Con(ventional) Warfare

In the summer of 1939, science fiction fans and professionals from around the country gathered in New York for the 1st World Science Fiction Convention. Among those in attendance were writers who had yet to become big names in the genre: Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Jack Williamson, L. Sprague de Camp and Cyril M. Kornbluth. Editors like John W. Campbell were also in attendance as were famous fans like Sam Moskowitz and Forrest J Ackerman. A convention, such as this one, provided a unique opportunity for fans and professionals to meet, mingle, and discuss the passion they had in common: science fiction.

But science fiction fans (and most writers–though certainly not all–started out as fans) can be a contentious bunch, serious about the genre they love so dearly to the point where amiable discussions could flare up into something greater. In fact, one such skirmish took place during that first WorldCon, when the Futurians were excluded from the event. It was the first of many now famous (or infamous) skirmishes that taken place in the seven decades since that first convention.


Conventions have been on my mind lately. I have recently attended two locally: first the Nebula Awards Weekend, which took place at the Washington Hilton (where Reagan was shot); and later, Balticon 45, which took place in Hunt Valley, Maryland over Memorial Day weekend. Attending these conventions is always fun, and I am always impressed by how much passion fans and pros alike bring to the discussions. These passions sometimes boil over into shouting matches. In fact, one recursive panel discussion at Balticon centered around those awkward things that have happened on panel discussions. Thinking about the conventions I have attended, and wondering what it might have been like to attend that first World Science Fiction Convention, I began to wonder: what is it about a science fiction fan that makes them so passionate about the genre that they are willing to get into arguments over what must seem to be trivial points to outsiders?

You can almost always predict the panels which will garner the most heated discussions. Any panel, for instance, that tries to define science fiction is likely to raise some tempers. Likewise, a person participating on a panel that tries to tackle the genre vs. literary argument is likely to find a few hand grenades lobbed in their direction. But you can also find heated discussion in topics such as “what is the best science fiction series?” Or what is better: novels or short stories. And so the question remains: why are science fiction fans so passionate? What sets them apart from fans of other genres? Or are they any different at all?

I have heard it argued that the nature of science fiction is such that it lends itself to more intelligent youngsters, and hooks them early. I can’t say whether or not this is true and I suspect any evidence in favor of this hypothesis is circumstantial at best. It could just as easily be argued that science fiction draws argumentative readers. But if so, why? What is it about science fiction that makes fans so passionate? I don’t have an answer for this, but I have some ideas.

First, science fiction, by its nature, requires the reader to think. Many early science fiction stories were essentially puzzle stories and the reader was attempting to figure out the solution as the story unfolded, much like a mystery. Isaac Asimov‘s early robot stories, like “Reason” and “Liar!” fit into this category. Some of Arthur C. Clarke’s early stories filled this niche as well.

Second, science fiction requires the reader to imagine. The science fiction that was being printed at the time of the first convention was long before mankind reached outer space, let alone the moon, or Mars or distant galaxies. Not every personality is up to the task of imagining scenes for which they have no grounding in reality. Some people like stories that take place in familiar settings. Stories like A. E. van Vogt‘s “Vault of the Beast” (back then) or Vernor Vinge‘s Rainbows End (now) take some real stretches of the imagination to get their full impact.

Third, science fiction stories are some times arguments in and of themselves, thought experiments that attempt to make an argument through example. L. Ron Hubbard‘s “Final Blackout” was a political commentary on war and the state of the “current war in Europe.” Robert Heinlein‘s Starship Troopers took a different view of war. Joe Haldeman‘s The Forever War is another example of this. Of course, the arguments the stories make are not limited to war (but with this column title, I figured war stories made an appropriate example). But the idea that the stories themselves were sometimes arguments and rebuttals is an important one in science fiction.

What is amazing about our genre is how often, at these conventions, even the heated discussions are well conducted. You get the idea that people are passionate about their view points, but they are willing to argue them in public, willing to defend them, and sometimes even change their minds. Sure, there are skirmishes, and occasionally, someone steps on a land mind mine, but the debate is ongoing and at the end of the day, more often than not, you’ll find the two people–who were beating each other up over the practicality of FTL–at the bar toasting one another, and toasting science fiction.

