I Was Born To Be A Fake Fan

I have, in my drawer upstairs, a t-shirt with line art of a dragon, probably about fifty years old, labeled “Smaug”; it no longer fits my father. I don’t know if he was one of those people who taught himself Sindarin in college, but he certainly knew that sort of crowd. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were bedtime reading stories for me, my father’s voice and the text intertwined perhaps not as much as they are for Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (a yearly reread starting on 21 December), but always there. I packed away a copy of The Silmarillion one year for my time at nerd camp and read it twice; I owned a little guidebook to Middle Earth.

(This is super long so I’m cutting it.)


Before I was ten, I was literally scaling the front of bookcases to get at things filed on the top shelves. I read Asimov and Brin and Cherryh; Dad gave me my first Le Guin to read the summer between sixth and seventh grade; the first book I bought for myself with my own money was The White Dragon. I read my father’s cracked-spine paperback of The Past Through Tomorrow and made him despair of the way the pages came out.

This is a history that fits in nicely in certain forms of old school fandom, except that it was never social. The most social it got was the time I threw a copy of The Pride of Chanur at a boy in high school who had been mocking me for swearing like a hani. (He read it and threw it back at me about two weeks later, and that was the end of it.)

All the facts there are true, but that story is a lie. It’s incomplete, inauthentic, and dishonest.

Because this also is true: sprawling on the living room floor with my father, the rare treat of some Dr. Pepper, and a freshly done sphere of Jiffy Pop, chanting “Cheap special effects!” in ritual delight at Tom Baker. (And I never really quite forgave Peter Davison for… existing as the Doctor, even if I’ve gotten over myself since.) The regular family ritual of sitting down to watch Star Trek (TNG, and then DS9). My aunt – my father’s sister – had made cassette tapes of the Star Wars movies which were cracked out for long car trips, so my cousins got that thread of things more than I did; I only rode with her once or twice.

I knew The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy first as a radio series – which is probably worth some kind of TruFan cred points somewhere, if I cared to find the right prestige bank and learned how to open an account – then, I think, as the scripts for the radio series, then the books, then the Infocom text adventure game, which I read the entire hintbook for because the hintbook was hilarious. (My father despaired of it because he didn’t want all the hints.) He had stories of playing Space War! with a member of the Grateful Dead; he bought me Myst when it came out. I got heavily into RPGs starting in high school – Shadowrun and Earthdawn, first, the World of Darkness, D&D later. I was in a bunch of Pern-based MUSHes (online RPGs) in college.

My first convention was a Star Trek con in Baltimore. (I don’t think it was Farpoint but it might’ve been an early Farpoint.)

My first fan feud was fan-run versus Creation cons and that feud is still going, it’s still kinda a big fucking deal, never mind that I’ve never seen it mentioned in the more book-based circles in which I normally run. (Which is interesting, since it fits in so nicely with certain popular hobbyhorses about love and commercialization.)

My first serious fannish activity was writing Star Trek: The Next Generation fanfic, largely focusing on my two favorite/self-insert characters: Data and Wesley Crusher.

My first social fanac was half-assedly joining a play-by-mail Starfleet simulation RPG.

My first “no shit there I was” fan story was giving a homemade snickerdoodle cookie to Brent Spiner.

You don’t get my fandom experience without Tolkien, for sure; but you damn sure don’t get it without Star Trek, either. Star Trek is where I start doing fandom, as a social thing broader than the scope of my family, rather than merely reading my father’s shelves ravenously. (Though of course my immediate social circle of fic writers included at least one person who sneered at anything involving Wesley Crusher positively, and I came away with the impression that she did it to fit in and I would be expected to do the same. So I stopped sharing my fic.)

I used to comment about the watershed of the post-Star Wars fandom experience; I am pretty sure that the post-Harry Potter fandom experience has only increased this phenomenon. Older fen I saw talk about being teased or bullied for liking science fiction and fantasy; I got a bit of that for reading, generally, but it was a given that I would read genre. Everyone did genre, at least people who actually read.

I was… sometime in my teens before I learned that there was stuff out there that wasn’t genre. It was the Doonesbury sequence on The Bridges of Madison County that did it. This wasn’t something that was explained to me – or remotely apparent to me – before then. Everything I read, I read as Strange People In Unfamiliar Situations, and the same principles applied that to Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson and whatever nonsense was assigned in English class, where it worked just as well as it did on Niven and my beloved Cherryh.

