We saved this article for last because of the question it asks: after all the fanac,
after all the recognition, after all the efforts to preserve the past, will anything
of what any of us has done, in the long run, endure or even matter? We don't know
how much of what we've done will ultimately survive us or how we'll be remembered;
we do know, though, that we have very much appreciated all the support from you, our
readers, friends and especially our contributors, as we tried keep the memories
alive a bit longer. It's been a very enjoyable ride, but now it's time to leave our
footprints in the sand...
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I've always found myself obsessed with the question of how much of what human beings create will actually survive into the future. I suppose it's an inevitable question when one lives a life in science fiction. It's also inevitable when one writes, as you like to think that your words will persist, and that people in the future will remember you and what you did. Greg Benford wrote a whole book on this subject, Deep Time, which concerned itself with the question of how to leave a message for the future. His conclusion, that "all our gestures at immortality...shall at best persist for centuries or, with luck, a few millennia" (p.207) is a depressing one. If what I do will never be remembered, even in the tiniest way, why do it?
Or, to put the question in a slightly different context, why involve oneself in science fiction fandom?
A few years ago, at a Boskone convention for which Nomi and I were running Logistics, I had a sobering conversation with a fellow fan. For purposes of this article, I shall refer to the fan by the name Mark Olson. Mark and I had gotten to discussing fandom as a subculture, and I remember asking him about the older works of fiction, stories and novels, that younger people don't read anymore. I myself had been cited (anonymously, I'm glad to say) by Gardner Dozois as one of a new breed of writers who had never read the works of Cordwainer Smith before I started publishing.
So Mark and I got to talking, and the conversation drifted towards broader topics. Ever since I entered active fandom at the age of twenty-one, the graying of fandom was a topic I kept hearing about. Older fans bemoaned the lack of younger fans participating in fan activities, or fanac. Every year, the active fans grew older, and the younger fans were nowhere to be found. The implication, of course, was that without an influx of younger fans to take on the reins, fandom would slowly start to decay and then die, like rotting fruit falling off a tree.
The idea of fandom eventually disappearing seemed to bother me a lot more than it bothered Mark. The way Mark saw it, fandom, like any other institution or subculture, could not last forever. Eventually, perhaps within the next century or two, people might lose interest in science fiction as a subculture, and move on to something else.
You know something? It bothers me, in the same way it bothers me that we can never be sure how long anything will last.
I'm reminded of the story of the time capsule the New York Times put together shortly before the year 2000 to commemorate the millennium. They wanted to ensure that the "New York Times Capsule," as they eventually named it, would last for a thousand years, and so after considering a whole list of ways to keep it safe, they decided to entrust it to an institution. The American Museum of Natural History, located in New York City, offered to hold onto the capsule and keep it on permanent display until the capsule's scheduled opening date of January 1, 3000.
By now, I'm sure that many of you are already pondering what the capsule builders were pondering when the Museum made their generous offer. The people from the Times thanked the Museum board, then gently asked them what would happen to the capsule should the Museum close or disappear sometime during the next millennium.
They were met with blank stares. One board member reportedly even asked, "What do you mean? We're the Museum of Natural History! We're not going to disappear!" Apparently, he had never heard of the Library of Alexandria. (Side note: If you're intrigued by this time capsule, you can find the list of the contents secured inside by visiting the webpage http://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/timescapsule/contents.html. Ah, but how long will webpages themselves be around? Better go check it out while you still can.)
The fact is that most of us don't consider the issue of whether or not what we create will endure. In some ways, it's an unbearable thought, almost as difficult to ruminate on as that of our own deaths. And it's bigger than that. For example, most of us don't worry about the fact that the Sun will only last another five billion years, or that the universe will most likely expire in a heat death or a reverse Big Bang, but in all honesty, these questions do sometimes keep me up at night. However, if I were to let these questions haunt me to the point of obsession, I would probably go insane, never seeing the point of doing anything at all. We deal with the knowledge of our own deaths by concentrating on the notion that something -- our stories, our children, our institutions -- will endure, and carry the memory of ourselves along with them.
But what if nothing endures? More specifically, and without being ironic, what's the point of fandom? If, as Mark suggested to me, it's only a matter of time before the subculture fades away, why do we get involved? Why do we do it? Why do we organize conventions, publish fanzines, join associations devoted to the true quill? What is our ultimate motivation?
For some of us, that's an irrelevant question. We do it because we enjoy doing it, and we let the future take care of itself. Like the Museum board member, we may seriously be befuddled by the suggestion that fandom will not endure. Or, like someone living in the mundane world, we may just sweep the question under the rug and trudge along.
But, as you've probably guessed, I personally find both of these to be unsatisfactory responses. Both of those approaches go against the entire point of science fiction fandom. Going back to the time of Sam Moskowitz and the Futurians, it was clear that science fiction fans thought of themselves as something more than ordinary people. "Fans are slans," the saying went, Slan being the title of a A.E. van Vogt novel about humans with superior mental powers. I don't want to think of myself as devoting so much of my life to a hobby that could just as easily be another diversion or time-waster. I want our activities to mean something more.
And I think they do.
Science fiction fandom differs in one main respect from all other hobbies that the human race has ever developed. All artists and politicians hope to communicate with and shape the future, but science fiction in all its forms was the first endeavor that realized that the future would be different, and tried to figure out how to communicate with our descendants on their terms, not on our own. In many ways, it is the main human endeavor that specifically connects us to the future. It's no wonder that I hope that the subculture of fandom will last forever. And should it eventually die out...
I see a picture in my mind of the last World Science Fiction convention. The thousands of attendees we get today has dwindled below the hundreds we once got; fewer than fifty people are present. The "Closing Ceremonies" for the convention are acknowledged by all to represent much more, as no committee has stepped forward to run a Worldcon ever again. And the Con Chair, an elderly gentleman with white hair and a shaggy beard, puts together a time capsule, containing within it one last Hugo Award, the traditional rocket sitting on a simple wooden base, inscribed as follows:
"For Science Fiction Fandom: We Made a Difference"
And you know something? If that's what our century or two of fanac boils down to in the end, it was still worth doing. Because no matter what else, we will be creating the future, and if we don't, someone else will do it for us.
Title illustration by Brad Foster