Tuesday, February 18, 2014

My Take On the "Insect Army"

One of the things that has troubled me is seeing women who say that they are apprehensive about entering SFF because they don’t want to attract the sort of bile I did.

It’s not just women, of course. It is any group that has been historically underrepresented.

For all of you… we have your back. There is strength in numbers. Join our army.

- Mary Robinette Kowal, as reported on John Scalzi's blog, "Whatever"

There is change in the air.

It's been slowly building for a while now, but I've noticed it mainly in the past three years. I first noticed it in SF and fantasy fandom, with the "cosplay is not consent" movement. I then noticed it spreading to the larger SF and fantasy fandom via the adoption of harassment policies and publicly shared stories of verbal and sexual harassment, many of which named names.

However, these things are not as new as I thought they were -- rather, they've been around for a while, but only recently have started to build sufficient momentum to become visible, and in some circles, resented. Here's the thing that made me realize just how long this movement has been in the making:

petsnakereggie: @michaellorg @Paul_Cornell @gallifreyone Without that attitude, @CONvergenceCon wouldn't exist. So I guess some good came of it...

@petsnakereggie is Tim Wick, local geek raconteur probably best known for his leadership of The Dregs, an indescribable band with a fanatically devoted following. "That attitude" Wick is referring to is probably best summed up by the following post from SFF.net, uncredited so as not to give undue attention to the author:

The problem is that the ‘vocal minority’ of insects who make up the new generation of writers don’t scramble for the shadows when outside lights shines on them—they bare their pincers and go for the jugular. Maybe it is a good thing that SFWA keeps them locked up. The newer members who Scalzi et al. brought in are an embarrassment to the genre.

The idea, of course, is that those folks who don't 'fit in' to the existing structure of fandom should keep quiet about it, let the 'grown-ups' speak, and generally not embarrass themselves or the fandom by trying to make things more accessible and accommodating -- because the people in charge (referred to, often derisively, as 'Secret Masters of Fandom' or 'SMOF') like things exactly the way that they are.

This conflict played out in Minnesota years ago, which is what Wick is referring to when he says that CONvergence "wouldn't exist" without it. I won't claim to be an expert here, nor to be providing a detailed history, but the gist is basically as follows:

For many years, the primary science fiction fandom convention in the Twin Cities was Minicon. The convention was inaugurated in 1968 (making it nearly as old as I am) by the Minnesota Science Fiction Society. If nothing else, the organizers of Minicon deserve credit for maintaining the convension over so long a stretch of time, and for maintaining its 'quality' to the degree that the convention, despite existing in a fairly obscure part of the country, has attracted a number of the highest-regarded authors in SF to appear as guests.

Now, according to that Wikipedia article linked above, Minicon grew from a scant 60 attendees in its first iteration to roughly 3000 attendees by the turn of the century, but then made the decision to "downscale[d] dramatically due to a feeling among some organizers that it had strayed too far from its roots and had become unmanageable." There's reason to suspect that, while the strict meaning of that explanation is correct, the actual reasoning behind the explanation incorporates the rise of 'fandom' in the San Diego Comic-Con sense: people who show up with less of an idea to sit in panels discussing SF concepts with authors, and more to celebrate their favorite SF, fantasy, and even anime works and characters through cosplay and fan discussions.

The reason that this is significant is that some of the people who liked the expanded fandom aspect of the old Minicon were part of the organizing staff, and they broke off and started new conventions, the flagship of which was CONvergence. From the beginning, CONvergence has been organized as a 'fandom' convention, not just a SF convention, with guests of honor to match: Harry and Jay Knowles of 'Ain't It Cool News' were among the first guests of honor, and other guests from outside the traditional SF circle such as cartoonists (John Kovalic), fantasy artists (Ruth Thompson, Denise Garner), comic-book writers (Marv Wolfman, Mark Evanier), and even folks involved in the RPG industry (Ken Hite, Jenifer Clarke Wilkes) have appeared at the convention. The convention has made a deliberate effort to promote fandom in general rather than just SF (or even just a specific, preferred form of SF).

The effect, well, seems obviously predictable. Since separating from CONvergence in 1999, Minicon, running over Easter weekend, has averaged anywhere from 700-900 attendees during its three days. CONvergence, which relocated to the Fourth of July weekend, has shown significant growth, expanding both in attendance (the most recent CONvergence drew over 7000 attendees) and size (the convention expanded to four days in 2008 and has not looked back). Probably the most intriguing bit of info I've overheard is that the organizers of Minicon, perhaps finally shamed over the explosive popularity of their unwitting rival, have considered what they can do to get closer to the kind of attendance that CONvergence has been doing.

I'm not the person to answer that in detail, but in general, CONvergence is better-attended simply because more people feel included and welcomed there. This has been a deliberate effort on behalf of CONvergence's organizing staff, from being early-adopters of 'cosplay is not consent' to being inclusive of anime as a fandom. (Anime Detour, CONvergence's sister convention held during the early spring, is nearly as popular as CONvergence itself.) While Minicon can't and shouldn't try to do everything CONvergence does, it could and should go farther into making SF more inclusive, and embracing the 'Insect Army', and not uncoincidentally distancing itself from the old 'SMOF' approach to fandom, would go a long way toward doing that.