Would that all debate could be handled in such fine manner.

Come join in the debate: why are science fiction fans so passionate about the genre? Or is my premise wrong from the start: are science fiction fans no more passionate than fans of any other genre? And share your stories of conventional warfare, if you’ve got them.

7 thoughts on “Con(ventional) Warfare”

  1. My theory is that, given that a significant portion of the SF fan population is socially awkward (or worse), when such people do find an outlet and a passion such as SF, they pour a lot of energy, thought and time into it.  That’s why debates within a genre get so much energy.

    I am generalizing broadly here, mind you, and I recognize that. But I think that someone whose only social hobby is SF is going to invest a lot of energy in SF social situations.

    Also, the genre’s nature itself leads itself to argument and debate. SF often poses questions, what ifs, what if only, that don’t have clear or single answers. 

    In the age before the Internet, between cons, there would be slow motion passionate flamewars between people in the pages of fanzines, such is the passion genre invokes.

  2. “Sure, there are skirmishes, and occasionally, someone steps on a land mind….”

    I was going to point this out as a typo, but in context I think it’s actually oddly appropriate.  :)

  3. I agree with your reasons on why fans like us love science fiction and will argue, bicker, and defend it to the bitter end.  It’s one of those genres that honestly challenge your mind and a great outlet for tackling sticky political and ethical issues that exist in our world today.  It also lends itself to educated discussion because at the end of the day, the genre is rooted in some type of scientific fact or theory.  But I don’t think that sci-fi fans are exceptionally passionate though.  I’m a big fan of fantasy too and it’s amazing to get into discussions about worlds, creatures, and political systems that never existed!  I think when anyone is passionate about anything it will always ensue intense debate and discussion.

  4. People bicker about everything. Google up some controversies from the world of competitive scrapbooking some time.

  5. Stephen, it’s nice to know that for once a type of mine is oddly appropriate. :-)

    Nick, that’s great! I ended up finding this. Of course people bicker, and I’d expect that, but in science fiction that “bickering” seems particularly passionate. We still talk about the infamous split of the Futurians from the Greater New York Science Fiction Club, for instance, some seven decades later. Well, some of us do, anyway. It reminds me of how Yankees and Red Sox fans can get with one another (I am the former, I will proudly admit, although after the beating the Yanks took after the last encounter, I probably shouldn’t admit so proudly).

  6. Ugh, a typo of mine… I’m just giving up and going back to writing longhand. I never made a typo writing longhand. I wrote too slowly to make a mistake. :-/

  7. “I’m just giving up and going back to writing longhand.”

    You have clearly never been a performer.  (Or a wizard.)  Whatever happens is always what you meant to do, all along.  ;)  (And you should have left the original in!  I like the image of someone producing explosive results by stepping on someone else’s mind.)

    I do have to admit that I’m a little dubious about claiming especial passion (or especially civilized passion) for SF&F fans over and above any other form of investment: any given set of sports fans, any given academic department at a university, any given division in an office or organization, the different branches of military service… they all show as much tendency to conflict and rivalry as any given con argument.  We just always think of what we see most often/are closest to as the most intense.

    That said, I will agree that SF&F fans do seem better than many at (1) keeping the debates civil, or at least non-physical (though how much that has to do with most of us being uncoordinated, non-athletic, couch-potato/library-lurker sorts I can’t say), and (2) putting the argument behind them when it’s over (though how much of that has to do with the fairly common geeky combination of monomaniacal concentration on one thing, and ADHD-like ability to switch focus completely to something else at the drop of a hat, I can’t say).

    Does SF&F’s sense of wonder, love of brain-stretching, and larger-than-life spiritual and emotional intensity draw the people who have always found the mundane and the physical unsatisfying, and therefore less likely to resort to it?  Most certainly.  Does that make their arguments nobler or smarter?  Not necessarily, unfortunately.

Comments are closed.