While attending LTUE this week I had the pleasure of attending an academic presentation by Dave Doering, the founder of that excellent writing symposium. He described himself as a fan historian, and quipped that when he started LTUE at BYU, he felt like a “science fiction missionary.” As he prepared to deliver the presentation, I asked for permission to take notes with the intent of presenting it to you, gentle readers, and he gave it to me, for which I am thankful, because it was deeply interesting and I think you may enjoy it as well.
“A Not-too-Distant Mirror: Science Fiction Fan Exclusion at the 1939 WorldCon and 2016 WorldCon”
While we here are most familiar with the events of 2016, since the Mad Genius Club writers were largely involved in some parts of that, Dave Doering saw it as not the first “crisis of identity in science fiction and fantasy.” He saw strong parallels between events at the very first WorldCon, and the one that happened nearly eighty years later. To create the presentation, he drew from the Hevelin Fanzine Collection housed at BYU, and his own service on the committee of the Spokane WorldCon.
WorldCon 1939: NYCon was the first world convention, not because it was international in scope, but because it was held at the same time as the World’s Fair also in New York City. It was held in Caravan Hall, which no longer stands, but he was able to track down images of the building, the hall inside where the convention was held, and even of attendees, seated on folding wooden chairs neatly attired in (largely) three piece suits. To a modern congoer, it could hardly be more alien looking.
However, the convention was hardly homogenous despite a mere 200 attendees. There were two factions, the Futurians, and the New Fans. Among the Futurians were names to reckon with in the SFF world: Fred Pohl, Don Wollheim, Damon Knight, Asimov, Blish, and others. Dave commented, “We can say we’re a product of them,” the Futurians. However, the conflict arose as the Futurians supported communism, and thought Fandom should, as well. They also thought the New Fans were making a power grab for the nascent fandom.
The New Fans included Sam Moskowitz, the chair of the first WorldCon at the tender age of 19. His cohort included David Kyle, Julius Schwartz, James Taurasi (only 22), and Will Sikora (the elder of the group at 25).
The Futurians and the New Fans butted head at Newark, in 1938, while attending the then-named NationalCon. Through use of parliamentary procedures, one group thwarted the other. Thus, as WorldCon I commenced, tensions were already high. The New Fans, in control of the con committee, were concerned that the Futurians were going to cause a disruption at the con. They attempted to extract a pledge from the Futurians that they would not cause any trouble, but while some promised, others, like Wollheim, said they could only speak for themselves, not the group as a whole. Reluctantly the Futurians were given entrance.
However, very shortly after this, a pamphlet was discovered in circulation using inflammatory language. The infamous Yellow Pamphlet started “Beware the Dictatorship!” and continued to warn in general terms of ‘any movement to coerce you.’ The Futurians were blamed for this pamphlet the New Fans interpreted as targeting them, and they were removed from the con. The banned Futurians then went to a nearby cafeteria and had a pseudo-con. The bitter feelings would last for years.
However, the Futurians had nothing to do with the pamphlet. It had been printed up and circulated as a prank by a young fan, David Kyle, who because of the furor, decided not to talk about it. He wouldn’t confess his involvement for years.
And with the common theme of exclusion of fans, by fans, we come to Larry Correia and his posts in 2013, laying out his initial thoughts about the Hugo Awards, and then Brad Torgersen agreeing that the winners of the Hugo were too literary overall. Larry and Brad, Doering told his audience, wanted to change the Hugo to what the average reader liked. This was, after all, the original intent of the Hugo, to vote for what you really liked. But bloc voting wasn’t really a thing at that point. However, if look at the numbers, Doering pointed out with slides of raw data, you can see that in some categories a mere 30 votes would win you an award. It seemed a tempting opportunity to be able to influence the Hugos.
Doering bluntly stated, based on the data, that “Vox Day was just a rabble rouser”
Up until 2015, when the Rabid Puppies movement was initiated by an upstart, the Sad Puppies movement was slowly gaining ground. However, Dave showed with his data that although the internet buzz was all about worry over VD’s supporters overwhelming the Hugo system, if you look at the raw data from the Best Editor votes from 2014 versus 2015, when the seldom-used No Award won, the data reveals the truth. Out of nearly 5000 votes, a mere 166 of them were awarded to the leader of the Rabid Pups.
So what does Doering take away from his analysis of the two exclusions, seemingly so similar on the surface? Prescriptive vs Descriptive. Or in other words, ‘what should be read?’ Versus ‘what sells?’ As defined through award presentation. The Futurians of the 1939 WorldCon were in favor of the prescriptive model, with their drive to support communism as a group, and to advocate for the spread of communism through fandom activism. On the other hand, the Sad Puppies wanted a descriptive award to just say ‘we’re fans, too!’
And what became of fandom in the wake of Sasquan 2015? Dave Doering thinks that the Sad Puppy legacy was good for fandom. They led to the development of a truly descriptive award, the Dragons. They tripped the number of voters at WorldCon. They led to the changes in voting rules.
But when he talked about that evening, when he was sitting in the audience at the awards ceremony of Sasquan 2015, his voice turned sad: “There was a feeling… when a cheer went up. There was a viciousness that I’d never seen before.”