Having earlier covered Friday and Saturday of the Nine Worlds Geekfest, as night follows day (or rather as a day follows another day) we come to our gadding about on Sunday. We were, it is fair to say, a little bit more wearied on Sunday than Saturday, but we were determined to make a whole day of it if we could before the drive back to Nottingham. Breakfast was as superb if nor superblier (yes, that is a word, trust me, I am a writer you know) than the day before and it was just as well we carbed up because we had a busy day ahead of us.
Fans, Fans and more Fans
We managed to gulp down out brekkie quickly enough to only be a few minutes late for the ‘What Makes a Fandom’ seminar, in which the participants were Jim Swallow, Danie Ware, Iona Sharma and Adrian Tchaikovsky moderated by Paul Wiseall. We came in a little late, as I said, so we must have missed the part where they let on what you need to do to get thousands of adoring fans instantly. Instead we got to take part in an interesting discussion that looked at two main points.
Firstly, what differentiates a fan from the casual enthusiast? What is it that means someone wants to get more out of a particular thing, be it a hobby, show, book series, movie? I’ve remarked on one particular fan trait before – The Thing About fans is... – and I think that what holds true the most over all of the reasons discussed is that fans brings passion. If, as a creator, you elicit a passionate response, be it love for a character, or hate, or perhaps an association with a concept or ideal then you have a chance of creating a fandom.
It is this that I have been thinking about recently. As I plan some time into my schedule to write another non-Black Library series (no news yet, still just ideas) I have combined what was said in this panel with what I took away from the ‘Cake or death?’ seminar. A range of characters that different people will identify with, each surviving just the right amount of hardship and earning enough ‘cake’ during the story to make the readers happy, are your basic elements needed to create fans. A cool setting and interesting plot will help along too, of course. In fact, in the matter of setting it was raised that fans like to be able to add their own space. Obviously 40K is huge on this, and Warhammer to a slightly lesser extent, ensuring there is plenty of sandpit left over for fans no matter how much playing the designers and authors do. Hinting at a wider universe, almost expecting the fans (daring them even) to go and explore over the hill makes them feel like they can get more involved and own a piece of the universe and characters for themselves.
For many fictional worlds this is fan-fic, but actually with a hobby like gaming this is essential. Again and again I have to point out to people that the Warhammer world and the 40K galaxy were created not for the designers to tell stories but as a setting for everybody else to collect miniature armies and play out their battles. Too many newer settings start out dictatorial and I have no interest in them; I want a creative relationship not a purely consumer one.
The second thing, after that detour, is the idea of a fandom as a single entity. A fandom is a community, and once established it will display its own particular social norms and behaviours. Certain individuals, aside from the creators, might rise up into ‘gatekeeper’ positions by running a successful blog or being moderators on a big forum. This community will develop unique jargon, archetypes and tropes.
One of the downsides is that a firmly established fandom can become insular, intimidating to newcomers either overtly or simply by the complexity of the community that has arisen. I have read some comics, but that does not make me a comics fan and I would be unprepared for a debate about Hulk versus the Thing in any circumstances. You see this sort of thing again and again, with newcomers often mocked or at least ostracised simply for their newness.
There are two ways to combat this and ensure that a fandom does not stagnate and eventually die. The first is down to the creators ensuring that they have an accessible product, be it games, movies, books or whatever. They need to engage equally with die-hard fans and the noob and weight their opinions equally. Too often, particularly in gaming, creators listen overly much to the ‘veterans’ and end up destroying the broader appeal of what they produce, suffering a death by committee fate.
Also, fan communities should openly embrace new blood. Fandoms rarely get official backing so they have to be self-supporting, and sometimes that means making sure the new guy or gal gets a voice. Hobbies and fandoms that do well are inclusive and it does us all good to remember that dim and distant day when we were just starting out and didn’t know the different between Jack and shit. It’s like the bloke (it’s usually a bloke) that complains about learner drivers, as if he somehow magically appeared behind the wheel of a car with full driving knowledge and faculties. We all start somewhere and if we want our fandoms to survive in the decades to come (I’m looking at you RPGs and historical games…) someone has to be recruiting and helping people start out.
Anyway, these are my thoughts mainly, but prompted by that good discussion.
