the history of fandom to me. Several years later he would do me the honor of acquiring and selling me a copy of the first issue of Amazing Stories. I learned that everyone who was a fan had some special interest or another, be it collecting, printing, putting on conventions, writing about its history, making up Filk songs, designing and wearing outlandish costumes. Every fan was a fan of something in addition to being a FAN.
A few years later, at another convention, I met a man who had one of the greatest collections of SF literature and ephemera in the world. He spent hours sitting on a couch with me, introducing me to the NAMES (because everyone stopped by to say hello to HIM), recounting legends of fannish history, expressing the sheer joy and overwhelming emotions of helping to found a thriving community of people from all over the world who shared something in common. He ended up gifting me with a copy of his ‘autobiography’, published as an homage to Amazing Stories. I learned that most fans of any import seemed to be on a mission to share fandom with newcomers.
At another convention I met a woman who stormed the ranks of fanzines fans, becoming the darling of that crowd in just a few short months. She’d inadvertently used my name as the author of a fake letter to the editor in her first issue. When she learned that I was at the con, she grabbed a-hold of me with an iron grip and dragged me from party to party, introducing me as the fictional avatar of her made up letters-of-comment. I learned that sometimes just being around other fans could lead to interesting adventures.
At yet another convention, one I was working in the lofty position of security hack, I was assigned to bodyguard the Guest of Honor during an autograph signing session. I spent close to two hours in close proximity and conversation with a man who was arguably one of the most successful people ever produced by science fiction. His acceptance of me as someone capable of doing the job I’d been assigned, his willingness to treat me as an equal, did wonders for me – and my belief that fandom really was just one big family.
In between conventions I met a whole slan shack full of fans, all of them publishing their own ‘zines and contributing to each other’s ‘zines. I was greatly encouraged to join the party. I learned that fandom didn’t just take place at conventions.
At still another convention I met a fan writer who was just transitioning to the ranks of Pro. A new magazine had hit the stands and she’d been tapped to write a regular column about Fandom. When the magazine folded, she agreed to allow me to publish the continuation of that column in my semi-prozine, for less than half of what she’d been getting paid previously. Over the years, she would become one of the most highly respected editors in the field. Her trajectory has been instructive; she went where the muse led her – and proved to me that one could find sustenance and satisfaction in fandom – not to mention generosity.
At still another convention I got to work and become friends with a respected fan writer and historian who had just sold his first novel. I was almost as excited as he was. So much so that when the book came out, he gave me a copy, signed by him with a personal inscription. I learned that its possible to share in someone else’s accomplishments, even when you contributed nothing but friendship.
What I learned when I first got into Fandom was a heck of a lot about Fandom – it’s history, it’s reason(s) for being, it’s culture, it’s personalities, quirks and faults. But I also learned generosity, the value of volunteerism, the value of being given an opportunity to learn, the value of accepting people as they are, the joy of shared experience, the freedom of elevating that shared experience above other concerns, of making something intangible more important than everyday pettiness.
I think it is a shame that new fans attending their first conventions don’t seem to be received with the same openness and acceptance as I was by the very people who can teach them what it means to be a fan. It’s a sad thing that acceptance is withheld until the would-be fan passes litmus tests for ideology. A terrible injustice that wanting to be a fan is no longer the only requirement for becoming one.
The next time I’m at a convention, you’ll find me sitting on a couch in the lobby. If you’re new to Fandom, come on over and take a seat. I don’t care who you are, where you come from, what language you speak, how old or young you are, what gender you prefer to be identified as or who you are shacking up with later on in the evening. I don’t care what sub-genre is your favorite. I don’t care if you’re rich or poor, think that manga is better than comics and I’ll even forgive you if you use the phrase ‘Sci Fi’ (as long as you agree to never use it again, lol.) Come on over. Make yourself comfortable and ask me anything you want to know about Fandom. I’ll do my best to give you an answer.
There’s only one requirement.
That you want to be a Fan.
BNF – BNF – Acronym for Big Name Fan; a fan of accomplishment who is not merely well known but well liked throughout the microcosm. It is important to note that, unlike certain other designations (e.g., “fan”, “neofan”, “trufan”), one cannot legitimately claim BNFdom for one’s self –- to do so invites giggles, guffaws and other laughs of derision, since it’s a term of admiration which must be applied to you by others, if at all.
**News Shop: A store that typically sold tobacco products, candies, notions and newspapers and magazines.
*** I know they’ve changed the name to “Dealer” these days, but Huckster is what I still think of. “Traditionally, these were sellers of used books and magazines, many of whom were fans selling off personal collections a means of paying their way to cons.”
This editorial’s featured image is by Joe Mayhew (another BNF who welcomed me to fandom with open arms) and is the cover illustration of David Kyle’s (First Fandom) article on The Science Fiction League, as published in Mimosa #14. Which can be read in its entirety here.