One of my first encounters with old-school convention/zine fandom was being indirectly mocked for saying “sci-fi”, the way my father did, the way everyone I knew did. It was made clear to me that this was the mark of an Outsider, possibly an Interloper, certainly not someone who was qualified to be welcomed into the inner circles.

It left a weird taste in my mouth when I have encountered people who told earnest stories about how fandom was the place that they could find refuge from the people who bullied them for liking genre stuff. Many of whom made it clear, in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, that only the abridged version of my fandom was welcome in their company, because the other things were fundamentally second class.

I learned early that fandom – like the rest of the world – was a place where my honest existence was politicised. Not on the same terms that the rest of the world politicised me, sure, but it was definitely not a place where a genuine presence was possible. (This is only compounded by being, then and now, the sort of unknowing-at-the-time autist who spends social situations in a constant state of medium-grade anxiety about my state of welcome and whether or not I am intruding; this combines with that sort of undercurrent of ‘honesty is a fucking minefield’ rather poorly.)

It’s something that I felt awkward and complex about. I wanted to write fiction. I felt more at home in the tinkery, craft-neepery end of old-school fandom than in the gaudier, louder media fandom as a social matter. I worked out personal theories of how I felt about fanfic as an author long before I had anything remotely fit for publication. But if I happened to come out with something more outré than an interest in filk, it was like stumbling into a glaring spotlight: Oh. Right. You’re one of Them.

(Sometimes by people who would, at separate times, have handwringing conversations about The Greying Of Fandom. I still have no idea how to explain being born within a year after 25 May, 1977 and not separating out long-entwined threads without being told I’m being defensive because I’m one of those media interlopers. I might be able to do it now, in some conversations at least, but it’s scary and I don’t wanna. Twice shy and all.)

The thing is, my time on usenet – rec.arts.sf.composition and eventually rec.arts.sf.fandom – gave me a number of lasting friendships that I value. And those are how I have, eventually, made it to the occasional convention. And fen at cons have been, largely, kind and welcoming and generous people. (I will forever be grateful to Keith DeCandido for kindly offering me crash space at my first Boskone, where I was basically planning on dozing in a corner for a few hours; I’m not sure I got any more sleep than I would have staking out the consuite, given we were up until some ridiculous hour talking about baseball.)

When I make it to cons, it’s something I manage in part because there are people I already know there – people I got to know fifteen, twenty years ago before I lost my easy usenet access and had the medical crisis that had me unable to write fiction for a number of years. And that’s valuable to me, so very valuable, to have this continuity – to look at people I knew on rasfc and see them getting book contracts now, and to be happy for them – to run into people who I knew and to be able to have touchstones of “this is a conversation we had once”. To have people go “Oh! HI!” when I tell them my old usenet handle.

But I can only get there because of the usenet history. Because deep down I’m still that autistic Trekkie who knows that Infinite Diversity In Infinite Combinations is not, actually, a value I can count on, even if a utopian dream would like to see it there, project it into a space where it does not belong. I’m used to social circles in which certain of the in-group raise merry hell about The Other Kind Of Noun, Who Are Not Really Us, on the one hand, and then treat me like I belong there, on the other, even when I – and maybe they! – know I am The Other Kind Of Noun.

That’s the thing I always carry with me, when I venture into spaces crafted by zine/convention fandom: the knowledge that no matter how many books I’ve read, no matter how carefully I was brought up on Tolkien and Asimov and Le Guin, no matter how much Heinlein and Niven I devoured, I’m still The Other Kind Of Noun. No unsold story that’s literally in dialogue with “The Menace From Earth” will change that. (Too long for target market; haven’t figured out where to send it yet. Writing short fiction is still fairly new for me, and my reading of the stuff was always anthology-based rather than magazine-based, which is another way in which I am clearly a Fake.)

I was born after Star Wars; it is literally impossible for me to have seen the world as it was constituted before that. I am someone who knocked out the origins and underlying theology of all the intelligent species in The Lord of the Rings as a tangent to a conversation about a graphic novel game in development in a Discord channel, and the only thing I had to look up was how many generations there were between Melian and Elrond. I am someone who went to Dragon*Con in part to try to meet CJ Cherryh. My hobnobbing with authors has been conducted largely through discussing the craft of the work with them online, not kaffeklatsches at cons. I have never subscribed to a magazine for short fiction. (But I have subscribed to Sky & Telescope.)