Back in the Room
After that, we attended a talk on Cults by Alice Herron who, after years of participation and membership of an organisation, came to the realisation that she was in a cult. It was a fascinating story, and though I would have liked to have learned a little bit more about the psychology of cult-building and membership, as an anecdotal narrative it was very interesting. What intrigued me most was the slow swing from avid member of the organisation to suspicion to wanting to leave. Alice admitted she had doubts almost from the outset, but even as they continued to grow over the years the plusses she thought existed (and some did exist – she was definitely very healthy in mind and body, if not skepticism) outweighed the downsides for a long time. Even now, after everything, she still looks back with some fondness at what happened and th e people she met – having not been personally involved in some of the more scandalous activities – and can see the ridiculousness of some of the things she ended up being asked to do for the cult’s leader. Unfortunately not everybody gets out of such situations as intact as Alice, and I wonder if those who were used in sexual liaisons and forced to have abortions are quite as sanguine about events.
As equally intriguing is the (albeit assumed rather than proven) decline of the cult leader, who seemingly started out with a genuine desire to help other people but whose narcissistic personality took over once he started gaining authority and followers. It all tallies nicely with the idea of Chaos in Warhammer and 40k, and a lot of fiction in general; nobody wakes up one morning and declares ‘I am going to be evil from now on!’ Even the most twisted individuals have a journey to take.
Discworld Science Gurus
We were next lined up to a double-header of Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, joint authors of the Science of Discworld books, separately rather than together. I was looking forwards to both ‘The Deterministic Monkey Theorem or Chaos in L-Space’ and ‘The Design of Alien Ecologies: The Invention of Reality-based Aliens.’ You can tell that they are both academics by the length of the talk titles!
Before the second panel, the talks being in the other hotel, we tried to hunt down some food. Mickey D’s was too busy and what followed was the most infuriating twenty minutes I have had in a long time at the coffee and cake stand in the Radisson. I’ll not bore you with the details but when it takes twenty minutes (with no queue) to get a cup of tea, a cup of coffee and a couple of cakes, you can imagine the depths of terrible customer service that were plumbed. And that made us late for our next panel. No fault of the organisers, all the fault of the hotel/ restaurant management. Even getting our drinks for free at the end was small compensation for not throttling someone.
Anyway, the L-space talk was very good, although bits of it went right over my head, it being very high levels maths, though no sums were hurt in the process. It was basically Big Numbers stuff with monkey jokes (or ape jokes) and suchlike.
A little more useful was the exo-biology stuff from Jack Cohen. The talk broke down into two parts really, the first being the establishment of life on our planet in our ecologies (‘cos they change, right?) and the second being a few extrapolations of what that might mean via the medium of old school 50’s and 60’s sci-fi covers… Short version: there are ‘universals’ that have developed time and again in different strands of evolution, like wings and eyes and hair and stuff. Different solutions, but all for the same problem. These are likely to appear in xenomorphs. On the other hand there are ‘parochial’ traits that have only evolved once, here on Earth, and so are unlikely to be replicated by an extra-terrestial. The chances of similar mutations giving rise to a parochial again and again are nonsensical.
And the biggest kicker of this? Being vertebrate is parochial! All those spines we see in the world all come from a single common ancestor species, which gave us vertebrate fish and later moved on to land to create all the land vertebrates. And spines have only evolved that one time… So the odds are massively against them ever cropping up again in an alien species. Biggest piece of advice from Jack Cohen, then, is if you want a good start designing an alien, don’t make it a vertebrate and you’ll be off and running.
You can, of course, cheat like the 40K mythology by having an Old One creator species that meddled with everybody’s development to make them all share certain traits. Hey, it’s a fudge, but at least it’s an explanation…
I’m Tired and I want to go to Bed
We were both flagging by this point, and Kez’s brain was dribbling out of her ears a little (and mine wasn’t far behind). We managed to get ourselves to one more panel – another science-y one. ‘The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets’ was, at its heart, Simon Singh‘s pitch for his new book. It was entertaining and informative – who ever knew there was such a clutch of maths nerds writing for The Simpsons and Futurama? It took us through the maths-inclined writers behind the jokes and a few of the best maths-related gags in both series, passing through such areas as Fermat’s Last Theorem and a proof that no matter how many people are in a group that have swapped brains and can’t swap back you only need to add two people to untangle the mess.
We thought about staying for a live recording of The Pod Delusion but by the late afternoon we were proper done in and still had a two-and-a-half hour drive to go. With a few last farewells, we packed up and left, tired but very, very happy.
Another Time, Thorpe
If you think that spending your time listening to creative types waffle on, hanging out with fellow fans, maybe even pitching your ideas to a willing audience and generally getting your geek on sounds fun, why not come along to Birmingham next month for the Andromeda One convention. I’ll be there with a host (a host of hosts!) of other authors and genre folk.
Oh, and in case you didn’t click through the links, I wouldn’t want you to miss Guy Haley‘s audition tape…