If you change the medium, you change the message.
Philosopher of communication Marshall McLuhan argued persuasively that advances in media, regardless of content, can incite dramatic, culture-wide effects.
A best selling print book can reach millions of people, but turn that book into a hit movie, and you increase its sphere of influence by orders of magnitude. Consider The Wizard of Oz, The Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter.
Or, for a meta-example, In the Mouth of Madness.
Now throw in digital technologies–the power to instantly connect with anyone or everyone, everywhere. The effect is compounded exponentially.
A media paradigm shift is playing out in SF fandom.
Getting back to McLuhan, saying that he was ahead of his time would be an understatement. In fact, it wouldn’t be exaggerating to call his work prophetic. Let’s put it this way: the dude predicted the internet in 1962.
McLuhan noted that print technology caused a massive societal shift away from the more tribal, logic-focused outlook of the Middle Ages to a more individualistic, rhetorical worldview. He expected the web to swing the pendulum back toward tribalism.
Let’s take a look at SF fandom through the lens of McLuhan’s “medium as message” theory.
In the early days, science fiction enthusiasts:
A. Got their fix almost exclusively through the printed word in the form of novels and short stories circulated in magazines.
B. Were a pretty nonconformist, iconoclastic bunch. As Andy Duncan recently said on the passing of the great David Hartwell:
Even in the mid-20th century, David continued, science fiction was a haven for gay and bi and trans people, for people in open marriages or triads or even more complex domestic scenarios, for people with physical and mental disabilities, for shameless exhibitionists and unapologetic recluses, for anarchists and socialists and Birchers and libertarians and Weathermen and CIA operatives, for cosplayers and gamers and creative anachronists and people who crafted wholly spurious biographies for themselves that were accepted and therefore became sort of true, for channelers and Scientologists and orthodox Jews and pre-Vatican II Catholics and Mormons and New Agers and heretics and atheists and freethinkers, for Ph.D.’s and autodidacts, for writers of COBOL and speakers of Esperanto, for Forteans and CSICOPs, for astronomers and astrologers, for psychics and physicists, for basically anyone who was smart and passionate and willing to pitch in somewhere— though talent certainly helped, and curiosity, and a zeal for argument, and a sense of humor.
C. Subsisted as a relatively small subculture within larger Western society.
It’s often been remarked how sci-fi fandom burst out of the basements, niche bookstores, and cramped con suites of its birth to win new legions of adherents with the 1977 release of Star Wars.
For some fans, the gaming world is where it’s at. They are gamers to the core, not precisely readers per se, nor perhaps even watchers of television and movies. But even among gamers, there are traditionalists (tabletop, pencil-and-paper players, writers, and developers) and there are video gamers. Their two circles can and often do overlap. But among younger players especially, the circle for video games is going to be very large, in comparison to the circle for tabletop.
–Brad R. Torgersen
Most commenters usually emphasize this event’s unprecedented effect on C, take A largely for granted, and so gloss over–or misattribute–the causal relationship between the change in the primary medium of SF consumption and B.
Brad is an outlier in his astute recognition that newer media (movies, TV, video games, etc.) contributed to the disruption of old fandom. But he focuses more on what kinds of SF contemporary fans prefer than how they prefer to experience it.
The point I want to make (with the diagram) is that, in 21st century fandom, there aren’t any touchstone movies, books, or other properties which every fan, writer, or editor can rely on being known to every other fan, writer, or editor. There is no longer a central nexus for fandom.
My explanation for the conflicts that have shaken fandom of late differs slightly from Brad’s. I agree that relative innovations like movies and TV, and recent developments like video games (which are all reasons why there is no universal canon of SF touchstones), lie at the root of the turmoil.
But I don’t think that fandom is tearing itself apart. Instead, what we’re seeing is various sub-tribes of SF fans vying against each other to establish the identity of an emerging, consolidated fandom.
Brad gives a good description of this phenomenon: “It’s at the super-cons that one can again get a vague sense of wholeness: all fans of all things merging together for a weekend of intersectionality across innumerable interests.”
That, my friends, is the shape of the future. But what will be the content of its character? What sort of men will these post-fans be? Or will the Amazon servers and mega-convention halls of tomorrow be populated entirely by omnisexual, non-binary otherkin?
Fandom will become more communal, but what sort of community will it be?
Watching a movie requires less personal effort than reading print. Even eBooks engage readers’ senses and though processes differently than print books do.
Audiences watching the same movie share a much more uniform experience than readers of the same book. Everyone who’s seen Star Wars knows what Luke Skywalker looks like, but no two Neuromancer readers have exactly the same mental image of Case.
The film industry dwarfs print publishing. As more people come to SF through movies, their shared experience will restore fandom’s sense of community. What the values and customs of this community will be remains undetermined.
The outcome is being decided right now, by self-appointed makers and high priests of culture. If we would have a say in the destiny of fandom, we must wield the new technological tools at our disposal. And we must establish a presence in film.
Currently, I am at best a lowly squire in the battle royale for fandom’s soul. Who are the warring tribes, and who are the chieftains that champion their visions?
We’ll meet them next time.
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