A Tale of Two Conventions

Posted by on February 19th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

T. Hodler has an interesting post on the Comics Comics website (looking very snazzy in its new digs, incidentally) touching on among other things the kinship between science fiction and comics fandom, which put me in mind of my two visits to the World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon hereafter).  The first was the 1984 Worldcon, held across the street from Disneyland in Anaheim.  I have few clear memories of the convention – R.A. Lafferty skylarking around the elevators, Robert Silverberg wearing a Mousketeer hat (I could be misremembering this; authors were encouraged to wear this headgear at the opening reception and Silverberg may have been one of those too cool to do so, but anyway he was there), an under-the-weather Gordon R. Dickson being gently led off the stage by Jerry Pournelle to end a rambling and apparently improvised Guest of Honor speech.  I do remember it as an impressive affair, filled with energy.  Even then science fiction was a rapidly decreasing part of my reading and by the time I stuck my head in when the event returned to Anaheim in 2006 it was an exercise in nostalgia.  It was one of the most depressing afternoons I’ve ever spent.  My memories being fuzzy I couldn’t say whether it was that different than the 1984 Worldcon.  What I’m sure shaped my perceptions more than anything was years of attending the San Diego Comic-Con in between.

If Wikipedia is to be believed, 1984 was the high water mark in Worldcon attendance, at 8365.  It was still very much the granddaddy, and Comic-Con the parvenu upstart.  Already in its 15th year (Worldcon was in its 42nd), the 1984 Comic-Con drew 5500.  It was the last year Comic-Con would be outdrawn by Worldcon.  Coming down from its 1984 peak, subsequent Worldcons would draw between would usually draw between 4500 and 6500, depending mostly on where they were held.  Before the 80s were over Comic-Con attendance would break into the five figure range, and would grow exponentially from there, until it can only be kept in check by the Fire Marshal.  Though 2006 ranks in the top ten of Worldcons in attendance, its 5738 is 30% down from 1984, and 15% down from the last time it was held in Anaheim, in 1996.  Comic-Con is now the High Holy Day of the junk culture calendar.  The larger booths are like something out of a World’s Fair, all media pay tribute, the crowned heads of Hollywood come to seek the favor of the fans, and the tourist economy of San Diego depends on it.

After years of seeing this phenomenon unfold, the main exhibit hall of the 2006 Worldcon was like, to use Patton Oswalt’s description of a fast food concoction, a failure pile in a sadness bowl.  The decorations were like something done by a not particularly talented high school class.  For instance, the convention center snack bar had been “transformed” into something along the lines of a “Spaceport Canteen” by hanging a banner printed on old fashioned wide computer paper by a dot matrix printer and putting tinfoil covered centerpieces representing rocket ships and other such paraphernalia on the tables.  As far as I could see, there was no support of the convention by any major publisher whatsoever, much less any media company (something we’ll get back too.  Now, anyone who’s seen how the crowds have taken much of the enjoyment out of Comic-Con might envy the way Worldcon has maintained its intimacy.  It should be said that each Worldcon is organized by a committee of amateurs in a new city each year, rather than developing year after year in the same place by what has become a well-oiled professional machine.  It could be said that the goals are different.  Someone who judges Worldcons solely by other Worldcons might have seen 2006 as above the average.  What cannot be so easily excused in this:  At the 1984 Worldcon the average attendee was as I remember about my age.  At the 2006 Worldcon the average attendee seemed to be about my age, too.  It was like something out of Children of Men (or, if you’re the kind of person who goes to Worldcons, Greybeard by Brian Aldiss).  A science fiction event that can’t attract the young is by definition decadent.  Back in the 1970s Harlan Ellison (peace be upon him) resigned need I say angrily from the Science Fiction Writers of America in protest of their decision to drop the Best Dramatic Presentation category from their annual awards.  He wrote a need I say impassioned denunciation of the decision, predicting that turning their back on this aspect of the genre would lead to decline and extinction.  Cynics at the time might have said that his ire was at losing another award that he could win, but the fate of the Worldcon proves his prophecy to be absolutely correct.  Not that Worldcon ever dropped Best Dramatic Presentation from their own Hugo awards, but otherwise its attitude towards science fiction in movies and TV has been to turn back the barbarians at the gates.  The only visual media phenomenon that has had any major presence at Worldcon is Star Trek fans, and they basically had to force their way in.  The only non-Star Trek visual media item on the 2006 program aside from a rather dingy exhibit of movie props was a tribute to Galaxy Quest, the Star Trek parody (the guest didn’t show up).  And this is really of a piece with the attitude of the fandom establishment represented by Worldcon, which basically divided between those who believe science fiction reached perfection in the 1940s and those who believe it reached perfection in the 1950s, and who have steadfastly opposed anything that raised the slightest bit of excitement or interest since, from the 1960s New Wave to Cyberpunk.  I have little doubt that embracing visual media is what primarily accounts for the growth of Comic-Con and the stagnation or atrophy of Worldcon.  And this also ties into what has happened to science fiction as a literary form.

