Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Elusive Culture

Over roughly a decade I’ve attended four science fiction conventions in Michigan, two called ConClave and two ConFusion, my last, this past weekend, one of the latter. Before that time I’d attended one in Minneapolis, one in Chicago, and a WorldCon in Kansas City—that one because I was one of the Hugo nominees and invited to attend. Despite this very limited sample, I drove home from my last ConFusion spontaneously forming, in my thoughts, a strong convictions about the changes over time in SF culture—until I stopped myself dead.

In every earlier case as also in this one, I spent three days in a hotel, attended five or six sessions, talked to two- or three-score people through the noise and the turmoil, watched oddly costumed people, garish goods and strange art on display, listened to prominent figures most of whose books I’d never read—and marveled at it all. And the residual impressions of this activity, filtered through my own accumulated life’s memories, is what I call culture?

No, nothing of the sort. But then, come to think of it, my views of Culture writ large—American culture, Western culture—are built up much the same way: that of the greater culture strongly influenced by a relentless stream of newsprint and media images, mixed with the residues of contacts with real people, problems in business, annoyance in travel, the contents of books read, films seen, art beheld, music heard. And this huge but not systematically studied mélange, synthesized in the endlessly fluctuating cauldrons of emotion into a single impression, that is my own subjective sense of culture. Not that I’ll avoid the word in the future. Such habits are hard to break. But at least today I realize the oddity of speaking of a subjective assessment of reality (or a part of it) as if it had a hard, independent existence, a singularity and stability, outside of myself.

Having said all this, some of the things I noted at ConFusion 2010:

  • The paranormal in one special form—vampirism, zombies—played a major role at this convention, and not at all because it was the convention’s theme. It wasn’t. I heard no references to the paranormal as normally understood, the real thing as it were.
  • I had a sense that many fans and panelists spontaneously used television series as the central points of reference when wishing to appeal to common knowledge—along with a few well-known fantasy-style books (Tolkien’s, for instance—rather than the science fiction greats).
  • The prominent philosophical or sociological issue was feminism, perhaps because most of the authors present were women.
  • The economic shadow that now weighs down on Michigan was obvious and tangible, many people suddenly opening up and relating their own woes at great length when asked about themselves. We heard many and very strange tales about the difficulties of getting by. And going to an SF convention was evidently a temporary escape into a better world for many—despite its growing population of blood-sucking mirages made modern, slender, sexy, and immortal.


  1. It's interesting that most of the writers at ConFusion were women. I think of science fiction as more male dominated (both author-wise and interest-wise).

    Dan is always complaining about the lack of science in modern science fiction. He doesn't read science fiction (just science and history), but he does continue to watch his favorite science fiction TV shows "despite its growing population of blood-sucking mirages made modern, slender, sexy, and immortal".

  2. One of the changes I've noted in recent decades is that women have become very active in the field and bring to it an influence you sense everywhere. Dan ought to read mine. He'll find meaningful commentary on both: science and history.

  3. A nice summary of the themes we saw at ConFusion. The rising prominance of women readers, and writers, in what is now the combined Sci-Fi and Fantasy segments is most interesting. It is a funny mix... Science fiction and fantasy.

  4. Funny, I left that comment before I'd seen the first two comments. What is worth noting, Joyce, is that within the combined Sci-Fi and Fantasy segement, Fantasy is growing much more quickly than Sci-Fi, which is being slowly taken over by series writing, like Star Trek and Star Wars books. And interesting shift.

  5. Just one question : When speaking of the paranormal, what makes you think that zombies and vampires are NOT the real thing ?