I am someone whose only lifetime encounter with a mimeo machine is math worksheets in an underfunded semi-urban elementary school. Which is more than my Oldest has – my Oldest who has devoured The Lord of the Rings after my father read her the first half of Fellowship, then watched the Peter Jackson movies, and learned and performed “In Dreams”, the movie theme, for her first flute recital – my Oldest who, when the con schedule came out to the con she begged me to take her to as a birthday present, demanded to know if there was any Tolkien discussion to be had, because she knew without having it explained this was the sort of place where she might be able to get some of that. I don’t know how to express the sense that she belongs there, even without purpley-blue ink in her knowledge base, better than that, and there are times that I’m terribly afraid that she will learn differently, and learn that the world is cruel, and that the people who should have welcomed her as part of a new generation of fen will snub her for having opinions about the new She-Ra. Or maybe reading Percy Jackson rather than Known Space.

When I left rasseff (over, if I recall correctly, a predictably tedious argument about how Real Fen go to the WorldCon rather than Dragon*Con), I got Lurker-Supported In Email by someone who had the same sort of policing experience about a fannish hobby I don’t happen to share, offering me moral support and sympathy. That, too, is fandom, in the interstices and under the belly of the parts that make me tired: the people who see the things I saw, and made sure that I wasn’t alone with them. Because it didn’t matter that I’m not a costumer; as costumers and as whatever-I-ams and as others we were in the same “Not True” boat. It had to be a whisper network, but it was nice, for once, to be in on the whisper network.

Here’s where I sort of degenerate into flailing inarticulacy, over bouncing out of fandom because of things like that, because health degeneration produced horrible brain fog and I stopped being able to read complicated fiction for maybe a decade, because these two things hitting at the same time made me stop writing, which was the thing that had always kept me sane and myself, because I had no sense of hope that writing would go anywhere when faced with all of that.

One of the commenters at Scalzi’s place points out a lot of things, and reminds me of others. I remember how the events of RaceFail showed me some important ways of looking at the world, and, in its later bits, put me in a place where I read someone pointing out that people whining about “another unnecessary romance” in Star Trek: Rebooted were missing the point that the person who landed the Fandom-Canonical Universe’s Most Eligible Bachelor was a black woman who got there on the basis of her competence and intellectual achievment. I wrote fanfic out of that, actually, digging back into TOS canon Spock/Uhura fanfic to tweakfix Rebooted into compliance. (I will, however, never forgive its crap treatment of the Kobayashi Maru scenario, which I knew not from the movies as I’ve never actually seen Wrath of Khan, but from the novel.) I love learning like this, because other people’s presense is genuine, because they’re actually there and know things I don’t, and as someone who is interested in learning about unfamiliar worlds how foolish would I have to be to miss out on the universes other actual people can introduce me to?

But it also reminds me of the other side, the people who suggested that sexual harassers might just be “socially awkward” or “autistic” and it was before I knew I was autistic but I was damn sure I was socially awkward. And when someone asked about socially awkward women, they got the reaction “well, they shouldn’t be harassing anyone other ha ha ha” and that threw me right the hell out of my skin, frozen in timespace again, trying to check in with the other people to know whether or not it’s okay to object, or whether trying to get away from someone would be proof that I Didn’t Belong because I Overreacted. And I still see that guy who was being defended back then come up as someone who at least some people still think belongs, and maybe I don’t so much. Even my social awkwardness – canonical though it may be in subsets of geek culture to be “socially awkward” – is too implausible to be anything other than fictional. Apparently.

Someone who only can manage to talk to people at cons because I know people at cons from the internet? I believe the internet meme for that is “Sounds fake, but okay.” Also apparently.

Chuck Wendig wrote, the other day, “But every story I write is a plea with the universe to prove that I’m not alone.

Sometimes it’s hard, though. Sometimes it’s awfully hard.

As to the editorial thing that provoked this brooding ramble? I am not among the people whose reaction to it was “Who even is that, anyway?” because I remember that name.

From usenet.

Don’t believe we’ve ever met in person, though.

Note: mimeograph reference in the above was typed before I read the related comments on File770. Ha ha only serious.

1 comment to I Was Born To Be A Fake Fan

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>