That year 1984 is a telling date, indicating as it did how time had caught up with science fiction.  Up to that time science fiction had come in two varieties, far future and near future.  The far future was where the really big dreams resided, but the near future was far more compelling.  Near future SF was unlike any other kind of escapist fiction in that it was an escape that would come to you.  While one could theoretically become a detective, have a romance or even be a cowboy, it would require effort, entail danger and the reality might well not live up to the dream.  All you had to do to enter the world of near future SF was to stay alive, which you most likely had been planning to do anyway, and life would become richer, more exciting, and offer far more status and prestige to the technically inclined.  In another sense it was not escapist at all, but facing imminent transformations that other forms of literature were ignoring.  It’s something that began building when we dropped the atomic bomb.  Suddenly the brave new world was upon us, and it’s as if that brand new world said, “Where’s that guy with the pocket protector?  He’s the one who always used to go on about this stuff.”  True, interest from the greater world usually took the form of mockery or condescension, but by the 1960s and 70s when science fictional transformations seemed to be under way the genre was engaged in the contemporary world in a way it had never been before, and was richer creatively than I expect it will ever be again.  By 1984 the near future was in the process of arriving, the promised wonders that were not on the shelves were in the prototype stage, and it was becoming increasingly clear that it was going to be nothing more than plain old dreary reality, albeit with fancier gadgets.  (One thing I don’t think science fiction ever anticipated:  Taking pictures with your telephone.  The main difference between an iPhone and those things they carried around in Star Trek is that an iPhone is smaller and has more features.)  The near future years that seemed tolerably remote in the 40s and 50s have come and gone.  A book like Robert Heinlein’s The Door Into Summer is now a historical novel about a past that never occurred, with some time travel bullshit thrown in.  (Considering Heinlein could not have imagined how computer science was going to develop he makes some pretty good guesses, actually, but they’re now irrelevant.)  On the other hand you have Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis, a contemporary literary novel which could have easily been published as a science fiction novel 40 years ago.  (The financier who rules his world-girdling empire from electronic devices in his car as he struggles across a hyper-congested Manhattan is almost a science fiction trope.)  If it had been published then DeLillo would have been denounced in the science fiction press as part of the chorus of anti-technology despair along with J.G. Ballard and Thomas M. Disch.  1984 was also the year after the completion of the first three Star Wars movies, which formally established science fiction as the replacement of the western in the national dream life.  The advantage science fiction had over the genre it succeeded is the prospect of another heroic era ahead of us rather than irrevocably behind.  But as the Star Wars movies say, it might as well be long, long ago and far, far away.

What has happened to science fiction is also an example how the vagaries of the commercial market giveth and taketh away.  In its golden age the paperback was distributed to such places as drugstores, train stations and grocery stores by a distributor’s agent called a rack jobber.  Say the rack jobber had gotten into the habit of devoting three pockets in a given spinner rack to Signet science fiction books.  So long as a reasonable number of those books had disappeared from those pockets, they would be replaced by three new Signet science fiction books.  If the rack jobber finds he has only two Signet science fiction books to put in those pockets, he might replace one with a Bantam science fiction book.  Signet would have in effect lost that pocket to Bantam, because the next time around it would be replaced by another Bantam science fiction book.  This created an incentive to produce a steady stream of science fiction books, or of any other genre fighting for spinner rack space.  The conventional wisdom in the publishing industry at this time was that one science fiction book sold about as well as another, and that while you couldn’t make a killing on one you couldn’t lose much on one either, if you produced them cheaply enough.

