That Old-Time Religion

In January, I was a guest of honor at Chattacon, a small science fiction convention in Chattanooga, Tennessee. This was the 36th Chattacon, which has a long, proud history as an sf convention. It also has quite a bit of community acceptance which, for someone coming from the Pacific Northwest, was a bit startling. The articles in the newspaper were nice, even laudatory, and the interview that Chelsea Quinn Yarbro and I did on a local radio station focused on our writing and the convention as something to attend, not something to gawk at.

The hotel, the Chattanooga Choo-Choo Hotel which is built out of the old train station where the famous Choo-Choo began its route, loved the convention. All of the staff treated us with respect. They couldn't wait to have some free time because their employee badge gave them a free pass into the dealer's room in the convention hall across the street.

I have been to a lot of conventions, and let me tell you, it's a rare con that gains the respect of the community and of the hotel where the con's being held. Some of that is the Chattacon's con committee, which ran the small convention with a professionalism you rarely see outside of a big convention. But a lot of it was the attendees, who while doing their thing, did it with a bit of consideration for the non-sf fans in the vicinity.

I was pleased. I also enjoyed myself. I'm a big science fiction fan at heart, as some non-sf friends of mine with a seven-month-old daughter will realize when I give them the little Horton Hears Cthulu t-shirt I bought for her at the convention. (And then I'll have to explain who Cthulu is.)

I've been doing a lot of thinking about the sf field lately because it is in flux. As my last column mentioned, flying your geek flag is becoming acceptable these days. At least one of my conversations at Chattacon was about the 40,000 people who go to Dragoncon (in Atlanta, 90 minutes to the south), and how many of those 40,000 wouldn't consider themselves part of the heart of sf fandom.

And yet they go to panels, buy cool dragon pens in the dealer's room, and gladly stand in line to get autographs, not just from their favorite TV personalities, but from comic book artists, novelists, and game designers as well.

I've also been reading biographies and autobiographies from the old-timers in the field. Someone posted a Six Degrees of Isaac Asimov thought experiment on Facebook recently, and mentioned if you'd shaken the hands of certain authors, you'd also shaken the hands of the long-gone grand masters and originators of the field.

I'd shaken all of those hands and some others not included in the list. Which meant that I'd shaken the hand of John W. Campbell and Hugo Gernsback and H.G. Wells—at least from a short distance, anyway.

Over the past few years, I've been thinking about the literary influence of the Grand Masters and Originators of Science Fiction, and I'd given some thought to First Fandom as well. First Fandom are the folks who started most of the sf traditions, especially the World Science Fiction Convention. Most of First Fandom went on to become writers in the sf field, although not all of them. And many of them continued to attend sf conventions until they died.

When I came into fandom in the late 1980s (I wasn't allowed to fly my geek flag as a young woman or as a teenager: my mother was horrified when I wanted to go to a Milwaukee Star Trek convention when I was sixteen), a large number of the members of First Fandom were still alive. They'd crowd the stage during the Hugo ceremony to honor their own, and sometimes they'd walk off, because the fights that originated before World War Two continued unabated.

(It's really not fair to call some of those things fights. It's better to call them grudges, but even that doesn't quite encompass the level of bitterness involved. Internecine warfare, perhaps?)

I didn't think much about those fights because I was young and self-involved and developing my own fannish likes and dislikes. (Someone once told me that you hadn't really joined fandom until you could actually put names on the form that asked who you did not want to share a panel with.) In fact, I really didn't understand the various stories I'd heard until two years ago as I plunged into the various biographies and realized I was getting one side of a conflict I didn't entirely understand.

Unfortunately, by then, most of the people I knew who had been part of First Fandom had died. I couldn't ask them to clarify. I couldn't get them to explain their part in a war that still has an impact on the field today.

How we start often influences where we go. I was mulling all of that as I flew to Chattanooga. When I got to the hotel, I met longtime fans and I watched teenage fans go by—and that's when I had my own epiphany.

I had just arrived in a city I had never been to and put my trust in people I had never met to speak at a conference that felt less like business and more like home, because of a group of teenagers.

Yep, you read that right. A group of teenagers.

Sometimes I'm slow at figuring things out. When I met the members of First Fandom, they were in their seventies and eighties. They were much older than me, and so to think that they had started something—well, that makes sense, because starting things is what adults do.

It wasn't until I watched those teenage fans go by in Chattanooga that I realized nearly everything I would do that weekend had been designed by the seventy and eighty year olds when they were a group of teenage kids who wanted to meet their heroes and to discuss their favorite literature.

The first conventions—and the 1939 Worldcon was not the first—were just gatherings of like-minded people. Because they read the same magazines and wrote letters to the letter columns, because they then formed groups that sent newsletters to each other (cobbling together money in a very hard time to print up those newsletters), they wanted to meet each other in person.

They drove to nearby communities and had adventures along the way. They stayed at each other's apartments because they couldn't afford hotel rooms. They found free public space to hold their weekend talk. They found officers and organizers, and when they couldn't find a speaker—someone of sufficient fame to speak to their small group—they held group discussions, with the leaders sitting at tables.

They had panels, they had guests, they had small tables where they sold their newsletters or extra copies of some magazines.

They invented science fiction conventions, and as time went on, those conventions grew. Nothing happened during the war, of course, but afterwards, the gatherings of friends—the conventions, even with their internecine warfare—took on even more importance. They were an escape from a world rocked by a cataclysm we can't quite imagine. Their heroes went off to war just like they did, and when they returned home, science fiction was never quite the same.

(Jack Williamson wrote in his autobiography that the dropping of the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima changed his writing forever: he no longer saw science as a force for good; he also saw the horrors it could unleash.)

Still, these fans—older now—held their gatherings, invited the writers whose work they loved, and continued to have panels and discussions. They continued to fight and fall in love and intermarry and intermingle just like fans do today. And they discussed new media—which went from radio and pulp magazines in the 1930s to television and comic books in the 1950s.

Even costumes were there from the beginning. Young (and I do mean young) fan Forest Ackerman wore a costume to his very first gathering in New York City. I don't know what his fellow fans thought of it, but I do know that costuming became as big a part of fandom as the literary discussions.

So I, and hundreds of others, spent our weekend in Chattanooga (not to mention the folks at a handful of other conventions that same weekend around the nation) following a format developed by a group of teenagers who had no idea that their little get-togethers would found entire movements. Those kids probably couldn't imagine conventions the size of Dragoncon or Comic-Con. Or maybe they could.

They did name their first big convention the Worldcon, after all.

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