The perverse consequence of this was that the more enlightened science fiction paperback editor could be sort of a Grub Street version of the gentleman literary publisher.  While they would serve up the meat and potatoes that the general science fiction reader liked best, writers like Fritz Leiber, Robert Sheckley or William Tenn who don’t have a book in print from major publishers these days would have their entire body of work reissued two or three times.  You would have things like the Ace Science Fiction Specials line, which basically published books by every science fiction writer of literary ambition who wasn’t named Disch or Ballard, right next to Perry Rhodan and Conan the Barbarian.  Or you had something like a book I bought at that Worldcon, Ghosts of Manacle by Charles G. Finney.  Finney wrote the classic Circus of Dr. Lao, another novel in the same vein called The Unholy City that was not nearly so good, and not much else.  Ghosts of Manacle was a collection of the few other little odds and ends he did publish, only a few of which could honestly be called science fiction or fantasy, which the editor was able to slap a science fiction cover on and sell as a mass market paperback, for no other reason than he wanted to get it out.  While a book would seldom get up front display in a spinner rack for more than a week or so, larger bookstores could maintain a broad stock.  At a well stocked bookstore in the 70s you could find everything that was current, nearly everything by the Asimov/Heinlein/Bradbury crowd, a representative selection of the canonical authors of the 40s and 50s, and some stuff that was honestly avant garde or experimental.  Today due to changing reading habits and “refinements” in the inventory practices of bookstores you see a very different picture.  What strikes you when you look at the shelf upon shelf of big, fat installments of trilogies at a Barnes & Noble or a Borders store is that what the contemporary reader of science fiction and fantasy (now about coequal) wants is to be swept away to a land of wonder and enchantment for a long, long time.  There are a lot of tie-ins to media properties.  Current writers with a following – your Orson Scott Cards, your Harry Turtledoves – will have a broad selection of their books available, but even the likes of Heinlein and Bradbury might have no more than four or five representative titles, and a Robert Sheckley or a C.M. Kornbluth or a Cordwainer Smith you will not see at all.  Much of what would have been published as mass market paperbacks from major publishers 30 years ago are now the province of the small press.  The quality of cover illustration and design has degraded terribly.  I honestly don’t read enough science fiction these days to tell what this means for the quality of contemporary writing in the genre.  It is true that science fiction is now a staple of the hardcover bestseller lists, a phenomenon that was only just beginning in 1984.  It is also true that as much or more of what you’d find in an old time bookstore could be found through a computer – mostly because those paperbacks published 30 years ago are still circulating.  The difference is that an online bookstore will get you what you’re looking for, but in a physical bookstore you find what you weren’t looking for.  The lesson is that when the stars are all aligned in the commercial world there’s nothing better for promoting creativity, but it can disappear in a moment because promoting creativity is not what the commercial world is trying to do, it’s a byproduct.

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13 Responses to “A Tale of Two Conventions”

  1. Mike Hunter says:

    Midway through jumping into reading this, enjoying the varied flavors and spices (“Robert Silverberg wearing a Mousketeer hat” a soupçon of delight), I thought, “This is a really excellent essay.” Scrolled up to see who wrote it, and – is there a word for a “surprise which is not a surprise”? – saw, R. Fiore.

    I think if someone else had written the sort-of-infamous “Well, I Went and Saw Avatar” piece, the letdown, then irritation – “Is that all there is??!!” – would not’ve been so great. For better or worse, your readers have substantial expectations, sir!

    “A Tale of Two Conventions” is Grade-A Fiore: historic information about the divergence of two Cons, deftly assembled, is made vivid by striking details…

    ——————
    …the convention center snack bar had been “transformed” into something along the lines of a “Spaceport Canteen” by hanging a banner printed on old fashioned wide computer paper by a dot matrix printer and putting tinfoil covered centerpieces representing rocket ships and other such paraphernalia on the tables.
    ——————-

    (Ouch.)

    …and pithy observations:

    ——————–
    I have little doubt that embracing visual media is what primarily accounts for the growth of Comic-Con and the stagnation or atrophy of Worldcon. And this also ties into what has happened to science fiction as a literary form.
    ———————
    …promoting creativity is not what the commercial world is trying to do, it’s a byproduct.
    ——————–

    The former comment makes one wonder: if the increasingly reading-averse public* so prefers “visual media,” is a literary art form therefore doomed to near-extinction?

    Obviously someone is reading what crams those “shelf upon shelf of big, fat installments of trilogies at a Barnes & Noble or a Borders store,” though those products** all-too-often come across as the sf/fantasy equivalent of comics fanboy fare, catering to a dedicated but aging and dwindling audience.

    As “what the contemporary reader of science fiction and fantasy (now about coequal)[wants] is to be swept away to a land of wonder and enchantment for a long, long time” makes clear, these are predictable “comfort food” rehashes of standard tropes, devoid of jarringly unsettling, question-raising material.

    * Check out th’ chart at http://www.nybooks.com/articles/23613 .

    ** Aside from outstanding exceptions such as Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” Trilogy…

  2. Wesley says:

    I honestly don’t read enough science fiction these days to tell what this means for the quality of contemporary writing in the genre.

    I do, and although there’s still plenty of crap–there’s always plenty of crap, no matter what genre you run to, or when–there’s more good writing now than ever. Even many big fat trilogies and midlevel junk-food novels are less bad than the junk-food SF of the 1950s. Standards are higher now than before the New Wave. (One reason you don’t find much Asimov or Heinlein when you walk into a bookstore these days is that they were never really particularly good.)

  3. Jeet Heer1 says:

    A really nice piece of writing. But it’s Tim Hodler, not T. Hobler.

    In a weird way, science fiction has become a nostalgic literature, about an imaginary future that was alive in the past but now only be enjoyed with from a retrospective angle.

  4. Jeet Heer1 says:

    I should add that although the Comics Journal’s has been battered and bruised by many commentators (including some its own writers!), so long as it publishes pieces like this, it’ll be worth reading.

  5. Noah Berlatsky says:

    This was fun to read…though I’m skeptical of the nostalgia. I don’t read a ton of sci-fi these days either…but I do know that Orson Scott Card is on a par and probably somewhat better than Heinlein or Asimov.

    Jeet, I wonder if there was ever a moment when sci-fi was not nostalgic. The Time Machine certainly was, which is when the modern genre coalesced.

  6. patford says:

    Jeet Heer’s comments are in line with my opinion of the site as it stands. There has already been plenty of interesting content posted to the site, far more than what I’ve seen on any other site. When the mother load of content Gary has promised begins to show up it will be difficult to keep up.
    I visit any site to read articles, and interviews.
    The look, the “bells and whistles” any site is decorated with don’t interest me in the least.
    If I want to look at something beautiful I only need to step outside, and look at a crack in the sidewalk, that crack is more attractive than any web site I’ve ever laid eyes on.

  7. R. Fiore says:

    The squib about Avatar was A Joke (see, the guy in the movies leaves his body, so I was saying I was . . . oh, forget it).

    I am afraid how pithy the comment about Robert Silverberg and the Mousketeer hat depends a great deal on whether I’m imagining it, which I cannot at this date say for sure.

    I don’t know if you can fairly call the contemporary science fiction public reading averse if the books are three times as long as they used to be.

    The relative merits of Robert Heinlein and Orson Scott Card notwithstanding, I think it was a better world when you had full access to both than when you had only one.

    The thing about the Sturgeon’s Law defense (“there’s always plenty of crap”) is that being primarily a literature of ideas, science fiction has always been willing to sacrifice all other literary values to a good idea. Thus, moreso than in other forms of literature, a badly written book can be as central to science fiction as a well written book. The general tendency over time has been for the quality of the prose in the genre to improve.

    The subject of the essential conservatism of most science fiction was done to a turn by Barry N. Malzberg (another writer who you won’t see on the science fiction shelves these days) in “The Engines of the Night.”

  8. Jeet Heer1 says:

    Well know that you bring up Barry Malzberg name, you might be interested in this essay I wrote about him (which touches on the nostalgia and s.f. question):

    http://sanseverything.wordpress.com/2007/10/11/barry-malzberg-is-alive-and-well/

  9. Noah Berlatsky says:

    “The relative merits of Robert Heinlein and Orson Scott Card notwithstanding, I think it was a better world when you had full access to both than when you had only one.”

    This is crazy, R. With the internet, both Heinlein’s and Card’s book are far more widely available than either’s have ever been. And your comment about being able to find them by accident is also confused; with blogs, search engines, etc., it’s a lot, lot easier to stumble on things for the vast majority of people than it’s ever been. It’s easy to be nostalgic about old bookstores, but the fact is, most parts of the country simply didn’t have access to this stuff in the way they do now. Heinlein and Asimov are in print, and you can get virtually their entire catalogs with a couple of clicks from anywhere in the country. I just don’t see how you can claim that they’re less accessible now than they once were.

  10. R. Fiore says:

    I think I acknowledged this when I said so in so many words at the end of the article. The question I would ask is, if everything is so hotsy dandy, why aren’t the books in print, and why are the handful that are in print only available from the small press? The point I mean to make is that in a bookstore environment where there’s only room for half a dozen Heinlein titles there’s no room for a Robert Sheckley, a C.M. Kornbluth, a William Tenn, a Fredric Brown, a Barry Malzberg, a Joanna Russ, i.e., the kind of writers I actually care about. I think what’s represented by the bookstores is significant and an indication of what is being read, and what I see is a feast-or-famine economy which as someone who has seen it both ways seems to me to be an impoverished one in comparison. Things may well change when electronic paper and digital publishing is finally perfected, but that’s the way it looks like to me as of now.

  11. Noah Berlatsky says:

    Joanna Russ. (in print, easily available)

    Barry Malzberg. (not in print, but easily available for cheap through the miracle of third party selling.)

    Robert Sheckley. (in print, easily available)

    C.M. Kornbluth. (in print, easily available)

    Etc., etc. They’re all in print or easily available. They’re in general available only form small presses because they’re old, they were never super-popular to begin with, and they’re now essentially a specialized niche market for the literati. Moaning about how Joanna Russ used to be read by the masses is simply ridiculous. She was always writing for a small, mostly academic audience.

    On the other hand, Octavia Butler and Ursula K. Le Guin are quite popular, work in a Russian vein — and are better writers than Russ too, IMO.

    At the end of the article you said: “The difference is that an online bookstore will get you what you’re looking for, but in a physical bookstore you find what you weren’t looking for.”

    What this fails to acknowledge is that for the vast majority of people who did not live in large urban areas with awesome used bookstores, there just weren’t good bookstores with random selections of really good sci-fi. There was bupkus. In terms of finding old books, or new books, or rare books, or pretty much any kind of book, the internet is a huge boon for most people.

    I don’t think the Internet will solve all our problems, and it can’t write decent books for you, obviously. But it’s an amazing tool for making information and products available to a large number of people.

  12. Wesley says:

    R. Fiore:

    The point I mean to make is that in a bookstore environment where there’s only room for half a dozen Heinlein titles there’s no room for a Robert Sheckley, a C.M. Kornbluth, a William Tenn, a Fredric Brown, a Barry Malzberg, a Joanna Russ, i.e., the kind of writers I actually care about.

    There’s plenty of space for the Robert Sheckleys–Heinlein moved aside to make room for them. But the bookstores are stocking the Joanna Russes and Fredric Browns of em>today, not thirty or fifty years ago! They’re stocking Jeff VanderMeer, Kage Baker, Adam Roberts, Catherynne M. Valente, China Miéville–the kind of writers who showed up on this year’s Nebula shortlist, which looks to be the best in years.

    I agree with Noah on how much better things are today in terms of access–if you’ve never grown up in a town where the only bookstore was a little Waldenbooks at the mall, you have no idea how literarily impoverished (if that’s not too dramatic a word for having a poor selection of books) you can be.

  13. R. Fiore says:

    Yes, like I said, there are one or two collections each of Sheckley and Kornbluth from small press publishers. Forty years ago books of writers like these were reissued en masse by Ballantine and Bantam and Ace and Avon and Signet, not by the Nesfa Press. What I’m comparing the modern day bookstores to, just for reference, are Pickwick Books, a mall store in Montclair, California, and the Ontario Newsstand in Ontario, California, a newsstand/paperback shop in an old small town downtown shopping district, both in California suburbs about 30 or 40 miles out of Los Angeles. In these places you would find the writers on the current Nebula short list and the writers from the 40s and 50s as well. This was due to an inefficient system which as a byproduct required the constant cycling of new and reissued books through the system. The current business practice is more efficient, and the efficiencies and the vagaries of taste make for a narrower range of books on the shelf. There’s no space in it for Sheckley and less space for Heinlein because it’s reserved for all those fat trilogies. More space is given to the contemporary writer not because it has greater merit but because he’s issuing new books, and new books and the concomitant publicity cross-promote his backlist. Also thanks to current practices, if a writer’s first book isn’t a success his career is essentially over.

    However, I fear that by the time a post is on the third page, no one is paying attention but you and me, so my contribution to this little confab is at an end.